Tag Archives: nationalism

Introducing patriotic physical education classes

Back to education of sorts. Of sorts because the Orbán government, like all authoritarian regimes, looks upon education as a vehicle for its political agenda. It has been constantly fiddling with education ever since 2010, trying to adapt it to its own ideas and needs. Acquiring knowledge is taking a back seat to nationalistic indoctrination. As the latest test results attest, these “improvements” produced lower scores in all categories–math, science, and verbal skills. Instead of beefing up academic skills appropriate to the modern age, the government added subjects such as religious education (or ethics), and it increased the number of physical education classes. Of course, rote learning is still the pedagogical method of choice. As a result, children spend an inordinate number of hours in the classroom with less and less to show for it.

The Orbán government’s real aim is to use the school system for the infusion of values that the political leadership deems essential. Among these values, perhaps the most important is nationalistic patriotism, which they think young Hungarians lack. Therefore, the Orbán government’s new curriculum places special emphasis on pride in Hungarian cultural and scientific achievements and, in general, on historical and folk traditions. As the ministry of human resources put it, teachers of history and literature are supposed to instill national pride in their pupils.

Over the past seven years the government’s educational “experts” floated several ideas that were supposed to arouse students’ interest in what the Orbán government considers to be Hungarian specialties. Examples were the introduction of horseback riding and the compulsory daily singing of folk songs in schools. Luckily, the crazy idea of daily singing was soon abandoned.

Here I would like to focus on one notion that was put into practice: five gym classes a week instead of the earlier three. In theory, this might have been a good idea, but as usual it was introduced without due preparation and there are still many students who must do their exercises in the corridors instead of a gym due to lack of space. I was also very suspicious about the real reason for this great emphasis on physical education. We all know that a daily exercise program is good for us, and everywhere in the world only a small percentage of children and adults are physically active. Hungary is no exception. So, more gym classes could be a step in the right direction. Still, I was worried from the beginning that the greater emphasis on gym was not for the sole benefit of physical well-being but that the powers-that-be had a hidden agenda. Soon enough there were signs that my fears were justified.

The first sign that the government was thinking about general military training was Viktor Orbán’s surprising announcement that those men who received military training during the Kádár era and afterward, until it was abolished in 2004, gained immeasurably from the experience. The announcement was surprising because Orbán loathed his year in the military between high school and law school. According to his own admission, this was the time when he came to hate the regime and decided to turn against it. But today he seems to be convinced that Hungary must be able to defend itself and therefore must have a strong army. I believe that if the idea of conscription weren’t so unpopular, he wouldn’t mind reinstating compulsory military service. But since this is not possible politically, at least at the moment, he would like to have a strong reserve force.

István Simicskó, minister of defense, has been for the longest time a promoter of the idea of a “home army.” A year ago there was a lot of talk about building one, but it seems that the army found it difficult to convince men and women to enlist. Once that failed, Simicskó floated the idea of establishing shooting galleries in every “járás,” an administrative unit smaller than a county. Today not much can be heard about this idea either. Instead, at the beginning of June RTL Klub reported that the Klebelsberg Center (KLIK), which oversees Hungary’s educational system, inquired from school principals about the feasibility of establishing shooting galleries on school premises. A day later Magyar Nemzet learned that KLIK is also interested in the practicality of introducing martial arts. KLIK wanted to know what kinds of martial arts they teach now, because as of May students can replace gym classes not just with football but also with some kind of martial art. I should add that Simicskó is a practitioner of Wing Chun, a traditional Chinese martial art specializing in close range combat. Simicskó achieved the 4th master level.

The word is now out that by the end of this year schools will have to change the curriculum of gym classes to reflect “a program of patriotism and national defense.” Critics of the Orbán government’s educational policies are baffled and somewhat worried about these plans because of the coupling of patriotism/nationalism and the defense of the homeland. As it is, Hungarian education is supposed to instill an admiration for those who over the years have fought against “foreign oppression.” One only wishes the curriculum placed as much emphasis on the fight against domestic oppressors and the love of individual freedom.

It looks as if it is never too early to start patriotic/nationalistic indoctrination. According to the description of the project, it will begin when children enter kindergarten at the age of three. It is still not clear when students will have to start learning the rudiment of “the basics of military training.”

The plan strongly resembles the “levente movement,” which was introduced in 1921 and came to an end in 1945. It was the primary organization for pre-military training in the Horthy era. According to the Treaty of Trianon, Hungary could maintain only a very small army, so the introduction of the levente movement helped to circumvent the military restrictions imposed on the country. Every male between the ages of 12 and 21 who no longer attended school had to join a local levente group, where he was forced for 8-9 months a year to take physical education classes for three hours a week. So, it’s no wonder that some educational experts are worried that the patriotic physical education classes signal plans to reintroduce conscription sometime in the future.

Members of the levente movement practicing the shot put, 1928

But the very idea of “teaching” patriotism/nationalism to youngsters is frightening by itself. Often the distinction between patriotism and nationalism is blurred. It’s enough to take a look at the dictionary definitions of the two terms. Patriotism is “love and devotion to one’s country” while nationalism is “devotion, especially excessive or undiscriminating devotion to the interests or culture of a particular nation state.” But what is excessive? The second meaning of nationalism is even more telling. Nationalism is “the belief that nations will benefit from acting independently rather than collectively, emphasizing national rather than international goals,” which is certainly true of the “patriotic” aspirations of the Orbán government.

In brief, the present regime is introducing the teaching of blatant nationalism into the school curriculum. This highly questionable project is being financed to the tune of 318 million forints by, I’m sorry to say, the European Union. It is one of the many paradoxes that most of us find intolerable. Here is the European Union, which is supposed to stand for international cooperation and ever closer integration at the expense of nationalistic egotism, and that organization finances Viktor Orbán’s latest plans to bring up a generation of Hungarians antagonistic to the very ideas the European Union stands for.

