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Szalai Erzsebet

Chapter 6. The One-Party System and the Transitory Society

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1According to Péter Szigeti (2003), “in any transitory society the dominance of a system of public ownership could be ensured only if the power was exercised by a de facto one-party system… The one-party system was the safeguard of public ownership.”

2In this part of my book, I will try to prove that the ownership relations of ‘existing socialism’ were not those of public ownership. However, it is true that, for the reasons listed earlier, semiperipheral socialism could be maintained, if at all, only by a one-party system. At the same time, I am of the opinion that a one-party system can by its nature only be the expression and corroboration of authoritarian or dictatorial power, as is conclusively proved by the history of ‘existing socialism.’ Therefore I do not believe that the “dialectical democracy” recommended by Szigeti—that is, a reformed one-party system—could be a relevant solution of the problems of democratically managed public property. If a society has the opportunity to assert its interests and will only through a complex, multiple-tier decision-making mechanism with one sole apex, the authoritarian or dictatorial power structure can be taken for granted, no matter how wide-ranging the safeguards incorporated into the system may be. Sooner or later the apex will inevitably begin to function as an autonomous ‘interest center,’ which is why it is necessary for the society to choose between ‘alternative apexes,’ in other words, for the apexes to be directly replaceable. But that is already a multiparty system (which the workers’ councils of 1956 regarded as eminently compatible with the self-management of their factories).

3I am of course aware of the grave internal problems of a parliamentary democracy based on the multiparty system and, as I have written elsewhere (Szalai, 2003), it is clear to me that this system has been thrown into a grave crisis by the present world of globalization and is struggling against a serious ‘democratic deficit’—but only as a system linked to the nation state. I am convinced that one of the main slogans of the international alter-globalization movements—that the global challenge must be met by a global response and that international big capital and its logic must (or can only) be controlled or rolled back through global institutions—can be realized only by creating and operating international institutions built on the principles of multiparty parliamentary democracy (which would by no means reduce the importance of local institutions and direct democracy).


4Péter Szigeti, following the line of scientific socialism, describes ‘existing socialism’ as a transitory society. Once again I agree with him up to a point. ‘Existing socialism’ was truly a transitory society; however, it was not moving towards ‘developed socialism,’ or communism, but towards new capitalism.

5I have already spoken of the complex nature of ‘existing socialism’ with regard to its societal and, primarily, political and economic power relations. I have also mentioned that this complexity eventually became the source of the system’s disintegration. In order to shed light on the transitoriness resulting from the complexity, I had to review its entire history. But now I must also discuss in some detail the main features of the new system that came into existence with the disintegration of ‘existing socialism’ (even if I do not analyze every aspect of it here). This should widen our horizons and deepen our generalizations.

6I start with the thesis that in ‘existing socialism’ both the life situations of the individuals and the communities bore the marks of transitoriness.

7Earlier I characterized the life situations of individuals as a relative autonomy, which contained the contradictory elements of a strong pressure and demand for adjustment accompanied by estrangement, increasing liberation and individualization. In the new capitalism, which has replaced ‘existing socialism,’ the relative autonomy of the individuals constituting the majority of society is being eliminated. The pressure and demand for adjustment becomes even stronger and now manifests itself as exposure, while the process of individualization ends in atomization—in other words, the estrangement becomes total. Where once there were frames of reference, which made this phenomenon stand out, they are now disappearing. This means that since even the compliant or enforced communities are disintegrating, the individuals are losing all the bearings they need to retain or develop their individuality. In fact, without some kind of community no individuality can take shape and sooner or later the identity which is the basis of individuality—and freedom—is eliminated (Szalai, 2003a).

8Looking at this process from the angle of communities what we see is that they too were transitory in ‘existing socialism.’ In the ‘warmth’ of the compliant or enforced communities, there could be merciless, albeit often camouflaged, assertion of individual interests and ruthless rivalry.

György Spiró (1981) masterfully characterizes the relationships within the system in a spectacular episode of his novel Az ikszek (The Xes). One of the protagonists conducts a profound and tearful psychological conversation with another character. Both are deeply moved. Then the first leaves and reports the second to the authorities.
János Kenedi (1996) on a broad empirical basis presents the secret police network of the Kádár system, which penetrated even the smallest societal groups. The informer, who was often ‘trapped’ through financial and career inducements, was often linked to his or her victims by real and deep emotions. (This was the experience of several victims acting as ‘participant observers.’)
Tamás Almási’s documentary film Kitüntetetten (Decorated, 2001) features a socialist brigade consisting mainly of women, which is created from above, but which develops into a real community. Their lives show genuine solidarity, communal responsibility, and cultural improvement (through images of mutual support, committed social work, and compulsory but sincere reading of literature) side by side with the authoritarian power relations of the Kádár system and the underhand private schemes based on these (as in the case of the brigade leader who drafts the workers under his command into building his own dacha in their spare time).

