Book Reviews

Communists are Optimists by Profession: The Forgotten Story of the Hungarian Commune. A Review of Optimisti: roman jedne revolucije [The Optimists: The Novel of a Revolution] by Ervin Šinko

By Stefan Gužvica

Sinko book cover


















Following a failed counterrevolutionary uprising in Budapest in June 1919, the Hungarian Bolsheviks captured a group of young cadets from the Ludovica Military Academy who had participated in the revolt. The young men must have been horrified. They had no idea what fate lay in store for them, but they were sure it would not be good. They had heard stories of the ‘Red Terror’, of ‘Jewish Bolsheviks’ roaming through the streets and summarily executing people like themselves. Their sentence was handed out at the suggestion of Ervin Sinkó, one of the commanders of the revolutionary defence: as punishment for their crimes against the revolution, they would have to read Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.

Ervin Sinkó was a direct participant in the Hungarian Soviet Republic, a founding member of the Party of Communists in Hungary, and the first novelist to describe the rise and fall of the revolutionary state, which lasted for only 133 days. The short-lived Hungarian Commune aroused hopes for revolutionaries across the world, signifying, together with its Bavarian counterpart, that the Russian Bolsheviks would no longer be isolated and that a world-proletarian state was on the horizon. By the summer of 1919, such hopes were dashed, and the Russian Revolution returned to isolation, which would eventually result in a counter-revolution.

The title of the novel, The Optimists, is general and not particularly captivating, but Sinkó insisted it be that way, and it does adequately capture the mindset of the generation that brought the Hungarian Commune into being. When the Orbán regime attempts to reduce the Soviet Republic to a ‘Red Terror’ – epitomised by the reconstruction of a Horthy-era monument to its victims in the centre of Budapest[1] – this book should serve as a counter-monument to what was in fact the brightest moment in Hungarian history.

Sinkó is virtually unknown to English-speaking audiences. The structural bias towards favouring the novelists of Western European languages – which is logistical, financial, and cultural – means that the rich and fascinating body of Hungarian literature is generally foreign to the English-speaking world, and that of the local Marxist authors even more so. So far, the only work by Sinkó translated into English has been his The Novel of a Novel, and even this edition is abridged.[2]

The Novel of a Novel has been (partially) translated because of its importance for the so-called school of Soviet subjectivity: academics who research the self and the individual under the Stalinism of the 1930s. Sinkó lived in the USSR between 1935 and 1937, trying in vain to publish a novel, and kept a diary during this entire period. The diary, a rare document from the Stalin era in its own right, is an extraordinary account of the heroism of the Soviet people and a communist’s disillusionment with the Stalinist system. The novel in question, which Sinkó tried but failed to publish under Stalin, was The Optimists. Finished in Paris in 1934,The Optimists did not reach the public for almost twenty years. They were finally published for the first time in socialist Yugoslavia – in Hungarian in 1953, and then in Serbo-Croatian a year later.

The Optimists is an epic saga of the Hungarian Revolution of 1919, spanning almost eight hundred pages in the Serbo-Croatian edition. The autobiographical novel’s main protagonist is József Báti, who is a stand-in for the author, a poet and a socialist living in the Southern Hungarian provincial town of Szabadka (present-day Subotica in Serbia). He has just returned to town after being demobilised and seeks to leave for Budapest as soon as possible since the revolutionary events are already underway. The first chapter sets the stage not just for the author’s life, but also contemporary Hungary. Szabadka is paradigmatic of the decadence of provincial life in the collapsing Austro-Hungarian Empire. The people that Báti meets are either opportunistic Social Democrats who endorsed the war effort or hedonistic dandies from bourgeois families. While Báti/Sinkó is also of upper-class origins, his interests lead him to Marxism, and the atmosphere of the small town feels more stifling than ever. The opening chapter, symbolically but also logically, ends with a suicide.

The vibrant, modern, and cosmopolitan Budapest introduced in the second chapter stands in clear contrast to the bland province, and it is where the events of most of the rest of the novel take place. For Báti, Budapest is symbolised by Endre Ady, the avant-garde Hungarian poet who was the major influence on his generation, and who is frequently quoted by many of the characters. Nevertheless, the Budapest of November 1918 is not quite what Báti expected. He is struck by urban alienation, symbolised by repetitive advertisements for medication that he sees on the streets. It does not look at all like a revolutionary city.

