Notes from the Underground: Academic Freedom, (Un)Civil Society, and “Kulturkampf” in Hungary

By Balázs Trencsényi

The attacks on the autonomy of universities and the attempts to curb the independence of research institutes, especially in the humanities and social sciences, have been central features of authoritarian political projects not only in the post-communist space (obvious examples include Serbia, Belarus, and Slovakia in the 1990s and Hungary, Poland, and Russia in the 2010s), but also in other regions in the world (Turkey is the most recent dramatic example). A diachronic and synchronic comparison of these campaigns and policies thus provides an interesting vantage point from which to analyze these regimes. While there are many similar elements, we can also find local peculiarities and differences – not only in the methods of exercising power, but also the stakes and often the cultural and ideological contexts.

Based on Bálint Magyar’s excellent theoretical and empirical work, the post-2010 Hungarian developments are commonly conceptualized as the emergence of a “mafia state.” This interpretation puts the focus on a “criminal overworld” that uses various rent-seeking and racketeering mechanisms to tap national and European resources. However, concentrating merely on the socioeconomic components of regime-building practices hardly explains why the government spent so much energy and also symbolic capital on taking control and eventually dismantling the Hungarian Theater and Film University (SZFE), which in 2020 had a yearly budget in the range of four million euros. This is half the amount that the Hungarian government makes available to finance a football academy in a small town in Serbia with a sizable Hungarian population. A plausible explanation for such a campaign (which led to students occupying university compounds for more than three months and the biggest anti-government demonstration in the country since the start of the pandemic) is that ideology matters and also that one needs to see many of the decisions of the Orbán government against the backdrop of a “culture war” that is aiming to completely reshuffle the identity and value system of society.

Demonstration paraphernalia on the stairs of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in Budapest, 2019. Photo: Balázs Trencsényi

In the early and mid-2010s, attentive observers seeking to put the Hungarian developments into a comparative transnational context pointed out that the visceral anti-intellectualism of the Fidesz party, which resulted in campaigns against certain circles of intellectuals as well as against entire educational institutions, seemingly diverged from the rather utilitarian use of elite education by many other governments. While these other governments had semi-authoritarian tendencies, they were in dire need of a Westernized technocratic layer. Obviously, since then, there has been a global deterioration, and one might even surmise a certain learning curve with respect to the crackdown, as well as a smear campaign in one country that has served as an inspiration for similar moves in another. In this sense, the Hungarian developments fit better into the general pattern than they seemed to a decade ago, which is also striking in the sense that EU membership does not feature as an important causal factor in the story. In other words, the harshness of the crackdowns and the radicalization of rhetoric seems to be quite similar in the Hungarian case to what is happening outside the EU.

Taking ideology seriously should not mean taking the ideological self-description of the regime at face value (i.e. Viktor Orbán’s now globally famous description of the concept of “illiberal democracy,” lifted from a text by Fareed Zakaria). As some pertinent recent analyses have pointed out (including those by János Kis and Jan-Werner Müller), illiberal democracy is a fundamentally mistaken framework within which to analyze the Hungarian “system of national cooperation.” After all, it contains a conceptual trap in that it assumes a symmetry between liberal and illiberal versions of democracy and disregards the fact that the destruction of checks and balances and the occupation of the spheres of justice and the media make the political sphere radically uneven and thus restrict the exercise of democratic rights by the population.

What we have proposed instead as an analytical framework for describing the Orbánist regime in our essay collection Brave New Hungary is an “authoritarian simulacrum” – a “bricolage of logically often incompatible components.” As is explained in the conclusion:

This is, however, not just an eclectic blend of policies and institutions taken out from other contexts, which often prompted analysts to describe the SNC as a hybrid regime. In fact, the lack of an essential core (beyond insisting on power per se) and the capacity of turning different faces to different observers may well be the main characteristic trait of Orbán’s regime.

Based on this analysis, it is clear that we need to take ideology seriously, but do not need to search for a necessary logical coherence or a totalitarian “fearful symmetry.” Many of the policies are haphazard (i.e., they depend on specific private interests of individuals or networks close to the leadership) and are only gradually ideologized when the media machinery of the regime starts to legitimize interventions after the firsts signs of resistance from those directly affected by the changes or from political and intellectual circles critical of the regime.

We can see this very clearly in the development of the crackdown on the autonomy of higher education and research institutions. A number of phases were visible as the authoritarian tendencies of the Orbán regime emerged over time (the main steps included the creation of a parallel institutional research framework in historical studies, which from 2013 on undermined the position of researchers linked to the Hungarian Academy of Sciences; the Lex CEU of 2017; the dismantling of the research network of the Academy of Sciences, beginning in 2019; the destruction of the SZFE in 2020; and the forced privatization of almost all major universities in the country, beginning in January 2021 and following the 2019 precedent of Corvinus University).

