Article

Activism in Dark Times

On the Renewed Hopes and Faustian Pacts of Grassroots Organizing in Hungary

“I am thirty years old now and Fidesz came to power when I was 20—one-third of my life has been under this regime,” says Ágnes, a historian living in Budapest. “But, you know, at some point Fidesz will fail and I will feel morally victorious over those who compromised themselves to this system.” Ágnes is referring to the Fidesz party (the Hungarian Civic Alliance) of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, which won a landslide election in 2010 and has spent the past 10 years taking over state institutions, most of the media, and a large part of the economy, reorganizing Hungarian society into what many consider to be the European Union’s first contemporary case of authoritarianism—what Prime Minister Orbán himself has termed “illiberal democracy.”

Fidesz succeeded in winning its third consecutive parliamentarian super-majority in April 2018, a major blow to the Hungarian opposition. Although Orbán seemed unstoppable at the time, the victory of allied opposition forces in many of the October 2019 municipal elections—including Budapest—has given new hope to his opponents. At the same time, radical left-wing activism and political organizing appear to be making a comeback in Hungary, as recent years have seen spontaneous workers’ protests erupt in Budapest streets in reaction to the government’s new labour laws, a growing student movement sparked by the targeting of the Central European University (CEU), and a surge in anti-fascist organizing against Hungarian neo-Nazism.

While we both have been involved with various activist groups in Budapest, we wanted to delve deeper into the situation on the ground in Hungary today. Particularly, while Western media continue to cover the rise of Hungarian authoritarianism, we wanted to document the movements of resistance that have arisen in response. Moreover, we try to think through contemporary Hungarian leftist organizing from a position that does not indulge discourses about east-central Europe as “backwards” and “catching up” to the liberal West, rhetoric that serves to promote a form of EU-led (neo)liberal status quo and rests on an anti-communist foundation that attributes Hungary’s “democratic backsliding” to the legacy of its socialist past.

For this article we spoke with five people from the Budapest activist scene: Nora from Hallgatói Szakszervezet (HaSZ–the “Student Trade Union”), a radical student-worker solidarity group; Viktor from Szabad Egyetem (SzE–“Free University”), a student movement engaged in issues of academic freedom and access to education; 1 Maria from Rhythms of Resistance (RoR), an anarcho-feminist street-action samba band; Z from Autonómia, Budapest’s local antifascist group; and Ágnes, a historian who works with the Szabad Budapest (“Free Budapest”) group that campaigned for left-wing mayoral candidates in last year’s Hungarian municipal elections.

Some of our interlocutors have been involved in Hungarian activism for more than 10 years, but everyone we interviewed became more involved in political organizing around 2018, as student protests and labour demonstrations became a defining characteristic of the year. We asked our comrades to explain how activism and political organizing have been under the conditions of contemporary Hungarian authoritarianism and how they connect the struggles of workers, students, pro-democracy liberals, and anti-fascists in this context. What does “resistance” mean and what is the point of activism when failures feel nearly inevitable? What does anti-fascist organizing look like in a country that has a strong presence and normalization of neo-Nazis? Ultimately, we encouraged our interviewees to share their advice for activists around the world: if the world seems to be increasingly sliding toward the far-right, what lessons can organizers the world over learn from the political situation in Hungary and how local activists are organizing? In other words, how can Hungarian activism help us learn how to organize in our own increasingly right-wing local contexts? For Hungarian activists, the strategies used—sometimes successfully, other times not—have included negotiating between electoral campaigning and grassroots organizing, making relevant academic struggles for everyday Hungarian life, and building coalitions with all those who oppose the ruling Fidesz regime, even right-wing players.

Hungary as the vanguard of the far-right revolution

In their first years in power, Orbán and his (initially) all-male government used their two-third parliamentary majority to seize the public media, rewrite the constitution, and reform electoral rules to make it easier to keep power. After easily defeating a divided opposition in 2014, the Fidesz government seemed to have found the right formula for keeping its strong grip on the country: it turned parliament into a rubber stamp, took control of large parts of the economy through its network of befriended oligarchs 2 —who in turn had been buying private media to make it pro-government—and weakened the independence of the justice system. 3

When hundreds of thousands of refugees were travelling to find a safer life in western Europe in 2015, the Orbán government launched an unprecedented anti-migrant campaign, building a fence on its southern border, encouraging border police to attack refugees, covering the country in populist billboards against migrants, and spending millions of euros on a so-called “national consultation” with a referendum on refugees. While activists on the ground responded to this anti-refugee campaign through grassroots groups like Migszol (the Migrant Solidarity Group of Hungary) and NGOs like the Helsinki Committee (a legal group advocating for migrant rights), Orbán’s laws made it increasingly criminal to engage in migrant advocacy, and refugee rights activism fizzled as virtually all asylum-seekers became barred from entering the country.

