Which has priority over the other, the Hungarian state or the Hungarian nation? Although the two concepts are closely related, they are unquestionably not the same. Consequently, it is quite legitimate to ask whether state building or nation building should be given preference. This question, however, cannot be answered without defining one’s position on the idea of the nation. Since the systemic changes of 1989–1990 the issue of nationhood has become central to Hungarian politics. The following study makes an attempt at outlining the strategies of Hungarian political conservatism in respect of the nation since the fall of the communist regime in 1989. But before exposing in detail the thesis of this study, some words here would be useful about the history of the relationship between conservatism and nationhood in the Hungarian context.


Political conservatism gradually came to be closely associated with a strong commitment to the idea of the nation all over Europe, but in Hungary the situation was somewhat paradoxical in the larger part of the nineteenth century. Since Hungary was part of the Habsburg Empire, without a sovereign state of its own, law and order, so crucial for conservatives, were provided by Vienna. This explains why the resurgent Hungarian national movement in the first half of the nineteenth century moved definitely towards liberalism.1

This dilemma was partially solved by the 1867 Austro-Hungarian Compromise which created an opportunity to reconcile the interests of Hungary with those of the Empire. In the period of the Dual Monarchy the dominant liberal-conservative establishment espoused the so-called civic concept of the nation, i.e. the political approach, viewing membership in a political community as the basis of national identity. It is worth remarking that this approach was in keeping with the medieval political traditions of the Hungarian kingdom which identified the nation with the nobility, irrespective of the ethnic origin of the noblemen. (Expressed by the Latin term natio Hungarica.) There is no doubt that from the turn of the century the cultural concept of the nation also gained strength in reaction to the increasing ethnic tensions within the multiethnic Austro-Hungarian Monarchy.

A significant turn came about after the First World War when the Dual Monarchy was dismembered. The peace treaty of Trianon left three million co-nationals outside Hungary’s new borders. This fact separated sharply the political and the cultural community of Hungarians and had a deep effect on Hungarian political conservatism itself. It led to a break with the civic concept of the nation and resulted in the predominance of the cultural approach according to which the nation is primarily a cultural community. The efforts at recapturing the lost territories were based on this interpretation of the concept of nation.2

Following the communist takeover in 1948 the idea of the nation was declared to be a dangerous “bourgeois remnant”, incompatible with the teaching of Marxism and Leninism. The development of conservative thought was also drastically broken – in fact conservatism came to be rejected even more vehemently than liberalism. Consequently, re-emerging Hungarian conservatism could not rely on organic historical continuity – neither in socio-economic issues nor in its relation to the nation.

This study starts from the assumption that since 1989 two variants of Hungarian political conservatism crystallised: the “patrician” and the “plebeian–populist”.3 The former, which is often called “elitist conservatism”, perceives in the masses a direct threat to civilisation and therefore is very sceptical regarding mass democracy. It trusts only the rule of law. The latter, on the contrary, holds that the stability and discipline of society are threatened not by the masses but by the liberal elites. The adherents of the patrician variant are convinced that liberation from the established sources of power would inevitably lead to the eradication of all kinds of distinctions in civil society and, consequently, they are of the view that conservatives should confront both liberal-individualism and socialist collectivism. The populist type of conservatism arrives at different conclusions supposing that – to put it very briefly – the conservative instincts of the masses can be more trusted than the established elites.This study argues that the newly emerging Hungarian conservatism first moved towards the patrician type and after its failure in 1994 it went the opposite way and worked out the special Hungarian variant of plebeian-populist conservatism, called “mobilising conservatism” by this author. The idea of nation played an important role in both types – but different roles. In what follows the author tries to characterise and compare the attitude to the nation of these two distinct types of political conservatism.


The systemic changes of 1989/1990 posed the crucial question of what kind of approach to the nation should be adopted by the Hungarian state.

