András Bruck’s new encounter with George Orwell’s 1984

Before the holidays I wrote two posts dealing with different interpretations of the system Viktor Orbán established in Hungary in the last three and a half years. Now I offer yet another analysis, this time by András Bruck. It appeared only a week ago in Élet és Irodalom.  Bruck is one of the most astute, and most radical, observers of Hungarian political life. His conclusion is that all those on the left who claim that Hungary is still “a kind of democracy” are kidding themselves. Bruck makes no bones about it: he considers Orbán’s Hungary a dictatorship pure and simple. His essay, which I summarize here, deals with the similarities between George Orwell’s nightmarish Nineteen Eighty-four and Orbán’s Hungary today.

Orwell’s Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-four were on the list of forbidden books in Hungary until the mid-1980s, but a few people did manage to get copies already in the 1960s. I personally received requests from friends to bring them along in either 1967 or 1968. It seems that Bruck managed to get hold of a copy only sometime in the early 1980s. He was disappointed. The book was about “a different bad world” from the one in which he lived. While making love he felt neither fear nor hatred. He didn’t consider the three famous slogans of Ingsoc, WAR IS PEACE, FREEDOM IS SLAVERY, IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH appropriate for Kádár’s Hungary.

This spring he found his copy of Nineteen Eighty-four in the bottom of a box: “it lay there like a skeleton but this time the dead came to life.” Bruck reached the conclusion that “every word of that book from the first to the last is about this sick, deformed regime in which, just like in the novel, the binding agent of power is lying.” Everything  means the opposite of what it is officially called. The Manifesto of National Cooperation is the document of national division; the Peace March is actually a battle march, just as in Orwell’s book the Ministry of Peace concerns itself with war. The leaders of these marches are the messengers of hatred, men like Gábor Széles, Zsolt Bayer, and András Bencsik.

Today’s government party has its own Emmanuel Goldstein–Ferenc Gyurcsány, the number one enemy of the people whom it is a patriotic duty to hate. Many of those who are the loudest in his condemnation know nothing about him just as Julia, Winston’s lover, doesn’t have the foggiest idea who Goldstein was.

In Orbán’s Hungary words have lost their meaning. In his world “Hungarian ownership” actually means handing property, factories, land to his own family, friends, and minions. To be national and Hungarian means to agree with his and his government’s decisions. If he says that Hungary’s economy is the most competitive in the region, it means that the country is sliding downward. When he says that everybody in Europe is envious of us this means that everybody is horrified at the changes that have taken place in Hungary since 2010.

Orwell 3

Hungarians are often amazed at Orbán’s temerity when they hear that he is capable of saying one thing one day and on the next its exact opposite. But in Orwell’s novel Winston Smith wonders how it is possible that one day the announcement is made that the chocolate ration was reduced to twenty grams and the next day people are told that it was raised to twenty grams. “Was it possible that they could swallow that, after only twenty-four hours? Yes, they swallowed it.”

Then, Bruck quotes a few sentences from Nineteen Eighty-four that he finds appropriate:

“If the facts say otherwise then the facts must be altered.”

“The fabulous statistics continued to pour out of the telescreen.”

One “should have the mentality appropriate to a state of war. It doesn’t matter whether the war is actually happening.”

“To change one’s mind, or even one’s policy, is a confession of weakness.”

“The proles are not human beings.”

“The old civilizations claimed that they were founded on love or justice. Ours is founded upon hatred.”

Bruck finds all these in Orbán’s system. Even anti-Orbán analysts don’t understand the nature of the system. They simply refuse to acknowledge that there is dictatorship in Hungary. “But if you deny it you must act as if there is democracy or in the worst case it is a mafia state.” After the disgraceful speech Orbán delivered on October 23 in which “he tossed half the nation in front of a coming train” left-wing analysts on ATV had barely anything to say. “They analyzed. They know and declare that there is no morality and decency in the world of politics and if cannibalism would bring votes then it is the good politician who would chew half an arm right there in the studio.”

Winston Smith, although well versed in the system of Ingsoc, understood how the regime operated but “he didn’t understand why.” In Hungary the left-wing intellectual elite, very much like Smith, can’t understand why Orbán hamstrings the schools, why he drains all the assets of the banks, why he creates hatred, why he makes the lives of the poor even more miserable, why he appoints all those half-wits to important jobs, why he isolates his country, why he turns to the dictators of the tundra, why he wants to see his political opponents in jail, why he takes others’ money, in brief why he is behaving like a dictator. Surely, Bruck continues, all this is not done only to let the mafia state move money more easily from one oligarch to the next. Was all this barbarity introduced only to make it easy for one company to get all the tenders offered by the state? Clearly, Bruck doesn’t believe in the theory of the mafia state.

The answer to Smith’s question about the “why” of the Orwellian state comes from O’Brien: “The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power.” Bruck here says, “At last! Someone at last said it. In the depth of my soul I wished for such a sentence. So besides the sheer wanting of power, besides the psychology of the totalitarian mind, there is nothing else…. there is no ideology, no vision, no ideas about the future.”

