[Marxism] Hungarian politics

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Jun 13 10:01:12 MDT 2012


Longing for Greater Hungary
Jan-Werner Müller

In the 1980s Hungary was known as the ‘merriest barracks in the 
socialist camp’. After the suppression of the 1956 uprising by the 
Red Army, János Kádár instituted what became known as ‘goulash 
communism’, characterised by a policy of ‘little freedoms’: 
Hungarians could travel abroad, trade privately and say what they 
liked, so long as they didn’t attack the regime directly. Kádár, 
the illegitimate son of a half-Slovak chambermaid, managed to 
persuade the Hungarians to see him as a plain-spoken ‘father of 
the people’. He punished the revolutionaries, promoted his 
critics, encouraged consumerism and turned totalitarian logic 
upside down by claiming that ‘whoever is not against us is with 
us.’ The country’s exit from state socialism was among the 
smoothest in Eastern Europe. Hungary spent the 1990s as a model 
pupil of the West, finally joining the EU in 2004. Now, almost a 
decade on, it is led by the charismatic, self-declared ‘right-wing 
plebeian’ Viktor Orbán, a man whom critics charge with the 
‘Putinisation’ of Hungary. Thanks to his government’s undermining 
of the rule of law, Hungary risks being the first EU member state 
to be sanctioned for violating ‘shared European values’. In 
central Budapest paramilitaries in black uniforms patrol the 
streets – they are supposedly ‘fighting Gypsy crime’ – and 
tourists emerging from the beautifully restored Fin de Siècle 
Kaffeehäuser are liable to find themselves facing an angry crowd 
burning the EU flag. What happened? And why in Hungary?

Some intellectuals in the country think the answer is 
straightforward: Hungarians never really became democrats. First 
under the Ottomans, then under the Habsburgs, and on through the 
20th century’s experiments with right-wing and left-wing 
authoritarianism, they relied on informal arrangements that 
enabled them to bypass official structures. There’s still a large 
shadow economy and widespread tax evasion. The salient causes of 
the current crisis, however, are to be found in the history of the 
past two decades: the peculiar nature of the transition from 
communism, which Hungarians simply call ‘the changes’; the long 
decline and recent discrediting of both the social democrats and 
the liberals; and the paradoxical figure of Orbán, who has 
dominated Hungarian politics since the mid-1990s.

As elsewhere in the former Soviet bloc, the transition to liberal 
democracy was negotiated round a table; unlike elsewhere, however, 
the participants decided to leave the 1949 Stalinist constitution 
in place, merely amending it section by section – according to a 
contemporary joke, the only article left unchanged was the one 
that said ‘Budapest is the capital of Hungary.’ The first 
post-communist government, headed by the Christian Democrat 
historian József Antall, promised to rule with ‘calm authority’ 
and got on splendidly with the ex-communists. It did little to 
change the state apparatus or the economy, but kept itself busy by 
waging war on the media and debating whether to recognise the 
‘knightly orders’ created during the authoritarian interwar regime 
of Miklós Horthy. It even made timid moves towards rehabilitating 
Horthy himself. But people weren’t interested in symbolic changes: 
they wanted Budapest to be more like Vienna (only three hours away 
by train and a place many Hungarians, availing themselves of their 
‘little freedoms’, had been able to visit before 1989).

In 1994, they voted overwhelmingly for the ‘expertise’ promised by 
the Socialist Party. The ex-communists entered into a coalition 
with their former enemies, the liberal dissidents, whose Alliance 
of Free Democrats – led by a group of academics and intellectuals 
– had the support of around 20 per cent of the electorate. It was 
this nominally social-liberal government that got serious about 
introducing capitalism. Plagued by corruption scandals, it was 
kicked out in 1998, and Orbán took office.

Orbán comes from the provinces. In a country where there is a 
deeply entrenched split between rural communities and a capital 
which, like Vienna, is far too large in proportion to the rest of 
the country, people from the countryside sometimes refer to 
themselves as ‘deep Hungarians’, in contrast to the ‘shallow’ 
(code for left-wing, cosmopolitan or Jewish, or all three) 
residents of Budapest. In 1988, Orbán was one of the founders of a 
dissident group called the Alliance of Young Democrats (Fidesz). 
‘Young’ was meant literally: nobody over 35 was allowed to join. 
Its members – mostly law students, mostly from the countryside – 
were libertarians who admired Margaret Thatcher. In 1989, Orbán, 
with long hair, stubble and an open white shirt, gave a rousing 
speech in Heroes’ Square at the reburial of Imre Nagy, the reform 
socialist who was condemned to death by a Soviet-backed ‘people’s 
court’ in 1958. What most people remember about the speech is that 
Orbán told the Russians to go home; what is often forgotten is 
that he also deviated from his script and accused the communists 
of having stolen the lives of every Hungarian generation since 1956.

