Hungary beats an Internet tax

November 6, 2014

Anger at a proposed tax on Internet usage has spilled over into anger at the right-wing government in Hungary, explains Andrew Ryder.

THOUSANDS OF Hungarians have repeatedly taken to the streets in the last two weeks, compelling the government to withdraw its plan to impose a new tax on Internet usage. The protests represented a direct challenge to the dominance of the right-wing populist party Fidesz.

This is the most significant popular movement in Hungary in recent years, but the lack of organization on the left means that though the protest struck a victory on this particular issue, a true political alternative to right-wing populism remains to be developed.

Protests began on October 26, with more than 6,000 demonstrators assembling in Nádor József Square. Several opposition parties endorsed the demonstration, from the Socialist Party to the far-right Jobbik Party. Many trade unions, including the teachers' union, also supported the protest. During a speech by one of the organizers, Balázs Gulyás, members of the crowd spontaneously began to call for the resignation of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.

This tendency--to oppose not only the Internet tax, but also the ruling party and the prime minister--was rampant throughout the demonstration and along the subsequent march to Heroes Square, which grew to include more than 10,000 people.

Thousands protest a plan to tax Internet usage in Hungary
Thousands protest a plan to tax Internet usage in Hungary

Some of the protesters carried old computer equipment with them to symbolize their right to Internet access. Many demonstrators then attacked Fidesz headquarters, which is located near Heroes Square, hurling keyboards, monitors and cellphones at the windows of the building. Two demonstrators also hung the flag of the European Union at the entryway to the party headquarters, a challenge to the nationalist party. Later in the evening, these protesters were dispersed by 300 police.

A second protest took place two days later, this time drawing tens of thousands of people. These demonstrators marched along the Danube River to Clark Adam Square. Even after the demonstration officially concluded, some 3,000 protesters proceeded toward Parliament, shouting slogans against Orbán and Fidesz.

The tax was to be based on the quantity of data transferred--at a rate of 150 forint (61 cents) per gigabyte--with a cap on charges per person. This would be in addition to a 27 percent tax on Internet service that already exists. While Fidesz initially expressed confidence that the protesters would simply tire and give up, the size of the demonstrations and the steadfastness of the protesters forced them to quickly change course and cancel the proposed tax.

WHY DID this tax produce such outrage? First, any proposed restrictions on Internet access touched a raw nerve for Hungarians because of the history of state control of news media and other communication during the period of Stalinist domination of Hungary. But the Fidesz Party has also passed a controversial law in 2010 to impose its own controls on the media. As a consequence, Hungarian public radio, which is a major source of news for Hungarians in rural areas, made no mention of the huge protests.

Second, the struggle became a catalyst for myriad grievances against the ruling party. Less than two weeks before the protests broke out, the U.S. had canceled the visas of several Hungarian diplomats because they had been involved in corruption. The Fidesz party has generally propagated cronyism, deploying a steady diet of right-wing populism but failing to deliver on any measure of prosperity for the majority of Hungarians.

In July, Orbán publicly declared that he was intent on "building an illiberal new state based on national foundations," with Putin's Russia and Erdogan's Turkey as inspirations. Orbán recently collaborated with Russia to build a new power plant. This move toward greater reliance on Russia disturbs many Hungarians, who are still haunted by the memory of the Soviet Union's decades-long occupation.

While the protests have been popular and militant, there is little clarity about how to put forward an alternative to the ruling party. In general, the organized left is weak in Hungary. Most Hungarians regard the Socialist Party as discredited by its repressive past as well as by a string of corruption scandals during its rule in the years after the collapse of Stalinism.

Many protesters hold an idealized view of the European Union, which they see as an alternative to Russia's imperial ambitions and the goals of Hungary's ultranationalists. At the other end of the specturm, Jobbik, the extreme far-right nationalist party, also took part in the demonstrations. Jobbik is more emphatic in its "pan-Turanist" ideology, which proposes a unique Hungarian national essence as well as a kinship with Turkey and Russia, and scapegoats Roma, Jewish and LGBT people as threats to the national order.

