Illiberal Fantasies: Hungary’s Viktor Orban Embraces Authoritarianism

Viktor OrbanThe signals did not cease to arrive. Viktor Orban is the man who, in June 1989, gave a speech at Imre Nagy’s reburial ceremony that would endure forever in the history of Eastern Europe. He was one of the founders of the anti-totalitarian youth party Fidesz and his intellectual mentor was the well-known dissident and critical former Marxist, György Bence. And now, Orban has shifted towards a collectivist authoritarianism with pointblank xenophobic inflections.

Orban’s recent speech in Transylvania has led to worried comments from commentators, such as Fareed Zakaria in “Washington Post,” David Brooks in “New York Times,” and the Princeton professor Jan-Werner Muller in “Foreign Affairs.”

Many things in politics are born out of resentment. Orban is unmistakably a man of tremendous intellectual prowess. Yet those he perceived as some sort of urban aristocracy – the Hungarian Democratic Opposition leaders, including, first and foremost, János Kis, Gábor Demszky, and Miklós Haraszti – always gave him a strange complex. He regarded the Alliance of Free Democrats as an exclusive liberal club that he felt he was left out of. Other members of the Fidesz leadership shared the same neurotic feelings. In addition, Orban was attracted to classical liberalism and was distrustful of any form of internationalism, even a liberal or neo-conservative one.

Endemic corruption associated with a socialist government radicalized Viktor Orban’s phobias and apprehensions. He started to entertain more intensely the idea of populist conservatism – which in Hungary is difficult, if not impossible, to dissociate from anti-Semitism. The media close to Fidesz (which in the meantime had become an ever more traditional and traditionalist party) excelled in insinuations against those who supposedly did not pass the test of pure Hungarianness. When Jobbik – a downright fascist party – was born, all it had left to do was merely intensify as forcefully as possible topics which were already implicit in Orban’s rhetoric, including the idea that the radical left was somehow genetically constituted.

The Orban team began to insist on a majoritarianism that was increasingly intolerant of the opposition. The unassailable victories obtained in the elections made​ Orban less and less willing to acknowledge his own fallibility. Hungary has become gradually more provincial and ethnocracy has begun to stifle democracy. What a quarter of a century ago was the superb promise to reinvent politics through a revival of civic liberalism, now seems destined to turn into a neo-authoritarian nightmare.

And now, Viktor Orban announces that liberal democracy is on the skids. He has taken it upon himself to become the champion of an authoritarianism which glamourizes the Putin-inspired police model and the Chinese “market Leninism” (a term proposed by Soviet expert Peter Reddaway). Those interwar tenets endorsed by the prophets of fascism are being revived. A consistent and “ethnically” healthy body politic is being exalted. Liberalism is seen as rotten, corrupt, and decadent. This is the hour of the “magic savior,” akin to the demagogues described by Erich Fromm in his classic book on the escape from freedom.

What Orban seems to ignore is that NATO and the EU are not only political, military, and economic institutions, respectively. They define, as Václav Havel put it, civilization options. The battle between the open society and its enemies continues. Yet another mask has fallen, which, after all, is far from being a tragedy.

We might imagine that liberal democracy is built on a deeply rooted historical and intellectual foundation, but such a belief could not be further from the truth. Before 1945, the very idea of ​​“liberal democracy” was very much anathematized. In times of crisis (both moral and economic), democracy is attacked from the left and right alike. Be it critic Vladimir Lenin, critic Georges Sorel or critic Robert Michels, they all claim to stem, to a certain extent, from the ideas of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and draw on the self-proclaimed image of the “genuine democrat.”

Orban is now such a “true democrat” (also read “original”), who nonetheless does not stumble on civil liberties or consensual-parliamentary type of deliberations. For the Hungarian prime minister, liberal democracy – with all its intermediary institutions, intermediate bodies, and parliamentary games – makes a terrible mess of the final and irretrievable fusion between – as Carl Schmitt explained in The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy – “the identities of the governed and the governing.” At the core of this “redemptive” political view stands none other than the mythological idea of unity (in this case, one based on ethnicity).

In a populist translation of Orban’s political message, the masses are looking for identification. The economic crisis had deepened this existential anguish. His promise, which also sounds like a prophecy, comes to provide precisely this redemptive identification. According to a very judicious remark by political scientist Jeffrey C. Isaac, all the flaws of liberal democracy “were skillfully reinterpreted as virtues of liberal democracy. In an almost Orwellian manner, weakness was turned into strength.” This is exactly what Viktor Orban is doing. Then, to use one of Albert Camus’s phrases, “it transforms a spontaneous burst of energy into a concerted action.”

