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Leftist-Liberal Intellectuals in Shock After Hungary Election: An Interview with András Lánczi by Laura Szalai

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Interview

Leftist-Liberal Intellectuals in Shock After Hungary Election: An Interview with András Lánczi

Photo: Árpád Földházi

Viktor Orbán’s win this past spring continues to vex the sensibilities, and the plans, of western Europe’s progressive globalist agenda. Caught in the crosshairs of woke politics, conservative universities and the truth they seek to preserve are at greatest risk. Here, Hungarian philosopher András Lánczi offers some reflections on the fallout of the Hungarian election, and on the roles politicians, intellectuals, and academics have played in moulding today’s Europe.  


INTERVIEW

Viktor Orbán’s latest two-thirds election victory is still being deciphered in Hungary. Who do you think voted for Fidesz, actually? 

Everyone who values stability, the government’s performance in the last twelve years, and the accomplishments thereof. There is a long list of those, even if the government did not always emphasise them strongly enough. We have been experiencing a crisis for a long time, due to the pandemic, economic problems, and a war raging out there. So the formula was simplified by the elections: the one who most credibly makes peace and stability the top priority in Hungary would be the winner. This was effectively offered by the notion of national unity. 

Research institute Medián found that the more one has spent in education, the more one will tend to prefer the opposition. Do you also see it that way? 

There is no logical interrelation between the length of time spent in educational institutions and political affiliation or preferences. But let’s get some things clear first. “Intellectual” as a term is fundamentally a social label: those who get their degrees in institutions of higher education are called intellectuals. But this is different from what we truly mean by “intellectual.” In Hungary, it denotes a way of thinking which can be traced back to the Kádár era, starting out from reform communism and later assuming liberal traits. In the 1990s this was expressed in the belief that politics should be controlled by the intelligentsia directly, and, subsequently, indirectly.

At the last election, this approach, which can be simplified as the faith in progressivity above all, received a major shock. It was not only the lost election which caused a shock in opposition circles, but also the knowledge that the progressivist approach makes their situation worse. The intellectual identity of this layer of the intelligentsia has received a big blow now, and this is what is ailing them, actually. They have much to think about: is it absolutely necessary to look down on people who think differently? Is it possible that progressivity, the core of their message, is no longer valid? Is it possible that something else should be taught at universities? A book by the Colombian philosopher Nicolás Gómez Dávila is going to be published by Századvég soon; Dávila stated that human nature always surprises the progressives. This is what is currently happening in Hungary. It is also Gómez Dávila’s idea that the only real progress is possible if we are sceptical of progress. I think these are the two ideas which should be pondered by the intelligentsia in the state of shock that appears to have set in as a result of the outcome of the elections.

There is no logical interrelation between the length of time spent in educational institutions and political affiliation or preferences. But let’s get some things clear first. “Intellectual” as a term is fundamentally a social label: those who get their degrees in institutions of higher education are called intellectuals. But this is different from what we truly mean by “intellectual.” In Hungary, it denotes a way of thinking which can be traced back to the Kádár era, starting out from reform communism and later assuming liberal traits. In the 1990s this was expressed in the belief that politics should be controlled by the intelligentsia directly, and, subsequently, indirectly. 

At the last election, this approach, which can be simplified as the faith in progressivity above all, received a major shock. It was not only the lost election which caused a shock in opposition circles, but also the knowledge that the progressivist approach makes their situation worse. The intellectual identity of this layer of the intelligentsia has received a big blow now, and this is what is ailing them, actually. They have much to think about: is it absolutely necessary to look down on people who think differently? Is it possible that progressivity, the core of their message, is no longer valid? Is it possible that something else should be taught at universities? A book by the Colombian philosopher Nicolás Gómez Dávila is going to be published by Századvég soon; Dávila stated that human nature always surprises the progressives. This is what is currently happening in Hungary. It is also Gómez Dávila’s idea that the only real progress is possible if we are sceptical of progress. I think these are the two ideas which should be pondered by the intelligentsia in the state of shock that appears to have set in as a result of the outcome of the elections. 

Who was the biggest loser of the elections?

Those who believe politics should adopt an extremist tone are losers by all means, regardless of which side they are on. We have to realise that there is a national centre. Intellectuals with the approach specified above as well as a number of American and EU officials who were tasked with preventing an election result like this in Hungary are certainly losers of the elections this time. Although everyone who failed to win lost, undoubtedly, everyone wins with this strong and clear confirmation of stability, even those who dislike the set of politicians in power.

