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Hungary: How Liberty Can Be Lost

Tyrannies always collapse, but whether Hungarians will escape with their sanity and sufficient clarity for a new start remains to be seen

Agnes Heller died last week. Judith Friedlander’s tribute to Heller can be read here

This is an abridgment of an essay published in Social Research, Vol. 86, No. 1, Spring 2019.

As the Bible (Exodus) teaches and, more recently, Hannah Arendt warns, liberation is not yet liberty. The institutions of liberty must first be constituted, and people need to learn how to make them work while breathing spirit into them.

The years 1989–1991 were a time of liberation for all the people of Eastern Europe who had suffered totalitarian political systems and ideological indoctrination under Soviet domination. The future, the fate, of all liberated nations depended on the success or failure of transforming liberation into liberty. Some of the just-liberated nations did fairly well, others less so. In Hungary in 1989, enthusiasm for system change was great among intellectuals who were spiritually starving for liberty. A considerable part of the population shared this enthusiasm, believing that the establishment of democratic institutions would immediately lead to the Western standard of living. Thus, they expected a far better life.

For a while, all previously Soviet-dominated countries were developing in a similar direction. Later, however, differences became as important as similarities. The Hungarian case proved unique, since only Hungary went through a second system change, not only de facto but also de jure. The prime minister of Hungary, Victor Orbán, described the result of the second system change as “illiberal democracy” and as “the system of national collaboration” (I discuss this more below).

The result proves that, in Hungary, a great opportunity was wasted and aborted: the opportunity to let liberal democracy take root in Hungarian soil. Instead, Hungarians seem to have relied on a longstanding tradition of following a leader, expecting everything from above, believing, or pretending to believe, everything they are told, mixed with a kind of fatalistic cynicism of the impossibility of things being otherwise.

A story is always a story of choices. It was not written in the stars that Hungary would fare worst among all post-Soviet states or that it would be the most radical in its elimination of freedom of the press or balance of power in government and wind up with a system I call tyranny. Tyranny is not a form of state (like democracy or fascism or communism) but a type of rule, where a single person (generally male) decides everything that happens in a country and nothing can happen against this single person’s will. The first system change in Hungary, after 1989, established a multiparty approach, whereas during the second system change, after 2010, the opposite tendency took over. The dominant party, Fidesz, is now no more than a mechanism for executing the will, the decisions, and the opinions of the ruler, in much the same way as the Communist Party in Hungary was no party but a mechanism for executing the will of the Central Committee, and thus the will of Moscow.

Of course, no other country controls the Hungarian prime minister. The contemporary Hungarian government is not subjected to command or control from outside. Its choices are its own, its decisions likewise. The political environment is also very different. Hungary is surrounded in the west (at least until now) by liberal democracies and is a member of the European Union. If Hungary is pressured from outside at all, it is slightly being pushed to re-establish the rule of law — albeit to no avail.

Although it was not written in the stars that this would happen, the possibility of relapse into a kind to tyranny was nevertheless there from the beginning. How did it happen and why?

First of all, liberation came to Hungary as a gift. Other than a few thousand intellectuals, no one fought for it or did anything to make it happen. Representatives of the old communist party and of the new parties sat at a round table and decided the future of the country, the character of its institutions, and how its “peaceful transition” would take place. The general population was excluded from the hard work of the transition (far more than in Romania or Czechoslovakia, for example) and consequently did not receive the education that inclusion in the process would have provided. In essence, Hungarians received liberty for free, but nothing is ever truly for free. Sooner or later one must pay, and that time has come for Hungary.

The main parties responsible for the system change in 1989–1992 were the Association of Free Democrats (SZDSZ) and the Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF). SZDSZ was founded and led by liberal intellectuals, primarily from Budapest, samizdat publishers, and organizers of oppositional actions, who drew their initial strength from having been the major opponents of the Kádár regime. Yet after the system change, only a small percentage of voters supported the party because of its liberal principles. Rather, SZDSZ gained support because it was perceived as the most radical enemy of communism — and rightly so, since it organized and led the first free plebiscite and earned majority support for its rejection of a presidential system.

MDF, on the other hand, was a kind of conservative national nostalgia party. It was well established in smaller cities, re-establishing some continuity with pre-communist Hungary. Its leaders were also committed to a Western model of liberal democratic institutions, so Hungary would probably have profited most from a coalition government formed by these two parties that might better have handled the sometimes painful reforms. However, the presidents of both parties rejected this proposal. Doing so was their first mistake, and it led to their final downfall.

Viktor Orbán, the leading figure in another little liberal party, Fidesz (Party of the Young Democrats), sensed at that point a new opportunity. He realized that his party would not gain significant power on the left (where it then stood) because that space was already occupied. He saw, however, an unoccupied place on the right, due to the significant losses of the conservatives (MDF) in the 1994 elections. Thus he moved his party to the right. In the following elections in 1998, he made an alliance with Kisgazda Párt (the Free-Holders Party), a former right-wing associate of the MDF, and won power through this party’s help. Even in those early days, Orbán showed his true face: he destroyed Kisgazda Párt and its leader, without whom he would not have become prime minister.

Since the terms of a prime minister, unlike that of a president, are unlimited, a prime minister can rule not as a president but as a king. It is not unusual, even within Hungarian history, for the same party to be repeatedly re-elected, but not with the same prime minister. For example, the dominating party in autocratic Hungary (Miklós Horthy’s time) produced six prime ministers in 20 years, whereas Fidesz, up to now, has produced only a single one: Orbán, who has been in power for 12 years.

