Szabó Ervin (1877-1918) (wikipedia)

Ervin Szabó died one hundred year ago – How much would have we missed without him?

If we started with a far-fetched joke, perhaps students of the library faculty hate him more than today’s right-wing publicists: he was the one to introduce the difficult-to-learn UDC system in Hungary. But he was also the one who introduced the network of public, free libraries in the country. And something he is attacked for even today:  he encouraged one of his students for an assassination against István Tiszta that was eventually never attempted. Ervin Szabó, who died hundred years ago, is however not easy to label: the Social Democratic party ideologist with his revolutionary ideas, and the library organizer following the English pattern. In the first years of the last decade, well before 1917, he realized: if the Marxist ideals materialize, it will be very difficult to persuade people to work voluntarily, therefore they will have to use force in factories, and there are “good” prospects for the internecine fight of the previous ideological allies.

 “The Universal Decimal Classification (UDC) is a bibliographic and library classification representing the systematic arrangement of all branches of human knowledge organized as a coherent system in which knowledge fields are related and inter-linked.”says Wikipedia about the UDC system and those who read more about it can learn that it was Ervin Szabó who introduced the classification system, which is still used in our libraries even today, in Hungary in 1910. Luckily the thinker, born in 1877, did other things too, therefore we do not have to become immersed in the numbering of library shelves if we want to sum up his life work. And this is not what happened on the round-table talk of the Foundation of Political History with the participation of invited experts on October 1, for the hundredth anniversary of the death of Ervin Szabó.

The library organizer and Social Democrat ideologist died on September 3, 1918 from Spanish flu, but by that time, he was also suffering from TBC and diabetes and he was blind of one eye. Péter Csunderlik, the historian concerned (among others) with the left-wing thinking in the early 20th century recalled Ervin Szabó’s funeral at the meeting on October 1. Among others, Oszkár Jászi was trusted with the final memorial service, and the bourgeois-radical thinker pledged at his grave that they would continue Ervin Szabó’s fight – even without him. “This country does not continue to be the country of predatory knight-errants. This country does not continue to be the country of cruel scriveners. This country does not continue to be the country of atheist priests”, said Jászi. “Of course, he was wrong”, not only according to Csunderlik’s words at the meeting, hvg.hu has also written about it. (It is worth to read the article for those who would like to be aware the most fundamental facts about Ervin Szabó. And if you look for a detailed biography, we recommend the book of György Litván from 1993: Szabó Ervin, a szocializmus moralistája /Ervin Szabó, the moralist of Socialism/)

In fact, neither his own age, nor the 20th century, nor our age could do anything about him. Neither the left, neither the right understand this unique phenomenon, the talk participants roughly agreed on this. Szabó was at the same time a Social Democrat ideologist and an independent, anarcho-syndicalist thinker, sometimes a dogmatic “class warrior” historian and a library organizer following the modern, English pattern, as well as a romantic desk revolutionary mimicking the Russian example. He cooperated with freemasons if he needed money for library foundation, but he wrote about party discipline in such a way that it was not even published in the paper of Social Democrats: even if his thoughts was similar to democratic centralism, he did not forget about individual freedom.

So Szabó did not tolerate party discipline indeed, that is why the Hungarian Social Democratic Party (MSZP) itself withdrew the support when he started to publish his Marx works at the beginning of the previous century, and these publications did not fit in the image of Marx as a half-god and idol for the left-wing. How they celebrated Marx at that age was also written about on Elsovh.hu: he was indeed surrounded by a biblical and religious worship. Even though Marx was a controversialist, struggling personality open to discourse, and Ervin Szabó reflected it well in his thoroughly prepared Marx publication with a foreword and notes – which is already talked about on the event of October 1 by Péter Konok historian.

There is though a coincidence between the contemporary “official” Social Democratic propaganda and the views of Ervin Szabó: in the Marx centennial issue of Népszava in 1918, the writer of the editorial hoped for the creation of the United States of America we have already mentioned it too in our previously referenced article), which was not far from Ervin Szabós’s desires either. He would have been glad to see if the clash of the two conflicting military blocks, the Entente an the Central Powers in the First World War resulted in the birth of a unified Europe, the benefits of which would be enjoyed by the workers as well.

Konok and Csunderlik also mentioned that the MSZDP, and later the Rákosi and the Kádár era could not do anything with Ervin Szabó also because he could not be fit behind any unified ideologies. He was not a Communist, since the Communist Party was not formed in Hungary in his life. He did not take part in the Soviet Republic, therefore he could not be attacked by the right wing for this. However, nowadays they often mention some of his works and condemn him for his role in “the preparation of authoritarian systems”. The invited historians however believe: Szabó did not prepare authoritarian systems, even if his eight-meter long, tasteless plaster statue was elected during the Soviet Republic.

