Fate and Legacy of Liberalism in Hungary


By the beginning of the 21st century, several variants of liberalism have developed. Neo-liberalism is often mentioned in discussions about economic policies, while social liberalism when it comes to a particular concept of society. Democratic liberalism has also a place in our vocabulary, nor is the expression ‘progressive liberalism’ unknown to us. Certain politicians in the United States and sometimes in Europe as well define themselves as libertarians which is also a branch of thought deriving from the tree of liberalism. All these variants of liberal sensitivity stem from classical liberalism. The latter has been defined as ‘classical’ with hindsight, in order to distinguish it from the later variants. Without invalidating the basic liberal principles in fact, the more recent variants have modified them to a significant extent and in certain cases even contradicted the original liberal message.

Classical liberalism, which was based on the ideals of French Enlightenment, is an embodiment of the notions of constitutionally limited state power and individual liberties. It is based on the theory of natural rights and the rejection of state interference in the economy. It also professes the principle of governments being responsible to Parliaments, the separation of powers (the legislation, the executive and the judiciary) and the idea of power stemming from popular sovereignty based on strictly limited suffrage whose limits can be broadened, however. As for suffrage, democratic and classical liberal approaches differ on fundamental points. The Democratic concept postulates general, equal, and secret suffrage with decisions being taken directly or indirectly by the electorate. Other basic tenets of classical liberalism include the freedom of the press and of self-expression in general (implying the freedom of thought); the freedom of conscience and religion, as well as the equality before the law of the individuals constituting the state.

In most of 19th-century Europe, classical liberalism was in an ascending phase. It had to make political concessions, but it was progressively making headway. The 20th century intended as a historical unit, on the other hand, offered a hostile environment to liberalism to liberalism. Interwar Europe was the scene of dangerous dictatorships in whose surroundings authoritarian regimes flourished, although not without keeping a semblance of parliamentarism. In the wake of World War II, reconstruction in Western Europe followed the principles of classical liberalism, broadened in a spirit of mass democracy, while Soviet occupied central Europe remained in the grip of dictatorships – whether harder or more lenient.

The events of the 21st century as a historical unit have hitherto proved the basic tenets of classical liberalism to be again in a winning position. All countries of the European Union (of which Hungary has been a member since 2004) are parliamentary democracies with governments reporting to legislative bodies; equality of rights and personal liberties are part of the constitutional setup; political liberties, including of course free speech and the freedom of the press are part of the basic political texture in all member states. These regimes usually, but not without exceptions, define themselves as liberal democracies.

In the course of historical processes, the general principles of classical liberalism gradually adapted to the norms prevailing in the given cultures and to the tasks liberals were setting to themselves. Thus, I believe it is legitimate to indicate the differences among the traits of liberalism within the individual national cultures.


The Hungarian variant – Hungarian liberalism in the 19th century


In a historical sense, classical Hungarian liberalism started evolving in the first half of the 19th century, during what is called an Era of Reforms and reached its climax in 1848/49 with a breakthrough of emancipation and the funding of a civic statehood which created first an autonomous and then an independent Hungarian state. That statehood only became lastingly operational after the Compromise reached with Austria in 1867, when although concessions were made, nevertheless all the original intentions expressed in 1848/49 could materialise.

During the roughly two decades called Reform Age in Hungarian historiography, the actors promoting change were inspired by multiple intellectual visions. Historians have provided deep analyses of all these but let me confine myself to a few traits of some of the ones pertaining to the realm of liberalism.[1] One could distinguish seven main such influences (often only differing in their emphases) whose presence, although with changing proportions and dynamics, could be discerned throughout that period and formed an organic alloy.

One was the impact of French Enlightenment and the liberal ideas strictly following from it. That factor – if you wish – helped expand classical liberalism which was so sensitive about liberties and was able more than any other one to radically question and reform established feudal structures. While by the 18th century, feudal worldviews had been intellectually undermined by enlightenment, the liberal demands stemming from it achieved the very same result in the realm of politics. The theories of natural rights and of Social Contract also had an anti-absolutism edge, just as did Montesquieu’s idea of the separation of powers. Although Hungary’s public life couldn’t have been more alien to French légereté, the approach centred around liberties became astonishingly popular. That sensitivity was the product of a multitude of traditions as well as of political constraints, which indicates, by the same token, that liberalism, rather than simply being an imported intellectual commodity, did meet a demand rooted in Hungary’s soil and expressed by people looking for clues in Europe.

Almost all members of the politically active nobility were graduate jurists. At the same time, the political/organisational frameworks and the systems of arguments used in representing the grievances of the gentry against the autocratic inclinations of the Habsburgs offered an ideal framework for an approach centred around liberties or rather to put through new, liberal principles in an environment defined by feudal structures and intellectual habits. What’s more, the only weapon Hungarian nobility, which saw itself as a constituent body of the state could use against absolutism was law itself, since it had abdicated its right to resistance sanctioned in a clause of the 1222 Golden Bull.

When it comes to the protagonists, Ferenc Deák[2] is the first one to come to my mind. The swift and wide acceptance he gained goes to show how efficient the ‘alloy’ of traditional frameworks and mentalities on the one hand and the new contents on the other had become. He argued for natural rights, putting forward liberal tenets and demands, while coating them with the noble language of tradition, although what he said represented genuine qualitative renewal.

Paradoxically however, what was most shocking or, if you will, electrifying in its impact was not classical liberalism derived from the French Enlightenment and adapted to the traditions of Hungarian feudal traditions. What proved much more effective was an approach dominated by the utilitarian character of English liberalism. That reflects of course a particular ‘advantage‘ of belated liberalism – by the time the potentiality of the new England which had shed all feudal bonds and embraced a mainly utilitarian trend of liberalism could be seen, experienced and realised.


