Radicalism and indifference

Memory transmission, political formation and modernization in Hungary and Europe

by Domonkos Sik (Author)
©2016 Monographs 284 Pages


Most theories of radicalization focus on the birth of antidemocratic ideas, semantics, behavior patterns and organizations. However, such focus is one-sided: radicalization is as much about the forgetting of historical lessons and the weakening of a democratic consensus, as the spreading of populist ideas. A case study of public and private processes of memory transmission in Hungary reveals how the ambiguous relation to modernization affects political formation: the failures provoke populist reactions, while the successes result in political indifference. The combination of these two political cultures creates a dangerous compound including both the opportunity for the birth of antidemocratic semantics and their ignorance. The author analyzes the potential of such «incubation of radicalism» on a European survey.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • Situating Hungarian modernization: the Central European experience of modernity
  • From the dilemmas of nation building to the state socialist experiment of modernization
  • The ambiguities of the transition
  • Differences between Central and Western European experiences of modernity
  • The public reconstruction of the past: from identity crisis to memory vacuum
  • Victimization and accusation: debates on the House of Terror Museum and the Holocaust Memorial Center
  • Shock therapy instead of understanding: the permanent exhibition of the House of Terror Museum
  • From assimilation to deportations: the permanent exhibition of the Holocaust Memorial Center
  • Grappling with the past: youth narratives of historical traumas and current challenges
  • The consequences of memory vacuum
  • Memory transmittance and political formation in the family
  • From silenced traumas to political indifference
  • From deprivation of the past to frustrated radicalism
  • From moral obligations to civic activism
  • Identity construction, recognition struggles and political formation
  • Political formation in divergent constellations of Hungarian modernization
  • Being in the world: the lifeworld of young people
  • Remembering and distancing: patterns of collective memory
  • The challenges of post-socialist modernity: the perception of social and political problems
  • Reactions to the challenges of post-socialist modernity: ignorance, activism and radicalism
  • Incubating radicalism in Hungary: between indifference and hopelessness
  • Radicalism and indifference: patterns of political culture in Europe
  • Locations and variables
  • The process of political formation in Europe
  • Idealtypes of political culture in Europe
  • Patterns of political culture in divergent European constellations of modernization
  • Concluding remarks: incubating radicalism in Europe
  • Bibliography

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Radicalism is inseparable from modernity. The same transformations which enabled the emergence of democratic forms of social integration based on the principles of rationality and justice also enabled the emergence of totalitarianisms. In this sense, emancipation and radicalism have been opposing potentials of modernization throughout the history of European countries. In times of great transformations, such as economic or political crises, the shadow of totalitarianism has regularly reappeared and challenged Europe. The most recent crises testing Europe’s democracies are the financial crisis of 2008, whose aftershock can still be sensed and the refugee crisis of 2015, whose consequences are yet to be known. They have shown that in its present form Europe has difficulties of finding effective, yet legitimate, solutions to the challenges of the globalizing world: the strengthening of populist, antidemocratic and EU-skeptical voices indicates not only institutional dysfunctions but also unsettled tensions of collective identity. Accordingly, the stability of the European democratic consensus does not seem to be as secure as before. Once again, the question concerning the potential emergence of antidemocratic tendencies has to be posed from the perspective of the current characteristics of modernity.

This question indicates the broadest theoretical context of the book, which aims to understand how an antidemocratic political culture may emerge in a late modern democratic institutional setting. The notion of political culture refers to those attitudes, emotions and habits which ground the interpretation of political process and orient formal and informal political behavior in a given political system (Almond-Verba 1963). Since the beginning, research studies on political culture and political socialization have found themselves at the border of several academic fields. Sociology (e.g. Inglehart 1977, Percheron 1993), political science (e.g. Barnes-Kaase 1979, Dalton 1996), psychology (e.g. Renhson 1975) or social history (e.g. Sears-Valentino 1997, Thomas 1979) equally found their way to the interdisciplinary questions of political and civic formation. While such heterogeneous conceptual tradition has the potential of comprehensively grasping the various factors of political formation, it also threatens with theoretical inconsistency.

