Today’s “right” and its antecedents

These rude interruptions by the elements, “Irene” or the “Halloween snow storm,” can be useful in the sense that one has plenty of time to do some reading. Among the several volumes I picked up I found especially interesting a publication put out by the 1956-Institute entitled Múlt századi hétköznapok: Tanulmányok a Kádár-rendszer kialakulásának időszakáról (Everyday existence in the last century: Studies on the formation of the Kádár regime). In this large volume I was especially impressed by two studies. One was by Éva Standeisky who wrote a thoughtful article about the complicated relationship between “populist” (népies, narodniy) writers and the communist hierarchy. The other was an article written by János M. Rainer about József Antall’s “everyday compromises” on the basis of reports of political informers.

Here I would like to write about Standeisky’s study and share some of my own thoughts about the way old “populist” ideas remain integral to the worldview of today’s “political right.”

A few years ago one would have thought that the division that existed in Hungarian literature between the “populists” and the “urbanists” was long gone. The young politicians of Fidesz, for example, didn’t want to get involved in the long-standing debate about which camp represented the true Hungary and who was progressive and who wasn’t. I might add here that Fidesz’s period of neutrality in the debate between between populists and urbanists didn’t last long. By now it is quite clear that the Fidesz politicians opted for the “national,” i.e. populist side.

The populists were adherents of a basically socialist system called the “third road.” One road was capitalism and the other Soviet-style communism. Theirs was an imaginary third road that would lead to a perfect socialist regime based on a peasant led society. So, there was a common point between the socialism of the communists and the socialism of the populists. What bound them together was their anti-liberalism, their belief in the importance of the state, their hatred of capitalism, and their antagonism toward the “bourgeoisie.” What divided them was their attitude toward the nation and the role of the peasantry. After all, the communists believed in the importance of the proletariat and considered the peasants a retrograde, outright reactionary force. And, at least in words, they espoused internationalism.

Right after the war politicians of the Nemzeti Parasztpárt (National Peasant Party), the political arm of the populist movement, worked hand in hand with the communists, and some of them actually ended up in the communist party. Éva Standeisky calls them “national communists.” Those who remained outside of the party were followers of “populist-national socialism” (népi-nemzeti szocializmus).

After the 1956 revolution the regime dealt much more harshly with “national communists” than with the populists whom Kádár and his comrades considered only a “semi-opposition.” It is enough to recall that László Németh, a populist writer, received the Kossuth prize right after the victorious return of Kádár and Co. Gyula Illyés, another populist poet and playwright, received the Kossuth prize twice even before 1956 (in 1949 and 1953) and again in 1970. Here is a telling picture of the two favored populist writers, László Németh and Gyula Illyés, with János Kádár. Illyés is on the far left while Németh is next to János Kádár.

Gyula Illyés and László Németh with János Kádár


After the revolution Illyés was allowed to travel abroad almost yearly, and he was always very careful not to stir up any trouble. In fact he praised the Hungarian government for its agrarian policy that raised the living standards of the peasantry. Where he didn’t see eye to eye with the communists was the Kádár regime’s lack of interest in and solidarity with Hungarians living in the neighboring countries.

Illyés’s nationalism could lead him astray. For example, in 1968 when Hungarian troops took part in the invasion of Czechoslovakia he wrote in his diary that he feels “a masochistic relief … In 1956 the people of Prague demonstrated against Imre Nagy and four times they broke off the Kossuth coat-of-arms from the wall of the Hungarian embassy. Czechoslovakia supplied night sticks to the newly organized police force of Budapest.” So, now it is our turn, or at least this is what it sounds like.

Illyés was certainly a favorite of the regime. Not too many people managed to earn almost one million forints a year as he did in 1971. (Although his fellow populist writer László Németh made slightly more than that in the same year.) Here is a well known portrait of Gyula Illyés:


Despite their favored positions, both writers were watched and reported on. “Sárdi” reported on Illyés, including a description of what Illyés thought about the history of 1918-1919. Illyés was convinced that “the whole October was created by some resourceful members of the haute bourgeoisie and merchants. There was no revolution in 1918. Central power collapsed and this political vacuum was exploited by the bourgeoisie. . . . In the final analysis a few foxy people without roots gambled the country away.” It is hard not to think that Illyés here is thinking of those Jews who were often accused of being people without proper Hungarian roots. “Sárdi” also mentioned that Illyés had the feeling that the country could have been saved within its historical borders. I might add that Illyés was saying all this historical nonsense after a number of very good books had been published by Tibor Hajdu and others on the 1918-1919 revolutions.