The project was there from the beginning, and so was the power to realize it, yet it had to be realized step by step. First came the new constitution (the Fundamental Law) with a strongly ideological (right wing) “historical” preamble. Although it was a purely Fidesz constitution that had no support from the opposition (half the population), it was amended every time Fidesz wanted to pass an unconstitutional law. The function of the Constitutional Court, former pride of the new democratic Hungarian republic, was changed along with the process of electing judges. Freedom of the press was limited, and state-owned media became from the first moment the instrument of Fidesz propaganda. The traditional opposition newspaper Szabad Nép was shut down and the almost-objective conservative newspaper Magyar Nemzet was discontinued. Almost all local newspapers were in Fidesz’s hands, as was one of the two commercial channels (channel 2) on television. One single radio station was, after a long battle, left for the opposition, and half of a television channel was granted to them by a Christian denomination, the Community of Faith (Hit Gyülekezete). As a result, 90 percent of the Hungarian population was left with access only to Fidesz propaganda. And as we know, only a well-informed public, not a brainwashed one, can make rational political decisions.

Brainwashing has also been going on since the beginning by means of so-called “national consultation” questionnaires distributed by the government to all Hungarians. These questionnaires ask a few questions to which only one answer can be given, questions I would not dare ask a four-year-old child. The obvious agenda behind the practice of “national consultation” is to demonstrate popular support for the government (since no other answer can be given than the one required by it); the less obvious agenda is brainwashing to create obedient subjects.

Hannah Arendt was the first to discuss (in her 1951 book, The Origins of Totalitarianism) the transformation of class societies into mass societies. In the Soviet-ruled territory, the transformation happened suddenly, violently, and rapidly. In other parts of Europe, the transformation was slower. In liberal democracies of mass societies where governments, that is, the representatives, were elected by popular vote, the motivations behind voting preferences were changed. This is easy to see if one casts a glance at the most representative cases, Italy and France. For many, many decades, the same parties competed in those countries for the support of the electorate. Class affiliations (wages, taxes, employment, and so forth) and family traditions were the most decisive factors for the voters, and parties campaigned accordingly. Traditional parties can follow this familiar path — even the renewal of the welfare state promise fails to attract the attention of the electorate. The old slogans sound empty. The poor are not a unified class, so they have no class interests. As a result, traditional parties lost support (both conservatives and socialists), and new parties appeared from nowhere. The stability of the multiparty system was lost; everything became fluid and labile. Ideologies began to take the place of interests. Again, once again, sound the warning.

A state where the government was legitimated through electoral victory by a majority vote was once called “democracy,” and rightly so. Yet nowadays, in many places of our world, the same tyrants are elected and re-elected several times by a majority. And they are not democratic states; they are tyrannies. Now, only liberal democracies — states characterized by the division of power, by checks and balances, with respect for and practice of all civil liberties — can be termed democracies. “Illiberal democracy” is no democracy.

If the old parties are collapsing and being replaced by new parties without a face or tradition, if tyrants can be elected and re-elected several times by a majority, if wealth is distributed in reverse, what motivates people to strive? The answer is simple: ideology combined with identity politics. Fukuyama, in his new book, Identity (2018), put his finger on the overwhelming influence of identity politics, and not only in tyrannies. Identity politics (in the plural) can differ widely from each other, depending on the kind of “identity” upon which they are based. Since I’m speaking of the Hungarian case, I have the most typical and most traditional European identity politics in mind. Since World War I, the dominating forms of identity in Europe have been the nation, nation-state, and “national identity.” National identity can be based on citizenship, but in the Hungarian case (and in most European cases) it is ethnic — nationalism is ethnic nationalism, which is not yet racism, but it can become so.

Ideologies can be positive. By “positive,” I do not intend a value judgment (good, progressive, or the like). Rather, positive ideologies are those that promise something for the future: radical changes, classless society, an earth without pollution, world domination, a welfare state, the happiness of all. Positive ideologies — the benevolent ones and the dangerous ones alike — have their own intellectual ideologists; they can be supported by scientists, poets, philosophers, a kind of cultural elite. The ideologies of modern tyrannies are, however, negative — they operate against or in opposition to something rather than working toward something; they have no support from intellectual culture. The Hungarian elections under Orbán exemplify this very well.

Orbán addresses only ethnic Hungarians, and among ethnic Hungarians only his own following. He does not concern himself with members of the opposition at all.

Tyrannies always collapse, but whether Hungarians will escape with their sanity and sufficient clarity for a new start remains to be seen. In November 2018, in order to remain a member of the most powerful faction of the European Parliament, Orbán signed a declaration asserting Fidesz’s alliance with the center-right European People’s Party, thereby committing to liberal democracy, the rule of law, and respect for civil organization. Yet it is no secret, for Orbán has declared as much in many of his speeches, that his aim is to shift this faction, and perhaps the whole EU, in the direction of illiberalism and ethnic nationalism. One does not need to indulge in much fantasy to believe that since ethnic nationalism never unites but always divides, Orbán’s project is the death knell for the EU.

The EU is the last chance for continental Europe to remain a politically and culturally important player in the world theater. If the Union fails, Europe will have a past but no present, and even less of a future. It will be transformed into a museum.

Agnes Heller is a Hungarian philosopher and lecturer. She was a core member of the Budapest School philosophical forum in the nineteen-sixties and later taught political theory for 25 years at the New School for Social Research in New York City. Originally published in Social Research Vol. 86, No. 1, Spring 2019. Click here to read the complete article.

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