Once the refugees were gone, the government needed a new scapegoat, and it used the services of US Republican spin doctors 4 to invent the perfect enemy: George Soros, an American billionaire of Jewish Hungarian descent who had made a fortune speculating on currencies and became a sponsor for education and liberal NGOs in post-communist Europe. Even better, Soros had been a supporter of refugees, and in the new plot concocted by Fidesz, he became the mastermind behind a plan to ‘flood’ Europe with migrants. Orbán and his team started an anti-Soros campaign that served as a pretext for attacking all opponents of the state, related or not to projects and organizations funded by Soros’ Open Society Foundation. 5 Among these, Central European University (CEU), set up by the foundation in Budapest and dubbed the “Soros University” by Orbán’s men, was a choice target.

From the students to the workers

In 2017, the government passed a new law dictating requirements for post-secondary accreditation; the law quickly became recognized as attacking solely CEU and was dubbed Lex CEU. Huge demonstrations took place against Lex CEU: up to 80,000 people took to the streets in Budapest to defend this small private Hungarian-American university as a symbol of academic freedom in the country.

Our friend Z notes there had been a collapse of left-wing organizations around the time of Fidesz’s arrival to power and the Lex CEU protests were the beginning of anti-government street mobilizations, sparking a renewed interest in political activism amongst the Hungarian Left. He and others grew tired of the liberal tones and empty slogans 6 of these protests and chose instead the autonomous tradition of radical left-wing activism by reviving the collective Autonómia, which has a history going back to the early 1990s: “People started to get into politics, some left-wing activists got back on the scene, people thought, ‘We need to fucking do something.’”

A shift in left-wing activism took place when a new cohort of students organized around the issue of CEU in Fall 2018, as it became increasingly clear that the government was going to force the university into exile. CEU students teamed up with students from the local universities to widen the scope of the protest and agitate more broadly around issues of academic freedom and accessible higher education. Publicly-funded Hungarian universities had also been under attack by the right-wing government, with increased cuts to public scholarships, plans for privatizing universities, and, in particular, a government ban on gender studies 7 (which was announced in 2018 to be replaced with “family studies” 8 programs). Students mobilized around these issues and occupied the square in front of the Hungarian parliament to stage a “Free University” (Szabad Egyetem), where HaSZ, the ‘Student Trade Union,’ was founded to inaugurate a more radical era of Hungarian student protest.

Nora tells us how these events in the fall pushed her into activism. Having spent her teenage years in Germany and returning to Hungary to study, Nora became quickly involved in the student movement being born in the occupied parliament square. Looking back, she is thoughtful: “I don’t know if it made sense or how much impact it had, but I felt like I did the most I could.”

Viktor was studying at CEU when the government plans to close down the university pushed him to become politically active for the first time. Hungarian-born but raised in the US, he returned to Hungary to study at CEU and, as a result of Lex CEU, helped form Szabad Egyetem to organize the occupation of the parliament square. He remembers how the students occupying the square teamed up with trade unions in December 2018: “It really snowballed because as we were dealing with issues of academic freedom as university students occupying the parliament square, the ‘Slave Law’ protests erupted.” 9 For one of the rare times in recent Hungarian history, a labour-related issue drew tens of thousands to the streets and even led to street clashes with the police, the first in over a decade. The “Slave Law” protests saw an unprecedented alliance between left-wing students/activists and trade unions. For weeks following the passing of the “Slave Law,” daily street protests took place, where thousands of demonstrators occupied the bridges of the city, rioted in front of the Hungarian parliament, and shut down the streets of Budapest. Student activists rallied behind slogans for a general strike in Hungary, and Hungarian trade unions staged road blockades throughout the Hungarian countryside.