August 6, 2017

Viktor Orbán’s “ethnically homogeneous” Hungary

Viktor Orbán’s latest address, delivered yesterday at the Hungarian Chamber of Commerce’s annual gathering, has already become notorious. The lengthy speech was intended to give an overview of the Hungarian economy, which the Hungarian prime minister described as “not good but promising.” As usual, he said nothing noteworthy on that front. He did, however, give the Chamber a lecture on genetics, ethnicity, and culture which without exaggeration can be described as unadulterated racism.

The portion of the speech devoted to “cultural and ethnic homogeneity” is relatively short but damning nonetheless. One commentator, András Hont of HVG, who used to be a friend of Orbán back in the early 1990s, recorded the changes of his feelings about the prime minister. First, he felt admiration, later disappointment and suspicion, but after reading this speech he “feels only revulsion.” Strong words but not undeserved.

Let’s turn to the text that elicited such a strong reaction not just in Hungary but abroad as well. Orbán probably realized the risk involved in entering into a discussion of such a “delicate” subject. Thus he began this part of his speech by paying homage to the resurgence of politically incorrect speech in Hungary: “By now one can say such things. A few years ago one could be executed for such sentences, but today one can say it because life confirmed that too much mixing brings trouble.” What’s too much mixing and what’s not? I think it is pretty clear from the text that mixing within the European community is acceptable as far as Orbán is concerned, but any mixing with people coming from “different cultures” is not. He admits—he can’t do otherwise—that today’s Hungarians are ethnically extremely varied, but he looks upon the Hungarian nation as ethnically homogeneous because it is made up of European stock.

Naturally, when a Hungarian speaks of ethnic diversity, sooner or later we will hear the advice of Hungary’s first king to his son about the wisdom of inviting foreigners into the country “because a kingdom where only one language is spoken and only one custom is followed is weak and fragile.” And indeed Orbán made a fleeting reference to St. Stephen’s wisdom, but he added that “one mustn’t endanger the country’s basic ethnic character.” The presence of an alien stock wouldn’t improve the value of the country; on the contrary, “it would devalue it and thrust it into chaos.” He is all for “cultural diversity within [the European] context, but the existence of parallel societies that are incapable of assimilation” must be avoided at all costs. Orbán is convinced that if “we manage to uphold the [country’s] ethnic homogeneity and its cultural uniformity, then Hungary will be upgraded as a place. Hungary will be the kind of place that will be able to show other, more developed countries what they lost.”

A few weeks ago we were laughing over Orbán’s remarks about the West European refugees who will be coming to Hungary. We thought he was joking. Well, he is not joking. He truly believes that Hungary will be a European paradise which white Europeans will envy and perhaps move to.

The same theme cropped up again in a later part of the speech, when Orbán said that he doesn’t want the importation of “guest workers,” although it is becoming painfully clear that there is a serious labor shortage in Hungary. He wants a country where all jobs are filled by Hungarians, from the cleaning lady to the president of the Hungarian National Academy. In Western European countries immigrants do the menial jobs. But not in Hungary, where ethnic purity will enhance the value of the country. It will be a country that is being run from top to bottom by Hungarians.

The Chamber also received a lecture about the “idea of greatness.” Hungary might be small, but Hungarians understand the “meaning of greatness.” Hungarians “cannot relinquish the idea of greatness in culture, greatness in sports, greatness in science.” He continued: “We are not simply a nation in the Carpathian Basin but we are a great nation, quite independently from the fact that at the moment we are shrunken and demographically declining. However, that doesn’t change the thousand-year-old fact that we are a great nation. People who live in this country think of themselves as such.” This attitude, to Orbán’s way of thinking, is also a plus in the eyes of others, which I very much doubt. Perhaps megalomania would be a better description of Orbán’s ideas on the greatness of his nation.

Most commentators misunderstood the message. Some people got stuck on the ethnic diversity of Hungarians and brought up examples to prove that Orbán doesn’t know what he is talking about. For example, 24.hu gave the ethnic backgrounds of the thirteen generals who were executed after the 1848-49 revolution and war of independence and triumphantly announced that only four of them were ethnically Hungarians. But this is not what Orbán was talking about. He has nothing against white Europeans. He was talking about people whose skin is darker and who are not Christians. This was a speech with a racist message, pure and simple. Normally, Orbán couches his less than acceptable ideas in coded phrases that can easily be explained away if necessary. But he seems to be emboldened as a result of the political changes in the United States, and he no longer even pretends when it comes to the subject of race relations.

The Jewish weekly Szombat published an opinion piece which analyzed the text more deeply. The author discovered a sentence that stood apart from the passage on ethnic homogeneity. Here Orbán called “Hungary’s ethnic relations complicated.” He was undoubtedly referring to the large Roma population in the country. Thus, the commentator translated Orbán’s thinking on the subject: “We have enough problems with our own ethnic relations. We don’t need an immigrant ethnic group.” What really bothered the author, however, was the “ethnic homogeneity” phrase, which can be understood as “ethnic purity.” With this, he wrote, “we are back to the word usage of the Central European dictatorships of the 1930s.” I’m afraid I have to agree with him. This time it is impossible to explain away Viktor Orbán’s message.

March 1, 2017

“Keep quiet”–A documentary on Csanád Szegedi’s conversion from anti-Semite to observant Jew

A couple of weeks ago I received a DVD preview copy of the just released documentary “Keep Quiet,” directed by Joseph Martin and Sam Blair and distributed by Kino Lorber, Inc. The documentary deals with Csanád Szegedi, one of the most outspoken anti-Semites in the far-right Jobbik party, who at the pinnacle of his political career was confronted with the fact that he is actually Jewish. He became a practicing Orthodox Jew soon after his expulsion from Jobbik.

