The present political system, introduced and refined over the last five years, has wide support. Not as wide as it was in April-May 2010, but Viktor Orbán’s party still has about one million followers. This is the hardcore, those who will never question the wisdom of the Leader. Where are these people coming from? This is the question Rudolf Ungváry is trying to answer in this book.

NyugatHe focuses on the divide between the two political groups who, to use János Kis’s words, “have been at war with each other in the last one hundred years.” Ungváry avoids the by now practically meaningless terms “right” and “left”and instead draws the line between “democrats” and the “nemzetiek.” The former at one point were called “nyugatosok” after a famous periodical Nyugat (The West) around which they gathered. Later, between the two world wars, they were known as “urbánosok” (urbanites). They were the ones who believed in progress, they longed for western democracy, they wanted to modernize the country. The other group, the nationalists, have been suspicious of the West ever since the late eighteenth century. They rejected the imitation of western ways. Instead they glorified the common folk, especially the Hungarian peasant, who in their eyes held the key to the true Hungarian soul. It was from this group that the so-called “népiesek” came, a group of writers and sociologists who spent their creative energies writing novels and studies about the Hungarian peasantry. This latter group can be profitably compared to the Russian narodnik movement. And continuing to use Russia as a point of reference, the Hungarian divide between these two groups is analogous to the nineteenth-century Russian Westernizer and Slavophile movements.

Because of the relative backwardness of Hungary, the liberal group remained small even as, especially after the end of World War I, the Hungarian right gained considerable momentum. These people were never enamored of the West, but their dislike of Western ways intensified since they blamed the western powers for the cruel fate that befell their nation. The number of civil groups formed by extreme right-wingers multiplied. The people who gathered in these associations were sworn enemies of liberalism, they harbored a real hatred of the Hungarian industrialists who were mostly of Jewish origin, they were against modernization, they put their faith in the Hungarian peasantry, and above all they wanted to reconquer their land from the Jews. Some of them imagined a “third road” which would enable Hungary to create a unique system which was neither capitalism nor socialism. The incredible thing about all this is that these concepts, which people thought had long been forgotten, were revived after the change of regime. The “népiesek,” “nemzetiek” gathered in MDF while the “nyugatosok,” “urbanites” established SZDSZ. And there was even talk about the “third road,” naturally promoted by politicians of MDF.

Ungváry analyzes the results of the 1939 election, which proved to be an eye opener. According to a law enacted in 1925, only inhabitants of larger cities could vote by secret ballot. In the villages voting was open. In 1938, the secret ballot was introduced everywhere. The result was an incredible growth of the extreme right Arrow Cross Party of Ferenc Szálasi. On the right there was also a large group of voters whom we usually refer to as “the Christian middle class” or “keresztény úri osztály.” The liberals and socialists were in the great minority all through the interwar period, but after 1939 they became truly irrelevant. And yet a few years later this large mass of right-wing voters disappeared into thin air. Or did they?

With the Soviet occupation and the subsequent establishment of the Rákosi regime the members of the Hungarian right had no place in political life. Right-wing parties were forbidden to enter the early post-war elections, and therefore the proponents of the Hungarian right couldn’t go through the kind of development that took place in countries occupied by U.S., British, or French troops. The ideas of the Hungarian right became frozen in their pre-1945 form, only to reemerge after 1990 to the great surprise of liberals and socialists. And with their reemergence came the growth of the extreme right, anti-Semitism, anti-capitalism, and anti-democratic ideas.

Members of the Hungarian right carried on the “nemzeti” tradition within their own families, passing on to their offspring family traditions, including stories of the grievances they suffered at the hands of the communists. A lot of people felt they were victims of the regime, perhaps more than the actual numbers warranted. Family stories became inflated. Suddenly everybody had a peasant grandfather whose whole crop was taken away by force. These are the people that today are the loyal followers of Viktor Orbán, whose own family was not a victim but rather a beneficiary of the socialist system.