Z felt encouraged to see the Hungarian radical Left form a bloc of 500-1000 people at those big demonstrations. An important part of this bloc were the loud and colourful drummers of RoR. Maria remembers that those protests led to a spurt of interest to join the group. “These protests were good schooling for us. Organizers often try to push us to go be in the front, lead the crowd, be in front of the media, we were very visible. Our tactical role was to attract attention to the issue—we played and shouted things in Hungarian to help give voice to the message—‘student-worker solidarity’! This kind of thing.”

Despite the energy of these protests that eventually culminated in clashes against police, the movement did not manage to pose a real threat to the regime. Z regrets that there was no strong structure, no knowledge about how to escalate while maintaining the narrative. “Then the liberals just took this Left bloc of workers, students, and leftists, and completely fucked it. Then there was no more talk of worker laws anymore: just liberals trying to get on TV. The unions couldn’t keep it at hand, the students couldn’t keep it at hand.” Nora sees it the same way: “I was just really sad and disappointed by the fact that the politicians took it over so shamelessly.” Nora also reminds us that the trade unions are still weak in Hungary and seen “as old-fashioned socialist bullshit.” In the end, she notes, few people actually perceived the Slave Law protests as left-wing, after liberal politicians stole the show: “it exemplified the Hungarian political situation very well. The politicians took it over, and they made it about themselves.”

A positive impact of the “Slave Law” protests was to bring together the various political forces that opposed the Orbán regime, despite internal strife. Viktor tells us about being thrown in the midst of negotiations between trade unions, the opposition parties, and student movements, of which he was one of the representatives. He remembered being shocked by the level of distrust between them and asking himself: “If we don’t trust each other, how are we going to make any progress?” As the political parties took over the protests, the trade unions did not have the strength to escalate, the students distanced themselves, and the movement died down. The calls for a general strike and worker-student solidarity faded away and failed to materialize into any clear wins for the Hungarian labour movement; as Ágnes concluded her impressions of that time: “Workers’ rights remain very broken in Hungary.” She could not take an active part in the protests because of work, but she had high hopes: “I thought that if this regime doesn’t fail now, it never will, and I will be so disappointed—but then nothing happened.” Despite this setback, Community activists found some unexpected and surprising optimism in parliamentarian strategies, as the coming municipal elections across the country brought left-wing activism some electoral success.

Revolt through the ballot box?

Although she felt so bitter that she thought she was never going to get into politics again, Ágnes said that she felt “reactivated” as the municipal elections were approaching in the summer of 2019. At that time, it seemed like the opposition parties had finally learned from eight years of electoral defeats. In the winner-take-all electoral system set up by the Fidesz regime, it meant making broad alliances across ideological differences.

Although all five of the activists we interviewed lamented how the “Slave Law” protests were hijacked by the political parties, they acknowledged that at least it enabled a new level of cooperation amongst those that opposed Fidesz and Orbán’s regime, as political parties of all stripes marched alongside the students and the trade unions, from the old-school socialists to the traditionally far-right, yet increasingly less radical, Jobbik party. This transpired into longer-term cooperation during the Budapest mayoral campaign as the socialists, liberals, and some greens held a primary to find a common candidate. Centre-left green candidate Gergely Karácsony was selected, with most other opposition parties deciding to fall in behind him. For cities outside of Budapest, opposition parties decided to unite and run a single candidate against Fidesz in each of the respective mayoral elections; most of these candidates were “agreed upon by compromises between the opposition parties in ‘smoke-filled rooms’ so to say,” explains Ágnes.

This rallying also took place among some leftist activists who decided to jump into the campaign. Ágnes was at the first meeting when about 40 seasoned activists decided to found Szabad Budapest (“Free Budapest”) and help take back the capital. “We were a bunch of people who studied social sciences at university and had read a lot of theory, but we realized that if we wanted to have an impact on society, we had to do something else. So we were actually very enthusiastic about the political campaign.” She explains that door-to-door work, a rather uncommon practice in Hungarian politics, proved to be an effective tactic in rallying voters. Activists also organized interventions in the public space, such as flash mobs and chalk graffiti. “We saw that you could learn activism by doing,” she concludes. 10

This paid off in Budapest, with the opposition’s candidate winning over 50 percent of votes in the municipal election in October 2019; Fidesz lost further in six other big cities at the hands of a united opposition. 11 Even left-liberal people were shocked by the victory, as Viktor recalls. He speaks against what he sees as a national trait: “We suddenly realized, this Hungarian cynicism that you can’t establish anything with elections, is bullshit.” This electoral victory has reinvigorated a lot of people who are now thinking: “If this is possible, then more victories are down the line.”

