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What Is Hungarian Conservatism?

Prominent Hungarian thinker explains why Magyars were 'national conservatives' before national conservatism was cool
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Last night my son Matt and I had dinner with my favorite teacher from high school, a historian. We got to talking about war and nations, and I mentioned that Matt and I were startled to learn last summer in Hungary about how the decisive fact in Hungarian political thinking of the past century is the Trianon Treaty. “Trianon,” as they call it, was the treaty that dealt with Hungary after World War I. It reduced Greater Hungary to a rump state, taking away two-thirds of its territory. The Hungarians regard it as a national catastrophe, as I explained, though I pointed out to my teacher that the Slovaks, Romanians, and other minorities who were at the time living under Hungarian rule in those territories, and who were given by Trianon their own land, do not think it was a catastrophe at all. Matt, showing that he has mastered one of the basic principles of historical analysis, then said, “You don’t have to agree with the Hungarian point of view to recognize how important this issue is to them, and to factor that in when you are trying to understand why they think the way they do.”

I went on to explain to my teacher that spending that time in Hungary was eye-opening because it revealed how willfully ignorant American governmental, policy, and media elites are about why the Hungarian government does the things it does — and why replacing Viktor Orban with some EU-friendly liberal would probably make less of a difference than many Westerners think. Hungary, I explained, has been at the mercy of Great Powers for most of the previous century. Trianon was imposed by the victors, and divided the country. Then, after World War II, the Soviets colonized Hungary, and kept it prisoner for forty years. Every Hungarian, no matter what his politics, feels deeply in his bones the sense of humiliation at having no national agency. Even many liberal Hungarians eager to cooperate with the European Union have within them a sense of the precarity of their freedom and self-determination.

Matt added that it didn’t start at Trianon. In 1848, Hungarian patriots cast off the Habsburg crown, and fought for Hungarian independence. Their initial victory was reversed when the Russians invaded at the Kaiser’s request, and restored Habsburg rule, though in modified form. The Habsburgs executed thirteen Hungarian generals who led the rebellion; they are remembered today in Hungary as the Thirteen Martyrs of Arad. 

The point is that if you want to understand why Hungarians think the way they do — about the EU, about immigration, and about many other things — you have to be aware of this history: the history of a distinct Central European people, with their own unique language, having to battle constantly against being conquered and having their identity and agency subsumed by the invaders. This does not make the Hungarians right about this or that issue, but it does help you understand their perspective.

With that history in mind, take a look at this YouTube clip of a speech young Viktor Orban, sporting a mullet, delivered in 1989 at the reburial of Imre Nagy, the 1950s Communist leader of Hungary executed by the invading Soviets for resisting them in 1956. Orban was a staunch anti-communist, but in this speech — delivered courageously in a ceremony attended by the Communist rulers of Hungary, who were still at that time in power — he praises Nagy for being a Hungarian patriot, defending the sovereignty of the nation despite his communism. Turn on the subtitles to understand the entire speech:

Now, I’d like to draw your attention to this new essay by Balazs Orban (no relation to the prime minister), the head of Matthias Corvinus Collegium in Budapest, and a top adviser to the Prime Minister. In it, he discusses the differences between Hungarian conservative thought and Anglo-Saxon conservative thought. Consider this:

Anglo-Saxon countries, as a rule, have long coastlines. For this reason, throughout their history they have been naval and trading powers, and frequently established overseas colonies. One consequence of this was that they encountered foreign cultures more frequently, and, as a result, regularly had to define the relationship of foreign cultures to their own. Continental powers fundamentally fear the emergence of nomadic peoples, while maritime powers are themselves nomadic.

In addition, Anglo-Saxon countries have at times pursued an expansionary foreign policy. This was, in part, to establish their values, including some form of their own social, political, and economic arrangements, in a given territory. There were economic and political reasons for this, since it enabled them to create a ‘familiar’ environment, a semi-domestic environment within their area of influence. At the same time, these processes led politicians and thinkers in these countries to ideologize, to a certain extent, the particular merits of the British or American way of life, as well as their political and economic systems, and to argue that they should replace the customs and traditions of indigenous peoples.

This is why Anglo-Saxon traditions and values have increasingly lost their pragmatic character, becoming instead a kind of political ideology with expansive political aspirations. These ideologizing processes were present during the heyday of the British Empire, during the Cold War competition between the Soviet Union and the United States, and after the emergence of the post-1990 neoliberal world order, and all have left their mark on Anglo-Saxon conservative thinking.

