“Lendvai believes that we should never underestimate the role that ‘personalities’ play in politics.”
Paul Lendvai’s Orbán: Europe’s New Strongman is one of the most interesting and necessary critical biographies published in some time. The book, published by Oxford University Press, chronicles the rise of Hungary’s (in)famous demagogue from humble beginnings to increasingly wielding absolute power over his small central European state. Along the way, Lendvai provides sustained criticisms of the Orbán regime and its increasingly brazen corruption. The book is important not just for chronicling the life of a world leader who has punched well above his weight for almost a decade now. It also describes the radical and authoritarian iteration of what I’ve called post-modern conservatism in action. Chillingly, Lendvai argues that it is very difficult to foresee an end to the increasingly authoritarian Orbán regime. Organized by a cunning leader with few qualms about using state power to crush dissent, Lendvai argues that we may be living with Orbán for some time.
Viktor Orbán’s Rise to Power
Lendvai’s book has a somewhat unusual structure, in bouncing back and forth between personalized details about one man’s life—to analysis of Hungarian politics and policies. Nominally a biography, Orbán: Europe’s New Strongman actually turns its attention to a panoramic swathe of issues. In the hands of a lesser guide, this might result in a lack of focus and a drifting narrative. But it is to Lendvai’s credit that he retains a firm grip on the subject, even when engaging in fascinating and necessary asides.
The book begins with ruminations about the role individuals play in politics. For many commentators—Leo Tolstoy being perhaps the most prominent—history makes the person and not the other way around. However, Lendvai believes that we should never underestimate the role that “personalities” play in politics. Grasping how individual personalities reshape the world around us can help understand why things so often do not go the way we expect—and indeed how seemingly improving situations can sometimes take nosedives for the worst. As Lendvai puts it:
“The maxim that ‘men make history’ originates with the notions of hero worship expressed by the once very popular Scottish historian Thomas Carlyle. ‘The history of the world is but a biography of great men.’ According to the German philosopher Georg Friedrich Wilhelm Hegel, however, the spirit of the world and of the age is much more decisive than either people or personalities. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels believed that politics is dependent on the material conditions of production. The question of which forces have moves a leading politician and which forces he himself has set into motion—that is, the combination of external factors and personal action—still constitutes the central problem in describing and evaluating political personalities today. If chroniclers of contemporary history wish to consider the important role of the personal element in political decision making, which should never be underestimated, then they need only recall the words of the Swiss historian Herbert Lüthy: ‘Contemporary history is not anonymous…’”
The dispute between those who say individuals make history and those who claim history makes individuals is a long one. I have often considered it far more important to look at historical contexts than individuals: not because each person is unimportant, but because our personalities are so often shaped by other people and forces around us. Indeed, as far back as Socrates many decried the conformist tendency many show. They desired that people become more than the product of an environment. Even for commentators like Carlyle or Nietzsche, the quality of a great individual was precisely how they bucked the natural desire for conformity and willed their own identity. By contrast I’ve tended to agree with Tolstoy that most so-called “great men” are often one-dimensional, betraying a singular lust for power and domination which reflects the shallowest and most reactionary drives in the human personality, rather than the better angels of our natures. Based on Lendvai’s chronicle, Orbán himself seems to fit this profile. He might be a clever and devious man, but he lacks in so many of the qualities which illuminate the truly admirable.
The first few chapters of the book chronicle Orbán’s youth, his formation of the Fidesz party in the aftermath of the Cold War, and early triumphs and defeats. Lendvai pays particular attention to the hardships Orbán faced growing up in an initially very poor background in communist Hungary. Eventually, Orbán managed to complete post-secondary school and became a mechanical engineer, lightening the family’s load. Viktor Orbán was a talented student, but he was undisciplined and prone to aggressive behavior. His maxim became “if I’m hit once, I hit back. Twice.” The social rise of his family enabled Viktor to attend a prestigious grammar school in a larger city, where Lendvai argues he felt out of place. His father’s growing affluence meant traveling to urban spaces and even countries like Libya, and Orbán felt uncomfortable shedding his rural behaviors and beliefs to fit into more pluralistic communities. Soccer became an outlet for the young man, deepening his sense that life was a competitive struggle and that only the tough and aggressive could win. He eventually attended law school in Budapest, forming close networks with friends and reformers who would eventually become the foundational members of Fidesz.
