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Szalai Erzsebet

Chapter 2. Power and Society

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1The last train of thought leads to the issue of exploitation: the concentration of ownership rights and the exploitative relationship as the source of that concentration, according to those criteria by which I myself interpret exploitation (Szalai, 2001). Essentially one may speak about exploitation (with certain restrictions) when it can be proven that there is a high degree of inequality between the respective bargaining positions of the ‘labor side’ and the ‘capital side,’ which is used by the ‘capital side’ continuously to strengthen its position in every respect to the detriment of the ‘labor side.’ It was this situation that emerged in ‘existing socialism,’ under which the workforce was exploited in wage labor, with the special feature that, in contrast to capitalist societies, the ‘labor side’ was not unambiguously separate from the ‘capital side’ and their conflicting interests were not articulated, because, to use a commonly known expression, the “workers were nationalized.” After an initial phase of terror and forced ‘centralization,’ it was the atomized and informal assertion of interests that increasingly became the decisive factor and the workers’ chief mode of interest assertion within the hierarchical system. Its most important aim and means was ‘integration by one leg’ into the various levels or channels of the hierarchy, which promised special treatment and at the same time the possibility of maintaining an ‘individualized, limited, and relative autonomy.’ The individuals were structured according to how far they were able and striving to develop their relative autonomy while constantly keeping their hierarchical contacts in good order.

2It was not by accident that Zsuzsa Ferge (1969), in her analysis of the social structure of ‘existing socialism,’ raised the question whether the separate strata are nominal or real groups, and whether we can speak about group relations or only about a collection of individuals with identical characteristics. On the same basis, in 1989 I formulated my own thesis that it was more accurate to speak merely about social strata and not social groups in ‘existing socialism.’

3The fact that individuals advanced predominantly by the assertion of their interests through the channels of the various levels of the hierarchy usually meant the lack of the possibility of collective and open interest assertion and at the same time the lack of concern for it. The political institutions limited the assertion of partial interests from the bottom up, while precedents of the success of individual bargains were constantly emerging and the patterns of collective behavior socially recognized as successful were missing. It is an important example of the lack of concern that the appearance and subsequent expansion of the second economy offered the choice of alternative life strategies to certain social strata, while it was precisely the opportunities offered by the second economy that absorbed the individual ambitions of those who could have articulated the interests of the strata or groups concerned. Thus the social pressure necessary for the creation of independent organizations to assert group interests was missing. The individuals (as well as the economic organizations) were structured in accordance with the extent of the role played by the lack of possibility and concern in the absence of any organized expression of partial interests initiated from the bottom.

4(For instance, it would have been downright disadvantageous for the managers of big companies to express their separate interests unambiguously in an organized form, because one of their basic means of interest assertion was to make it appear in the garb of a more general interest than their own.) Those strata pushed to the periphery of society and excluded from the opportunity for atomized interest assertion, such as the pensioners and the unemployed, should have been particularly involved in the organizational articulation, from the bottom up, of their interests, but they were incapable either of truly recognizing this or of putting it into practice. With some simplification one may say that those who, given their position and their opportunities of interest assertion, had a really good chance of creating autonomous interest organizations did not need these, while those who needed them were in a weak position and did not have the means to do so.

5Consequently no other class or status group was organized against the status group in power. That is why it happened—and why it could happen—that the relationship between ‘capital’ and ‘labor’ was marked by inequality and a grave imbalance to the benefit of capital and the detriment of labor.


6The features of the power structure outlined above add up to a state capitalist, more exactly a state and big-company capitalist, system. (The characterization of ‘existing socialism’ as a state capitalist system has significant antecedents in the literature [see primarily Cliff, 1974]; however, the thesis of the prominent power position of the managers of big companies is the result of my own researches.) At the same time, various socialistic processes were taking place within the system. One of these was large-scale social mobility roughly up to the early 1980s. Another, related to the first, was the significant cultural upliftment of broad social strata. Finally, as a result of these processes, a heterogeneous ‘middle class,’ unique at least in Hungarian social development, was born: its aims were modest but accessible and could be calculated with certainty (a prefabricated flat, a small wooden cottage on a river bank, a Trabant car). Those were the social developments that gave the system a socialist tinge. (And as a result of these developments, ‘existing socialism’ represented a serious challenge to the entire capitalist world. Without this challenge the post-World War II welfare states might not have come into being, and this is perhaps the most significant achievement of ‘existing socialism.’)

