The Student Network in Hungary has been one of the most vocal and visible opponents of the current government. In Hungarian, the network has a memorable name: HaHa (Hallgatói Hálózat). Formed a year after Viktor Orban and Fidesz came to power, HaHa has focused on the government’s education reforms, opposing proposed cuts in state support and requirements to remain and work in Hungary after graduation. They’ve engaged in various forms of resistance, including street demonstrations and an occupation strike at ELTE University.
Student activists have not restricted their actions to education reform. HaHa conducted a flash mob occupation of the Ministry of Human Resources last spring. Many members also participated in an occupation of the Fidesz headquarters that took place last March. And students have been a critical part of a homeless advocacy organization.
When I was in Budapest last May, I sat down for coffee with Csaba Jelinek, a student activist that has worked with HaHa. We talked about the initial Student Network that formed in 2007 and the current Network that was restarted in 2011.
“Looking back from now to the very first moments of forming the Student Network, it has been a huge achievement,” he told me. “It has grown much bigger than we could have imagined two years ago. Those who formed the group were ideologically oriented at the beginning. Then the Network started to become more practical and attracted younger students. These younger students were more practice-oriented. They made it very big this year, when we older ones left the movement. We were on the front page of the conservative Magyar Nemzet newspaper every day last January. We were accused of being financed by Soros and the Jews and the Americans.”
Another achievement, he told me, has been structural: “Much more important is this strongly non-hierarchical way of organizing — developing the skills to have unexpected actions like sit-ins, a human microphone to disrupt lectures, moderating student forums with hand signs, making decisions in meaningful ways. This strong belief in participation creates a situation in which a person can politically participate and is a very good way of ‘indoctrinating’ someone.
We talked about the differences between the students attracted to post-modernism and those leaning toward political economy, the differences in Hungary between liberals and leftists, and the formation of his own political views in his first years at university.
Do you remember where you were and what you were doing when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall? I imagine you were pretty young, but that’s the first question I ask everybody.
I was two years old. I was not conscious at that time.
Did you hear about it later, in school?
It’s like the world war – you can’t really say when you first heard about it. It’s just an anecdote for our generation. But the death of our first prime minister, Jozsef Antall, became a common shared memory. He died on a Sunday. On Sunday we had a Disney show in the afternoon, so most of the children saw it. I was also watching that day. In the middle of the show, they cut in with the news. That was, for our generation, a kind of political indoctrination. In the middle of this Americanized show the reality cut in, and we had to talk about what is a prime minister and so on. But with the Berlin Wall, it was part of these other stories of starting a new regime.
Tell me when you decided you were going to take this particular career path to come to university and study sociology.
It’s not easy to say. In the last year of high school I was thinking about different career paths. I was good at mathematics and natural sciences, so I was pushed in that direction by my family and my teachers. But I also found out that what really interests me is society. I was reading social science journals at that time. And I went to some demonstrations, like the peace march against the Iraq occupation, which was an important step for my political consciousness. That was the first year that the Bologna system was introduced in our educational system. There was this new program called “social sciences,” which wasn’t very specific. At that time I didn’t know the difference between sociology and political science and philosophy, so I chose that. Throughout those years, I became more and more interested in activism and social processes, and I figured out what sociology and anthropology are, so I ended up in those departments.
You became politically conscious in that last year of high school?
Not exactly. The year that was formative for me and my friends was the election in 2002. At that time we were 14 or 15 years old. That was quite a cruel campaign, the end of the first Orban regime. It was an important milestone in making the current dualistic ideological landscape. I remember quite well the fights between the Socialists and the Fidesz government and how we in class also maintained these front lines based on the political stances of our parents. The peace march was a couple years later. And then in 2006 came the riots and the next elections. That was the year when I finished high school.
How did your parents react to your growing political consciousness?
There was no conflict in my case. The extent to which they were interested n politics was to read the daily newspaper and watch the evening news. They didn’t really care about politics. They were more family-focused. They just accepted it.
In your last year of high school, would you say that your views were a minority in terms of your classmates? Or were you in the majority? Or did most kids not care that much?
I think I was rather in a minority. Of course we talked about it. But there were only a few of us who went to demonstrations. Well, that’s not true. Many of my classmates went to demonstrations for the first time — but to the Fidesz demonstrations.
Why were they attracted to the Fidesz demos?
Their families went. It was also cool: Fidesz was these young guys against the Communists. I went to a Lutheran high school. There were sympathies there for the Fidesz government. The previous government’s educational policies were not sympathetic to religious schools. So that might have been another factor.
You went to university and studied sociology. Were there student groups involved in politics at the university?
That was in 2006, which was exactly at the same time as the violent riots in the streets in October. In the summer a group called Student Network was formed.