The fantastic results of the Industrial Revolution and of the industrial and civic progress in general were there for everyone to see, especially when compared to contemporary Hungarian reality. When it comes to names, the first one to be mentioned in this respect is of course that of Count István Széchenyi.[3] I know that by defining it as ‘liberal’, I tend to offer an impoverished image of his worldview and personality. But what I am aiming at is not so much giving a comprehensive picture of Széchenyi (or Deák, for that matter) but rather outlining the specific factors of Hungarian liberalism that was in the making in those years. By looking at it from this viewpoint, it is highly legitimate to couple utilitarian liberalism with Széchenyi’s name. Suffice to open his Credit and read just the titles of the chapters to convince ourselves of that. Here are a few of them: ‘Hungarian landowners are poorer than what the land would justify’; ‘Hungarians live poorer lives then their circumstances would allow for’; ‘Hungarian farmers cannot bring their fields to the highest possible prosperity’; ‘Trade is non-existent in Hungary’.

He was certainly led by utilitarian considerations, and this is how the eventually embraced many liberal principles. Although Széchenyi cannot be considered a liberal in the classical sense of the term, several of the 12 points he put forward in his Stadium contain undeniably liberal demands. When transmuting into political practice, such utilitarianism can of course follow paths different from the ones followed by Deák’s principle-based, liberties-centred liberalism. Such an approach can of course follow the English example of holding back some liberal principles – if given utilitarian goals can be also attained within a conservative political framework. Deák-style principle-based and liberties-centred liberalism tolerates such a behaviour much less and does its utmost to keep its principles alive even if at the price of practical compromises. As seen from the point of view of liberal values, Deák’s variant is open to saving principles intact, while the utilitarian approach is more open to giving up certain principles. Those two attitudes however undoubtedly are complementary, as – because of the very difference in their characters and potentials –, they are sensitive to differing issues and therefore offer answers to differing challenges. The two belong thus together not only historically, but also considering their substance. Especially if we consider that both represent a third shade of liberalism, one that was most characteristic of Germany – nation, the concept that gave it sense and a goal to be attained. It is to uplift the nation that the conquests of liberalism are indispensable, and therefore liberalism has to become a national programme; a force spreading well beyond the circle of the privileged. Such an approach may well lead us further than the primordial demands of liberalism, for it aims at creating a new community as compared to the feudal structures. And the leader representing this current first and foremost is undoubtedly Lajos Kossuth.[4] Not that liberties-centred or utilitarian liberalism would be devoid of the national goal to be attained. On the contrary, the two variants have this particular thing in common. Nevertheless, such a shift in emphasis clearly reflects a different kind of political and intellectual openness, especially when actors realise that a fully thriving civil society is the safest road towards the nation’s prosperity. It is therefore much more expansive than the limit-centred and utilitarian approaches, both as its contents and as to its impact on society and politics. It is also more open to the question of national existence and self-determination. That approach therefore sees the implementation of liberalism as a task facing the nation and, if need be, is willing to transcend the framework of utilitarianism stricto sensu. Thus, it can potentially clash with expressions of different shades of liberalism. We could therefore say that nationhood can bind several currents together but can also divide them, at least when it comes to following an intellectual-political roads to its end.

We cannot neglect however another impact – the one rooted it in the values of the Western world or, if you will, of educated Europe at a given stage of civic progress, which was promoted and made palpable by the spiritual radiation of Romanticism. This particular current was none other than Christian morality transformed into liberal ethics. That phenomenon permeated all of the approaches outlined above and although taking different shapes as being ‘filtered’ through the personalities of the various actors, it was palpable throughout. Its strong presence expressed the belief that standing up for certain principles was a moral duty rather than mere political tactics. If I have to mention a name to describe this phenomenon, Ferenc Kölcsey’s comes forcefully to my mind.[5] His activities, writings and worldview are striking examples of liberalism erected to the position of ethics, uniting Christian ethical values and liberal human decency.[6] The ethical side of Hungarian liberalism was of course of great importance because, whichever shade was temporarily most prominent, liberalism in Hungary was in opposition and, just like all opposition ideologies, it was promising higher morality and renewal. Thus, Széchenyi’s rhetoric was just as permeated by ethical principles as was Deák’s or Kossuth’s for that matter. They wanted to transform Hungary’s nobles into noble Hungarians. Overemphasis on ethics involved both merits and political risks. But being uncompromising about them could lead to a peculiar kind of self-exclusion. Situations could be brought about where people had to stay away from public life out of considerations of ethical purity, although their whole attitude and worldview were motivated by a project of reforming that very public life.

The fifth important impact and element of liberalism was a mental one. Let me refer to a few examples which may seem sporadic but are, on the basis of the above, still important and intertwined, which proves that everyday values in Hungarian society were also changing. Anglophile Széchenyi made an effort to introduce a new form of formal way of addressing other people which Hungarians even today sometimes feel offensive; he also laid great emphasis on sports (he was the one who imported skating in Hungary); he would wash himself often and demonstratively (which was a great step forward towards bourgeois hygiene culture in a basically stinking era); Kossuth started not using his noble forename anymore and in his capacity as governor/president, emitted a decree which did not differentiate between legitimate and illegitimate children of fallen soldiers – making them equally entitled to their orphans’ allowances; Deák would insist until his very death on being called ‘respected Sir’ just like any university graduate, rather than ‘your Excellency’; the young Mór Jókai[7] exchanged the last letter of his surname from Y to I, the former signalling noble ascendancy; Baron Miklós Wesselényi,[8] then already handicapped, married a girl of common ancestry. Citizens’ equal rights started conquering the hearts and minds of society, although that is the always the toughest part of it all, in all societies.

