Opening remarks
Kondor, Imre, Rector of Collegium Budapest, Professor of Physics at Eötvös Loránd University (ELTE), Budapest.
Book Presentation at Collegium Budapest
March 6, 2007

Excellencies, Colleagues, Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a great pleasure for me to introduce this book presentation and a great honour for us to have such a distiguished audience on this occasion. The book itself, the English language edition of János Kornai’s intellectual autobiography, will be presented by two distiguished experts, the historian Gábor Klaniczay and the economist and banker György Surányi. Both of them are in a better position and more competent than myself to assess the significance of this great work. As the rector of Collegium Budapest, I would, therefore, like to focus on the relationship between the author and this institute.

As you may know, Collegium Budapest is an Institute for Advanced Study, a special genre among the various types of research establishments. The archetype is the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study which was created by an exceptional combination of generous philantropy and farsighted scientific vision to provide a home for some of the greatest minds of the last century, Albert Einstein, John von Neumann and Kurt Gödel among them. The Princeton Institute later became a model for a few other similar institutes in the US and Europe. All of these are different as to their size and precise scientific profile, but all share a number of important common characteristics. They are multidisciplinary and international, they are run by a small group of permanent staff and they regard as their main mission to create a stimulating environment for a group of carefully selected scholars who are invited for a given period of time to work in peace, relieved from the everyday chores of academic life, like teaching, committee work, or grant hunting. The idea is to provide a chance for pure scholarly work, writing a book, and recharge one’s batteries in the company of people coming from different disciplines and different cultures.

As you will learn from the autobiography, János Kornai spent a year at Princeton in 1983. Another visitor there at the time was Wolf Lepenies, a renowned German social scientist, later to become the rector of the Wisseschaftskolleg zu Berlin, the largest and the most active of the European Institutes for Advanced Study. I suspect that the germ of the idea to create a similar institute in Budapest may date back to this period.

It is not a conjecture but a fact, however, that Lepenies approached the Hungarian Academy of Sciences with the idea at the end of the eighties. He got a favourable reception from the then president Iván Berend, and preliminary organization activity, especially to find willing sponsors started at that time. In the meantime History with a capital H brought about a blessed moment when, in an atmosphere of general enthusiasm and goodwill about the reunification of Europe, it became possible for our German colleagues to secure the support of a truly unique consortium of six European states, Germany, France, Switzerland, Austria, Holland, and Hungary, as well as that of a few private foundations, most notably the Landis and Gyr Kulturstiftung from Switzerland, and the Tercentenary Foundation of the Bank of Sweden. It was this group of sponsors who founded Collegium Budapest in 1992.

János Kornai was asked to collaborate in building up the institute at the very beginning. He declined the position of rector, especialy because in that period he was still sharing his time between Harvard University and Budapest, but he was willing to accept the role of permanent fellow. With his Princeton experience, with his inside knowledge of the ways and means of the most prestigeous European and American institutions of higher learning, with his international contacts, and his acute sense of scientific autonomy, he has left an indelible mark on the insitute. He helped building up the institutional framework, establish procedures, and, above everything else, setting standards. He committed his international prestige and influence to the cause of the Collegium when its autonomy was called in question. The institute owes a tremendous lot to János Kornai, and I am happy to acknowledge this moral debt.

He is also the only permanent fellow who has served right from the beginning up till now; in recent years as permanent fellow emeritus. His name is inseparable from the institution now: when I am asked about my working place by people who do not know much about Collegium Budapest they often identify the institute on their mental map by saying: „Oh, that’s where Kornai is working, isn’t it?”

In addition to his administrative, intellectual and spiritual contribution, János organized three highly successful focus groups, concentrated research programs with a number of participants from various disciplines, around some of the most important themes of the period: on the transition from a centrally planned economy to market economy, on reforming the state and the welfare system, and on the role of honesty and trust in our turbulent region and age. Each of these resulted in deep insights, published in volumes by the leading publishing houses in the field of social sciences. These programs have become the hallmarks of Collegium Budapest and greatly helped to establish its international standing. I sincerely hope that János will, for many years to come, continue to help us with his knowledge, wisdom and prestige to keep up the scientific standards of this institute under conditions that are in many respects fundamentally different from what they were 15 years ago.

Let me conclude on a personal note. I think there is an anonimous reference to me in one of the footnotes in the book we are presenting right now. The footnote is about the reception of János Kornai’s famous book on shortage as the unavoidable feature of centrally planned economies. „The Shortage” appeared in 1980. I can clearly remember my mood and outlook at that time. I could see all the deficiencies of the regime that I had always felt unbearable and suffocating, and that I knew would not last forever. Yet, I did not have any hope to see it end. There were hardly any encouraging voices to be heard either from the East or the West. The heroic Russian, Polish, Czechoslovakian, and, on a smaller scale, Hungarian democratic opposition movements were fighting for human dignity, without much hope of achieving a real political change any time soon. I distinctly remember Emmanuel Todd’s 1976 essay La chute finale, essai sur la décomposition de la sphčre soviétique as the only Western analysis predicting the end of the Soviet regime. I remember it, because it was so singularly unique in the choir of Sovietologists, all marvelling at the miraculous stability of a stagnant, inhuman and deeply rotten regime. I was greatful to Todd as one is grateful to someone for words of consolation, but I did not believe I would live to see his prediction come true. Thus I was sure that the answer to Andrei Amalrik’s famous question whether the Soviet Union would survive till 1984 was a hopeless and desperate yes.

And then I read Kornai’s book „The Shortage”. And I had this sensation as if hearing the death knell toll over the system. This impression was so strong that I projected more into the book than what it actually contained. The train of thought in it led me to its natural and evident conclusion, I imagined to have read the unwritten final chapter, which the author himself could, for obvious reasons, not include in the book. Whenever I looked at the volume later, sitting on our bookshelf, I always thought of it: that’s the book that contains the death sentence of the regime. And in a few years time this illusion of mine had become a firm conviction: I took it for a fact that the book actually contained this virtual final chapter, announcing the inevitable conclusion: the collapse of the regime. And that was a tremendous relief and a constant source of hope. And for that little, flickering light, for that implicit promise of liberation, I will always remain grateful to you, János.

The inescapable conclusion of „The Shortage” evidently existed, if not in the book, but in your mind. The book triggered similar conclusions not only in my mind, but also in the minds of thousands and thousands of people, all across the Eastern Block, thereby becoming a political factor, as it were, a material force accelerating the erosion and transformation of the system…by force of thought. On this note I pass the floor to György Surányi.