Is the enemy of my enemy my friend?

One of the most controversial—and likely unbelievable for leftists outside of Hungary—tactics employed by this broad anti-Fidesz opposition movement has been to include among its coalition-building members of Jobbik, Hungary’s far-right political party that has recently been shifting to the centre of the political spectrum and distancing itself from its more unsavoury fascistic elements to appeal to a wider voting base. While leftists disagree strongly with Jobbik’s racist and sexist politics, the coalition tends to avoid discussing the disagreeable topics, instead emphasizing that Jobbik commands about 15 percent of the vote and its radical right populism shares with the Left a discontent with neoliberal capitalism: as Nora suggests, “what Jobbik is saying about neoliberalism is not very different from the radical Left. You have to dig really deep to differentiate their arguments about neoliberalism and the radical leftist perspective on German imperialism here in Hungary.”

Nora explains the uncomfortable alliance for us: “In this time it is more important to have a coalition no matter who is in it; otherwise, there is never going to be freedom for organizing anything else. And the longer Orbán is in power the more people will suffer.” Nora insists, “it’s a very selfish sort of academic thing to say ‘no it has to be pure, it has to be right.’ Yeah, no, it’s not great, but Orbán needs to go.” She comes from a well-known intellectual Jewish family with a history of political involvement: “My father has had tomatoes thrown at him by Jobbik people while giving public lectures, and now even he would vote for Jobbik if that is what needs to be done for system change, because that’s the way forward.”

Ágnes reaches the same conclusion but still feels tormented. “Is it worth it? How will I look in the eyes of my future children after voting for a far-right candidate? I am also Jewish and I had a lot of nightmares about this, about being deported. I had these nightmares that my children would tell me, ‘now we are being deported because you voted for Jobbik’.” She feels relieved that she does not have to vote for Jobbik in Budapest, as the party has little support in the capital, but she rationalizes the choice: “It’s terrible that we have to do these things, but we have to do them in order to have any win against Fidesz.”

Viktor, on the other hand, is registered to vote in a smaller city outside Budapest where a Jobbik candidate was the representative of the opposition coalition. Therefore his anti-Fidesz vote went to a Jobbik politician: “Yep, I came home to the countryside and voted for a Jobbik candidate who had been sharing Hitler quotes a few years ago. He took the office back from Fidesz,” he says. “The thing I use to justify myself is that Fidesz is an evil organization and does a lot of evil things and has shown how evil it is and removing pillars of that empire can be justified.” He pauses and laugh-shrugs: “Obviously choosing between Fidesz and a Nazi is not a good choice.” Despite these second thoughts, Viktor stresses that the strategy seems to be working both ways, with Jobbik voters supporting leftist or liberal candidates who ran as the opposition representative.

Nora suggests that due to the increasing consolidation of power from the right by Fidesz, Jobbik has been reconfigured in its far-right political orientation since its neofascist references and militia-style mobilization against Roma: “It’s more of a right-wing populist party now.” Ágnes sees things the same way, observing that Jobbik and Fidesz “have switched places” on the political spectrum, with Fidesz co-opting Jobbik’s far-right program and pushing Jobbik toward the centre. “If you negotiate with Jobbik, you are still negotiating with someone who is not as far-right as Fidesz.” Indeed, Jobbik has been trying to rebrand itself as a conservative, yet more moderate, right-wing alternative to Fidesz since 2014, as the two parties compete over their right-wing votes-base.

As an autonomous activist, Z rejects wholesale the route of electoral politics and does not approve of any alliances with the far-right. “I know people in Jobbik who are honest authoritarian fascists and I don’t think you should build anything with them.” He is also critical of such tactics from a strategic point of view, pointing out that it ends up favouring the liberals, who “placate politics, just turn everything into slogans and use their media machinery to push everything through.” He warns that “the neoliberals are bringing into power their own batch of lizard men who are close enough to the money trail and are going to hijack municipal funding—this is just as troubling as the fascists.” Nora observes similarly the dangers of merging the opposition forces into a single group: “There is this massive dilemma in Hungary whether to accept a lot of things: neoliberal weird middle ground things—and just go with it for the sake of defeating Orbán’s regime—and settle for anything but that.” Beyond electoral organizing, grassroots groups provide an opportunity to escape this dilemma.