As the story progresses, the reader learns that what is happening in Budapest is not a mere indifference of the population to broader historical processes. Rather, the Aster (or Chrysanthemum) Revolution of October 1918 put an end to the war and the monarchy, but not to existing property relations. While Báti is evidently disappointed, not everyone is: the Social Democrats are in power, preaching class collaboration alongside empty revolutionary slogans, and most workers support them. Despite feeling somewhat like an outcast, Báti quickly takes up a job as a government propagandist, but he also becomes involved with the Communists (which would significantly shorten his tenure at the Propaganda Committee).

The Communists are the eponymous optimists, of course, but Sinkó does not portray only them. Dénes Eisinger, an ethnic German waiter from Báti’s hometown, is one of the first figures he meets in Budapest, and one of the most stubbornly resistant ones when it comes to grasping the importance of historical events unfolding all around him. All that middle-aged Eisinger cares about is saving enough money to move to the United States, where he imagines he would earn well enough to be able to get married and buy a home. Sometimes, he fantasises about buying an inn in the Hungarian countryside, but his plans are always individualist and he is uninterested in society as a whole. While portrayed sympathetically, his servility and lack of reflection are infuriating. He enjoys his drab, atomised existence and fails to see that his ideological fantasies are structurally impossible for someone like him.

In the optimist camp, Báti becomes one of the founding editors of Communism (calledInternationálé in real life), the first Hungarian Communist newspaper. Through this, we meet his group of close friends and comrades, including Magda and Arnost Lenart (Iren and Aladár Komját), Sándor and Sári Stein (Gyula Hevesi, the future People’s Commissar for Social Production, and his wife Jolán Stern), and Sinkó’s future wife Irma Rothbart (called Erzsi Cinner in the novel).[3] Erzsi Cinner and Jolán Stern are among the strongest characters in The Optimists, both politically and psychologically. Sári/Jolán Stern is a leading working-class militant, respected by proletarians and feared by her enemies. The stoic Rothbart/Cinner, on the other hand, gave up her humanities studies to pursue medicine, her form of protest against the barbarity of the world destroyed by war, in which she thought there was no longer room for art. Cinner, who is uninterested in Báti’s advances throughout most of the novel, at one point tells him he is like a son, and she indeed displays far greater maturity than him, and most of the male characters.

In the histories of the largely disregarded Hungarian Soviet Republic, even the men are under-researched. However, we know far more about them than about the women. The commissar Hevesi lived and took an active role in socialist Hungary after 1945, and even left a colourful memoir[4] on the early generation of revolutionaries. Komját/Lenart remained a significant figure of the Hungarian literary avant-garde until his untimely demise in Paris in 1937. Sinkó, as mentioned, became a reputable Yugoslav writer. Yet it is virtually impossible to find information on their wives, who were at the very least as important as they were. In this sense, too, the novel is not only advanced in its treatment of women, but also significant for the portrayal of unjustly forgotten figures, which historiography has cast aside based on gender alone.

Báti/Sinkó is already close to the top echelons of the party, so, as the novel progresses, we meet the leading figures of the Hungarian Soviet Republic. Certainly, the most interesting topic for ‘Western’ audiences will be the portrayal of György Lukács (Vértes), Báti’s close friend, whom he endearingly calls ‘the communist metaphysician’. Yet The Optimists teaches us that we are doing a disservice to ourselves, and a dishonour to the Hungarian Bolsheviks, if we limit ourselves only to studying the person of Lukács. There are at least a dozen more towering figures of Hungarian Marxism of equal or greater stature, many of whom have been sadly forgotten, both in terms of ideas and political practices.

After the strong female characters of Erzsi Cinner and Sári, we find out that Sári’s partner, Sándor, had spent the pre-revolutionary months drawing up elaborate plans for organising socialist production and the redistribution of property, which he later gets to put into action. We meet, in the editorial offices of Communism Lányi (József Révai), the revolutionary theoretician, and, later on, comrade Kovács, one of the heads of the revolutionary police after the establishment of the Soviet Republic. Kovács is Ottó Korvin, a young Bolshevik who would be brutally murdered in the White Terror, and whom Lukács considered a worthy representative of ‘ascetic revolutionism’.[5] Báti also meets, very early on, ‘Comrade President’, a Social Democrat who is his superior in the Propaganda Committee, and who transforms in the novel from a repentant but still wavering supporter of the Austro-Hungarian war effort into a staunch Communist. Comrade President is none other than Dezső Bokányi, a stonemason by profession and a pioneer of Hungarian Marxism, who first translated the Communist Manifesto, and who would later fall victim to Stalin’s Purges in Moscow.