An increasing number of people are saying that after an overwhelming victory like this, the time has come for making gestures to those who do not support this side in politics. Do you also think this measure is necessary? 

Humility is the most important thing in every situation—and it does not matter which side we are speaking about. Perhaps it is surprising that I say it is the opposition who should be making gestures now.

What do you mean? 

The opposition should show willingness to advocate for policies which are in line with the will of the majority going forward. There were so many denunciatory statements and hate-mongering on the part of the opposition; in contrast, there was no one who spoke with more discipline and humility in Parliament than the prime minister. Sometimes he spoke sharply, or ironically, even, but he never insulted his opponents, he did not use abusive language. What kind of a gesture should he make in the current situation? The prime minister’s gesture is to accomplish national unity, national consensus on issues, on every occasion. There will only be a change in public life if mutual respect is ensured on the basis of reciprocity, and political actors are willing to refrain from speaking in a tone of arrogance. 

But let us not have any illusions: modern democracy has been damaged, right from its beginnings, in America and elsewhere, in a sharp and confrontative manner, verging on or reaching the point of actual libel. In one of his short stories, Mark Twain clearly stated already in the 19th century why he had not become a representative: as we would put it now, he was pestered and “laid out” by the press employing a wide selection of lowly methods, even though everything they wrote about the “hero” of the story was nothing but lies. This is how it was conducted in Antiquity, and this is how it goes today. 

How should the fifth Orbán cabinet address the different roles of the intellectual and the politician? 

If I provided an itemised list, I would also fall into the intellectuals’ trap. There are many who believe that the politician necessarily exists, since there are the leaders and the people who are led, and it is impossible to control a community in any other way. But intellectuals, in fact, look down on politicians. The “intellectuals” are convinced that they are better than politicians, and therefore they should be telling them what to do and how to do it. The world of politics should be respected, as it is a profession with a logic of its own, with a rather sensitive subject: power. 

Since you mentioned power, let’s note that Tilo Schabert’s Boston Politics has also been published in Hungarian—a book which intends to provide a comprehensive picture of what the exercising of power truly means or involves. What is the essence of Schabert’s realisation? 

What makes Tilo Schabert’s book really good is the writing; it is not dry like most of the positivist sawdust-flavoured works of social science which in the end do not make us understand anything at all. Here the essence of political wisdom and effective political action is outlined for us. Schabert is a representative of post-war, West-German political science who is still a member of Eric Voegelin’s school. He went to America back in the 1980s where he found Boston mayor Kevin White as a subject who was re-elected for several terms in a row, and whose success was difficult to understand for many people. Schabert wanted to understand what had happened in Boston empirically. His chain of thought takes us back to Machiavelli, presenting what the role of the personality is in a political community, irrespective of its adopted system, be it democratic or something else. Personality and the institutional background—the creative political leader can make the most of those. Schabert’s key message is political creativity. 

Boston Politics: The Creativity of Power / Boston Politics – A kreatív hatalomgyakorlás művészete
Tilo Schabert
Berlin: De Gruyter, 1990 / Budapest: MCC Press, 2022

What makes a leader creative?

Schabert explained leadership creativity by saying that the prime minister will find an empty desk in his study on the first working day after he is elected. He has to assemble the accoutrements, the tools of the office. He has to fight for his power, not only during the elections but subsequently too, each and every day. He has to control a bureaucratic apparatus, he has to create a supportive network of power on an ongoing basis, without which it would be impossible to exercise his power and to implement his policies. The decision-maker who believes he can be successful without the proper maintenance of his power is not a real politician—the cemetery is full of such idealists, such “intellectuals.” As I said, Schabert also studied Machiavelli; for example, he counted how many times the word virtù, that is, virtue, is mentioned in The Prince and he was interested in what meaning it assumes. He expounded on a philosophical basis what virtù meant in the case of the politician—and this was the virtù which Boston mayor of the 1980s, Kevin White, also had. 

The opposition should be making gestures. But what about Viktor Orbán? Many people refer to Boston Politics as the Bible of Orbán’s system. 