The same “Sárdi” reported that Illyés considered the Kádár regime’s communism “Asiatic” and believed that it would not last. In his opinion that kind of communism is “not superior to fascism.” Eventually perhaps a new kind of regime will emerge that will keep the best from both. I must say this is a bizarre thought. According to “Sárdi” Illyés claimed that what was going on in Hungary was nothing more than “Jewish fascism,” but “the Hungarian people need Hungarian leaders and as long as they do not have them there can be no Hungarian life here.”

Of course, it is possible that the informer was not faithfully describing Illyés’s opinions, but considering the nationalism and covert antisemitism that is evident in his diary one has the suspicion that the reported utterances were more or less accurate.

Although the Fidesz youngsters might have been optimistic about the disappearance of the populist versus urbanist controversies from the 1930s, it in fact was very much alive even during the Kádár regime. The “populists” watched with growing concern those writers who gathered around Élet és Irodalom (ÉS) whom they viewed as harboring “cosmopolitan tendencies” and  being attracted to “bourgeois democratic principles.”

In the course of the political activities that preceded the change of regime in 1990 the differences between the two world views became apparent. SZDSZ (Szabad Democratic Szövetsége) stepped into the shoes of the “urbanists” while politicians gathering in MDF (Magyar Demokrata Fórum) got their inspiration from the populists. But while the old populists for the most part criticized the Horthy regime from the left, the MDF politicians considered themselves to be right of center. The Young Democrats (Fidesz), despite their vow not to succumb to the alleged divide between the village folks and the sophisticated often Jewish intellectuals of Budapest, in fact inherited the mantle of the populists together with their anticapitalism, their support of a strong central power, and their belief in the national spirit and Hungarian uniqueness.

It is truly amazing how certain ideological splits refuse to disappear from the national psyche. For instance, the road from yesterday’s urbanists to today’s liberals is straightforward. They still believe that a special Hungarian road to some ideal socialism is a pipe dream and instead look for a solution to the country’s ills in the adoption of fully western democratic principles. Hungary’s problem, according to them, is not that the country didn’t find its unique Hungarian solutions but that it clings to illusions of the “third road.”

By contrast, despite some detours, Fidesz is now bravely marching down that alleged populist third road–a road that often seems more like a thicket.

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A good take on the origins of today’s Hungarian nationalism, Éva, not that you would need endorsment and praise from me, but actually I consider the continutity of these ideas crucial for understanding the right and as a consequence what is going on in Hungary. Actually, Illyés’ reported views on 1918 are almost certainly borrowed from Dezső Szabó, who interpreted the revolution very similarly as early as 1920. Of course he had more freedom to speak of Jews. 😉 Nevertheless, I think it is just one channel of transmission and only one set of ideas. Present day Hungarian (rightist) nationalism has more layers than to describe it simply as heritage of the populists or to see at as a revival of the populist-urbanist debate. One should consider how far its social doctrine is built on the social catholicism of the thirties or how much it borrowed on the protestant “serving the people” ideology, itself derived from the German conservative revolution. Not to speak of the not insignificant continuty of the traditional middle class in middle class social positions, who probably could presreve even their eralier milleu (like Antall). The methodological problem is that the intellectual and ideological landscape of the… Read more »

Does this “third road” they would like to believe they are bravely marching on (go, lemmings, go) really exist? Isn’t this again some kind of Hungarian specialty to go gentle on the stupid – to avoid hurting the pride of the inhabitants of the Land Of The Goulash? The sheer incompetence, the total lack of common sense isn’t a “third road”. The lack of law and order, the idiotic decisions, without expert consultations, that practically treat the nation as lab rats, that’s not the “unique Hungarian solution”.
From another angle – the things advised by the opponents of the current government, or today’s Hungarian right, that many times seem like “western democratic principles”, are not just another “way” to do things. I guess I started to sound awfully banal here, but at the end of the day it always comes down to planning and decisions. All I’m saying is this: when your are an idiot, then the things you do are not “unorthodox approaches”. You are just a moron.

