The situation of social movements in Europe with special attention to Hungary

(Answers to Christophe Ventura’s below questions)

– From your point of view, what is the situation of social movements in your country and in Europe ?

– How would you define those social movements ( who are they, what actors, etc. ?)

– Do you see concrete perspectives for the building of a european social movement able to organize a real balance of forces with governments, European Union institutions and financial markets ?

– From your point of view, what are the structural limitations of these movements in Europe during this period ?

– What do you think about unions strategy in your country and at the european level ?

– Do you think that social movements should build articulations with leftist political forces ?

– What is your balance of Firenze 10+10 ?

The situation of social movements in Europe with special attention to Hungary


     General background

After the end of the Cold War the peoples of the ex-socialist countries were suddenly confronted with the phenomenon of globalization. West European companies pushed into the CEE market and contributed to the creation of a savage capitalism. The weak anti-capitalist forces were unable to put up any resistance to this process. At the same time the preparations for EU integration were pushed through. It is little wonder that many people experienced globalization as an invasion or siege, and integration as dictates, colonization or at best the simple exchange of the Soviet Union for the European Union. Many people now see themselves in the role of the victim.

The fall of state socialism in CEE left an ideological vacuum.  A seething ideological mix came to the fore in many countries, made up of anti-Semitic, anti-Roma and racist stereotypes, nationalist prejudices and elements such as militant anti-communism, revisionist ambitions and a vengeful fundamentalism. The advance of right wing extremism (RWE) is closely connected to the crises of CEE „new capitalism”. In this region under the banner of freedom and democracy the neofascist political groups and parties are legally marching. Neofascism is financed by the domestic and foreign capitalist groups and individuals, representatives of local powers.

Furthermore, the Western Left is unable or does not want to help the CEE working class organizations even in their civic forms. Should Western Left support them, the outcome might be something more different, because the existing real Left parties do not work and could not even get on the electoral list during the last parliamentary election.

In addition, the West is nationalistic, too, since the Western Left and the trade unions are almost concerned only about themselves and shit on the ex-socialist countries. Before the systemic change it was often said „You do it wrong, the Soviet Union is an undemocratic manure”. In the wake of the collapse of the „Communist” systems the West could not show anything from its great wisdom and socialistic dedication.

The nation-state arrangements of the new power elites of CEE are the more extreme: the more the idea and the praxis of the independent nation state are linked with the fascist, anticommunist tradition, the more they are nationalist-fascist. In this respect Ukraine, the Baltic region, Hungary and Croatia are the most frightening, i.e. where the Nazi collaborators played an important role during the Second World War (WWII).

As for the CEE realities are concerned we can see that this part of Europe consists of at least three different regions, where new systemic change is taking place, namely:

  1. In Russia – Ukraine – Belarus – Bulgaria: wild authoritarian regimes are on power, their function is to push and implement the neoliberal agenda.
  1. In Hungary and Poland (and also West Ukraine): strong authoritarian regimes rule, vivid neofascism is prevailing, in Hungary: neo-Horthyst, neo-Arrow Cross movements are on the rise. However, in Poland the far right is less dangerous and much more different from the Hungarian one, because Poland was a real victim of the Nazis from 1939 onward and it was on the winners’ side of WWII. The present ruling right-wing Hungarian government with its two third majority in the Parliament has been changing the bourgeois democratic institutions and introducing a semi-dictatorial system. The neoiliberal „Left” bears historical responsibility of the two third  majority as well as of the rise of the far right, which greatly undermined the already weak Left standing and credibility. The profascistic tendency of Gyula Thürmer’s Communist Workers’ Party is worth mentioning here as well. It is typical that noone can be expected from the Left, because the system is closed to the left and the anti-systemic attack is  coming from the side of the far right. It is really a nightmare, but it has a logic!
  1. In Czechia-Slovenia the neofascist tendencies are less visible and these countries have a better chance to „catch up” to the Western type of welfare societies.