Anti-fascist and grassroots organizing in Budapest

While an anti-Fidesz front is likely for the 2022 parliamentary elections, many activists stay committed to grassroots organizing. For Z, while he understands the reasoning of a group like Szabad Budapest, the limitations of using electoral politics as a strategy for the radical Left are far too clear: “We need to build up alternatives to elections. Activists are not here just to build cadres for the politicians’ political machinery, but to keep them in check.”

Maria’s explanation of RoR’s political orientation shares Z’s sentiments; the group has a policy of not playing at mainstream demonstrations or for political parties, even if those parties form an opposition to Orbán’s Fidesz: “We support political actions separate from the politicians.” Their main efforts are directed to helping out the street demonstrations of grassroots groups, such as A Város Mindenkié (“The City is for all” or AVM), a housing and homelessness rights group composed of homeless activists and their allies.

Z’s main interest in radical left organizing in the anarchist and anti-fascist tradition became refocused after the “Slave Law” protests failed and were co-opted by politicians. He recalls the realization of many radical leftists at the time, that Hungarian Left culture needed an organized Left, a “Left for the streets” that could mobilize and organize people around more direct forms of political action: “Some leftists came out of the “Slave Law” protests thinking that we needed to control elections. The other part was like, ‘actually what we need is to beat up the Nazis’.”

Autonómia partnered with the student trade union movement to build a more radical alternative politics for Hungarians, one that resoundingly rejected the authoritarianism and fascist tendencies of the right-wing while rebuffing the bland centrist and neoliberal politics of the pro-EU liberals, whose commitment to the European project of open markets and liberal democracy are often couched in anti-communist terms. Z explains that the Hungarian liberal Left’s failure to adequately deal with questions of class and economy are partly to blame for the rise of the far-right in a country like Hungary: “The missing component in the opposition’s analysis is class, and the right-wing can hijack this: they are able to mobilize a lot of working-class people. For example, a lot of soup kitchens in Hungary are run by fascists now.”

Autonómia and anti-fascist organizers in Budapest experienced an important moment of victory in February 2020, when a big mobilization run against an annual neo-Nazi event resulted in the largest anti-fascist demonstration in the city in over 20 years. Every year Autonómia protests the gathering of neo-Nazis from across Europe to lament the February 1945 liberation of Axis-aligned Hungary by the Soviet Army. The “Day of Honour”—as named by the Hungarian neo-Nazi who founded the holiday—attracts some of the most violent hate groups in Europe who gather in Budapest to celebrate a fascist Hungary that was responsible for the murder of hundreds of thousands of people, primarily Jews, Roma, and LGBTQ people. While such an event may seem unimaginable in most parts of western Europe and North America, in Budapest the event is attended by hundreds of neo-Nazis and prior to 2020 counter-protested by only a handful of anti-fascists: “In most countries, media makes a big deal if Nazis march through your town, but in Hungary, at some point, the press decided they just weren’t even going to cover it,” as Z explains. Maria concurs, “A lot of Hungarians may not openly support Nazis, but at the same time they do not deem Nazi ideology and propaganda problematic and see no issues in big international neo-Nazi gatherings in Budapest.”

The 2020 event was the first time anti-fascist demonstrators outnumbered the neo-Nazis. In particular, Romani activists mobilized for the event and brought nearly 300 people to come stand up against them. Z recalls: “Oh it was great fun. It was the most fun I think we’ve had in 15 years! It gave us a sense of victory—holy shit we are capable of more than we thought we were. If we can do this, we can do more. Everyone was really happy.” A major piece of the event’s success was the mobilization of RoR. Each year, RoR makes a point of showing up to protest the event. As Maria recollects, “RoR began playing the event around 2012. Whenever we have enough people, we will go drum and shout. We want to show that RoR is anti-fascist and that anti-fascism is feminist.” RoR is part of a transnational network and put a call out to its European comrades about the 2019 neo-Nazi gathering. As Maria explains, “We basically appealed to our friends across Europe by explaining that in Hungary when the Nazis demonstrate, anti-fascists are the ones who are outnumbered—usually by several thousand. It’s not like in Germany or the West. So we said, ‘Come help us protest these Nazis in Hungary!’ And our friends came—from all over the region and beyond.” RoR organized a regional conference in Budapest on the weekend of the protest, bringing about 80 members of its anarcho-queer samba network to come drum at the demo. Drummers came from Austria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Ukraine, Germany, Moldova, Romania, and Lithuania.