In Hungary we have this system called collegium. Each college is an autonomous self-organized entity, focusing on a certain study area. Before I was accepted to the university, I looked at the college that focused on critical social sciences and Frankfurt School and Marxism. During the autumn, we had these camps at the very beginning of university. That was the first time I met members of that college, and later I lived there. We met and talked about politics and about the Student Network, which they and some other activists formed, mainly inspired by Western European student movements and an anarchist, non-hierarchical way of organizing. The Paris events of that year, when the students occupied several universities, were also influential.
So, students made this network. They wanted to make student assemblies, which unfortunately coincided with the first violent riots in Budapest that year. The whole university was shut down because of this first student assembly. The authorities feared that all these violent elements would come into the university. Probably 40-50 students came to this assembly where they discussed and organized a protest. There were only 20 or so people in the Student Network at that time.
The next year, I became a member of the college and lived there in one of the downtown dormitories for four years. It was a very important experience for organizing, for socializing, for professional reasons. I probably learned much more in that college than at the university itself.
And the demonstrations in 2006 were, of course, the 50th anniversary of the 1956 uprising. I’m curious what 1956 represents for you and student activists?
It may sound like a cliché but from what I’ve heard from friends and families and some personal accounts, 1956 was really a moment of solidarity, of trying to put into practice a certain utopia, of organizing, of doing grassroots activism as we would call it today. It happened at a particular moment in the 1950s after an intensive political maelstrom. I would emphasize that it represented solidarity and organizing and integrating politics with everyday life.
Before you came here, what would you say was the most important political organizing that you were involved in at the university?
It was during my university years but not connected to the university. With some of my friends and some members of the college, we went to the protests at the G8 summit near Rostock in 2007. We went there to see what was going on, take part in the events, and to write an article for the Hungarian version of a website called Indymedia (which has since closed down). That was the first time that I saw the West European version of leftist activist circles and also the first time I took part in a mass demonstration apart from the peace march and the Fidesz demos. I was in Scotland when the economic crisis hit. It was also interesting to take part in some of the meetings there, including the protests around the G20 meeting in London. But in terms of Hungary, the college was the base for political discussions. There were some small demonstrations, but we were focused on discussions and readings.
How would you describe the political transformation that took place for students living at your college? Was it a move from no politics to the Left or from liberalism to the Left or from Fidesz to the Left?
It’s an interesting story, and it’s connected to the history of the college. The college was formed in 1980. It criticized the Hungarian system from the Left. It started with a hardcore Marxist reading group, which they ran until 1989. At that time, it was a complete shock for them to see the collapse of the system and the arrival of neoliberal capitalism. With their hardcore Marxist views, they were alone, and I suppose that they felt really odd. The early 1990s was a strange period for the college as it tried to maintain this professional profile in a really liberal and optimistic environment. That was when other ideas came in, like postmodernism, which was very fashionable at that time in Hungarian academe. Also Green, ecological stuff. At the end of the 1990s, gender was also a new topic.
These two camps, the political economists and the po-mo guys, well, they didn’t have fights and I wouldn’t even say there was tension between them. Of course they did things together. But there was a clear ideological separation. Around 2000, it seemed that the postmodern camp would take the lead. But then the balance shifted many times. When I arrived at the college, it was ideologically divided, but there was no activism.
It was all theoretical.
The main activism was when women took off their bras at a party and demonstrated that you could support gender equality and also be a woman. So, it was everyday politics, not politics at large. The college started to shrink. Previously you could be part of the college for 5-6 years while you did the degree. But with the introduction of the Bologna system it was cut in half so you spent only 2-3 years in the college. All this ideological architecture became shaky. And the other factor was that after 2006 activism infiltrated more and more into this Hungarian subculture of the theoretical left. The college became a strange mixture of liberalism and leftism.
The college has a rather unfortunate selection process. Most of those who were accepted came from a liberal elitist subculture. It’s a pretty selective group of people. Only once or twice have I seen a conservative student coming to the college. It’s well known that the college is the Red one or the hippie one. There’s not so much space for political transition. What happened was a transition from a theoretical part of politics to an activist part. The college was a good catalyst for this, with all these people sharing information.
When some college members started this homeless advocacy group called City Is for All (A Város Mindenkié), for me this was the most progressive political group in Hungary in recent years. The question of homelessness came into the college. There were people from the college recruited for various civil disobedience actions. They were arrested for some of their actions, which was important for the mythologies and discussions within the college.
This tension between the traditional Left or the old Left, the Marxist Left and the postmodern Left, has that disappeared?
It hasn’t disappeared. I predict that it will be here for a couple more years. In the 1990s, this postmodern tradition was very influential in Hungary and surrounding countries. Especially from 2006 and even from 2010, we’ve seen the collapse of the liberal hegemony in Hungary. Only now has the liberal and postmodern elite — many of whom helped to manage the transition, the regime change process — begun to realize that the world and Hungarian society have changed a lot. They have not been able to keep track of these changes. The other part of the equation, the Left, is really in the period of its formation, its first steps. When I got into the College in 2007, there were only a few dozen people in Budapest that were part of some kind of Left. There were a lot of factions, from anarchism to Communism, but with only 2 or 3 people in them. In the last eight years, from my point of view, there has been a huge increase in this subculture.