Moreover, he did not prepare such system so much that in the first years of the 20th century – well ahead of the Russian Bolshevik takeover of power in 1917 and the Hungarian Soviet Republic in 1919 – he writes: perhaps people will have to be forced to work after the realization of left-wing ideals. Since hardly would everyone want to work at factories in such a system, as Péter Konok told us about it. (Let us add: Lenin realized in the spring of 1918 , in one of his writing that survived in fragments, and held the laws of the German war economy in the First World War, obligating people to work, as the model to be followed.)

Ervin Szabó anticipated: the era of the internecine fight, the internal struggles would also come. In this regard, Péter Konok quoted Szabó’s writing entitled “The Communist communities” from 1909: “It is therefore natural that the time when the community can be upheld with the most stringent force for work instead of free work, at the price of severe deprivations instead of joint pleasures, and the paradise of brotherly coexistence turns to be the home of perpetual disputes and quarrels, will come quite soon also in Communist communities established with the utmost dynamism.” So Szabó proved to be a better predictor regarding the realization of Communism than Jászi, who dreamt of Hungary’s future on the funeral of his radical friend.

On the other hand, Szabó was attached to Russian Narodniks and Social Revolutionaries by his revolutionary and sometimes actually terrorist desires: In 1917 a few planned to murder István Tisza Count Prima Minister, but Szabó himself applied in vein, being sick and blind of one eye, the others did not let him make the attempt. After these, Ilona Duczyńska, the philologist student and the enthusiastic activist belonging to the young generation of the Galilei Circle, undertakes the task, encouraged by Szabó. According to their plans, they would have executed the action on the anniversary of the protest in May 1912 – when Tisza ordered the shooting of the masses and dead victims remained on the street after the “Bloodred Thursday”. Duczyńska wanted to shoot the prime minister with a gun that she had stolen from József Madzsar, Szabó Ervin’s library organizer colleague. However, by the time they had taken their decision, Tisza resigned from the post as the government head, so the assassination “has become unreasonable” – Csunderlik and Konok described the details. This is when Duczyńska started to create anti-war leaflets with his lover at that time, Tivadar Sugár. (Let us note: Népszava reported on the judgement in the Galilei lawsuit exactly on October 1, 1918, at the same time with the death news of Ervin Szabó: due to the leaflets, in addition to the six-month imprisonment on remand that she has already served, Duczyńska was sentenced to two years of close imprisonment, and Sugár was sentenced to three years in addition to the half-year imprisonment. Their accomplices were however released.)

“Ervin Szabó was at the same time the father of modern Hungarian library and the brain of the early Hungarian workers’ movement”, said Csunderlik. But in fact this was only one side of the story: activists of the Galilei Circle visited the factories to teach the workers. They realized: education is important in order to access culture, which they could not ensure for each and every worker in the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. Thereby the members of the Galilei Circle of contemporary free thinkers – whom Ervin Szabó was strongly linked to – taught the workers even fundamental skills. For example, the Dienes couple, the mathematicians who later became world-famous in self-study groups, taught them the four fundamental arithmetic operations, and calculation.

Ervin Szabó and his companions in fact realized the importance of equal opportunity in addition to equality, of which Zsolt K. Horváth talked about in a detailed manner. In his view, the Hungarian left-wing can learn from the age of Ervin Szabó: in addition to the ideological interpretation of the working class, Szabó and his fellows strived to teach, educate and culture the “workers” as a real social phenomenon. This is why they published cheap books, organized free-to-visit public libraries, where borrowing was also possible. They applied the English public library concept, which was developed for the bourgeois audience of the island nation, to the Hungarian proletariat.

This is behind the originality of Ervin Szabó and the activists: meticulous organization was behind their actions and that of the Social Democratic Party too. They organized associations (e.g. József Madzsar anti-alcohol association) and they were not discouraged if only five people appeared on an event, they hoped that at least thirty would turn up next week. The Hungarian left-wing can learn the tradition of organizing small self-study groups, non-political associations from the Galilei Circle and the contemporary Social Democracy. It has already turned out a few years ago that the tradition of Szabó Ervin and his group was utilizable: several hiking work associations were formed between the two world wars, left-wing esperantists were organized, and after the second world war – though Ervin Szabó himself did not become the ideal of the state socialist system – some of his ideas were adopted, like the Olcsó Könyv (Cheap Book) publication series, which was based on the model of his initiatives.

So Ervin Szabó can be a model to be followed by today’s left-wing in strengthening the equality of chances and the support of self-organization, and not due to the dogmatic thinking that was at times typical of him, and especially not because of his abortive, extremist ideas combining the bloody, violent nature of the contemporary public life with romantic terroristic ideals – this can close our summary of the lessons from the round table talk.

Created by: Iván Miklós Szegő