This blog is provided by the Common Sense Society of Budapest as an online, English-language platform for the publication and exchange of diverse and differing perspectives about Hungarian politics, economy, and culture. The views represented here are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of CSS. The Common Sense Society does not receive funding from any government entity or political party.
A liberal pundit, commenting recently on Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s actions, concluded that, despite the similar haircut, the anti-Communist politician is no Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Why would he be, you might ask? Apparently, this potentially “wonderful historical parallel” rests on both politicians’ attempts to pack the courts, reign in the press, and intervene in their respective nations’ economies.
Such a comparison is deeply flawed, however. FDR took over during the Great Depression and made it worse through the New Deal’s government intervention, which disrupted the self-correcting process of free enterprise. He resented the press, prosecuting and persecuting media moguls who defied him. And when challenged about the obvious unconstitutionality of his statist experiments, the President attempted unsuccessfully to smash the opposition by court packing. In essence, FDR sought to monopolize his hold on power and reduce the effectiveness of checks on that power.
What does all this have to do with Orbán? Not much. Orbán took over with an overwhelming popular mandate to topple post-Communism. Short of a violent counterrevolution, the only way to get rid of the post-Communists and their liberal enablers is to change the laws. The Hungarian parliament, elected with historically broad support, has endeavored to do just that.
Such reforms invariably run into stiff resistance from cadres of the old regime loyalists and collaborators – as they have since 1989. In particular, the post-Communist judges and bureaucrats sabotaged reform efforts, putting the government in a legal quagmire that brought the nation to a virtual standstill.
Contemporary media conglomerates born after 1989 were often collaborators in this corruption, using their status and power to block reform, monopolize the news, and protect themselves from reprisals for past misdeeds.
Similarly, most of the erstwhile nomenklatura who emerged as Hungary’s leading businessmen also used their influence to prevent justice, often hiring former secret service agents to provide private protection. Western businesses, if they wanted to operate in Hungary, were required to make deals with these post-Communist kleptocrats. Thus, Western partners legitimized the post-Communists as bona fide “free marketers,” when, in fact, the latter were deriving great benefit from subsidies and government connections. Further, because the post-Communist controlled media quickly embraced the idea of Western liberalism (and its attendant proclivities for political correctness, multiculturalism, and “social justice”) the West quickly anointed Hungary’s press, radio, and TV as genuinely “free.”
Last but not least, the nation’s post-Communist politicians and their progressive collaborators loudly and self-servingly began to pledge their love for parliamentary democracy, which was enough to buy them a ticket to democratic respectability in the West. After all, if the Communists were liberals in a hurry, the post-Communists were liberals in the making. Anyone who dared to point this out was quickly labeled a fascist or anti-Semite.
Post-Communism is a direct descendent of a genocidal revolutionary system that dominated Hungary for 50 years. Pathologies in post-Communism are not unfortunate by-products of the “transformation.” They are the essence of the system, which only resembles democracy insofar as the rich and powerful (kleptocratic nomenklatura) agreed to play by parliamentary rules because it suited them.
Orbán initially attempted to work within this post-Communist system. He was a run-of-the-mill liberal at first. As the pathologies of post-Communism continued to stem any meaningful reform, he moved increasingly to the populist right. Along with many other Central and Eastern European anti-Communists, he arrived at the following realization: The reds became capitalists by utilizing the state. Now, even if they are voted out of office, they can maintain themselves in style, survive a few years in the opposition, stall reforms in tandem with their liberal collaborators, and return to power to reverse whatever gains are made by the anti-Communists, whether conservatives, libertarians, populists, or radical nationalists.
Orbán thus decided that a strategy for overcoming post-Communism would have to include nationalizing, regulating, and taxing, while protecting the little people who suffered most during the transformation, i.e. blue collar workers and pensioners. This would, he felt, level the playing field by putting the post-Communists and certain of their Western investors out of business.
Is Hungary’s prime minister la chevalier sans peur et sans reproche? Far from it. Orbán was born under Communism and shaped by the Communist system. He cut his teeth dealing with post-Communist pathologies. He has learned from it for better or worse. In a way, he is a post-Communist himself. That is why he has embraced statist solutions and practices reverse social engineering.
There is much to be unhappy about his handling of Hungary. Many of his moves seem amateurish. Others bear a mark of improvisation. He is mired in confusing tactics and has failed to elucidate his strategy clearly enough. However, not only does Orbán enjoy an unprecedented democratic mandate to destroy post-Communism, but he is also a pioneer in the field. Arguably no other Central and Eastern European leader has ever produced a comprehensive plan to sever completely all ties to the nefarious system imposed on their country by Stalin.
Yet, the West has not helped. There were no detailed plans within the American government to deal with Hungary’s transition from post-totalitarian state to a free democracy. The State Department, the intelligence community, and the private sector – Wall Street in particular – failed to offer real assistance to classical liberals, right-wingers, conservatives, and other staunch anti-Communists trying to affect reform. Instead, the Americans and their allies wooed the illusory “doves” in the Politburo and various Communist dissidents. And then, in the name of “stability,” the West acquiesced in the transformation of Communism into post-Communism.
Sweeping Communism under the rug of post-Communism is neither just nor prudent. If Western observers do not like the conservative-populist FIDESZ, they will get nationalist-radical Jobbik next time around. Orbán’s performance has been imperfect, even confusing, but he does not merit comparison to FDR, one of America’s most undemocratic modern politicians. Moreover, rather than chastise Orbán for alleged “Putinism,” “fascism,” or even “neo-Nazism,” Americans should applaud Hungarians as they finally push post-Communism out of their country.
–Marek Jan Chodakiewicz is Professor of History and holds the Kosciuszko Chair in Polish Studies at the Institute of World Politics.