Look at this map of Central Europe, and where Hungary is located. “Continental powers fundamentally fear the emergence of nomadic peoples,” Balazs Orban writes (the Hungarians were themselves such a people when they first arrived in the Carpathian Basin that they settled). Geography goes a long way to explaining mindset:

This is crucial:

The guiding thread of Hungarian conservative thinking has always been to represent the Hungarian national interest, and thus the preservation of the country’s sovereignty and freedom—this is understood to supersede any theoretical concepts.11 The Hungarian conservative tradition is in this sense pragmatic, in that it makes flexible use of the means at its disposal to attain its ends. One might remark that there is nothing surprising in this, since conservative thought is taken to be pragmatic in principle. But how does this attitude manifest itself in Hungarian conservative thinking? In the fact that Hungarian conservative thinking is essentially defensive in character. If the central problem has always been the protection of Hungarian sovereignty, national and individual freedom, and the attainment of the national interest, then the economic and cultural expansion which has come to seem natural and self-evident in Anglo-Saxon countries has here taken a back seat. Indeed, Hungary’s experience has rather been one of being conquered by foreign powers, and of alien ideas and social phenomena entering the country despite having no organic roots within the local culture, meaning that the defence of Hungarian values and the attainment of the national interest became the guiding motives of Hungarian conservatism. As in the Anglo- Saxon example, it is also possible in the case of Hungarian conservatism to outline in four regards why Hungarian conservative thinking has become essentially defensive in nature.

One of the most obnoxious tendencies of American mainstream foreign policy elites, of both the Left and the Right, is the assumption that American values are universal, and should be accepted as such. I had no direct experience of foreign peoples who viewed the US as a culturally imperialist country until I started going to the countries of Central Europe. Once you start seeing things through their eyes, it’s remarkable (or was to this American) how much of a bully we Americans can be. It’s not that they reject all our values; in fact, they agree with most of them. What they resent is American arrogance in using our soft power and hard power to turn all foreign people into Americans. I used to think that this was pretty much a vacant leftie complaint, but when you experience it on your own, you realize that it really is true. Viktor Orban is the bête noire of the European Union, but it is crucially important to grasp that he does not demand that other EU countries follow Hungary’s values and example; he only wants Hungary to be left alone to govern itself as it sees fit, within general limits. He is defending Hungarian sovereignty. If Hungarian voters turn the Fidesz Party out of office later this spring and overturn the law banning LGBT material aimed at minors, then fine: that is a decision that will have been made by the Hungarian people, through their duly elected representatives. It will not have been imposed on them by Brussels.

B. Orban explains that in the 19th century, Hungary’s ruling class wanted to modernize the nation, but to do so on terms that suited Hungary. That is, they accepted the need to modernize, but wanted to do so in ways that preserved Hungarian sovereignty and traditions. The emphases are mine in this passage below:

 In the first half of the 1870s, the threat of state bankruptcy was a daily topic of conversation. It was in this situation that János Asbóth, a former government official and Member of Parliament, published a book entitled Hungarian Conservative Politics, which— as the name suggests—emphasized the need for a conservative change in political direction.19 The significance of Asbóth and his work cannot be overemphasized, as his ideas are, in a sense, echoed in Hungarian conservative thinking to this day. The essence of Asbóth’s critique is that the bankruptcy of liberal politics stems from the fact that liberals consider theory more important than practice.20 In other words, they are more interested in whether liberal principles prevail in a political decision than in whether the decision is truly to the benefit or detriment of the nation, or in line with Hungarian interests.

It is worth noting that Asbóth’s criticism is directed against the excessive liberalism of the governing elite. He criticizes the rapidly alternating liberal administrations for adopting Western patterns in the belief that these will bring automatic benefits, without considering their long-term effects on the life of the nation. For example, Asbóth cites the regulation of economic conditions. Governments expected so much from free competition that they introduced all the elements of a laissez-faire economic system almost at once. According to Asbóth, this was a mistake: at that time Hungarian economic actors were not yet ready to compete with better-funded Austrian and Czech industries, and the domestic economy, far from flourishing, entered a period of recession. This is a painfully familiar phenomenon—we need only consider the missteps of the Hungarian liberal administrations in the post-1989 period.

