08/15/2014 11:09 am ET Updated Oct 15, 2014

The Mechanics of Change

In his novel The Melancholy of Resistance, the Hungarian writer Laszlo Krasznahorkai describes a village sunk into its own timeless traditions. The farmers scrape at the fields. The men drink at the bar. Before the dreamer Valuska, a kind of holy fool and the moral center of the book, delivers the morning papers, he corrals the men at the bar to create a lurching performance of the orbits of the solar system (the remarkable opening scene in the movie version titled The Werckmeister Harmonies). Thus does the town circle round and round in its off-kilter way.

But change comes to this backwater, and when it does, it transforms the town with the rapidity and thoroughness of a fire. Inspired somehow by a mysterious circus, with its enormous whale and impresario prince, a crowd marches through the streets, leaving destruction and even death in its wake. Then the army arrives to restore order. Certain individuals see opportunity in this chaos, and thus does a new political order arise out of the mud.

Janos David is a sociologist who has spent his professional life studying change. He experienced the Hungarian uprising of 1956 firsthand and much later helped to produce documentaries about it. He helped found a trade union and then assisted workers to adjust to the new economic realities after 1989.

Through it all, he has tried to identify and uphold the public good. But the Hungary that has emerged from the changes of 1989 seems to resemble nothing other than Krasznahorkai's backwater. "During the last 20 years, nobody really understood the idea of the public good," he told me in an interview in May 2013 in his home in Budapest. "The problem is that during those 20 years in every case I tried to determine the public good, and I realized that the people around me nearly never understood what it meant. Instead, everyone tried to further their own private interest. That is why it was so difficult for this political change to happen. These local societies could not really find their own strategic way. The people had no compass. They were wandering in a very muddy political, social, and economic swamp, and they couldn't create something under these conditions. That's why those who are very professional in gaining power and achieving their personal goals were successful. They understood what a paradise these muddy circumstances were for the acquisition of power."

After the changes of 1989, David worked to bring the techniques of participatory planning to Hungary as part of a larger effort of community and regional development. "If we had an area where industry collapsed, we had to make an assessment of the potential -- the human potential, the knowledge, the buildings, the economic infrastructure, the financial infrastructure, everything," he told me. "We had to determine whether these systems were working or not. I brought in many experts from Oxford where I'd spent months learning these techniques. The main point was to bring people together to exploit their ideas and find a common strategy. Later on I was in the United States and I learned 'collective problem-solving.' It's the same system. In Europe we call it participatory planning."

He's not entirely certain of how much has changed as a result of such techniques. It may have been much like corralling people in a bar to reenact the motions of the heavens. But he forges on. "I am a very practical person in wanting to change things, in perceiving the social surroundings and the actors and trying to find out what is acceptable for them," he concluded. "But I was naive. Now we are a democracy. We have the tools to build a new society on mainly liberal and social ideas. But we have to face this mud."

The Interview

What do you remember from the 1956 uprising?

I was nine years old. I was here in Budapest. I remember many small things. We were living here on the Buda side, in between the Gellert Hill and the Castle Hill. I remember that on the night of October 22 my father came home from the technical university and from the first gatherings of the Budapest intellectuals who wrote their list of demands. My mother didn't suspect anything on 22nd. But on the 23rd, the real first day of the revolution, she became very upset because my brother who is 6 years old than me didn't come home. During the night, in more than two or three places, there was some fighting. After October 30, right after the Imre Nagy government was sworn in and they prevented the revolutionaries from using their guns, one of our neighbors took me on a walk around the city. There were many dead people on the street, barricades, bombed buildings. Our neighborhood after November 4 was the local center of the Russian troops. My brother wrote in Russian on a wall, "Russians Go Home" or something like that.

The Russians bombed the Castle area because the revolutionaries were there, so we had to go into the basement. Our building was a house with eight flats. Only one person had changed since 1945, the end of World War. We were told to go to the basement. And everybody went to the same place in the basement where they'd spent many months during World War II. Our nearest neighbor went to her own corner where there was a box that she opened. Inside was fresh flour, salt, sugar, dried pasta, and beans. Ever since 1945, she had changed the contents of the box every few months. I can't forget that.

When you did the documentary about 1956, what were the most surprising things that you learned?

Everything. What did I tell you at the time?

Just that you were doing a documentary about peasants and then you switched.

Not peasants, but workers. We did four or five documentary films starting in 1988 that we finished in 1990. The first film was about a massacre that took place in Salgótarján on December 8, 1956. There is a debate on how many victims there were. According to me, 132. But the historians say 43. It's a very important difference, but the debate is not so important. The residents were suspicious about what we really wanted. It took a long time to create trust. On this basis of trust, we found out what really happened during the 10-12 days of the revolution, and after the revolution: the retribution. We had to determine what had happened from the point when the revolution finished and when we made the film. Whether the people spent a couple years in the jail or several months in an internment camp, they were still controlled more than 30 years later. Many times, they were woken up during the night just for the authorities to let them know that they were being watched. They found jobs only if the local Party political center gave permission to the state-owned enterprise to hire them. I came to understand how they lived during these decades under surveillance. I learned of many tragedies.

Did the documentaries have an impact on the revolutionaries and on society?

At that time, in 1990, 1991, 1992, there were a lot of documentaries that revealed the historical reality. Our documentary was one of many

You went back to doing documentaries about workers.


Why not?

Nobody wanted to give us money to do that. We wanted to do it. My partner was a real documentary director interested in everyday things. He started to do films about peasants who tried to get back their land, about workers kicked out of their jobs, about politicians replaced by new politicians. He felt that his task was to document everything.

Did you do any more movies after that?

No. I'm a sociologist. At that time my political activity was taken up with the creation of a new union. I spent two or three years on that as an activist. Mainly I was teaching at the university. Then I left that political activity to do different work. I started dealing with local economy and community development. And two years ago I again started to help start a new union and now a new party.

In 1990, you were working with the union on ways to make it easier for workers during the economic transition. You came back from England with several ideas to do economic development at a community level. What happened with those ideas?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.