7At the same time, it should be noted that although the socialistic traits outlined were not independent of the official ideology of the status group in power, they rarely derived from the commitment of that status group to the people, or from performance of its duty. Nor did they derive from the democratically won social rights of the people, and even less from their ownership rights. Rather, as mentioned earlier, social relations were essentially determined by the fact that the status group in power compensated for its missing political legitimacy by the continuous rise of living standards and the tolerated development of the second economy. To put it differently: the continuous rise of living standards and the opening of the channels of the second economy, while it lasted and was ‘efficient,’ was nothing but a way of allowing part of the surplus value to be transferred to the society in order to maintain political stability (or to be somewhat provocative, the ‘price of silence’). This was the only way of ensuring—as long as it could be ensured—the legitimacy of the system and the power structure in a sociological sense. In fact, one of the decisive causes of the exhaustion of the system, to be dealt with later, was that the economic possibilities for the continuous rise of living standards (and also the opportunities hidden in the second economy as part of this) were drying up in the entire region by the late 1970s (Bauer, 1982).

8Apart from ideological aims, serious power motivations may also be discovered for the reduction and active diminution of social inequalities as compared to pre-World War II conditions.

9According to Zsuzsa Ferge (2002), “more or less everything concerning the destiny of freedom can be predicted from the dictatorial nature of power relations, but nothing follows in respect of the development of inequalities.” I wish to challenge this statement from two angles. On the one hand, I believe that as a consequence of the post-Stalinist power structure of ‘existing socialism’ and its legitimacy in the sociological sense of the term—in other words, their (at least passive) acceptance by the majority of society (with the exception of Poland)—must be regarded as a paternalist, authoritarian system, rather than a dictatorship. On the other hand, the continuous alleviation of inequalities by the status group in power was also motivated (not necessarily consciously) by the concern that no rival, potentially ‘power-ready,’ groups should form against it, and no social strata threatened by declining fortunes should become the starting point and base of a possible ‘class struggle’ under the given conditions. Therefore the status group in power had serious power interests in relatively equitable conditions of distribution in an economic as well as cultural sense. (This was in contrast to ‘developed’ capitalism, which ensures the political legitimacy of the power conglomerates by means of political rotation and which, located at the center of the world economy, is economically strong and therefore able to give a share of its extra profits to its own working class, so that the great inequalities do not directly endanger the stability of the system.)

10Thus an incompatible ‘middle class’ emerged in ‘existing socialism’ as a result of an unbalanced petty-bourgeois development. According to Júlia Szalai (1988), the essential feature of this imbalance was that “only one half of the petty-bourgeois development, accumulation with the aim of consumption, based on self-exploitation, was compatible with the unquestioned power structure.”

11György Bencze and János Kis (1983) hold a partly different view, seeing the advance of consumer values and the expansion of the possibilities of individual consumption as an opportunity—without a real alternative— for the emergence and strengthening of individual autonomy: “in a Soviet-type society, social activity is coordinated and controlled by a set of institutions which makes any kind of self-organization impossible, and which, in normal circumstances, reduces the resistance of workers to individual actions. In such conditions the accumulation of privately owned goods is not the alternative to the only possible—that is, individual—autonomy, but the means of achieving it. The worker with some economic backing can more easily resist his superior and better ride out temporary losses when he voluntarily or forcibly changes his place of work.”

12A ‘further developed’ variant of this point of view appeared in the discussion of the Hungarian democratic opposition and Hungarian reform economists with István Csurka at the Monor meeting of 1985. According to Csurka, the advance of consumer demand signified the abandonment of comprehensive societal aims (essentially the betrayal of the 1956 revolution), bringing with it continuous moral degradation. In contrast, the representatives of the democratic opposition and the reform economists argued that since the 1956 revolution—and, so to speak, as its achievement—we had been witnessing an ascending social process in which small, individual autonomies, emerging on the basis of advancing consumption, increasingly became organic ones, and were expanded, linked and institutionalized, as it were laying the foundations for eventual political autonomy. (Minutes of the Monor meeting. Manuscript, 1985. This was the first public meeting of Hungarian marginal intellectuals.)

