Gáspár Miklós Tamás (b. 1948) is one of Hungary’s most prominent intellectuals and an important political voice in Europe. Trained as a philosopher and author of numerous books and articles, he was a leading dissident in the 1980s. Today he calls himself a Marxist and is very critical of Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his nationalist ideas.
Arbetet Global got an exclusive interview with Gáspár Miklós Tamás in his home in Budapest. This is a transcript of the interview.
It is a strange feeling to visit Budapest these days. Everything seems so calm, with all the tourists happily walking around in the historical centre – while the government is building fences against refugees at the borders. Do you agree with the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman when he writes that we have two classes in the world today, those who can travel freely and at their own will, and those who can’t, but are forced to do so – ”tourists” and ”vagabonds”, as he calls them?
Absolutely. While this tragedy is going on, Western tourists are just strolling around, admiring the pretty young women, all the cafes are full, the music is playing… As I wrote in a recent article, the same thing happened in 1944. Some six hundred Jews had just been taken to Auschwitz – and in the newspapers of the day you could read about the new premiere of cabaret operettas, musical comedies in the cinemas, and the football championship that was on. Everyone was enjoying themselves – while the death marches were going through town. People picked up their newspapers, opened the sport pages – and nobody gave a toss. It’s the same thing now. Nobody cares. Well, of course, when the Keleti station was occupied, that was unpleasant, because people couldn’t travel… But now everything is back to normal. The trains are running to Vienna. Mr. Orbán has won.
Do you really think that Mr Orbán has won?
Yes. His point of view is silently being accepted even by the Western European powers. After all, the fences are everywhere, and the flux of the migrants are being stopped. And he has never been more popular at home than he is now. I just read an opinion poll yesterday, where 88 percent of the readers of the French newspaper Le Figaro supported that Hungary is building fences at its borders. Ok, I know it’s a conservative paper, but still…
Do you think Viktor Orbán is consciously challenging the liberal status quo in Europe?
He is pissing on the liberal status quo. He has just announced this morning that liberalism is suicidal and a great enemy of Europe and that it has to be stopped. In a speech published two days ago he offered the great solution for the Hungarian youth: “every day nationalism” – 24 hours a day.
In schools, particularly?
Everywhere in life. It should permeate our lives. And it does!
Nationalism, as an ideology, isn’t new to Hungary, of course. It’s been around since at least the late 19th century…
But this is much worse. The late 19th century’s nationalism in Hungary was a civil nationalism that aimed at the assimilation of aliens. Old Hungary was ethnically very mixed, and only about 45 percent of the population consisted of ethnic Hungarians. The majority were assimilated, and most were welcomed if they declared themselves Hungarian patriots. It was the old style nationalism, civil nationalism, king and country, church, state, army, that kind of thing. Well this is not that, this is ethnicism – where only the ethnically, racially pure – the white, Arean, heterosexual, male majority – is the nation. So this is much nastier.
You have written about what you call “post-fascism”. Do you still think that concept is useful to understand what we are seeing in Europe now?
I have been vindicated, unfortunately. So yes, this is what we have [in Hungary, editors’ remark], this is post-fascism. It has all the democratic trappings, there is no need for a formal dictatorship. We have a minority media world, where people as myself can talk with no consequence for them – because it doesn’t reach more than 5 to 10 percent of the population. Most people in Budapest are not even aware of that such a thing as the left exists. I am known because of my political role in the last 55 years, but my fame is thanks to my past. People vaguely know that I am against all of this, so I am stopped at bus stops and train stations by people asking me what I think. They don’t read my articles or hear my radio interviews, so most people talk to me as if my point of view was unknown.
Let’s speak about the left. The workers’ movement has often been in conflict with nationalism and its ideas.
Yes, it has always been the greatest problem for the workers’ movement. Just think of August 1914 [start of the World War I]. The greatest enemy of the left and of socialism has always been nationalism. And racism, ethnicism, sexism, all the differentiations that try to supersede and hide class conflict. It’s nothing new…
But this new wave of nationalism that we are seeing in Europe and in other parts of the world is rather strong. What is the reasons for this, and what could stop it?
Since 1989, the collapse of the left and the march of the social democracy to the right, there is no real force that can be called internationalist and that is adopting class equality, a class-less society, as an idea. There is no such thing. But it will have to be reconstructed. Because you see, the bourgeoisie revolution started in 1642 with the English revolution, and all these demands of the enlightenment and of civil liberties are still an unfinished project. Enlightenment is still unfinished, let alone socialism. We are just in the beginning of this story. I will not see the end of it, nor will you, although you are much younger than I am. But obviously, I think that the time has come to intone these principles.
