CommonSpace columnist Jonathon Shafi says Hungary’s grassroots activists need global support
THE Central European University (CEU) in Budapest is under devastating attack by the Hungarian government and Prime Minister Viktor Orban. The authoritarian regime is taking this action in the context of a raft of draconian proposals including, for example, the introduction of ‘work camps’ for the very limited number of refugees currently in Hungary.
The CEU is an international postgraduate institution in the field of humanities and social sciences. It has more than 1,500 students from 100 countries and 300 faculty members from more than 30 countries. The Hungarian Parliament has effectively voted to shut it down by passing legislation that means that from 1 January 2018 it will no longer be permitted to take on new students unless an agreement is reached between the United States government, the state of New York and Hungary’s Orbán government no later than September.
The CEU would also have to open a new campus in the US. In reality, this is all window dressing and will make it impossible to operate as an American university in Hungary.
There is a general lesson for everyone concerned with understanding and successfully resisting the far-right and dictatorial parties: fascism a fundamentally anti-intellectual movement.
A statement from the university rector and provost in response to the vote said: “For the past week, we have stood together, faculty, staff, students and alumni, in the cause of academic freedom for our own institution and for our fellow Hungarian institutions.
“In a short week, CEU has become a symbol of academic freedom throughout the world. Today the Hungarian Parliament passed the amendments to the Hungarian national law on higher education. CEU remains unalterably opposed to any legislation that puts at risk the academic freedom not only of CEU but of other Hungarian research and academic institutions.
“This fight is not over. We will contest the constitutionality of this legislation and seek all available legal remedies. CEU will not be intimidated and CEU will maintain the continuity of its teaching and research, its degree programs and its service to the community, without interruption, no matter what.”
There is a general lesson for everyone concerned with understanding and successfully resisting the far-right and dictatorial parties, and that is that it stokes a fundamentally anti-intellectual movement.
There is a long tradition of this approach, with universities often cited as places where the ideas of the left are propagated and institutionalised. That is the real agenda of individuals like Milo and the swathe of far-right Trump-supporting shock jocks in the US who have poured derision on students and academics for years.
Fascists want to build a society where critical thought is subordinate to racial supremacy and the ideology of the fascist state. There is a long tradition of this approach.
When it comes to the specific circumstances of the CEU in Hungary, the authoritarianism of the Orban government has fused with the anti-semitism of his fascist electoral rivals in Jobbik. Anti-semitism is being cynically exploited by Orban in the manner of finding enemies to deflect from continuing frustrations over poor education, health, corruption and low wages.
Why is the attack on the CEU related to anti-semitism? Because it was founded by the Open Society Foundation, which was set up by George Soros who has provided an endowment of $880m, making the university one of the wealthiest in Europe. It is considered one of the most prestigious universities in central Europe for social sciences and humanities, and hosts an array of research, a world renowned philosophy department and a world class mathematics school.
The university is under attack because its political orientation is deemed liberal, and because Soros is, as classical anti-Semitic conspiracy theories assert, manipulating the population from behind the scenes.
The minister of human capacities, Zoltán Balog, who presented the bill to Parliament explains: “The existence of a strong, autonomous and internationally-recognised university is in Hungary’s interests. But it is not in our interests to have players in the background who are conspiring against the democratically elected government or, for example, to support Soros-organisations. Soros’s organizations are not above the law.”
He then added that George Soros was engaged in a “worldwide smear campaign” against Hungary, noting that the current bill would “uncover the power of the network”. This talk is all too reminiscent of the Nazi propaganda of the 1930s which promoted the idea that powerful Jews comprised a global network of unspoken power, spreading its influence to undermine government.
When it comes to the specific circumstances of the CEU in Hungary, the authoritarianism of the Orban government has fused with the anti-semitism of his fascist electoral rivals in Jobbik.
Authoritarian regimes will always target the academy. Just look at Erdogan’s Turkey, where thousands of academics have been purged from their departments. Ideas, it turns out, really are dangerous to those in power.
So what we have is a fight for academic freedom, for the right to practice research without hindrance from the state, against the spreading of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, for democracy and against authoritarianism and dictatorship.
In that fight there has been a huge response in Hungary and around the world, but the response tells everyone concerned with resisting the far-right that we should look to strength in social movements and the grassroots.
Eszter Garai-Édler, a human rights activist in Budapest, reports: “In an effort to maximize votes, the Hungarian government in everyday life tolerates Nazi ideology and it only protests under international pressure at special occasions that involve the outside world.”
The question of agency here matters. It is possible that Orban may retreat under international pressure from above. But that cannot be guaranteed without there being mass mobilisations in defence of the CEU from below, that can apply pressure not just to the Hungarian government but also to the European Commission, for example, to act.
Since the vote there have been huge demonstrations, petitions launched, town hall meetings to mobilise support in the CEU, and international coordination from academics, students and citizens to isolate Orban. A victory here would severely undermine him, but a defeat would add more cement to the sense of dictatorship in Hungary – and inspire little Hitlers across Europe who see the fascists in Jobbik shaping the agenda.
There has been a huge response in Hungary and around the world, but the response tells everyone concerned with resisting the far-right that we should look to strength in social movements and the grassroots.
Incidentally, ex-BNP leader Nick Griffin has relocated to Hungary, which is becoming a base of operations for many hardline fascists in Europe.
In the ensuing polarisation there can be no reliance on top down solutions in the fight against the international far-right – especially as the centre collapses. Only active defence and massive grassroots mobilisation will deliver the movement needed to win – as students, academics and CEU staff are starkly discovering.
This, and similar battles to come, require the solidarity of all democrats.
Picture courtesy of Jonathon Shafi
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