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East European Perspectives: May 15, 2002

15 May 2002, Volume 4, Number 10


"RFE/RL East European Perspectives" is initiating a scholarly debate on the main issues raised by Professor George Schopflin's article. While contributions need not reflect RFE/RL's views -- indeed, Professor Schopflin's article does not and other articles published in the past have not -- they should refrain from polemical tones and be written in the scholarly style that "EEP" has cultivated since its launch in November 1999. Articles must be under 4,700 words (or double that size for publication in two parts) and use "Chicago style" for sourcing. The editor is under no obligation to publish or to provide an explanation for a refusal to do so, but will notify contributors upon acceptance or rejection.

Dr. Michael Shafir

Editor, "RFE/RL East European Perspectives"

The idea of framing postcommunism by using the concept of "liminality," as Zygmunt Bauman did a decade or so ago, has not lost its validity (Bauman, 1994, who extended on the original formulation by van Gennep, 1960; see also Turner, 1995). The term liminality describes a situation of incomplete transition, a transformation in which elements of the old and the new live side by side but without much integration. Different discourses are articulated, but they do not engage with each other; rather they assert truths and truth-claims about the good life, social justice, identity, ethics, whatever. Instead, the different discursive strategies of the contestants collide confrontationally, unable to effect change. The impulse is not so much to affect the thinking of the other, but strengthen one's own and that of those who share it.

In reality, this is a kind of identity politics, as distinct from the kind of multipolar political world in which the contenders agree tacitly on a set of shared norms. Liminality, then, makes for highly contested politics, because the different political actors cannot affect each other's positions qualitatively. This further implies that Western political categories, like "left" and "right," are not analytically helpful when applied directly to postcommunism because they are derived from an approach in which the basic understanding is there. Much of postcommunist politics can still be regarded as being marked by liminality, although a better part of a decade has passed since Bauman first used the concept in this connection. Hungary is no exception.

The rise to power of the Alliance of Young Democrats-Hungarian Civic Party (FIDESZ-MPP) in 1998 represented a complex generation shift, and a good deal of the struggle of the last four years can be explained through this perspective. The generation that oversaw the regime change was a temporary alliance of the democratic opposition, the party reformers, and the so-called populists grouped around the Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF). Unexpectedly, the MDF emerged as the winner in 1990 and this constituted a shock for the first two groups. As often happens (see Horowitz, 1985), a triangular relationship rapidly became binary opposition: The democratic opposition discovered that it had more in common with the party reform elite than with the populists (there were antecedents for this in the 1980s, such as at the Lakitelek meetings).

The party reformers, by now constituted as the Socialist Party (MSZP,) and the democratic opposition, politically the Alliance of Free Democrats (SZDSZ), brought into being a set of shared discourses by which their shared interests and attitudes were identified, though they differed on some issues. Crucially, both these groups, loosely the Hungarian left, found they had vastly superior access to Europe, the U.S., and the wider world. They had a command of languages, they had the right kind of education (economics, for example) and they saw themselves as the sole bearers of Hungarian modernity.

These elites saw themselves as enjoying a preeminence in determining a model of democracy, albeit one that had been constructed against the ruling ideology of the Communist Party and had relied on the discourse of democracy as a central legitimation, but with very little practical experience of it. In reality, this model was imperfect. It attributed very high prestige to those who articulated it, as a kind of neo-vanguard elite, and although it used the concept of civil society, it never developed a theory of the state as the necessary counterpart to a civil society (to maintain the rule of law).

This left-wing claim to monopoly came to fruition in the 1994 government, in which the joint left commanded well over two-thirds of the seats in parliament. Its program was quite explicit -- that the left was best fit to govern in light of its "expertise." The leftist Gyula Horn government, however, was undermined by being corrupt and elitist, although it did establish the basis of Hungary's current economic well-being (the MDF-led Jozsef Antall government's economic strategy had been worse than useless in this respect). For its part, the SZDSZ discovered that while it might share discourses with the MSZP, it had very little influence over it.

