12 May 2016

Generals and Professors



Marshal Foch once remarked of the graduates of France’s Saint-Cyr military academy: “They know everything. Unfortunately they don’t know anything else.” We can be fairly certain this was not meant as praise. Foch probably thought of the graduates as apprentice intellectuals rather than as future generals. He was noting a trend that, though slow and small in his day, has become a torrent in ours: namely, the growing influence of the theorist in public affairs and the consequent retreat of the practical man of business. Indeed, his remarks have sometimes been quoted, with good reason, in relation to France’s elite higher education academies such as Sciences-Po which have given prime ministers, ministers and senior civil servants to all post-war French governments and several foreign ones.

War being an especially practical affair – lives depend directly on it – the general is the ideal type of the practical man just as the university professor is of the theorist. Both feature heavily in this issue of Hungarian Review which inter alia casts its eye on their influence and relative success.

Gergely Egedy’s essay addresses the power of the professor not directly but in the course of examining the rise and retreat of multiculturalism and its concept of the nation. There is no doubt that multiculturalism has had a brilliant career. It began as a set of theories in Western (mainly English-speaking) universities in the 1960s largely to suggest how their societies should (or, often, must) re-conceive their national identities in order to recognise the group cultural rights of recent immigrants. There was never agreement on its true character among its proponents whose competing doctrines – liberal, communalist, cultural, essentialist, political – are carefully outlined, analysed and contrasted by Dr Egedy. At no point was it ever a set of ideas that commanded mass support from the serious reading public, let alone the general population, compared to earlier doctrines such as socialism. Within less than two decades, however, it had become the basis for legislation and bureaucratic rule-making, the sacrosant wisdom of a new establishment of teachers, welfare bureaucrats, policemen, sociology lecturers that conveys official truths to ordinary citizens, and a semi-official self-description of several major international powers.

Yet multiculturalism was the work of a small handful of academic political theorists whose names are known and discussed in the essay. Most of them had a kind of breezy contempt for the popular concepts of national identity and individual rights held by most of the population. For instance, Bikhu Parekh, now inevitably Lord Parekh, regarded Margaret Thatcher’s idea of national identity as “horrifying”. And they don’t seem to have foreseen any of the practical difficulties or communal tensions to which most variants of multiculturalism have led. It is now in “retreat”, as Dr Egedy records, largely because it is seen by practical politicians as maximising the tensions inherent in multi-ethnic societies rather than ameliorating them. Even some of its proponents are having second thoughts (though it would be a brave man who forecast its total collapse). That said, its rise to dominance is a “horrifying” proof of the power of the professor. We congratulate Dr Egedy on being a traitor to his class and perhaps making a repetition of multiculturalism less likely.

General de Gaulle also famously had “a certain idea” of the nation of France. It occurs in the first sentence of his memoirs. But, as our distinguished contributors, László Trócsányi and Michel Anfrol, demonstrate in their fine and subtle portraits of the great Frenchman, he did a great deal more than writing about it. It might even be said that he incarnated the idea of France when he left his country for England in 1940 to rescue and represent it in history. Altogether de Gaulle saved France on three occasions: in 1940, in 1958 when he ensured that a potential coup was transformed by his prudence and courage into a constitutional transfer of power, and in 1968 when he matched the demonstrations of the students and unions of the Left with a greater Gaullist one, going on to defeat his political opponents in a landslide election victory.

As the vast Gaullist procession wound its way down the Champs-Élysées, his prime minister, Michel Debré, gestured to the media covering it and said: “You said he was alone!” As his career repeatedly demonstrated, however, de Gaulle was never more representative than when he was alone.

De Gaulle even ensured that his idea of France was given firm political expression in the nation’s first stable democratic constitution. It has stood the test of more than half a century, putting to flight the old English joke about the man who asks a librarian for a copy of the French constitution and is told: “I’m sorry, Sir, we do not stock periodicals.”

Did de Gaulle have a certain idea of Europe as Dr Trócsányi believes? My guess is that if he did, it could only be an idea of Europe that included his idea of France without absorbing or diluting it. Nor would a respecter of historic nations such as England and Germany, as he was, be subject to the delusion that any one of them could rule all the others even from behind a veil of federalism. A people can only rally to a flag when it already exists as a people. So de Gaulle’s united Europe, like his France, would have to emerge slowly from history as Europe’s different nations blended their patriotisms within a larger one. When one thinks about it, this idea of nationhood is the exact opposite of multiculturalism.

De Gaulle seems to have been born great as he was born tall. As the epigram continues, however, others become great, and others have greatness thrust upon them. József Antall does not quite fit into any of these categories. Rather, he prepared for greatness in the long years of peaceful struggle against communist dictatorship. When the first major political challenge to Hungary’s post- communist government emerged in the form of the taxi-drivers’ strike, he demonstrated the calmness, prudence and intestinal toughness of true (if modest) political greatness. In the latest of our investigations into recent Hungarian history, Gyula Kodolányi describes from inside the cabinet meetings how the crisis arose, developed, and finally was resolved in a way that entrenched the new democratic regime. It’s a thriller with Shakespearian touches. Not all the leading characters, for instance, behave as nobly as Hungarian patriots might wish. President Göncz played the part of a wheeler-dealer when less calculated and self-interested actions were called for. From his sick-bed, however, Dr Antall rose to this challenge and retrieved the honour of statesmen – and, less urgently, of professors.

Generals, statesmen, professors… and as Shelley reminded us, poets too are among the legislators of mankind, even if unacknowledged. George Jonas, our friend and contributor, died earlier this year in Canada where he had gone in 1956. His friend and publisher, Anna Porter, also a fifty-sixer, describes how George adapted to his new country so successfully that he became, as columnist Mark Steyn said, Canada’s leading public intellectual (not meant ironically, as Mark usually adds), as well as a novelist, a memoirist, an opera librettist, a documentary maker, a television producer, a columnist, a pilot, a racing driver and a poet. He achieved such distinction in these various fields that in 2015 he was awarded the Order of Canada.

As a child of Hungary, a citizen of Canada, and an old-fashioned classical liberal, George was never a fierce nationalist. About Hungary and everything else, however, he told the truth in ways that were clear, witty and ironic. And his mind never lost its Hungarian accent.

We miss an old friend and contributor, and we hope we have found a new one in Ms Porter.




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