In the Balkans the RWE is fitting to the global phenomenon, especially after the events of 9/11.  All of the Balkan countries, including Serbia, have significant economic problems and some parts of the society really suffer and are scapegoating other groups (ethnicities) who are supposed to be responsible for that. Every group, every community in the ex-Yugoslavian geography sees itself as a victim of the violent events of the 1990s.

The difficulty of adapting to the globalized economy is an additional important factor. Furthermore, Serbia, Croatia, and even Bulgaria, did not face their own pasts.  In this CEE subregion, we can see an additional factor, namely the Ottoman past, which was taken as something negative. The gap between different ethnicities and religions is not decreasing, on the contrary, it is unfortunately increasing.

       Situation in Hungary

At the beginning of the 1960s Hungary became more liberal than any of the other Soviet Bloc regimes in CEE. Of all the nations in the ex-socialist countries, Hungary, it seemed, should have made the smoothest transition from state socialism to bourgeois democracy. More than two decades have passed since the fall of the Berlin wall and the emergence of new bourgeois democracies as well as the Western type neoliberal transition have proved to be much more difficult than what people were expecting around the time of the systemic change. The unfavorable economic conditions (the unsustainability of welfare systems, the economic and debt crisis, etc.) have amplified the negative effects of the neoliberal economic and social policies Hungary has chosen to pursue, thus making the process of cultural change started by the systemic change even more difficult. Today we already have a clear sense of how fragile our liberal democracy is and how exposed it is to populism, manipulation, nationalism and, political extremism. The contemporary discourse is characterized by a recourse to nationalism, populism, and the repeated emphasizing of Hungary’s past. While the resistance towards this government approach is very likely to grow, it is also likely to be very difficult for ordinary people to differentiate between reality and manipulation as there is a serious lack of a long-term democratic tradition while people desire security and safety.

Current political developments in Hungary, however, are cause of much concern. In April 2010, a ‘national conservative’ government won a two-thirds majority under the aegis of FIDESZ, following a populist election campaign that brought back the promises we heard in the time of state socialism. The key element of the new government’s politics is criticizing the previously reining socialist-liberal coalition government: its program consists largely of reversing measures passed by that government. The new government has changed legislation and eliminated many of the checks and balances established during Hungary’s transition to bourgeois democracy. This has not been unnoticed by the civic sector, which was subjected to measures based on mistrust and suspicion. The scope for citizen participation and the involvement of civic actors in decision-making have been extensively curtailed, and relations between the non-profit sector and the state changed fundamentally.

Those committed to liberal democracy are deeply concerned about the current government’s efforts to centralize decision-making and strengthen the power of the state, and its concomitant moves to weaken free media and human, political and social rights.

The situation in Hungary is significantly more serious now as it concerns tangible policies that Fidesz has already enacted and thus far seems unwilling to relinquish. Hungary today is the first member state of the EU to tack sharply toward autocracy. The EU is so preoccupied with the fiscal crisis that Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s creeping authoritarianism has received little attention up to now.

The most alarming development, however, is that the far-right Jobbik party (Movement for Better Hungary) has become the second most popular party,  which  mainly benefited from the public’s reaction to harsh criticism of Hungary in the Western media and the EU. The multidimensional crisis, the constantly dropping standard of living, the growing poverty has led to the establishment of the racist para-military Hungarian Guard and its new variants.

Following the systemic change, Hungarian civil society went through considerable development, yet with the exception of some influential NGOs in the area of legal defense and civil liberties, most civil organizations have assumed a pure service delivery role. This process was inspired by the state and development agencies, and made NGOs leave behind the “real” civic functions they had fulfilled around the changes – that is, those of critical reflection, demonstrating alternatives, building new institutions in local communities and society in general, and influencing and taking part in decision-making and control processes. In other words: counterbalancing power through independent and free actions organized from below. It seems that today we are witnessing a revival of these functions in Hungary, and civil society appears to have engaged in a battle against the overweight political power which has a two third majority in Parliament.