If we really think that humans are equal, well, then we have to fight against all kinds of discrimination and inequalities, whether class, race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, occupation, age, etcetera. And it is best done by realizing that the nation states and the political practices that are based on the power of the economic elite and dominant minorities, white mostly, will have to be changed to achieve liberty and equality. This is an old task, but it hasn’t changed, because now we see the results of what even so called liberal states can achieve. The refugee crisis shows you that even cooperating liberal nation states are absolutely unable – and in Hungary’s case unwilling – to solve a situation like this. This inhuman indifference to populations considered arbitrarily alien and “barbarous” has no consequence, because their human value is not considered equal to ours. In the East European media this is said absolutely openly. Of course, there are differences between countries; some are more tolerant and some are less, but the problems are similar.
Are we seeing what could be called a normalization of nationalism in the media of some of the European countries?
This has happened so many times. It happened before the war. And I still remember the German yellow press in the 70s, thundering against the guest workers. Myself, I am a minority Hungarian that grew up in Transylvania in Romania, where I was a member of the target group of Ceaușescus chauvinism. So I mean, what is new?! It doesn’t strike me as especially original. Intellectually it is boring. Morally it is intolerable. But new it isn’t. Of course, after 1989 with the demise of the Soviet Union, people were hoping that things would get better. But that was an illusion. There have been some improvements, of course, but those improvements are limited.
You are yourself a bit disillusioned, if I have understood it right.
Well, that is very mildly put. I’m… bitter. [laughter]. I had the usual trajectory of dissidents, from left to right. But in my case, I came back to the left, so my life is like a boomerang – from left to right and back again. [laughter]
Look, there are two cases – Greece and the migrant crisis – that both show you that there is no equality between nations. The brutality with which the intent of Syriza was put down by the European Union, and the brutality of many (though not all) European countries vis-à-vis the refugees, show you very well what this situation is about: that power is geographically located in the rich countries. And even the poorer countries such as Hungary can show where real power resides: in the armed forces. It is weapons, it is batons, it is sticks, it is tear gas, it is water cannons. The state still has the power to coerce unwilling people, especially non-citizens, while international treaties and human rights are thrown out of the window in 24 hours, without the slightest protest from the population. Nothing. Hungary is quiet.
Why is that?
Because people don’t give a shit. That’s why. Because they always thought that human rights was a sham, a lie, and a weapon in the hands of, you know, “coloured” populations. Gypsies or migrants – it’s all the same for them. And of course, it’s an international cabal in the hands of the international Jewery… “It’s the Jews”… Again, what’s new? “Liberalism is Jewish”, “human rights are Jewish”, “socialism is Jewish”… that’s what they say.
Tell me more about this Hungarian Anti-Semitism.
Good God, it’s the most important thing! Ideologically it defines things. It’s the model, the intellectual underpinning. Anti-Semitism is the structure, and it can be applied to the Arabs or to the Muslims, without the slightest tremor.
But more specifically, can you talk about the ideology of the ruling party, Fidesz? How would you define Orban’s ideology?
Viktor Orbáns party is called populist in the Western press. Well, it’s not that, at all. It’s an elitist party, a party of the state apparatus. It has no membership, and it doesn’t mobilize the population like populist parties do. It is a party of administrators, and in a very modern way it convinces its supporters through the media, which is handled very expertly by the government. It is a traditional right wing party, with an anti-social neoliberal economic policy; we have a flat tax, and there are no unemployment benefits in Hungary; zero! And they managed to do this because the social problem is presented as an ethnic problem. The poor means the Roma here – which is not true; among the 3-4 million that are members of the poorest part of population, about 10 percent are Roma. The rest of them are not. But nevertheless it is presented that way. And most of the criticism is centered on anti-discrimination issues and human rights, which also emphasize the ethnic side of the problem. So the social problem as such is not addressed at the public opinion at all.
Therefore, the state is very strong. It doesn’t have much social expenditure. The police state is reinforced, and it is all motivated by universal xenophobia. You know, “our Eastern and Southern neighbors are our enemies, because they took away our territories”, and “the Westerners are foreign enemies, because they want to force upon us their rotten, satanic liberal ideology and want us to be gay”, and you know, “the mongrelization of the Hungarian race”, just like in the good old 30s. It’s a very harsh control, we have a very authoritarian constitution, and a very tight control of public administration of every avenue of cultural life. There is no autonomy of the universities, and so on.
