The Death of Liberalism, Academic Freedom, and Authoritarian Politics

Orban’s critics say that since coming to power in 2010, he has tightened control over key institutions in Hungary [File: Julien Warnard/Reuters]

In the same week that Russia’s Vladimir Putin declared Western Liberalism was “obsolete”, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán has consolidated his control over the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. The end of a drawn-out struggle for academic freedom in Hungary comes just months after Orbán’s Fidesz Party evicted the American-style Central European University from the country, and as the media, the judiciary, and NGOs come under ever tighter government control. In Turkey too, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan placed new restrictions on schools following the failed 2016 coup and last year he purged universities to stop academics speaking out about the conflict in Kurdish regions. One of the historians involved, Noémi Lévy-Aksu, received her prison sentence only last month.

Apart from the obvious desire to stifle critical voices, attacks on research and higher education show how weak these regimes are ideologically. As Antonio Gramsci argued in the 1930s, strong regimes are able to convince large sections of the population that they are legitimate and that their ideology and policies are not worth questioning. Weak regimes must resort to force to quell discontent. When Communist parties took over one East-Central European country after another in the late 1940s they too turned their attention to the universities and research institutes almost immediately. Intellectuals associated with the old fascist or democratic regimes were purged. Many senior professors were arrested, “re-educated”, and then appointed to minor roles in obscure research institutes where they could fulfil their quotas by producing empiricist studies that reinforced the socialist regime’s ideological position without critically analysing the socialist system. Moreover, historian John Connelly has shown how the Communists established new, compulsory courses on Marxist doctrine which every student was supposed to study as part of their university degree. It took almost a decade for such courses to have any impact, mainly because not only did staff not want to teach them, students were frequently absent from class and did not do the required readings.

In contrast, fewer changes were required in universities in Germany and Austria when fascists consolidated their power during the 1930s. Chauvinistic nationalism and racism were already common inside institutions of higher education and there were enough senior people affiliated with right-wing movements who could appoint their protégées to influential teaching posts and quietly marginalise – or exclude – their left-wing counterparts. No such support for Nazi ideology existed in occupied Poland, and instead of subtly silencing dissenting individuals the Nazis simply turned the campus of the University of Warsaw into a barracks for the German army. At Jagiellonian University in Kraków, for example, the Gestapo invited 184 senior academics to a meeting in November 1939 to discuss how the university would be run under German occupation. They were all arrested and sent to concentration camps, where some perished while others were released several months later following an international outcry.

How successful the policies of illiberal authoritarian leaders – like Orbán and Erdoğan – will be in the long run remains to be seen, but in the meantime their actions show that both have failed to win the hearts and minds of their fellow citizens through peaceful means. Without ideological hegemony they have to resort to force to silence dissent. So long as academics and researchers continue to insist on academic freedom, these regimes will have to use the tactics of coercion – akin to an occupying force – rather than achieving consensus and legitimacy through conciliatory democratic means in order to achieve their goals. Weak, à la Gramsci, indeed.

Dr Roland Clark is a Senior Fellow at CARR, and a Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Liverpool. See his profile here.

© Roland Clark. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).