Rudolf Ungváry in his other works often talks about the fact that Hungary was and still is a country where the “nemzeti” right-wing people are in the majority. A few years back he engaged in a lively debate about this thesis with such academics as János Kis and Zoltán Ripp. If we accept Ungváry’s division of the two political sides as “democrats” and “nemzetiek,” then I’m afraid the “democrats/liberals” were definitely a minority before 1945. What the situation is today we don’t know, although within a couple of years we should have a fair idea of the relative strength of the democrats and the non-democrats.

Ungváry stresses the importance of political culture, which determines the state of a political system. Although the Hungarian democratic tradition has been weak so far, perhaps one day Hungarians will be able to say loud and clear: “I am … a mortal enemy to arbitrary government and unlimited power. I am naturally very jealous for the rights and liberties of my country; and the least appearance of an encroachment on those invaluable privileges is apt to make my blood boil exceedingly.” It was the sixteen-year-old Benjamin Franklin who uttered these words in 1722. It is that kind of political culture which has been missing in Hungary.


  1. Mike Balint,

    Thanks for the concise and accurate defense of my views – you can be fair, that’s certain.

    You wrote: “And by the way, one swallow does not a summer make. I am referring to this current spate of single issue random demonstrations in Budapest by a few thousand or tens of thousand of mainly left wing participants. If Orbán and his Mafia get sick and tired of this, he can always order another “Peace March” with hundred and fifty or two hundred thousand or even a lot more participants, to show just who is the boss in Hungariy, and Bayer and his ilk and the masses of hard core Fidesz and Jobbik supporters will only be too happy to oblige.”

    You may have missed the comment I made yesterday along those very lines, after which I was ridiculed by Jean P (once again, I reacted in a thin-skinned way with that person – I guess I’m getting fed up with all the infighting among those who oppose Orbán). I made the further point that most Hungarian voters, at this point in time, will be happy with a small sop thrown to them, just like the students were (nobody on this blog seems to remember those student protests, and how they quickly evaporated).

    However, I also made the point that these demonstrations can be useful in finally starting the reform process among the leftist opposition, which is essential if there is ever going to be a return of democracy to Hungary. The fact that the protesters seem to be almost as hostile to MSZP as to Fidesz should be a wake-up call to MSZP to finally seriously reform or break into pieces, one of which could be the kernel of a new, pro-capitalist, pro-liberal-democracy party which can lead Hungary out of the wilderness. MSZP might be a strange party to spawn such a creation, but DK is largely a splinter of MSZP, which had become more of a coalition-type grouping of people with disparate views that range from left-wing to center-right. Of course, if there had been no Öszöd speech and no global financial crisis, we would probably still be on the capitalist, liberal-democratic road right now, with MSZP somewhere in the coalition.

    This is why I still fervently disagree with your description of the composition of the intellectual elite of Hungary. Somebody on this blog pointed out that a majority of the youth in the Hungarian elite have Jobbik leanings, which may well be true (I have met none of them, yet I know many educated Hungarians under 30), but the youth are, by nature, callow and unformed in their political views. Besides, the ones who shape opinions are mostly older, and there are plenty of them who are pro-capitalist and pro-liberal democracy. You mention the Christian-Democrats, but my experience is that there are not nearly as many of them as one might think. Religion is not very popular in this country, except as an “ethnic” or ancestry marker. Just because someone says he is Catholic doesn’t mean that he has ever gone to church or even agrees with the teachings and policy positions of that church – it just means that his ancestors did. From what I’ve read, that’s especially true among the Jewish population of Hungary. Therefore I say that those people who constituted the majority of the intellectual elite a mere 8 years ago have not all left Hungary or irrevocably closed their minds to “Western” values. They may be dying off, but there are plenty of them around – they are just keeping their unfashionable views to themselves, or are choosing what they currently perceive to be the lesser of two evils. Do some personal research, with an open mind, by reaching out to some of those whom you assume are “Christian Democrats” (who are perfectly capable of being pro-capitalist and pro-liberal democracy”, believe me. Also, look at how well DK, a pro-capitalist and pro-liberal-democracy party, has been doing, even in the current, hostile environment, while being led by the perceived devil incarnate.