Eva S. Balogh
Gábor:”A good take on the origins of today’s Hungarian nationalism, Éva, not that you would need endorsment and praise from me, but actually I consider the continutity of these ideas crucial for understanding the right and as a consequence what is going on in Hungary.” This is a real compliment! I very much wish, of course, to go into the proper details of this question (or others on other topics), but there is the shortcoming of a blog writer. I have to come up with some superfluous impressions instead of studying a problem in its proper depth. No time to go to the library and read dozens of articles or spend days on pondering the question. However, I think that my instincts are right. The situation is very peculiar. A basically left-wing movement transformed itself to a right political ideology. Or perhaps, it always was a right-wing movement, but in the 1930s we didn’t really recognize it as such. I wish very much if we could just forget about “populism” in the sense Hungarian writers used it in the 1930s. But we can’t. We are stuck with it. Or at least we are stuck with it until it is destroyed… Read more »
Odin's lost eye
Professor you write in your comments ** “However, I think that my instincts are right. The situation is very peculiar. A basically left-wing movement transformed itself to a right political ideology. Or perhaps, it always was a right-wing movement, but in the 1930s we didn’t really recognize it as such.” ** I will agree with you. Both the leftist (communist) and the rightist (fascist) models of government are two sides of the same coin. Both have similar ‘boil like’ structures with absolute ‘head’ supported by a clique (which can be sycophantic). The rule of law is ultimately the whim of the ‘Leader’. The membership of the clique is achieved by working your way up the party hierarchy and coming to the notice of patrons at a higher level. Members of the clique whilst presenting an outward signs of unanimity are actually fighting within the clique to become top dog under the leader. The leadership is often ill educated and paranoid about its position. The rightist form of this type government did not last long enough to have ‘succession’ problems. The leftist (communist) form did and the records of infighting are well known. These often involved murder/assignations. This form of Government,… Read more »
Joseph Simon

Some 1: Does New York Times deal only with issues pertaining to New York? As in economioc statistics, whatever is happening in Hungary is meaningful only if compared to other countries.
A US Senator, for example, is a global-warming denier. Why? God promised Noah there won’t be any more floods. Now, here is a populist for you, along with the two Bushes. See how comparison works and helps to understand issues.

Joseph Simon: Right. The New York Times deals with many aspects of life form many different countries. It has a print and an online version, has three sections. – News with 13 subsections – Opinion with Editorials, op-ed, Letters to the Editor, – Features with Arts, Movies, Theatre, Travel, NYC Guide, Dining & Wine, Home & Garden, Fashion & Style, Crossword, The New York Times Book Review, The New York Times Magazine, and Sunday Reviews. THe Editorial Board itself is composed by 16 journalists and it is separate form its newsroom The News section has 12 journalists THey have 20 department heads 26 columnists 25 other notables dozens of freelancers 35 Foreign Bureau Chiefs Many of its editors have their own Blog, so readers can focus on the article that the writer want to discuss. Readers do not come up with ad hoc pieces, that is reserved for submission to the Editor. Hungarian Spectrum is Blog (single article/day) with one editor. THemes are given each day, and no other subheading exist. Can you spot the difference? Maybe tomorrow I will post my favourite recipes as a comment on Hungary. I will start with the olive oil cake. I hope there… Read more »

@Jozsi You comparision are similar to the Hitler to Leonardo Da Vinci comparision joke. Both were painters …


Eva, could I ask whether these populists such as Illyes played an important role in public life in the Kadar era, and if so, how? Were their books published or could they publish texts in periodicals, or were they distributed only “under the counter”. If they got prizes, this sounds as if they had important and official roles.
I am not sure whether such “third way” or the uneasiness with the modern (impersonal, market based etc.) society is specifically Hungarian. Perhaps with the help of Kossuth prizes and intellectuals’ support it appears to be more generally shared than in societies where liberal ideas have been shared by a larger part of the society. For me the main message is here, too, nationalist survival ideology. What exactly is “specifically Hungarian” appears rather arbitrary; it is the (national) community that has to be kept homogenous and the ideas/means used to achieve that (language, social background, religion) can vary. Mutt’s suggestion that the third way could be the stubborn rejection of “what the more developed do” or the belief that Hungarians will be geniuses even if uninformed can be included in that.


For what it’s worth, I will add that a prominent Hungarian author of the older generation who is generally extremely reliable told me that he heard Illyés express the opinion that Jews should not be allowed to own land in Hungary.

Eva S. Balogh

To Jim, I wouldn’t be at all surprised.
As an addition to my latest article on Kövér, here is something that might interest you. Both right and left criticize the anti-market rhetoric of Fidesz: