I stumbled upon the so-called Common Sense Society and its blog, “Paprika Politik,” completely by accident. A friend and prominent Hungarian civil rights activist, Eszter Garai-Édler, drew my attention to this youthful, cheerful, well-dressed group of thoroughly respectable young professionals, who enjoy research grants and write English-language articles, all about how Hungary finally crossed the Rubicon in 2012, when the Fidesz super-majority passed its new constitution, signalling a bright new chapter in the nation’s history.
“In 2012—after more than 1,000 years of history, Hungary crossed the Rubicon, so to speak, by implementing its first democratically-adopted constitution. This new Fundamental Law has opened a new chapter in the country’s democratic history, the pages of which are being written at this very moment,” remark the contributors of Paprika Politik. “Hungary’s fate depends, ultimately, neither on the national government nor on any foreign government: It depends on the Hungarian people and most importantly young Hungarians,” observe the blog’s editors.
Led by a young American graduate of the Central European University, Marion Smith, the Common Sense Society’s goal is to essentially provide pro-Fidesz youth and conservative American university graduates with a platform to normalize and popularize the Orbán government in North America and in western Europe, funds to further their work and with an opportunity to peddle an often repeated myth in some western right-wing circles, namely: that there isn’t really anything amiss with Mr. Orbán’s regime. Fidesz is simply a victim of the same vindictive liberal and left-wing interests that wield power in the west as well.
So who are the Common Sense Society’s articulate, young conservative titans? One of them is a young man called Áron Fellegi, who is apparently an intern at the Society. Mr. Fellegi studied law at the Pázmány Péter Catholic University and served as an intern in Washington, D.C., at the Hudson Institute. (This is an American think tank focusing on foreign policy issues.) The young intern had this to say about the controversy surrounding the removal of a Marx statue from Budapest’s Corvinus University:
“The Young Christian Democrats named Marx’s anti-Semitic views as the main reason for removing the statue. But more than anti-Semitic, Marx was famously anti-religious, anti-capitalist, and anti-family (…) There are, of course, still many Marxists, especially in academia, and it is not inconceivable that they would want to erect or defend a statue to their favorite leftist thinker. (…) in a country such as Hungary that has suffered immensely and tragically under a criminal government that Marxism helped legitimize, we can say with confidence that the statue had to be removed. (…) The fact that the intellectual successors of Marx have attempted to force students to pay some indirect honor to the godfather of history’s deadliest ideology is a scandal in its own right. Hungarians know what it is like to live in a Marxist-Leninist state—they experienced it. And they don’t want Marxism-Leninism anymore, not even in the form of a statue.”
The young Mr. Fellegi is turning to a political narrative which aims to kill two birds with the same stone. On the one hand, Fidesz and its Christian Democratic allies are presented as the primary line of defence against antisemitism. Marx had to be nixed first and foremost because he was an anti-Semite. Antisemitism is, at the moment, deeply troubling to the Orbán government, especially as Hungary chairs the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. But on the other hand, the connection between Marxist philosophy and the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century is linear and inevitable. One naturally leads to the other. And Fidesz is merely defending the sensitivities of those who suffered under the Rákosi and Kádár regimes by calling for the statue’s removal, in contrast to the callous liberal and left-wing intellectuals.
In terms of Marx’s antisemitism, it is worth noting that he was concerned more globally with any form of identification (especially religious or cultural) that was not intertwined with a sense of class identity. “He wanted Jews to cease identifying themselves as Jews first and foremost and instead adopt a more universalist outlook, which would aid their participation in the workers’ movement. Marx saw Judaism, the religion, as a barrier to developing class consciousness,” writes Maya O’Connor. “The fact that Jews are taught to identify themselves as a race, instead of merely as co-religionists, was what Marx was decrying in this pamphlet, not the fact that there are Jews at all. Marx’s contempt for religion in general is well known, and as a Jew by birth (although his family converted to Christianity) he had an insider’s perspective on the problems that identifying oneself as a Jew presented to the working class movement at the time,” Ms. O’Connor adds.