Of course, I’m familiar with the story of Csanád Szegedi because his drama played out in front of our eyes in 2012, but I still watched the movie with fascination. Perhaps because of his past in politics, Szegedi feels comfortable in front of the camera and is surprisingly articulate. His facility with language and the excellent direction make the film move smoothly.

After watching Szegedi up close and personal, instead of seeing him as a far-right firebrand giving political speeches, I feel more sympathy for him now than I did before. Of course, I share many of the concerns of those who are less than convinced about both Szegedi’s story and his transformation. One of the main reasons for people’s distrust is the extreme nature of his conversion. We know hundreds of cases of people who one day, almost by accident, discover that they are Jewish, yet they don’t join an ultra-Orthodox (Lubavitch/Chabad ) community, especially since Chabad fundamentalism is alien to Hungarian Jewry.

Csanád Szegedi in the uniform of Magyar Gárda “Hungary belongs to the Hungarians”

The documentary clarifies the reasons for Szegedi’s odd choice of Chabad orthodoxy. First, though certainly not a defining reason, he believes that his grandmother, despite her very vague recollections of her childhood, was brought up in an Orthodox home. I do hope he realizes that the Orthodox community in Miskolc, where the family is from, had little to do with Chabad. Second, the pragmatic reason: no other Jewish group was ready to take him in. And third, the psychological reason. Szegedi talks at length of his need to belong to a close-knit group, which he found in Jobbik, the movement he joined in 2003 at the age of 21 while a student at the Catholic Péter Pázmány University in Budapest. His father, who, by the way, is absent from the film altogether, while we meet his Jewish grandmother and mother, is a committed right-winger. At the dinner table Csanád soaked up all the right-wing nationalistic views of his father. It seems that in high school he again found himself among boys who shared his views. Therefore, it is not at all surprising that as soon as Jobbik was established as a youth movement, Szegedi joined the group.

Belonging to a community is extremely important to Szegedi. Without the warmth that such a close-knit community provides, he is lost. And once he was tossed out of Jobbik, he was utterly destroyed. Not just because his political career came to an abrupt end but because he was cut loose. He was suddenly outside of a circle where he felt at home. He even contemplated suicide.

Szegedi’s need for belonging and acceptance led him to the odd choice of the tiny ultra-Orthodox Chabad community in Hungary. Baruch Oberlander, a transplant from Brooklyn’s Crown Heights, was the only one who was ready to forgive his sins and show him the road to redemption. No other Jewish group wanted anything to do with him. It is enough to watch the angry crowd that confronted Oberlander in Montreal in 2013 after listening to the speech that Szegedi wrote. (Szegedi had been deported from Canada before he could deliver his speech in person.) His speech didn’t convince the crowd. They were furious and practically attacked the poor rabbi. Even Oberlander admits that his decision to accept Szegedi into the Chabad community was controversial.

Csanád Szegedi with Rabbi Barruch Oberlander

Perhaps what got less than adequate coverage in the film is Szegedi’s extreme Hungarian nationalism. His own given name “Csanád” is one of those Hungarian names that became fashionable in the last 30 years or so. Nationalistic Hungarian parents chose ancient Hungarian names for their children. There couldn’t have been too many Csanáds in the eighties when Szegedi was born. In 1972, for example, when a book was published on “suggested” and “acceptable” given names, only one Csanád was born in the whole country. Szegedi himself was so enamored with old Hungarian names that he published a book on the subject in 2002: The Complete Repository of Given Names of Hungarian Origin—More Than 8,400 Ancient Names of Hungarian Origin. In a long interview, given in 2015, he described himself as a “proud Hungarian Jew.” His second book’s title is I Believe in the Resurrection of Hungary, a line from a revisionist three-line Hungarian Creed: “I believe in God, I believe in one country: / I believe in the divine everlasting truth, / I believe in the resurrection of Hungary.”

Many people in Hungary simply don’t believe that Csanád was totally ignorant of his Jewish heritage. One reason for this disbelief is Szegedi’s own public comments after one of his colleagues confronted him in 2012. In addition, newspapers reported wildly divergent stories about his knowledge of the true facts. In the film he admits that he knew that his grandmother was adopted by a Jewish family called Klein but, as far as he knew, she herself was not Jewish. In the course of the film, we find out that the parents of Szegedi’s grandmother died in the Holocaust while she herself survived Auschwitz. After her return her only surviving uncle adopted her.

We don’t learn much about the family dynamics. Why the absence of the father? How much did the father know about his wife’s Jewishness? Why did the grandmother and the mother take so lightly Csanád’s loud and insistent anti-Semitism? Why didn’t they try to explain to the young man that anti-Semitism is unacceptable? One understands that, given what happened, many Jews wanted to hide their true identity. They just “kept quiet,” as Szegedi’s grandmother explained her silence. But they didn’t have to give away their secrets in order to teach Csanád the norms of decent human behavior.

So, many questions remain about Csanád Szegedi and his family, but I think I got to know him much better thanks to this fascinating documentary. In September 2016 the Jewish weekly Szombat reported that the World Zionist Organization and a Hungarian Chabad organization called Tett és Védelem Alapítvány (Action and Defense Foundation) had organized a conference on fighting anti-Semitism. Here apparently Szegedi announced that he had already filed all the necessary papers in preparation for his Aliyah to Israel. Yet, at the end of the film he admitted that he doesn’t know whether he will be committed to ultra-orthodoxy for the rest of his life.

Anne Applebaum, the American-Polish journalist who has written extensively about communism and about Central and Eastern Europe, gives excellent commentaries throughout the film. It is a thought-provoking production, and I’m glad that I had the opportunity to preview it.

February 12, 2017

Viktor Orbán’s rubber bones? No, his master plan

I thought this morning that I would be original if I wrote about a favorite word of both the Hungarian media and the opposition. The word is “gumicsont,” a dog toy made out of solid rubber or sometimes nylon. “Gumicsont” is used as a metaphor for a communication device that is designed to distract the attention of the public from something much more important. Almost everything that happens in Hungarian political life is immediately labelled “gumicsont.”