In fact, all major political actors endeavoured to formulate their own conceptions of the nation; this issue became a crucial component of self-definition. The theme of the nation came to play a crucial role in the stabilisation of the political system.5

The patrician position, represented by the Hungarian Democratic Forum, led by József Antall, the first Prime Minister of democratic Hungary, can be described briefly by the following features. First of all, it is to be stressed that patrician conservatism esteemed highly the role of the nation but was committed to the doctrine of the rule of law and – in keeping with ancient Hungarian constitutional traditions – accepted the legal-civic concept of the nation. This assumes that the identity of the members of the nation is based on the relation between the state and the individual. Antall characterised his conception, defined in this study as “patrician” in the following words: “We say with the poet Endre Ady that ‘our arms stretch out to all who were made Hungarian by virtue, reason, command, fate, intention or opportunity’”.6  We can infer that the patrician approach was inclusive; it considered the nation to be historically embedded but it rejected the view that membership in a nation is based solely on ethnic and cultural factors.

This attitude included a real commitment to cherishing the national traditions and restoring the broken national consciousness after the decades of Soviet occupation and Marxist indoctrination. Antall stressed: “We are convinced that the idea of the nation has not lost its relevance by the end of the twentieth century”, adding that “this has nothing to do with any kind of nationalism”. Antall insisted at the same time that the promotion of national identity must be reconciled with a commitment to democracy. “We are of the view – he pointed out already at the first convention of the Democratic Forum in March 1989 – that the idea of the nation and the democratic rights of liberty, the human rights and the wish for social renewal must be represented simultaneously, in equilibrium, without giving priority to any of them.”7  When in the early nineties the exponent of the radical right group within the Forum, István Csurka attacked heavily the conservative policy of the government because of its commitment to the rule of law, Antall replied with the following words: “Membership in the Hungarian Democratic Forum is open only for those who are committed both to the nation and to the rule of law”. He expressly emphasised that the approach of his government to the nation did not mean to exclude anyone who would like to belong to the Hungarian national community. The patrician attitude was also reflected in the 1993 law on the national minorities within Hungary: it acknowledged that though their cultural traditions are different, they are “state-constituting actors”.

The patrician approach determined also the attitude of Antall and of his government to the Hungarian minorities in the neighbouring countries. This attitude was characterised by two features. It broke with the political practice of the communist regime which ignored the existence of three million Hungarians living in the neighbouring countries. Antall declared that Hungary bore responsibility for their fate, in keeping with the so-called “clause of responsibility”, stipulated by the constitution.On the other hand patrician conservatism made it clear that it did not intend to follow an “irredentist” policy, and had no territorial claims. Antall himself repeated in a number of speeches, somewhat optimistically, that he hoped that European integration would solve the problems of the incongruence of national and political borders, and the Hungarian nation would be reunited by eliminating the boundaries within the Union. (The dominant discourse used the expression: by “virtualising” the borders.) In the view of the present writer, the legal-civic approach to the nation can not be called into question by referring to Antall’s famous declaration made after the electoral victory of his party in June 1990. In this speech he expressed his wish to be the Prime Minister of 15 million Hungarians “in spirit and sentiment”.9 Though this gesture was undoubtedly based on the cultural account of the nation, Antall emphasised unequivocally that he meant it in a purely symbolic way. It did reflect the new concern of Hungary with kin minorities but it did not represent an irredentist attitude the political opponents accused his policy with.

As regards the question of European integration, patrician conservatism was committed to joining the EU. This is worth emphasising because in the context of the newly regained national sovereignty it was not an evident course to propose to give up part of this sovereignty voluntarily. However, the patrician traditions of the civic approach to the nation were not basically opposed to the idea of integration and thus the promotion of national identity, an important objective of Antall’s government did not prove to be incompatible with the desire to join the EU. Arguing in favour of the integration Antall even referred to the great nineteenth-century liberal statesman, József Eötvös who had supported the idea of the Compromise of 1867 (leading to the creation of the Dual Monarchy) saying that “the national idea is not in consistent with the idea of federalism”. Though Antall held that “the diversity of Europe rests on the individuality of its component nations”, he was a devoted supporter of European integration, emphasising that “the national idea is consistent with the associative idea”.10  He summarised his views concerning Europe in the following way: “We want a European Hungary”.