The sixth extremely significant component of Hungarian liberalism was assimilating high culture under a certainly German influence. If you want to name a protagonist of this trend then we must mention Baron József Eötvös[9] who was appointed Minister of Cults and Education twice – in 1848 and 1867. First, he authored a law on universities and then on primary schools. (The system of secondary schools was established by his successor, Ágoston Trefort /1817–1888/, author of multiple reforms of public education.) During his second term as Minister of Cults and Education, in 1870, Eötvös wrote: ‘Just as space and light are indispensable for development in the organic world, the development of the state is only possible where two preconditions are given – freedom and enlightenment. Freedom being guaranteed by the law, with our constitution including all its safeguards, we have to do our utmost to care for the second precondition of the development of our state; and if someone asked me what we need to guarantee a future for our country, I would answer: light, then once again light and finally, even more light.’[10] The words of that outstanding Hungarian liberal thinker and politician suggest that the link between liberalism and culture, liberalism and the cultural level of the population is not one issue among the many but a vital problem of the viability of the future of freedom. Liberty and enlightenment (light) are only worth anything together as they draw their power from each other and act as each other’s pillars.

A seventh and extremely characteristic current of the goals Hungary’s liberalism set to itself was creating a civilisation. Hungarian nobles should become noble Hungarians; and Hungarians can only be noble if they are civilised. In order for people to become civilised, on the other hand, objective and intellectual infrastructures of civilisation must be created. There was hardly any chance for such kind of investments during the period when the intellectual contents of Hungarian liberalism started coagulating. Széchenyi’s Chain Bridge was practically the only significant such achievement. After 1868 however, forces governing Hungary in the name of Hungarian liberalism brought unparalleled civilisational progress to their country. Baron József Eötvös, Count Kálmán Tisza[11], Ágoston Trefort, Gábor Baross[12] or again Sándor Wekerle[13] were all Hungarian liberals who were able to provide liberal answers to the civilisational challenges of their era in public education, transportation, and public finances. The infrastructure of an ever more modern public administration of a modernising central and local government was being built at an astonishing pace. Huge projects including the Museum of fine arts, hundreds of elementary schools, the building of Parliament and canalisation and flood relief works along the Tisza River are all examples of a civilizatory drive. Another example is that of the project of the development of Budapest after the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries through which a liberal City Hall solved the conundrum of transforming a big city from a law enforcement unit into a public service unit.[14] The 1896 millennium exhibition was in part openly meant to demonstrate to what extent civilisational levels in Hungary had risen under the aegis of liberalism.

The seven distinct but equally important influences and emphases worked in unison and formed one single total resource, albeit not devoid of contradictions. The proportions of those emphases were changing over time as the possibility to put them through was of course sometimes limited, while being, at other times, promoted by political realities. And although when listing the protagonists, I was certainly bound to simplify things, the various influences I have mentioned were making their impact felt together, as one single alloy, the proportions of whose elements were constantly changing, rather than impacting events separately. It is also clear that all of them were being shaped by the interaction of external influences and domestic necessities; with domestic demand and traditions seeking the most appropriate intellectual solution each time. Ideas or inventions coming from abroad were not simply imported goods but rather ones adapted to Hungary’s needs.

This admittedly very succinct description of the character of classical liberalism as it developed over the years, still allows us to state that liberalism did not appear in Hungary as a set of abstract ideas but as tools to meet concrete challenges. It created a nation living in a community defined by equality of rights and liberty; it created a new civilisation; provided the source of energy indispensable for civic progress and was an integral part to it. The results can of course be legitimately criticised, especially if we realise that after the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, liberalism in Hungary mainly played a role in preserving previous achievements but was incapable of self-correction and therefore ceased to be a dynamizing factor. It should not be forgotten however that liberalism, apart from providing a framework for what Hungary had become, also filled the country’s life with new contents. The civilizatory role of government is a specific Hungarian tradition which shows that Hungarian classical liberalism did not correspond to the contemporary European liberal mainstream as far as the role of the state in the economy goes. In the Hungarian classical liberal consensus, liberalism was not perceived as the totality of alien principles and dogmas followed in a servile manner, on the contrary, it was interpreted as the most efficient pragmatic homegrown answer to the problems of the given era. The ideal and political practice of free Hungary resulted in civic progress and in a specific Hungarian variant of civilisation.

Civic progress and efforts to create a new civilisation were only partly successful, while nationbuilding was even overly successful. Whilst in the previous two fields, Hungary managed to unite the multiple nationalities around shared interests, as for the rights of the various ethnicities on the other hand, the maximum it could achieve was coexistence marred with occasional conflicts but certainly not with shared interests.

Cooperation across ethnic boundaries played an important role in some fine examples of civilisation-building. Budapest’s Danube embankments were mostly built by Slovak workers, while Northern Hungarian regions largely inhabited by Slovaks were also scenes of important infrastructural projects. The city of Szabadka/Subotica which was partly inhabited by Serbs enjoyed a period of true civic progress. And those are just a few examples.

It is by no coincidence that the last large liberal mass movement in the 1890s was aimed at promoting the separation of the state from the churches[15] – a huge demonstration was held in support of civic marriage. The movement wasn’t just joined by Hungarians, as civic registry and civic marriage were causes uniting several ethnicities.