It seems that I wasn’t the only to find all this talk about “gumicsont” irritating. Almost a year ago Péter Konok, a historian and political commentator, wrote an opinion piece on the subject in HVG. He, like me, thinks that the Orbán government’s constant barraging of the population with political bombshells are not distractions intended to divert attention from something else. No, Konok says, the Orbán government’s chicaneries are genuine because “they are like this.”

Moreover, says Konok, our views on what counts as political distraction depend largely on what we personally consider important. For example, those for whom having stores open on Sunday is important may well think that talk about the size of Antal Rogán’s apartment is trivial, a distraction. Some people were certain that Viktor Orbán’s shocking announcement about the reintroduction of capital punishment was a “gumicsont” to distract attention from the Quaestor scandal.

One could give numerous examples of this Hungarian habit of labeling an action as a kind of sleight of hand to divert public attention from something else. In Konok’s opinion, these so-called artificially created distractions are unfortunately reactions to very real problems. By dismissing them as merely rubber bones to chew on, the Hungarian public fails to acknowledge that the country is in big trouble and that Orbán’s regime is only a symptom of its woes.

I would go further. Almost all of the political strategies introduced by Fidesz and the Orbán government are carefully and methodically prepared ahead of time, having very specific aims in mind. The latest “gumicsont,” according to some journalists, is the attack on the NGOs. This recent “distraction” is allegedly intended to serve up a new enemy since the migrant issue is becoming old hat and has lost its appeal. Dead wrong, I’m afraid. It is, in fact, part and parcel of the same master plan that has been systematically pieced together ever since January 2015.

The Orbán government has been preparing the ground for this move for a very long time. George Soros has been the boogeyman in Fidesz circles at least since 2010. And as far as the NGOs are concerned, Viktor Orbán made it clear in the interview he gave to 888.hu last year that 2017 will be “the year of Soros,” that is, he will get rid of the NGOs one way or the other. A distraction? A rubber bone? Of course not. It is the next step in consolidating his power and bolstering the popularity of his government.

Some observers even called the “migrant question” a rubber bone, which is total nonsense. This was again a policy initiative that Orbán had carefully crafted with a very specific goal in mind. It was designed as a popularity booster which, as Orbán rightly predicted, couldn’t fail. Just as a reminder, Fidesz’s popularity between October 2014 and February 2015 had dropped by 14%.

Orbán is aware that despite all the propaganda, his government is not popular and that it is only the weakness of the splintered opposition that makes his position safe. So, he is ready with contingency plans, the latest being to incite xenophobic Hungarians to turn against organizations that receive money from abroad. Orbán’s advisers have already managed to make Soros’s name a hated household word. Only a couple of days ago Századvég, Fidesz’s think tank, released its findings, according to which “61% of Hungarians have a negative opinion of the businessman.” Eighty-eight percent of the population—on both the right and the left—consider the use of so-called “soft-power” a violation of Hungary’s sovereignty.

The attack on NGOs is a variation on the “migrant” theme. First came boosting xenophobia and simultaneously elevating nationalism. Now the government is impressing on the population that these NGOs are vehicles of foreign political influence and pressure on the Hungarian government, which is a “violation of national sovereignty.”

Another plan Orbán announced yesterday morning was his defiance of the European Union and his fight this time against any “economic interference” of Brussels in Hungary’s affairs. Every time Orbán announces a new fight against this or that, the normal reaction in Hungary is that the man cannot live without battling against someone. That’s his nature. But what if his duels are not merely the results of personal traits but part of a well-designed masterplan which we, the observers, fail to recognize? We naively consign them to the heap of policy “distractions,” claiming that they are just tricks to turn our attention away from healthcare, education, and general poverty. I think it is a big mistake to think in these terms. We must take everything he says with deadly seriousness. No rubber bones here.

Everything Orbán does is designed to ensure the popularity of his government and his own well-being. Since his talents don’t include an aptitude for good governance, he has to rely on the country’s alleged vulnerability as a crutch. The refugees’ arrival in Europe was a godsend to Orbán. The country, he argued, must be defended against the migrants, against Brussels, against George Soros’s “soft power.” I’m afraid that nationalistic Hungarians lap all this up, including even those who wish him straight to hell. As long as Orbán can harness this kind of nationalism, the Hungarian public will never be able to get rid of him. Unfortunately, I’m afraid, Hungarians don’t see the connection between their nationalistic attitudes toward alleged outside enemies and Viktor Orbán’s staying power.

January 14, 2017

Vulnerable Democracies — An interview with János Kornai

János Kornai, professor emeritus at Harvard and Corvinus, is the foremost economist in Hungary today. Several of his books have been translated into English, including a book that made him a maverick in the tightly centralized planned economy of the 1950s titled Overcentralization in Economic Administration (Oxford University Press, 1959). He is also the author of Anti-Equilibrium (Amsterdam: North Holland, 1971; 2d ed., 1975 in English); Rush versus Harmonic Growth (Amsterdam: North Holland, 1972); Growth, Shortage and Efficiency (Oxford: Basil Blackwell and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1982); Road to a Free Economy. Shifting from a Socialist System: The Example of Hungary (New York: W. W. Norton, 1990); Vision and Reality, Market and State: New Studies on the Socialist Economy and Society (New York: Routledge, 1990); The Socialist System. The Political Economy of Communism (Princeton: Princeton University Press and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992);  and By Force of Thought. Irregular Memoirs of an Intellectual Journey (Cambridge-London, The MIT Press, 2007), his autobiography. Professor Kornai has been awarded honorary doctorates from dozens of prestigious universities.

The online version of the interview that follows appeared in two installments in HVG on December 28 and 29. The first bears the title “Immovable powers, autocracies and their Hungarian variation.” The title of the second is “There is no way Viktor Orbán’s government can be removed peacefully.”

