01 February 2018

Milan Hodža, (Czecho-)Slovak patriot

One of the attractive things, to me, about the entire Czechoslovak project of the interwar period is that, as an ‘accidental’ state and in many ways a successor to the Habsburg monarchy, it was forced to build a common political life on a foundation other than those of feudal fealty or language-driven ethnic nationalist mass politics. It was forced to grapple not only with the grand ideological conflicts of the time and the duel between communism and fascism, but also with the often-conflicting claims of various ethnic groups: not just Czechs and Slovaks, but also Rusins, Jews, Germans, Poles and Hungarians. And, for a short while, it looked like it would succeed – through a mixture of grit, selectively-authoritarian hybrid democracy, non-Marxist rejection of liberal-capitalist modes of production and thought, and political compromise. The statesmen who tried to keep abreast of developments and shape them into a coherent form were of a similar make.

One of these statesmen was Milan Hodža, who was born 140 years ago today. A Slovak member of Antonín Švehla’s agrarian-distributist Republican Party of Farmers and Peasants, he ‘exhibited multidimensional and flexible political thinking and attitudes, which show his deep theoretical knowledge and extraordinary flexibility in practical politics’, according to Slovak political scientist Miroslav Pekník. His political enemies castigated him as an opportunist, but Hodža did have some principles that deserve to be detailed. A realist by conviction and temperament and a pan-Slavist by preference, he believed the best hopes for the Slovak people lay in a brotherly and equal ‘spiritual and cultural unity’ with the Czechs and ‘political community’ with the other Slavic peoples of the Habsburg realm, including Rusins, Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. He was a believer in regionalism and ‘coöperative… industrial and agrarian democracy’. Like Švehla, Hodža had supported the monarchy – but only to a degree consistent with the dignities of the Slavs living under it. He believed that the democratic agrarian parties of Central Europe and the social-democratic and reformist democratic-socialist parties had a politically-significant body of shared interests and goals that had to be acted on.

Hodža had a mix of intellectual influences growing up. He was a Slovak in a largely-Magyarised area. He got into trouble at school for refusing to sing the Hungarian national anthem on Hungary’s national day. He studied law, journalism, natural sciences and political science. Raised in a Pietist Lutheran home, his spiritual and religious life ultimately gravitated more toward the German Idealists and their intellectual offspring, whom he encountered in the German Gymnasium at Sibiu: Goethe and Schiller, Feuerbach and Marx, Nietzsche and Lassalle. He was not a Germanophile in the political sense, and also not a Russophile – Russophilia in the Czech and Slovak lands at that time being associated with the conservative-liberalism of Karel Kramář. Instead, he was drawn toward the ‘realist’ thought of TG Masaryk and the radical agrarianism of AF Šťastný, both of which had a strong patriotic flavour. His regionalism was a Central European regionalism; he attached great importance to the œcological and political significance of the Danube within European politics.

Hodža rejected liberalism outright. In his mind, liberalism dissolved into a heap of contradictions when it came to international affairs; he saw the appeal of protectionism on the international stage, understood the democratic demand for it within his own constituency, and soon came to the realisation that the œconomic demands of countries would always outweigh their commitments to abstract liberal ideals. In addition, he saw government intervention in œconomic and social life as something of a foregone conclusion: the only question was whose interests those interventions benefitted most. As Hodža saw it, liberalism was a fig-leaf for the capitalist and bourgeois material interests rising to replace those of the old aristocracy. Both the capitalist and the aristocrat, in Hodža’s view, were to be resisted and struggled against. Liberalism, both political and œconomic, was a false start.

Hodža also polemicised against socialism, but his relationship with socialism was from the start much more complex than that with liberalism. (He was, after all, deeply influenced by Marx and Lassalle!) His main argument against socialism was its fractiousness. Socialists could not agree on the final aims of the state, or even what the end goal of their preferred society would look like, and that grated on Hodža’s realist sensibilities. Still more pressingly, they could not agree on what political priorities and tactics to pursue in the immediate term. Even so, he did seem to have a soft spot for industrial democracy and especially agrarian coöperatives (including credit unions). Indeed, much of his early political career was involved with building credit and consumer coöperatives at the grassroots level among Slovak farmers. His high-profile struggles and disagreements with Czechoslovak democratic socialist Edvard Beneš, genuine though they were, were nevertheless based on a certain level of common understanding that the bourgeois liberal order was inherently contradictory and immoral, and that some regional basis for political organisation was necessary.

Hodža wanted to institute progressive income taxes, low interest rates, high trade barriers on produce and an active land reform that would break up large estates and parcel them out to the peasants and smallholding farmers who worked on them. His political solutions always contained a mixture of coöperative self-help initiatives and state interventionism. Although this put Hodža in the ‘centre’ of politics of the interwar period, his critiques of both liberal capitalism and reactionary aristocracy place him fairly solidly as a man of the ‘left’-of-centre, and indeed he belonged very much to the left wing of his own party, as a friend of unions, coöperatives, small farmers and ethnic minorities (like the Rusins living both in Slovakia and further east). Hodža actually stands as one good example of how agrarian distributism in Central and Eastern Europe, having taken on board both narodnik and revisionist-Marxist ideas, had a more radical character than the romanticist distributism of England and France.

As regards the organisation of government, Hodža’s thought embodies precisely the ‘multivalent’ quality that I’ve come to value and desire in my own thinking. He was a tireless advocate of regional integration, and understood all too well that the nationalisms of small nations have a tragic tendency to be either steamrollered or coöpted by great power politics and imperialist schemes. On the other hand, he had a deep, culturally-conservative scepticism of schemes to integrate broad swathes of the world through – for example – the imposition of artificial languages. The problem of the small nation, its survival, its sovereignty and its integrity, was one near to Hodža’s heart, but the solutions he came to favour were by no means glib or straightforward. He was, by turns, a regionalist, a fœderalist and a localist, but refused to advocate either ‘rough nationalism’ or idealistic schemes for the vertical integration of Europe along abstract and ideological lines.

In this blog post I’ve really only outlined a rough sketch of Hodža’s career in the broad strokes. I haven’t even gotten to his activities in building the various coalition governments by which interwar Czechoslovakia operated, or his career in the Czechoslovak government-in-exile and resistance. I’m really only beginning to read more of the commentaries on Hodža’s political career, but I have to admit to being fascinated thus far!

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