The Bible is the Bible, and this book by Schabert is a philosophical work born in an extraordinary intellectual milieu. I do not know whether the prime minister has even read it, but this is not the main thing, as a talented politician is able to gather knowledge by himself, based on experience. All this book could do is confirm the tools to be employed to maintain power. Here is an example: if there is a task, assign it to several people at the same time, without them knowing about it, if possible. That is, a competitive situation should be created. This is described in Schabert’s book, as White himself was doing the same. It also analyses what the space where power is exercised should be like. White, for example, had a secret staircase of his own in the building of city hall so that other people would have no way of knowing whether he was in the office or not—he created the appearance that he was always in. There are a number of works, other than Schabert’s, which focus on the political leader’s approach, and conclusions and best practices flowing from politicians’ experiences are extensively covered. Let us remind ourselves that one of the initiators of modernity was Machiavelli. 

Coming back to everyday politics, looking at recent election results internationally, the European right-wing renaissance appears to have stalled. Marine Le Pen was beaten by Emmanuel Macron, and Janez Janša, Viktor Orbán’s ally, was ousted from power in Slovenia. What are the prospects of the Right in Europe, and what role does the Orbán government have in it? 

The Right in Europe is in a development phase, which only started recently. In the framework of this process, it has already produced visible results. It suffices to take a good look at the ratio of votes that went for Le Pen now: it is significantly higher than it was at the previous election. A real breakthrough, of course, would only occur if right-wing political forces managed to win, but the related intellectual development efforts are ongoing. Hungary has an important role to play in this. The activities of the government headed by Viktor Orbán, and everything that is linked or associated with it culturally and intellectually, represents a stable island for the European Right. The recent elections, however, were influenced mainly by the fact that a war had broken out in Europe. 

In terms of its significance, can you really reduce Orbán’s win to a war between East and West? 

The fault line that has existed for centuries between the West and Russia (together with the culturally and religiously orthodox world) is becoming deeper with this war. The most crucial points of this were covered by Vladimir Putin himself last October in the Valdai Discussion Club where he delivered a conservative speech (conservative in the European sense), in which he touched upon issues like cancel culture, gender ideology, and several current issues, but his main subject was Russian national identity. The Americans have been sounding the alarm bell for years. Their concept of the “end of history” is that everyone should be thinking about the world in the same way. Building the global state has been underway, and the obstacles in the process are China and Russia—and the countries that have been sympathising with them. 

The United States cannot allow this to go on—and this is what the war in Ukraine is all about. They are not happy that a global alternative was created, and so it is being dismantled now. In this situation—coming back to the position of the European Right—the French were not in the position to allow Macron’s defeat, even though he has been becoming an increasingly pragmatic politician. It is not so sure that his victory is such a bad thing for Viktor Orbán as it is portrayed by certain people now. The Slovenian prime minister is also the Americans’ baby, similarly to Volodimir Zelensky and Péter Márki-Zay—all of them were “built” by and through American channels.

What could be the impact of the Hungarian “separate Russian policy” on future V4 cooperation?   

The aim of the V4 [Visegrad Four] cooperation is a re-interpretation of the European Union, a transformation of power relations. We four, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia, share our past, and we are treated by the West in a similar way; there are some who look down on us, some who think about us as “guys who also took part in the race,” even though our region has better economic results to show and has represented common sense all along. Our countries have found a common voice with each other, and their economic cooperation is quite significant, which cannot be cancelled even by this war. Obviously, relations have become cooler, but when the storm passes, further progress can be made. Each participating actor is needed, regardless of political backgrounds—unless the American influence is, for any of them, more important than the protection of their sovereignty. 

How can the government reshape its foreign policy in line with the transformation of the Central European state of affairs?

It is a question of how long this war will take, whether it escalates, and what kind of additional economic impact we will see. In Europe, everyone has been turning into a tightrope walker. It is impossible to figure out the dimensions of Russian reserves, and what kind of emergencies may occur in certain countries. Positions have to be reassessed on a daily basis, practically, and if you proceed dogmatically, ideologically, if you like, under these circumstances, you will certainly go astray. Despite this, the European Union’s behaviour has been governed by ideology, rapidly increasing the number of “values.” The term “value” itself, however, has lost its meaning; what really has a value needs to have some force of its own, for which we pay a price. It is not as easy to throw this word around as “human rights.” If there is no gold standard, it is easy to print money, but for how long? If values and human rights are only backed by human desires, then this is going to be the final utopia of the West.   

