Endre Gáspár’s “The Hungarian Activist Movement” (1924)
Translated from the German by David Britt. From Between Two Worlds: A Sourcebook of
Central European Avant-Gardes, 1910-1930. (The MIT Press. Cambridge, MA: 2002).
• • •
The poet’s roots are in his own people! So say the racial purists of literature; and there is probably no country where their admonitions have been so taken to heart, as they were in Hungary in the last few decades before the War. Hungarian poetry had always been hermetically sealed away from the entire world. It was not until the wars of liberation, in the middle of the last century — when, in varying degrees, popular values were being reassessed in the literature of every country — that Magyar literature briefly gained a hearing in the-international concert of art. This is the sole reason why Petöfi’s name and life are not as completely unknown outside Hungary as are the works of all Hungarian poets, Petöfi included. After Petöfi, Hungarian poetry became “national” in a more extended sense. The term had hitherto applied to the content of individual works; now it gave rise to an ill-starred politico-literary tradition whereby the Hungarian poet was chained to the soil, and the further evolution of Hungarian poetry was confined to elements extracted from its past. Since Petofi, our poets have forgotten little, but they have learned still less — especially from abroad. It therefore came as an entirely welcome development — and the whole conservative press was rightly outraged — when Endre Ady, one of the greatest lyric poets of our generation, made his voice heard. For, instead of staying at home and making an honest living in Hungary, Ady had the temerity to travel and spend time in Paris, where he made the acquaintance — and not by name only — of Baudelaire, Verlaine, and a number of kindred spirits. This took place not in the 1880s but in the first decade of our own century. It was, nevertheless, an important step forward, and its importance was intensified by the fact that Ady was not only unusually modern-minded — by the Hungarian standards of the day — but also a true poet.
Despite the best efforts of the literary group that gathered around Ady, Hungarian literature still lacked both the self-confidence and the artistic commitment to necessary to establish a link with the movements that were current abroad before the War. Only the War itself, and the consequent emergence of a literary pacifism that was international by definition, enabled Hungary to take its place within international artistic life. A group of new and mostly young writers came onto the scene and, as the needs of the time required, wrote antimilitarist propaganda. Within Hungary, this group was the sole mouthpiece for the newly awakened European conscience; but its significance would have remained purely political, had it not chosen art — and, for obvious reasons, the newest form of art — as its medium of expression. The result was the emergence of an art that was and intended to be forever new. However, it differed from analogous tendencies in every other country (including German Expressionism and Italian Futurism) in one essential respect. Like their counterparts elsewhere, the Hungarians wanted to find a New Form for the New Human Being; but what they emphasized was the sheer radicalism and expressive power of their effort: in a word, their own activity. They were conscious of themselves as creators. From the start — revolutionaries though they were — they emphasized not destruction but construction, structure, and creation. They assumed the name of Activists and started the periodical Ma (Today), now in its tenth year of publication. As is well known, it was the wartime pacifists who assumed the thankless task of leading the postwar revolutions: the task that the Hungarian Activists assumed in the domain of art. This, however, was more or less the end of their political mission. The fact that the Hungarian Activists worked on into a time when the revolution was forced back onto the defensive, and that they continue with undiminished vigor to this day, only goes to show that they were artists first and  foremost. As such, they were of course revolutionaries; but their political propaganda was entirely a consequence of their consistently Activist approach to everything in life. Revolutionaries are of two kinds: those who think of nothing but making the revolution, without realizing that in some periods revolution-making is liable to exclude them from the mainstream of life; and those who are revolutionaries because they unconditionally say Yes to life, to the activity of life, and to creativity within the boundaries of that life. The Hungarian Activists belong to the latter category. They feel themselves to be a living force: human beings who seek self-expression, and whose instrument of expression is art. And so, today, they are among the most radical artists anywhere. After their political phase ended, the emphasis shifted — if possible — even more toward the constructive nature of their work, with its aspiration to build new forms of art and of society.
What do the Activists want today?
