Antipolitics: An Essay By George Konrad. Translated by Richard E. Allen. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 243 pp. $12.95.
June 17, 1984        

In the aftermath of World War II, Albert Camus wrote a celebrated essay, “Neither Victims Nor Executioners.” It was a passionate plea for moderation, a utopian call for realism, an exhortation to intellectuals not to become ideological partisans in the Cold War, but instead to “keep alive, through the apocalyptic historical vista that stretches before us, a modest thoughtfulness,” a “civilization du dialogue.” Thirty- five years later, from the other side of the Iron Curtain, another literary moralist has produced an even more remarkable essay in the same vein. “Antipolitics,” by the Hungarian novelist George Konrad, is a militant call for ideological disarmament and a complex argument in favor of simple decency.

The book is an extended meditation on two questions: What is the Cold War and how can we survive it? By “we,” Konrad means, in the first instance, Europeans. He has had abundant experience of Soviet-style totalitarianism: his novels, notably “The Case Worker” and “The Loser,” and a work of social theory, “Intellectuals on the Road to Class Power,” were banned by the Hungarian government. But, by his own account, Hungary is one of the least repressive East European countries, so he is also, unlike many other Soviet-bloc dissidents, intimately familiar with Western Europe. It is as a cosmopolitan patriot, a citizen of all Europe — a Europe militarily divided but spiritually united — that Konrad writes.

Rivalry of superpowers

Europe is menaced by the rivalry of the superpowers. Why this rivalry? Konrad asks urgently. It is certainly not about what it purports to be about. “The antitheses which fill our mental horizon — capitalism versus state socialism, democracy versus totalitarianism, market economy versus planned economy — are forced mythologies.” In reality, the Cold War is a contest of national political elites, “What is basic and decisive is the strategy of the nation-state, which the political class of every nation devises and then declares to be identical with their country’s Interest. The various universalist appeals to the working class or to Christianity, to freedom or to socialism, are merely weapons in the strategy of the nation-state.”

Politicians seek power — Konrad takes this as axiomatic, and he includes in the “political class” the bureaucracy, the military and the technical intelligentsia of each side. What secures and augments the power of this class is, above all, popular fear of an external threat. The twin specters of “American imperialism” and “the international Communist conspiracy” fulfilled this function admirably for the rival elites, until superseded by an even more plausible and coercive threat: nuclear weapons. “The Soviet bomb guarantees the police discipline of the West,” Konrad writes: “the American bomb guarantees the police discipline of the East.”

The workings of that lethal ideological fraud are clear enough in the case of the Soviet empire. But Americans may well ask: “What ‘police discipline’? This is a democracy, isn’t it?” Yes, it is, Konrad would reply, although only a staggering amount of public apathy and superstition — undemocratic qualities, both — made possible our recent vast diversion of national resources to the defense industry, which is disproportionately represented in the upper reaches of the executive branch. In the main, however, “police discipline” is reserved for our subject populations. “It is remarkable,” Konrad reminds us, “how little America has done for the spread of democracy.” The “freedom” America seeks for its Third World dependencies is largely the freedom to offer us military alliances and a favorable investment climate. “God and democracy: there you have America’s Marxism-Leninism. And if, in the defense of these two sacred values, corporations acquire superprofits, generals acquire bases and diplomats and propagandists acquire extraordinary influence, perhaps that is only a manifestation of the Biblical truth that to him who hath shall be given.”

Mass movements and rhetoric

Trapped by this fatal symmetry, what can we non-elite Europeans and Americans do? Konrad is dubious about mass movements and revolutionary rhetoric: ruling elites are too entrenched and too violent. Besides, he argues, our task is not to seize state power, but gradually to limit, diffuse and demystify it. “The medium of politics is power,” Konrad observes; the medium of antipolitics is skepticism: “immanent, relativistic…dialectical, ironic and critical of ideology.” He urges independent intellectuals — though the suggestion applies to all of us — to fashion a more rational, tolerant, humane political culture, to lower the rhetorical temperature and, above all, to abstain from Cold War ideological crusades. “Intellectual cheerleaders are more dangerous today than ever before… I consider the demythologizing of politics to be the first duty of grown, thinking people... it is the only way we can save our lives.” It is at least plausible, Konrad points out, that superpower accommodation will lead to more freedom with in both empires. But it is certain that continued superpower confrontation will eventually lead to disaster.

“The East-West dichotomy makes it nearly impossible to be clear sighted in today’s world,” the author laments. So it does, but George Konrad has surmounted that difficulty and written a noble and valuable book. Perhaps the fact that he, in his precarious situation, has had the courage and wisdom to write it will move a few of us freer and more comfortable Americans to respond to it.