In order for a dictatorship to function one needs consciously created ignorance, which goes together with the falsification of history. According to Bruck, Orbán and Fidesz began by falsifying the history of the first twenty years that followed the regime change. Then they rewrote the history of 1944, and on October 23 they began the falsification of the history of ’56. Winston Smith says in 1984 that “if the Party could thrust its hand into the past and say of this or that event, it never happened–that, surely, was  more terrifying than mere torture and death.” Or later: “And if all others accepted the  lie which the Party imposed–if all records told the same tale–then the lie passed into history and became truth.” After all, Bruck adds, a new historical institute is already planned whose name will be Veritas. Perhaps in a better future it can more appropriately be called the Institute of Mendacity. “What else is waiting for us? A few more years and we won the battle of the Don. And not one Jew was deported because the governor didn’t allow it…. Not even the present is taboo anymore. Only recently the prime minister announced that there was no revolution in 2010 when he himself earlier said that there was one, which was endorsed by parliament.” O’Brien has something to say about this also: “One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship.”

Bruck bitterly concludes his essay with these words. “So, luckily we don’t have to worry because the prime minister himself denies that there was a revolution in Hungary while the whole Hungarian left denies the existence of dictatorship. So, it seems all is well.”

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55 comments

  1. @Kirsten: “So what is gained by dictatorship?”

    Clarity.

    I may be an optimist, but I wouldn’t extrapolate the current tepid interest in democracy in Hungary for the long run. Like I said, it takes time for people to realize how a dictatorial power affects their lives in very essential ways and that the only way out of the situation is to rise up against it. Dictators have two tools: demagogy and intimidation (force). First, demagogy works its charms, and many fall for the promise of a bright future. Then there is disappointment,disillusionment, denial, and lies on the part of the rulers to mislead the population into believing that what they are experiencing is in fact bright. This can only work for so long. At some point because of intimidation, fear and apathy is setting in… but these again are only temporary. In the end.people will WANT change, and I am convinced that in Hungary it will mean a turn back towards wanting democracy, and that’s when democracy is going to happen.

    As for insisting on having “free elections” as a kind of final criteria as to whether a regime is a dictatorship or a democracy… you can use that benchmark if you want. I think the mode of operation of the Orban regime is already dictatorial, not democratic. As the population will slowly turn away from the regime, the workings of the regime will only become more dictatorial. Now, if we are lucky, at some point, when the regime is weak enough, it will be possible to use democratic means to get rid of it, but I wouldn’t hold my breath. Orban will not let go of power. Maybe the best we can hope for is a Berlusconi type of “democratic” exit (even that took enormous financial pressure and pressure from the EU).

    Finally, I do not suggest that by defining Orban’s regime a dictatorship (or dictatorial, if you wish) means that Hungarians have a good excuse to do nothing. It is even more so important for the opposition to get organized, unite, and offer some kind of viable alternative to the current regime. They need to work on weakening the regime in any way possible.. the more pressure they can put on Orban, the more obviously he will manifest the features of a dictator and the sooner his regime will crumble.

  2. Kirsten: “To stress that it is a dictatorship puts the responsibility for the situation on a few persons. This is what I find unfortunate. You need to mobilise people and you can still use legal methods to do so. So what is gained by “dictatorship”.”

    Very well put. I’d like to add what I wrote before, it also lifts responsibility from others. Mesterházy, Bajnai and Gyurcsány have to take the blame for a defeat proportional to their responsibility (make no mistake it will be a vicious fight to sort out who is responsible for what) and the ordinary citizen has to take responsibility for staying passive. We are not at the point yet where we have no choice.

  3. I think, that expecting a popular demand for democracy somehow premature.
    Particularly, because the perception/interpretation of democracy, – say, the true meaning of it, not only a definition – isn’t clear to the most people, not even some politicians. Just remember, when you hear “majority rules, no matter what” – how much has it to do with democracy?
    Here comes into the picture – after all – the Hungarian history and the above quoted Bibó by Kristen too: there is a lot still unclear, and if we try to skip the work the history will turn back and bite us, as I think just about to happen.

    Unfortunately the last couple of decade couldn’t change much in the Hungarian mindset, that’s why they sacrifice their democratic rights, free will and integrity without much resistance. Democracy per se has precious little value to the average citizen, as I see it.
    Any change, if ever comes, probably will follow one of the scenarios An mentioned, and I still wouldn’t bet that it will happen purely for democracy, rather against something or someone.

    In regard of the present situation and our esteemed ruler: Orbán definitely all aware of the boundaries which within he could play the EU compliancy while oppressing and exploiting the people at the same time. I have no doubt, that there will be no formal complain even after the elections – everything goes by the book.

    The only question remains, that it will be the ‘Winnie the Pooh”, the ‘Bible’ or the ‘Mein Kampf’..?

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