The counter-demonstration brought several hundred people from various political stripes; while anarchist flags were in high numbers, the occasional EU flag could also be seen. Budapest police put up barriers around the neo-Nazi demonstration to block out anti-fascist protestors, and sporadic confrontations between fascists, anti-fascists, and the police took place. While these direct clashes between neo-Nazis and anti-fascist activists were minimal, people walked away from the demo feeling like, “a new Left resistance may be brewing in Hungary.” 12 Z explains that: “Everyone walked away from the day with this feeling of euphoria. We were planning to build up the anti-fascist networks in the region. But then COVID-19 hit and everything stopped completely. It feels like the entire season is cancelled now.”

COVID-19 and future activism

Although the number of infections and Covid-19-related deaths have been thus far low in comparison to many other countries, the government jumped on the occasion to demand full control from parliament, a request quickly approved by the Fidesz supermajority. Even if the parliament has long ceased to play an important role, it did have the chilling effect of implementing a dictatorship in name as well as practice, granting unlimited powers to the government and the indefinite suspension of all elections. Viktor explains that the official government justification has been that these developments were approved by parliament and that it can end them at any time: the undoing of democracy by democracy is a key feature of the Orbán regime.

Our interviewees all emphasized the detrimental impact of the global pandemic on political organizing. “It’s very difficult to organize anything right now: street protests are banned, and people are being fined left and right because of the new propaganda law; it’s risky to post anything online,” says Z in reference to two cases in May 2020 when, under the pretense of a new law preventing the circulation of fake COVID-19 news, two people were arrested for posting content critical of the government on social media. Although the posts had nothing to do with COVID-19 and no charges were pressed, Viktor believes the arrests made people think twice before criticizing the current regime.

While traditional street politics are hindered by the state of emergency, some groups have turned into solidarity networks. Ágnes tells us how Szabad Budapest has been sewing masks and preparing hand sanitizers for the trade unions. HaSZ, the Student Trade Union, took action to help students who were being kicked out of the dormitories due to the pandemic. As Nora explains, HaSZ launched a campaign to connect students without housing with members of the public who had a free room or an empty Airbnb.

Despite those efforts, Ágnes confesses that it has been hard because of the low number of volunteers and the sense of being overwhelmed: “There are simply too many things happening and too quickly, and this is the government strategy to tire us, even emotionally. Every week something very outrageous happens, and even if you are not an activist, you are just too tired to get upset every time. We are so used to outrageous things, it’s difficult to make people outraged every time.” She mentions controversial government decisions—seemingly timed to take place during the pandemic—to scrap the Istanbul Treaty against domestic violence 13 and the regime’s organized assault on transgender rights. 14 Z also points out that the government has used the crisis to cede increasing parts of the economy to befriended oligarchs. On the other hand, Z laughs and tells us that the pandemic has also negatively impacted neo-Nazi organizing: “we can’t organize right now, but neither can they!”

While the first wave of the pandemic seems to be behind us in central Europe, the major question now is who will be the new scapegoat in the 2022 parliamentary elections 15 and what kind of propaganda will be fed through the media, of which about 78 percent is under government control. 16 The Fidesz regime has a vested interest in moving the focus away from the pandemic, especially since it has made apparent the catastrophic state of the Hungarian health system, weakened by decades of neoliberal policies pursued by the socialist governments and continued by the Orbán regime.

Conclusion and some advice

“Activism gives you a better perspective,” says Maria. “It’s hard when you don’t see the huge results, but maybe expecting huge results is not the way to do it. I’m trying to realize this myself. We had a lot of people inspired by our activism: the infoshops, the drumming. You don’t need to aim big; you can be satisfied with small results in the first place. Be grateful to yourself and your comrades for any achievement.” Viktor also tells us that the road is worth taking, sharing with us a quote by Hungarian housing rights activist Bálint Misetics: “It’s worthwhile to join the struggle, even if we will be met with failure, not only because the struggle gives strength, community, hope, joy, and dignity, but because if we struggle, sooner or later we will win.”

