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Szalai Erzsebet

Chapter 5. The Socio-Cultural Heritage and Its Structural Effects

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1The fact that ‘existing socialism’ was not, and could not be, either a ‘com­munity society’ or ‘democratic socialism,’ and therefore became susceptible to the expectations of the ‘superstructure’ at an early stage, is due to historically determined socio-cultural factors as well as structural ones.


2There are no significant historical traditions of community and democratic behavior in the region, including Hungary, and the existing historical traditions are mediated precisely through socio-cultural effects of the opposite kind. The communal, democratic aspirations and revolutions of the Hungarian people were always suppressed, so that they never had an opportunity to carry out a successful collective drive for autonomy. Consequently— as mentioned before—the communities that nevertheless emerged could only be compliant communities with limited functions or highly restrictive communities forced on individuals from above. Our major socio-cultural heritage is the dominance of individual, informal, and atomized interest assertion and the servility related to this.

3At the same time, this servility has been the most important feature of the continuously inherited behavioral pattern of the elites leading the society. In his analysis of this feature, István Bibó (1948) writes about the disastrous historical split in the personality types of the elites:

“Two things are needed for community leadership and guidance, as for any creation: a practical realism bearing in mind what can actually be achieved and an ability to see what matters resulting from knowing the internal rules of the tasks. If a community is driven into the blind alley of some lie, the first consequence is that it cannot find any realistic people capable of seeing what matters, whom it can trust to lead it. It may find any number of practically-minded people, to whom practical work or the possibility of advancement is most important and who are therefore prepared to be ‘realists’ in the sense that they accept the prevailing lie as reality. Thus their realism is exhausted in supporting and strengthening a basically false structure, shunting it to and fro among the false existing possibilities. On the other hand, people blessed with the gift of seeing what matters seek a different form of expression, retreat into narrower and smaller communities, or feel increasingly isolated, sulk, take offence, develop eccentric attitudes or become fierce prophets; and it is the eccentrics and fierce prophets who are suited to say what matters.”

4What matters most in the construct Bibó calls false and untruthful is the compulsion to maintain the semblance of autonomy under conditions of total exposure. This leads to the split within the roles of the elites ‘guiding’ society (and within societal roles in general). However, this is not merely a Hungarian phenomenon. In our region it is most vividly and tangibly illustrated by literature, the writings of Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Turgenev, Kafka, Musil, Kundera, Kertész, and Grotowski.

5It was the socio-cultural heritage outlined above that, on the one hand, expressed and, on the other hand, historically continuously confirmed the decisive feature of the structural development of Hungarian society and of the semiperiphery elsewhere in the region: there had never been either the opportunity or the time for the dominant forms of the organization of the economy and society to be brought forth from within the society by an organic development. Therefore the dominant forms of economic and social organization in these countries, with the cooperation of the falsely realistic elites engaged in coerced adaptation, had always been created by power from above and from outside (see primarily Erdei [1976] and Szűcs [1983]). Paradoxically, however, this inorganic development had an ‘organic’ character, and it was precisely this ‘inorganic organic’ character that marked the emergence and structure of ‘existing socialism’ and subsequently played a decisive role in its downfall. In Hungary neither the factory councils set up after 1945 nor the workers’ councils formed in the 1956 revolution could survive and take root (being either integrated into the power structure or violently liquidated). Despite these spontaneous democratic efforts, the structure of the economy and society continued to follow the dominant central (and Soviet) model of heavy industry and large companies.

Analyzing the historical traditions of Hungary, András Lányi (1988) writes:
“For centuries our history unfolded within the framework of alien states. More recently we have twice obtained autonomous statehood together with a bill for historical crimes, presented in the form of dictates after military collapse. But the other condition, identification with the existing political institutions as our own, which is even more important than our relationship to their genesis, is also missing. This condition is the accumulation of positive social experience gained by supervising and influencing the institutions, which could be called the democratic element of social identity. In contrast, our experience is dominated by exposure and subordination to state bodies that dominate our historical experience. These bodies, motivated by imperial or class interests, have been able to maximize their centralizing efforts thanks to the inability of civil society to resist them and to their own excessive force supported from outside. Their power and their right to interfere has extended to every area of life and continues to do so to this date.
For centuries, decisions affecting the entire society had been made far from society at the apex of power shrouded in mystery. ‘Common issues’ did not mean issues that we should have settled communally, but rather issues (such as foreign affairs, finance, defense) that were too important to be influenced by public opinion. In keeping with the historical traditions of the region, the theoretically communal society was built by the state appropriating the right to dispose over all the means of societal reproduction without actually taking the organization of the state itself into public ownership. Moreover, even if some organs for controlling and counterbalancing the state were developed by civil society, they eventually withered away or were integrated into the omnipotent state structure, which operated beyond the influence of the citizens. This process gradually eliminated the institutional and mental preconditions of a subsequent decentralization and socialization.”