What the Hungarian left could not see, and this is all the more inexplicable given its access to social-science knowledge, was that its monopoly was not something permanent but very temporary. Sure enough, it was challenged by the FIDESZ generation (born in the 1960s), which also had the necessary cultural capital -- knowledge of languages, educational achievements, experience with the West, and skills in the public sphere -- to try and construct a different model of Hungarian modernity. When the Horn government lost the 1998 elections to a FIDESZ-led coalition, the left could not believe that it was not dealing with an Antall government Mark II, but something different and far more threatening to its exclusive control of the discourses of the public sphere. This underlay the increasingly bitter conflicts of the 1998-2002 period.

The left relied on a series of arguments, strategies, and discourses, which, however, turned out to be partially out of touch with popular aspirations. And they were particularly out of touch with the younger generation -- not just among the elite, but more broadly. In effect, the left had made a single shift after 1989 -- it had accepted democracy but tacitly defined it in a rather one-sided fashion, without much regard for the forms of knowledge that exist in society, for reciprocity, or for allowing society access to the construction of discourses. But this rather hegemonic approach did reassure the older generations, which felt uneasy with FIDESZ's apparent radicalism and had been socialized into a form a political dependence under communism.

Furthermore, in Viktor Orban the right found that it had a leader with a suitable public presence, the ability to find a convincing mode of addressing a good part of Hungarian society and, simultaneously, to represent a particular form of modernity that was acceptable to certain constituencies both at home and to some extent in Europe. But what Orban was unable to do was address those in Hungarian society whose attitudes were formed before 1989, who were unimpressed by his radical slogans ("the future has begun"), and who were inherently too cautious to be moved by FIDESZ's appeal.

At the same time, the left gave the impression of being intellectually tired and unable to renew its intellectual resources, even as the right came off as too aggressive. Change is always difficult, because it devalues existing knowledge. The outcome was a bitter electoral contest and a very close election result. This closeness is reflected in there being next to no impersonal space in the public sphere -- everything is politicized or potentially so, not unlike a Soviet-type system.

A key issue targeted by Orban has been that of national identity, and the last 12 years have been the scene of an extraordinary process of identity redefinition in Hungary. Basically, the left -- above all the SZDSZ, but supported by the MSZP and the intellectuals close to them -- began by regarding the Hungarian identity as an irrelevance and ended up by denying it completely or attacking it actively as a form of chauvinism and fascism. In effect, the left became captive to an internationalism that it partly inherited from the communist mindset and partly from its own reading of socialist universalism.

It substituted "the West" and "Europe" for socialist internationalism as the primary criterion of value, but otherwise moved within the same cognitive structure. The process had been polarized by the left's engagement with the Antall government's backward-looking definition of Hungarianness, by the loss of the elections in 1998, and by a sense of incredulity that the FIDESZ government should have betrayed "democracy," albeit very much a left-wing definition of democracy. It led the left to treat all expressions of Hungarianness with disdain, to mock them and to stigmatize them as "fascist."

This mindset should be seen as well-entrenched; it appeared to have been legitimated by left's victory in 1994, and in many ways it can be interpreted as a misunderstanding of the nature of identity. The rejection of Antall in 1994 was read as a permanent rejection of anything to do with national -- not nationalist -- values, whereas in reality it was much more the rejection of the particular definition of Hungarian nationhood that Antall pursued. This can be seen as a confusion of the contingent with the immanent. It led the left into a state of confusion, and the outcome has been the subsequent denial.

The outcome is a troubled relationship of the left with its own culture and the fact that Hungarians necessarily have a Hungarian identity. (It might have been more useful politically for the left to have defined its own variant of "Hungarianness," but that was never attempted.) The neo-internationalism of the left also led it to construct a mythicized, abstracted "Europeanness" as the criterion for good and evil -- the discourses are highly moralized -- and to create an idealized Europe that is seemingly without identity. Simultaneously, there has been no engagement with Europe of the European Union and its futures (there has been next to no response to, say, Joschka Fischer's and Jacques Chirac's attempts to mark out the future of European integration).

This process has inevitably produced a set of contrary responses from the right -- though it is fair to say that both left and right have been chickens and eggs together -- that vary from an acceptance of the Hungarian collective self as a real factor to the outright, hard-line nationalism of the Hungarian Justice and Life Party (MIEP). What FIDESZ has sought to do is to define a Hungarian identity that is both Hungarian and European at the same time -- that to be Hungarian is to be no better or no worse than any other identification, and (Orban's position specifically) that Hungarians have no need to be ashamed of being Hungarian.