While the cosmopolitan ideal that the European Union represents for many Hungarians is certainly more progressive than the virulent reaction advanced by Jobbik, the European Union demands austerity measures that will further impoverish the majority of Hungarians. Similar to the crisis in Ukraine, the conflict between the EU and Russia is an expression of inter-imperialist rivalry, which is disorienting to the Hungarian working class and acts as a brake on its ability to resist exploitation that both camps seek to impose.

IN GENERAL, most protesters conceive of their grievances against the government as a matter of chronic corruption or lack of democracy, an approach encouraged and amplified by the European press. But this framework fails to move beyond the "common sense" of the post-Stalinist era.

As sociologist Agnes Gagyi has pointed out, this framing remains within the "civil society" rhetoric propagated by the elite sector that guided the initial round of privatizations while also securing exclusive control of political power. As a result, recent popular movements against the state reflect the ideology of relatively prosperous urban professionals rather than the interests of Hungary's working-class majority.

In order to achieve real solutions to the economic and political crisis in Hungary, class consciousness will need to be rediscovered. Grievances with corruption and unfair taxation need to expand and connect with a struggle against poverty and the lack of opportunity experienced by the Hungarian masses, as well as the deterioration of the social services meant to prevent their impoverishment.

Such a radicalization requires the rediscovery of the real Marxist tradition of socialism from below, but this is a tall order given the decades during which Hungarians lived under a ruling class that deployed Marxist rhetoric to cement its rule. So-called Hungarian "socialist" rule first took the form of the terrorist Stalinism of Mátyás Rákosi, then morphed into the "market socialism" presided over by János Kádár. Finally, the corrupt regime of Ferenc Gyurcsány was brought down by protests in 2006, paving the way for the right's dominance today.

G.M. Tamás, the Hungarian Marxist intellectual, reports that the Hungarian Secret Service vigorously persecuted anti-Stalinist socialists and continued to maintain an "anti-Trotskyite" subdivision until 1991, even after the end of direct control by the Soviet Union two years earlier. As a result, the tradition of socialism from below and working-class power was completely repressed and is largely forgotten today.

This is truly tragic, because the Hungarian working class has a long history of heroic struggle. Hungary experienced a great workers' revolution against the state bureaucracy in 1956, which was crushed by Khrushchev's tanks. Indeed, it may not be coincidental that the protests against the Internet tax took place only a few days after the anniversary of the events of 1956.

In addition, in the early 1960s, the Budapest school of Marxism, which included authors such as István Mészáros, contributed a great deal of substance to the authentic socialist tradition. This variety of critical theory sprang largely from the insights of the great György Lukács, who was among the most incisive of the revolutionary Marxists inspired by the Russian Revolution.

The Hungarian masses recognize that the right-wing nationalist ideology of Fidesz and Jobbik cannot serve their interests. The victory of these recent protests is an expression of working-class power and the increasing refusal to accept exploitation administered by a strong, authoritarian state. However, neither free-market capitalism nor the bureaucratic mechanisms of the European Union can serve as a way forward for Hungary's workers.

Only a rediscovery of the solidarity and struggle intrinsic to the history of the Hungarian working class can lead to national liberation from the imperialism of both East and West and a truly democratic triumph over exploitation.

In an interview with Chris Harman five years ago, Tamás said:

I do not think there are that many more versions of capitalism the system can come up with to hold out even fraudulently as a promise to people who do not own capital and who are not protected by the imperialist state. So if you break with capitalism now, you are likely to have fewer illusions than at any previous instance. We have seen all the compromises now. The old social democratic compromise in 1914, the Stalinist construction of a tyrannical state capitalism, caudillismo on the right and on the left, New Deal, National Socialism, militaristic systems, nationalistic systems, Catholic corporatism...neoconservatism. Most imaginable versions have been tried and the problems are resurfacing again and again.

By the time I came to break with the bourgeois mainstream there were no substitutes left, so I had to become a revolutionary Marxist. I did not see any other intelligent and credible solutions. You have to look the facts in the face. It is not a comfortable choice or a majority choice but that does not matter. I think that all the possibilities are exhausted.

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