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In understanding the case for conservatism in post-communist Hungary, an important thing to keep in mind is that political philosophy as such has never existed in Hungary. This is partly because of the rejection of philosophy as being alien to the “Hungarian spirit” and partly because of totalitarian ideology, especially under communism. Thus, there has been no conservatism as a philosophically-underpinned intellectual trend until the first half of the 19th century. Even then, it only appeared as a marginal political movement that started with a short lived and partly English-oriented Conservative Party (1846), which was renewed in 1875 with the support of a moderate press. It is telling that only one author is worth mentioning by name, János Asbóth. He was a writer and essayist who contrasted his ideas principally against contemporaneous liberalism.
Regarding Hungary’s status within the Habsburg Empire and dominant German economic, political, and intellectual influence, it was nineteenth century liberalism that held sway over Hungarian intellectual life until World War I. Since Hungary’s primary concern was her limited sovereignty, renewed attempts have been made to liberate Hungary from under alien influence. Conservatism, however, was associated with the maintenance first of the Habsburg rule and then Hungarian cultural superiority over neighboring nations. The latter was tied to Hungarian traditionalism, backed by a strong public spirit.
Alas, it was no wonder that after WWI—when a humiliated country regained its independence—the new political discourse wanted to regain national identity mainly by voicing Hungary’s long history in Europe and her Christian origins. The most promising young philosopher, Aurél Kolnai, who later became an eminent political philosopher abroad, left Hungary in 1920, as did Károly Mannheim (Karl Mannheim) and Mihály Polányi (Michael Polanyi). All three thinkers left Hungary in the politically hectic period of 1919-1920 because they refused both the short lived communist takeover in 1919, but also the unfolding right-wing regime afterwards.
The communists, after taking over in 1948, managed to indoctrinate people against the previous regime by calling it fascist, antisocial, nationalist, and clerical. The word “conservative” simply disappeared from the vocabulary of public discourse. The concept reemerged in the late 1980s, just before the demise of communism in a most ironic way. Hardliner communists were called conservatives compared to “reform communists”. Thus the former understanding of the words “conservative” and “conservatism” could not be used in the early 1990s. Moreover, because of the negative connotation of the concept, no political party or movement dared to use it as a symbol of its political doctrine. This all changed, however, after 2002 when post-communists together with their liberal political partners returned to power again.
Conservatism as a philosophy in today’s Hungary can only appear on the periphery of the intellectual forums; it has never been able to enter any curriculum or into a more significant intellectual arena. Conservative political though appears scattered mainly in the departments of political science and various social sciences, as well as newly established think tanks, periodicals, and in more and more blogs. As a result, “conservatism” has developed a variety of non-philosophical representations in Hungarian public life which range from pure traditionalism to sheer right wing radicalism. These are political movements or simply journalists with moderately intellectual backgrounds.
Another phenomenon of Hungarian conservatism as a philosophy is that it is often subservient to Christian theology. Again following the German pattern, Christian Democracy has become the mainstream bearer of conservative ideas in public discourse; thus, the Jewish element is more often than not excluded from among the traditions of European conservative ideas. So conservatism as a set of ideas and political movement is cut off from its philosophical roots: it is either based on Christian theology or on an instinctive or casual worldview which lacks any coherence. No wonder post-communists have managed not only to survive but also to take the lead in intellectual debates. This is in large part also owing to their commitment to philosophical argumentation.
It is also important to understand that even though conservatism “seeks to maintain and enrich societies characterized by respect for inherited institutions, beliefs and practices” (Bruce Frohnen, et al., American Conservatism), in a post-communist society we have institutions, beliefs, and practices that were inherited from communism. Since the values of conservatism were not present to begin with, conservatism is hard to explain to the people, in the classical sense.