All this was overwritten however by the belief of Hungarian classical liberalism whereby, politically speaking, there was only one nation in Hungary– and that was of course the community of Hungarians.[16] Its representatives had no intention whatsoever to grant collective rights, let alone territorial autonomy to other ethnicities, with the only exception of Croatia.[17] That weakness of Hungarian classical liberalism had a nefarious effect as early as 1848/49, when Romanians, Serbs and Croatians took up arms against freedom-seeking Hungary. Under the dual monarchy, Hungarian liberalism and the interpretation of nationhood it created found itself in a hegemonic position in politics. With time passing, by the end of the era of the dual monarchy, the message the Hungarian side sent to the other ethnicities who constituted almost half of the country’s population was the following: ‘In this country, you will never become what you want to become’.

Hungarian nationalism which was a product of Hungarian classical liberalism ended up defeating its creator. The victory of increasingly ethnocentric nationalism proved fatal for the destiny of Hungarian liberalism.


How liberalism cracked – Europe and Hungary in the 20th century


In Europe, freedom was not just built on the equal rights of the citizenry. Liberalism and liberty created a new kind of political community – the nation. Unlike the concept of nation as conceived by the privileged, that new community was originally defined as a community of shared freedom and culture. Individualism and individual liberties gave way to an unprecedentedly powerful secular, communal spirituality. Earlier, religion was the only one to have martyrs, but now, the nation had its own, because some people proved capable to face persecution and give their lives for the national community woven of liberties. Religion had created churches, why liberalism created nations. The cult of the nation became the secular religious expression of liberalism. The nation’s heroes were usually those who had fought for freedom. Liberalism created a civilisation which united freedom, nation and civic progress. The extent of liberty as well as the content of the concept of nation were open to changes, civic progress could be broader or narrower in its extension, but where Hungary was heading was clear. In their overall impact, the various elements of liberalism produced secularisation throughout society. The environment was provided by liberty; the contents were the product of the intention to uplift the nation; while civic progress served as a powerful social force.


Meanwhile, liberalism also created two Golems which soon became capable of annihilating their creator. One was the nation, while the other was the complexity of problems stemming from liberal, that is free-market economy.

The nation interpreted as a spiritual community carried in it, from its very inception, a possibility that individual liberties can be overwritten by a powerful ‘national religion’. The rights and liberties of the individual may be restricted on behalf of the nation, the national community which are considered as being higher in value. Nobody of course had an inkling of the direction the nation as a juridical and cultural community could take in the future. For that to become reality, a shift in contents was needed.

Without entering into details, we can assert that from the end of the 19th century, an ethnocentric and later racial rather than cultural interpretation of the concept of nation appeared on the scene[18] and, at times and locally, it became dominant. The nation which replaced the feudal interpretation of NATIO by enriching it with the values of liberty thus became a category in whose definition the vital element was who were to be excluded from the community of rights or how everybody’s liberty was to be restricted on behalf of the national priority interpreted first on ethnic and then on racial basis. The concept of nation interpreted in racial terms gave the word a completely new meaning.

It is perhaps even needless to say that in the 20th century Nazism was the crucial factor in this respect. It is by no coincidence that national socialists eliminated the liberal-democratic norms of the Weimar Republic on the one hand, while stigmatising liberalism on the other. Making use of intellectual precedents they overlapped their image of the racial enemy with the concept of liberalism.[19] Liberal equals Jew – was their simple formula. Their worldview and their system were designed to annihilate both and did whatever was in their power to achieve that. We would however be mistaken if we discovered the new antiliberal shift of emphasis in the concept of nation only within Nazism. The logic of restricting rights and replacing the equality of rights in the interpretation of nationhood was not confined to the Nazi world – suffice to think of Admiral Horthy’s interwar regime which was so active in limiting citizens’ rights[20], and where national consciousness made a swift turn away from its original, 19th century nature.

After the Trianon peace treaty[21], the new independent Hungary that had been stripped of its national minorities took a sharp antiliberal turn. The new system became more democratic than the one under the dual monarchy, i. a. because it offered broader voting rights. On the one hand, it became clear that a higher level of democracy was compatible with anti-liberalism. Meanwhile, it also became clear that and ethnocentric nationhood embracing racism is bound to end up limiting citizens’ rights, then depriving citizens of their rights altogether and, finally, annihilating them physically. While becoming increasingly anti-liberal, the Horthy regime paradoxically was aiming at an ‘internal Trianon’[22] which it actually accomplished by severing a section of the nation, that is wanting to exclude and actually excluding from the nation Hungary’s Jews whose large sections consider themselves part of the Hungarian nation. All this contradicted the trend of broadening and equalising rights the regime inherited from classical Hungarian liberalism. By the 20th century, the nation with its own spirituality created by liberalism became increasingly obsessed with ethnicity and race and eventually annihilated what created it.

A second Golem was the product of liberal capitalism which, by exploiting contrasts within society, became a destructive force as well.

Liberalism at its inception was not a socially sensitive ideology. One of the main arguments of its critics was and still is that liberalism is not sensitive enough to the problems of society; and formulates its objectives in terms of citizens’ rights, rather than social issues. As the critics euphemistically pointed out, millionaires and beggars have an equal right to sleep under the bridges. From the second half of the 19th century, this was the point where new, increasingly radical ideologies and intellectual currents as well as the political movements linked to them promised an offensive and a possibility of superseding liberalism. Their criticism was certainly not baseless as many theoreticians of liberalism felt and acknowledged put in writing themselves.

Let’s just think of József Eötvös’s work entitled The influence of the dominating ideas of the 19th century on the state. Among others, he dwells at length on the insoluble contradiction between the principles of liberty and equality. And the best proof of that being by far not just a mere theoretical issue is the large number of political movements who stood up to confront liberalism after its partial or almost total victory. Throughout Europe, they attempted – and not always unsuccessfully – to transform political regimes reflecting the liberal ideals into autocratic/dictatorial ones by arguing in one way or another that social problems should be given priority in politics.

