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Szalai Erzsebet


Erzsébet Szalai

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1This is not my first attempt at an academic approach to what has been called ‘really existing socialism’—or, more briefly, ‘existing socialism’—our ‘worst recent past.’ My present endeavor is directly motivated by the welcome debate that began in the periodical Eszmélet (Consciousness); Péter Szigeti’s thoughtful paper launching the debate induced me to reconsider and bring together my theses about that system, which disintegrated fifteen years ago. While writing my response (published since) I felt with growing certainty that I would have to expound my thoughts in a longer study, in greater detail and in a more differentiated and complex form. Here is the result of this enterprise.

2My work was easy and difficult at the same time, because my basic socialization took place in the system of ‘existing socialism,’ and the larger part of my life belongs to that historical period. I retain many pleasant memories, but I also had two painful and decisive experiences: my communist father was arrested before my eyes on trumped-up charges in the early 1960s, and subsequently, as a result of my open support for the democratic opposition, I myself had to face the punitive machinery of power in the early 1980s.

3Nevertheless, my leftist values, deriving from my childhood socialization and later confirmed by my social experiences, withstood these ordeals and ultimately emerged from them stronger. Primarily I feel that (not least) as a result of my personal traumas I succeeded in breaking away from a very bad leftist tradition of unquestioning trust and fanaticism. Therefore, I hope, my smaller and larger disappointments could not, and still cannot, undermine my basic values.

4I have not given this glimpse of my life and my values for their own sake. Although I have always tried and still try to analyze society objectively, I do not believe in a science free of values. In this context it is worth quoting Gunnar Myrdal (1998): “It has been a misguided endeavor in social science for a little more than a century to seek to make ‘objective’ our main value-loaded concepts by giving them a ‘purely scientific’ definition, supposedly free from any association with political valuations. To isolate them from such association, new and innocent-looking synonyms were often invented and substituted. On logical grounds, these attempts were doomed to failure. The load of valuations was not there without a purpose and a function, and they soon pierced through the strained ‘purely scientific’ definitions and even crept back into the specially fabricated synonyms.” According to Myrdal, this is the reason why an academic must state his or her values and involvement explicitly, so that the reader may be able to disregard them as far as possible.

5From the start, my work claimed to be a leftist critical analysis of ‘existing socialism,’ and I could rely on predecessors with a similar set of values, including my ‘old self.’ My advantage over them is that to the chronicler of today the main characteristics of ‘existing socialism’ become visible in some historical perspective.

6It was the economic system of ‘existing socialism’ that formed the focus of my earlier works on the topic, and today I still see its main features in that way. This piece differs from the earlier ones in three respects. It extends the scope of the analysis to the study and presentation of broader social and socio-psychological processes and mechanisms apart from the economic ones (while insisting on their primacy). It attempts to fit the problem of ‘existing socialism’ into a “world-system problem.” Last but not least the basic conditions of ‘existing socialism,’ as reflected in the mirror of the new capitalism that has now emerged, seem to be far more complex and today it is not only possible but also indispensable to interpret and assess these conditions in greater detail and from a greater variety of angles.

7A major part of this work is taken up by the analysis of those internal and external factors that have led to the fall of the system, and the last substantial chapter outlines the possibility of a ‘new socialist’ alternative. The reason is that in my view the challenges of world-system dimensions, provoking socialist thoughts, are still valid, and indeed growing in strength.

8This study is written in the form of an academic essay. It is academic, because it tries to present its subject in all its interrelationships and complexity. And it is an essay partly because I do not and cannot present the entire literature on the subject, which would fill a library, and partly because I am unable to make myself totally independent of the decisive experiences I have undergone in my own country, Hungary.

9Many people were helpful in the discussion of a shorter essay which provided the basis of this book. Above all I wish to mention Iván Berend T., Béla Galló, Gábor Gellért Kis, Tamás Krausz, Tibor Kuczi, Péter Somlai, Péter Szigeti, Róbert Tardos, and Ágnes Utasi. I express my gratitude to them.

10September, 2005.

© Central European University Press, 2005

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