Mr. Fellegi’s piece could have used some nuance in its depiction of Marx. And, besides, “inevitably” arguments when studying trends and developments in history are notoriously problematic.
Another young man tasked with the English-language popularization of Mr. Orbán’s common sense “revolution” is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance translator called Joshua Dill. The recent Georgetown University School of Foreign Service graduate is now a “Pannonius Fellow” of the Common Sense Society. Recently, he wrote a piece entitled “What is liberalism? And do we want it?” The blog post was a summary of a roundtable discussion in Budapest featuring not only André Goodfriend, then still chargé d’affaires at the U.S. Embassy, but also András Lánczi, the chairman of the Századvég Foundation, a blatantly pro-Orbán think tank. The talk also featured Marion Smith, who doubles as the Executive Director of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation in Washington, D.C. and–as mentioned above–also as the president of the Common Sense Society.
“Given the significant disagreement about how best to interpret the principles of liberty and rights, does it make sense for a nation like the United States to promote a particular, often progressive-oriented, vision of liberalism as a core part of its diplomacy? To do so often allows actors like Vladimir Putin to caricature and denounce liberalism generally,” writes Mr. Dill.
Mr. Dill presents another trope that has become quite popular in Mr. Orbán’s circles. Hungarian Orbánites (and Mr. Putin, who is supported by many on the right) are not opposed to liberalism as such, they are merely opposed to the western “variant” of liberalism, which in their mind is beholden to left-wing interests. This is the same line of argument that was used when Mr. Orbán gave his infamous speech on the possibility of building an “illiberal democracy.” The Hungarian regime is not opposed to democracy as such, it merely dislikes western-style liberal democracies, which are plagued, infiltrated and appropriated by left-wingers.
Mr. Dill also told his English-language audience of the positive reception in the room surrounding Mr. Orbán’s pro-eastern foreign policy. “Many audience participants indicated their belief that Hungary’s recent “Eastern Opening” foreign policy shift represents not only a pragmatic economic policy, but reflects a heightened interest in alternate political models, for example the one represented by Moscow”, summarized Mr. Dill.
Mr. Dill is one of three young men and women to have been awarded a Pannonius Fellowship in Spring 2015. These are fully-funded, full-time fellowships, which “serve to inspire and equip fellows on both sides of the Atlantic.”
In addition to inspiring and equipping young Fidesz supporters on both sides of the Atlantic, the Common Sense Society sells Századvég publications, employs interns, produces blogs and ruminates in English on Hungary’s first democratic constitution.
It is clear that Mr. Orbán is placing a heavy emphasis on appearing in western circles as a run-of-the-mill conservative politician, who is criticized and “attacked” by the left for the same reasons that other centre-right leaders also come under fire. His English-language communicators are savvy and articulate.
The online daily, Hungary Today–published by the pro-regime and taxpayer-funded Friends of Hungary Foundation, is another example of Mr. Orbán’s well-oiled English-language propaganda machine. These young pro-Orbán supporters seem a world apart from the Zsolt Bayers of the Hungarian right. They look and sound professional, are generally in their late twenties or early thirties, are often fluent in English and don’t seem very much different from young, suit-and-tie bespectacled conservatives in Canada, the United States or Great Britain.
Szabolcs Nótin, editor-in-chief of Hungary Today, is a good example of this new breed of Orbánites. Out with the fire-brand preachers of the mystical Hungarian far-right, and in with the soft-talking young professionals and urbanites!
Undoubtedly, many in the west will take the Common Sense bait. Those of us who have been consistent in our critiques of the Orbán government’s authoritarian practices, its duplicitous communication, its flirtation with antisemitism and racism, its systemic corruption and its illiberalism have an obligation to “unwrap” this bait and cast it out to sea.