What the Hungarian Prime Minister is essentially saying is that liberal democracies are reversible. That the counterpart of democratization is what we may call de-democratization (see also the summer of 2012 in Romania when only joint EU and US pressured could prevent the fulfillment of a parliamentary putsch). This, obviously, is not a complete novelty. What is actually new has to do with the metamorphosis of a politician who reached the pinnacle of power as a partisan of liberal values ​​and who morphed into an advocate for the opposite values.

This might sound rather harsh, but the Orban case is reminiscent of Mussolini’s conversion, a century ago, from an internationalist socialist into a nationalist fascist..At this point in his inner evolution, Viktor Orban seems “condemned to condemn.” When, in 2002, Fidesz had lost the elections, he thundered that “the nation cannot be part of the opposition.” As historian Balázs Trencsényi aptly observed as well, “Franz Joseph, Miklós Horthy, and János Kádár have all established their authority by way of terror and all have become fathers of the nation[.]”

Let us hope, however, that we will not slip towards what René Girard called the mimetic circle of violence. In this version of “goulash authoritarianism” towards which Orban’s Hungary is heading, Europe is “oppressive,” but its funds “necessary.” Unfortunately, the entire fate of Europe’s political culture depends on such increasingly frequent antidemocratic outbursts. How it will manage to resist the virus that Orban is spreading remains to be seen.

Vladimir Tismaneanu is professor of politics at the University of Maryland (College Park) and author of numerous books, including “The Devil in History: Communism, Fascism, and Some Lessons of the Twentieth Century,” published by the University of California Press in 2012 (paperback, 2014).

Marius Stan is a Romanian political scientist interested in revolutions, political ideologies and the transitions from communism to democracy. This essay came out on the Romanian online platform “Contributors” and was translated into English by Monica Got.

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  • ping

    In addition, Orban was attracted to classical liberalism and was
    distrustful of any form of internationalism, even a liberal or
    neo-conservative one.

    Please don’t use the word “neo-conservative.” FPM has deemed it an anti-Semitic slur.

    • RMThoughts

      Why is it an anti-Semitic slur….


      Better a neo-con than a neo-commie.

  • Sprickoló Tömegek

    In which two Romanian nationalists attempt to spread anti-Hungarian hysteria, badly disguised as “democratic concerns” expressed by polysyllablic sophistry.

    Nicolae Ceaucescu may be dead in body, but alive and well in the twisted hearts of his subjects.

    • Tavi P.

      1. The authors are not “Romanian nationalists”. Romanian-yes, nationalists-no. A big no. Read their writings and check.
      2. The authors are not “anti-Hungarian”. Read their writings and check.
      3. This article is far from something that could be qualified as “anti-Hungarian hysteria”. This is mere common sense.
      4. The name of the terrible dictator is Ceaușescu (ș=sh in English), not “Ceaucescu”. For history’s sake.

      • Sprickoló Tömegek

        1. I read between the lines, and checked. Match.
        2. Unity-humping ethnofascism is the Romanian state ideology ever since Averescu, yet, it only became a “concern” when someone else, the Transylvanian Hungarians, became politically mobilized.
        Selective outrage, mixed with psychological projection.
        3. Same.
        4. Sorry, I didn’t mean to insult the glorious memory of your “Genius of the Carpathes”. Apparently it means much to you.

        • Tavi P.

          Do you understand the words “for history’s sake” or you need special explanations? Your irony () is utterly offensive for me when the reference is to N. Ceaușescu, one of the most shameful figures in Romanian and European history!
          There is a French proverb I like very much and it can be applied to your way of distorting some parts of the truth: “Il n’est pire sourd que celui qui ne veut pas entendre.” In English, “There are none so deaf as those who will not listen.”

        • Tavi P.

          And, just to let you know, Vladimir Tismăneanu is quite hated by the current Romanian government and their supporters.

  • s;vbkr0boc,klos;

    Not very solid article. The equivalent of an ‘aura reading’ by a New Age quack.

  • meistergedanken

    This article reads like the intended masterwork of an ambitious concern troll. It also doles out very little in terms of actual facts. No info on the state of the Hungarian economy, or any mention of the pocketbook issues which typically motivate “common-folk”. No polling results to describe the mood of the electorate, either. No mention on how the tin-eared EU bureaucrats have alienated the Hungarian people (along with most other peoples in Europe), and how these same bureaucrats are even less democratically minded than the politician that the authors lament about here.