The Hungarian civil society, including trade unions, are today very weak. This includes the many social groups that have been humiliated and hurt in the past two years. Not only the unemployed and the poor, but also doctors, teachers, and civil servants who are also affected. Regretfully, solidarity between the most vulnerable groups of Hungarian society has not strengthened, this is often because they dislike each other and do not cooperate. There is a fierce fight for employment. A big question is if and when these humiliations and unkept promises by the Fidesz government become understood and  politically conscious within these groups.

As long as those in power go unchallenged, the „divide et impera” strategy will remain successful. It is particularly important to understand that with these divisive politics the Hungarian people themselves – unlike in other European countries – are more individualistic in character. The lack of solidarity has an understandable past which may be connected to the policy of the previous Kadar regime (between 1956 and 1988). At that time the majority had been faring well and very few needed to join forces socially. The market economy is today attached to this same spirit of ‘Divide and rule’. But today not only the non-poor turn against the poor, but also the different groups of poor people turn against one another. The interaction between these social groups can only be expected if the tensions degenerate into assault and battery. A hitherto unseen ghettoization is occurring and conscious efforts are made within the cities to get rid of the Roma and the poor. The ban on begging in public areas has also intensified.

However, people do not want to be silent anymore. The left-wing criticism against Fidesz is not yet successful, but a growing dissatisfaction of a large strata of the society has recently led to the birth of a new movement called “Together 2014”, which aims to unite the opposition vote in a bid to unseat PM Viktor Orban in the next election. Together 2014 is an alliance between former PM Gordon Bajnai’s ‘Patriotism and Progress’, ‘One Million for Press Freedom’ (Milla) and the trade union-based ‘Solidarity Movement’. Together 2014 is a centrist anti-Fidesz electoral alliance (not yet a political party). It should be said that at the time of this writing, Bajnai has not indicated if he plans to run for office. After the establishment of Together 2014 was announced in October 2012, the left-wing opposition parties appeared hesitant, both about what it actually stands for, and whether or not to join the coalition. Ex-PM Ferenc Gyurcsany’s Democratic Coalition Party (DK) immediately supported this initiative, while the leadership of the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) declared it will consider joining the alliance. The Green Party ‘Politics Can Be Different’ (LMP) is divided over the question of joining Together 2014 or just negotiating with Bajnai and it is on the verge of a split. It is still unclear if this rainbow coalition of Socialists, Liberals and eventually Greens is workable, i.e. whether they can come up with a political program that is credible to the Hungarian voters.

However, civil society organisations (CSOs), progressive groups and individuals have already started to violate Fidesz’ policy interest. While democratic institutions whither away, CSOs continue to learn liberal democracy. New coalition of civic groups, movements, trade unions and opposition parties are now in the making. There are four issues/major causes where we could observe more or less massive protest actions and emerging new movements namely:

  1. Free media/Democracy  (Milla)
  2. Legal Defence, Solidarity and Democracy (Solidarity Movement and The City belongs to Everyone)
  3. Education (University Students’ Network)
  4. Change of paradigm (Real Democracy Now, World Revolution, Occupy Hungary)

Besides the above mentioned, there are several smaller and weaker civil movements as well, e.g. Fourth Republic! (4K!), ‘One Million for Democracy’, and ‘Hungarian United Left Movement’ (MEBAL). There are also a number of other initiatives to list, such as the so-called Poem Marathon, the Petitions web page against the government’s politics, a protest movement against anti-semitism and racism in the Hungarian Parliament.

A common characteristic of the new Hungarian movements is that they try to keep a distance from the political elite. Unwilling to lose the credibility of their movement, or to be seen as aspiring for power, most of the time they exclude politicians and political parties from their events and actions. At the same time, regarding certain fundamental issues, such as for example the new constitution the movements do occasionally cooperate with political parties.

However, there is a growing suspicion that ultimately these movements are also aspiring for power and will turn into political parties before the next elections. There is a large push on some of the civil actions to transform into political parties. The pressure to become a political party is also inherent in the new protest movement itself – several groups have broken off from Milla and Solidarity with the aim to become political parties (e.g. 4K!).