Think of what happened to Russia in the aftermath of the USSR’s collapse. Following American advice, the successor administration of Boris Yeltsin tried shock therapy to establish a free market economy. It caused chaos and widespread despair, and led to the popular election of Vladimir Putin. Similarly, in Hungary, many of the state-owned industries were sold at fire sale prices to Westerners, leaving Hungary at the mercy of foreigners. When I first arrived in Hungary back in 2018, I think it was, my Hungarian friend showing me around told me that a big reason Viktor Orban became popular after his election in 2010 was that he repatriated many of those industries. She said that you could say that he put them in the hands of his political cronies, which might be true, but beside the point: Hungarians have the power to deal with that kind of thing through their elected representatives, but they were powerless when ownership was foreign.

B. Orban says that what we now call “national conservatism” is an Anglo-Americanization of Hungarian conservatism:

This movement calls itself national conservatism, and, curiously, the views it espouses reflect— presumably unintentionally—the principles of national Hungarian conservative thought. The movement is critical of globalization, encourages opposition to the unconditional enforcement of free trade, criticizes liberal politics for its lack of interest in practical results, and sees the pursuit of national interests and the preservation of national traditions as the primary task of politics. So what was new in the West in the 2010s is essentially the natural state of conservative thinking and politics in Hungary. It is not difficult to see why it has turned out this way. We Hungarians already had to deal with the problems currently faced by the West—and especially in the Anglo-Saxon world—in the nineteenth century. We were among those compelled to adapt to a changing world, rather than the other way around. We had to learn how to preserve our independence and how to assert our interests in a world where conditions did not depend so much on our will as on the limitations of our strategic thinking and room for manoeuvre.

Read the whole thing. It’s really interesting. You don’t have to agree with or support Viktor Orban to learn from this essay. One gets so weary of the mantras repeated by American establishment talking heads of the Left and the Right, about how Hungary is one step away from fascism, blah blah blah. It is demonstrably untrue, and reflects not only ignorance of the facts, but also the knee-jerk substitute of ideology for reality. I recall Peter Kreko, one of the foremost liberal critics of the Orban government, saying last summer at the Esztergom festival, when he and I were onstage together, that his allies in the West do the anti-Orban forces no favors by talking about Hungary as fascist, or near-fascist. It’s simply not true, and as I see it, it is yet another example of arrogant Western do-gooders trying to impose their own ideological view of the world on peoples whose histories and values are different.

Last summer, I wrote an essay in The Spectator defending Orban from Western criticism. I said, in part, with reference to the new, highly controversial law prohibiting the dissemination of pro-LGBT information to minors and preserving parental authority when it comes to the sex education of their children:

Thanks to the new Orbán-backed law, Hungarian parents won’t have to deal with their kids coming home from school asking them what gender they are, really. They won’t have to worry, like many American parents do, that their children’s school is conspiring to keep their child’s gender identity secret from them. They won’t have to worry, like British parents, about a 4,000 percent increase in youth referrals for gender treatment in just a decade.

I imagine that most Hungarian parents will support this, and if not, Hungary remains a democracy; on July 21, Orbán announced an upcoming national referendum on the law. In the meantime, Hungary retains a free press, which is at liberty to criticize the supposed homophobia and transphobia of the government, and to call on voters to reject the law in the referendum and throw the bigots out in 2022. Hungarians remain free to protest the state’s policies, as thousands of Pride protesters did in Budapest in late July. Of course, everything came off peacefully; some ‘Viktator’, that Orbán.

This is how things are supposed to work in a democracy. But now a coalition of democratic European leaders are ganging up on Hungary, threatening to smash it for daring to assert its own cultural sovereignty. They are vowing to withdraw EU funding over Hungary’s moves to keep NGOs and broadcasters from indoctrinating Hungarian children with cheerful songs featuring sexually mutilated beavers, in an effort to destroy what religious tradition, their mothers and fathers and common sense says is true about gender.

At the European summit earlier this summer, French president Emmanuel Macron, furious at Hungary’s new law, lashed out at conservative central European for undermining ‘what has built the core of our western liberal democracy for centuries’. Macron called it ‘a cultural, civilizational battle that we must fight’.

The idea that the Blues Clues Pride Parade aimed at pre-kindergarten children is rooted in centuries of Western democratic thought is about as absurd and ideological a claim as is possible to make. This shows you how fanatical Western elites are when it comes to Hungary. Even if you don’t agree with the Fidesz Party’s policies, read Balazs Orban’s essay to understand its roots. And if you are a conservative, read the essay to understand why some of us see Hungarian conservatism as a model on which to draw to create a new kind of American conservatism, one faithful to our own values and traditions.