Grappling with the Hungarian and Polish New Right in Power

By David Ost, Hobart and William Smith Colleges.

This article was originally published in the August 2016 edition of NewsNet.

Eviscerating the Constitutional Court and purging the judiciary, complete politicization of the civil service, turning public media into a government mouthpiece, restricting opposition prerogatives in parliament, unilateral wholesale change of the Constitution or plain violation of it, official tolerance and even promotion of racism and bigotry, administrative assertion of old gender norms, cultural resurrection of authoritarian traditions, placing loyalty over competence in awarding state posts, surveillance without check – right-wing governments in Hungary and Poland have been directly attacking the institutions protecting the pluralism of democracy. The ruling parties, Fidesz and Law and Justice (PiS) respectively, do not even claim to adhere to “liberal” democracy anymore. Are they committed to democracy at all? Both accept it now that it has brought one-party rule by the party representing “the nation.” Otherwise, “democracy” appears to be a curtsy to the political correctness they otherwise abhor. 

As a pro-PiS scholar vehemently asserted at a Poznan philosophy conference in early July, “democracy is beside the point! We’ve got to modernize the country, any way it takes.” 

Interestingly, both PiS and Fidesz believe they are in the forefront of a struggle not only against political liberalism but against economic liberalism. Indeed, one of the innovative features of the new right – as we’ve seen with such parties in western Europe or even with Donald Trump in the U.S. – is that it no longer allies naturally with neoliberalism. PiS and Fidesz proclaim the need for a “strong state” to galvanize “the nation” in order to “end dependency” and “modernize” “national capacities,” against “neo-colonial” efforts promoted by the West and the European Union (which they wish neither to leave nor to strengthen). Despite defining themselves as rightwing parties, they have thus always gotten some support from leftists as well. Like the American voters who say they support either Trump or Sanders, so I have met PiS supporters whose second choice is Razem, the new, left party (not “new left” party) that formed only a year ago. We are reminded that fascism was also in part a left-wing movement (for the “little people,” but only of the “proper sort,” to use Jarosław Kaczyński’s term for those PiS supports).

Closer to our field, we are also reminded that state socialism once got considerable support from right-wing nationalists. Indeed, an unexpected “gift” this regime change-from-above offers ASEEES scholars is fresh insight into what made “communism” work in the first place. The differences are enormous: no mass arrests, no foreign power forcing change, no single ideology. But the assertive dismissal of “liberal” (then, “bourgeois”) democracy in favor of a “real” one committed to “the nation,” the use of state power to create a new elite loyal only to the party in power, the veritable creation of a new “nomenklatura” by dismissing from non-political jobs experts deemed unloyal, replacing history written by historians with history written by party stalwarts and spread through media and schools – ASEEES scholars understand that communism did not come about only through force and terror, but imbued itself into the social fabric through Gramscian measures like these. For all the differences, scholars trying to understand communist origins will be able to feel their way into some real insights by closely following present developments.


Explaining the Right’s Rise 

So how to understand what’s happening? The transition paradigm so prominent after 1989 saw eastern Europe moving seamlessly into a condition of “democracy,” apparently “consolidated” soon afterwards. Valerie Bunce and John Mueller noted early on that establishing formal democracy, once the secret police were called off and a new political will appeared, was not as hard as some had imagined. Jeffrey S. Kopstein and David A. Reilly argued that “geographic diffusion” made democracy almost inevitable in the countries bordering western Europe, and the many studies focused on the norm-enforcing pressures of the European Union agreed.

So where does this new movement come from? The economy is probably the key place to look. Studying the contradictions between capitalism and democracy has never been a central aspect of our field. Scholars looked at different transformative paths, recommended rapid or slow privatization, noted “social costs” involved. But the basic insight that too much economic liberalism threatens political liberalism – a particular problem in eastern Europe given that it undertook its transformation in the very heyday of neoliberalism, just when Keynesian models were being abandoned – has never been widely accepted or understood. 

