Just another Bill Gates (Popow/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

September 11, 2023   6 mins

Even in retreat, the Soros empire commands a feverish hysteria. When, last December, the 93-year-old George finally handed control of his Open Society Foundations (OSF) to his 37-year-old son, Alexander, many of his liberal supporters wondered whether it was the beginning of the end. Now, their worst fears appear to have been confirmed: under the guise of a “radical shift of strategic direction”, the OSF would appear to be effectively withdrawing from Europe, with staff being told that the organisation “will largely terminate funding within the European Union”.

Predictably, the news sent a ripple of panic into the heart of Europe’s progressive establishment, which has long viewed Soros Sr as a crucial ally in the struggle against the populist Right — and which relies heavily on the OSF for funding. Over the years, the Open Society has donated billions to countless European NGOs, think tanks and media organisations, which understandably didn’t take well to reports of the scale-back.

Facing accusations that the OSF’s withdrawal “couldn’t come at a worse time for the European project”, Soros Jr was quick to clarify that the OSF was simply shifting its focus further east, to non-EU countries in the Balkans — and, crucially, to Ukraine, where Soros has been backing pro-Western organisations for decades — in order to help those nations “work towards EU accession” and counter Russian influence. “The European Union still stands as a global beacon of the values that shape our work,” he assured.

There are two ways to look at this. The first is that the OSF considers its mission of securing a liberal-progressive consensus in the EU as largely accomplished, and can now therefore afford to move on to more “left-behind” areas of the continent. If we consider the ideology that is prevalent among cultural elites and the Brussels establishment, one might indeed lean towards this conclusion. The second is less complimentary, viewing the organisation’s decision to pull out of the EU as an admission of defeat in the face of the Right-populist wave sweeping the continent — partly as a reaction to the liberal-progressive ideology promoted by the likes of Soros (and, of course, the European Union itself).

This would explain Soros Jr’s decision to focus more on the United States as well, with the stated intention of ensuring that Trump, a “Maga-style Republican” who is sceptical of the EU and Nato and seeks to end the war in Ukraine, doesn’t come to power in the US. If the Soroses have lost the battle in the Old Continent, avoiding a similar defeat in America would naturally become an imperative.

Where one stands on this whole affair, and on Soros Sr in general, depends of course on one’s political inclination — and that’s the problem. As with so many issues today, there are apparently only two positions allowed in discussion about Soros: either you believe he’s “the standard bearer for liberal democracy” — a valiant defender of human rights, freedom and pluralism — or you must inevitably be a Right-wing, antisemitic conspiracy theorist who believes he is an evil puppet-master bent on world domination.

A case in point is the 2019 BBC documentary Conspiracy Files: The Billionaire Global Mastermind?, which focuses exclusively on the most outrageous conspiracy theories surrounding Soros: from the claim that he is responsible for deliberately flooding Europe and the US with migrants to the belief that he organised a fake mailbomb campaign to delegitimise Trump. The unsubtle implication is that any criticism of Soros is simply a modern iteration of the antisemitic trope of the “global, manipulative Jewish monster who can be blamed for all evils and problems”, as an interviewee from the Simon Wiesenthal Centre put it.

Now, it’s clear that there are many people who hate Soros due to his Jewish heritage. But it’s equally clear that charges of “antisemitism” are today deployed to silence anyone who raises legitimate concerns about Soros, none of which have to do with his Jewish ancestry.

In 2019, remember, the late Sir Roger Scruton was sacked from his role as the Government’s housing advisor following an interview with The New Statesman in which he reiterated his past claim that there was a “Soros empire” in Hungary. “Anybody who doesn’t think that there’s a Soros empire in Hungary has not observed the facts,” he said — a claim which the magazine described as being antisemitic. Following Scruton’s dismissal, however, The New Statesman was forced to admit that “the article did not include the rest of Sir Roger’s statement that ‘it’s not necessarily an empire of Jews; that’s such nonsense’”, and that “elsewhere in the interview Sir Roger recognised the existence of antisemitism in Hungarian society”. Housing Secretary James Brokenshire subsequently apologised for Scruton’s dismissal and reappointed him, recognising that his words had been “misrepresented”.