This interview, conducted by Zoltán Farkas, originally appeared in the print edition of Heti Világgazdaság, vol. 2016/41 (October 13), pp. 10-13. In the online version only Zoltán Farkas’s questions and János Kornai’s answers are presented. The Hungarian original also includes a map and a summary of the central ideas. The latter are not presented here as both are available in the longer paper “The System Paradigm Revisited” in Acta Oeconomica vol. 4, (2016). The interview was translated by Dóra Kalotai and Christopher Ryan. Zoltán Farkas and János Kornai are indebted to them for their careful translation.

Hungarian Spectrum has had the privilege of publishing a number of János Kornai’s shorter works in English, either in full or in summary form. For example, his essay on “Centralization and the Capitalist Market Economy,” “Threatening Dangers,” “Hungary’s U-turn,” and “Breaking Promises, The Hungarian Experience.” I’m grateful to Professor Kornai for permission to publish this interview.

♦ ♦ ♦

Source: HVG / Photo by István Fazekas

It was six years ago when you first wrote that many important basic institutions of democracy in Hungary had been dismantled, and Hungary had become an autocracy. Now, in a study recently published in Közgazdasági Szemle, you have already summarized the characteristics of autocracies. Has your previous premonition been proved correct?

I feel I have been proved completely correct. Usually, a researcher is filled with pride when he is among the first to recognize a tendency. My pride, however, is overshadowed by bitterness, because the fact that my predictions have come true makes me depressed and bitter.

But Hungary is not unique in this sense. You write that barely one-tenth of the population of the 47 post-socialist countries live in democracies and fifteen percent in autocracies, while the vast majority live in dictatorships. It’s almost as if democracy was the exception. Were we chasing illusions at the time when the regimes changed?

If we start from the knowledge that we possessed at the time of the regime change, based on the experience of democratization carried out in other countries, our hopes for a more successful development – compared to what actually happened – were not just an illusion. It is worth taking a look at the two largest countries, China and Russia. In the latter the elements of democracy were beginning to emerge, free elections were held, and under the leadership of Yegor Gaidar a liberally inclined government was formed. But it did not last long. Anti-democratic elements came to the fore, led by Vladimir Putin, who established his own autocratic system. Repression grew heavier and heavier. China is another story. Perhaps for a while it was not only an illusion that it was, even if slowly, making progress towards democracy. The example of Taiwan is well-known: a tough dictatorial system gradually turning into a democracy. But in China events did not take this turn. How a regime defines itself is always revealing; according to the Chinese regime, theirs is “a socialist market economy with Chinese characteristics.” In my interpretation, on the other hand, China’s system is a capitalist one, even if the ruling party calls itself communist. And politically they have a dictatorship: a one-party system, without elections, with terror. Among countries that changed their regime, democracy has stabilized in very few places as well as it has in the Baltic states. Since 2010,  many fundamental institutions of democracy have been demolished in Hungary, and an autocratic regime has come out on top. Poland has taken the first steps in the same direction, but that particular match has not yet been played out. The abandonment of democracy is a threat in the other post-socialist countries of Central and South-eastern Europe as well.

Which are the characteristic features of autocracy, the marks that set it apart?

Before anything else, I have to say that there is no consensus on the interpretation of democracy, autocracy or dictatorship among political scientists, politicians and people working in the media. There is complete conceptual chaos; I can’t even begin to hope things can be put in order here. Thus I shall undertake a more modest task: I would like to supply my readers with a sort of explanatory glossary of what I mean by these expressions. The main distinguishing characteristic of autocracy can be linked to Joseph Schumpeter, one of the most significant thinkers of the 20th century. Many authors, among them Samuel Huntington, follow his lead in viewing democracy as a procedure: a course of actions in which the government can be removed in a civilized way: legally, without bloodshed. This is in contrast with non-democracies, in which the change does not take place in a civilized fashion, nor does it usually happen without blood being shed. For instance, the tyrant is assassinated, or his regime is overthrown by a palace revolution. An example of the latter case was when the First Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, Nikita Khrushchev was removed from power by his opponents within the Party. In other places the change of regime happens in the wake of a military coup or when a revolution by the masses threatens. If the government cannot be removed or is, to use an everyday phrase, cemented in place, there is autocracy. Schumpeter and others following him, myself included, restrict the name democracy to that politico-governmental form, and only that form, which guarantees that the government can be voted out of office. This is the minimum requirement. The other point is that in an autocracy the ruling group dismantles those checks and balances which would offer a realistic chance of forcing the government to correct its mistaken measures between two elections, and of changing the government at elections.

Fareed Zakaria defined as ‘illiberal democracies’ those systems in which the government came to power via legal elections, and has maintained the outward forms of democracy, but has systematically dismantled the checks and balances. You maintain that there are no illiberal democracies. Why?

When he first wrote about the topic Zakaria did not concentrate on the possibility of voting out the government, but rather on how the majority voted during the election, and on how the winners would uphold certain democratic structures later on, but dismantle others. When the Hungarian prime minister introduced the concept of illiberal democracy into public discourse at Tusnádfürdő, Zakaria, disagreeing with Orbán’s interpretation, refined the explanation of the notion. Personally, I consider this concept a dead end: illiberal democracy is like an atheist pope: the adjectival structure itself is contradictory. In my view all democracies are liberal. I lost my taste for concepts of democracy with an adjective when the communist dictatorship referred to itself as a ‘people’s democracy’, clearly distinguishing itself from the so-called ‘bourgeois’ democracies. But let us return to the significance of checks and balances. Let’s consider the case of President Nixon in the United States, who felt inclined to ‘consolidate’ his position, and had his political rivals bugged, but after being exposed was unable to get his Republican party colleagues, the attorney general or the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee to stop the proceedings against him. The representatives were not bound to a ‘party line’: they wanted to find out the truth – the checks and balances functioned. These are necessary in a democracy. Just like a free press, in which the voice of the opposition is at least as powerful as that of the government. At the same time, it is also true that democracy is vulnerable because the enemies of democracy can also make use of fundamental rights – the freedom of the press, the rights of assembly and association. Those who have built an autocratic order have learned from this. They do not allow themselves the luxury of being voted out at an election where there is the real possibility of a variety of outcomes.