The ones most successful in that endeavour were the Bolsheviks.

The racial concept of nation itself was a potential answer to social problems – it is no coincidence that its representatives called themselves national socialists. And still, Bolshevism a.k.a. communism expressed itself in the language of class logic and rather than finding the solution in a national and bourgeois framework, proposed proletarian class-redemption. The theoretical basis of that class logic sprang up where and when liberal capitalism had appeared in its most naked and rough variant. Engels did sense as early as in his 20s in the 1940s, how intolerable the situation of the English working class was and how depressing the unfettered rule of capital could become.[23] That empirical experience gave birth to the Communist Manifesto in 1848 and by the late 1960s, Marx wrote the first part of his criticism of capital which would later become the Bible of all anti-capitalist movements.

Classical liberalism, as I mentioned, given its contents, its sensitivity towards rights and being oriented towards liberty appeared from the beginning to a certain extent insensitive towards the plight of the poor. To cure it, in fact, the kind of self-organised society that could well be accommodated within the ideology of freedom was insufficient. More was needed to meet that challenge – government intervention. Meanwhile, the supporters of liberalism didn’t fully gauge the disruptive force created by the disintegration of traditional societies. To be more precise, when the liberal approach did sense the problems, it did rubberstamp and introduce the necessary but antiliberal changes. Budapest’s is a good case in point. The liberal city leadership took under its own hands multiple formerly private activities to exercise price control. All this is just meant to signal that although there were attempts, including some successful ones, to treat welfare problems, liberal regimes, with few exceptions, could usually not devise broadly encompassing therapies. As a matter of fact, the main opportunity they had at hand was to make politics more democratic by expanding suffrage, and since in this new power structure the votes of the poor became indispensable, the governments would lead more active economic and welfare policies. Wherever they were successful in doing so, liberal values were not annihilated. On the contrary! They gained further vitality, making these political systems resistant to pro-dictatorship challenges and able to strengthen their internal consistency.

The New Deal in the United States was able to reconcile anti-trust, antimonopoly and pro-trade union practices with a political system centred around liberty, making it stronger rather than weakening it.

Wherever, on the other hand, liberalism was unable to perform such a shift, its values couldn’t take root, therefore defeat was behind the door. Russian liberals couldn’t survive more than just six months in government (from February to November 1917), being unable to tackle either the looming war disaster or the welfare catastrophe. Nor did the Weimar Republic have an adequate answer to the Great Depression.

The 19th-century anti-liberal criticism of capitalism on the one hand, became filled with a race-based concept of the nation, while being brought to new life in the powerfully spreading movements of Leninism and Bolshevism. Class-based dictatorship and communism – another secular religion, just like the ethnicist concept of the nation – identified liberals with the image of its own enemy. Liberal equals bourgeois. This was the simple formula they used. Their worldview and their regimes prompted them to annihilate both and they did everything in their power to do so.

Bolshevism was also an antithesis of liberalism. The individual is nothing, the class is everything, they thought, said and acted in conformity. Liberty is a bourgeois invention; oppression is sacred; truth is one. By contrast to the Nazis, they intended to reach their supposedly happy future through class-based rather than racist dictatorship.


The two anti-liberal systems left an indelible mark on 20th century Europe. Strangely enough, while Nazism built a rational structure on a basically mystical and irrational hypothesis, Bolshevism used an irrational hypothesis to create an increasingly and extremely irrational regime that eventually was bound to implode. Nazism as a regime was destroyed militarily, while Bolshevism as a regime just rotted away.

Both worldviews were coupled with a secular spirituality which was nevertheless considered to be sacred and would hardly tolerate alternatives. None of those two regimes needed any other religion; none of them wanted another cult outside the ruling party. On the other hand, both had in liberalism their number one enemy; they were more ready to agree and compromise with each other than with any kind of liberalism. After the Horthy era which had broken with the substantive elements of the legacy of Hungarian classical liberalism, embracing instead, anti-liberalism and eliminating the equality of rights of its citizens Hungary found herself in the sphere of influence of the Soviet Union that is of Bolshevism. Thus, the triumphant march of anti-liberalism went on as the country’s new Bolshevik style system of government was the antithesis of everything classical liberalism meant. That denial of the liberal tradition took forms harsher at times and more moderate at others, but the substance remained the same – Hungary, along with the rest of the European regions in the Soviet sphere of interest became the home of anti-liberalism.

At any rate, Nazism and Bolshevism thoroughly questioned the 19th-century liberal success story. Over important issues and throughout important regions –in Western Europe until the mid-20th century, while in Central and Eastern Europe until the end of the 1980s, liberalism was the looser of the 20th century.

Hungary met both destructive Golems, therefore anti-liberalism in my country went on rampage, more or less recklessly, throughout the short 20th century.


The present and the future of liberalism


As the Nazi regime, which was crushed militarily in 1945 as well as when the Soviet empire and the socialist system fell apart, at the turn of the 1980s and the 1990s, liberal/democratic values regained a key position. Liberalism had gained an impetus in the 18th and the 19th century from an opposition to feudalism, while in the late 20th century, it was fuelled by anti-totalitarianism. Let me emphasise that of course I’m speaking here about liberalism rather than the liberal parties. The Western powers replaced the Nazi regime they overthrew in 1945 with their own system, which gave way in both the British and the American sector to a democracy based on liberal cornerstone principles but adapted to local traditions. The model that was targeted was a combination of liberal political democracy with the social market economy which was for a long time exemplified – apart from Scandinavia – by the German Federal Republic and, from 1955 on, by Austria (social-liberalism). The Soviet zone of occupation was frozen into wilder or milder forms of Bolshevism, but while the East remained frozen, the West went on, at an increasing speed, building its own world based on liberal/democratic principles. The process of European integration which started in 1950 and culminated in the European Union indicated that the interpretation of nationhood which was able to suppress liberal values had been restricted by institutional limitations, whilst the new community was guaranteeing to its members and citizens extensive individual liberties, underpinning them with multiple guarantees.