  • antisharia

    It seems that the authors are either dishonest, or they don’t really know what they are talking about. Give some hard data to back up your claims that Orban is ruining Hungary. Yes the rise of fascism is concerning, but it’s hard to see Orban as a fascist. Traditionalism is not authortarianism. He’s trying to undo, not only the economic evils of socialism, but the cultural ones as well. It would be nice if we had leadership like that in this country.

    • Sprickoló Tömegek

      He’s just an oppurtunistic kleptocrat, who just found a new PR strategy.

      Seriously, why is everybody so desperate to project something deep and meaningful into politicians?

  • rrebelll

    I do not want to call this article a quack, but there are only accustions and practically, no facts. Orbán and his side is very dissatified with the EU overinvolvment in Hungary’s domestic politics and transparent financial blackmails. The EU and its socialist minded burocrats are very unhappy of the the political left total collapse in Hungary. I do not think that Orbán faultless, but in the present situation the best available. Like it or not the choice in Hungary the mainly national minded Orbán or the extremely, chavinistic Jobbik. All the professors that dreaming of a political left comeback….are just dreaming.

  • Drakken

    The problem that the leftist authors are trying to convey is the EU is good and nationalism is bad. Orban is a nationalist and has Hungary’s interest at heart, in case it has escaped your notice dear authors, Europe in going increasingly nationalistic because the folks of the left like you have flooded their countries with the 3rd world and the Europeans have had enough of it, you have brought this upon yourselves and deserve everything coming. Just wait until the Europeans bring about the greatest backlash in history against those who brought the abomination of the 3rd world upon them. If you thought the Serbs were ruthless, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

  • RMThoughts

    “Liberalism is seen as rotten, corrupt, and decadent” At least we know they see things as they are. Reality is a good thing. Liberals will be the last to see that liberalism is dead – killed by liberals.

    A noble society is one where obeying and exercising authority are ethical behaviors, and not mere practical necessities. Liberal parties never understand that the opposite of despotism is not stupidity, but authority.

  • solinkaa

    The Western audience is being primed for the necessity, in future, for an intervention in that part of the world. Watch the future central european right-wing governments who stand up for national interests and traditions against the Brussels power grab branded “fascist” (oh, the irony!), and foreign troops moving in. It’s happened before, it will all happen again.

  • Bob Sten

    Translation: This guy is a nationalist that doesn’t want his country overrun by third world social services leaches.

    In my book, that’s a good thing. I hate communists, but I hate multiculturalist diversitybots even more.

  • Toni_Pereira
  • kevinstroup

    The Hungarians, most probably like the Russians, as a people, do not really believe in a democratically elected republic. They admire the man with the “iron fist”. They will get what they deserve. Just look at the Middle East for prime examples of what I am speaking of.

  • RMThoughts

    OMG – he doesn’t espouse American liberalism as his saving creed. What a crime.

    It it occur to the author that people in other nations may be as free as we are, but an American is someone who is subject to a particular set of authorities. The first of these is the government, whose sovereignty is divided into its federal, state, and city incarnations in a myriad of law and authority that is mindboggling and demands total impersonal obedience from our “free” citizens.
    As Americans, we use (used) Lockean theories to justify our subjection to our State, but this is just sophistry. Americans (unless you are an “undocumented illegal) we are morally bound to obey ourr federal, state, and local governments not because we have consented to it, even implicitly– for to withhold consent would be an immoral act bring the full force and power of these entities upon the transgressor – but because we recognize these authorities and obey them as legitimate.

    In traditional societies authority can rest in an individual or group of individuals, just like in a family it resides in the parents who in your uses of the word would be evil authoritarians.

  • Martel

    Neo-Conservatism once again shows its true colours, Liberalism with a hint of nostalgia. Any political leader should turn towards a political ideology with “pointblank xenophobic inflections”. I hope Orban fends of American liberalism in any shape or form, including those ideals espoused by Republican and Conservative American leaders..

  • globalpolgar

    I Would call this as Global Stupidness, I mean your writing.Your writing reminds me when in the 60-is the police played in Hungary 16mm films in schools for children about those that were involved with broadcasting free Europe on radio. They have called them the ones in the Black Trap, however when at that time I listen to free Europe it was about Hungarian people sending greetings with music attached, to their family and loved ones.