But if this is so, why is it not a dictatorship?

Dictatorships and autocracies do share some common features. One is that in every important issue; indeed, often even in less significant matters, it is the leader who makes decisions. But there are also significant differences. A dictatorship abolishes the multi-party system by law as well. The opposition is not weak; it is non-existent. It is driven underground. In contrast, opposition forces are allowed to function in an autocracy. Autocracies also make use of intimidation, but they do not go as far as extracting confessions by torture or executing large numbers of people. Many people have good reason to be afraid in autocracies as well because they may be thrown out of their jobs or become victims of character assassination; maybe they will be arrested on trumped up charges. But anybody who believes that there is only a difference of degree between autocracy and dictatorship has not yet lived under a dictatorship. Having said this, autocracies do have a tendency to turn into dictatorships. Maybe modern Turkey will illustrate this, almost before our very eyes. We shall see whether they reach the stage of complete, total dictatorship.

You did not list nationalism as one of the characteristics of autocracy. In Hungary, however, one has the impression that they go hand in hand.

I tried to mention only those characteristics of autocracy that appear exclusively in this political-governmental structure; that is, the features which differentiate it from democracy and dictatorship. An obvious counter-example would be corruption, which can be observed in all three types. Innumerable cases of corruption crop up in certain democracies, while there are puritan dictatorships in which money cannot buy everything. Unfortunately, nationalism is another anomalous phenomenon: democracy does not make us immune to it. One of the most tragic examples of this is the period of World War I, when a wave of nationalism swept through both sides; through both of the coalitions that were to go to war against each other. It was a nationalist thirst for revenge that was at work in the politicians of Western European democracies when they imposed humiliating and impossible peace terms on Germany. In this context, to take a great leap through history, the Trump phenomenon is worth mentioning. One of the great parties of the United States nominates the extreme nationalist Trump for the presidency. Even if he does not win the elections, the political camp that supports him will remain strong, and because the United States is a democracy, they will make their voices heard. Recently, a strong wave of nationalism has been felt in Great Britain as well.

What is your impression of Hungarian nationalism?

I am really worried about it getting stronger, not for myself, but for the future of the country. Because I do not deny that in Hungary autocracy and nationalism go hand in hand. An autocrat is indeed able to turn the wave of nationalism to his own advantage; Trump is doing the same. The main element of his rhetoric is xenophobia, especially against Latin Americans. He adds that the gates are too wide open also to immigrants from overseas, and rejects President Obama’s suggestion that ten thousand Syrian refugees should be allowed to the country. By the way, communist dictatorships that advocated internationalist theories were nationalistic as well. Non-Russian minorities were oppressed in the Soviet Union, and the same can be said of non-Chinese ethnic groups and speakers in China. Nationalism exists in both dictatorships and democracies, not only in autocracies.

In this conceptual framework why do you define Viktor Orbán’s system as an autocracy?

Because it bears in itself all the important characteristics of autocracy, both its primary and its secondary features. This period started with the leader announcing that he intended to establish a system which would last for at least ten or twenty years. He declared that he wanted to cement himself in place. Since the day he came to power, he and his party have been continuously dismantling the system of checks and balances. Not like in a revolution, when they take over every powerful position at the same time, but step by step. Every week, something has happened. One of the first things they did was to reduce the Constitutional Court’s sphere of authority and pack the Court with people connected to Fidesz. Then came the new media law, which created almost endless opportunities for government propaganda. They also took over a significant part of the private media. The bureaucratic dismantling of checks and balances is combined with the use of market methods. The process culminated in the changing of the law on elections.

You write that the interplay of anti-market and anti-democratic elements has formed Orbán Viktor’s system into a coherent one; the mechanism of the state does not work according to the rules of the capitalist market economy. So how does it work?

Even in democracies it is taken for granted that the market cannot be left entirely to its own devices: there is not a single economist with any common sense who would oppose some regulation here and there when there is a real reason for it. In cases of monopoly, state regulation is clearly necessary. Even then, mistakes can be made. For example, the authorities may set prices too high or too low because they don’t understand the situation or are incompetent. Too high, and whoever is running the monopoly will make a handsome profit; too low, and they will make a loss. It is possible for regulation to be done badly as a result of incompetence, but it can also happen if other people’s interests, for example. cronies’, are prioritized. A business can be ruined through regulation so that a friend or client can buy it up cheaply. The tendency towards regulation that is not compatible with the functioning of the market is one of the characteristics of an autocracy. The Hungarian government exercises far more regulatory power than would be reasonable. There are numerous possible underlying motives for their unnecessary, excessive and – not infrequently – distinctly damaging interventions. On the one hand, the central authorities wish to extend their power across as many activities as possible. The knowledge that “I control everything: nothing can happen without me” is a very powerful motivation. An equally strong motive is the need to court political popularity, to make populist promises.

What are the results when autocracy works this way?

It is a mistake to believe that there are so many things wrong with the economy, that because of the numerous incompetent and biased interventions it functions so erratically, that it is bound to collapse in the end. This may happen, but it is by no means bound to happen. A state that gets along badly with the market does not push the economy over the edge into catastrophe; it just makes it harder for it to fulfill its potential. It will not be innovative enough, not competitive enough; it will lose the best experts. This will become obvious only in the long run. The trams still run, only more rarely, the teachers complain, but teaching doesn’t stop, health care is beset by dire problems, but they still try to look after patients in hospitals. It is not that the economy is unable to function, only that it fails to achieve as much as it could. As a result, it falls behind its rivals, behind those countries where the state and the market work together in greater harmony, where people involved in the economy discuss what they have to do, where they listen to people before passing laws that affect them. In the past, I had many arguments with people who claimed that the Soviet economy did not work. The truth is that it did not collapse until the very end: it functioned, however badly and inefficiently, in spite of all the well-known, serious inadequacies and problems. It fell further and further behind its historic rival, the capitalist West. The question arises: does the state play a lesser role in a democracy than in an autocracy? At any rate, it would never occur to anybody in the U.S. or the Scandinavian welfare states that education should be brought under the control of a single center, as has happened in the Hungarian autocracy.