When expanding the shared liberty of its members, the democratic community became interested in reducing the number of losers and minimising their losses, which created a multifaceted welfare system spreading throughout the individual societies as well as impacting the relations between the member countries. The Union is helping weaker, poorer nations catch up as best as it can (cohesion funds), as exemplified by the history of Portugal, Spain or again Greece, as well as nowadays, the case of the 10 member countries which joined in 2004, including Hungary. Meanwhile, the everyday practice of the Union leaves one in no doubt about its intention not to tolerate uncontrolled power and not to accept limitations to personal liberties. The conditions of membership laid great emphasis on political elements as well, over and above the economic ones, with expanding democratic liberties being a fundamental and unquestionable criterion of accession (the rule of law).

It goes by itself that this is not the same kind of liberalism its 19th century predecessor was, but it does preserve the values of classical liberalism. It is different in that it involves new components, as for instance a series of minority rights limiting the dominance of majority languages, or again the role of the constitutional courts which in many countries exercise control over the elected legislative assemblies. However, the substance remains the same, with the equality of rights, liberty and keeping the executive under control remaining basic pillars, despite all the changes.

All in all, it seems quite logical that building the new order in the wake of World War II and after long years of Nazi practice and theory could only begin in opposition to Nazism. That new order had to take into account the historical consequences of the lack of a liberal solution to the problems of nationhood and welfare, namely the resulting ascension of Nazism and Bolshevism in Europe. The chain of developments leading to the European Union – while preserving basic liberal values – has shown reflexive and rather preventive attitudes to all factors that had caused most trouble.

The socialist dictatorships with their sometimes tougher, other times milder variants were eliminated when the European Union was about to be formally declared. Replacing dictatorships with democracies was only possible employing the narrative and practices characteristic of liberal democracy. In fact, a world without political freedom could only be questioned and then overcome using the language of political freedom itself. As a result, even those central and east’s European societies which hardly had such traditions or were socialised in a totally different language were forced to embrace liberal values. What’s more, the new democracies – since they wanted to join the European Union – could not have afforded discarding liberal/democratic values because embracing them was practically a precondition of accession to the EU. That wasn’t of course a process free from problems and conflicts, but the trend was undeniable and should not be underestimated.

In Hungary’s case, the world of values of Hungarian classical liberalism was a secure point of departure, because in the evolution of Hungarian society that was not just a phenomenon of intellectual history but an experience of political practice as well. The language of democracy in Hungary was thus a liberal one which was embraced – although in various proportions – by not just one party but by all the forces leading the regime change.

All this was accompanied by another process which ended up strengthening the position of liberal values by the early 21st century. And that factor was the greatest achievement of Protestant politics – the United States of America. The United States found itself in a hegemonic position in the world after the civil rights movements of the 1960s and the international policies it led in defence of human rights of the 1970s/80s. Tendencies towards globalisation and American worldwide domination create an unfavourable environment for authoritarian political regimes. The domination of American political values meant the dominance of liberal ones, regardless of the varying and personal characters of successive US presidents. What’s more, American liberal values introduced many elements and points of view into the consensual way of thinking which had their impact on Europe as well – such as the rights of minorities or the issue of antidiscrimination.

Liberalism which was in an ascending stage in the 19th century, before becoming predominantly a loser in the 20th, eventually is finding itself in a winning position in the 21st.

The Judeo/Christian cultural tradition of antiquity produced liberalism, created the possibility of its destruction, and ended up overcoming all that wanted to eliminate the values of freedom from the history of that cultural tradition.

Hungary went through the first, ascending 19th-century period, until with liberalism’s victory, albeit not without compromises. Its 20th century history was practically dominated by semi- or fully authoritarian, anti-liberal regimes that severely curbed citizens’ rights and left of course significant marks on mentalities. The intention and practice of reactivating racial ideologies and social privileges hasn’t disappeared, just as the debris of authoritarian political structures and occasionally reviving intentions of repressing freedom can also be detected. At any rate however, no matter what the proportion of the elements of social mentalities, the country and its society cannot withdraw from the current of European and worldwide historical trends. What we are witnessing is somewhat reminiscent of what happened to Christianity – not everyone was pleased with it, but its cultural world had no viable alternatives, apart from becoming autochthonous.

As for Hungary, classical liberalism became autochthonous in the 19th century – the names of its main figures are preserved by a multitude of streets named after them, innumerable monuments, their portraits on coins and bills as well as a number of high state awards.


In addition to that personal legacy, Hungarian classical liberalism has also left an important conceptual heritage as well. Equality of rights, the division of powers, the reality of personal liberties and all the rest of liberal values have found their place in Hungarian political and public mentalities for a long time as a latent tradition only. After the fall of the socialist regime, however, that tradition has determined the modus operandi of the Hungarian state, although with varying emphases. It has visibly shown great flexibility in doing so – allowing large enough space for the diverse party-political projects.