Perhaps the most touching story of the novel, however, is the story of Báti’s adopted household (or rather, the household that adopted him). It consisted of a sick war veteran György Kozma, his family, and Uncle Janó. Kozma is a proletarian and Uncle Janó a Slovak peasant, and a servant of an aristocrat in whose villa they all live. The aristocrat, while cautiously far from Budapest during revolutionary turmoil, decided, in an act of patriotic kindness, to take in a war veteran and his family. Kozma is quiet and withdrawn, one of the many disillusioned but isolated individuals who see no way out and are furious at the world. Uncle Janó tries to console him with his Christian faith but receives cynicism at best and a wooden bench thrown his way at worst.

Kozma’s life begins gradually to change only upon receiving an agitational letter from Sári, eventually going to meet her and finding that people are actually fighting against the injustices he also sees. Kozma’s adolescent daughter, Rózsi, also becomes involved, and eventually, on the eve of the establishment of the Commune, their ideas gradually begin to leave an impression even on the devout Janó and Kozma’s apolitical wife. Sinkó makes it evident that women, aside from the communists, were almost completely depoliticised, something that their social role imposed on them. Far from being a naïve story of enlightenment, the tale of the Kozma family and Janó is full of ups and downs and develops over a couple of hundred pages, against the backdrop of the historical events that surround them. It shows how the success of the Communist Party depended not merely on the strength of the idea, but on the ability of the communists to respond adequately to people’s lived experiences.

Even before the (all too easy) takeover of power by the Communists, Báti is introduced to Béla Kun. He is portrayed as highly intelligent, but also as crude and impatient. He verbally chastises not only Báti but also pretty much anyone he enters into a minor disagreement with. However, what is striking (and the author notes this many times over) is that, despite his attitude, Kun enjoys immense popularity and respect, not just from those who follow him from afar, but from those who work directly with him. He appears to be a textbook example of Weber’s charismatic authority.

Nonetheless, perhaps the most memorable moment with Kun is at the very end of the Soviet Republic, when he delivers a speech to a group of peasant soldiers outside of Budapest, all of whom are Communists. Báti sees in that speech an amalgam of all the speeches he had heard from various people over the previous few months, all of their energies coming together into this one, crucial moment… and it completely fails. Kun is unable to rouse the soldiers who had become aware that all is lost. Kun is not a cult leader, he is too human, fallible, and unable to seduce the masses when it becomes apparent that what he is saying does not respond to the material reality around them. Despite Sinkó’s concerns, Kun, who read the novel later in Moscow, loved it, including the portrayal of himself. He became one of Sinkó’s main patrons and supporters, though, at a certain point, Kun’s support for the publication of The Optimists actually became yet another obstacle. Kun would also fall victim to the Great Purge,[6] and he was executed in August 1938.

The most impressive of the revolutionary leaders that Sinkó describes, however, is Tibor Szamuely. To this day, Szamuely is seen in the eyes of reactionaries and critics of the Hungarian Soviet Republic as ‘the demon of the revolution’.[7] All the misdeeds of the Hungarian communists were blamed on Szamuely. Through Sinkó, we learn that this was something that had started already during the revolution and was initiated by the Social Democrats. Despite the oblivion of early Hungarian Communism, Szamuely’s notoriety continues to this day. In contrast to this image, Sinkó describes a man fully dedicated to the Communist cause, who does not care at all for himself. This is not cheap propaganda in favour of the Hungarian Bolsheviks. There are plenty of examples in the book showing how power corrupted the officials of the Soviet Republic. Dani, the modest and kind young revolutionary that he knew, went on to lead the Lenin Boys, a paramilitary terrorist organisation, and quickly became overwhelmed by his newfound fame and reputation. He began hoarding seized property and indulging in all sorts of vices. But Szamuely was the Incorruptible.