However, there is a certain pattern, as well as a visible acceleration. The regime has made use of trial-and-error tactics. Once it became clear that even its boldest moves would be tacitly tolerated or only very inefficiently and belatedly challenged by European institutions and the country’s main economic partners (as long as the regime did not get too personal and put Jean-Claude Juncker’s face on posters next to images of Soros or compare Manfred Weber to the Gestapo), its policies became increasingly heavy-handed. Especially after 2016, when global developments such as the Brexit referendum, Trump’s election, and the rise of several right-wing populist parties in Western Europe seemed to signal a global turn toward ethnopopulism and anti-liberalism, Orbán became increasingly convinced of his own pioneering role in establishing a “new world order” that allowed for the proliferation of oligarchic and hybrid authoritarian regimes allegedly fitting the “national character” of the respective countries.

In my opinion, the attacks on institutions of higher education thus fit into a transformative vision of society, one that seeks to break the supposed dominance of “liberal,” “cosmopolitan,” and “Westernized” elites and build a new generation with “healthy national identity.” However, the attacks are also linked to the much more down-to-earth interests of certain factions and individuals close to the regime. Thus, rather than unfolding as a master plan, these developments and the ideological investments by the regime meet the need to fragment reality even further and destroy institutions that have some independent credibility when it comes to providing alternative narratives. After all, even the extremely powerful György Matolcsy, the former economics minister, current National Bank governor, and chief economic adviser to Orbán, is not in the position to impose his own ideology as the only and official one to be taught at the economic university in the Turkmenbashi style, even though he might use state resources to fund chairs for those who are willing to abandon the economic mainstream in order to experiment with populist/neo-corporativist ideas. The crackdown on these institutions is also “pedagogical,” as it were, as it is intended to demonstrate that there is no sensible way to resist even if the policies implemented are obviously irrational.

There is a further ambiguity in the sense of the authoritarian simulacrum mentioned above in that these measures serve the purpose of an ideological Gleichschaltung, but can also be framed as being part of a seemingly EU-compatible agenda of modernizing/streamlining higher education and research, which are undergoing a serious restructuring to the detriment of the humanities even in countries where there is no “illiberal democracy” in the making, but the expansion of neo-liberal managerial politics. These measures also seek to break up solidarity and thus atomize the possible structures of resistance. For instance, in the case of the dismantling of the research network of the Academy of Sciences, the government sought to turn the natural scientists against the humanities and social sciences, stressing that the reforms intended to reallocate more funding to technology-based branches of research to the detriment of “ideologically motivated” and “unproductive” disciplines. Nor was it an accident that these campaigns of transformation were conducted by the minister of innovation and technology, who never forgets to mention his excellent connections with the German car industry, the single largest contributor of foreign capital investment in Hungary.

In this concrete case, the attempt at division was not entirely successful as there emerged some modicum of cooperation between the different branches of research even though this resistance was eventually overcome, and the leadership of the Academy of Sciences accepted the separation of symbolic representative functions and actual research activities. In general, however, the dismantling of these institutions is effectively fragmenting the complex Lebenswelten that have emerged around them over the years (or rather decades), making people much more dependent, scared, vulnerable, and focused on their individual survival rather than on the common good. With regard to Albert Hirschman’s classic categories (exit, voice, and loyalty), in fact all three options have been taken up by some of the affected (there have also been shifts – for instance, from resistance to exit, often in the physical sense of migrating to another country). However, perhaps the most typical reaction is a frustrated silence and the practice of restricting cooperation with the regime to the necessary minimum but refraining from challenging its measures openly, with an expectation that perhaps at some point things will change for the better. In many ways, this attitude is extremely similar to the way society in general and the intelligentsia in particular operated during Kádárism, except for the not insignificant difference that the borders were not open and thus physical exit was an option only for very few people. In addition, on paper, the “goulash communist” system had more ways to economically sanction insubordination due to the state’s complete ownership of the economy, even if, in reality, at least from the mid-1960s, it rarely used its full powers to bar critics from their livelihoods (the doctrine of full employment made it almost impossible for people to become completely unemployed, and the regime often offered marginal yet acceptably paid positions in less ideologically exposed research institutes to those whose scholarly and political activities it deemed overly critical).

While individuals can indeed exit, this option is hardly open to institutions anchored in a national academic framework. A rare example is that of Central European University, which moved most of its educational programs to Vienna. However, CEU is of course an eminently transnational institution. While this case is quite unique (the move of the European Humanities University from Minsk to Vilnius in 2004 is only somewhat comparable), it still fits into a broader story: the gradual abandonment of the Eastern European region by American and later also by German private and political foundations, which played an important role in opening up these societies in the early 1990s. They eventually decided to leave the region behind, pointing to the EU as their natural replacement. The problem is that exactly in those spheres where their contribution was vital, such as culture, civil society, and education, most powers are relegated by the EU to the nation-state level. As a result, national governments reemerged as much more influential, ridding themselves of competition from these international foundations and also often getting hold of remarkable new financial resources from the EU budget, which they could redistribute.