There is this politics of moral panic, implying that we are attacked by the United States, by communists, by Jews, by Arabs, by Romanians, by Serbs – everyone is against us – a classic xenophobic stance. And it is extremely successful.
If you compare Orbán and Fidesz to the extreme right in Jobbik, what are the main differences?
Well, these days, mostly generational. And there’s some social differences, for example the old catholic middle class won’t vote for Jobbik. But the young does. Jobbik is very popular in the universities. And the official propaganda says that Jobbik is “the party of the poor that are afraid of the Roma” – which is absolutely untrue. The voters of Jobbik are wealthier and better educated than the voters of any other party. It’s a good old bourgeois fascist party.
In Sweden there are intense discussions within the worker’s movement on how to handle the growing popularity of the Sweden Democrats. What about the trade unions here in Hungary, what do they say?
They don’t exist. Or only symbolically. There are some 30,000 people that are active trade union members, and mostly in the state sector.
And some of them are allied to Fidesz?
Some of them. But anyway, they have no members to speak of. They play some political role, but not any role in the company or the factory – there’s no strikes in Hungary, no worker’s protests. Also, in the new labor code, striking is practically outlawed. Not that it is ever really attempted.
Is this because of history, the heritage of the communist years?
No, other Eastern European countries have strong trade unions. This is quite specific to Hungary.
So why is it like this in Hungary?
For many reasons. One reason is that the liberalization of the economy started in the early 80s, and by the time the system collapsed the forces of the ancient regime were dead. So in the first decade after 1989 the government was so liberal that capitalism here was almost as a religion. There was a strong feeling against the state, against the unions and redistribution as the weapon of reinforcing the state. The Tea Party is a pale shadow of East European liberalism, which was much more individualistic and libertarian.
So although the authoritarian ethnicism of the Fidesz party was a reaction to that, some of the results of those years have remained. The depletion and the weakening of the civil society in general. So we don’t have trade unions to speak of, but on the other hand, Hungary is a modern and lay society, where the churches are very weak too. Capitalism has two kind of enemies: from the left, the workers’ movement, and from the right, the alliance of throne and altar. And we have neither. I have an essay called “Capitalism pure and simple”. The East European capitalism is the purest, is has no competitors, either from the past or from the future, from the left or from the right. So there is no counter-power of any kind.
A liberal would say that Orbán and his regime should be a problem for a capitalist with his strong state and nationalist ideology.
But it isn’t! They are model capitalists. Look, Mr Orbán is a billionaire many times over, and is the head of a vast empire run by his family members and his flunkies, in construction, agribusiness, mining… He has a whole county that belongs to him and his family. So actually he is very much in favor of capitalism, and the great Western companies enjoy fantastic favours here. In spite of all the propaganda, Mercedes is welcome, BMW is welcome, every investor is welcome and they barely pay any taxes. At the same time he is “nationalizing” the energy sector, which also means that is becomes part of his whole oligarchic empire, because to tell the difference between the state and the oligarchs is impossible. The state has been hijacked. What we have is not nationalization, but a limited privatization of the state, that now belongs to informal interest groups and is run along the lines of authoritarian management. The government today is more similar to business management than to anything else.
Why is Mr Orban tolerated, and why was Mr Tsipras not tolerated? Because Hungary is paying its debts and is playing by the rules. With the exception of land, of course – they won’t allow foreigners to buy land, because that belongs to the party people. Why? Because of the EU money that comes with it. They are living off the European Union, while they, at the same time, talk against it politically.
If we return to the trade unions: what role do you think the trade unions could play in a country like Sweden, if they want to avoid that this kind of party gets to power?
They have to be more militant, combatant and alert to dangers. There has never been any kind of racism and chauvinism that is favorable to the working class. Nowhere and never. So the far right might be vociferating that they are representing “the ordinary people, the common man, blablabla” – well that’s what Hitler said too. And was it favorable to the German working class? Of course, Hitler ended unemployment. But to the price of starting a war.
The problem of right wing governments everywhere is how to create national unity when the interest of the majority is against their policies. How do you convince the majority to vote against their own interests? And it is always solved by versions of nationalism and racism. In the past it could be imperial policies, as in Britain, that was saved from a worker’s revolution by exporting the surplus population to Australia, to America, to Canada, to New Zealand, to the imperial armies in Africa, etcetera, so that modernization and mechanization could take place.
For that, you need a very strong ideology, and a strong fear amongst the poor for the foreigner, in order to cement national unity and national identity. So the class interest, of course, goes against all that. And yes, it would be in the interest of the working class, of course, if there was a left strong enough to force world politics.
