“Lovely dreams, hard awakening”

This is the title of an article by Mária Vásárhelyi, a sociologist, in Élet és Irodalom, a prestigious liberal weekly. After the landslide victory of Fidesz in April, Hungarian intellectuals interested in politics were seeking answers: how could it be possible that Hungarians turned away not just from the socialist-liberal coalition that had been in power for eight years but against the regime change of 1989-1990 as well.

Rudolf Ungváry started the debate with a couple of articles in Népszabadság and HVG. He found the answer in the inherently conservative nature of Hungarian society. That theory attracted a fairly lengthy debate that can be followed in galamus.hu. There the debate centered around the Horthy regime and whether or not its aura and its set of values have survived forty years of communist dictatorship.

Mária Vásárhelyi looks elsewhere for the origins of Viktor Orbán's success at the polls, namely in the Kádár regime. According to her, Orbán discovered that in today's Hungary the key to political success is an appeal to the Kádár regime's benefits, some of which were real while others by now are merely imagined.

People today in their forties and fifties are those lucky ones who became adults in the late 70s and 80s when the average citizen didn't feel the force of the dictatorship and when there was total job security as well as new opportunities to succeed economically. These opportunities were modest, but the bon mot of the Kádár regime that "those who work will prosper" was true. The statistics support this contention. Unemployment was unknown, the GDP kept pace with western European standards, and until the mid-80s inflation was lower than in Italy, France, or England. In Hungary more apartments were built than in Austria or Belgium and there were more doctors per capita than in Austria, Norway, Finland, or the Netherlands.

The population's self-respect was at an all time high. People looked at the other socialist countries and they could be more than satisfied with their lot. In the 1980s the Hungarians led the socialist bloc when it came to TV sets, cars, even the number of telephones. Admittedly, East Germans and the Czechoslovaks were better endowed with consumer goods, but there the regimes were oppressive as opposed to the Hungarian situation. Hungarians were happy to give up some consumer goods in exchange for relative freedom and lack of harrassment.

Then came 1989-1990. Hungarian society didn't have to make any sacrifices for democracy. In fact, no one asked them whether they really wanted it or not. In Hungary there was neither a bloody nor a velvet revolution. In Hungary "the change of regime just happened."

What the change of regime took away from Hungarians were "the two most important bases of the Kádár regime's legitimacy: security and existential perspectives." In their place it offered freedom, democracy, and competition. For most people this was no real compensation. To this day the majority of Hungarians (60%) think that they are the victims of the regime change. And not just victims as individuals but victims as citizens of a country. While in the Kádár regime they could be proud of Hungary's position within the Soviet bloc, they ended up as poor relatives. "The self-respect of the nation suddenly was in crisis."

It was from this set of circumstances Viktor Orbán discovered what the nation really wants. His populist slogans included promises that couldn't be fulfilled: full employment, renationalization, political retribution, and redressing of historical grievances. At the same time, especially in the last few years, Orbán has been denying the very fact that there was real regime change twenty years ago and by that denial he has managed to attract to his cause "the people of János Kádár." According to Vásárhelyi, the leaders of Fidesz discovered already in 2002, after the lost elections, that "for political success one has to conduct politics not against the people of Kádár but for them." (That may explain the failure of Ferenc Gyurcsány who tried to teach "Kádár's people" that in this new world the old Kádárist attitudes could no longer be maintained.)

Here Vásárhelyi rightly points out "the cognitive chaos" that exists in Hungarian heads since "for a long time by now the insatiable nostalgia for the Kádár regime has happily coexisted with the demand for retribution against the political leaders of the same regime." According to these people anyone who had anything to do with the maintenance of that regime should not only be banished from politics but should be dragged to court and possibly put in jail.

Lately we've heard quite a bit from Viktor Orbán about "the self-determination of Hungarians" and Hungary's "economic freedom." Again here Orbán is simply keeping his finger on the nation's pulse. It's hard to imagine but two-thirds of Hungarians still think that "the country is serving the interests of foreign powers."

Vásárhelyi is also trying to find an answer to Orbán's frequent references to "revolution." She thinks that Orbán is reacting here to the shrinking self-esteem of Hungarians. Orbán is reminding them that after all they created a revolution in the voting booth. They were instrumental in a revolutionary change of which they ought to be proud. He has been talking about revolution at least since 2006. Not just any old revolution but "a permanent revolution." But he also often mentions agrarian revolution, tax revolution, and cultural revolution. But eventually these too frequent references to a nonexistent "revolution" will become meaningless.