13In 1985, I agreed with the latter point of view but, given the ‘historical perspective’ that has developed since, I now believe that it is rather the stance of Bence and Kis (1983) that reflected the real conditions: the expansion of the opportunities of individual consumption was indeed the sole base of individual autonomy in ‘existing socialism.’ But it should be stressed that it was the base of individual autonomy alone, because it counteracted the demands for those community autonomies that could be achieved jointly. Nevertheless, the continuous growth of consumer expectations (for which ‘existing socialism’ provided the necessary socialization) ultimately led to the disintegration of the system, although this was the result of entirely different mechanisms than the transformation of consumer autonomies into a political one. (I shall return to this question later.)

14The significance of the market mechanism, closely linked to consumption, may be assessed in similarly contradictory terms. András Hegedűs (1969), Ota Sik (1972), György Bencze – János Kis (1978) and Ferenc Fehér – Ágnes Heller – György Márkus (1992) all believe that the market mechanism appearing within the framework of ‘existing socialism’ was able to loosen the rigid hierarchy of the power structure and therefore not only to expand the opportunities for individual freedom, but also to make societal control over the power conglomerate possible in the long run. In reality, it was evident—at least in the first phase of the post-Stalinist period, roughly up to the middle of the 1970s—that the appearance of the market elements actually stabilized and conserved the system by making the operation of the power mechanism smoother (Szalai, 1989b). All this was not independent of the fact, proven by the researches of Iván Szelényi and Eric Kostello (1996), that the primary manifestations of the market reduced, rather than increased, the social inequalities at the beginning of the post-Stalinist period. The decisive reason, also pointed out by Viktor Nee (1991), was that the appearance of market elements, while not eliminating the privileges of the ‘cadres,’ weakened them to some extent. Finally, although the further development and expansion of the market mechanism—not least by promoting the growth of inequalities in the second phase of the post-Stalinist period—broke up the framework of ‘existing socialism,’ this was not the result of a revival of broad social activity. Nor was it independent of the fact that the ‘market,’ in contrast to the ideas of the authors quoted, did not operate in a self-regulatory way: it did not grant everybody free entry into its space, and only the demand side was strengthened, while the supply side failed to catch up, because it was dominated by the big companies in monopoly positions intent on holding back their output, and by the technocracy guarding its power and consumer interests. (This is another question to which I shall return later.)


15Marx introduced the concept of estrangement for the critical analysis of capitalist society, but the phenomenon described by him also applies precisely to the social conditions of ‘existing socialism.’ According to Marx (1977), “Estrangement is manifested not only in the fact that my means of life belong to someone else, that which I desire is the inaccessible possession of another, but also in the fact that everything is itself something different from itself—that my activity is something else and that, finally (and this applies also to the capitalists), all is under the sway of inhuman power.”

16In what follows I will discuss Marx’s points one by one.

17My means of life belong to someone else.” Earlier I tried to prove that in ‘existing socialism’ the means of production were owned by the status group in power, whose interests were definitely separate from those of society, while, in contrast to capitalist societies, the ‘ labor side’ was not visibly separate from the power conglomerate and for that reason (among others) had no chance of openly and collectively articulating and representing its interests against the conglomerate.

18“That which I desire is the inaccessible possession of another.” György Bencze and János Kis (1978), quoting Marx, argue as follows: “Profit is indifferent towards everything that is not reflected in the transformations of the exchange relations. Therefore the efforts to increase profits do not coincide with the efforts to satisfy the demands of producers and consumers. Marx called this systematic discrepancy estrangement. A similar difference, however, is caused by the indices of success set for Soviet-type companies.” Subsequently Bencze and Kis prove in detail that the indices of success mediate between social needs and the production sphere far less effectively than does capitalist profit. They then state: “The capitalist company is part of a self-regulatory mechanism, which more or less continuously adjusts profit to at least part of the changing technical possibilities and social needs: to that part which manifests itself in production costs and solvent demand. In this area it is the market that limits the distortions of the profit rate, but only in this area. There are technical possibilities and social needs to which the profit rate does not react. In such cases the feedback from the market does not reduce the distortions, but enhances them. Nevertheless, the Soviet-type solution of the problem is not a good one. It does not eliminate estrangement: what it eliminates is the feedback mechanism that keeps estrangement within limits.” (Italics mine, E. Sz.)

