Kis, János (b. 1943)

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KIS, JÁNOS (b. 1943)


Hungarian philosopher.

János Kis was the intellectual leader of the Hungarian democratic opposition of the 1980s. Born in Budapest, he has become one of the country's best-known philosophers, an important political commentator, and a senior professor at the Central European University in philosophy and political science.

Although less well known abroad than Jacek Kuron and Adam Michnik, Kis was a foremost theorist of the democratic transition in Soviet-type societies; he moved from critical Marxism to a conception of radical, structural reform from below, targeting an independent public sphere or civil society. Having been a student of the important neo-Marxist philosopher György Márkus, who brought him into the Budapest circle of George Lukács, Kis first worked on the problems and paradoxes of Marxian interpretations of Soviet-type societies. Two remarkable products of this enterprise, characteristic of the collective style of work of the period, were How Is Critical Economics Possible?, written in 1972 with György Bence and György Márkus but not published until 1992, and Le marxisme face aux pays de l'Est (Towards an East European Marxism), written with György Bence, published in Paris and London under the pseudonym Marc Rakovski in 1978. By the time of the publication of this last work, Kis had already come under the influence of the KOR of Michnik and Kuron, learned Polish, and proceeded to help import aspects of the new Polish strategy into reformist Hungary. Political conditions in Hungary being different from those in Poland, they placed more emphasis on creating an alternative public than on building an independent civil society, at least for a considerable period. The fruit of this effort was the samizdat journal Beszélő, of which Kis was the main theoretical and political editor. In early 1982, Kis and the other editors of Beszélő stood alone in interpreting the defeat of Solidarity in Poland as the beginning of the end of the Soviet imperium rather than as a defeat for attempts at democratization. Throughout the decade, in his many editorials Kis continued to refine the program of radical reform from below, drawing more and more intellectuals into the alternative public and by example into parallel endeavors. He concluded this period with an innovative radical reform proposal, The Social Contract (1987), and the formation of the liberal democratic Network of Free Initiatives (1988) and its successor, the Alliance of Free Democrats (SzDSz), the liberal party of which Kis became the first president. The party played a significant role in the National Round Table negotiations, and in the victorious referendum campaign of late 1989. However, after a close election in March of 1990 SzDSz was defeated, and in spite of a significant role in negotiating a constitutional pact with the victorious Hungarian Democratic Forum, Kis withdrew from the party leadership in favor of academic life, in which he had already been involved for some time.

In 1985 he published a Hungarian samizdat book, Do We Have Human Rights? (L'Égale Dignité: essai sur les fondements des droits de l'homme; Paris, 1989), which attempted to put the Dworkinian theory of fundamental rights on communicative theoretical foundations. This was his first effort at analytic philosophy, but after his withdrawal from active political leadership other works followed, of which On Abortion: Arguments For and Against (1992), Political Neutrality (1997), and Politics as a Moral Problem (2004) were the most substantial. He brought this new intellectual approach to bear on a series of old problems: the nature of the democratic transition and the construction of a constitutional democracy. The results were intellectually significant. A long article, "Between Reform and Revolution," was particularly innovative; it dealt with the nature of the new type of democratic transition and the ways it resembled a revolution in its effects but a reform in its legal continuity. In another work, Constitutional Democracy (2000), drawing on the Hungarian practice of constitutional jurisprudence from the post-transition period, he dealt with the supposed incompatibility between popular sovereignty and constitutionalism. That he was able to give an original solution to this problem testifies not only to his gifts as a philosopher but also the relevance of the experience of new democracies to the understanding of classical problems.

Kis's professional career is striking. He was not allowed to finish his doctorate in Hungary and was fired from his position at the Institute of Philosophy of the Academy of Sciences in 1973, during a major purge that included public attacks on How Is Critical Economics Possible? He survived during the next decade by translating Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Immanuel Kant, Johann Fichte, and Gehlen. After 1983 he was allowed to accept Western academic appointments, first at the Écolé tudes en Sciences Sociales, then at the New School for Social Research. In 1992 he founded the Political Science Department at Central European University (CEU), and in 2001 he participated in launching CEU's Department of Philosophy. From 1996 to 2002 he was global professor of law at the New York University School of Law. During the fall of 2004 he was again at the New School in sociology and political science as Hans Speier Visiting Professor.

He remains influential in Hungary in spite of his withdrawal from active politics. He is a regular political commentator on issues of the day, from abortion to other rights-oriented issues, from the problems involved in referenda to those of the presidential types of government that various political forces would like to introduce. He has written major pieces on what he called conservative constitution-making and on almost all the major decisions of the Constitutional Court, to which he has submitted amicus curiae briefs of some importance.

See alsoHuman Rights; Hungary; Lukács, György; Michnik, Adam; Solidarity .


Primary Sources

Kis, János. L'Égale Dignité: essai sur les fondements des droits de l'homme. Paris, 1989.

——. Politics in Hungary: For a Democratic Alternative. Translated by Gábor Follinus. Highland Lakes, N.J., 1989.

——. Constitutional Democracy. Translated by Zoltán Miklósi. New York, 2003.

Kis, János, ed. Contemporary Political Philosophy. Budapest, 1997–2000.

Kis, János, and György Bence. Towards an East European Marxism. Published under the pseudonym Marc Rakovski. London, 1978.

Secondary Sources

Dworkin, Ronald, ed. From Liberal Values to Democratic Transition: Essays in Honor of János Kis. Budapest, 2004.

Andrew Arato