Regarding academia, we can see that renowned professors are resigning in the West, one after the other, due to the advances of the “woke” movement. Could you comment on this phenomenon? 

Regardless of this phenomenon, universities have reached a crossroads anyway. Academia has always been a rather closed world, with its own special internal operational logic. As long as the institutions believed that their task was to seek the truth, they did not have a problem. Then “modern science” emerged, as a concept, and the concept of knowledge was thereby redefined, which already meant a decoupling from truth. Universities that have continued to seek the truth are more stable than the ones who believe there is no truth as such, and that “truth is what is constructed by compromise.” A university today defines itself either as a kind of egalitarian community or as a hierarchic community based on the truth. 

Every institution that is unable to preserve this hierarchy in an egalitarian world is doomed. Academia is facing the threat of becoming egalitarian—a specific attempt to achieve something like this was made during the student revolts in 1968 when students wanted to determine what the curriculum should include and who should be allowed to teach. What this meant was that they wanted to do away with hierarchy and the link with truth. Every lecturer who refuses to identify with the egalitarian approach becomes persona non grata and is labelled in a number of ways: misogynist, anti-transgender, and so on. What has been happening, in fact, is the cancelling of the very idea of ‘university,’ in the name of both ideological and managerial utilitarianism.  

What kind of a future do you foresee for universities? 

If all this continues, it will be doubtful whether the university will remain the place of real knowledge, a place of education, or if knowledge will be organised and provided elsewhere. I do not know whether universities have a future at all, but I think their fate is closely connected with that of Europe. If the principles that have made European development possible so far cease to exist, or become questioned in a fatal way, the raison d’être of the university will also be doubtful. The process is quite visible politically: those who consistently seek truth as an objective entity are usually on the Right, while liberals and leftists tend to mention a compromise when talking about the truth. This is also what postmodern philosophy is about. As the philosopher Richard Rorty has put it: democracy has priority over philosophy.

The restructuring of universities has been the biggest change in the lives of the institutions recently in Hungary. Are the respective goals of the restructuring which were set by the government being accomplished?

It was time for a change in Hungarian higher education. I have been working at Corvinus University since the political transition of 1989, so I am quite familiar with this sphere. For me it became clear that huge forces were making their moves to prevent any meaningful change in academia. Currently, all institutions are struggling to ensure that the model change is indeed completed as intended, and this is not just about money. What is needed in Hungarian higher education is a cultural change. Internal decision-making processes, the actual content of decisions, connections with the world outside of academia, and the approach to knowledge should all be changed. It needs to be determined who we should teach, what quality of students we prefer, what we would like to teach them, and what the subjects of research should be. Then, the entire institutional structure has to be adjusted to this. The renewal should be palpable for everybody: students and lecturers alike should receive a better service. It is important that a lot more resources are earmarked for higher education now, and students have accepted and are supporting the process of the model change—this is what I see at Corvinus, but as far as I know it is the same elsewhere as well. Teaching materials are being remade, and the performance principle is increasingly important. Measurable performance is going to be the precondition of higher income levels. There are places where this triggers opposition, since people are required to leave their comfort zones, but it has to be understood and accepted that all other spheres operate on the basis of the same logic. If all this is accomplished, the university will have real value, and the value sets of the institution will not consist of abstract normative concepts any longer. 

Laura Szalai is the Deputy Editor-in-Chief of Mandiner weekly magazine.

András Lánczi was born in Budapest in 1956. He is a university lecturer, a political scientist, and a philosopher who has received the Széchenyi Award. He received his degree in English and history at ELTE in 1981 and taught in Madách Imre High School until 1986. Since 1991 he has been a lecturer at the Institute of Political Science of Corvinus University; he headed the institution between 2002 and 2016. He was the chairman of the board of trustees of the Századvég Foundation from 2010 to 2016, and the rector of the Corvinus University of Budapest between 2016 and 2021. He is a member of the board of trustees of Mathias Corvinus Collegium. Leo Strauss and Eric Voegelin had a major influence on his work as a philosopher. He maintains contact with Louisiana State University where he did research as a Fulbright scholar, and Michigan State University where he worked together with followers of Strauss. 

This interview was originally published in Hungarian by the weekly magazine Mandiner. It has been translated and edited for clarity. It appears here by kind permission.

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