Political philosopher G.M. Tamás was one of the main personalities of the Hungarian Democratic Opposition in the 1980s. After 1989 he remained politically active as a major figure of the Alliance of Free Democrats and author of numerous thought-provoking and deliberately controversial essays and commentaries. In this article he proposes an original explanation of the post-1989 mass disenchantment with the once presumably admired dissidents. His two-fold argument is that dissent had always been unpopular and that the dissidents' subcultures were fundamentally isolated from the population at large.
Tamás's approach tends to extrapolate the peculiar conditions of Hungary's dissident community and overlooks the exhilarating appeals of a mass social movement like Solidarity in Poland. Whatever one thinks of his bitter diagnosis of the dissidents' alienation from the societies they claimed to speak for, Tamás's essay captures accurately the ethical dimension of the critical intellectuals' calls for a new politics rooted in truth and respect for individual human rights. Particularly significant are his reflections on the ambivalence of the key strategic concept of “civil society” and the contrast he highlights between its East European and traditional Western liberal interpretations. Tamás concludes, in agreement with Poland's Adam Michnik, that the heroic times are over and that one of the legacies of dissent is a deep sense of ambiguity including a healthy suspicion regarding all political dogmas.
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The dissidence of the 1970s and 1980s is rather unpopular in the Eastern Europe of today. With the exception of Poland (where there was an almost uninterrupted revolutionary tradition from 1976 on), former dissidents play but a token role in real politics, and their proudest symbols, like Walesa, Havel or Konrád, are decried as “communists, ” “traitors, ” “agents.” In the Hungarian parliament, any mention of the erstwhile dissidence is greeted with hoots of laughter, catcalls, and jeers from the government benches. Its very existence is denied sometimes by official