The singular moment in Orbán life was the collapse of the Communist regime in Hungary. Prior to that time—ironically—Orbán was working for George Soros’ Open Society Foundation and had even received a grant to move to Oxford to complete a research project on civil society. The relatively informal group of activists, mostly liberal and even leftist, evolved into the modern Fidesz party. At first, they followed the spirit of the times in agitating for an exceptionally liberal and permissive platform. Presenting themselves as the party of youth, Fidesz, under Orbán, campaigned on opening Hungary to liberal reforms. In the first free elections of April 1990, Fidesz won a modest 22 of 386, which was nevertheless a significant step forward for a youth party. After a few more up and down successes and failures, Fidesz took a drastic ideological turn. From being a youth party focused on democratization and liberalization, the party gradually moved in a more right-wing direction which morphed into the flagrant illiberalism of the 2010’s. Despite—or perhaps because of this—Orbán eventually won the position of Prime Minister in 1998, at the age of only 35. While he later lost power in 2002, Orbán and Fidesz made a roaring comeback in 2010. Because of the eccentricities of the Hungarian electoral system, they have continued to win 2/3rds majorities in the legislature since then, either by themselves or in tandem with allied conservative parties. This is despite not even winning 50 percent of the vote in elections such as that of 2014.
Lendvai’s book then goes on to describe the corruption and increasingly authoritarian operations of Fidesz in power. This has included initiating multiple reforms to the Hungarian constitution which marginalizes the opposition parties and advances Fidesz’s fortunes, establishing lucrative networks of cronyism and nepotism, and reducing the influence of civil society groups and institutions, which stand in their way. The most glaring recent example was shutting down the Central European University, which in an ironic twist for Orbán, was frequently accused of being a puppet of George Soros. Orbán has also been widely criticized for taking a hardline against immigrants and liberal rights—something which he has hardly denied. In a 2014 speech he declared that Hungary was going to transition into an illiberal state, devoted to national principles.
“Consequently, what is happening today in Hungary can be interpreted as an attempt of the respective political leadership to harmonize relationship between the interests and achievement of individuals—that needs to be acknowledged—with interests and achievements of the community, and the nation. Meaning, that Hungarian nation is not a simple sum of individuals, but a community that needs to be organized, strengthened and developed, and in this sense, the new state that we are building is an illiberal state, a non-liberal state. It does not deny foundational values of liberalism, as freedom, etc.. But it does not make this ideology a central element of state organization, but applies a specific, national, particular approach in its stead.”
Conclusion and Analysis
One of the more interesting sections of Lendvai’s book include his thoughts on why this ideological reorientation occurred—both for Orbán and Fidesz more generally. Lendvai offers several explanations. Part of the shift might have been pure self-interest. During the 1990’s and through the early 2000’s, the center-left Socialist party dominated Hungarian politics. It was widely regarded as being highly open to Westernization and anti-traditionalism. To differentiate itself and claim a larger electoral share, Fidesz had no choice but to begin catering to the more conservative and reactionary areas of the country who felt left behind. But Lendvai goes further and speculates that part of the reorientation might have been sincere, albeit spurred on by resentment. He points out that Orbán and his followers had long understood themselves as outsides to the liberal elites who seemed to rule post-Communist Hungary. They initially compensated for this be trying to adopt the same mannerisms and values. But once it was clear they’d never be fully accepted, Fidesz went the other route and positioned itself as opposed to liberalism and supporting the retrenchment of traditionalism. In some respects, this better suited Orbán, who despite being a well-educated lifetime politician, nevertheless, seems sincerely to regard himself as a perennial underdog from the countryside who made it from the bottom. There is some truth to this of course; Lendvai makes clear Orbán came from an initial background of great poverty. But he was also granted privileges and advantages, whether due to his father or intrinsic intelligence or even Soros’ foundation.
This disposition is, of course, characteristic of many of the right-wing populists who’ve since taken power. In some respects, it is almost always a conscious exaggeration, but for many the idea of being a victim who made it against constant opposition seems to be sincerely held. Lendvai claims that, despite the seeming contradiction, there is no difficulty in squaring the need to promote a distorted narrative about their background with a sincere belief in their underdog status. This is because Orban’s primarily belief, one that seems echoed in the personalities of Boris Johnson and Donald Trump, is in himself. What is good is advancing themselves, so whatever manipulation or distortions need to be presented to achieve that goal must also be moral. It is this myopic aggrandizement which enables these figures to self-mythologize away contradictions in their personal histories and worldviews. So the career politician casts himself in the role of spokesman for the authentic majority. A man who grew up a trust fund millionaire can declare himself to be a self-made billionaire. But these accusations of hypocrisy resonate little with these figures.
Lendvai’s book is a timely and well-written analysis of an important subject, which has resonance beyond the borders of Hungary or even central Europe. It deserves to be widely read for its insight into the character and government of so-called right-wing populists. It also makes for a valuable study in how the politics of resentment can gestate into ever more dangerous variants.
Matt McManus is currently Professor of Politics and International Relations at TEC De Monterrey. His book Making Human Dignity Central to International Human Rights Law is forthcoming with the University of Wales Press. His books, The Rise of Post-modern Conservatism and What is Post-Modern Conservatism, will be published with Palgrave MacMillan and Zero Books, respectively. Matt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or added on Twitter via @MattPolProf.