This is just one example of the way it has become virtually impossible to have a reasoned debate about Soros and his foundation. It hasn’t, of course, always been this way. In 2003, for example, The New Statesman itself published a profile about Soros which described his “empire” in much harsher terms. As the article pointed out: “In 1984, [Soros] founded his first Open Society Institute [the precursor to the OSF] in Hungary and pumped millions of dollars into opposition movements and independent media. Ostensibly aimed at building up a ‘civil society’, these initiatives were designed to weaken the existing political structures and pave the way for eastern Europe’s eventual colonisation by global capital.” Indeed, the article noted that Soros engaged in similar activities across all of Eastern Europe throughout the Seventies and Eighties, playing a crucial role in the fall of communism in the region. In the following decades, Soros then used his Central European University, established in 1991 in Budapest, to “unashamedly propagate the ethos of neoliberal capitalism and clone the next pro-American generation of political leaders in the region”.

Twenty years ago, such claims were fairly uncontroversial — and, interestingly, were much more likely to come from the Left than the Right, as one might have expected in the face of a billionaire who made his fortune by aggressively speculating on financial markets and then used his wealth and power to “Americanise” and remodel entire countries and societies in the mould of neoliberal capitalism. In fact, his Central European University made no secret of its founding mission “to help educate a new corps of Central European leaders”. As Nicolas Guilhot, Professor of Intellectual History at the European University Institute, wrote in 2007, the aim of the CEU “was the creation of a Westernised elite by philanthropic foundations” that adhered to the ideas of the “Washington Consensus” and to the ideology of globalisation. The CEU effectively saw itself as “the provider of a post-national, ‘cosmopolitan education’”, according to Guilhot. This included shaping the debate on topics such as human rights, gender issues and environmental protection.

Over the years, Soros’s philanthropic empire has expanded well beyond Eastern Europe. Today, it operates in more than 120 countries and supports (or has supported in the past) a wide variety of causes: from the rights of Roma people and the Black Lives Matter movement to various anti-Brexit campaigns and transactivists. More recently, Ben Scallan, an Irish-Jamaican journalist and commentator, claimed that that OSF-linked NGOs are distorting statistics to show a steep rise in hate crimes across Ireland, despite the Government’s own data showing the opposite, in order to ramp up support for a proposed hate-speech law that would seriously restrict free speech.

The point here is not what one thinks of these causes, some of which may indeed be worthy of support; the point is whether it is acceptable, in democratic societies, for a single individual to use his wealth and influence — or, in Alex Soros’s case, the wealth and influence inherited from his father — to shape the culture and politics of entire nations. Many people, rightly concerned about the hollowing out of democracy as a result of the undue influence of private money in politics, would argue that it’s not.

No wonder that, in recent years, there has been a growing backlash against Soros in many countries — first and foremost, ironically, in his home country of Hungary. In 2018, Viktor Orbán’s government, after accusing Soros and the OSF of encouraging migration into Europe and undermining Hungary’s national culture, ultimately forced the OSF and the Central European University to leave the country and relocate their offices to, respectively, Berlin and Vienna.

As for the fact that Soros’s activities have also engendered a wide range of wild conspiracy theories, there is little doubt. But this happens precisely because legitimate criticisms have been shut out of the public debate. Ultimately, there is nothing particularly original, or conspiratorial for that matter, about Soros’s philanthropic empire; it is simply the by-product of unrestrained capitalism and the oligarchs it inevitably empowers. Throughout history, the dominant classes have always sought to generate new forms of “policy knowledge” convergent with their interests. In the 19th century, for instance, America’s most famous industrialists and robber barons — Carnegie, Stanford, Cornell, Johns Hopkins, Rockefeller — all founded universities for that very purpose. The OSF, just like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, simply represents the contemporary incarnation of this age-old tradition.

Yet whether Soros sincerely believes in the righteousness of the causes that he sponsors or whether he thinks they serve his material interests, is beside the point. For at its heart, “philanthropy”, when it comes to exercise such a massive influence over governments and societies, is intrinsically anti-democratic — and should be opposed first and foremost on such grounds. In this sense, for all its controversial aspects, the pushback against “Sorosism” in Europe and elsewhere should be seen as a democratic reaction by a body politic that feels increasingly disenfranchised by global elites. If it is to be effective, however, it also needs to tackle the economic and institutional system, of which the EU is part, that gives rise to oligarchs such as Soros in the first place.

Thomas Fazi is an UnHerd columnist and translator. His latest book is The Covid Consensus, co-authored with Toby Green.