Above all, definitely no slogans. These serve a purpose only when a revolution, in its active stage, needs to set some goals. At present, there is a need to find the widest possible range of expressive outlets for the revolutionary being who has no chance of a political revolution. For the artist, art is such a domain. What is possible here is psychological agitation: the representative expression of the constructive human being, and the education of others toward self-confidence and future action. The Activists feel that Constructivism is a basis on which it is possible to build further. They want to express the sense of certainty, the new equilibrium. They could describe themselves as Active Constructivists, but they do not do so, simply to avoid confusion with the Constructivism that now figures as an artistic school. For they, being among the most radical artists to be found anywhere, are determined to have no more schools. The idea of building is something that they share with the Constructivists, but without succumbing to a romanticized machine aesthetic. They regard the words art and life as interchangeable: both words stand for instinctive human self-expression. But they have no intention of regarding Art as a utilitarian exercise. The artist is not a mechanic or a mechanical engineer. The artist is the one who builds. Let the world decide for itself the best practical use for what the artist builds. There can be no such thing as a utilitarian art, since human expression (which is what art is) is thwarted and constrained by ulterior motives. Expression must have no purpose but expression itself. Only the completed artwork may be judged by others to have a practical usefulness and may then find a place in the line of development.
Has this art anything in common with the Art for Art’s Sake of bygone eras? Certainly not, since Activist art is an expression of life raised to the nth power: the life that operates within the artist. Whereas Art for Art’s Sake signifies a passive self-adaptation on the artist’s part to preexistent forms of art and life. There is a second question, however: does this art have a social relevance? The answer to this is perhaps the most important of all. It shall therefore be expressed with the utmost concision. Art is a full expression of mankind, and it follows that the art of social mankind must be social.
In Hungary, the Activists form a numerically sizeable camp. Since the Revolution, this camp has been diminished by successive defections. It would be highly convenient to gloss over this fact — or to brush it aside by pointing out some of the radicals too proved unable to persevere and gave up the quest after years of effort. But in most cases the reasons that led to the defection of the former Activists are so typical, and of such great theoretical interest, that we cannot forbear to devote a few words to them. We hinted at the explanation above, when we referred to the differences between Activists on the one hand and romantic revolutionaries on the other. Those who have now ceased to be Activists fall into two groups: those who now subscribe to the Constructivist school and those who subscribe to Proletkult. The former respond to the romance of technology  and the machine; the latter respond to the romance of political rhetoric — which is certainly not going to make a revolution, only chew over old ideas and anesthetize — even disable — the bitter resentment of the masses.
To the, the Activists’ parting words are as follows: “Away with premeditated practicality in art! Art is not there to express anything outside ourselves. Let art express us and nothing but us; for, if I the artist am the subject matter of art, this means only that I reflect the image of the world; and more than this no one can give. Life is lived by me; and, if I am able to capture it in forms, those forms will be suggestive.” (Kassák.)
Today the Activists live scattered in every country, mostly as political émigrés. Their leader, as always, is that effervescent and persuasive fanatic, Lajos Kassák, who even before the War gave expression to the worker’s soul (Kassák himself is of working-class origin) with primal force and power — and who has given us proof positive that art is not the deracinated pastime of effetely lisping intellectuals. A Socialist artist in the most forceful sense of the term, he has evolved into the poet of a new primitivism. The most durable influence on his work was that of Dadaism; and it was only recently that he cast off its trappings once for all. Kassák is also known for his work in visual art, which reflects the same standpoint as his writings. Active alongside him are Robert Reiter, Tibor Déry (previously a noted author of novellas), a number of young lyric poets, and a group of theoreticians who include Ernő Kállai and the present writer. Remarkably, the expressive forms used by Activism — in the lyric, especially — have created a well-defined school, while Kassák and the Activists themselves have moved on in search of new modes of expression. In recent years, hardly one young Hungarian lyric poet has appeared who has not been derivative — formally, at least — of the free verse of Kassák’s political period, which Kassák himself already regards as outworn. In literature, it is by no means unusual to find imitators who are also enemies. The bitterest foes of Ma are older artists: mostly writers who can never get over the feet that even they, with all their gray hairs, eventually succumbed to the influence of this damnably radical art form — and that, by the time they had laboriously learned to sing along, its creator had moved on to something else.
[Originally published as “Die Bewegung der ungarischen Aktivisten,” Der Sturm no. 3 (September 1924)]