Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s government and his right-wing Fidesz supermajority has been consistently in the limelight during its more than two years in power, throughout Europe and even in North America, usually due to its belligerence, authoritarianism and—most recently—it’s attempt to sanitize a dark episode in Hungarian history, namely Regent Miklós Horthy’s fascistic interwar regime.
The Canadian Hungarian Journal sat down in Budapest with two leading Hungarian intellecuals and civil rights activists, both of whom are outspoken participants in the country’s fledgling democratic resistance. Dénes Lajos Nagy is a physicist and a university professor, as well as the former chair of the Hungarian Socialist Party’s Academic Section (MSZP – Tudományos Tagozat). He is currently a member of the Democratic Coalition (Demokratikus Koalició). Sándor Szőke is a Roma-rights activist and a leader of the Civil Rights Movement for the Republic (Polgárjogi Mozgalom a Köztársaságért). Both are staunchly opposed to the whitewashing of the country’s interwar past and both feel that it’s time for the democratic resistance to boycott the Orbán-regime.
Both of you have chosen to go public with your convictions and recently attended the rally at Heroes’ Square against the sanitization of the Horthy regime and the growing cult around fascist and anti-semitic writers and politicians, such as József Nyirő. But why are so many other Hungarian intellectuals so utterly silent?
Dénes: Most intellectuals are very much politically inactive. They are afraid and they don’t want to show any political involvement. They’re afraid of losing their jobs and afraid for their family, their children and their relatives. And, of course, many are keen to have a chance at getting grants, yet knowing that even without any political involvement, sixty to seventy percent of the time you won’t get it.
Sándor: Intellectuals and everyone else in sociecty have an obligation to draw the line.But why now, when the time travel started two years ago? It has become clear that there is no way to reform the system. The only alternative is to boycott it. There is simply nothing else to do. In Hungary, there is a problem with the system of values. Every country must go through an observation and evaluation of its own history. But what we see at the moment is the blatant and cynical relativisation of that history. And this cynicism poses an incredible danger. As intellectuals and as civil rights activists, we are witnesses, potential victims and teachers, all at the same time. People need to understand that civil courage is a value.
Dénes: We need to remember that Hungary has no true democratic tradition. We have always had a Hungary ’A’ and a Hungary ’B.’ Eighty percent of the people do not have real democratic experience.
Who’s responsible for the weakness of democracy in Hungary and for the march towards authoritarianism? Is it the left, or the right, or perhaps both?
Sándor: We never had a right or left in Hungary. We don’t have traditions of classical left or right-wing ideology. The tradition that we have is that of monarchy and paternalism. There is simply no real structure of Bourgeois society. Fascism started in Hungary earlier than anywhere else. Only one fourth of the country was touched by Bourgeois development. And, of course, if in the thirties someone decided something in Berlin, it had a transformative impact on our country.
But to answer your question: the tyrants bear responsibility. The tyrants of capital bear much responsibility as well.
Dénes: The Bourgeois layer that did exist was comprised primarily of Germans and Jews. The rest of the society formed a very small part of the Bourgeoisie.
Define for me what ’left-wing’ means –or perhaps what it should mean—in Hungary?
Dénes: Parties that define themselves as left and social liberals, for instance. Admittedly, these parties bear considerable responsibility for the current situation. They were only interested in keeping power and even the way that parties were financed ensured that the only focus was on winning the next election. They were only interested in issues that had PR value, and anti-fascism was not such an issue. Anti-fascists always tend to represent a relatively small hardcore.
I certainly never agreed with the doctrinaire liberals who say that even those on the far right—including those in Gyöngyöspata–should enjoy free speech. Even the Paris Peace Treaty stipulates that these organizations must not be permitted. All signatories of this treaty, including the Government of Canada, could now act, as Hungary is in violation of these terms. Canada should remind Hungary that it signed the treaty and that it’s articles must be enforced.
Perhaps the Government of Canada should act and it certainly could have been more circumspect before adding Hungary to a list of so-called ’safe countries.’ But what about the EU? Why doesn’t the European Union see the rise of the Hungarian far right and the Fidesz-initiated destruction of parliamentary democracy as a priority concern?
Sándor: Nothing is a priority in Brussels. Overall, I don’t like the way that they handled it. But they did speak up about freedom of press issues. By comparison, Canada and the United States spoke up much less.
Is there reason to believe that we may one day see the birth of a Hungarian Syriza?
