Monday 12 March 2018

Left Populism from the Hungarian Perspective

A great challenge for the left is how to comply with both Marxist (especially Gramscian) and post-structuralist (Laclau-Mouffian) ideas about politics. How can this be realized in Hungary, where the political left after 1989 has never been Marxist and where ‘discursive politics’ is mastered by the far-Right? Attila Antal argues that the success of Hungarian right-wing populism should be a spur for the left to use populism more effectively: the core agenda for the European left should be to reconcile class and mass without xenophobia.

The left in Hungary (and maybe in other parts of Eastern Europe as well) is the victim of a paradoxical phenomenon – the success and failure of political transitions. On the one hand, the consequences of 1989 and the failure of the party state system forbade the subsistence of a Marxist alternative in the new liberal settlement. On the other hand, the liberal transition failed and the Left did not know how to cope with the silent anger which opened space to the rise of the Right. Instead of seeking new ideological and intellectual roots, the Left embraced the neoliberal project and has become a servant of globalized capitalism without any critique on the imported institutions of liberal democracy. In Hungary, the Left has lost its intellectual and ideological identity and overlookd the social and critical theory which emphasise new perspectives. This proved to be a serious mistake, because the Left has lost its traditional class-based supporters and the rest of the working class has been captured by the Right.

The Gramscian scholar Marco Briziarelli pointed out, in conjunction with the success of Podemos in Spain, that there are several tensions between the Gramscian tradition and the Laclau-Mouffian theories on left-wing populism(2018: 98–122.). Certainly, the unprecedented success of Hungarian Right-wing populism proves that we cannot overlook the necessity to combine the class-based and mass-based traditions, however challenging this might be for the left —as Anton Jäger argues has already argued for The New Pretender in the American context. I am convinced that the main factor of the unprecedented breakthrough of the Right-wing populism in Hungary is the specific situation where the formerly moderate Fidesz and the radical Jobbik have found a way to be populist from both a Gramscian (creating a hegemonic bloc and constructing hegemony) and a Laclau-Mouffian (creating political identities from the masses) perspective.  This could be paradoxical, but it brutally shows what the main challenges for the Hungarian (and maybe Eastern European) Left are.

Bereft of Marxist Tradition

Since 1989, the largest party on the Hungarian Left, the Socialist Party has hardly considered class-politics. Nevertheless, the traditional aspect of the working-class has fundamentally changed and the proletariat has become more and more invisible as it suffered from precariousness. The post-Communist left accepted neoliberalism and so-called modern neoliberal reforms.  Liberal democracy became a hegemonic political-legal framework in Hungary which also means that the neoliberal elite is totally anti-populist. Given this, the Hungarian Left remained mostly uncritical towards global and local inequalities caused by the neoliberal hegemony, both at home and in the European Union. This ‘reformist anger’ has overloaded societies.

Although a deeper analysis is required, I wish to recall theargument of Béla Greskovits, who, in 1998, argued that the situation would come to ‘the end of patience’ in Eastern Europe. Indeed, according to Greskovits, Eastern Europeans, in the decade following the fall of communism, refrained from protesting violently whilst slowly ‘shifting to second, informal economy’ or relying on ‘their employers’ capacity to enforce protective state intervention”. Likewise, in politics, Eastern Europeans, ‘slowly turned to protest voting and channeled their demands through democratic institution, abjuring other tactics’.

Meantime, the world changed, and the Hungarian Left failed to embrace a renewed Marxian approach as an answer to the economic crisis of 2008/09. Instead, the Hungarian Left remained impotently incapable of taking advantage of the “end of patience”. This resulted in the collapse of the Hungarian social-democracy in the elections of 2010. This situation, of course, was not limited to Hungary or Eastern Europe; in fact, the demise of the social-democraic left extend to both sides of the Atlantic. As Jan Rovny pointed out: ‘[i]n shifting its focus to the new middle classes, the left let the new precariat [precarious proletariat] fall towards nationalist protectionism, where it became fertile ground for the populist radical right.’

Right-wing Hegemony

While it may appear that the turning point of the Right-wing breakthrough in Hungary was 2010, the process began much earlier. Indeed, the Hungarian Right spent over a whole deacde (the 2000s) to create a right-wing Gramscian hegemonic structure. This is the most perverse and terrible political procedure which can be imagined, because it shows how the Hungarian Left betrayed not just the working-class but the whole Left political tradition.

