Jan Smoleński: Is Viktor Orban a populist?

Agnes Heller*: I do not like the term populist as it is used in the context of Viktor Orban, because it does not say anything. Populists rely typically on poor people. Orban uses nationalistic vocabulary and rhetoric, he mobilizes hatred against the stranger and the alien, but it has nothing to do with populism. It has to do with the right-wing, but this is also questionable, because Orban is a man who is interested only in power.

JS: What would you call him, then?

AH: From the time he became the prime minister of Hungary, Orban was always interested in concentrating all the power in his hands. I would describe him as a tyrant. He is a tyrant because nothing can happen in Hungary that he does not want, and everything that he wants is carried through in Hungary. This is a very tyrannical rule.

JS: Have all the institutions been taken over?

AH: There is only one power that is relatively independent and it is judiciary. To control the judiciary in order to be able to indict and convict the opposition will be the next step for Orban. Poland is ahead of us in this respect as Jarosław Kaczyński controls the judiciary now.

JS: Today’s authoritarianism is frequently compared to that of first half of the twentieth century, like the regime of Miklos Horthy in Hungary in the 1920s and the 1930s.

AH: There are important differences. First of all, the environment is different. Horthy worked in an environment constrained by the right wing, first Mussolini’s fascism and later on with nazism, and western democracies were weak and far away. Orban works in the environment of the European Union, he could have carried out different politics, more democratic, more liberal. He does not do it and it is his choice.

There is another element that is different. In Horthy’s period there was a class society. In a class society there are different class interests. Even among aristocracy and gentry there were class differences. Those who were under Horthy could have different opinions, even than Horthy. When the war on Russia was declared, one of the ministers was against it.

Now it is impossible. Everyone who is under Orban must serve him and must agree with him. No counter opinion is tolerated because this is a mass society, not a class society. In a mass society, there are no class interests. Even the poor people have no class interest.

In a mass society, a new thing appears, which we call refeudalization. It means that corruption is different from traditional corruption. Traditional corruption is that rich people corrupt one or another politician, they buy a politician in order to serve their economic interests. In refeudalization the opposite is true. The rulers of Fidesz and Orban in particular create their own oligarchy, and the oligarchy depends on politics, and not politics on oligarchy. Take the mayor of Felcsut and a childhood friend of Orban, Lorinc Meszaros. He was a nobody but in a few years he amassed enormous wealth and now is one of the richest people in the world. He basically has half of Hungary under his control. Of course, everybody knows that this is Orban’s money, not Meszaros’ but this cannot be proven.

JS: Do people take nationalism now less seriously and with a kind of post-modern irony, or is it the same as under Horthy? 

AH: It is very difficult to answer, because after the first world war all European countries became nationalistic. The nation became the god and nationalism became the religion. And nationalism is still the religion of all European countries. They differ in only one sense: how strong this nationalism is, how much the government uses it for its purposes. I don’t think that the French, Germans or Belgians are less nationalistic than Poles or Hungarians. Nationalism is not mobilized to the same extent in the former as in the latter, it is not about hatred the stranger, the other.

The present Hungarian nationalism incites hatred against the other. In the times of Horthy there was also hatred but it was not just hatred against the other, it was also directed against the institutions which established the peace of Trianon. Trianon is a concrete place, it is a castle in France. The French were perceived as responsible for the trauma of Trianon, too, not only the neighbors of Hungary who benefitted from the settlement.

Now, I do not think that Hungarians hate their neighbors, especially the Slovaks, because Orban believes in the Visegrad 4. Now we hate the migrants and are against one person – George Soros, who is the great enemy in Hungary. This, by the way, Orban learned that from Erdogan and the way he treated Fetullah Gulen. Soros organizes the immigration, he organizes everything against Hungary. There are many things that make him appropriate for that. He was born in Hungary but he is an American millionaire and he is a Jew. All these things together make him a wonderful target for hatred and if there is antisemitism it can be channelled against Soros. He is a typical Jew and the head of global conspiracy, he dictates everything to the European Union, Donald Tusk is just a servant of Soros. This kind of nationalism is utterly stupid.

I need to add one thing. All this propaganda is for the countryside. No liberalism, no left could get through to the countryside, the villages. They are absolutely under Orban’s control. They are prone to nationalism and this servant attitude because freedom of the press is entirely gone. In Hungary there is no opposition daily. All local papers were bought by Fidesz. There is one TV channel and one radio station with independent information and they are accessible only in Budapest and few other places. Under Kadar people listened to the Radio Free Europe. Now there is no Free Europe, there are only state channels which are Fidesz propaganda channels. No opposition has access to them.

JS: How does the nationalism that Orban mobilizes now differ from fascisms of the past? Do you think that people who now follow Orban and buy into his ideas are willing to die for Transylvania and Voivodina?