19The title of a book on ‘existing socialism’ by Ferenc Fehér – Ágnes Heller – György Márkus (1991) is Dictatorship over Needs. This recalls Marx’s “that which I desire is the inaccessible possession of another.”

20These authors again exaggerate the disparity between ‘existing socialism’ and capitalism. They do so primarily because, by regarding the market operating under capitalism as self-regulatory, they idealize both the market and the related role of the fluctuations of the profit rate. In reality we know that, on the one hand, the existence of large monopolies interested in holding back their supply is a feature not only of ‘existing socialism,’ but also of capitalism, and that, on the other hand, the power conglomerate of capitalism is also capable of strongly influencing needs, not by open dictatorship, but by partly deliberate and partly unconscious manipulation. Nevertheless, in the period when capitalism had an alternative in ‘existing socialism,’ the capitalist market and the fluctuations of profit rates responded more effectively to social needs and ‘estranged’ them less than did central planning and regulation.

21“Everything is itself something different from itself.” In ‘existing socialism’ a wide gap separated the officially declared and desired values from those that were followed in real life. As Ágnes Losonczi (1977) writes: “All this [the lack of opportunity for individual and collective self-determination – E. Sz.] overturns and dissolves formerly solid values: uncertainty develops between the reality and the socially accepted or commended values. Orientation becomes difficult, because people live by adjusting to their circumstances, and not according to the declarations of values and texts which, lacking confirmation by practice, make adjustment difficult.”

22One of the main declared values of ‘existing socialism’ was the community spirit (and several representatives of the status group in power were actually convinced that they were serving and representing the community by their activities). In reality, however, the “community society” granted only very limited and ‘specific’ functions to the communities. The authorities tolerated the existence of those communities alone that behaved like a compliant herd of sheep—communities which in no way and at no level challenged the legitimacy of the existing system or even that of their immediate superiors, and which in exchange received favors doled out from the top. In addition there were some apparent communities established from above, which strongly restricted and controlled the individuals belonging to them.

This is how Ferenc Erős (1988) describes the situation:
“The disintegration of the small communities that had supplied a medium and a background for the normal and balanced functioning of the personality took place under conditions in which ‘small communities’ were officially declared dangerous. The greatest enemy of the system advocating a collectivist ideology was seen to be the collective, i.e. the spontaneously evolving small community. As Ferenc Mérei said in an interview entitled ‘I have no abstract message’: ‘The Rákosi regime regarded most forms of human coexistence as cliques.’ A frightening example of the consequences of this outlook—still effective today—was the way some teachers carried out ‘sociometric surveys’ in their classes in order to identify the kinds of ‘cliques’ that had evolved among the children and to ‘eliminate’ as promptly as they could any ‘cliques’ that they were able to find. One of the long-term consequences of the liquidation of small communities (associations, groups, nonhierarchical organizations, etc.) was that the private sphere almost totally retreated to the family, so that the family became the venue of every nonofficial activity, including leisure and entertainment, and civil society was replaced by the Orwellian symbiosis of family and television. Thus the family had such burdens loaded on it—in addition to the existing ones—as it should not, or at least not primarily, be expected to bear. Naturally the small communities could not be eliminated, because it is a basic fact of social psychology that people are inclined to organize themselves ‘informally’ even in the shadow of the most rigid formal groups and institutions. But, when free and democratic communities are missing, such ‘a-legal’ groups become marginal and deviant, or are officially regarded as such; at other times they become an invisible lobby, a secret and uncontrollable decision-making body (when, for instance, important political issues are decided on a hunting trip).”