Orbán went to Oxford on a Soros scholarship later that year – 
according to his website he ‘studied the history of British 
liberal political philosophy’. He soon realised that Fidesz’s 
programme was not a vote-winner. When a political space opened up 
on the right, as Antall’s party became less popular, he reinvented 
himself as a nationalist and a committed Christian, who would 
protect the Hungarian economy from the evils of global capitalism. 
During his first four years in office he destroyed and then 
absorbed the other parties on the right. Churches were restored, a 
bombastic national theatre was built on the banks of the Danube, 
corruption was rife – and despite occasional protectionist noises, 
foreign capital flowed into the country. It came as a genuine 
shock to Orbán when, in 2002, the socialists, headed by the former 
finance minister and banker Péter Medgyessy, defeated him at the 
polls. His response was to set up ‘civic committees’ across the 
country, which served almost as rivals to the institutions of the 
state. It was a quasi-dissident strategy, unusual in a functioning 
liberal democracy, and it was backed up with populist rhetoric: 
the nation itself, Orbán declared, could not be in opposition.

But in opposition it stayed, even after Medgyessy – gentlemanly, 
but lacking political nous – was replaced in 2004 by the 
charismatic Ferenc Gyurcsány, the son of a working-class single 
mother, a former leader in the communist youth organisation and, 
it’s said, the 60th richest man in the country. Medgyessy had 
recklessly expanded the welfare state; Gyurcsány tried to balance 
the books. In a speech to a party meeting behind closed doors in 
May 2006, not long after his coalition’s election victory, he 
admonished his fellow socialists: they had been lying to the 
country about the state of the economy – ‘no country in Europe has 
screwed up as much as we have.’ It was time to tell people to 
tighten their belts, even at the risk of losing seats in the 
upcoming local elections. He predicted that the socialists would 
see their support decline, but eventually win it back.
Clockwise from top left: Vona, Medgyessy, Antall, Orbán, Gyurcsány
Clockwise from top left: Vona, Medgyessy, Antall, Orbán, Gyurcsány

He was right about the first part. His speech was leaked around 
the time of the 50th anniversary of the 1956 uprising – it is 
still unclear by whom. People took to the streets in protest. Some 
wanted to re-enact 1956, and waved national flags with a circle 
cut out in the middle, just as the symbols of state socialism had 
been cut out of banners fifty years earlier. A pensioner 
commandeered a tank from a 1956 commemorative exhibition and drove 
it at a police cordon but ran out of fuel. The police were not 
used to demonstrations like this – after 1956, street violence was 
taboo – and overreacted. Orbán encouraged the protesters and 
demanded Gyurcsány’s resignation, calling him a ‘pathological 
liar’. Gyurcsány limped on for another two and a half years, 
before handing over to a technocrat. He had wanted to be the Blair 
or Schröder of Eastern Europe, but his failed modernisation 
project – supposedly inspired by Anthony Giddens – and bribery 
scandals involving both socialists and liberals, led people 
instead to equate the left with capitalism and corruption. Every 
Saturday, menacing groups of men, young and old, dressed in black 
would gather outside parliament to blast out nationalist rock 
music and wave red and white Arpád flags (named after one of 
Hungary’s founding fathers but by now associated with the Arrow 
Cross, a homegrown fascist party that formed a Nazi puppet 
government after Hitler pushed Horthy aside, and gave Eichmann 
free rein to deport the Jews). Inside parliament, Orbán and his 
followers would ostentatiously get up and leave every time 
Gyurcsány was about to speak.

In the 2010 elections Fidesz won 53 per cent of the vote, which, 
under Hungary’s highly disproportionate voting system, resulted in 
a two-thirds majority in parliament. The socialists came second, 
with just under 20 per cent, closely followed by Gábor Vona’s 
Jobbik, the Movement for a Better Hungary, an extreme right-wing 
party with its own militia, the Hungarian Guard. The party of the 
left-liberal intelligentsia was wiped out, along with Antall’s old 
party. Orbán was quick to declare the election a ‘revolution at 
the ballot box’ and claimed it gave him a mandate to create a 
‘system of national co-operation’, the principles of which – 
‘work, home, family, health and order’ – were listed on a sheet of 
paper to be displayed prominently in every government office.