You have spoken of the need of a new universal citizenship. What do you mean by that?
Well, it’s the original idea of citizenship. The Kantian idea of citizenship.
But don’t we need institutions at a global level, in that case? How will we get there?
You need politics to get there. You need very strong movements that will indeed realize that citizenship is either a universal condition – which encompasses all people with equal political power and political rights – or it is a privilege. This exact goes counter to the development everywhere in the world in recent years. The fences on the Hungarian-Serbian and Hungarian-Croatian border are not the only fences. There are fences in Gaza, there are fences between the US and Mexico, etcetera, the whole world politics goes counter to this. They want to fence off the privileged, rich nations from the poor, and the whites from “the darkies”. And this is what we should not allow.
Those that are against these developments are a minority. But we have been a minority before.
When people are helping migrants now, giving them food and clothes and so on, could that be interpreted as political actions?
Not really. Well, in part, but in a very small part. Here in Hungary, mostly it was good people who couldn’t tolerate obvious suffering of people in their own city. But did they protest when these people were kicked out of the country? No.
“Treat them well when they are temporarily here”. That’s what these nice liberal people said. Nobody said – well except myself – that at least some of them should be welcomed. Not tolerated, but invited to stay. It’s a small country, yes, but a few tens of thousands would have been perfectly feasible. But this is so far away from the public opinion that is wasn’t even attacked when I said it. It seemed simply absurd. The daydreams of a thinker.
As we speak there are ongoing negotiations about a new quota system for receiving refugees in the EU. Hungary has taken an extreme position in these negotiations, refusing to accept quotas, and when I listen to Orban it strikes me that he speaks with what seems to be a strong ideological pathos.
But he also believes in it very deeply. He’s a racist. It’s very simple. He is against mixing with other races. He has said that “we have sufficient problems with the Roma here”, equating Hungarian citizens with different skin color to the migrants.
Where does this racism come from?
Well, you can actually notice that the Central European countries; Hungary, Slovakia, The Czech Republic, Poland, Austria, are much nastier than the East European countries (Serbs, Romanians, Croats, etcetera). It’s the Habsburg tradition of Western supremacy and all that kind of things.
Could you develop that?
The Habsburg Empire was held together by contempt and hatred for the great orthodox nations – Serbs, Romanians, Russians (especially Russians, of course) and for the Byzanthines. It was this kind of pride, and reactionary catholic thing, and of course they had to hold together all that empire. And it is still the case. Look at the Greek case! It’s like the German and Austrian press had rediscovered these ideas of the nicht-staat-haben – the people that are unable to organize themselves in a statehood (like the Eastern Christians and so forth, and the southern vile nations who love tyranny).
These old cleavages appear again. Even the liberal press in Hungary is anti-Romanian, anti-Serb, anti-Russian. In the main liberal newspaper – anti-Orban – there was a headline about Greece that read “A nation of crooks”. Written by a friend of mine, by the way. Or a former friend, I should say.
Talking of which, you know Orban as well, don’t you?
I knew him. I knew him well.
So what is your impression of him as an individual?
The fashion in 1988-89 was liberal, and he was that as well. But already in the early 90s he was orienting himself to the right.
When did he find nationalism?
1991. There was a great conflict between conservatives and liberals at the time, and in 1994 liberals and socialists formed an alliance. And from there, of course, we trace the very deep cleavage between left and right in Hungary. He knew very well that he cannot become the leader of the left, because there was a left and liberal elite that was strong and full of people. The right didn’t have political talents, but he was a great political talent – even back then it was clear. And also, he is a man of great aggressivity and taste for power. But it is not tamed by any ideological elements. He is very open, very unabashed about being a man of power, he says that power is actually “healing the wounds of the nation”. He says that we have been weakened by humanist ideologies, but we need to be powerful. And power is vested in the state, and the state is vested in him. He has all the trappings of a dictator, but he doesn’t need the literal dictatorship. He’s very brutal, very cunning and very gifted. He is a great politician, and he will remain in history.
Michael Mann has a definition of fascism with five criteria. There are no paramilitaries here yet, but how close are Hungary to fascism, would you say?
This is a system more similar to the system of Salazar or Franco, and the catholic cuasi-para-fascisms. Like Dollfuss. This guy [Orban] is not hitlerite at all. This is a conservative, semi-fascist system. We also have corporatism: if you want to be a teacher you have to be a member of the national organization of teachers with its own moral code, and so on. Otherwise you cannot teach in school. You have to be member of a political organization that is directed by the government. Same thing in the health service. It’s like Salazar’s Portugal, Dollfuss Austria or Mussolini’s Italy. So this is not a fascist system in the sense that it is mobilizing the population; it is demobilizing it. This is not a 20th Century totalitarian system at all.