The politics and tactics of Fidesz, the leading Right-wing party since 1998, can be analysed from a Gramscian perspective. Fidesz began as a party in government (between 1998 and 2002), and then became the main opposition party (between 2002 and 2010) after a dour struggle on political, economic, cultural fronts. The party managed to build a complex political and economic network as a historical bloc, which it has used to create a national popular movement (‘civil circles’), thus politicizing masses. The Right claimed that the successive social-democrat governments (first from 1994 to 1998, then from 2002 to 2010) caused an organic crisis, in the Gramscian sense, as it was framed within an economic and social crisis which turned into a crisis of hegemony. This overlapping crisis culminated successively in 2006 (when the Right-wing blew out rough street movements because of the moral crisis caused by the scandal surrounding the lies of the incumbent Socialist prime minister), in 2009 (when the Left-Liberal governing coalition collapsed) and in 2010 (when Fidesz reached two-thirds in the parliament for the first time).

This was a time of crisis, indeed. Whereas the Left lost its grip on the superstructures, the far-right put forward innovative ideas, perspectives, and practices. Although, the hegemonic project of the right abounds in nationalism, antagonizing rhetoric and xenophobia, it reflects a Gramscian way of thinking. In this sense, Viktor Orbán has emerged as a ‘post-modern Prince’, which is ‘a political subject that could form a collective will out of diversity and difference, in a social, cultural, and political context’ (Briziarelli, 2018: 106.).

When the Right is the Left

Fidesz can be seen as a counter-hegemonic project against the Left. This is also true for Jobbik, which is the leading extreme Right-wing opposition party in Hungary. Moreover, Jobbik has showed that besides the Gramscian framework, the Laclau-Mouffian prspective (often mentioned in The New Pretender) can also be applicable in Hungary. Jobbik realized this project in a radically reactionary way, but in many respects the party has taken the place of the Left. The Laclau-Mouffian theory of populism is based on ‘the heterogeneous, precarious, and volatile subaltern, which is formed by people who feel they have fallen outside society’s social contract’ (Briziarelli, 2018: 106.). What makes the populism of Jobbik so remarkable from a Leftist perspective is the fact that Jobbik reacted to the transformation and liquidation of the working-class: its populism goes beyond class-based politics and embraces a nationalistic-nativist discursive strategy. Jobbik put the emphasis on the making of sub-cultures, which offered the replacement of narrow ideologies with populist transversalisity. This kind of populism based on  catchwords and ’empty signifiers’ (Laclau) is capable of merging several sources of discontent together to create a strong protest identity. Based on the Laclau-Mouffian populist model, Jobbik successfully expropriated from the Left, its critique of globalized capitalism and of EU’s neoliberal institutions.

The Price of Confusion

The Hungarian Left has resigned from populism and the main Right-wing populist parties have learned the lessons of Left populist theories. The populist Hungarian Right-wing has reconciled the class-based and mass-based aspects of populism. But what price should be paid for it? Briziarelli warns us about the tension in the case of Podemos, where the reconciliation of Gramscian and Laclau-Mouffian assumptions caused internal tensions and an unstable accommodation of both perspectives (2018: 98.). The situation is terribly frightening in the case of the Hungarian right, because the successful reconciliation required nationalism, xenophobia, racism, a politics of hatred based on a political cleavages created by the populist radical-Right government. Because of the hate-campaign against refugees, Hungarians are less tolerant of foreigners and minorities. According to the Pew Research Center successful Right-wing populism has made eight-in-ten citizens believe refugees are a burden on the country because of the threat to jobs and social benefits, and three-quarters believe that refugees will increase the likelihood of terrorism.

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I am convinced that the Left must err away from any sort of right-wing populism.  Nationalist and xenophobic sentiments must remain a taboo for the left. Instead of this, we should consider to coalesce the Marxist (especially Gramscian) and the post-structuralist (Laclau-Mouffian) assumptions into a transnational framework, first at the European level. I am afraid that without such a perspective, Left populism at the European level will deal with similar problems as Hungary: it will have no future or even worse, it could go down the nationalist slope. We should be hopeful however, given the recent emergence of a post-Marxist and post-structuralist tradition in Eastern Europe based on organic intellectuals who aim to renew the political Left.


Briziarelli, Marco (2018): Podemos’ Twofold Assault on Hegemony: The Possibilities of the Post-Modern Prince and the Perils of Passive Revolution. In: Óscar García Agustín – Marco Briziarelli (eds.) (2018): Podemos and the New Political Cycle. Left-Wing Populism and Anti-Establishment Politics. Palgrave Macmillan. 97–122.

Greskovits, Béla (1998): The Political Economy of Protest and Patience: East European and Latin American Transformations. Central European University Press.

Jäger, Anton (2018): The Working-Class or the People? New Perspectives. The New Pretender, 12th February.

Rovny, Jan (2018): What happened to Europe’s left? EUROPP – European Politics and Policy at LSE, 20th February.