The noted political scientist, Juan J. Linz rightly pointed out that state building and nation building are not the same. In his study State Building and Nation Building he emphasises: “It can be said that state building and nation building are two overlapping but conceptually different processes. To the extent that they are overlapping they are largely inseparable but if the overlap is not total (as we well know it is not) they are also different processes.”11 The former focuses on the institutional dimension, the latter on strengthening the emotional solidarity within a political community. Though state building was closely connected with nation building, in historical perspective state building preceded nation building. Linz reminds us that for example historians of the Italian unification disagree to what extent it was a process of state building under the leadership of Cavour or nation building under the direction of Mazzini and Garibaldi. He also presumes that though in the case of Germany there was a strong nationalist movement behind the process of unification, “the German Reich was more the product of the state building by Bismarck than by the nationalists”.12

It is the hypothesis of the present author that though the Hungarian state could not be qualified as a “newstate” in the strict sense of the word in 1989–1990, the unprecedented scale of the transformation presented the Hungarian political community with both challenges, i.e. with both state building and nation building. A new democratic state had to be built on the ruins of the demolished communist state, and the people of János Kádár had to be transformed into a nation of self- conscious citizens if democracy was to work. This study makes the assumption that the first democratically elected government, led by József Antall gave priority – in harmony with the patrician view of the state – to state building. Though in theory this choice was not unavoidable, in practice there were cogent reasons for choosing this option. The determination of patrician conservatism to give priority to state building was motivated by taking into consideration the historical experience according to which it may easily lead to instability in new states if nation building is preferred to state building. The patrician attempt involved the endeavour to create a state that can demand as much obedience and loyalty as a nation.


After the landslide victory of the Socialist Party in 1994 and the crushing defeat of patrician conservatism a new variant of political conservatism crystallised in Hungary. The Alliance of Young Democrats (Fidesz), originally a liberal youth party had turned to the right and under the leadership of Viktor Orbán made a successful attempt at uniting the mainstream groups of the political right. As a result it gradually became the most powerful party on the right side of the political spectrum.13  However, its leaders did not want to revive the ideas of patrician conservatism assuming that they were not effective enough in the fight against the entrenched socio-economic and cultural positions of the post- communist socialists.

The starting point in the ideological transformation of Fidesz was the declaration of the party’s “national commitment” in 1995. In 1998 the party took over the government, but the Hungarian version of “plebeian conservatism”, mobilising conservatism crystallised fully only after the electoral defeat in 2002. Thenceforth the emphasis on the nation became absolutely dominant: the nation came to be regarded as the ultimate source of legitimacy. Mobilising conservatism was aware of the crucial importance of the political cleavage based on the idea of nation and perceived that by successfully re-interpreting the concept of the nation it could effectively influence the political discourse. This reinterpretation offered an opportunity to criticise political rivals for lacking a strong commitment to the nation. Fidesz looked up on the topic of the nation and nationalism as its own exclusive terrain, and in fact succeeded in convincing a large part of the electorate of the validity of its own approach to the concept of nation. How can we characterise this approach?

It attributed special importance to nationhood, and aimed at integrating the political community on the basis of national identity. In order to achieve this goal mobilising conservatism espoused the cultural interpretation of the concept of the nation which differed markedly from the patrician approach. Using the expression of the noted British philosopher, Roger Scruton, it gave priority to the “pre-political” foundation of the nation, i.e. culture.14In this approach the relation between the state and the individual is of secondary importance: belonging to the nation and citizenship are two separate dimensions. During its eight years spent in opposition Fidesz consciously downplayed the significance of parliamentary politics and presented the nation as the alternative to the legitimacy residing in parliament. In fact, mobilising conservatism expressly held that the legitimacy based on the nation is superior to that based on parliamentary politics. Thus while patrician conservatism based its doctrine of legitimacy on the rule of law, mobilising conservatism has taken the standpoint that state power can be legitimised only by the will of the nation.15 We can conclude that this approach to the nation included the tacit assumption that the existing constitutional system could not adequately express the will of the nation, and this conviction goes a long way to explain the constitutional changes undertaken by the Fidesz government since 2010.