What Orbán is doing is not revolution but "counterrevolution pure and simple." He really wants to turn the clock back. Vásárhelyi warns that it is not as easy nowadays as Orbán thinks. Because Hungary is now a member of the European Union whose foundation is "freedom and democracy." The community that made Hungary the "happiest barracks" no longer exists. She adds that the Soviet empire was a real oddity where "the inhabitants of the colonized countries lived better than the people of the colonizers." Hungary's relative well being was ensured by the Soviet Union whose interests required the maintenance of stable satellite states. Thus, the much hated Soviet Union provided that relatively high standard of living that is the source of the nostalgia for the Kádár regime.

There is no more Soviet Union, there is no Soviet empire that could prop up Hungary. Borrowing recklessly is no longer an option. Hungarians simply have to stand on their own two feet. "In order for the inhabitants of Hungary to live better in the long run, they have to rely on their own resources." A political strategy that "is based on the fanning of dissatisfaction with the change of regime and on the promise of the reconstruction of the circumstances of the Kádár regime can be successful in the short term but its failure in the long run is certain. Perhaps that inevitable failure will lead to the realization on the part of Hungarians that the only chance of increasing their economic well being is their own accomplishments."

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Mark
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“The statistics support this contention. Unemployment was unknown, the GDP kept pace with western European standards, and until the mid-80s inflation was lower than in Italy, France, or England. In Hungary more apartments were built than in Austria or Belgium and there were more doctors per capita than in Austria, Norway, Finland, or the Netherlands.” Not quite. Unemployment was unknown, but GDP did not keep pace with that of western Europe – and least not when GDP is properly calculated according to a comparable methodology with the calculations of its western European neighbours. In 1950, Hungary was broadly comparable to those states on western Europe’s southern periphery – Spain, Greece, or Portugal – according to such calculations. It fell behind Portugal – the poorest of those states – in 1970, and fell continuously relative to them right down to 1993. While Hungary’s growth rates were lower than western Europe’s southern periphery, they were higher under Kádár than they have been in the period since 1989. The data is here: http://www.google.com/publicdata?ds=wb-wdi&met=ny_gdp_mktp_kd_zg&idim=country:HUN&dl=en&hl=en&q=GDP%20growth%20Hungary From what I know of real median wages I would be surprised if they are not roughly where they were in 1989 now. When we add rising income inequality to… Read more »
whoever
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The reason why liberals don’t quite ‘get it’ in Hungary stems, I believe, from the mindwarping effects of communism itself, where liberals are in fact only ‘post-communist pseudo-liberals.’ Acceptance of a reductionist and crude form of capitalism – check ‘based on their own accomplishments’ – what kind of theory of political economy is this?! – stems itself from a ‘mute acceptance’ of power relationships, a compliance with authority. The IMF is illustrative, where ‘liberals’ pay homage to a kind of global establishment, regardless of prescription. It’s a savage irony. If we take a slightly deeper look at the nature of capitalism, we know that its success relies on people with the gall and resources to challenge existing ways of doing things. This is backed up not only by Weberian analysis of the Protestant work ethic, but also by Marx, who saw capitalism and bourgeois society as a revolution in itself, with a dynamic which attacked conservatism and existing orthodoxies. Here’s the theory then. In Hungary, liberals support economic orthodoxy, often reflecting their own deeply inculturated compliance and deferential approach to authority. However, the lack of a questioning approach which would challenge all such orthodoxies, also undermines the entrepreneurial instincts which… Read more »
PassingStranger
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“There is no more Soviet Union, there is no Soviet empire that could prop up Hungary.”
Clearly, Orbán hopes the EU will take on this role. The question is what will be worse to Brussels: state bankrupcy of a small member state, or being held hostage by Orbán. I’m apt to thinkt European leaders will not care about what Hungary brings onto itself. However, the debilitating effects of Hungary’s collapse in the region may be an effective deterrent to letting Orbán slide. So, his gamble might yet pay off.