From a universal set of ideals, classical liberalism became fully Hungarian. Nor have its main goals changed that much. At the outset, it created a new civilisation, higher levels of education (light), civic progress and a nation. Would anyone dare say today that these are accomplished projects without the need to constantly nurture and bring them forward? If need be, by mitigating nationalism into patriotism; civilising our lives, strengthening their civic character or again, as it was done in earlier times, by using the state in a civilizatory role. With that reality, Hungary is now on this the winning side of history – which didn’t happen too often in the past.


I believe that if Civic Hungary has a future, then the many reasons I have outlined suggest that its future must be based on the ideals of Hungarian classical liberalism.[24]




Here is a quote from an address by Ferenc Deák to the 1839/40 session of the National Assembly: ‘Diligence has two enormous springs – freedom and property. There are two enormous instincts that fill the citizen with strength and enthusiasm in defending the country, and these two are none other than freedom and property. There are only two forces that securely bind the people to law and country, and they are none other than freedom and property.’[25]


And here is how Kossuth expressed himself: ‘I am a man of liberty. Liberty everywhere and in everything.’[26] What he aimed at was a free country of free citizens.


Is there anyone able to offer to Hungarians, to the Hungarian nation, to Hungary a prospect more promising, bringing Hungarian civic past in greater harmony with Hungary’s present?




[1] There is a wide body of international and Hungarian literature analysing classical liberalism and its historical implications. Hereby, I confine myself to a few examples only. The general history of liberalism is the subject of

Guido Ruggiero: Geschichte des Liberalismus in Europa. Drei Masken-Verlag, München, 1930 and J. Salwyn Schapiro: Liberalism: Its Meaning and History. D. Van Nostrand Company, London, 1958. A contemporary Hungarian summary is to be found in: Benczur János: A szabadság és a társadalmi rend elméletei. Emich Gusztáv, Pest, 1848. Farkas Sándor Bölöni’s North American diaries, published in 1834 had wide echoes, just as

Alexis de Tocqueville’s book published in 1841–43 which familiarised the public with American democracy. A pre-World War I analysis with a comprehensive ambition is Varga Zoltán: A szabadság eszme a XIX. század első felének magyar államszemléletében. Századok, 1938, Annex. István Barta devoted several writings to the impact of intellectual influences. E.g. A magyar polgári reformmozgalom kezdeti szakaszának problémái. Történelmi Szemle, 1963, 3-4.; Széchenyi és a magyar polgári reformmozgalom kibontakozása. Történelmi Szemle, 1960, 2-3. és A fiatal Kossuth. Akadémiai Kiadó, Budapest, 1966; Varga János: Kereszttűzben a Pesti Hirlap. Az ellenzéki és a középutas liberalizmus elválása 184142-ben. Akadémiai Kiadó, Budapest, 1983. On the broader implications Id.: Helyét kereső Magyarország. Politikai eszmék és koncepciók az 1840-es évek elején. Akadémiai Kiadó, Budapest, 1982; A magyar liberalizmus születése. In Gergely András: Egy nemzetet az emberiségnek. Tanulmányok a magyar reformkorról és 1848-ról. Magvető Kiadó, Budapest, 1987; Szabó Miklós: Politikai kultúra Magyarországon, 18961986. Válogatott tanulmányok. ELTE–MKKE, Budapest, 1989. The latest liberal currents are described by: Kis János: Mi a liberalizmus? Esszék, tanulmányok, 19852014. Kalligram, Pozsony, 2014. The original texts of classical liberalism have mostly been published in Hungarian: Az angolszász liberalizmus klasszikusai I. Ed. Ludassy Mária, biographies and notes by Kontler László, Atlantisz Könyvkiadó, Budapest, 1991; Az angolszász liberalizmus klasszikusai II. Ed. Ludassy Mária, biographies and notes by Horkay Hörcher Ferenc, Atlantisz Könyvkiadó, Budapest, 1992.

[2] Deák, Ferenc (1803–1876) Minister of Justice in 1848, then Hungarian initiator and protagonist of the implementation of the Austro-Hungarian compromise. His attitude and system of arguments can be punctually traced reading his speeches whose most complete edition is the work of Manó Kónyi: Deák Ferencz beszédei. I-VI. kötet 2. kiadás, Franklin-Társulat, Budapest, 1903. His still most complete biography is Ferenczi Zoltán: Deák élete. Vol I-III. Magyar Tudományos Akadémia, Budapest, 1904. A detailed bibliography and new research are summarised by Zalai Gyűjtemény No 5., Zalaegerszeg, 1976. His career is interpreted by Szabad György: Deák Ferenc három politikai korszaka. Magyar Tudomány, 1976, 11. Deák Ágnes – Molnár András: Deák Ferenc. Vince Kiadó, Budapest, 2003. It may be a pure legend, but according to the memories of his contemporaries, Deák was versed into the Corpus Juris to the extent that if someone started reading the text a randomly chosen law he was able to continue verbatim by heart.

[3] Count Széchenyi, István (1791–1860) a key figure of Hungary’s Reform Age, Minister of Transportation in 1948. His figure is described by innumerable works and most of his writings were published in the

Fontes… series under the care of Béla Iványi-Grünwald, Zoltán Ferenczi and Gyula Viszota. His worldview, albeit not throughout his career, is analysed by Gergely András: Széchenyi eszmerendszerének kialakulása. Akadémiai Kiadó, Budapest, 1972. More recently see Csorba László: Széchenyi István. Magyar Könyvklub, Budapest, 2001; Fónagy Zoltán – Dobszay Tamás: Széchenyi és Kossuth. Kossuth Kiadó, Budapest, 2003; Oplatka András: Széchenyi István. Osiris Kiadó, Budapest, 2010.