Every day we hear Fidesz trotting out some of the well-known catchwords of socialism. They promise full employment, they consider state ownership superior; they utter anti- profit slogans. Are they leading the country back to socialism? Is that what they want to restore? Even in a different form?

I do not see any danger of this. At the time of the regime change, people used to say “You can make an omelet out of an egg, but an omelet will never turn back into an egg.” Whatever happened is irreversible. Autocrats coexist happily with capitalism. Indeed, it is the only system they can really coexist with because they make use of the opportunities offered by capitalism to maintain their own authority. Looking at it from the other side, some capitalists are attracted to stable and authoritarian governments. Many western or multinational companies that have set up shop in China would not like the situation there to change. It is just the same in Hungary. Anybody who enjoys special advantages in public procurements and certain tenders, in the opening times of shops or the purchase of raw materials, who can count in bailouts if they get into financial difficulties, they are having a good time. In autocracies, given the private economy, a wide circle of clients can be built up from the supporters of the system who receive financial support. They can pay for these favors if and when the time comes. Far from wishing to bring socialism back, this regime gets on very well indeed with capitalism.

Has this system reached a point where the government can no longer be voted out of power?

Only the historians of the future will be able to answer that question. If it turns out that the government can be removed peacefully, in a civilized way, in the voting booth, then I have been wrong. I’m not making any predictions. What I can say is this: in Hungary, the regime has done and will continue to do everything possible to make itself irremovable. I hope you will not misunderstand me: the last thing I want to do with my analyses is to discourage those who are prepared to fight to change the situation. People for whom the values of democracy are important: individual autonomy, freedom of speech, freedom of the media and press, constitutionalism, legality, rule of law–they should not make their behavior dependent on the likelihood of change. They should not lie low during these years, but they should act, in their own ways, using the methods of their choice.

December 29, 2016

László Kövér on liberals, socialists, and the nation state

I was somewhat surprised that László Kövér, president of the Hungarian Parliament, within the course of a week gave not one but two very long interviews. The first appeared on June 26 in Pesti Srácok, an internet site catering to the far right of Fidesz loyalists and well-endowed by means of government advertising. The second was published on July 2 in Magyar Hírlap, an equally right radical organ owned by billionaire Gábor Széles.

As usual, these lengthy interviews covered many topics, from Brexit and migration to party politics at home. In deciding what to analyze, I ruled out Kövér’s comments about George Soros and the European Union, which only repeated what his fellow politicians have been saying ad nauseam. Moreover, most of Kövér’s views on European politics are so bizarre that they can be safely ignored.  The only thing that caught my eye was his visible rejoicing over the rise of the extreme right in some Western European countries. His message was: what wonderful lessons they are delivering to Brussels. As he put it, “By now the people of Europe have awakened and share our views.” He was clearly delighted by the results of the Dutch referendum which rejected a Ukraine-European Union treaty to forge closer political and economic ties. And he deemed the Austrian presidential election results “a smack in the face” that EU politicians deserved.

As Kövér’s statements demonstrate, the current leaders of Hungary openly and without shame identify with far-right groups that are gaining strength in France, Germany, Austria, and elsewhere. It is time to acknowledge that there is only one country in Europe that is being governed by a far-right political party, and that is Hungary. (Although the Polish government is trying to imitate the “Orbán miracle,” so far the imitation is pale.)

Kövér’s ideas about the nation and the socialist-liberal political forces place him solidly in the far-right camp. His thoughts were most fully spelled out in his interview with Magyar Hírlap. Kövér, by all indications, fervently believes in the necessity of nation states. If they were destroyed, which he maintains the socialists and liberals want to do, it would result in a tragedy akin to the Chernobyl disaster.

Moreover, a multicultural society, another ideal of the left, would be the end of the social order in Europe. Just look at what happened in Yugoslavia. The internecine war of the 1990s was the direct result of “Yugoslavism,” the forced gathering of different nations into a federated state. Once the conflict was over, liberal analysts came to the conclusion that “religion and nation” had been the culprits. They insisted that once national and religious differences disappear, war will become obsolete. But human beings “instinctively want to belong to a community in which the predictable behavior of others offers them security, [which] can be achieved only by sharing a common culture.”

Liberals, who can be found everywhere, even in Christian Democratic and conservative parties, want to create a multicultural society in Europe. Their “model is the United States.” What does Kövér’s United States look like? “There is no national culture there. The community is held together by external bonds, like cheap fuel, the artificially maintained myth of equal opportunity, and their belief in their superiority, their star-spangled banner, and their knowledge that they are able to put the rest of world in its place if a given president is in the mood.”

Kövér2

Kövér’s hatred of the socialists and the liberals, which is palpable in every word he utters, stems from his conviction that they are, by virtue of their rootless cosmopolitanism, the gravediggers of the nation. In the Pesti Srácok interview he elaborates on this point. Liberals and socialists, like some of the politicians of DK, “have been poisoning the air here and undermining our community for at least the last 120 years.” They are not part of the nation but are a cosmopolitan group, “people without a country” (hazátlan társaság). One cannot read these descriptions without suspecting that, in addition to communists, socialists, and liberals, the Hungarian Jewry is also included in this “hazátlan társaság.” All the markers of anti-Semitism are present here.