Historical continuity is established with the pre-45 regimes. You see statues unveiled of figures that were condemned as war criminals in the late 40’s. Many here identify with the Hungarian army that fought on the side of Hitler, on anti-communist crusades against bolschevik Russia. Hungary is the only country in Europe that considers May 45 as defeat. “We have lost the war”. I had an article a few years ago that was called “the last axis power”. We are the last axis power. And the resistance is considered to be a Jewish-Communist cabal, and their hero’s has not got streets named after them, while commemorative plaques have been destroyed. It’s all very clear.
And what about the opposition?
But there must be at least pockets of resistance?
Informal little groups. It’s like the old Christian catacomb church, you know, we meet in run-down little bars and clubs, we have our websites, which are quite nice…
Have social media helped the situation in any way?
It has helped the fascists, yes. The social media is used fantastically by the extreme right. They are dominated by them.
If we look at Europe, what currents are the dominating ones right now, in your opinion.
You have on the one hand, straight forward ethnicism, which is a current of public opinion that influences political forces. And there’s the classical mainstream conservative-to-neoliberal right that tries to reconcile capitalism with some liberal rights and some kind of decency – the Merkel type. And there’s a left on the defensive. Also, both in Germany and in Austria, there are grand coalitions, that leads to a situation in these two crucial countries – to us, anyway – where you have no left! They are assimilated into the center-right.
A militant left exists only in the minority. Jeremy Corbyn is said to be a leader of a strong minority. But that is also what it is, a minority. And then, of course, we have the Scandinavian countries where the Social Democracy is still the force to be reckoned with, and not an eternal minority.
The right is on the march. And I think the refugee crisis will result in a much nastier Europe than we had a year ago. That’s already the case.
I went to the Keleti station when the trains were stopped by the authorities because of the immigrants, and I met a groups of Germans and Austrians who wanted to travel to Vienna. They were of course upset. I speak German, so I asked them what they thought about the situation. And then they said something that I think is the symbol of our age. “We have tickets and they don’t. And we cannot travel. That’s disgraceful! People with tickets should travel, and people without tickets shouldn’t.” Perhaps that should be the new slogan of Europe: People with tickets, and people without tickets…
If we change the perspective to the refugees. When they refuse to accept these borders and fences and keep on going, do you see that as a political act, in some way?
A little, yes. They instinctively realize that they have rights independent of citizenship. And that’s very important. Very important! And in my opinion they are right in that. Rights are either universal or they are not rights. Because rights that are not universal are called privileges. There’s a difference. To realize that, you don’t need to be Marxist. It’s enough to be a Kantian. It’s absolutely disgraceful how people think of rights in terms of privileges.
How could we create a European Union that actually treats rights as universal?
Well, to begin with, they should extend the European Union to all European countries. That would be a beginning, would it not? And then try to have a common taxation and social policy that would reduce inequalities between countries. That is not inconceivable, if you wanted to. That would be a beginning. And then it could be extended, at least to the Mediterranean countries. That would mean extending our privileges to less privileged people, and to considerably extend the reach of what you could call a tolerant Social democracy. Yes, that would be something. But we are very far from that today.
Would it help if the EU was more like a federalist state?
If you have a selfish federalist state in Europe, representing only the interests of the rich and the powerful, we are not one step forward. You can have a strong social union without a bureaucratic centralization. There are many models, all would be feasible. But it’s really useless to talk of utopia, because there is no reality to it. The question is not federalism or not federalism, but: do we have a unitary model of social justice? How that is organized is a secondary problem. So no, I am not necessarily a federalist. In the present circumstances it would mean only increased power for the rich, and that’s not in the interest of us.
The Turkish-American philosopher Seyla Benhabib argues that Europe (and the world) should move towards a system of “porous borders”, an argument that has had some impact, especially in the academia. What do you think about her ideas?
Well, I get a little bit impatient. Because where are the political forces that want to impose that? I think we all have to become more political. And what we need, of course, is organization. That’s where power resides.
In Sweden you see a lot of people helping refugees right now, and I get the feeling that there is something growing there, maybe some kind of embryo of a new political movement. Do you agree?
Yes, there is a change of mood, and there is a part of society – not only young people, but mostly (I am not young for example) – who really feel the need for action. But that is also a problem, because at the same time people are apolitical, and they don’t like to join parties or tightly knit organizations. So there are all sorts of difficulties ahead.