CEU Mourns the Loss of Gáspár Miklós Tamás

January 17, 2022


CEU deeply mourns the loss of Gáspár Miklós Tamás (1948 Cluj/Kolozsvár - 2023 Budapest), who passed away on January 15, following a long and valiant struggle with terminal illness. A loving father of four and beloved friend, he was a widely published philosopher and social theorist, a prodigious essayist, a former dissident and leader of the Hungarian democratic opposition, a one-time liberal MP, and a “ruthless critic of all that exists”. His writings on class, nationalism, post-fascism, and the real nature of actually existing state socialism, published in English and translated in numerous languages, have made him one of the most recognized thinkers from Central and Eastern Europe in recent decades.

It is no exaggeration to say that Gazsi, as he was affectionately known, embodied the founding spirit and ethos of CEU in the fullest possible sense, even though he never became its tenured faculty member. A true, eternal rebel with little patience for scholastic rituals and formalities, he had already learned in the 1970s and 1980s, when he was repeatedly made redundant on political grounds, that his boundless intellectual brilliance, scintillating wit, and unparalleled erudition would render some of the compromises required by conventional academic careers unbearable. Thus, between numerous stints of visiting professorships at the best universities in North America and his position at the Institute of Philosophy at Hungarian Academy of Sciences, from which he was forced into early retirement in 2010, he found a precarious, though quasi-permanent, home as a recurrent visiting professor at CEU, first in the Nationalism and Gender Studies programs, and later, over the course of the last twenty years, in the Sociology and Social Anthropology Department. The fond reminiscences of generations of students, on whom he had a durable, formative impact, speak volumes. His unique seminars, scholarly largesse, and selfless curiosity have become legendary over the years.

While many at CEU have only known him as “Professor Tamás,” he tirelessly devoted his energies to a whole host of other endeavors, from hundreds of newspaper articles and political pamphlets to rousing speeches at any demonstration he thought would serve the cause of the oppressed and the downtrodden. A true public intellectual, he was both a man of his time and a thoroughly untimely, politically engaged philosophe, in the noble mold of his radical predecessors. He commanded the attention of many wherever he went, and felt at ease on the manicured lawn of an Oxford college quad just as much as in a freezing marquee in front of the Hungarian parliament, where he held a teach-in on academic freedom. He was truly at home in the world, from New York and London to Belgrade and Sarajevo, though the ineradicable nostalgia for his Transylvanian hometown, from which he was politically exiled by the Ceauşescu regime in 1978, made him feel like a Hungarian émigré in Hungary till the very end.

His was a life of productive contradictions and self-scrutinizing, constant revisions, but only because he recognized the contradictory nature of contemporary society, which he sought not only to interpret, but to change for the better. He would suffer no injustice of any kind, and was fearless in his pursuit of universal emancipation. As one of his friends once put it, philosophy was not a mere profession for him; it was his whole way of life. Throughout his illness, he buried himself in work till the very end, writing one late masterpiece after another with dogged determination and, no doubt, also with a sense of increasing despair as he surely must have felt that time was running out, leaving him unable to finish everything he had planned. Amidst all this, he also remained a loyal friend to many, passionate, generous, and full of empathy as ever. There was nothing he wanted more than to offer consolation and hope in a world that seemed destined for imminent self-destruction. His pessimism stemmed from critical-conceptual clarity of vision, but this stark realism, devoid of illusions, could not have been further from passive resignation, let alone cynicism of any kind. In the face of all adversity, he managed to cling stubbornly to what his old master, Ernst Bloch, called the principle of hope. This, among other things, was what made our late friend, teacher, and colleague a true revolutionary, the restlessly recalcitrant conscience of the age we should all keep alive in our hearts. Only by doing so can we fill the immense void left by his premature departure.

By István Adorján