Member
The belief that the country if being run by and for the benefit of outside forces is creating the psychological environment for economic collapse. If Hungarians believe that their problems flow from being the passive victims of a conspiracy by others, then their solutions will focus on fighting that conspiracy. If the “conspiracy” is merely the operation of the free market then fighting the conspiracy is really just trying to fight reality and therefore does nothing to solve their problems and will probably make them worse. It is an irony that Hungary, the country that probably suffered least from communism, is now basically trying to return to the same reality denying fantasy mode of politics that gave us communism in the first place. In a broader historical perspective, nationalism was very much the communism of its day in the early 19th century. All of the utopian dreams that later became attached to internationalist communism were originally projected onto nationalism. The early nationalists didn’t forsee conflicts between nations because they were blinded by the fantasy, just as the communists didn’t forsee that humans just aren’t clever enough to control the economy. We shouldn’t therefore be too surprised by what is happening… Read more »
Mark
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“Hungary’s relative well being was ensured by the Soviet Union whose interests required the maintenance of stable satellite states. Thus, the much hated Soviet Union provided that relatively high standard of living that is the source of the nostalgia for the Kádár regime.” I think this is such a crude stereotype of the economic history of the period as to be at best meaningless, and at worst grossly misleading. I do really wish that some of those people who write opinion pieces in the newspapers would actually do so with reference to some facts, rather than fiction rooted in their ideological prejudices. The issue of inter-bloc and Hungarian-Soviet economic relations is a complex and an historically variable one. Vásárhelyi’s factual errors are basic – according to the best historical calculations of real GDP per capita we have, it was actually higher across the former Soviet Union than in Hungary for the most of the socialist period (Hungary overtook the Soviet Union on this measure only in 1981-2). If one looks at the evidence for most of the first half of the post-war period Hungarian and Soviet growth rates were broadly similar; it is only after 1970 that Hungarian growth rates… Read more »
pgyzs
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I’m apt to thinkt European leaders will not care about what Hungary brings onto itself.
This sounds easy but as it has been pointed out clearly many times, e.g the Austrian banking sector would suffere severe consequences of a Hungarian break down. EU surely has to find an other way to get revenge on Orbán.

PassingStranger
Guest

@Mark,
What is ironic, is that there are two contradictory ideologically motivated myths going round. The one is, as noted, that the Soviet Union propped up Hungary’s dictatorship through aid disguised as trade. The other is that Hungary was little more than a Soviet colony, robbed blind during communism of its natural resource (such as there are…).
Now clearly, both these views can’t be true at the same time. In fact, neither of them was. Hungarian communist leaders did dare to say “no” to Soviet overlords even under Stalinism. Gorbachev unhesistatingly closed the gas pipe to his satellites in the early 80s when he could no longer afford to sell cheap gas under world prices to the satellites. Economic rationale drove both the USSR and the satellites, albeit within the warped economic framework of the planned economy and the Soviet satellite system.

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Mark: “It seems to me that liberals like Vásárhely would be better off spending their time developing an economic alternative that actually offers people the prospect of improved living standards and greater material security than constantly lamenting a nostalgia which is, in fact, perfectly rational in view of the economic failures of the past twenty years.”
We can’t expect Vásárhelyi to come up with an economic plan. After all, she is a sociologist.
I admit that her contention that the Soviet Union ensured Hungary’s relative well being is an oversimplification but there is some truth in it. It provided Hungary with cheap natural gas and a market where all the junk they produced could be sold.
What Vásárhelyi failed to mention was the immense debt Hungary accumulated. The money borrowed came from the west.

Mark
Guest
Éva: ” admit that her contention that the Soviet Union ensured Hungary’s relative well being is an oversimplification but there is some truth in it.” What “relative well being” would this be? Relative to whom. I’m looking at the statistics on GDP per capita calculated at Purchasing Power Parity. Hungary was poorer than the USSR for every year of state socialism until 1982; certainly no “relative well being” there. Relative to the other Eastern Bloc countries? In 1950 Hungary was in third place behind the GDR and Czechoslovakia and ahead of Poland. In 1989 it was ….. in third place behind the GDR and Czechoslovakia and ahead of Poland. So, where precisely is the proof that “the inhabitants of the colonized countries lived better than the people of the colonizers”, because unless Vásárhelyi is talking about citizens of the GDR and Czechoslovakia (which were richer than the USSR), it isn’t in the economic statistics? I think you’ll find that the provision of oil and natural gas and the price to be paid for it was, in the 1960s, contingent on the development of patterns of economic specialization within the COMECON sphere. When oil prices rose in the 1970s and they… Read more »
Eva S. Balogh
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Mark, “What “relative well being” would this be?”
In comparison to the other socialist countries. People felt better off than the those in the other socialist countries.

Mark
Guest
PassingStranger: “What is ironic, is that there are two contradictory ideologically motivated myths going round … Now clearly, both these views can’t be true at the same time. In fact, neither of them was.” Most of what passes for commentary on the economic history and economic performance of Hungary during the socialist period is heavily distorted by “contradictory ideologically motivated myths”. In part this is because most of the studies in the field on this period date from the socialist period and rely on flawed official statistics, that have not been subject to any real criticism. It is also, as I know from my time spent in the National Archive working through records like those of the National Planning Office and large industrial enterprises, because the subject has not been fashionable. I also think it is because too many people have been obsessed with “systemic change”, and have seen everything before 1989 as somehow less than relevant to the creation of an entirely new economy after, whereas they should have realized that a succesful economy would have to emerge out of the strengthening of what worked well in the socialist economy that existed before. And of course, because too many… Read more »
Pandora New Zealand
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