The portrait of Lajos Kassák (by József Nemes Lampérth, wikipedia)
The portrait of Lajos Kassák (by József Nemes Lampérth, wikipedia)

The avant-garde of Kassák and the Hungarian Left Wing, Part II.

Lajos Kassák started his paper, the Hungarian avant-garde’s most important workshop, the Ma (1916–1925) a hundred years ago. But how was the Hungarian Left Wing’s relationship with Kassak’s efforts, how well he, the “working class poet”, was accepted in the labour movement? Kassák were forcing his own art shock therapy on an era when most of the Népszava’s readers found even Endre Ady’s poetry inexplicable. During the Council Republic’s 133 days the poet finally could have free range, but instead his work was banned.  Part II.

The Aster Revolution in 1918 brought a huge change in the Hungarian cultural life: in the last decade, the Nyugat writers who were attacked for their “antinational” behaviour stepped into official roles. A good example is the case of Mihály Babits. In 1915, not only was he not voted in to the members of the Petofi Society, but he also got the fewest votes and he was dragged through the mire during the World War. However, after the Aster Revolution his anti-war poem “Fortissimo” was banned before the War but was finally published and in 1919 he was given a university teaching position. It seemed like Lajos Kassak’s work would also find its place and was very frustrated with the Nyugat writers. In his biography, he compulsively recalls who and when talked to him from Babits’ circle in the 1910’s. Eventually Kassak also got recognized: gained a state assignment from the democratic government.

But the title of the recognized artist and rising to be “official” had its downside: Kassák’s first task was also an advertisement censorship job. Zsigmond Kunfi asked him to censor the iconic poster artist, Mihaly Biro’s work. This wasn’t a great job and it is easy to feel the thwarting of it as Kassak had to do this job despite his avant-garde, free spirited, anti-form mentality.

The question arises then: What school Lajos Kassak fell under: syndicalist? Or was he a solipsist anarchist as he was accused of? As we know, Kassak defined himself as a “socialist”, but which direction of it? According to Márton Pacsika, curator, this question partly gives too much importance to the writer’s political affiliation, and partly the 1918-1919 relations were characterized by the ideological chaos and lack of knowledge. Most Hungarians who called themselves communists didn’t even acknowledge Lenin’s The State and Revolution.

Péter Konok agreed with this, he drew attention to how similar Kassak’s and Szabo Ervin’s labour movement-image – however the historian emphasized that Kassak couldn’t be seen as a syndicalist. The similarity can be apprehended in the role: as Ervin Szabo was the synthetic and critic of the German, British, French and Russian labour movement trends, Kassak also merged different trends together similarly. He was more like an anarchist, especially since the Communist Manifesto in 1848. All Kassak’s avant-garde art intentions were disinherited in 1919. It is also interesting that he is the only one who was left out of Ervin Sinko’s key novel the Optimisták about the young leftist writers – mentioning all the important names such as József Lengyel, József Révai, Ervin Sinkó, Irma Rothbart and the slightly older, philosopher–aesthete, banker coming from outside, Gyorgy Lukacs.

György Lukács wrote one-sidedly about Kassak’s extrusion in his memoirs. He stated that Kassak and his circle wanted to be the official art group of the dictatorship of the proletariat. However according to Péter Konok this was doubtful: although Kassak became a member of the writer’s directorship and took part in the writer’s cadastre, he didn’t want to be the Commune’s “official” poet. When the young József Révai suggested that the Ma should become the official art magazine of the Council Republic, this outraged Kassak – according to his memoir.

Since many of Kassák’s old students became communist functionalist – the circle of the Internationale magazine established in the fall of 1918 – it is understandable that the ex “master” wasn’t attacked by the communists. However, the social democrats during the Council Republic had the same arguments as they did for Endre Ady, such as his poetry was too abstract, too complicated and incomprehensible to be understood by the workers. Thus the avant-garde poetry cannot be proletariat literature. The social democrats attacked Gyorgy Lukacs’s more open culture politics through Kassak in the Népszava and in Ferenc Göndör’s paper the Az Ember. The most memorable article was written by Mihaly Karolyi’s ex-secretary, Pal Keri, this article called Máca, published in April 1919, lead to the banning of the Az Ember – then much later, other civil papers and Kassak’s magazine as well had been silenced.

At the time of the first attack Kassak was defended by the authorities: József Révai stood by the “revolutionary artists”, in his anonymous reply titled Letörni a kultúrellenforradalmat and György Lukács wrote that he wouldn’t throw Shakespeare or Goethe out just because they weren’t good socialists. In reality Lukács said the same thing as Ervin Szabo on the other side when he described Zseni Varnai’s poetry: it was not enough to be a ”socialist”.

The experts of this question, Marton Pacsika and Peter Konok, both emphasized that Gyorgy Lukacs drew up a very liberal culturally political programme in his famous article in 1919. However he didn’t have the power to fight this through in this political era. Furthermore, Lukacs didn’t have an easy position, because at the age of 34 he was a senior “among a bunch of rebellious and blundering ten- and twenty something revolutionary-artists” who were easily throwing the word “counter revolution” around. Although both experts reminded us that this didn’t mean as much during the time of Stalin. Since we know more now, the accusations in these arguments from 1919 seem very serious, but they were part of this era. No matter that the Ma was banned, Kassak wasn’t affected, not even after he decided to write his famous and quite bold open letter. The Levél Kun Bélához a művészet nevében was written as a reply article in June 1919 after Bela Kun called the Ma  “the product of the bourgeoisie decadency”. Bela Kun had a very middle-class taste but in reality his outfling against the avant-garde paper was more for political reasons than aesthetics: he wanted to take a gesture towards the social democrats.

Kassák didn’t leave it like that: “Dear Comrade Kun! I respect you as one of the greatest politician, but please allow me to doubt your artistic knowledge.” – he published this in nearly ten thousand copies. On one hand he stood by the autonomy of art, on the other hand he reminded the readers that he and his art group played the same avant-garde role in art as Bela Kun and his group in politics.

To no avail, the political propaganda could not use the barely understood avant-garde. Péter Konok illustrated this statement by mentioning Sergei Eisenstein’s Old and New (also known as The General Line) from 1929. No matter if Eisenstein’s film was a propaganda product, to convince the people, men and women, farmers and workers, yet it was not fitting. The only people who could like it were the ones who were already convinced and had a high cultural level to accept it.

Lajos Kassák was much luckier compared to his Soviet “friend”, Mayakovsky who was chased into suicide. While the Ma was shut down, Kassak was still not in danger. He immigrated to Vienna with the first line of the Hungarian left wing and continued to publish his avant-garde magazines. In 1926 he returned to Hungary, his newly formed journal, the Munka, only survived a few issues. The magic of the avant-garde has vanished by then. With Aladar Komlós’s words: it turned out that God is an image and different artists, like Attila József, Gyula Illyes, Lorinc Szabo and Miklos Szabo who played with avant-garde in the beginning of their career stepped towards other directions later. And Lajos Kassák was left without partners. But as Antal Szerb said, “Gods are lonely.”



Kassák avantgárdja és a magyar baloldal – Beszélgetés a Politikatörténeti Intézetben, 2016. november 16.


Written by: Péter Csunderlik