Our comrades remind us the whole world is witnessing a rise in fascism and right-wing extremism, and often those countries that are represented as “democratic” and “liberal”—such as Canada and the US—are worse perpetrators of violence. As Ágnes remarks, “It’s very bad in Hungary, but, to be honest, the Left looks really bad everywhere globally right now. So I don’t feel like I am in a super awful place.” Despite this rather gloomy realization, she adds: “We don’t do it for the sake of success, but out of duty; it’s not a duty for everyone and I don’t judge people for not doing, it’s also a privilege that I have access to information and free time and I live in Budapest and am middle class, and I am employed by a foreign employer. It makes me feel like I have to do this, no matter what. I will have children and I will bring them up in Hungary and I want to tell them that I did what I could and I did not just stand by as it happened.”

Maria muses: “Well, Hungary is not the best example for giving activist advice: we don’t have many visible or significant victories. Personally, I have had a bunch of burnouts from this topic already.” Good-naturedly, she suggests that one of the advantages Hungary has is that its radical leftist scene is so small, its significance is underestimated almost entirely by the Hungarian State: the government doesn’t harass activists or have sophisticated surveillance and monitoring of leftist groups, as they tend to have in western countries.

“Today,” Maria reminds us, “there are many, many more initiatives, in all of the spheres, since the “Slave Law” protests [such as] student movements, workers’ movements, rights for the homeless, and other movements. For example, this year, the 8th of March public event was organized by local feminists, not by us at RoR, who used to organize marches for this day. And this year it felt like Antifa in Hungary was reborn.” Nora also sees some positive development in the last months: “We have no free media here and that’s a big part of the picture, so for me, the biggest achievement we can have is being heard and being normalized so that our message goes to the people and they don’t just hear a very particular right-wing agenda, or the neoliberal agenda, but also our voice. I don’t even care if they agree with us or not.”

Ágnes insists that it is important to keep activism sustainable: “Try not to burn out. When it’s too much, take a break. Have sustainable organizations so people can take breaks. You need to build community.” Viktor also sees community-building as a key element of resistance: “Make sure that you take time to appreciate and support your fellow activists. One of the most effective ways that you can fight back against a system you don’t like is by creating communities that operate on a different logic [. . ..] And that has nothing to do with protesting or traditional forms of organizing.” For Z, it is mostly about getting out there and “grounding the movement in the wider reality of the actual people. Instead of trying to build a bigger anarchist Antifa subculture, we need to be everywhere; we need to connect different fragments of society. That’s my idea of how to get out of the apocalypse.”

While some dream of grassroots organizing toward the revolution and others think of broad, if unholy, alliances toward the 2022 parliamentary elections, there is still a lot of time and uncertainty ahead in Hungary, the heart of the far-right revolution in Europe. The next months, and years, will see new struggles to free this central European country from the claws of the Viktátor and, as Viktor (our friend, not the dictator) says: “Eventually, all of these steps and our progress will add up and often it’s impossible to tell how close we are to our goal.” *