This leads us to the issue of religion in a post-communist state. Religion suffered an almost fatal blow under communism. Poland is said to be an exception, but all the other post-communist countries came face to face with the devastating ideological rule of communists. This includes Hungary. Partly because churches were corrupted by the pervasive communist rule, conservatism that places great emphasis on religion or even the common good pleasing to God is doomed for the moment. Latent nihilism is the most suitable term I can apply for the present intellectual state of the Hungarian people.
The present Hungarian right has only one common integrated feature and that is its anti-communism. This is becoming less and less powerful in a democratic political rivalry. As a result, conservatism has weak but slowly developing positions. The steps in the last eighteen years include publishing translations—Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, Oakeshott’s Rationalism in Politics, Leo Strauss’s Natural Right and History and Persecution and the Art of Writing; also several books by the Hungarian born philosopher, John Kekes, and some six books by Thomas Molnar, Robert Nisbet’s book on conservatism, and various books by Roger Scruton.
Hungarian thinkers have also started publishing on conservatism, including monographs on the classics of conservative thought. An intensive search has started to unearth the lost traditions of Hungarian conservative thought, which were doomed to oblivion by communist ideology. There have also been renewed attempts to launch periodicals devoted to conservative ideas; some of them have proved to be sustainable. It was an important event when in 2004 an international conference was held on “Conservatism – Old and New” in Budapest with the participation of Harvey C. Mansfield, John Kekes, Kenneth Minogue, and Ryszard Legutko, among others. Thanks to John Kekes’ efforts, Liberty Fund has been holding a meeting in Hungary once a year for about eight years.
Partly as a result and partly to ferment conservative thought in Hungary, a Conservative Manifesto was published in 2002. This pamphlet tried to reason through the basic cultural and political contradictions of post-communist Hungary. Although it was received well, many mistook the philosophical intent of the booklet for a call for pragmatic political actions. Fidesz, the biggest party in Hungary, has opted for a Christian Democratic ideology, yet refrains from using the word conservative for pragmatic reasons.
A foreign observer should also notice that in Hungary liberals side with post-communists, and would not form a coalition with any right wing or conservative political force. It makes right-left division in Hungary seem chaotic to anyone using the political cleavages of solid democracies of the West as a point of reference.
Lastly, three issues that one unavoidably encounters while trying to understand the internal issues of conservatism in Hungary are as follows. First, the issue of new capitalism and globalization divides conservatives of various persuasions. A considerable number of Hungarian conservatives are against not only globalization but also capitalism as such, which is identified with the unbridled power of markets, multinational corporations, and banks. The handful of neoconservatives in Hungary is the only supporters of free competition; traditional conservatives come very close to a leftist, anti-globalization standpoint. And conservatives with a philosophical background are not influential enough to oppose the rest.
Second, conservatives in Hungary should stand for rule of law because post-communism as a moral entity is characterized by extreme moral relativism, determinism, and historicism. But it is also characterized by a shortsighted and greedy materialism within a utopian-tainted, progressive worldview. All these characteristics are cemented by a cynical negligence of rule of law and rampant corruption. There may be a Rechtsstaat in Hungary but there is no rule of law; both written and unwritten rules remain unattended to, and you cannot rely upon either written laws or public morality.
Third, post-communism has neither culture nor any idea of what makes human life meaningful. Children and the educational system are the two biggest losers of the political changes. Communism exerted the most lasting and detrimental impact upon the perception of human nature and human possibilities. Post-communism has preserved the most perverted view of man, progress, and rationality. Only the birth of political philosophy and education can save this part of the world that was ruined by a purely secular, materialistic, and deterministic ideology of Marxism-Leninism.
—András Lánczi is Director of the Institute of Political Science and Philosophy at the Corvinus University of Budapest. He has authored numerous books on political philosophy and is the Hungarian editor of the Encyclopedia of Political Thought, Encyclopedia of Political Science, and The New Handbook of Political Science. He has also translated several books into Hungarian, including Leo Strauss’s Natural Right and History and Persecution and the Art of Writing.
*A version of this article appeared in The European Conservative (March 2009), published by the Centre for European Renewal in The Netherlands.