Skip to main content

Photo: “Évértékelő 2020 (5)“, by Elekes Andor licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0. Hue modified from the original

Hann, Chris. “In search of civil society: From peasant populism to postpeasant illiberalism in provincial Hungary.” Social Science Information 59, no. 3 (2020): 459-483.


The need to rebuild civil society was a prominent theme in dissident writings in East-Central Europe in late socialism, but the revival of this concept deserves close scrutiny and local contextualization. This article identifies two currents in Hungarian debates, one focused on addressing problems of backwardness by opening up paths of material embourgeoisement and the other on abstract liberal notions of associational freedom. It then outlines successive transformations of economic and social life in a small Hungarian town where no industry existed prior to socialism and the dominant political forces were populist in the sense of ‘peasantism’. The agrarian and industrial transformations of the socialist decades were undone in the 1990s. In the 2010s, under governments led by Viktor Orbán, it is argued that norms of civility have been threatened by postpeasant illiberalism. If civil society was the gauntlet laid down to social theorists by East-Central Europe in 1989, the challenge posed by this region nowadays is the theorization of incivility and a new brand of populism. It is suggested that these political processes are driven by the collapse of socialist embourgeoisement and the emergence of a new national bourgeoisie under peripheral capitalism, and that some of the moral responsibility for these developments lies with the unwavering intellectual enthusiasts of abstract liberalism.

The Illiberalism Studies Program studies the different faces of illiberal politics and thought in today’s world, taking into account the diversity of their cultural context, their intellectual genealogy, the sociology of their popular support, and their implications on the international scene.