In order to avoid this danger a meta-theoretical framework capable of mediating between various disciplines is needed. For this purpose the broad tradition of critical theories are applied (Sik 2014a). The aim of critical theory, as introduced by the classics of the Frankfurt School, is the critical evaluation of social processes based on multidisciplinary empirical evidence from a transcendental normative ← 7 | 8 → basis (Horkheimer 1976). From Marx to Habermas this meant the parallel analysis of the phenomenological and system level of modernization (Habermas 1987). Since the first generation of the Frankfurt School critical theories have not only paid special attention to the questions of radicalization (Adorno 1950, Habermas 1990), but also interpreted it as a ‘pathological’ consequence of the very processes of modernization (Adorno-Horkheimer 1972, Habermas 1987).

In accordance with this program, besides identifying the preconditions of radicalization on an abstract level, it is also my goal to evaluate different countries according to their democratic character and to elaborate a diagnosis of time. Critical evaluations of modernity greatly vary according to their normative bases. Among these different grounds of criticism my approach is closest to Habermas’ position (Habermas 1984, 1990, 1996). According to his theory the democratic quality of a society may be evaluated from the perspective of the freedom of those everyday interactions that reproduce the interpretations of the world. If the freedom of these interactions is limited, then a consensual interpretation of the world gives its place to symbolic violence that is the forcing of a one-sided, arbitrary meaning structure. Habermas argues that in a post-metaphysical age only such formal, procedural criteria have the potential of legitimizing laws or institutions, meaning that political cultures may be criticized on the basis of their communicative rationality. This idea allows him to differentiate between emancipatory forms of integration, such as an undistorted interaction or reflective interpretations of the world and social pathologies, such as distorted communication or dogmatic meanings.

Even though Habermas’ theory provides an opportunity to clarify my normative position, it does not offer conceptual frames for the empirical analysis. The critical understanding of the emergence of an antidemocratic political culture may be elaborated in many different ways: discourses, structural inequalities, identities, institutions or processes of socialization are just some of the possible targets of an empirical analysis. Aiming to draw a complex and multi-layered picture, this book attempts to integrate these various aspects with the greatest focus on socialization processes. In this regard this book is a study of political socialization analyzing the processes that shape the phenomenological horizon of the citizens. By focusing on the formation of the citizens’ understanding of the world, the origins of those cognitive representations and emotions may be mapped which motivate the political interpretations and behavior including various forms of activism or passivity.

Among these cognitive representations and emotions collective memories play a distinctive role. Questions concerning ourselves, the legitimate goals and the acceptable means of action may all be answered in relation to specific interpretations of the past, which provide paradigms of what is possible and what is impossible, ← 8 | 9 → what is desirable and what is undesirable. Far from determining the horizon of action, collective memory rather serves as a reference point for political actions, which are made meaningful by identifying with certain stories from the past while distancing from others. Accordingly, embedding political attitudes and emotions into the context of historical narratives is a fundamental process of constructing political culture. As collective representations of the past outline the horizon of political actions, the analysis of political socialization relies on the prior mapping of the transmission of collective memory.

In sum, the analyses of this book move in the triangle of critical theory, political socialization and memory transmittance, trying to answer the questions of what the preconditions of the emergence of antidemocratic political culture are in a democratic institutional setting and how the divergent constellations of European modernities may be evaluated from this perspective?1 In order to answer these questions various fields are analyzed with different methods. The core of the book contains a qualitative case study of Hungary, a country whose political culture recently went through a dramatic antidemocratic transformation. The case study provides opportunity for a detailed understanding of the emergence of an antidemocratic political culture both on the level of public discourses, family processes of memory transmission and political socialization. As memory transmittance and political socialization are the most intensive during adolescence and post-adolescence, the target group of the empirical analysis was the 16 to 24 years of age cohort. The qualitative analysis of Hungarian young people’s interpretation of the past and of their understanding of the present was complemented by a comparative quantitative analysis of the same cohort in 14 European countries. The comparative analysis provides opportunity for the evaluation of the radicalization potential of divergent constellations of modernity and for the elaboration of a diagnosis of time.