Orbán had outlined his vision in a speech in 2009: Hungary was 
suffering from a crippling political polarisation and a 
Kulturkampf that had consumed the nation’s energies; it needed a 
‘central force’ that would keep left-wing and right-wing 
extremists under control and steer the country for the next twenty 
years. But the first thing Fidesz did on entering office was to 
unleash a new culture war: a national holiday was declared to 
commemorate the Trianon Treaty of 1920, which took away two-thirds 
of Hungary’s former territory; a proper reckoning with the 
communist past was called for (even though Fidesz itself is partly 
responsible for the fact that Hungary is the only post-communist 
country where the archives remain closed); the square in front of 
parliament is being cleared of undesirable monuments, including 
the statue of the ‘Red Count’ Mihály Károlyi, who had declared 
Hungary a republic in 1918 and pushed for land reform; government 
control over secondary schools is being centralised; an openly 
anti-semitic intellectual has been appointed director of one of 
Budapest’s most famous theatres; Agnes Heller and a number of 
other philosophers have been accused of defrauding the state; and 
Gyurcsány has been threatened with prosecution for irresponsible 
financial behaviour while in office. The government has proposed 
new media regulations: coverage should be ‘balanced’ and protect 
majorities as well as minorities; a body effectively appointed by 
Fidesz will punish newspapers, and radio and TV stations, that 
don’t comply, with fines big enough to put them out of business.

Fidesz also announced its determination to bury Stalinism by 
drafting a new constitution, and last spring the government sent 
out questionnaires to find out what the people wanted from it. 
It’s not clear how many responded or what they said, but by Easter 
the constitution had been drawn up and signed by the president and 
was ready to come into effect on 1 January this year. Some called 
it the ‘Easter constitution’, but the name that stuck was the 
‘iPad constitution’: the document had allegedly been drafted by a 
Fidesz MEP on a tablet.

No other party was involved in drafting the constitution, and 
several European institutions have found fault with it. The new 
Fundamental Law and its ‘cardinal laws’ undermine the independence 
of the judiciary and prevent economic decisions from being 
reviewed either by parliament or by the constitutional court. The 
bombastic new preamble, or National Avowal of Faith, defines the 
nation in terms of ethnicity: it highlights the 
‘nation-preserving’ role of Christianity (though fewer than 20 per 
cent of Hungarians go to church); and it asserts that the entire 
period from March 1944 to 1990 was one of foreign occupation. Not 
only does this equate fascism and communism, it also ignores the 
fact that anti-semitic legislation predated the German occupation 
and that Horthy remained in office until October 1944.

Fidesz’s defence of the constitution has been consistent: every 
element in it, they claim, has an equivalent in a liberal 
democracy that is above suspicion. But the parts add up to a 
deeply illiberal whole: even if Fidesz loses an election, it will 
never lose power. The party has appointed its followers to serve 
unusually long terms on nominally independent boards that can 
constrain elected politicians (by vetoing the budget, for 
instance, or controlling judicial appointments). The wife of the 
man who drafted the Fundamental Law on his iPad (an Orbán family 
friend) has been made head of the National Court Office: she is 
empowered to assign cases to any court in the country and hire 
judges without being accountable to anyone. Her tenure is for nine 

Meanwhile, the country remains, whatever Fidesz’s claims, on the 
verge of bankruptcy and in desperate need of support from the EU 
and IMF, but negotiations stalled after Fidesz increased state 
control of the central bank. The Hungarian Guard has been 
officially outlawed, but members of the Civil Guard Association 
for a Better Future – the same organisation under a different name 
– parade openly in the streets. Fidesz has been playing a 
dangerous game with the extreme right: internationally, the party 
presents itself as the only force capable of holding Jobbik at 
bay; domestically, its own Kulturkampf vindicates Jobbik’s 
nationalist grievances. Many Hungarians, even among the middle 
classes, remain obsessed with the Trianon Treaty, which is 
sometimes blamed on a Jewish conspiracy, or on Clemenceau’s hatred 
for his Hungarian daughter-in-law, or on Károlyi’s cowardice, but 
never on the policy of forced Magyarisation to which minorities 
were subjected under the Habsburgs. According to some estimates, 
every twentieth car in Hungary sports a sticker in the shape of 
Greater Hungary – Hungary before Trianon. Liberal Hungarians point 
out that this doesn’t necessarily mean the driver wants to annex 
Croatia, but such symbols have proliferated in recent years, and 
the outline of Greater Hungary has appeared on T-shirts, trinkets 
and jewellery.