[4] Kossuth, Lajos (1802–1894) Minister of Finance in 1848, in 1849, governor of Hungary. His works were partly published in István Barta’s care under the title Kossuth Lajos összes munkái. In want of better options, a mutilated, incomplete series edited by Ignác Helfy and Ferenc Kossuth is still indispensable: Kossuth Lajos iratai. Vol. I-XIII. Atheneaum R. Társulat, Budapest, 1880–1911. Cfr.: Szabad György: Kossuth politikai pályája. Kossuth Könyvkiadó–Magyar Helikon, Budapest, 1977.

[5] Kölcsey, Ferenc (1790–1838) poet, liberal politician, author of the Hungarian anthem. His complete works were published in three volumes by József Szauder and his wife, in Budapest, in 1960. József Szauder is also the author of a monographe on Kölcsey, published in 1955. More recently, see Kulin Ferenc: Kölcsey Ferenc. Új Mandátum Kiadó, Budapest, 1998.

[6] Here I mainly have in mind Kölcsey’s 1837 essay entitled Parænesis to Kálmán Kölcsey.

[7] Jókai, Mór (1825–1904) Hungarian writer, newspaper editor, politician.

[8] Baron Wesselényi, Miklós (1796–1850) liberal politician.

[9] Baron Eötvös, József (1813–1871) politician, writer. Minister of Cults and Public Education in 1848 and after 1867. A monographe on him was written by István Sőtér (Eötvös József. Akadémiai Kiadó, Budapest 1967). His works and worldview are analysed in: Gángó Gábor: Eötvös József uralkodó eszméi Kontextus és kritika. Argumentum Kiadó, Budapest, 2006.

[10] Eötvös, József: Vallomások és gondolatok. Magyar Helikon, Budapest, 1977, 787. p.

[11] Tisza, Kálmán (1830–1902) politician, Prime Minister from 1875 to 1890.

[12] Baross, Gábor (1848–1902) politician, served as Cabinet Minister in charge of several portfolios from 1886 to 1892.

[13] Wekerle, Sándor (1848–1921) politician, financial expert, three times Prime Minister of Hungary under the Austro-Hungarian monarchy.

[14] The same activity was framed, in London’s case, by the theory of municipal socialism, while in the case of Vienna, by Christian socialist ideology.

[15] The liberally tinted national mass movements of the given age are described in Alice Freifeld: Nationalism and the Crowd in Liberal Hungary, 18481914. The Woodrow Wilson Center Press, Washington DC. The John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London, 2000.

[16] Act number XLIV, 1968 on the equality of nationalities: https://net.jogtar.hu/getpdf?docid=86800044.TV&targetdate=&printTitle=1868.+%C3%A9vi+XLIV.+t%C3%B6rv%C3%A9nycikk&referer=1000ev

For the problem of nationalities in the European context, see Diószegi István: Üllő és kalapács. Nemzetiségi politika Európában a XIX. században. Magyarságkutató Intézet, Budapest, 1991.

[17] In his draft Hungarian constitution written in exile, Kossuth basically develops the concept of cultural autonomy which would be later espoused by Austrian social democracy. But he himself not being in government, had no responsibility in implementing the idea. See Kossuth Lajos alkotmányterve. (Javaslat. Magyar Ország jövő politicai szervezetét illetőleg — tekintettel a nemzetiségi kérdés megoldására.) Budapest Főváros Levéltára, Budapest, 1994.

[18] The expression ‘Hungarian race’ surfaced several times in the late 19th century, but what was meant by ‘race’ was ethnicity. In the mass politics of the 20th century, the term was reinterpreted into what it still means today.

[19] Here are a few early precursors Nazism in German-speaking regions: Georg von Schönerer, Guido von List, as well as Jörg Lanz von Liebenfels and the initially Vienna-based Houston Stewart Chamberlain who then moved to Germany. Adolf Hitler was in many respects their disciple.

[20] The regime was commonly named after Horthy, Miklós (1868–1957), who served as Regent of interwar Hungary.

[21] The peace treaty ending World War I and causing significant territorial and population losses to Hungary.

[22] To my best knowledge, the first use of the expression of ‘internal Trianon’ was mine in 2009. It has been since taken over by several authors, albeit without mentioning the source. At any rate, I’m glad that my expression was found felicitious by many people, who took a liking to it.


[23] Friedrich Engels: A munkásosztály helyzete Angliában. (Die Lage der arbeitenden Klasse in England) Otto Wigand, Lipcse, 1845.

[24] In today’s Hungary, critically minded intellectuals and opposition parties who take part in public debates and politics ceaselessly insist to define the current regime as a ‘dictatorship’, a ‘tyranny’, ‘mutant fascism’, ‘hybrid regime’ and the like. On the other hand, the government side describes itself as being ‘illiberal’. Based on my present argumentation these qualifications destined for direct political use are historically unsubstantiated and thus surreal – they don’t withstand the test of historical processes and facts. Hungary is ruled by a government empowered by a parliament resulting from free elections. Some are happy, others are sad about it. But that is no sufficient reason to let it influence our judgement. Hungary’s constitutional system is in harmony with the key principles of classical liberalism. Emphases in day-to-day politics which are subject to great controversy may change but within and not outside of that framework. The rhetoric, or both the government’s and the opposition’s side, is outside of that frame. Illiberalism – whatever that expression or the liberalism itself that it denies mean – just as calling names like dictatorship are historically irrelevant and unjustifiable.

[25] Deák, Ferenc – Hertelendy, Károly: Követjelentés az 183940-ki országgyűlésről. Landerer és Heckenast Nyomda, Pest, 1842. 46. p.

[26] Hetilap, March 10, 1846.