It’s also symbolic that for the right wing, “left-liberal” became a word to describe the opposition, even before 2010. It illustrates how close liberalism and leftism is these days: in terms of the pubs where we go, the parties we attend, the books or newspapers we read. Only in the last few years has there been a conscious effort to define a new new Left in Hungary, which would not accept the economic liberalism of the former elites. Feminism, which is also attached to the former elite, is also important. But not a belief in the free market. Or a belief that civil society will do everything. Or a belief in freedom without focusing on how resources are distributed throughout society. So there is an attempt to separate the two and make clear that we do not accept economic liberalism. It’s really hard to make this meaningful separation, even from the liberals, particularly with the rise of Jobbik and the polarization of society. And the conservatives are always equating the Left with the Communist side and the Kadarist heritage.
Is there an attempt in Hungarian to find a word to describe this new new Left?
We had discussions about that. The short answer is no. What some have tried to do is to redefine Left. There is potential in this, precisely because there is this left-liberal concept, which you can break apart with the concept of Left. In academia, the latest trend is to call leftist academia “critical” something — critical urban studies, critical psychology, critical geography. In academia, “critical” is the term for politically active scholarship. In politics, it’s really difficult. From 2010 there have been so many attempts to unify the vocabulary of the opposition. The word Left might work, but perhaps it won’t.
And the word in Hungarian is “left” as in the direction as well?
It’s not like anyone else has been able to come up with a word. But I thought perhaps that the Hungarians would be able to teach us a new word. In any case, I should also ask you what your dissertation is about.
Critical urban studies. More precisely, I am focusing on the policy of urban rehabilitation, a form of urban regeneration that came to Hungary in the 1970s and has been with us ever since. This policy had many phases. The newest one is the EU’s urban policy mixed with local context. My aim is to track the transformation of this policy through key institutions, such as the Urban Planning Institute formed in the 1950s and dissolved last year by the Orban government.
So, homeless advocacy combines your academic interest and your activism.
Yes, I’m not far from that group, though I’m not part of it for several reasons.
Ah, you must tell me these reasons!
They’re more personal than political. At the time when this group was formed, that was the year I started university, which in the first year was really overwhelming. I didn’t have time to afford doing activism. Also, a priority of the group was to attract not middle class guys but homeless people. I did not want to throw off this balance. Another factor was that some of the people in the group had done activism together for years. They had their own language and customs. At that time, I had no activist background. So I didn’t feel the urge at that time. So, it’s not because I disagree with their work.
Tell me about the focus of your activism right now.
It starts in 2011. That’s when we restarted the Student Network. There was no continuity in terms of the members of the first and the second networks. But the ideology was very close. Only the historical situation was very different. I was at the college at the time. Many of the founders came from the college. The college operates in Corvinus University on paper, legally. There were rumors about dissolving Corvinus University as part of higher education reform. So, the first steps of student activism took place in 2011 around this campaign. I was active in this, with fluctuations, until last summer.
There’s also this academic activism, which is rather theoretical. We are now doing this Public Sociology Working Group called “Helyzet”, a group of young scholars from the leftist social science field. We’re basically doing theoretical work together, and in the future we’d like to do empirical work. We also have a public lecture series. I’m also editing a critical social science journal called Fordulat, which is on the Internet as well. We try to translate recent leftist academic trends, like the concept of the precarious. The vulnerability of all groups in society is growing. This is post-working-class activism, an attempt to unite cultural workers, with immigrants, students, and others.
In the United States it has folded into the 99 percent movement.
Yes. After the Student Network, I went into this theoretical and academic way of thinking about activism. It has its roots in our discussions over the years and our realization that in the long term we cannot really urge this separation of Left from liberalism without a clear ideological framework. We started this long-term project last year. Another project is an urban studies working group, which is also in the theoretical phase, but our plan is to bring together all the critical urban scholars in Hungary.
What would you say are the major achievements of the Student Network?
Looking back from now to the very first moments of forming the Student Network, it has been a huge achievement. It has grown much bigger than we could have imagined two years ago. Those who formed the group were ideologically oriented at the beginning. Then the Network started to become more practical and attracted younger students. These younger students were more practice-oriented. They made it very big this year, when we older ones left the movement. We were on the front page of the conservative Magyar Nemzet newspaper every day last January. We were accused of being financed by Soros and the Jews and the Americans.
Much more important is this strongly non-hierarchical way of organizing — developing the skills to have unexpected actions like sit-ins, a human microphone to disrupt lectures, moderating student forums with hand signs, making decisions in meaningful ways. This strong belief in participation creates a situation in which a person can politically participate and is a very good way of “indoctrinating” someone. These are the outcomes of the last years.
Budapest, May 8, 2013