Sándor: I see the birth of Hungarian radical leftist youth. They don’t yet form a movement or a party. But we might be witnessing the moment of birth. There are also several little and kind of hopeless organizations and left-wing analyst groups. But parties don’t have an appeal. LMP (Politics Can Be Different) did have some measure of appeal for about a year, but their non-intervention, their way of handling far-right politicians as respectable human beings has been damaging. And for the youth, former Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány’s party does not even exist. But I do see some youth acquiring leftist culture and they are non-bourgoeisie.
Dénes: These groups, however, are politically inexperienced. For example, at a recent protest I saw a new ant-fascist group for youth. The group appears on Facebook and their description on the world’s most popular social media website suggests that violence may be acceptable, in an effort to achieve their goals. You can’t post something like this on Facebook. It raises the question: is this really an authentic, anti-fascist group, or is it perhaps a provocation?
To reach Germany in terms of turning away from fascism, it will take another generation. In Germany, it would be impossible to restore Goering or Goebbels. German society, including conservatives, would set very clear limits.
Fidesz sees that it is losing popularity, so it feels that it has no choice but to realize Jobbik’s program. And an important part of this is to restore the Horthy cult and its symbols. The real danger is that there are no longer any borders between conservatives and the far-right.
Does Orbán actually believe all that he and his party now preach? After all, he is a child of the Kádár regime, he came of age in the seventies and early eighties, he comes from a secular, working-class family and he studied under a program funded by George Soros.
Sándor: No way. Orbán understands that the common denominator in Hungarian society is paternalism and this was represented by both Horthy and János Kádár. Orbán would never buy this shit. But the more uneducated his supporters, the more they believe. Fidesz is interested in having and keeping power, and they know how to manipulate the culture embraced by the little suckers of paternalist society.
Dénes: Fidesz is not homogenous. There are big differences between László Kövér and Zoltán Pokorni. Orbán never made a decision based on ideology. Gyurcsány at least explored ideology and tried to apply it to his policies.
Sándor: Gyurcsány at least had norms, whether you liked them or not. These Fidesz boys represent no ideological or philosophical standards.
So would both of you suggest that the best answer on the part of the democratic opposition would be to boycott the 2014 elections?
Sándor: All democratic parties could walk out and leave the beloved Fidesz and Jobbik on their own, and then set up a roundtable for a real, democratic alternative. At the moment, the opposition does not have a voice in parliament and they can’t enforce anything. In civil society, the situation isn’t particularly hopeful either. But there is a certain slow motion of clearing the way for a civic alternative. MSZP is insignificant . LMP is worse than it was six months ago. It’s like society is sleeping and all that I can say is to wake up already! Hungarian society will fail diplomatically, culturally and financially. But the two years remaining before the next election is not enough time for real change.
Dénes: The right approach is to boycott. We should not take part in this silly game. Jobbik, for one, is illegitimate. And the Christian Democrats (KDNP) don’t even exist. I am not optimistic about 2014, but we should still try. There is, unfortunately, no constitutional way out. This is a very dangerous situation. In Hungarian history, I have never seen unconstitutional measures brought about without violence.
Sándor: Perhaps 1918 with Mihály Károlyi is an example.
Dénes: But there was violence before and after. That was a constitutional non-solution. The only way out of this predicament is to create an allance of all democratic forces.
Sándor: Parties must get out of parliament to pronounce that the system is illegitimate.
Sándor, you have been deeply involved with Roma civil rights. How does the Roma minority fit into this?
We certainly need to talk about the 800,000 Gypsies, who are unfortunately not part of the fabric of the republic. This situation can blow up in Fidesz’s face, but also in the face of the resistance. The anti-Gypsy feeling is worse than ever. It is before explosion. The Fidesz government half-heartedly condemns this racism, but they also use double talk. What you say overtly is one thing, what you deliberately don’t is another. It’s a really dirty game and they are playing with fire. I see that some Gypsies are armed. They sit at home, have no electricity and are completely cut off from society. They are being named and chosed to be killed. The status of human being is taken away from them.
Dénes: Even some liberals are susceptible to racism and anti-Roma sentiment.
Sándor: The right is destroying the tissue of the culture of the last sixty years . We are witnessing the total demolition of our culture.
And amidst all of this, do you see any glimmer of hope at all? Is there any reason for careful optimism?
Sándor: Now is the time to witness all that you can and to bring youth into action. And, of course, keep in contact with the West.
Dénes: Let me put it like this. When I witnessed Martin Luther King in the sixties, I never thought that I would see an African American president.
What happens to Fidesz and its high-ranking collaborators once the regime eventually collapses?
Sándor: This society is not ripe for judgment. We don’t need an eye for an eye. Instead, we need to analyze and maybe put the current system in a museum, locked in a glass case.