This position resonates with a good part Hungarian society because of a deeply encoded pessimism. The loss of empire in 1918, the collapse of the Hungarian model of modernity, the failure of the interwar period, the war and twofold occupation, the destruction of Budapest, communism, 1956 -- even the national anthem has the line "balsors akit regen tep" ("torn by ill fortune as of old") -- a long catalogue of negative historical experiences.

These could have been converted into a victimhood narrative, as the Serbs and Croats have done, but this has not happened. Rather, FIDESZ has sought (and to some extent succeeded) to construct a relatively successful narrative of the Hungarian self that is hard-edged but not self-destructive. This replaces Antall's model of nationhood, which was entrenched in a return to the past that ignored the transformation of the post-1945 period and the distorted modernization of communism.

Istvan Csurka's MIEP is something else, however. It stresses integral nationalism, "blood," anticapitalism, anti-Semitism, antiglobalization, and territorial revisionism. It can mobilize up to about 5-7 percent of the population behind its slogans, with a somewhat higher proportion of supporters in Budapest. The fact that MIEP received less than 5 percent this time should not be overestimated, though it will make the running of parliamentary business simpler. The formation has a solid voting base and could well reemerge in the next parliament, especially as it has begun a process of redefining itself as an antiglobalization party. At the same time, because MIEP's narratives have been largely unmodernized and sound like 1930s right radicalism, it has exercised a power of attraction over the Western left that is quite out of proportion to its role in Hungarian politics. The Western right -- Jean-Marie Le Pen, the late Pim Fortuyn -- is far more successful in mobilizing support than MIEP.

Understanding the political conflict in postcommunist Hungary as one over identity explains something about its extraordinarily vicious quality, something that was always present in the urbanist-populist divide that has haunted Hungarian intellectual life for over a century. Each side regards the other as seeking to exclude it from its own definition of what it means to be Hungarian. The particular difficulty for the left is that -- structurally not unlike Antall -- it failed to see that communism transformed Hungarian society by urbanizing it and that the cleavages of the 1930s, above all the role of anti-Semitism, had changed. Here it is useful to refer to Endre Nagy's category of "national urbanists" ("nemzeti urbanus") as a way of registering this change (Nagy, unpublished work in progress). Supplanting the traditional urbanists but with a different set of attitudes toward their Hungarian identity, a new urbanized society has come into being that does not associate its Hungarianness with a backward, anticapitalist, antimarket, anti-Semitic peasantry.

Crucially, Hungarian society has changed very markedly since 1989, and the evidence marshaled by Kapitany and Kapitany (2000) is very cogent. They have noted a rapid transformation of consumption patterns that are much more individualized and differentiated than before, in tune with the West (a tour of any Tesco is very revealing in this respect), and many people in society have similar aspirations and intuitions of what constitutes the good life. The scale of the change can be measured against the picture presented (1977) by Agnes Losonczi. The left is rather out of harmony with this, and harks back partly to a collectivist view of the world and even more to a dependence on the West coupled with economic liberalism.

The relationship between Budapest and the rest of Hungary is not at all straightforward. Although four-fifths of the population lives outside Budapest, the capital determines virtually everything and Hungary is very Budapest-centered. This has two dimensions. The first is that the right-wing elite is strongly non-Budapest, and this has been an extra factor in the contest. Indeed, the defeat of FIDESZ in the capital (only four seats out of 32) is attributable to the right being seen as anti-Budapest. Then, there is the Jewish dimension: Outside Budapest, there is virtually no Jewish population, which perished during the Holocaust, hence the Jewish-non-Jewish cleavage is overwhelmingly a Budapest issue. There are unresolved questions from the past, especially co-responsibility for the Holocaust and the impact of the Holocaust victimhood discourse constructed in the United States (see Novick, 1999). Broadly, the secularized Jewish population is influential on the left and this sometimes produces overt anti-Semitic sloganeering. The left's response has been to couple FIDESZ with MIEP and to claim that there is no qualitative difference between the two and that FIDESZ is a Trojan horse for fascism.

Regional differences in Hungary also played a role in the elections. If nothing else, the voting pattern demonstrated the significant variation between Western and Eastern Hungary, divided roughly by a line drawn from Komarom to Bekes. To the right is Protestant Hungary, the Hungary of the former latifundia, and a rather less prosperous Hungary. To the left is Transdanubia, which is doing well. The left benefited from this by championing the excluded and the poor. FIDESZ, by contrast, largely neglected this issue, which is a real one for sizable sections of the electorate.