The Hungarian minorities of the neighbouring countries have had a crucial role in the identity-politics of mobilising conservatism. The chosen way of their inclusion into the nation reflects a significantly modified approach compared to that of patrician conservatism. The latter also acknowledged the cultural unity of the nation but mobilising conservatism went further in this respect. It defined its aim as “the spiritual reintegration of Hungarians over the borders” but in fact it aimed at more than mere spiritual reintegration: on the one hand it strove to find institutional forms to help and facilitate the preservation of the Hungarian minorities in their homelands, on the other hand it wanted to link these minorities to Hungary by institutionalising the relations with them. In their important study on nationalist strategies and European integration Zsuzsa Csergő and James Goldgeier distinguished four types of contemporary nationalisms:

1. traditional nationalism, trying to ensure the congruence of the political and cultural boundaries;

2. substate nationalism, pertaining to groups that view themselves as rightful owners of a homeland but have no state of their own;

3. trans-sovereign nationalism, aiming at creating institutions to link the nation across state boundaries;

4. protectionist nationalism, aiming at preserving the national culture in face of social changes and/or immigration.16

The present writer is of the view that mobilising conservatism opted for the trans- sovereign strategy and strove to reconcile its efforts at nation building with European integration. This option meant forgoing the idea of border changes: trans-sovereign nationalism, called also as “virtual nationalism” holds that the political community should be based on national identity without creating a nation-state. In other words the kin state creates institutions in order to maintain and protect the nation across the state borders. For this purpose Fidesz not only espoused the idea of gradually “virtualising” stateborders within the Union but took steps to add a legal-political dimension to cultural cohesion – an important departure from the policy chosen by patrician conservatism. Thus in 1999 the Fidesz government organised the Permanent Hungarian Conference (MÁÉRT) to provide a forum for regular consultation with the leaders of the Hungarian minorities in the Carpathian basin. In 2001 the government of Viktor Orbán passed the so-called Status Law providing benefits to ethnic Hungarians living in neighbouring countries. These benefits were to be provided primarily on the territory of Hungary in education, transportation, employment and health care, but the law also envisioned the provision of certain benefits in the home states of the kin minorities. The present writer agrees with the evaluation of Csergő and Goldgeier (expressed in 2004) in that “this legislation… articulates the essence of Hungary’s trans-sovereign national project”.17

The Status Law was based exclusively on the cultural dimension of the nation. In the debate preceding the vote on the Status Law Orbán stressed: “The Hungarian Status Law is based on cultural identity. Thus anybody can decide if she or he accepts the cultural identity with the Hungarian nation.”18 At the inauguration of a new Hungarian university in Transylvania Orbán expressed his deep-felt conviction that the Hungarian community can survive in the Carpathian basin only by relying on its culture. It is worth noting that the Status Law contained the notion of national identity but did not specify its meaning. It demanded only that the applicant should be of “Hungarian national identity”.19 An indispensable condition for the success of the trans-sovereign strategy is that the aim of the kin-state should be shared by the minorities across the borders – in the Hungarian case this posed no problem because kin minorities identified themselves as part of the same cultural nation. The number of applicants for the so- called “Hungarian certificates” convincingly testified to this demand.

In opposition Fidesz suffered a heavy defeat when the referendum, initiated by the World Federation of Hungarians on the introduction of dual citizenship failed in December 2004. This event demonstrated that the strategy of mobilising conservatism was opposed by a significant part of Hungarian society: the chosen way of nation building involved conflicts within the nation. The second government of Fidesz, formed in 2010 hurried to remedy this failure and passed the dual citizenship law, representing another major step in realising the trans-sovereign strategy of mobilising conservatism. The act provided citizenship on demand for those co-nationals who do not live in the kin-state. Giving citizenship to non- resident ethnic kin is a crucial element of trans-sovereign nationalism. As a corollary, the idea of national interest has been transformed to include not only the interests of the Hungarian citizens but also those of the kin minorities. This way of nation building represents new challenges to the traditional conception of state sovereignty, highlighting the contradiction between the roles of kin state and home state.20