    Finally, what you wrote about Hungarians goes well beyond saying that they are not capable of being pro-market and pro-liberal-democracy anytime soon – you extended that deficiency to the end of time, meaning that they can never, ever get there. If you paint a group of people like that, then you are saying that they are deficient in an important area of their humanity, namely their ability to adapt to new paradigms and to comprehend important concepts of social, economic and political organisation. That is exactly the sort of thing that probably doomed the Neanderthals to become a mere genetic echo in the race that surpassed and replaced them, homo sapiens sapiens, so that is where the charge of sub-human enters the equation. It is not the first time a group of people has been accused, en-masse and without evidence, of being collectively genetically inferior – not even the first time it has occurred right here in Hungary, in the past century. I’m sure you know what I’m talking about.

    Of course, if you misspoke, or can explain how I misinterpreted what you wrote, then by all means I apologise for the inference.

  2. Googly

    You write well.

    I readily agree on most of your points in your paragraphs 1-4.

    In respect of your paragraph 5, I would like to point out that I was not referring to Christian Democrats, but to Christian Nationalists. A big difference. As you say, the “Christian” descriptor refers, of course, mostly to the religious beliefs of the forebears of today’s Christian Nationalists. By definition, being a Christian Nationalist in Hungary in practice means the non-Jewish (by origin) and non-Gypsy members of the Hungarian language community. In other words, Christian Nationalists are those “True Hungarians” who regard themselves as sole and exclusive repositories of True Hungarian Nationhood and perforce the sole members of the Hungarian Nation. They are the Pure Folk, as idealised in the figure of the Peasant, as against the degenerate, malevolent and despised “urbanites”, represented by the figure of the Jew.

    This is in contradistinction to citizenship of the Hungarian State, which of course sadly and unavoidably includes people regarded by True Hungarians as truly “subhumans”, like the Evil Jews and the Criminal Gypsies. And in this case we are talking about categories of people who really are regarded as “subhumans” by the Hungarian street, and are not merely disingenuous rhetorical contortions, like the constructions you persist in attempting to put on what I have said about the obdurate incapacity of Hungarians of the Hungarian street, and indeed most Hungarian intellectuals of Christian Nationalist persuasion – or indeed, of various socialist(ic)/egalitarian persuasion of one sort or another – to change into pro-capitalist liberal democrats. With all credit to the exceptions that prove the rule.

    Let me be blunt. Like the rest of Eastern Europe, Hungary has little or no democratic tradition, not to mention a liberal, pro-capitalist democratic tradition. The whole region has been tragically retarded in developing a modern middle class that would have been the primary carriers and practitioners of modernity. In Hungary’s case, in particular, there has been a pervasive distrust and fear of democracy ever since the nationalities problem in 19th century Greater Hungary within the Dual Monarchy. But in contrast with the rest of Eastern Europe, there had certainly been a period of booming capitalism in Hungary during the half century from Jewish Emancipation to World War One, subsequent to the compact between the Christian-liberal aristocratic leadership of the Kingdom of Hungary and the Jewry in Hungary, whereby the Jews would be emancipated and given a free hand in modernizing Hungary in return for registering themselves as Hungarians, and thereby boosting the Hungarian-registered population of the Kingdom of Hungary from less than fifty percent to more than fifty percent. But that era of rapid capitalist and cultural development driven by Jewish enterprise took place in a highly undemocratic context, and was in any case doomed to come to a dreadful end, once the nationalities problem largely disappeared in the wake of Trianon, and the hapless Hungarian Jews, desperately wanting to assimilate and melt away into that True Hungarian Nationhood by any and all means, in fact found themselves to be an unwanted foreign body within the sacred corpora of True Hungarian Nationhood. After this, it only took two decades of authoritarian rule to get to the disaster of the Hungarian Holocaust, which was then followed by the disaster of four decades of Communist dictatorship.