It is hard to draw general conclusions from all of this, but perhaps one might hazard a few statements that make it possible to compare the Hungarian case to attacks on academia all over the world. First, a coherent international response is lacking, which is linked to the broader problem of the weakness of the common European public sphere. Once again, the Lex CEU and what followed are an exception that proves the rule as the global response was due to the international nature of the very institution under attack. At the same time, the long and spectacular blockade of the SZFE went almost completely unnoticed internationally (apart from a zoom conference organized by the Culture and Education Committee of the European Parliament, after which the committee head representing the CDU expressed her sympathy with the students but added that the EU could not do much because education is a national matter). Tellingly, the only news item about Hungary that made it to the homepage of the BBC’s website in this period concerned the Ferencváros football team facing Barcelona in the Champions League, unwittingly legitimizing Orbán’s decision to spend more money on football academies than on the Academy of Sciences.

Second, the above-mentioned drying out of alternative funding sources left many of the alternative academic structures – and the civil sphere in general – much more exposed to the national governments than in the 1990s, when there were many more international foundations operating in the region and the governments were rather poor. While some elite projects and certain activities are EU-funded, the basic functions are not. To put it bluntly, in the academic sphere, the EU does not pay electricity bills; its funds go to short-term exchange programs for guest lecturers. This means that it is hard to sustain the basic functions of any institution independently of the nation-state.

Third – and obviously this does not concern only the academic sphere – there is an endemic lack of proper monitoring and effective instruments. As is well known, the European Court of Justice’s ruling about Lex CEU was three years in the making, and even though it declared that the law violated Hungary’s commitments under the World Trade Organization and infringed on academic freedom, the Hungarian government did not amend it. Finally, with regard to the available options mentioned above, namely, exit, voice, and loyalty, it is also clear that many recent well-intended initiatives to support “scholars at risk” are based on self-defeating strategic considerations. As long as most of these schemes take the scholars out of their country and academic Lebenswelt individually, they might help some to escape and restart their careers abroad, but they inadvertently also finance brain drain and thus contribute to the further depletion of local academic cultures. Scholars facing physical threats are of course an entirely different situation; however, systemic threats should be countered with systemic solutions – e.g. the creation of greater international visibility concerning these cases, which makes it harder for political elites to disregard these issues in exchange for lucrative financial deals in the given country; and also the creation of broader frameworks of solidarity around the individuals and the institutions under fire, which makes them more resilient and also helps them to eventually act in a partially or fully independent way vis-à-vis the “rogue state” they are facing (a case in point is the recent initiative called Emergency Exit; it is based on the idea of having European partner institutions host some of the SZFE programs, which would make it possible for them to operate independently of the Hungarian authorities while keeping the students and the teachers on the ground; however, the future of such an arrangement depends on the available resources the organizers can raise to sustain the teaching program in the long run).

***

The present text is based on a number of recent and forthcoming publications of the author, including:

“Beyond Liminality? The Kulturkampf of the early 2000s in East Central Europe”, in: Boundary 2 1 (2014): 135–152.

“Academic Freedom in Danger: Fact Files on the ‘CEU Affair’”, in: Südosteuropa 65(2) (2017): 412–36, also available at
https://lisa.gerda-henkel-stiftung.de/the_political_context_balazs_trencsenyi?nav_id=7146

János Mátyás Kovács and Balázs Trencsényi (eds.), Brave New Hungary: Mapping the “System of National Cooperation” (Lexington: Rowman and Littlefield, 2019), especially the conclusion “Hungary – Brave and New? Dissecting a Realistic Dystopia”, 379–431.

“Politics of History and Authoritarian Regime-Building in Hungary”, in: National History and New Nationalism in the Twenty-First Century: A Global Comparison, ed. by Niels F. May and Thomas Maissen (Routledge, 2021, in press).

“The Dilemmas of a Private ‘Mission-driven’ University: Post-Transition Developments in the ‘Other Europe’ and the Story of Central European University” (forthcoming in a volume on new universities edited by Hans-Peter Ullmann and Georg Wamhof).


Balázs Trencsényi is a Professor at the History Department of Central European University, and co-director of Pasts, Inc., Center for Historical Studies. His main field of interest is the his­tory of political ideas. Among others, he is co-author of A History of Modern Political Thought in East Central Europe. Vols. I-II (Oxford UP, 2016, 2018). He was a Fellow of the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin in 2002/3 and in 2019/20.


Further articles in the Academic Freedom series on TRAFO:

Gisèle Sapiro, Amr Hamzawy, and Başak Tuğ, Threats to Academic Freedom – Historical and Contemporary Remarks, 17 February 2021.

Pascal Engel, Academic Freedom is the Freedom to Know, 24 February 2021.

Mitchell G. Ash, The Suppression and Misuses of Academic Freedom During the Nazi Regime, 3 March 2021.

Sandra Richter, What Kind of Academic Freedom and for Whom? Karl Jaspers’ Idea of the University, 10 March 2021.

Libora Oates-Indruchová, Academic Presses in Czechoslovakia and Hungary under Communist Regimes, 24 March 2021.


Citation: Balázs Trencsényi, Notes from the Underground: Academic Freedom, (Un)Civil Society, and Kulturkampf in Hungary, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 31.03.2021, http://trafo.hypotheses.org/27529


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