Endre’s third post

What do we learn about liberal democracy if we focus on the (construction of) the Hungarian parliament building? In the previous post I argued that one the one hand we learn that it’s a political reality that first came into being neither in 600 BC, nor in 1989 AD, but sometime in the 19th century, and on the other hand we learn that at the time it was not a singular model of governance, but consisted of three distinct modes of doing politics. I also argued that what the parliament building did in the turn of the century was that it held together this political reality, which was supposed to last hundreds of years. But it only lasted a little more than a decade.

Between 1914 and 1989 the building in the centre of Budapest witnessed two world wars and three revolutions, as a result of which hardly anything that Imre Steindl once cast in stone is valid anymore. Today, the neo-Gothic palace that was once the largest parliament building in the world makes a rather grotesque sight in a country of only ten million people. Just how grotesque, I think is wonderfully captured by Hungarian writer Lajos Parti Nagy:

[…] It is as if a talented, up-and-coming pastry-chef had once dreamt of something big, awful and uncontrollable. The dream is long gone with the river, but the stone-pastry fossil is still there. It looks like its own model, made to scale of matchsticks, carved out of lard and marzipan. It looks like it is painted, stitched, batiked, patchworked, embroidered, knitted, forged of moonlight, copper, tin, iron staples, bullet shells. It is so unreal I cannot dislike it, I’m used to it, it belongs to me, along with all the coarse absurdities of my country’s history. It is the lamentably false and imposing fulfilment of a desire. An ‘in-the-meantime’ disproportionate monster, designed for a different, earlier country.
(My – not very eloquent – translation. The original version is available here)

I find Parti Nagy’s words captivating. And yet I believe it is not simply the twists and turns of the 20th century that make the parliament building an analytically interesting entity. As an inhabited ruin, it also helps to understand the workings of a distinct mode of doing politics – one that is as much concerned with the definition of a political community in the beginning of the 21st century as it was in the end of the 19th century.

In one of the chapters of my dissertation I draw on Geoffrey Bowker’s Memory Practices in the Sciences to examine how the parliament building works as a memorial today. The premise is that, similar to the Austro-Hungarian period, the present and the future of the political community in the Third Republic is envisioned (and materialised) as the extension of the past it creates for itself. This past, however, consists of several, often conflicting, claims of continuity.

The first claim of continuity takes material form in the Holy Crown, located in the Cupola Hall of the Parliament. This fascinating object, which is often referred to as St. Stephen’s crown, is widely regarded as the symbol of a thousand-year old state, and defines the political community in very broad cultural terms: anyone who feels Hungarian is Hungarian, including those living outside the current borders of Hungary. (This is, of course, a can of worms – those interested in opening it should have a look at László Péter’s thorough article here)

The second claim of continuity is associated with the Parliamentary Collection of the Library of the National Assembly, which treats the 1848 revolution and the first democratically elected government as the absolute threshold in Hungarian history. The emphasis is on the term ‘democratically elected’, which denotes a radical shift in the logic of sovereignty. According to this logic, power stems not from God or the Holy Crown but from the people – a term that in this context refers to the collective of those who have the right to vote.

But what if voters want to use their power to exclude certain groups from the political community, either to ‘purify the nation’, or to ‘realise the dictatorship of the proletariat’? The third claim of continuity has less to do with the state and the nation than with a society, held together by a moral commitment to fight all forms of tyranny. As several statues and memorials in the square in front of the parliament building show, in the Hungarian consciousness this commitment is exemplified by the 1956 revolution, which might have been crushed by force, but from the early 1980s onwards served as one of the most important sources of inspiration for the illegal democratic opposition, and then for the new National Assembly set up in 1990.

Needless to say, I’m oversimplifying things, but my point is this: if we use the Hungarian parliament building not simply to reconstruct the political history of Central and Eastern Europe in the 20th century, but more as a device to analyse how liberal democracy works today, then I think it makes sense to say that one mode of doing politics is (still) very much concerned with the tension between a cultural, a legal-political, and a moral definition of the political community. 

3 thoughts on “Endre’s third post

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