National issues are also a source of the new developments. The standard view is that these countries regained real national autonomy only in 1989. Yet for fifteen years afterwards there was also limited autonomy, as east European countries committed themselves to “do anything” to get into NATO and the EU, and endured quiet humiliation and bad terms of trade while being schooled. New thinking about the role of the nation (and the downplaying of “civil society,” which for the right is a codeword for liberalism and a trap for foreign domination) is thus no surprise. 

But why the crisis now? Earlier this year, James Dawson and Sean Hanley argued that eastern Europe was turning away from liberal politics because it had never really adopted them in the first place. They cite evidence of pre-radical right governments not reckoning with critics and pushing through legislation against strong social opposition years before Fidesz and PiS made such practices explicit.

Of course, hypocrisy at least pays homage to the norms it violates, while the new right simply abandons the norms and presents as models control by the “party of the nation” and the need for a “strong state” teaching people what to think. But why is there more popular support for such values today? Ivan Krastev’s response to Dawson & Hanley perhaps says it best: rising illiberalism, he writes, “is less the result of weak elite commitment to the values of liberal democracy than of the failures of liberalism to deliver.”

What didn’t it deliver? Community, solidarity. Liberal politics in fact has never been secure without them.

This basic truth was obscured in the immediate postcommunist period, an anomalous moment when people believed free market capitalism, as the supposed enemy of their enemy, to be a panacea for all ills. But in the face of neoliberal reality – the marketization of housing and health care mocking notions of solidarity, precarious work as the rule rather than exception, unions marginalized – that belief has come crashing down. Today it’s hard to find an article even in the liberal press singing the praises of the market, while even 15 years ago it was hard to find any criticism. In conversations with workers, which I’ve had regularly in Poland for the last 30 years, the change is even more dramatic. (One tells me she can no longer stand to hear only bad things about communism because “yes, things were bad, but I could yell at my boss without fear of getting the ax, and co-workers supported me instead of thinking how they could replace me.”)

Electoral democracy means a party will appear in which the disillusioned can place their hopes. In the past, those used to be left parties. But leftists in the late-communist world tended to become liberals – first political, then economic – and so far 21st-century leftists, mostly young people with graduate educations, have, in line with recent trends, tended to focus on identity issues rather than economic ones (though the emerging Razem party in Poland is different).


The Social Democratic Glue for Liberal Politics 

Liberalism, of course, used to deliver on community and solidarity, but only when it was tied to social democracy after World War II. Since globalization and the consequent crisis of the left, the right has taken up this mantle – promising solidarity to a small and restricted community made up only of “people like us.” It is this connection of both left and right to community and solidarity that we need to unpack if we can understand developments in eastern Europe today.

One way to do so is by exploring west European interwar history, such as that laid out by Sheri Berman in The Primacy of Politics: Social Democracy and the Making of Europe’s Twentieth Century. This book is particularly relevant to east Europeanists because instead of the familiar Cold War association of communism with fascism, Berman argues that it is actually social democracy that is “similar” to fascism. For when the Great Depression ravaged European societies, it was only one or the other that took state power to provide community and solidarity – doing so, of course, in spectacularly different ways. Examining western Europe’s political response to the Depression, Berman’s insight is that it was not only liberals who argued that nothing could be done about it but orthodox Marxists too. The latter, fierce anti-Leninists but not yet social democrats, took the Depression to be proof of Marxist theory, saying nothing could be done to fix it – or to provide community and solidarity – until socialism, which would happen sometime in the future. Only the fascists offered a program of action: take state power, impose dictatorship, and regulate (not eliminate) capitalism to serve a community. And they did serve their community – albeit one very narrowly construed! – with a generous welfare state that achieved massive support until the war. Social democrats, Berman shows, emerged only in response to fascism, having agreed with fascism that capitalism could be regulated. And by doing so, after the war, it succeeded, at last, in consolidating liberal democracy.