6Gáspár Miklós Tamás (2001) concisely described the past and the present as follows:

“Modernization in Hungary (quite a rare process in the region) took place in three waves (1867: the Compromise, mutual co-optation of the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy, curbs on the Catholic state-church; 1945/49: agrarian reform, coercion by terror, industrialization, accelerating equality through mobility, broad general education, creation of a stratum of intellectual cadres, forced mobilization, mixture of surveillance and censorship, methodical dictatorship; 1988/89: democratic and capitalist system change, reduced popular participation, repeated attempts at autocratic rule [reform fascism] as class rule, passivity, constant legitimacy crisis, stability deriving from impotence, vigorous but one-sided economic development). As I recently tried to point out, all this took place under the protection of external powers (Austria, the Soviet Union, the West or ‘Europe’) through the structures of a benevolent, Western-oriented, paternalist, and cosmopolitan comprador elite, without involving, and probably against the wish of, mistrustful Hungarian citizens, who paid for it three times by abandoning their national independence and self-reliance.”

7Therefore it can also be explained by historical conditioning that the societies concerned kept largely quiet at the time of political system changes around 1989, expecting a fundamental improvement of their situation from the counterelites emerging from ‘existing socialism,’ whom they trusted almost blindly for a short while, before they turned away with their trust fading. Thus societies involved were pushed from ‘state socialism’ to new capitalism not by spontaneous social movements coming from below, but by elites with a significant personal continuity, who in the majority of cases sooner or later replaced their earlier links to state socialism with a dependency on international big capital (the ‘superstructure’) in the process.


8Adopting a different approach, but in close connection with what has been shown before, we find that in ‘existing socialism’ and its subsequent disintegration some important elements of semifeudal social relations were reincarnated. Although the master–servant relationship disappeared almost at a stroke, servility (mixed with secret contempt), respect for authority, the dominance of informal interest assertion, and a ‘transfer’ of responsibility for the solution of life’s problems to the cloudy regions of power (with a simultaneous mistrust of power) all indicated the survival of feudal traditions.

9Generalizing the problem, one may say that the ‘inorganic organic nature’ of societal development outlined above derived not only from the external exposure of the region but also from the survival of internal, semifeudal traditions, which reinforced its propensity to depend on ‘external powers,’ while the external exposure in turn continuously reproduced the semifeudal behavioral patterns, attitudes, and values. More specifically, the semifeudal attitudes inherited by ‘existing socialism’ facilitated the lasting ‘occupation’ of the region by the Soviet Union, and at the same time, the strong external dependency further stabilized the semifeudal motivations and relationships. (All the more so, as the society represented by the ‘occupiers’ preserved its own semifeudal character.) This heritage in its turn inevitably manifested itself in the passivity of the society and the disintegration of ‘existing socialism.’


10Studying in more concrete terms the socio-cultural traditions inherited by ‘existing socialism,’ it was the specific survival of the dual societal structure of the interwar period in Hungary, described by Ferenc Erdei (1976), in the dichotomy of the economy and culture of the first society, and of the economy and culture of the second society. László Laki (1991) writes:

Based on the available data, I believe that the condition of Hungarian society in the 70s and 80s, described by researchers as a ‘duplication’ of society, economy, and values, etc.—as in ‘first’ and ‘second’ economy—cannot be derived exclusively from the socialist conditions that had become dominant after World War II. It can be historically proven that societal, economic, and other ‘duplications’ had already existed prior to it, and that such an interpretation of the problems appeared in contemporary literature as well. Consequently, to me, the problem is not why and how the economy and society were ‘duplicated’ under socialist conditions, but what happened to the inherited ‘duplication’ under those conditions…
One should deal separately with the—in my view, rather simplistic—approach which regards the ‘first’ economy as exclusively ‘bureaucratic’ and ‘redistributive’ and the ‘second’ as being an operation or process of the ‘market.’ I see the matter as something more complex, not only because both spheres were dominated by a chaotic mix of ‘market’ and ‘bureaucratic’ transactions, but also because it is an oversimplification to present the ‘second’ economy as if it had been dominated by developed commodity and monetary relations. This does not correspond to the reality, for it is now known that the most extensive sector of the domestic ‘second’ economy was linked to subsistence production (agriculture) and is characterized by natural transactions and the enormous proportion of self-supply within them even today.

11Based on Laki’s idea, we ultimately see that in the Hungarian variant of ‘existing socialism,’ the earlier, even spatial, duality was transformed into an inner duality, or the relative autonomy analyzed above, of the various societal cells, such as the organizations of redistribution, companies, and even individuals. It was in this particular way that the dual structure ‘defended’ and ‘preserved’ itself, only to reappear, in overtly separate societal structures, in the new system that has emerged by now (Szalai, 2001).

© Central European University Press, 2005

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