Shifts of emphasis have also taken place in the attitude to Europe. Patrician conservatism did not welcome the idea of the gradual merging of the nations of Europe but did not oppose some degree of supra-natural integration. Mobilising conservatism is much more critical of this development. By this statement the present writer does not want to suggest that it has rejected the European idea; Orbán, himself a vice-president of the European People’s Party, expressed his view concerning Europe in the following words: “We want to live in Europe as Hungarians”. Orbán has never portrayed the EU as a menace to Hungary. However, his policy toward the EU has not been that of an unconditional commitment, in contrast to the approach of patrician conservatism. This position can be described with the terminology developed by Ronald Linden and Lisa Pohlman: the attitude of Fidesz falls in the “national interest” category of “soft Euroscepticism”. Linden and Pohlman are of the view that “this type of Euroscepticism employs rhetoric to ‘stand up’ for the ‘national interest’”.21


In light of all this we can establish that the mobilising variant of Hungarian conservatism broke definitely with the nation-model of patrician conservatism and gave priority to nation building instead of state building. In our interpretation nation building is the process of constructing a national identity; it represents a political course aiming at building up and strengthening national consciousness and emotional solidarity. In the classic Weberian formulation a nation means that “it is proper to expect from certain groups a specific sentiment of solidarity in the face of other groups”.22 Mobilising conservatism aimed at strengthening “this specific sentiment of solidarity”, the loyalty based on national identity, starting from the assumption that the nation had a weak position within the state whereas, in its view, the nation should have predominance over the state. This approach takes it for granted that to achieve national goals the nation is bound to have a firm grip on the state. Whereas for patrician conservatism the crucial cleavage in Hungarian politics was constituted by the left-right axis, mobilising conservatism wished to move the issue of the nation into the centre of Hungarian politics. (Orbán reiterated on various occasions that the old distinction between left and right had already lost its meaningful content.) Fidesz has come to look upon itself as the depository of national values and interests. Its efforts to this end were aided to a significant degree by the inability of the political left to work out an authentic interpretation of the concept of nation.

In the middle of the nineties the noted researcher of nationalism, Roger Brubaker alleged that the post-communist countries of East Central and Eastern Europe would all become “nationalising states”.23 Though in the Hungarian context the problems of multiethnic states are not present, the priority given to nation building has created a number of features of the “nationalising trends”. Mobilising conservatism has tried to use all potential means of symbolic politics to make national identity the most important form of all identities. In the reading of Fidesz even social problems could be attributed to the decline in national consciousness; consequently it wanted to reverse this trend.24  This type of nation building has been integrally connected with the above-characterised trans-sovereign strategy vis-à-vis the Hungarian minorities in the Carpathian basin.

To build a successful state is difficult but to build a successful nation may prove to be even more difficult. Linz reminds us that successful nation building can help the efforts at state building. Mobilising conservatism bases its strategy on this hope.

1 Gergely Egedy, Konzervativizmus az ezredfordulón [Conservatism at the Turn of the Millennium], Budapest, Magyar Szemle Könyvek, 2001, pp. 174–181.

2 János Gyurgyák, Ezzé lett magyar hazátok. A magyar nemzeteszme és nacionalizmus története [“This became your Hungarian homeland.” A History of the Idea of Nation and of Nationalism in Hungary], Budapest, Osiris, 2007. pp. 291–385.

3 This hypothesis was expounded in details in English in the following study: Gergely Egedy “Political Conservatism in Post-Communist Hungary”, in: Problems of Post-Communism, Vol. 56 (2009), No. 3 May/June, pp. 42–53. Its first exposition in Hungarian: Egedy Gergely, “‘Patrícius’ és ‘mozgósító’ konzervativizmus” [“‘Patrician’ and ‘Mobilising’ Conservatism”], Magyar Szemle, 2006/3–4.

4 For the distinction between the patrician and populist types of conservatism see in more details: A. Aughey, G. Jones, and W.T.M. Riches, The Conservative Political Tradition in Britain and the United States, London, Pinter Publishers, 1992, pp. 44–53.