It is evident, that the role of political parties is decreasing everywhere and it is difficult to address people in this format today. Parties can only represent a kind of partial interest, which is not that of the whole society. They cannot represent plurality or multiple interests. Having civil society replace political parties does not happen from one day to another, even though it is evident that it could represent the interests of society as a whole, and not only partial ones. Obviously, political parties still have a role to play, but alongside them civil society should also be strengthening gradually. If we want to create a non-partisan society in the long run, then we need a very strong civil society that can represent the interests of society as a whole.

     European Social Forum

For me the main positive aspect of Firenze 10+10 is that under the current circumstances of multidimensional (economic, social, environmental and political) crisis a serious Left attempt was made to create an European unity and to include new allies. The idea of the Alter-Summit is to create a counter-power, namely a wide pan-European Left Front against the crises. The organizers have realized that in order to change the balance of power (i.e. to cushion the antagonistic contradiction between capital and labour) it is inevitable to clarify the line of confrontation and to realize „the convergence of forces and their concrete unity in action”. A new social and political dynamism is indispensable, in which the  left-wing parties, trade unions, social and alterglobalization movements, networks of feminists, anti-fascists, think tanks, etc. are involved.  Although Florence 10 +10 event was an important milestone to unify the European system-critical Left, but to answer the big question remains for the future, i.e. whether it is able to accomplish its goals. The task is now to work hard both inside the trade unions and the civil mass movements with the aim that a democratically controlled, transparent and accountable European coordination center be created, which can effectively lead the pan-European anti-crisis actions.

For me the negative aspects of Firenze 10 +10 is that we could mostly see the „old faces” again, it was a relatively small number of young people and new movements (Arab Spring, Indignados, Occupy) as well as Central and Eastern Europe were extremely underrepresented. Problem is that the new movements are organized from below (horizontals!), they have neither elected representatives nor comrehensive organizational framework, while the „traditional ESF” – contrary to the Porto Alegre Charter of principles – is still operating vertically and the parties – mainly in disguise of their „civilian” organizations, or foundations, or think tanks networks, through their place – would like to control and lead the social forum process. Major absence of civil mass movements indicates that the „open space movement” of ESF is no longer attractive enough for many people.

Long before Firenze 10+10 it became clear to me that ESF is only a weak copy of the WSF and the initial, very inspiring short upward trend (dinamism) broke and from the middle of the last decade a characteristic decline and disintegration followed. For many people, the question arises, whether we can speak at all of an European Social Forum.

The upward and downward international trends of the social fora, of course, have had an impact in Hungary, too. As a result of the initial momentum of the 1st ESF a massive anti-war demonstration was held in Budapest on 15 February 2003, then we managed to organize the first Hungarian Social Forum (HSF) in Miskolc (in a poverty sticken North-West Hungary) between 5 and 6 April 2003, although the split with the Hungarian „Greens” was due to the choice of the date indicated serious problems within the Hungarian social forum  movement as well. Although the HSF movement remained together for a while (until the Paris ESF), but again a new split occurred. HSF is split into two factions: one is marked by Endre Simó’s right-wing organizations and the other faction is an affiliation of consistently anti-systemic forces. The already  split HSF has taken part in London, Athens, Malmö and Istanbul. Despite the downturn trend, however, the forum process has not stopped, but it has changed and is constantly changing. Our primary interest is to keep „the flame of the European social movement” alive both on national and European level.

It is of vital importance for the HSF Network that as part of the Prague Spring 2 (PS2) Network the voice of those who want to stop the advance of extreme right was loudly heard and strongly manifested. It is a great achivement of the CEE countries that in the final plenary meeting of Firenze 10+10 we could announce that a Central and Eastern European Social and Environmental Forum will be held in Vienna between 2nd and 4th May 2013.

Budapest, 25th November 2012.

Matyas Benyik

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