For the future, there are two broad sets of problems facing the new left-wing coalition. The first of these is governability. Can the new government run the country with a majority of 10 seats, especially if some deputies simultaneously hold ministerial posts from individual constituencies? FIDESZ, together with its MDF allies, will be a much tougher opposition than that which the Horn government had to face in 1994-98, and has already stated that it will impose strict party discipline on its parliamentary group. At a deeper level, will the left learn from the right's mistake of having tried to govern against half of public opinion and seek genuinely to build bridges toward those sections of society that voted for FIDESZ? At the same time, will FIDESZ try to move back toward the center, having effectively exhausted all the right-wing support that there is?

Second, there is the problem of integrating Hungary into the European Union (EU), not just in terms of accession but, more significantly, of promoting the discourses of Europeanness and their internalization on the part of the population. Where there is no normative debate, values are not internalized and the outcome is compliance. To date, enlargement discussions have been conducted as a technocratic exercise and there has been very little engagement with the EU at either the intellectual or the popular level. By pursuing integration in this technocratic manner, the EU has unwittingly contributed to conserving liminality, having relied on a "transition" discourse and the overcoming of transitional obstacles, though without any clear criteria for success or failure. Similarly, by not launching an exchange of ideas and negotiating over principles, neither left nor right has had to reevaluate its cultural capital, its discourse and attitudes. At the same time, the EU has unintentionally assisted the left, as the dominant elite, in preserving its hard-won postcommunist cultural capital by not engaging it in negotiating over principles and thereby encouraging it to update its cultural capital. In this sense, the EU has unwittingly exported its own democratic deficit by conducting the negotiations technocratically.

There are also postmembership problems on the horizon. Without a uniform distribution of authority, adequate state capacity, and the evenhanded redistribution of goods and values, the acquis communautaire will not be properly implemented and Hungary will find itself in trouble with Brussels. If that scenario should come to pass, then the proposition that the EU tends to be perceived as alien, as not "owned," could well end up intensifying nativism and resentment.

A balance sheet of the decade would suggest, despite Hungarian domestic perceptions, a fairly successful 10 years in terms of stability and development. As far as corruption is concerned, Transparency International reported last year that Hungary is the second-least-corrupt postcommunist state after Estonia.

On the negative side, however, political styles are highly polarized, and cognitive frameworks are constituted in this mode. This is how both left and right expect politics to be articulated.

Two questions for the future. What will happen to the left? There is an urgent need for the left to launch a renewal and discover a new purposiveness. The commitment to economic liberalism is not in itself sufficient to generate more than foreign investments, and while this has been remarkably successful -- some 55 percent of Hungary's GDP is derived from foreign capital -- the left will have to develop a vision of social justice and a good society if it is to make a positive contribution. If it fails to do so, and this is much harder in government than in opposition, then it will very likely be severely punished in the 2006 elections, despite having won in 2002.

Second, is there now a Hungarian model of postcommunist conservatism? The FIDESZ-MDF alliance stands for an acceptance of the national identity, social protectionism, moderate etatism, and economic growth, but it has been unable to persuade more than half of Hungarian society to listen. If the right cannot find the best narratives through which to communicate with the center of Hungarian opinion, it too will fail.

The author is Jean Monnet Professor of Politics at University College London.


Bauman, Z., 1994, "After the Patronage State: A Model in Search of Class Interests," in Bryant, C., Mokrzycki, E. (eds.), The New Great Transformation (London: Routlege), pp.14-35.

van Gennep, A., 1960, The Rites of Passage (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).

Horowitz, D., 1985, Ethnic Groups in Conflict (Berkeley: University of California Press).

Kapitany, A. and Kapitany G., 2000, Lathato es lathatatlan vilagok az ezredfordulon (Budapest: Uj Mandatum).

Losonczi A., 1997, Az eletmod az idoben, a targyakban es az ertekekben (Budapest: Gondolat).

Novick, P., 1999, The Holocaust and Collective Memory: the American Experience (London: Bloomsbury).

Turner, V., 1995, The Ritual Process: Structure and Antistructure (New York: Aldine de Gruyter).