Riots in Hungary: The nationalist deadend

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When privately-made comments from Hungary’s Prime Minister, Ferenc Gyurcsany, were leaked it led to demonstrations, attacks on the state broadcasting headquarters, burnt-out cars and a couple of nights of people fighting with the riot police. Yet it has been suggested that there was no mistake in the remarks being released. On the BBC News website (18/9/6), for example, you can read that “Some analysts suggest the leak may be with the prime minister’s permission as he posted a full transcript on his own web blog. Mr Gyurcsany may be trying to emphasise the need for tough reforms”. Surely no government would be so cynical as to risk provoking violence, protests on the street and a resurgence in neo-fascist parties? After all, the recent experience of eastern Europe has shown that a number of governments have been changed in velvet, orange, rose ‘revolutions’. Was the Hungarian government threatened by a ‘white revolution’?

The need for austerity

At a meeting of the MSZP (the Hungarian ‘Socialist’ Party) held after they’d won the election in April, Gyurcsany, a millionaire who’d chaired the stalinist youth organisation and then made a fortune in the wave of post-stalinist privatisations, made some basic observations. “We screwed up. Not a little, a lot. No European country has done something as boneheaded as we have. Evidently, we lied throughout the last year-and-a-half, two years. It was totally clear that what we are saying is not true. You cannot quote any significant government measure we can be proud of… Nothing. If we have to give account to the country about what we did for four years, then what do we say?” To make sure there was no ambiguity: “We lied in the morning, we lied in the evening.”

Yet, from a superficial look at the state of the Hungarian economy, you would have expected the government to have been boasting. Inflation had been brought down, figures for economic growth were strong, the minimum wage was doubled, pensions were increased, public sector wages were increased and “pushed up nominal incomes by almost 30% in two years” (Economist 23/9/6). Of course none of this was possible without massive borrowing. Before the election they said that the level of deficit was tolerable. This was probably the biggest of the MSZP’s lies. In The Economist’s words “The current-account deficit has now hit 9% of GDP and the budget deficit 10% - levels usually associated with countries in complete meltdown” (ibid).

This is the truth of the situation facing the Hungarian ruling class and the basis for their strict austerity plans. There will be spending cuts, tax increases, widespread cuts of staff in the public sector, the end of free health care, increased tuition fees, a property tax and cuts in pensions. That is the reality which the bourgeoisie is imposing on the population, in particular the working class. The need for the government to sell “tough reforms” is clear, and the idea that they used Gyurcsany’s words in the campaign is not far-fetched.

Clash of nationalisms

But what happened on the streets of Budapest and a number of provincial towns? Socialist Worker (30/9/6) gives us the view of “political philosopher G M Tamás”. Although right-wing groups had mobilised and there had been lots of fascist regalia on show, including Hungarian Nazi flags and insignia, he thought “it was mostly an instinctive, quite apolitical explosion of popular anger. The mainstream press speaks of ‘fascist rabble’, exhibiting the usual kind of sovereign contempt for the masses. The riots were far from pleasant and occasionally rather mindless. Nevertheless, the protesters had a point. They had been cruelly deceived, and the proposed government policies are monstrously unfair.” So although he heard “the xenophobic and slightly paranoid rhetoric of the European extreme right” he viewed the protests as “the expression of working class despair and a general, vague sense of the rottenness of the system.”

A more sober assessment can be found on Reuters AlertNet (28/9/6) which reported how the opposition “declared themselves the White Revolution and promised ‘people power’ to sweep away the government; but Hungary’s protest movement has ended up as little more than a nationalist picnic party.”

The Budapest-based group, the Barricades Collective, that defends internationalist positions, has written a text on the events which has been published on (under current affairs). They examine the games of the bourgeoisie in a conflict that “only focuses on the clash between the government and the opposition”, and while they note “that there are no social demands” look forward to the resurgence of the working class in response to the intensification of its exploitation. Although their text is confused in parts (and quite difficult to follow in the present translation) they are clear that they have not been witnessing a struggle between classes but between factions of the ruling class.

That is the right way to approach the situation. The article from The Economist quoted above is full of praise for Gyurcsany as he has now adopted the policies that its commentator thinks are appropriate for Hungarian national capital. The oppositionists might have tapped into some understandable discontent, but only to drown it in nationalism. The main difference between the aborted ‘White Revolution’ and the changes of regime in other eastern European countries is that while oppositions in other countries promised greater democracy, in Hungary, Fidesz, the main opposition party, has increasingly adopted positions previously only adopted by the fascists. Government and opposition are both purveyors of nationalism, but the former is selling the more modern variety.

The opposition has many archaic qualities. For example, on the demonstrations one of the most popular slogans was “Down with the Treaty of Trianon!” This is a reference to the conditions imposed on Hungary at Versailles in 1920 after its defeat in the First World War. Apart from the payment of reparations etc, Hungary lost 66% of its population and 72% of its territory, with parts going to Romania, Czechoslovakia, Austria and what became Yugoslavia. During the protests there was much singing of the Székely anthem, the song of the Hungarians who live in Transylvania, up to 300 miles away from the current Hungarian border. One of the policies of Fidesz is the return of the strategically invaluable Transylvanian region from Romania. It might not be a very realistic project, but it is a reminder that every capitalist state has imperialist ambitions.

Clearly the working class has nothing to gain from supporting either the government or opposition faction of the ruling class.

Car, 30/9/6.