Word Wars Rage in Eastern Europe as Historic Chips Off the Old Bloc

<i> Charles T. Powers is The Times' correspondent in Warsaw</i>

The struggle for a neutral language is a generally overlooked conflict in a changing communist world.

Consider this effort to describe what’s wrong with his country, from General Secretary Karoly Grosz of the Hungarian Socialist Workers Party: “The superstructure is not active enough to give impetus to the economic basis.”

That is a common malady among East European superstructures--probably nothing to be alarmed about. Maybe jogging would help, or Vitamin C.

Or a little straight talk.

Hungary, on the verge of organizing multiparty elections and installing a stock market at Karl Marx University, is a country farther along the road of reform than any of its communist neighbors. And although it might not seem crucial at first glance, Grosz and others have lately come to realize that language is as much a subject for reform as political and economic institutions.

Indeed, last month it appeared that a major Communist Party showdown was building over a question of terminology--whether the 1956 Hungarian revolt, crushed by the Soviet army, should be known as a “popular uprising” or a “counterrevolution.”


The distinction, however fine it might seem to outsiders, was enough to threaten an emotional fight in the party’s Central Committee. In the end, the great battle was postponed and the party referred the subject for more study, in the obvious hope that further meditation over history books--and dictionaries--might achieve an acceptable compromise.

This battle for words is conducted across a mine field of communist terminology that manages to be both politically charged and bland to the point of becoming meaningless.

Until recently, there was little question about who controlled the political lexicon in Eastern Europe. As an editor of a newly launched newspaper suggested this year, the official style--euphemistic obfuscation--has been so pervasive for 30 years that most Hungarians refer to events of 1956 as a “counterrevolution.”

Hungarians who call 1956 simply a “revolution” might disagree, but for 40 years control of the media by the Communist Party has been undisputed. And in the view of many dissidents, poets and artists, the party’s monopoly over terms of political discourse has debased the languages of Eastern Europe, meaning that current disputes over terminology have real importance.

The 1956 confusion was brought to a head by Imre Poszgay, an ambitious liberal and party reformist who declared on a popular radio program that events of that year should be regarded as a “popular uprising.”

As nearly as historians can define it, Poszgay’s terminology was perfectly plausible--it was both a “popular uprising” and a “counterrevolution.” In the communist context, however, the distinction is vital.

“It is important because, until May of last year, the people in power were the ones who fought against that revolution in 1956,” said Peter Toke, editor of Reform, a new weekly newspaper. “Those people denied for 30 years that it was a popular uprising. It is important because there are several blank spots in our history--from 1945 until now--because history was manipulated. People want to know what is right.”

In a radio and television interview after the Central Committee meeting, Grosz tried to find compromise:

“The majority of the Central Committee thinks that we have to return to the original evaluation that was created after ’56, that became deformed over the past 30 years,” he said. “It started with an uprising, when a lot of decent people participated in it--people who were not against the system, but they were discontented with their personal situation. They didn’t struggle with arms against the political power, but step by step there were more counterrevolutionary elements in that process.”

Therefore, Grosz said, the dispute in the party is “about how it went from an uprising to a counterrevolution.”

The scientists, he said, “have to work on whether it was an uprising, a people’s uprising, or a counterrevolution.” Scientists would have to make the distinction, he explained, because it was a longstanding party policy not to take a stand on a “scientific issue.”

If that seems somewhat tortured, well, it is. But it is also a longstanding communist policy to turn history into a science, which leaves it conveniently open to ever-fresh “discoveries” and new “interpretations.” On the other hand, if discoveries and interpretations are not so convenient, they can be dismissed as contrary to the immutable laws of science--meaning the invocation of science permits a kind of linguistic fast shuffle.

Grosz, now 57, remembers when he was a 17-year-old in 1956, taking bread to communists hiding from rebels in the streets; he belongs more to the group that clamped the lid on Hungary than to the young reformers now pressing hard for change.

But while his statements may seem murky and hairsplitting, his style is blunt next to the party pronouncements from Hungary’s neighbors, where the struggle for neutral language is far less advanced.

In Poland, Hungary’s nearest rival in the reform movement, the public disdain for official wordage is deep. Language is one reason for the popularity of Solidarity leader Lech Walesa, a shipyard worker who speaks in direct, ordinary terms that direct, ordinary people can understand.

Walesa’s appearance on Polish television last December, in a debate with the chief of the state’s official labor federation, refreshed Poles for days. At one point the labor leader challenged Walesa, asking if he hadn’t seen any progress in Poland over the years.

“Yes, well,” Walesa said, “we’re walking and the rest of the world is riding by in cars.”

In Poland, the official government gobbledygook is changing as leading theorizers search for justification and explanations of the current “historical necessity.” Writers in Polish political journals frequently admit they no longer know what is meant by the term “socialism.” As for “communism,” it is seldom discussed.

In countries such as Hungary and Poland, invocations of “Marxist-Leninist norm” are increasingly rare, supplanted by a search for “socialist renewal” and even “political pluralism"--a gentler way for communists to admit that it may no longer be possible to rule indefinitely by themselves.

Indeed, the recent adoption of “pluralism” by communist regimes is an attempt to co-opt the language of the opposition--"pluralism” having been Walesa’s rallying call since the birth of Solidarity in 1980. Pluralism is now the avowed policy of Poland’s communist leaders, although a wide gulf remains between what they mean and what Walesa means.

East European regimes are equally capable of co-opting their own language. In Czechoslovakia, where the old Stalinist term “hooliganism” was recently dusted off in charges filed against human-rights activists, the leadership slyly adopted the latest catchwords of the new age.

Hence the hidebound party leader Milos Jakes, who led the purges that followed the 1968 “Prague Spring” reform movement, peppers his speeches with the term “radical reform,” even while he has jailed his country’s leading writer, Vaclav Havel, on charges of “incitement.”

Economists, dissidents and even diplomats from other East European countries say they detect no movement toward reform in Czechoslovakia and steady, drumming references to “radical reform” have left the term meaningless.

The standard line is still churned out by official organs. Even as the newspaper Rude Pravo says there is “no censorship” in Czechoslovakia, it is impossible to buy one of Havel’s books there.

Ordinary Czechs long ago stopped listening. Such stuff is background noise, something you have to live with.

Citizens of Romania may suffer more. For them, the Grosz observations on superstructure could have the rhythm of poetry, the pith of “Poor Richard’s Almanack.” The following abbreviated example of official prose, by Emil Bobu, a Romanian Central Committee secretary, was composed as one of the many annually required birthday homages to the “truly innovative orientations” of Romania’s leader:

“The close ties with the masses materialized in a highly original and productive democratic system, unique in its way, the theoretical foundation of which is Comrade Nicolae Ceausescu’s thesis that on the building of socialism with the people, for the people . . . .”

That’s a good explanation why many Romanians would rather drink by candlelight every night than read the daily newspaper.