23This is how all the phenomena I have described became dominant in ‘existing socialism’: essentially they add up to a widespread individual, atomized, and informal bargaining process, in which every individual tried above all else to make a private deal with his or her immediate superior. The changes undergone by ‘existing socialism’ can also be explained by this approach. The first, dictatorial period could be replaced—in Hungary after the 1956 revolution—by a ‘soft dictatorship’ because of the deals mentioned above: the employees and the citizens in general renounced the exercise of political freedom, initially in order to obtain a share in the benefits coming from the center, and then in order to be able to withdraw increasingly into the second economy and second society (the size of which was different in each country).

24As expounded by Elemér Hankiss (1984), in ‘existing socialism’ civil society—in the sense of a space for “communication free of domination” (Habermas, no date)—was different in that it appeared as the second society: “the mechanisms, structures, and institutions of civil society did not, and could not, develop even within the second society, because the external pressure was extremely high, and therefore even in this sphere of civil society only a fragmentary element, a pale experiment, an ‘as-if existence’ could be observed.” Thus, as Hankiss sees it, the position of civil society in ‘existing socialism’ was highly vulnerable and its significance very small.

25Although the idealization of a concept—that of civil society in this instance—is also characteristic of Hankiss’s theory, his approach sensitively indicates the system’s ‘lack of communities’ and the weakness of its democratic structures.

26These conditions are connected with the strong presence of the authoritarian principle and authoritarian psychic structures, as opposed to the officially proclaimed ideas of equality, leveling, and continuous democratization.

To quote Ferenc Erős (1988):
“The generations currently alive were, without exception, brought up in totalitarian and dictatorial, or at least authoritarian and paternalist systems, and their socialization took place in such a medium—(‘Under the spell of violence,’ as Attila József wrote). Those in their thirties and forties today have lived since their birth or childhood in a system which has been symbolized by the name of the same leader and in which the same questions have remained taboo.
Naturally, the authoritarianism of political power is bound to affect the structure of the personality; it is mediated by formal and informal institutions and the ‘agents of socialization,’ such as public opinion, ideology, mass communications, school, and, to some extent, even the family. As demonstrated by the psychoanalytical social psychology of the 30s and 40s (Wilhelm Reich, Fromm, Adorno, etc.) authoritarian power and the authoritarian personality presuppose and build on each other. This is not to say that everybody would necessarily become an ‘authoritarian personality’ under conditions of authoritarian power. But even those people whose thinking shows no trace of authoritarianism and who were lucky enough to be able to identify with alternative models in the course of their personality development usually lack the necessary familiarity with democracy and their social experience is dominated by a sense of hierarchies, inferiority or superiority, and the immobility and unalterability of things. The authoritarian solution is ready-made and socially accepted at every level of life; the democratic, ‘decentring’ solution, based on mutuality, is rare, exceptional and often regarded as ‘deviant’ in itself. Sometimes it is the lack of authoritarianism that leads to psychological disturbance, because in the absence of democracy—or at least of tolerance—being ‘different’ is a stigma, and the person thus stigmatized may seek the fault in himself, which, in turn, may be a source of anxiety and a sense of guilt. The reverse of autocracy is anarchy, total laissez faire, and where crystallized democratic principles are missing, either one side or another will assert itself, unless both become effective jointly in the form of ‘organized irresponsibility.’ The autocracy that accompanies anarchy, upheaval, disorder, and the mystification of responsibility, together with the opacity and impermeability of everything, has been well known to East and Central Europeans, at least since the time of Franz Kafka.”

27Rather than the advancement of communitarianism and democratization, the broad social strata deprived of power in ‘existing socialism’ regarded a quiet private life, continuous economic accumulation, and the expansion of a limited autonomy as the supreme value (Simon, 1994). Relative autonomy, a complex and unbalanced principle marked by internal contradictions, was at the center of the period’s value system, from the apex of power down to the lowest social strata. It represented the adaptability, deriving from multiple linkages, that held the social structure of ‘existing socialism’ together—until its growing internal tensions and the exhaustion of its inherent possibilities signaled its crisis.

