- A Good Comrade: János Kádár, Communism and Hungary
Not many foreigners would be inclined to assess the long tenure of a political ruler of a small Central European country like Hungary, and even fewer would succeed brilliantly, as Roger Gough does. János Kádár was Hungary’s unquestionable ruler for 32 years (1956–1988), and Gough captures well the complexity of Kádár’s personality as both a private man and a politician, his role in the Hungarian Communist movement, [End Page 167] and the country’s tortuous path into and out of totalitarian dictatorship in the twentieth century.
Kádár, born in 1912 as the illegitimate child of Borbála Csermanek (an illiterate Slovak housemaid), used his mother’s surname until 1945, when he took the name Kádár. After living in foster care, he moved in with his mother, left school at age fourteen, and started working to support himself and his mother. At a trade union fair he won a chess championship and received, as his prize, a book by Friedrich Engels. After reading the book, he enlisted in the Communist movement for life.
One of Kádár’s friends later said that Kádár found in the movement “a fellowship in which no one had a problem with his bastardy, where there was no problem about his primitive mother” (p. 12). Even his romantic involvement with Piroska Döme was “approved” by the party, as Döme later recounted: “János ceremoniously told me that the party leadership had permitted our being together. It was like an official wedding” (p. 17). In the late 1940s, after the Soviet Union broke with Yugoslavia, the Stalinist leader of Hungary, Mátyás Rákosi, organized a show trial of László Rajk, a friend of Kádár, on trumped-up charges of being an imperialist agent. Kádár volunteered to play a chess game with Rajk to time his arrest, and listened in next door as Rajk was beaten. Subsequently, Kádár watched his execution. Less than eighteen months later, Kádár himself was imprisoned, ostensibly because of his “cowardly” dissolution of the illegal Communist party in 1943. The wife of a fellow underground Communist party member described Kádár as “a working class guy with good intentions. . . . But the basic blemish on his whole morality was his utter cowardice” (p. 53). After Josif Stalin’s death in 1953, Kádár said at a rehearing of his case: “It was not the trial itself and the court verdict that upset me, it was what the party leaders seemed to think of me. That was why my arrest broke my spirit” (p. 65). In the final months of his life, when stripped of all real power and left only as the figurehead president of the Communist party, he wanted to appear before the party’s Central Committee. So, he asked his successor as the party leader, Károly Grósz, “You would not forbid me to be there?” (p. 244). As always, Kádár subordinated himself entirely to “the party.”
Kádár was commissioned by Moscow to set up a new “workers’ and peasants’” government to take power in Hungary after Soviet troops crushed the revolution in November 1956. Kádár launched the “two-front struggle” slogan, pushing aside “‘sectarians’ and ‘dogmatists’ to his left, Nagy-like ‘revisionists’ to his right—and, in the solid center, pursuing the true Leninist path, Comrade Kádár himself ” (p. 112). This paradigm led to ambiguities about Kádár, as well as his policies. Following Nikita Khrushchev’s announcement at the 22nd Soviet Party Congress of an “all-people’s state,” Kádár adopted the famous norm “those who are not against us are with us” (p. 135). Yet even though he was ready to soften the dictatorship, he never diluted his power. He courted intellectuals and appealed to workers even as he proceeded...