Jobbik is peculiar even by the standards of Europe’s extreme 
right-wing parties: one of its politicians recently gave a speech 
in parliament requesting that a 19th-century anti-semitic blood 
libel be reinvestigated as the case hadn’t been resolved; many of 
its members believe that Hungary took a wrong turn in the year 
1000, when King Stephen established Christianity in the country; 
many of them subscribe to the ideology of Turanism, which 
celebrates the Hungarians’ ethnic origins in the steppes of 
Central Asia. The party invited Iran to send Revolutionary Guards 
to Hungary in 2010 as election observers. Its most prominent 
deputy in the European Parliament – a former law professor and 
women’s rights activist who taught in America and sat on a UN 
committee – told Hungarian Jews to shut up and play with their 
little circumcised dicks instead of criticising her.

In 2010, Orbán won the votes of pensioners and people on benefits 
who had recoiled from the socialists’ austerity programmes. He 
slapped ‘crisis taxes’ on foreign companies and nationalised 
private pensions (originally a socialist initiative). But he also 
made savage cuts to the welfare state, which means that even 
people uninterested in the finer details of Turanism might well 
turn to Jobbik as the loudest voice of protest. The mainstream 
opposition parties are a shambles: the socialists have split and 
Gyurcsány has formed a new party, the Democratic Coalition, which 
he hopes will carry through his modernisation project. Gyurcsány 
has real political talent, but like Clinton and Blair will always 
seem untrustworthy. A new, Greenish party called Politics Can Be 
Different has yet to decide what it wants: to remain untainted and 
refuse to be part of a coalition, or to join in. The opposition’s 
most plausible leader might be Gordon Bajnai, the technocrat who 
took over from Gyurcsány, but he doesn’t have a party.

Left-liberal political discourse can’t be revived as though 
nothing had happened. The former dissident G.M. Tamás – once a 
liberal, then a Burkean conservative and now a Marxist – has 
pointed out that the dissidents’ human-rights-centred liberalism 
of the early 1990s ignored the plight of the victims of 
post-communism: ‘We, the froth at the top of it, were celebrating 
the triumph of freedom and openness and plurality and fantasy and 
pleasure and all that. It was frivolous, and I am deeply ashamed.’

Even if a broad anti-Fidesz alliance – which few people think 
could include Jobbik – were to win the next election in 2014, it 
is unlikely to muster the two-thirds majority needed to change the 
constitution. A left-wing government would find itself in a 
Fidesz-designed straitjacket, obstructed by the ‘independent’ 
boards. Orbán retains an iron grip: he is rumoured to have a 
signed resignation letter from each of his potential rivals for 
the leadership. But he is also a pragmatist, willing to reshape 
his ideology for the sake of power, as he did in the 1990s. He is 
not bent on resurrecting the Horthy regime, as some foreign 
commentators have claimed, nor is he an anti-semite. He might be 
susceptible to outside pressure, if it’s intelligently applied.

Brussels was slow to comment on events in Hungary. The European 
Commission eventually criticised Fidesz’s media law and has 
threatened to cut cohesion funds – infrastructure subsidies for 
poorer member states. But the EU is ill-equipped to meet the 
political challenge presented by Orbán. Even worse, some of the 
EU’s recent actions have reinforced the impression that Europe 
acts only if the rights of multinationals and banks are at stake: 
Brussels gave the green light to negotiations over new IMF loans 
only after central bank independence had been assured. Concerns 
over the independence of the judiciary will be dealt with by the 
European Court, which usually takes for ever. Suspicion of 
Brussels has been encouraged by Orbán, who compares the EU to 
previous occupiers, from the Ottomans to the Russians, and 
complains that ‘they are trying to tell us how to live.’

Some of the pronouncements from Brussels and Strasbourg have, it’s 
true, sounded patronising. Europeanisation has not been an unmixed 
blessing. By the time Hungary acceded to the EU, many European 
companies were looking to find ever cheaper labour further east. 
Hungary’s high streets have been taken over by assorted German and 
Austrian chain stores. Goods sold in Budapest are 
indistinguishable from those sold in Berlin or Vienna, and often 
have prices to match, though Hungarian incomes are very much lower.

If the challenge is essentially political, what should Europe’s 
politicians be doing? The European People’s Party, the umbrella 
organisation for centre-right parties (of which Orbán is a 
vice-president) has been reluctant to speak out against one of its 
own. Merkel is said to have been critical behind closed doors, but 
some of her closest allies – the minister-president of Bavaria in 
particular – keep praising the plucky Hungarian prime minister. 
UKIP meanwhile has posted a video of a confrontation between 
Fidesz and some MEPs on YouTube and captioned it with a football 
score: Hungary 1, EU 0.

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