Due to its recent social transformations, the parallel strengthening of antidemocratic tendencies outside and inside the mainstream political sphere make Hungary an ideal object of case study. The most obvious sign of such antidemocratic transformations is the emergence of the extreme right party called Jobbik (Movement for a better Hungary), which has become the third biggest political force, gaining the support of 20 percent of the voters in 2014. Jobbik’s ideology and political actions do not simply neglect the principles of basic human rights, but also include an irredentist interpretation of the past, an oversimplifying, populist, ethnicizing explanation of the social problems and the proposing of authoritarian solutions. Besides those of Jobbik, the political actions of the governing party called Fidesz ← 9 | 10 → (Alliance of Young Democrats) also have fundamentally antidemocratic elements, which are expressed in the model of ‘illiberal democracy’. Since 2010 Fidesz has completely undermined the system of checks and balances by misusing its absolute majority (Tóth 2012). Obviously, these two aspects of antidemocratic tendencies definitely should not be equated as Jobbik’s politics is not only antidemocratic, but also explicitly intolerant and autocratic, while Fidesz’s politics ‘simply’ disrespects the basic principles of the ‘rule of law’ while unscrupulously centralizing power and extending its influence over every social sphere. However, from the perspective of political culture the two tendencies refer to the same phenomenon: Hungarian citizens’ indifference towards the democratic principles, a fundamental lack of democratic culture.

The fact that Fidesz gained absolute majority and Jobbik gained the second most votes in the Hungarian Parliamentary Elections of 2014 indicates that in the eyes of the vast majority of the voters neglecting the basic democratic values is not a reason to withdraw their support from a party. It seems that the functioning and the stakes of a representative democracy based on the principles of the rule of law are either not understood or not prioritized by most citizens. In this sense, the case of post-transition Hungary expresses how the democratic culture might be eroded and how the antidemocratic semantics might become dominant. Even if Hungary’s story is unique, that does not mean it has no general conclusions. By analyzing Hungary’s specific path to an antidemocratic political climate, those idealtypical preconditions may be identified which facilitate such processes. These idealtypes can be applied as a tool of analysis in other social historical constellations in order to indicate their potential of eroding the democratic institutions and civic culture.

These premises define the structure of the book: a case study of the emergence of an antidemocratic political culture in Hungary is elaborated in order to highlight the general factors of radicalization, which are used as a conceptual tool of analyzing divergent European constellations of modernity. In order to understand the causes of the emergence of the antidemocratic tendencies in Hungary, first the unique features of the Hungarian path of modernization have to be reconstructed. This analysis is elaborated by outlining the Central European experience of modernity, through the phenomenological reading of the social scientific criticisms emerging in these countries. These reflections are capable of highlighting the horizon of modernity that is the perception of the possible and the impossible, or the emancipatory and the pathological. These phenomenological differentiations are the cornerstones of the political culture as they define the ontological, epistemological and normative frames of social reality. The conclusion of these analyses is that the Central European countries have experienced modernization since the ← 10 | 11 → beginning in a distorted way. They could not access its universal emancipatory potentials and misinterpreted its pathologies according to various ideologies. This has led to a chronic identity crisis in the post-transition era including alienation or the futile regression to already discredited semantics.

Even if social ontology and epistemology have fundamental importance, they do not affect the political culture directly, only by framing the processes of memory transmission and political socialization. The political culture of a country heavily relies on its interpretation of the past, which is the main realm of setting those examples of political rights, obligations, taboos and ideals which determine political action. However, the interpretation of the past is not independent of the perception of modernization in the sense that social ontology and epistemology frame the processes of public and private memory transmission. Therefore, as a second step, the consequences of the unique Central European experience of modernization for the transmission of memory in Hungary are analyzed. The processes of memory production are examined on the level of public discourses with the help of discourse analysis; on the level of the institutional actors of memory transmittance (e.g. museums) through participatory observation; and on the level of young people’s interpretations through focus groups.

