I will start far away from Hungary this afternoon. A couple of years ago Yale University began putting videos of select undergraduate lecture courses online. The number of online courses is growing; just lately a few more history courses became available. Among them lectures delivered by Joanne Freedman on the American revolution.
American colonial and revolutionary history always interested me. At one point I was even thinking of specializing in it. So I thought I would refresh my knowledge of the subject. I enjoyed all of Freedman's lectures, but her last lecture entitled "Being an American: The Legacy of the Revolution" especially intrigued me. She quotes two important eyewitnesses to the revolution who more or less agree about its nature. According to John Adams, the revolution began "in the Minds of the People, and this was effected from 1760 to 1775, in the course of fifteen Years before a drop of blood was drawn at Lexington." So, the revolution was independent of the war that had a distinct beginning and end. While Adams talked about the beginnings of the revolution, his friend Benjamin Rush tried to date the end of the revolutionary period: "We have changed our forms of government, but it remains to effect a revolution in our principles, opinions, and manners, so as to accommodate them to the forms of government we have adopted."
Let's see the dictionary meaning of the word "revolution." In the world of government, politics, and diplomacy it means "the overthrow or repudiation of a regime or political system by the governed." Revolutions do not necessarily have to be violent; they can be peaceful or negotiated. The important consideration is that the change must involve some kind of large-scale transfer of power. Revolution means a major shift in sovereignty of some kind. But, adds Freedman in her lecture, "for the struggle and the instability of the revolution to come to a close, obviously there has to be some kind of a shared agreement about the nature of the final product." In the United States that shared agreement took time to develop: about a generation. That is a long time, especially if we consider that the Americans fought for "liberties of the British citizens" residing in the colonies. They had a strong sense of rights and were accustomed to self-government.
Now let's turn to the Hungarian "revolution" of 1989-90. According to the dictionary definition it was a "revolution" because it was the "repudiation of a regime by the governed," regardless of what József Antall thought about the negotiations during the Round Table Discussions. And, by definition, Orbán is dead wrong when he thinks that his landslide victory in 2010 was a true revolution while 1989-90 was some dreadful compromise with the dictatorship. No, the change of regime was complete. There was a new democratic constitution, and the modern Hungarian "founding fathers" managed to build a political structure that was lasting, at least until now. What has been missing is the "shared agreement" between the government and the governed that is necessary for the smooth functioning of the new political system. Or, in other words, this time returning to Benjamin Rush, "a revolution in our principles, opinions, and manners" didn't take place. In plain language there was a democratic structure but the majority of the people didn't really understand or even accept the idea of democracy.
However, twenty years have gone by and the number of people who have grasped the notion of democratic principles has grown. We have no precise idea of the numbers, but it seems to me that the Orbán government's autocratic ways are being tolerated less and less. If one is optimistic, one might look upon Orbán's "revolution in the voting booths" as an important step toward the closure of Hungary's democratic revolution of 1989-90. Perhaps it will be a clarion call to those who until now didn't really think of the blessings of democracy as far as their individual freedoms are concerned. Perhaps when this is over there will be more of a "shared agreement" between politicians and the citizenry concerning democratic values. Or, as Freedman said, "revolutions end when public opinion conforms with new post-revolutionary forms of governance." Let's hope that will happen soon in Hungary.