If one expects, based on Sinkó’s deep respect for Szamuely, a simplistic apologia for revolutionary violence, one will not find it in this book. Quite the contrary: the central conflict in the novel is not so much the class struggle, but rather the internal battles of Báti, who tries to reconcile the fact that the proletariat is waging a just war with the inevitability of political violence in such a conflict. In reality, Sinkó renounced Communism for several years after fleeing to Vienna, returning to a kind of Tolstoyan utopian socialism inspired by Christianity. By the time he wrote The Optimists, however, he had returned to Marxism, and what we get from this life experience is a beautifully truthful presentation of both sides of the argument, of an uncompromising struggle for proletarian liberation and the genuine disgust a human must feel about killing, regardless of justification. The paradoxes that Sinkó grapples with remind the reader of some of Brecht’s finest works on the same topic.

A key figure in these discussions with Báti is Vértes (Lukács). When the Communists take power with ease in Hungary, at the insistence of the Social Democrats, Vértes menacingly remarks ‘if only we could do this without bloodshed’, a statement which Báti ponders on for days to come. After contact with proletarians and peasants, Báti finds that he does not only struggle, as an agitator, with explaining why one should kill for the Commune but also why one should die for it as well. Vértes then has a long discussion with Báti on class consciousness and the significance of faith for revolutionary involvement. This faith, Vértes argues, is not the blind faith of a child, but a tortured faith of the Gethsemane Garden, aware of impending doom, inherently tragic, but nonetheless active and heroic. In fact, revolutionary engagement is, in his view, impossible without such faith. Amusingly, Vértes/Lukács ends his dialogue with Báti by advising him to read Kierkegaard.

Báti’s Gethsemane Garden is called Kecskemét. He was sent to this town, some 100km south of Budapest, to put down a revolt of the Whites, who tried to overthrow the local soviet. While we know from the historical record that the crackdown on counter-revolutionaries in Kecskemét was mild precisely because of Sinkó, Báti is deeply disturbed by events there. He wanted to abolish all power, and then found himself becoming a person with power, a position he did not feel comfortable with at all. He is deeply shaken when the Lenin Boys bring him a notebook of a rebel gendarme whom they killed after he tried to flee. He sees the man’s photo of himself posing alongside his wife and son, and the name András Vén. Báti returns to Budapest and tells Erzsi Cinner that he is no longer a Communist.

The return to Budapest, however, shows him the matter that occupies him from a completely different angle. Granted, Báti still tries to minimise bloodshed – the treatment of the cadets at the Ludovica Academy is perhaps the most impressive example – but he also learns that, if he truly believes in human life as an absolute value, he is alone in this belief. There are plenty of people speaking in the name of humanism, against violence: the Social-Democratic former minister who sent the army to fire on striking miners; old aristocrats and industrialists who supported the war until the very end; and the officers who had no qualms about shooting soldiers for anti-war agitation on the front.

When faced with these ‘pacifists’, Báti does not fall into despair. He does not withdraw from politics and the world. Rather, he comes to understand that, to achieve abstract ideals of humanism and non-violence, one must first remove material obstacles for their realisation inherent in the class society. He realises that his comrades are still on the right side, despite everything, or precisely because of everything. He does not cave in to defeatism and pessimism. Throughout the novel, several Communists quote Eugene Leviné’s famous saying that ‘We communists are all dead men on leave.’ This statement is particularly beloved of Kovács/Korvin, who also mentions it when he gets into an argument with Báti over the execution of some counter-revolutionaries, and whose own leave was to expire by the end of the year. Faced with all the suffering, some perpetrated by the revolutionaries themselves, Sinkó juxtaposes the ‘dead men on leave’ to a statement (which he attributes to Vértes/Lukács) that communists are in fact ‘optimists by profession’.

