01/13/2014 10:21 am ET Updated Mar 15, 2014

Hungarian Students Resist

The Student Network in Hungary has been one of the most vocal and visible opponents of the current government. In Hungarian, the network has a memorable name: HaHa (Hallgatói Hálózat). Formed a year after Viktor Orban and Fidesz came to power, HaHa has focused on the government's education reforms, opposing proposed cuts in state support and requirements to remain and work in Hungary after graduation. They've engaged in various forms of resistance, including street demonstrations and an occupation strike at ELTE University.

Student activists have not restricted their actions to education reform. HaHa conducted a flash mob occupation of the Ministry of Human Resources last spring. Many members also participated in an occupation of the Fidesz headquarters that took place last March. And students have been a critical part of a homeless advocacy organization.

When I was in Budapest last May, I sat down for coffee with Csaba Jelinek, a student activist that has worked with HaHa. We talked about the initial Student Network that formed in 2007 and the current Network that was restarted in 2011.

"Looking back from now to the very first moments of forming the Student Network, it has been a huge achievement," he told me. "It has grown much bigger than we could have imagined two years ago. Those who formed the group were ideologically oriented at the beginning. Then the Network started to become more practical and attracted younger students. These younger students were more practice-oriented. They made it very big this year, when we older ones left the movement. We were on the front page of the conservative Magyar Nemzet newspaper every day last January. We were accused of being financed by Soros and the Jews and the Americans."

Another achievement, he told me, has been structural: "Much more important is this strongly non-hierarchical way of organizing -- developing the skills to have unexpected actions like sit-ins, a human microphone to disrupt lectures, moderating student forums with hand signs, making decisions in meaningful ways. This strong belief in participation creates a situation in which a person can politically participate and is a very good way of 'indoctrinating' someone."

We talked about the differences between the students attracted to post-modernism and those leaning toward political economy, the differences in Hungary between liberals and leftists, and the formation of his own political views in his first years at university.

The Interview

You went to university and studied sociology. Were there student groups involved in politics at the university?

That was in 2006, which was exactly at the same time as the violent riots in the streets in October. In the summer a group called Student Network was formed.

In Hungary we have this system called collegium. Each college is an autonomous self-organized entity, focusing on a certain study area. Before I was accepted to the university, I looked at the college that focused on critical social sciences and Frankfurt School and Marxism. During the autumn, we had these camps at the very beginning of university. That was the first time I met members of that college, and later I lived there. We met and talked about politics and about the Student Network, which they and some other activists formed, mainly inspired by Western European student movements and an anarchist, non-hierarchical way of organizing. The Paris events of that year, when the students occupied several universities, were also influential.

So, students made this network. They wanted to make student assemblies, which unfortunately coincided with the first violent riots in Budapest that year. The whole university was shut down because of this first student assembly. The authorities feared that all these violent elements would come into the university. Probably 40-50 students came to this assembly where they discussed and organized a protest. There were only 20 or so people in the Student Network at that time.

The next year, I became a member of the college and lived there in one of the downtown dormitories for four years. It was a very important experience for organizing, for socializing, for professional reasons. I probably learned much more in that college than at the university itself.

And the demonstrations in 2006 were, of course, the 50th anniversary of the 1956 uprising. I'm curious what 1956 represents for you and student activists?

It may sound like a cliché but from what I've heard from friends and families and some personal accounts, 1956 was really a moment of solidarity, of trying to put into practice a certain utopia, of organizing, of doing grassroots activism as we would call it today. It happened at a particular moment in the 1950s after an intensive political maelstrom. I would emphasize that it represented solidarity and organizing and integrating politics with everyday life.

Before you came here, what would you say was the most important political organizing that you were involved in at the university?

It was during my university years but not connected to the university. With some of my friends and some members of the college, we went to the protests at the G8 summit near Rostock in 2007. We went there to see what was going on, take part in the events, and to write an article for the Hungarian version of a website called Indymedia (which has since closed down). That was the first time that I saw the West European version of leftist activist circles and also the first time I took part in a mass demonstration apart from the peace march and the Fidesz demos. I was in Scotland when the economic crisis hit. It was also interesting to take part in some of the meetings there, including the protests around the G20 meeting in London. But in terms of Hungary, the college was the base for political discussions. There were some small demonstrations, but we were focused on discussions and readings.

How would you describe the political transformation that took place for students living at your college? Was it a move from no politics to the Left or from liberalism to the Left or from Fidesz to the Left?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.