Budapest 2016: A Novel Kind of Fascism

From the Series: Crisis of Liberalism

Photo by Alfredo Gauro Ambrosi.

In late September I was in Budapest to participate in the defense of a doctoral dissertation by Kristóf Szombati. Its title, “The Revolt of the Provinces: Anti-Gypsyism and Right-Wing Politics in Rural Hungary,” does not do justice to what is at stake in the text nor to what it achieves. Szombati has crafted the most thorough and convincing analysis to date of the remarkable and unlikely circumstance by which extremist agendas associated with the radical right were implanted within the governing apparatus of a European Union member state, establishing the institutional foundations of an illiberal legal and political order. Szombati’s perspective on these issues is particularly persuasive. He was one of the founders of the Hungarian Greens (Lehet Más a Politika [LMP]), and served on the party’s steering committee until 2010.

Szombati demonstrates how the interplay of the two extreme right-wing parties—Jobbik and Fidesz—set in motion a political insurgency focused initially on the highly localized “Gypsy issue” in the northeastern countryside. This issue was systematically recast within a national debate in which social-welfare programs assumed a decisive position: an exclusionary welfarism predicated on a discriminatory calculus of social justice. It was and is an insurgency that spoke masterfully across conventional lines of class and divergent outlooks of urban, rural, and suburban constituencies while shrewdly exploiting the failures, both strategic and substantive, of the social democratic left and center-left.

The current Fidesz government, under the leadership of Viktor Orbán, gained power with a supermajority in 2010 and was re-elected with a convincing—though less substantial—majority in 2014. Orbán’s regime not only defeated Jobbik and the center-left opposition—its aggressive pursuit of its program, the System of National Cooperation, has sought to subvert key aspects of liberal democracy in Hungary.

In his conclusions, Szombati contemplates whether the systematic incorporation of elements of right-wing extremism into the governing apparatus of a European Union member state should be seen as constituting a novel kind of fascism.

We are clearly no longer dealing merely with right-wing fanaticism, with marginal political movements that articulate idiosyncratic nationalist aspirations crosscut by various configurations of intolerance and bigotry intermingled with authoritarian desires. We are no longer dealing with peripheral political parties with limited electoral appeal.

We have crossed a disturbing threshold in Hungary, one in which these radical sensibilities have been legitimated, through largely democratic means, as the governing principles of a European nation-state. If this is fascism, then we must ask: what does it mean to live within or under this kind of regime?

After the defense Kristóf and I went for an early-evening walk around Budapest. The evening was warm and breezy; the city was bright and very lively. We encountered no Roma and there was a striking absence of police in the central city. Traffic was heavy on bridges spanning the Danube.

We walked to the edge of Liberty Square. The square has a remarkable array of impressive monuments celebrating the Red Army, Ronald Reagan, and Imre Nagy, hero of the 1956 Hungarian anti-Soviet uprising, as well as a recently erected bust of Miklós Horthy.

Kristóf wanted me to see the official and living memorials that stand as contested monuments to the victims of the German occupation. Erected in 2014, the official memorial evokes an exculpatory history in which Hungarians are cleansed of complicity in the Holocaust.

Volunteer guides lead daily discussions explaining the artifacts and texts that constitute the living memorial. Extending perhaps fifty meters in parallel to the official display are collections of possessions: handbags, clothing, children’s shoes and toys, and old photographs of the victims. The shrine represents a collective statement composed of highly personal artifacts of lost individuals, friends, and families. The scale is intimate, the objects are poignant, and the memories are evoked in sharply focused descriptive accounts and illustrations hanging along the length of the display.

The steel and marble memorial, for its part, has not been officially opened; no ceremony has given it public acknowledgment or recognition.

On October 1, 2016, we learned that a referendum supported by Viktor Orbán and his government aimed at refusing the resettlement of refugees at levels mandated by the European Union had been defeated. The defeat was far from reassuring: 98.2 percent of the voters had, in fact, supported the government’s position, but the total number of votes cast fell below the threshold for enactment of the referendum.

I have argued (Holmes 2016) that the extremism emerging around us should be understood as fascism of and in our time, a fascism that has distinctive contemporary features that are not fully or necessarily congruent with its historical manifestations.

Fascist activism, both in its historical and contemporary manifestations, is driven by inner cultural truths that are often cross-cut by memories of injury and injustice. These so-called truths emerge from the continual and often intensely partisan interpretation of cultural and racial affinity and difference, animating struggles that are operating in people’s daily lives and defining their intimate experiences of belonging and estrangement. Those who conjure this type of political insurgency draw on adherents’ fidelity to specific cultural traditions and social practices, recasting them within a distinctive historical critique of the secularist foundations of liberal, bourgeois society, notably the values and beliefs impelling European integration.

In recent months, these forms of activism and insurgency have been aligned with the instrumentalities of the nation-state as they have come to define the day-to-day agendas of elected governments. If this is the case, then we are confronted with two overriding questions. First, how and why have the most discredited ideas and sensibilities of the modern era—ideas that yielded the indelible horrors of the twentieth century—become persuasive, even compelling, in the new century?

And, how do we come to terms with fascism, not as an object of academic scrutiny and critique, but as lived experience, as a science, political economy, and metaphysics of solidarity that we are obliged to understand from within?


Holmes, Douglas R. 2016. “Fascism 2." Anthropology Today 32, no. 2: 1–3.