    Speaking from a historical perspective, it is therefore completely unsurprising that the democratic experiment started after the 1989 regime change in Hungary utterly failed by 2010. My view is that it would have utterly failed even without the onset of the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, primarily because of Orbán’s extra-parliamentary tactics on the Hungarian street and his appeals to “freedom fighting” and Horthyist nostalgia, which are major buttons in the psyche of the Hungarian street and non-liberal Hungarian intellectuals, and political comfort zones for the vast majority of Hungarians desperately scared of the challenges of a pro-market liberal democracy. But it would have of course also necessarily failed because of the ineptitude and corruption of the MSZP/SZDSZ coalition governments, which was largely a consequence of a lack of democratic traditions in Hungary. After all, KISZ secretaryships or senior positions in an increasingly corrupt Kádár administration hardly provided particularly good or appropriate experiential bases for liberal democratic governance by an emerging left of centre political elite.

    So yes, I would indeed need some very hard empirical evidence, facts and results on the board, before I could begin to believe that Hungarians had become capable of leaving behind their historic obdurate incapacity to change for the better and become liberal democrats

    And as long as the vast majority of the opinion-leading and opinion-forming elite is not of strongly pro-capitalist, liberal democratic persuasion, one can hardly expect the peasants, labourers, lumpenprolatariat and lower middle class of Hungary to suddenly become upholders and practitioners of pro-capitalist liberal democratic values and virtues. By which I don’t mean the rent-seeking “capitalism” as practiced in Hungary over the past two and a half decades, which is in fact best described as both primitive “robber capitalism” and sophisticated “crony capitalism”, neither of which is tolerable in a liberal democracy. And by the way, the Global Financial Crisis was due primarily to defective government regulation of the market, rather than any problem with capitalism itself, which after all is merely a descriptor of the systematic exchange of economic value for economic value.

    But I do agree with you that we should always hope for change, in so far as the anti-liberal and anti-democratic mentality and political climate is concerned in Hungary.

  3. Googly

    A small addendum to my third paragraph above, about the Christian Nationalists of Hungary:

    Under my definition, the membership and support base of Fidesz, KDNP and Jobbik would all qualify as Christian Nationalists of one sort or another.

  4. Mike paints a bleak (but realistic imho) picture of Hungarian history – I just hope that Hungarians are open and willing to change!

    At least some of them are – we just visited my wife’s family in Eastern Hungary and they can be called liberal democratic. They’re just trying to be capitalists too, but even with a university degree it’s not easy to make some money in Hungary – without being a crook …

  5. Googly

    One can conduct a highly instructive “what if” – or thought experiment, if you will – in this context.

    Is it even conceivable that Hungary would still be floundering deep in the mud quarter of a century after the regime change, if it was populated by a classically liberal nation of get-up-and-go entrepreneurs, producers and innovators like the Jews, Americans, Brits, or for that matter, the South Koreans or Japanese?

    After twenty five years it would be rapidly becoming one of the most significant commercial, industrial and banking hubs of Europe, and would be well on its way to catching up with the Scandinavians, Holland, Switzerland and Luxembourg in the living standards of its people.

    Instead, the Hungarian way is the coercive redistribution of what wealth there is, by government and/or private theft and looting by “something for nothing” egalitarians and mafiosi, for whom money grows on the trees, or printing machines, or in someone else’s bank or pension account. Just think of the wholesale looting of Hungarian Jews subsequent to the Jew Laws, the wholesale theft of middle class property by the Communists, the wholesale looting of national assets through robber capitalist privatization in the nineties, or the theft of the private pension funds by the current gang of Fidesz thieves and charlatans in the parliament. The absolute first principles in a liberal democracy are (1) the sacrosanct untouchability of private property and (2) the sanctity and inviolability of of contracts. And underpinning them the carefully maintained and nurtured constitutional checks and balances and separation of powers. Liberal democracy in Hungary? Don’t make me laugh. That is a contradiction in terms, an oxymoron.