Despite the stereotypes of a horrific ‘Red Terror’ that dominate the contemporary Hungarian public memory of the Soviet Republic, the only conclusion one can draw from Sinkó’s novel is that the Hungarian Bolsheviks were not ‘terroristic’ enough. This is not to say that Báti’s attempts to save poor gendarmes and peasants of Kecskemét were unjustified. Rather, the Hungarian Bolshevik terror missed those at the top who most sought to sabotage the Soviet Republic, namely the Social-Democratic leaders, who ruled together with the Communists. Even if the Bolsheviks wanted to get rid of them, their hands were tied due to the Social Democrats’ immense popularity. They had been in control of a capitalist government for a shorter time than, for instance, the Russian Mensheviks and the SRs, and their popularity never plummeted, especially after they agreed to form a coalition with the Communists and declaratively establish the Soviet Republic. In practice, however, there was always a disconnect between their radical proclamations and very practical attempts at class collaboration. Perhaps this helps explain why the Hungarian Communist Party developed into one of the most vehemently anti-Social-Democratic parties in the era of the united front, its leaders being among those scolded by Lenin for their ‘ultra-leftism’.

The demise of the Hungarian Soviet Republic was tragic, and so is the ending of the novel. At one point, the distraught Báti comes to the House of the Soviets in the middle of the evacuation and asks a comrade what will happen to the Ludovica cadets, whom they sent to read Dostoevsky. The comrade, surprised, laughs at him and says that they’ll be the ones perpetrating the White Terror. The main historical figures follow their paths of exile, underground work, or brutal murder by the White forces. In Kecskemét, too, the monarchist troops that Báti had saved ended up killing his comrades. Yet, the people the reader identifies with the most even at the end of the story are the regular proletarians that Sinkó describes so intimately throughout the work: the Kozma family, Uncle Janó, and the waiter Eisinger. None of them are model Communists (and indeed, most communists aren’t either), but they are the intended main recipients of the visions of Kun and Szamuely. The shattering of their dreams, the return to suffering under class society after getting a taste of the new world, is what hurts the most. The professional optimists, if they survived, continued their struggle. But what happened to the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of ordinary people in Hungary who welcomed the revolution, only to be condemned instead to a quarter of a century under Horthy’s antisemitic, autocratic, and ultimately pro-fascist regime?

The fate of Eisinger is particularly tragic. He was the quintessential representative of petit-bourgeois fantasies among the working class, and Erzsi Cinner could not stand him. One reads about all of his insignificant and selfish designs with either ridicule or annoyance. Yet, it is easy to develop a liking for him despite it all, just as Báti does. The stubbornly apolitical Eisinger, in a Kafkaesque scenario, ends up accused by the Whites of being a ‘Jewish Bolshevik’ (despite being German) and is slandered and scapegoated by the very superiors whom he always respected – his boss and his landlord. He is beaten to death in a brutal demonstration of how, even if you do not deal with politics, politics will still deal with you.

The Optimists is both an excellent piece of writing, and a novel with historiographical significance. The book manages to be didactic without being imposing. Sinkó’s writing evokes impressions of Steinbeck, in the love he shows for his characters, and of Brecht, in the way in which he deals with the moral dilemmas of revolution. He beautifully weaves together ordinary life and politics, love and philosophy, heroism and tragedy, proving how inseparable they are. The translation of The Optimists into English would be of great significance to the social-scientific community, to lovers of literature, and to all those among us whose interest in communism is not merely academic. Today, at a time when Hungary is ruled by one of the most reactionary regimes in all of Europe, the most glorious moment in its history – the Hungarian Soviet Republic of 1919 – is forgotten at best and openly demonised at worst. Ervin Sinkó’s novel is its finest defence, its most sympathetic testimony, and its most honest memory.


Chase, William J. 2008, ‘Microhistory and Mass Repression: Politics, Personalities, and Revenge in the Fall of Béla Kun’, The Russian Review, 67, 3: 454–83.

Hevesi, Gyula 1959, Egy mérnök a forradalomban: négy évtized történelmi időkben, Budapest: Európa Könyvkiadó.

Hungarian Spectrum 2018, ‘In Place of Imre Nagy, a Memorial for the Victims of Red Terror’, 30 December, available at: <…;.

Lukács, Georg 2022 [1969], ‘Georg Lukács: The Final Interview’, Verso Blog, 24 March, available at: <…;.

Sinkó, Ervin 2018, The Novel of a Novel: Abridged Diary Entries from Moscow, 1935–1937, edited and translated by George Deák, Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.

[1]Hungarian Spectrum 2018.

[2] Sinkó 2018.

[3] See

[4] Hevesi 1959.

[5] Lukács 2022.

[6] Chase 2008.

[7] This is how the anti-communist historian Dmitrii Volkogonov used to describe Trotsky.