AH: The term fascism, just like nazism, stalinism or bolshevism, is irrelevant. We live in different times. These were categories valid in class societies, when you could seize the power only by violence. Nowadays Orban, Putin, and Erdogan remain in power by the majority vote. This is a different kind of world and this is a new type of tyranny which is carried by the refeudalization of the society. Maybe we need to find a new name but I do not think it is necessary. All these old names are misleading, because they prevent us from recognizing what the real danger is. The real danger is not the takeover by violence.

JS: So what is the real danger?

AH: That refeudalization and that it gets upper hand also in Europe, just like it is dominant in most parts of Asia and Africa, and in many parts of Latin America.

It has economic background and economic relationship. It means that there is a one tyrant or few tyrants who determine the politics of a country and they are elected by general elections. By the way, this is why the word democracy without liberalism makes no sense anymore.

The economic background is interesting. Where there is market there is profit and almost everywhere the ruling oligarchy gets the profit. It is reversed redistribution. In a social democratic Europe the redistribution of profit was based on a model that the greater part of it was distributed to the poor than to the rich, through taxation and other means. Now we have the opposite situation when most of the profit goes to the rich.

The politics and the economy of refeudalization are strongly connected to each other.

JS: Do you think that there is a difference between Orban and Jobbik?

AH: It is very difficult to answer. Within last few years Jobbik turned to the center and even in comparison with Fidesz it became the center and Fidesz became the extreme right. Gabor Vona did it, but in the last parliamentary elections in April, when Jobbik got 20 percent, he resigned. The new leadership took the same course.

Some didn’t like this, they split and formed their own party which they say is not racist but of course it is. They resisted the move to the center and remained on the extreme right together with Fidesz. It is not difficult to see that they will be swallowed by Fidesz in no time, because Fidesz will not allow a rightist party besides his own.

JS: Do you think that supporters of Orban support him because they participate in refeudalized politics or because it is because they buy into the nationalistic agenda?

AH: Of course they buy into his agenda. In addition, in Hungary there never was liberal democracy. Greater part of the population awaits everything from above, they ask favors from the government. It has its name in Latin: ius suplicationis. There is no other party they can ask favors from. They are not used to making their own choice, to rely upon their own force. People have no idea about democracy, people have no idea how liberty can be used.

Hungarians got their liberty as a birthday present, they did not do anything for their it. Everything was settled around the round table. They did not feel that this regime was their regime, somehow more important than the previous one.

In the 1990s, when there was a relatively all right government in Hungary, people believed that politics is done in the parliament and did not want to have much to do with it. Politicians were convinced that people outside the parliament would be happy if in the representatives do the right thing.

So Orban is not only Horthy. He is a combination of Horthy and Janos Kadar. The good father Janos Kadar who will satisfy our wishes.

JS: Do you think that the goulash communism of Kadar created certain habitus (to use Bourdieou’s term) that Orban is relying upon right now to gather his support?

AH: This habitus of the servant dates back earlier than Kadar and Horthy’s time. It was already there and Orban recognized it. Goulash communism is still there and you cannot get rid of it; and the 19th century the socialist government did not do anything to prevent the survival of this habitus.

JS: Did socialism and goulash communism of Kadar and his successor put the nationalistic identities in the freezer so to speak and they defrosted after 1989?

AH: Yes, the Trianon problem in particular but also the Holocaust; the two traumas of the society, which were in the freezer. After 1989 everything came out.

It is true that the Trianon resolution was unjust to Hungarians, that Hungarians suffered in the result of the peace after World War I, it still aches, it is still a wound in the Hungarian body. So he relies on a real problem and real suffering. Orban uses Hungarians in the neighboring countries as supporters of the government through this kind of a Trianon reference. They participate in Hungarian elections and 98 percent of them voted for Orban. It was at least one seat in the parliament that Orban got from the people in Transylvania and other places outside Hungary. But this is not the main support of Orban.

But there is something else. He understand the country. The left does not understand the country, the liberals even less. The left believes that the country will be leftist because people want redistribution and more just access. The left puts it ideological message into the social democratic tradition of the 19th century.

But this is not the same country, people are not that interested in economic issues. There are other issues, issues of hatred. Immigration is the leitmotif of Orban. Migrants pose the threat, they are the great enemy. Not Gypsies or Jews anymore but migrants are those who destroy our culture. Hungary protects the whole Europe from migrants, Hungary protects Christianity from migrants and Islam. Hungary protects Hungarian women from rape by migrants.

JS: This is the same rhetoric they use in Poland.

AH: There is one difference though: Poland is really a Catholic country. Hungary is a pagan country. No one is religious there. Christianity is not an issue in Hungary, it is just an ideological, rhetorical device.

JS: Why didn’t goulash communism heal Hungary from the trauma of Trianon?

AH: The trauma of Trianon was never used under communism. Antisemitism yes – under the guise of the anti-Israeli: Israel was the greatest enemy, together with the USA. This antisemitism had the way to be expressed. Trianon never had that chance because all the neighboring countries were brothers in socialism. There was no way for nationalism to be emphasized, Trianon was never mentioned. Only in the last years of the 1980s did they start to mention it.