In Kövér’s eyes, the socialists can still redeem themselves “as long as they break with their anti-national heritage, which reached its moral nadir under Gyurcsány.” MSZP should be truly independent and “not the pawn of outside forces.” Who are these outside forces? Naturally, the liberals. For Kövér, “the big question is whether MSZP will team up with those Gyurcsány-types who betrayed their nation (nemzetárulók).” But MSZP’s remaining an independent party is not enough for its survival. It must abandon its age-old ideology of internationalism because if it cannot be a “national party,” it will simply disappear from Hungarian political life. One ought to be careful of advice coming from one’s enemies, and there is no question that Kövér is a mortal enemy of those he views as traitors. His advice would lead MSZP into oblivion given the electoral law Fidesz devised for itself.

Kövér’s parting words to the reporters of Pesti Srácok were: “We must set straight not only the history of 1956 but Hungarian history in its entirety.” This will entail of course a new kind of “national nurturing” (nemzetnevelés), which in effect means brainwashing children. He sadly noted that nothing happened in this arena after 1990, and even 2010 didn’t bring a real change. “Today the intellectual heirs of those who had earlier wanted to erase the past in the name of proletarian internationalism still want to dictate to us.” Obviously, they must be removed from all positions. In their place a new set of intellectuals lights, the likes of Sándor Szakály, will interpret history and nurture the masses in the national spirit.

July 3, 2016

Viktor Orbán’s democracy: Nationalism, pure and simple

We should have gotten accustomed to the fact that by now that news about Hungary and its prime minister is an everyday occurrence. Just today I encountered well over 100 articles about Viktor Orbán in newspapers as well as on internet news sites, from Azerbaijan to Sweden. Most of the articles I came across were from Germany where Viktor Orbán’s interview with Kai Diekmann, the publisher of Bild, created quite a stir.

Kai Diekmann and Viktor Orbán / Business Insider

Kai Diekmann and Viktor Orbán / Business Insider

From Orbán’s awkward and occasionally wrong word usage, I assume that the interview was conducted in English, with not the best results. For example, the sentence that is most often commented on in the German press is: “Today, the voices coming from Berlin are coarse, rough, and aggressive.”

Orbán has never been known for his diplomatic skills, and since he has achieved a certain, in my opinion dubious, fame in Europe he thinks he can say practically anything with impunity. For example, when Diekmann quoted Jean-Claude Juncker’s claim that “history will prove Ms. Merkel right,” Orbán’s answer was rude and demeaning. He said, “I think the course of history will not be bothered by Mr. Juncker…. Let us see how history one day will judge Chancellor Merkel without Mr. Juncker’s help.”

The German people will read with delight Viktor Orbán’s opinion that “we owe nothing to Germany, and the Germans owe nothing to us. Germany has supported us in becoming a member of the EU. We are grateful for that. But then Hungary has opened its market for all EU states. Everybody has profited from that. So we are square.” When asked about Hungary’s relations with “the controversial Polish government,” Orbán answered: “I can only say that the peoples of Central Europe and Hungary are a community in fate, to the death. Many of us would spill our blood for Poland any time. And vice versa: in an emergency, many Polish people would give his life to protect Hungarians. This has happened more than once over the course of history.”

Two days ago I brought up my puzzlement over a sentence that Viktor Orbán uttered at the quickly organized press conference at which he announced his decision to hold a referendum on the compulsory refugee quotas. He said at that time that voting against this question would be a proof of loyalty to the country. “Because how could someone be loyal as long as others decide the most important questions?” I added that it didn’t matter how hard I tried to follow Orbán’s logic, I couldn’t see the connection between loyalty and the matter on hand. This interview sheds some light on the subject. Orbán has a very strange definition of “the basic principle of democracy,” which “in the end is loyalty to the nation.” What an incredible, unfathomable statement. Democracy according to this confused man equals nationalism.

At this point I would like to interject a quotation I jotted down from Ian Kershaw’s masterful two-volume biography of Hitler, which I’m in the middle of reading. These lines are from the first volume, Hitler, 1889-1936: Hubris:

It was more than anything else the ways nationalism had developed in late nineteenth-century Germany that provided the set of ideas that, if often in distorted–even perverted–form, offered the potential for Nazism’s post-war appeal…. Crucial to the character of German nationalism was the pervasive sense … of incomplete unity, of persistent, even widening division and conflict within the nation. What, in the changed conditions after the war, Hitler was able most signally to exploit was the belief that pluralism was somehow unnatural and unhealthy in society, that it was a sign of weakness, and that internal division and disharmony could be suppressed and eliminated, to be replaced by the unity of a national community. (p. 136)

Compare that with Viktor Orbán’s speech at a Fidesz picnic in September 2009 in Kötcse:

Today it is realistically conceivable that in the coming fifteen-twenty years, Hungarian politics should be determined not by the dualistic field of force bringing with it never conclusive and divisive value debates, which quite unnecessarily generate social problems. Instead, a great governing party comes in place, a central field of force, which will be able to articulate the national issues and to stand for these policies as a natural course of things to be taken for granted without the constantly ongoing wrangling.

In brief, differences of opinion, any kind of political division, are signs of weakness in Orbán’s worldview just as the German variety of nationalism feared ethnic and religious differences. So, it is no wonder that Orbán called his regime the “System of National Cooperation.” If you don’t cooperate, you are not part of this nation. Fidesz and its supporters defend the national interest so if someone criticizes Orbán’s policies, this person is the enemy of the nation. As we know, this kind of striving for national unity usually ends in disaster.

By defending the nation Orbán claims to be defending democracy. When Diekmann pressed him on his policies, which may lead to the division of Europe, Orbán’s answer was that “the quota is reframing the ethnic, cultural and religious profile of Hungary and Europe. I have not decided this way against Europe, but for protecting European democracy.”

From these statements we learn that Orbán is defending not democracy but nationalism. At least this time he told the truth.

February 26, 2016