28“My activity is something else.” It was primarily István Kemény (1972) who demonstrated how forced industrialization in the 1950s led to inorganic mobility. The most decisive feature and consequence of this process was that the status of workers in their workplace and their home—and, as a result, their identity—became largely uncertain. A corollary of this process was massive and increasing loneliness. Inorganic mobility, as stressed by Ágnes Losonczi (1989), was perhaps the most decisive factor, not mentioned so far, of the disastrous lack of communities and the dominance of individual and informal interest assertion.

In this context István Kemény characterizes the situation of Hungarian workers as follows:
“The closed culture of the previous generation of workers is disintegrating: today’s Hungarian workers are no longer a closed social stratum with solid customs and clear-cut interrelationships, but rather a huge camp of travelers. Some of them are peasants who have become, or are becoming, workers and who lead transitory lives between the village and the city, between a peasant’s and a worker’s habits. And even those who were born workers are on their way from the worker in the old sense to a new type. Some become group leaders, foremen, technicians, or engineers; others join factory laboratories or servicing workshops; yet others take odd jobs and spend the most important part of their lives outside the factory; in any case the majority of them lose touch with a traditional way of life… The gravest problem, however, is definitely the loss of the old bonds and customs, which may result in a lack of partner, loneliness, and internal uncertainty. The old rural way of life bound and held the individual too much, not only restricting his or her happiness and freedom, but often even causing neuroses. The urban way of life, according to many social scientists, is characterized by the other extreme: it leaves the individual alone too much, thus causing material and emotional uncertainty. If there is any truth in this statement, it applies primarily to those who have come to town from the villages: they lack live human relations most of all, because they have generally lost the old ones and find it extremely difficult to acquire new ones on alien soil.”

29Ágnes Losonczi notes:

“When a fairly broad stratum, as a result of accumulating some wealth and rising above the level of poverty, had acquired self-confidence, it became less interested in building the community than in strengthening individualism—and the desire to protect a temporarily improved situation impairs mutual patience and the will to help one another.”

30A radical change in status and identity, accompanied by growing loneliness, also means that the individual feels totally exposed to the ‘big’ social forces and processes he or she is unable to comprehend. Losonczi (1977) quotes the following passage from her interview with an unskilled worker aged 52: “One’s life is governed by forces one can’t interfere with. No matter how one plans, if something happens, politics, war, everything will be different.” According to an empirical survey carried out by Losonczi at the time, “the fact that human beings constantly depend on the operation of forces they cannot interfere with, influence, or perhaps even always understand—this experience plays a very strong part when [the interviewees – E. Sz.] speak about the development of their guiding principles.”

31“Finally (and this applies also to the capitalists), all is under the sway of inhuman power.” At the dawn of ‘existing socialism,’ as already indicated, several members of the status group in power were capable of forming truly positive identities and therefore internally experienced ideologies of legitimacy. All this evaporated in the fully developed phase of the system. To quote András Lányi (1988): “The elite of office-holders that evolved around the institutions and leading positions of social and economic management is undergoing a crisis of legitimacy. According to their own ideology, they should have a revolutionary-socialist sense of belonging to the worker and peasant class, but their position and entire function make it impossible for them to consider themselves as revolutionaries, workers, or peasants, while the ideology legitimizing the order of the society forbids them to regard themselves as an elite. At any rate, they identify with the leading bodies only with significant restrictions… The leading stratum therefore has no solid sense of identity.”

32Thus the status group in power dominates, but is also at the mercy of, the existing power relations. This perhaps is the most conspicuous sign of the estranged nature of the entire system.

33To sum up, it may not be too strong a statement that ‘existing socialism’ socialized people into passivity, servility, and slyness in relation to estranged conditions, and that we suffer the consequences to this day. Not a single Western or Eastern transitologist foresaw in the early 1990s what was to come: how the population of the postsocialist countries tolerated, practically without saying a word, the enormous syphoning of incomes that was the reality behind the “original regrouping of capital” and the huge social burden resulting from it—unprecedented unemployment hitting almost every family, a marked and sudden growth of the mortality rate (Szamuely, 1995), and many other things that could be listed.

© Central European University Press, 2005

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