    Because as I keep reiterating, it all depends on what Hungarians carry or do not carry in the grey matter between their ears, and nothing much to do really with anything else.


  6. Mike Balint,

    You make very good points about the lack of democratic and capitalist tradition in the region, and I believe this deficit is the main reason for the backsliding that has occurred since 2008 in both of those arenas. To the credit of Hungarians (of all stripes, not just the elite), there was a lot of disappointment during the recession and mass layoffs that occurred immediately after the end of communism, so at least voters here gave the “western” system another chance. Don’t forget, Fidesz was voted out in 2002 after serving only one term, and part of the reason was their obvious anti-democratic tendencies. Remember the uproar when Orbán decided to move the holy crown to the Parliament?

    Christian Nationalists are indeed different than Christian Democrats, but I think it’s clear that most Fidesz voters (even members) are better described as Christian Democrats than Christian Nationalists, and there are even some Jewish and Roma people in Fidesz (though they may just be token turncoats). Most of the Christian Nationalists are over in Jobbik, which really doesn’t do so well in elections, even when the environment favors them. I assume that’s partially because Fidesz doesn’t allow it, but there is still not such a large number of these fanatics in Hungary, and their election numbers reflect the fact that they are all very likely to vote (thus are over-represented in their vote total).

    As far as a “middle class”, I wonder what criteria you use to determine membership in this group. Is it just income, or education, or background, or mindset? In my experience, “middle class” can mean different things in different countries, and does not at all mean that all who are included in that group are naturally pre-disposed to vote one way or the other.

    What you write about Hungarian Jews sounds like what I understand the reality to be. However, it was much worse in Germany and Austria, and very few people seriously accuse either country of not being a liberal democracy. Those countries don’t have much more experience with democracy than Hungary does, I think, if you exclude the Cold War era, which could entirely explain the problems Hungary is having (and to which you alluded). On the whole, then, the fact that Hungary had become very liberal and democratic after 1989 is enough empirical evidence for me. Yes, the governing party was corrupt and inept, and certainly much of that was due to communism’s legacy. However, that can easily be said of almost all the former communist countries, and Hungary was, for a time, considered to be a relative bright spot in the region. Look at Transparency International’s rankings for Hungary in the early part of the last decade, then compare them to the neighbors. The march of capitalism was very strong, too, partially because of the pervasive presence of multi-national countries (which are being squeezed out of Hungary by Orbán). Until 2010, there was no real program to roll back the freedoms enjoyed by businesspeople in Hungary, and Hungary joined the EU in 2004 as one of the countries that nearly everyone felt was ready. There was graft and corruption everywhere, but it was mostly small-time and not so bad as it has become now – I would argue that it did not seriously impair the freedom of entrepreneurs and other businesspeople (except perhaps in certain sectors), and I remember those years as being relentlessly forward-looking, at least in the areas of liberal democracy and capitalism.

    That’s why I disagree with you when you write: “…it would have utterly failed even without the onset of the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, primarily because of Orbán’s extra-parliamentary tactics on the Hungarian street and his appeals to ‘freedom fighting’ and Horthyist nostalgia, which are major buttons in the psyche of the Hungarian street and non-liberal Hungarian intellectuals, and political comfort zones for the vast majority of Hungarians desperately scared of the challenges of a pro-market liberal democracy.” Orbán’s rhetoric fell on mostly infertile ground during his first term, but after 2006 and 2008, almost everyone was convinced to some degree that he was better than MSZP and SZDSZ. I broadly agree with your assertions about the genesis of the global financial crisis, but however it came about it was a PR disaster for capitalism, especially at a time when China and Russia making the alternative look very attractive. Remember, most people are not familiar with the details of economic outcomes, so most people look at Russian growth rates and assume that they are doing something right, even though it had everything to do with the price of oil and gas, and the excellent job that Putin was doing of strengthening his grip over his customers. China’s government can take more credit for how well it ran the economy, but only a country like China could extract such amazing concessions from foreign businesses and governments. Hungary is one of the countries that is in no position to call the market for what it offers, unfortunately, but Hungarians aren’t aware of the nuances of public policy, and were easily persuaded that true democracy is bad them and their standard of living. Once they see all the neighbors pulling ahead of them, they will start asking the tough questions, and liberal democracy and capitalism will start to regain their lustre.