Notes

  1. Both Nora and Viktor are student activists in Budapest who were involved with both the Hungarian Student Trade union and Szabad Egyetem; these two groups actually worked quite closely together on issues of academic freedom and student activism, with the latter being more focused on CEU and English speakers and the former more focused on Hungarian postsecondary issues. We (the authors) were both actively involved with Szabad Egyetem. ↩︎
  2. Part of these economic reforms included tax reforms benefitting wealthy Hungarians. As Szijártó notes, “Thanks to Orbán’s reactionary tax reforms, Hungary currently has a flat income tax, the highest VAT, and the lowest corporate tax rate in the European Union.” See: https://jacobinmag.com/2019/10/hungary-viktor-orban-fidesz-budapest ↩︎
  3. In 2012-2013, legislative reforms of the judiciary led to more centralized government power to transfer judges and cases. It also curbed the power of the Constitutional Court to review the legality of new legislation. ↩︎
  4. For the full history on the Hungarian demonization of Soros: https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/hnsgrassegger/george-soros-conspiracy-finkelstein-birnbaum-Orban-netanyahu ↩︎
  5. To get a fuller sense of the enormity and relentlessness of the Hungarian state’s campaign against Soros, this English-language news source has compiled a list of 99—only but a handful of the sum—recent Hungarian headlines about Soros: https://hungarianspectrum.org/2020/05/09/444-george-soros-the-man-who-would-have-killed-his-mother/ ↩︎
  6. Many tensions arose amongst Hungarian leftists regarding the protests for CEU: CEU is a well-funded American institute, funded by a Hungarian-American billionaire, and attended by mostly international students whose monthly student stipend is almost more than the monthly salary of a Hungarian professor at a public university. CEU as an institute has thus historically been regarded as quite disconnected from the local and everyday Hungarian struggles. Even leftists at the university had many criticisms of the “I Stand with CEU” campaign, which represented the university as an equalized space and not a terrain of power struggle, where staff were in the midst of unionizing efforts and the administration was pursuing typical neoliberal austerity policies that put enormous pressure on students, faculty, and staff. Michael Ignatieff, the university’s rector, initially discouraged students from organizing street protests and said the university would not come to the aid of students who engaged in any form of direct action: later Ignatieff won an award worth half a million dollars for “defending academic freedom in central Europe.” For more information on the prize, see here: https://www.dandavidprize.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=1041:prof-michael-ignatieff&catid=254:present-defending-democracy&Itemid=487:prof-michael-ignatieff&catid=254:present-defending-democracy&Itemid=487 ↩︎
  7. In late summer 2018, government officials announced that they would ban gender studies in Hungary and the discipline was simply erased from the list of degrees accredited by the Ministry of Human Capacities. Previously, it was only offered at the Budapest public ELTE and private CEU universities. CEU could continue offering its gender studies degrees thanks to its US American accreditation. ↩︎
  8. The full course is titled “Economics of Family Policy and Public Policies for Human Development” ↩︎
  9. Viktor refers here to legislative changes to the Labour Code presented in December 2018 and nicknamed the ‘Slave Law’ by opponents, as it forces workers to work up to 400 hours of overtime every year, with payment delayed for up to two years. For more on these protests and excellent political analyses on their significance, see the 2019 Lefteast article by Ágnes Gagyi: “The Political Economy of Hungary’s New ‘Slave Law;’” the 2018 FocaalBlog article by Kristóf Szombati: “Protesting the “Slave Law” in Hungary: The Erosion of Illiberal Hegemony?” ↩︎
  10. Justin Spike has authored an excellent overview of the strategies grassroots activists used to support these municipal elections and make them work for leftist organizing: https://insighthungary.444.hu/2020/02/10/we-need-to-replace-them-how-a-burgeoning-grassroots-culture-changed-the-rules-in-the-8th-district ↩︎
  11. Our comrade Imre Szijártó wrote a nice analysis for Jacobin explaining the significance and consequences of the municipal elections: https://jacobinmag.com/2019/10/hungary-viktor-Orban-fidesz-budapest ↩︎
  12. For an excellent historical overview and coverage of this year’s Day of Mourning, read this Jacobin article by our friends Imre Szijártó and Rosa Schwartzburg: https://jacobinmag.com/2020/03/day-of-honor-viktor-orban-hungary-neo-nazis-rally ↩︎
  13. In early May, the Hungarian parliament refused to ratify the Istanbul Convention on Violence Against Women—a human rights treaty introduced by the Council of Europe to combat violence against women. The Hungarian government declared the Istanbul Treaty to be promoting “destructive gender ideologies” and “illegal migration.” ↩︎
  14. In mid-May, Orbán’s Parliament passed a law ending the legal recognition of trans people. The new law defines gender based on chromosomes at birth, making it now impossible for trans people in Hungary to alter their name or gender on official documents. ↩︎
  15. Before the pandemic, the regime was planning an assault against Roma after a local court decided to award financial compensations to the families of Roma children who had been segregated in the schooling system, a widespread practice in Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and other countries of the region. In February 2020, several months after the ruling, Orbán seized the opportunity to launch his next campaign, making several statements about the allegedly discriminated white majority, who see Roma as a group that “receives significant sums of money without doing any work.”Although the pandemic derailed his plans to hold his now common “national consultations”, the equivalent to a hate campaign with no dissenting voice, he could very much get back to it in the coming weeks. ↩︎
  16. This article explains the concentration of media control under the Fidesz government: https://mertek.eu/en/2019/05/02/fidesz-friendly-media-dominate-everywhere/ ↩︎