The conclusion of these analyses is that party politics colonizes the sphere of public memory transmission which results in a vacuum of mutually accepted interpretations of the 20th century traumas. As a consequence of the ‘memory vacuum’ a democratic collective identity could not be grounded. On the one hand an apolitical and on the other hand a radical political culture emerges, except in those cases where families are capable of negating this effect. In those families where a living memory of the 20th century political traumas is transmitted, a devoted, democratic political culture may be grounded. In this sense, because of the distortion of public memory transmission, the importance of families becomes extraordinary as it is mainly them who provide opportunity to overcome the effects of the post-transition identity crisis and the consequent memory vacuum. However, experiencing the political traumas of the 20th century and transmitting memories capable of grounding democratic values, these are two different things. Accordingly, those factors are to be identified which may foster or prevent the success of such memory transmission.

Such a process is embedded in the broader context of establishing one’s identity through the interpersonal struggles for recognition. Therefore, as a third step, an attempt is made to understand memory transmission and political formation from the perspective of personal identity construction and recognition struggles in the family. Intergenerational narrative interviews are made capable of revealing not ← 11 | 12 → only the family members’ interpretations of the past and the present but also the communicative and emotional family climate, which is the field of identity and recognition struggles. Although the case studies introduce scenarios where the identity and recognition struggles undermine or support the formation of a democratic culture, they may serve only illustrative purposes. In order to move towards explanatory models, the circumstances are necessary to be identified that increase the chances of the distortions of identity construction. At this point once again the specifics of the Central European experience of modernization become relevant as they indicate the broadest circumstances for identity and recognition struggles.

Therefore, as a fourth step, the effect of different constellations of modernization on the structures of identity formation and recognition patterns is analyzed. One region, the area of Ózd in North Hungary, which is heavily affected by the post-transition identity crisis, is brought into contrast with another region, the area of Sopron in West Hungary, where relations to modernization are less ambivalent. In these two locations semi-structured interviews were made with young people (n=60) to explore their interpretations of the past and the present political and social challenges. In Ózd a radicalizing political culture is detected including hopeless life prospects, alienation from the 20th century political traumas and democratic institutions, susceptibility to nationalistic, racist and populist leftist semantics. In Sopron an indifferent political culture is detected: it involves good life prospects, distancing and critical attitudes concerning the 20th century political traumas, democratic institutions and radical voices and turns away from public life, while focusing on private success. Because of the parallel existence and interaction of these political cultures, the ‘incubation of radicalism’ is diagnosed in Hungary. While in locations which are heavily affected by the post-transition identity crisis the processes of identity formation and recognition struggles are distorted, leading to regressive-populist answers to the challenges of modernity, in those locations where the relation to modernization is less ambivalent, indifference emerges, allowing the escalation of these processes. Accordingly, the conclusion is drawn that in Hungary the Central European post-transition identity crisis has resulted in the incubation of radicalism.

While the qualitative analyses provide opportunity to understand these processes in depth, they are not capable of measuring their extent. Therefore, they are complemented with a quantitative analysis to set the Hungarian case in a European context. In the fifth chapter an attempt is made to compare young people’s political cultures in 14 European countries (in each country n=1200), with a special emphasis on the questions of indifference and radicalism. In these analyses the methods of linear regression and cluster analyses are used. The results of the comparison show ← 12 | 13 → that even though the Hungarian political climate has an exceptionally high potential of radicalization, it is not unique at all. In several other post-socialist countries similar patterns were detected while in several other countries from all around Europe a high chance of radicalization or indifference was diagnosed.


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2016 (May)
critical theory political socialization collective memory radicalization
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2016. 284 pp., 9 tables, 2 graphs

Biographical notes

Domonkos Sik (Author)

Domonkos Sik is sociologist and philosopher, working as an assistant professor at the University Eötvös Loránd in Budapest. His research focuses on critical theories of modernization and political formation in post-transition countries.


Title: Radicalism and indifference