    I don’t feel that the rent-seeking and other counter-productive practices in place in Hungary since 1989 accounted for a significant portion of economic activity in Hungary, simply because there was solid GDP growth, FDI growth, and growth in industrial capacity. There is plenty of the aforementioned anti-competitive forms of activity in nearly every country, including the bastions of free-market capitalism, but it certainly was worse in Hungary. That’s natural, though, in countries making the transition from totalitarian systems, whether those systems be communist or military dictatorships like Argentina and Spain. Hungary was making great progress, but people lost their patience, and a small part of the reason was that a group of smart but amoral people decided they wanted to get rich at any cost. We Hungarians are going to pay that high cost, but hopefully it won’t permanently cripple our nation.

  7. Mike Balint,

    Your thought experiment would be an interesting thing to pursue, but I can come up with some counterpoints for you to consider.

    I think you overestimate the entrepreneurial spirit of Brits, South Koreans, and Japanese. The Brits are inheritors of empire, and are fond of asking the state to do things for them. The National Health Service, for example, is very popular, and most of the innovations that have occurred in Britain in the past few decades have to do with the financial sector – specifically, with lowering state interference in that sector. That is exactly the sort of thing that led to the global financial crisis. I’m not saying that the Brits are bereft of innovators, I’m just saying that they are not necessarily very far above average in that department. Richard Branson, in other words, is not typical of the very conservative British elite. South Korea and Japan are anything but entrepreneurial, and they are certainly not model capitalists. The South Koreans created the Chaebol system, which was modeled somewhat on the Japanese system, and they are both mostly about national champions. France and most of Europe have a similar approach to capitalism, except that state aid was more blatant until the EU tried to put a stop to it (now it’s still around, but disguised in various ways). For Japan and South Korea, the innovations were mostly about industrial processes and organisation, and their wealth was built on using the innovations of others and applying sacrifice, low-cost labor (until relatively recently), and a dedication to establishing a reputation for quality and durability (again, relatively recently).

    Hungarians do have a significant population of entrepreneurs and innovators, but the Hungarian culture (and communism) has pushed them to express those traits in other countries (especially after 1956). Still, there are bright spots, such as in pharmaceuticals and software. Unfortunately, the most innovative minds have been put to work discovering ways to subvert the political process. Something similar happened in the US, except that the best and brightest were put to work subverting the financial sector.

    Hungarians have a lot of baggage, and what you wrote about the political process and the mindset of Hungarians has a lot of truth to it. The only problem I had was the absolutism you displayed in saying that virtually all Hungarian elite are this way, and that they can never be anything better. I’ve already shown that they have been better, in the past, and they were doing pretty well considering the recent past. Look at east Germans – they are different in mindset than West Germans, after only 40 years or so of conditioning. Hungarians underwent the same process, though perhaps to a lesser extreme, and so we can’t be expected to catch up to Western Europe overnight (just as we shouldn’t have expected ourselves to do so).

    I hate to quibble, but private property is not so sacrosanct in any country I can think of. Even in liberal democracies, there is the idea of the common good, though compensation is the rule in cases where a person is deprived of his or property.

    When you say “Liberal democracy in Hungary? Don’t make me laugh. That is a contradiction in terms, an oxymoron”, you merely reinforce my contention that you are too biased to look at the facts objectively. Hungary was well on its way to achieving liberal democracy until Orbán took advantage of the very bad experience Hungarians had with it. Do some research, make some comparisons – when compared to its peers, Hungary was doing well. It could and probably will get back there someday (but I am guessing it will happen much later than it should).

  8. o’magyar,

    Please search this blog for my other comments. From them you can easily see my stances on many things, including this and past governments.

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