JS: When I lived in Hungary I saw taxis with maps of greater Hungary. Why does this nostalgia for greater Hungary, imperial Hungary, exclude the imperial tolerance of many nations and cultures?

AH: This is also a bad tradition. Already under Austro-Hungarian Empire, Hungary was in equal standing with Austria and did not want to share this standing with Czechs, Slovaks, Romanians, etc. Perhaps it could have developed into a kind of federation, Danube Confederation, as Lajos Kossuth suggested. But Hungarians already were nationalistic and became even more nationalistic after the first world war. All these neighboring countries became enemies and Horthy did abide by, besides his own class interest, the interest of the gentry, this slogan: everything back, we need to get everything back. That was a slogan in all the schoolbooks. It obviously could not continue under communism. Well, except in regard to Yugoslavia. Yugoslavia could remain the enemy because of the well known reasons.

JS: Let’s move from talking about the past to talking about the future. You are a pessimist. You believe that our condition is a postmodern condition, that is, that history has ended and we cannot come up with nothing new. Is liberal democracy the best we can hope for?

AH: Liberal democracy is imperfect, in some places more imperfect than in others. But we do not have anything else to protect. This is the only thing we can protect. And where is liberal democracy? In very few places in the world. Certainly not in Eastern Europe. The tradition of monarchy, the rule of one person, one man, is still the most widespread form of rule in the world. Liberal democracy is the only system which offers certain kind of liberty for a single person, for groups and ethnicities, this kind of plurality of traditions and ways of life. This is the only kind of political arrangement that is worthy being defended even if not adored.

JS: Can we not make a step forward to come up with something better?

AH: What can be better? There was a socialist conception of something better and it did not work out. Everything that was considered better turned out just worse, as you know well. What can we have better than expressing opinion freely, organizing ourselves and fulfilling ourselves? Yes, we still live under the pressure of the economic market society, which is not good, which is not optimistic.

JS: How do we defend, and what can we rely on in our defense of liberal democracy?

AH: In Anglosaxon countries there is a longer tradition of liberal democracy. Despite of Trump, the US has a tradition of liberal democracy and will not abandon it, just like the British, Australians or New Zealand.

Regarding the European continent – with the exception of France and some Scandinavian countries there is a very little experience here with liberal democracy. Hungary had none, I do not think that Poland has had much. Germany had very little experience and it was always in danger. Italy the same.

Twentieth century was a massacre. 100 million Europeans died – I am talking only on the European continent and not about the colonies! This is our tradition! The problem with the European Union is that from the beginning it did not face the European past. You speak about the European values as if Europe was born yesterday! But Europe has a terrible past. And if you do not face the terrible past, you will not have a good future either. Because the past has to be understood in order to be overcome. Germans have had to confront their Nazi past. But what about the first world war? What about the old Prussia and the old Kaiser? This past remains there and it is almost forgotten. So we think about the European values and we think that Europe started to exist yesterday.

All countries have a terrible past. If you speak about the religious wars in Asia and Africa, please remind yourself about the Thirty Years’ War. It was a religious war and Europe was devastated after it for the first time by a man-made disaster. We forget about it even though it ended in the 18 thcentury only. We have to seriously face the European past in order to protect liberal democracy as a present from the heaven.

JS: Despite Trump you believe that the US will keep their liberal democratic tradition. Nonetheless it seems that Donald Trump has awoken a lot of racism and a kind of white nationalism that hasn’t been seen in the US for a log time.

AH: This is true. But America used to be a liberal democracy for over two hundred years. And it is not the first time that this kind of white supremacy got more support than anything else. It is an interesting country. It has a violent history – there was a civil war, for heavens’ sake! And it was the most bloody civil war since Marius and Sulla. It is not that there is no racism or white supremacy there in the US, but they themselves become victorious against it. Jim Crow was still in place in the 1950s. The young white people from the East Coast went to the South, talked to the Black population and Black activists, and they succeeded. Many white students gave their lives for this. Bad things can happen but they themselves got it right. There was a similar thing in Great Britain with the Irish issue. There was imprisonment and other repressions but they themselves overcame it.

The population in the continental Europe has not been strong enough to overcome our own issues. In Europe there has had to be foreign army to put it right.


Agnes Heller is a Hungarian philosopher. In 1977 Agnes Heller, along with other members of the ‘Budapest School’, chose exile in Australia. Her influence on critical theory is evident to this day. Now in her 80s she continues to live the philosophical life at full pitch, traveling, lecturing, and standing firm against injustice as she sees it.

Jan Smoleński Currently a PhD candidate at the Politics Department of the New School for Social Research in New York. Graduate of the University of Warsaw (philosophy) and Central European University in Budapest (political science). This interview was originally published at Political Critique.