György Gyarmati

The Orbán regime’s search for historical antecedents

During the weekends I usually find time to read articles and books that have nothing to do with the present political situation in Hungary. But somehow it always turns out that even a book review about  the Rákosi period can have relevance to what’s going on today. The book in question is György Gyarmati’s Rákosi-korszak: Rendszerváltó fordulatok évtizede Magyarországon (The Rákosi period: A decade of regime changes in Hungary).

Gyarmati’s thesis is that the Rákosi regime failed not because of the natural aversion of society and its passive resistance against totalitarianism but because “those who were in charge of the regime couldn’t make the regime work.”  Changes were introduced at a rapid pace to which neither society nor the economy could adjust. Rákosi believed that the Moscow inspired changes couldn’t be accompanied by similarly rapid changes in the economic and social sphere. It was the regime’s “voluntarism that destined Rákosi to fail twice.” First in 1952-53 when he was forced to relinquish some of his posts and a new “gentler” transformation of society and the economy was introduced and then in 1956 when a full-fledged revolution broke out against his rule.

What made the Soviet imposed changes especially difficult in Hungary–and even more so in Czechoslovakia and East Germany–was that in comparison to Soviet Russia these countries had already experienced a capitalist development before and had a more sizable middle class than Russia had in 1917 or even later. Thus, more developed societies were forced to adapt to a regime originally introduced in a less developed state.

So, one could ask, what is it here that reminded me of the present situation? First, the rapid and unpredictable changes introduced by Mátyás Rákosi’s regime. Somewhat similarly to the Muscovites of 1946-48 Orbán and his enablers have been waiting for a long time to put their ideas into practice and therefore they feel that everything must change as soon as possible. Their revolutionary zeal is akin to that of the Hungarian communists who returned home from Moscow or who joined the illegal communist party during the interwar years. It is clear from the practices of the Orbán government in the last three years that the time between 2002 and 2010 was spent drawing a road map of action to introduce a “revolutionary change.” Admittedly, not all the details were worked out ahead of time, but the final goal was certainly outlined.

We often speak of Viktor Orbán’s “voluntarism,” which is a doctrine that views the will as the driving force of both the individual and the universe. Indeed, Orbán operates on this principle: he has a goal and to reach it is merely a question of will regardless of any outside forces.

But, as the Rákosi regime’s fate illustrates, society and its accompanying economy are simply not flexible enough to be bent by Viktor Orbán’s will. Moreover, the regime Viktor Orbán wants to introduce would be a step backward for a society that bears no resemblance to the one to which Orbán and his fellow politicians want to return: the Horthy regime. Because, let’s not kid ourselves, Orbán’s goal is to develop a political system in Hungary that greatly resembles the pseudo-democracy of  that era. And this would be a step backward just like the Soviet-imposed dictatorship on countries that were more developed than Russia was at the time of the Bolshevik takeover.

Recently I also read a number of articles on Kunó Klebelsberg, minister of education in the 1920s and the idol of the Orbán regime. Klebelsberg is pictured as the founder of progressive education who symbolized the best of Hungarian conservatism. Klebelsberg certainly was right that after the lost war Hungary’s route to success was not through military might but through educational attainment. And since in the 1920s Hungary was forbidden to maintain a large army, Klebelsberg’s ministry received a sizable portion of the budget.

Looking back, but not moving forward

Looking back, but not moving forward

Klebelsberg’s ideas are, however, no longer applicable in today’s world. Klebelsberg was an elitist whose aim was to offer educational opportunities to the Christian middle classes. The emphasis was on “Christian,” and by “middle class” he more or less understood the sons of civil servants. He was a nationalist who at one point even entertained moving Hungarian speaking citizens to dilute the large pockets of Slovaks, Romanians, and Serbs. Klebelsberg also shared the antisemitism of his contemporaries and, although he knew that the numerus clausus that restricted university enrollment of Jewish students was unconstitutional and unfair, he defended it by claiming that the law was “misunderstood” by foreigners. Sounds familiar,  doesn’t it? How often we hear nowadays that this or that law is misunderstood, wrongly translated, purposely misinterpreted by the outside world. How often the government spokesmen blame the liberals for anti-patriotic acts. Oh, yes, the liberals! Klebelsberg hated the liberals. He was certain liberalism opened the door to left-wing radicalism and from there the revolution was only a few steps away.

So, turning to Klebelsberg for inspiration on designing public education in the 21st century seems not only a retrograde step but completely inappropriate to the needs of a modern society. The kind of elitist educational philosophy Klebelsberg adhered to is no longer applicable today. Yet, an incredible number of Hungarian educators would like to return to an elitist higher educational system when a very small percentage of the adult population entered college or university. Certainly, there is a need for reform of education in Hungary, but naming that “reform'”after a man who formulated his educational ideas around the turn of the twentieth century is not exactly forward looking.

But I think there is a silver lining in Fidesz’s mad search for right-wing antecedents. It will most likely fail for the same reason that Mátyás Rákosi failed in the 1950s. What Orbán is building is a retrograde system foisted on a modern society. Such a regime cannot be maintained for long.