So when social democracy no longer knows how to provide for community – and with neoliberalism promoting only individual answers and Leninism quite dead – today the successors of the fascist tradition reemerge strong. As in the past, they are ready to challenge both liberal politics and economics in the interests of a community that most certainly does not include all, but eagerly incorporates non-elites willing to go along. And so Poland and Hungary’s radical right in power not only tramples on democracy but imposes special taxes on foreign banks and corporations, forces lower utility rates (Hungary), legislates higher pay for short-term jobs (Poland), and endlessly challenges west European “domination” (more than a few supporters were ardent Marxists in the past). And though this is too little to bring about equality with the West, the program does appeal, even to moderates tired of hearing that their countries have no choice but to remain weak and poor and that all checks on capitalism are impossible and counterproductive. This doesn’t mean that liberals have disappeared. There are plenty still there, fighting hard against the right’s stunning crackdown on democratic norms they thought had become inviolable. But they do so increasingly unsure of their own alternative, accepting now that no simple return to the liberal past is possible.

OK, some might say, but why the hysteria around Islam? For it is undeniable that these two countries, with barely any Muslim population, have been in the forefront of anti-Islamism in Europe. Viktor Orbán took the lead in building fences to keep out refugees. Jarosław Kaczyński used some of the worst racist tropes in declaring refugees carriers of dangerous “parasites and protozoa.” Poland’s Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski publicly declared himself an “Islamophobe” months before being appointed to the post. Public media in both countries characterize those who do not accept “Islam” and “terrorist” as interchangeable as hostages to political correctness.

Here’s where “whiteness” is a helpful category, not often deployed in studies of the region since “whites” are basically all there are. The point, however, is to think of whiteness as an asset easterners wish to deploy to assert their claim to equality with the West. Extravagant antiIslamism is like the garish racism attributed to mid-19th century Irish immigrants to the U.S. The Irish, as is known, were not initially considered white by the dominant Anglo “native” population. And so in order to assert their claim to the privileges whiteness confers, Irish became some of the most lethal anti-black pogromists of the time. Exaggerated anti-Islamism can be seen as easterners’ effort to demonstrate that they are “real” Europeans – white and Christian, the kind that in the west had the national dignity, good jobs, and social protection they think they should have, too.

Will things change? As world events and the current U.S. election now make clear, there is no return to the neoliberal status quo, at least in a way that sticks. A restabilization of inclusive democracy probably requires a broad understanding of social democracy as the glue (and not the challenge) to political liberalism, and a program to revive broad-based community and solidarity in a globalized world. Since these won’t come soon (globalization is the nut here: capital can’t be disciplined if it can eternally escape), the radical right, which can claim freshness (it’s been marginalized since the defeat of fascism in 1945), is likely to gain significant triumphs, for at least the next decade. And if it can resolve some problems for a large enough constituency – a big “if,” but possible in eastern Europe due to relative homogeneity – it may even flourish.

It’s common to say democratization is a neverending process. That is especially true today. If the center cannot hold, and this new radical right, claiming also to be democratic, gains but fails, then we need a new interpretation of the left as well. The western left’s rejection of Soviet-type state socialism was both valiant and vital. But new challenges loom and that left needs to move on. Andrzej Leder recently pointed out that while the Polish democratic opposition’s break with the left helped it in the fight against the old regime, maintaining that position only helps push dissatisfied youth into the arms of the authoritarian right. Among western scholars, Kristen Ghodsee has set about restoring dignity to left history. In the interests of stable, inclusive democracy, there is more to be done, and much for ASEEES scholars to contribute. 


David Ost is professor of political science at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, author of many articles and books on east European political transformations; most recent Guest Editor for East European Politics and Societies, special issue on “Class After Communism,” August 2015. Ost will speak on a roundtable on “Illiberal Contagion?: Hungary and Poland Under Fidesz and PiS” at the 2016 ASEEES Convention.