5 Ildikó Szabó, Nemzet és szocializáció [Nation and Socialisation], Budapest, L’Harmattan, 2009, pp. 169–173.

6 József Antall, On the Eve of the Election, in: Géza Jeszenszky (ed.), József Antall – Prime Minister of Hungary. Selected Speeches and Interviews (1989–1993), Budapest, József Antall Foundation, 2008, p. 107.

7 József Antall, “Az MDF legyen középpárt” [“The Hungarian Democratic Forum Must Be a Centre Party”], in: Modell és valóság, Vol. II, Budapest, Atheneum, 1994, pp. 9–10.

8 The Constitution, revised fundamentally in 1989 contained the vaguely formulated obligation of the Hungarian state “to feel responsibility for the fate of the Hungarian minorities abroad”.

9 Antall stated: “In a legal sense, in accordance with the constitution, I want to act as the head of the government of all the citizens of this 10 million-strong country, but in spirit and sentiment I wish to act as the Prime Minister of 15 million Hungarians.”

10 József Antall, The Legacy of National Liberalism, in: Jeszenszky (ed.), Selected Speeches, p. 370.

11 Juan Linz, “State Building and Nation Building”, in: European Review, Vol. 1, No. 4, p. 355.

12 Linz, op. cit., pp. 356–357.

13 For the evolution of Fidesz see in more details Brigid Fowler, “Concentrated Orange: Fidesz and the Remaking of the Hungarian Centre-Right, 1994 – 2002”, Journal of Communist Studies and Transitional Politics, Vol. 20, No. 3, September 2004, pp. 80–114. There is also a new publication on the history of Fidesz: Edith Oltay, Fidesz and the Reinvention of the Hungarian Centre-Right, Budapest, Századvég, 2012.

14 Roger Scruton, The West and the Rest: Globalisation and the Terrorist Threat, London, Continuum, 2003. pp. 60–68.

15 For the issue of populism see: Umut Korkut, Liberalisation Challenges in Hungary. Elitism, Progressivism and Populism, New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2012, pp. 162–168.

16 Zsuzsa Csergő – James Goldgeier“Nationalist Strategies and European Integration”, in: Osamu Ieda (ed), The Hungarian Status Law: Nation Building and/or Minority Protection, Sapporo, Hokkaido University, Slavic Research Centre, 2004, p. 273.

17 Csergő – Goldgeier, op.cit., p. 286. Let us add that adopting such a law was not at all unique in Central Europe. See Iván Halász, “Models of Kin Minority Protection in Central and Eastern Europe”, in: Osamu Ieda (ed.), Beyond Sovereignty: From Status Laws to Transnational Citizenship? Sapporo, Hokkaido University, Slavic Research Centre, 2006, pp. 255–279.

18 Viktor Orbán, “A státusztörvényről” [“On the Status Law”], in: Szilárd Szőnyi (ed): Orbán Viktor, 20 év, 1986–2006, Beszédek, írások, interjúk [Viktor Orbán. 20 Years, 1986–2006. Speeches, Writings, Interviews], Budapest, Heti Válasz Kiadó, 2006, p. 251.

19 See in more details in: Zoltán Kántor, The Concept of Nation in the Central and East European “Status Laws”, in: Osamu Ieda (ed.), Beyond Sovereignty, pp. 37–51.

20 Zsuzsa Csergő – James Goldgeier, “The European Union, the Post-Communist World and the Shaping of the National Agendas”,, pp. 4–8.

21 R. H. Linden – L. Pohlman, “Now You See it, Now You Don’t: Anti EU-Politics in Central and Southeast Europe”, Journal of European Integration, Vol. 25, No. 4, December 2003, pp. 311–334.

22 Max Weber, Economy and Society, Vol. 2. New York, Bedminster Press, 1968, pp. 921–922.

23 Roger Brubaker, “Nationalising States in the old ‘New Europe’ – and the New”, in: Ethnic and Racial Studies, Vol. 19, No. 2, 1996.

24 Ildikó Szabó, op. cit., pp. 220–222.

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