While the Left regularly labels the work of Hungarian conservative think thanks and institutions as ‘pseudo-science’, this could not be farther from the truth. In fact, the researchers of conservative entities are almost invariably affiliated with various universities.
Hungary has been in the spotlight for its successful right-wing politics for 13 years now. More and more conservative intellectuals, politicians, and influencers arrive in Budapest or start following the news about the country, led by the now ‘infamous’ Viktor Orbán. Hungary has also been attracting much more attention in the international media than its size would warrant. Leftists are bashing Viktor Orbán right, left and centre for allegedly ‘hijacking’ democracy and for building something either referred to as a ‘semi-autocracy’, or a ‘competitive’ or ‘hybrid regime’.
As opposed to that, conservatives who come to Budapest get to see it for themselves that Hungary is a free country. The Hungarian Right seems to be doing something well—if one wanted to summarise the secret in one expression, it would be ‘offensive conservatism’.
What that means is that Hungarian conservatives dictate the political agenda, and not merely react to it.
While that is clearly the privilege of every governing force which knows how to do politics, considering that there exists a stereotype even among conservatives that conservatism is essentially about reaction, and not action, or that it is just a kind of ‘let things happen as they come’ approach, maybe it is worth mentioning it.
The fact that Hungarian conservative governance is offensive, however, does not merely mean that the government has a programme and a policy agenda and it implements them. Or that it has a framework, a narrative, which is convincing beside its successful economy policy. It means that conservatives in Hungary have actively created a right-wing network of institutes, media outlets, and other important entities.
This may sound nothing special to Americans, who have plenty of left- and right-leaning think thanks. But think thanks were not a thing at Hungary 15 years ago. And since the collapse of communism, leftist media, leftist institutes, and leftist experts have dominated the public square. The general perception was that it is just natural that they are ‘the‘ intellectuals who ‘lead‘ the country. They used the language of social science, a seemingly neutral academic jargon—a typical mark of liberals. Then came the Right, with Viktor Orbán, and started to re-politicise the language, speaking in a simpler, colloquial way.
And the Right carved out its share from almost nothing.
After 2000, it started with a single television, Hír TV, a radio, InfoRádió, a weekly, Demokrata, and a daily, Magyar Nemzet. By now, the Hungarian media market has become balanced, divided around fifty-fifty between the Left and the Right.
The Right also started to set up think thanks, policy and research institutes. What is interesting is that the Left is unable to stomach that today it has conservative competitors. After 1990, all the Right had was its classic party foundation (Batthyány Lajos Foundation) and the research institute Századvég. Then came the policy institute Nézőpont in the 2000s, some history research institutes (Institute of the Twentieth Century–Terror House Museum, Committee of National Remembrance (NEB), Research Institute and Archives for the History of the Regime Change (Retörki), Rubicon, Institute of Hungarian Research (Magyarságkutató Intézet)), additional think thanks (Center for Fundamental Rights, XXI. Century Institute, Saint Stephen Institute), and the talent-grooming knowledge centre Mathias Corvinus Collegium.
The blossoming of conservative institutions infuriated the Left so much that it started to label their work as ’pseudo-scientific’ and ’ideological’, an attempt to ’hijack’ science and— of course—democracy, by ’bypassing’ the so called ’official’ repositories of science: the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and universities.
For instance, Andrea Pető, head of Gender Studies at the George Soros-founded Central European University (CEU), says in a recent article in Israeli daily Haaretz: ‘The main parallel organisation for illiberal knowledge transfer is the Matthias Corvinus Collegium in Budapest. This institution, which is wealthier than Oxford University, uses money channelled to it from the deliberately impoverished Hungarian higher education, and operates with the same ideological closure and cruelty that the Marx-Engels-Lenin Institute in Moscow did in the Soviet Union.
Of course, every single one of Pető’s allegations is nonsense.
MCC is not wealthier than Oxford; it has not impoverished Hungarian higher education—which is getting more government funding now than before—but supplements it, because it is not a university: it is a talent-grooming institutions that provides additional training to university students in many fields. And of course it has nothing in common with Communist institutes—this statement sounds especially strange from a Marxist feminist.
To give another example: Political Capital, a left-wing think thank, politely writes the following in one of its ‘analyses’: ‘There are some intellectuals and pseudo-think tanks (mainly GONOGs) that legitimise the [anti-gender and anti-LGBTQI] mobilisation by providing a pseudo-scientific background through studies, books, articles, and ‘expert’ media appearances. The most prominent anti-gender and anti-LGBTQI intellectual is Gergely Szilvay, a journalist at the Fidesz-aligned news portal Mandiner and associate researcher at the government-funded Rubicon Institute.’ (That’s me, the author, who wrote my PhD on the critique of same-sex marriage.)
The problem with that left-wing framing—i.e. conservative institutes hijacking science and engaging in pseudo-science—is that many of the researchers and experts of the institutes in question do have a PhD, which they obtained at a traditional university. Not to mention the fact that many of them still teach at universities beside their work at think thanks.
I’ve reached out to those institutions for exact data. Just to give you some figures: the infamous MCC employs 35 researchers at its institutes, of whom 13 have a PhD and five are currently working on their PhDs, while nine teach at a university. The other pillar of MCC is education. 29 of their 63 teachers have a doctoral degree, and 23 are in the process of obtaining it; and 36 also teach at a university.
At six history research institutes characterised as right-wing most of the researchers have a PhD, and most of them are university professors.
Hungarian leftist institutes and think thanks (such as Political Capital, Policy Solutions, Republikon, Idea, Equilibrium Institute) have significantly fewer PhDs on average (according to the information published on their websites). When they claim to be independent of objective, it is worth remembering that they are linked to left-wing parties and the European Union that are their customers and/or supporters. For example, Gábor Filippov of Equilibrium Institute was the main spin doctor behind the unification of the Hungarian opposition (Filippov is doing his PhD at ELTE university).
So the question is: how come left-wing think thank work is just fine, and is never characterised as pseudo-scientific, despite it being openly partisan?
Why is it that only conservatives merit this characterisation? Of course, it is a rhetorical question.
Naturally, one can criticise the scholarly work of researchers of conservative institutes, just as one can that of those working at left-wing entities. But it is hard to comprehend how all those people with PhDs could do authentic science at their universities and engage only in pseudo-science when they teach or research at their think thanks.
The fact of the matter is that Hungarian conservative institutions are closely attached to the world of academia, and have not hijacked it. Only leftists have a hard time accepting that now they have competition.