9At the same time, it should be stressed (not least on the basis of the above examples) that although these communities were rare and usually artificially created for limited functions, in the settled and consolidated period of the system they were often able to fulfill real community tasks. A movement of this kind was the Young Communist League of the 1960s and 1970s, which offered real community experience to broad strata of young people and, for all its limitations, provided an opportunity for the discussion of the ‘great’ societal issues. Similarly, the institutions of public accountability in the workplace, albeit within strict boundaries, made the internal power and interest relations (including, for example, remuneration) relatively transparent and capable of being influenced, at least to some extent, by the workers.

10The presence of mosaic-like communities alongside the surviving traditional societal patterns may be explained by the fact that, although the organization and operation of communities was rather hindered or at least restricted by the status group in power and by smaller or bigger ‘bosses,’ the advocacy of communalism by the official ideology of the system had set in motion the creation of certain standards and values. On the other hand, given ‘human nature,’ even in the compliant or enforced communities group dynamics could produce a process leading to the development of internal solidarity, at least of a limited kind.

11I must hasten to add that in these circumstances the development of communities was of a peculiar nature. Since the groups, in the majority of cases, were not based on free decisions and voluntary commitments and their members were not really free, autonomous individuals, they were overly hierarchical and authoritarian, with a rigid allocation of roles. At the same time, they were inclined to become exclusive and inward-looking, and even to develop a strongly erotic atmosphere, known also from artistic reproductions. One may even say that the internal structure and external relationships of the smaller and larger communities of ‘existing socialism’ reflected on a small scale the peculiarities of the macrostructure of the society. The effects of the semifeudal socio-cultural heritage also appeared in communalism.

12On arrival at new capitalism both opposites were eliminated: on the one hand, in the larger part of society even those rare communities with limited functions disintegrated (or were transformed into occasional, short-term interest alliances); on the other hand, the opportunities for individual interest assertion were largely restricted, and controlled competition was replaced by the open dominance of the somewhat stronger over the somewhat weaker. The rules and norms of whatever competition still existed became totally incomprehensible to the majority of society. (In the workplace, the institutions of public accountability were almost completely abolished [remuneration became entirely secret], and employees felt that they had far less influence over decisions than in the ‘old’ system [Bruszt–Simon, 1992]. Although in the initial years, the citizens still had positive expectations from competition within the political institutions, by the mid-1990s they no longer believed that these offered them a real say in political decisions [Andorka, 1996]. The Czech writer Jiří Kratochvíl, in his novel Truchlivý bůh (Sad God, 2003), describes in dark colors how a family, whose members used to support each other in representing their common interests in the ‘outside world’ under ‘existing socialism,’ became a mafia in the new capitalism.)

13Individuality and communalism, limited as they were in ‘existing socialism,’ were eliminated in the new capitalism. What emerged was a society consisting largely of exposed atoms concentrated, if at all, into short-term interest alliances—a society woven through by a dense web of subordination and superordination, which at best restricts competition.

14What caused this change? Did the complex nature of the societal relations in ‘existing socialism’ mean that it was transitory by itself? My answer is negative. A complex society is transformed into a transitory one only if several factors exercise a joint effect. However, one must distinguish between predisposition and fundamental reasons.

15Predisposition was present, firstly, in the complexity of societal relations, which was not consciously recognized and publicly engaged with. As we have seen, the unrecognized element in ‘existing socialism’ that surfaced with irresistible force was the market as both a value and a mechanism.

16Predisposition, secondly, was present in the unbalanced nature of the complexity, in other words, the dominance of one element (or group of elements) over the rest. In ‘existing socialism’ forced adjustment or required adjustment and the competition deriving from narrow individual aspirations were much stronger than either the pursuit of real individuality (freedom) or the desire to create a community. Consequently civil society was weak, with the result that the macrosocietal power relations began to change as they did, and once they had changed, the transformation outlined above occurred almost at a stroke.

Summary of societal transformation

Summary of societal transformation

17The fundamental reason for the transformation can be found in the changes in ‘macropower’ relations. I will explain this by a—substantially modified—summary of Bourdieu’s (1983) theory of capital. (For the main principles and details of the transformation, see Szalai [2001].)

18When the status groups in power began to build ‘existing socialism,’ they had only political capital, which they gradually converted into cultural and economic capital. (One may also say that they turned their original power as status groups into a power with class traits by the inclusion of new actors.) A decisive change took place when they failed to transfer this capital to their ‘descendants’ in an unchanging structure and with the same value content. Therefore the cultural capital of the successors of the ‘communist nomenclatura,’ the late state-socialist technocracies (and their intellectual allies), was no longer defined by their ‘parents’ but, against the background of the unfolding economic crisis, by an external power, the international economic and financial ‘superstructure.’ One part of the ‘communist nomenclatura’ was unable, and another part unwilling, to prevent the late state-socialist technocracies (and their intellectual allies) converting this cultural capital, which was fundamentally different from their own, into economic, and subsequently political, capital. As a result, a vigorous modification of the economic and political capital itself began with the change of generations within the status groups in power (in keeping with the interests and demands of the ‘superstructure’), and the process ended in the changes of the political system.

19In the initial phase of their ascendancy, the late state-socialist technocracies had a certain interest in strengthening individualization and communalism, which helped to dismantle the ‘macropower’ relations of the complex system. However, the situation changed fundamentally once they had reached the apex of political power and, together with their allies, began to convert their political capital into economic capital by launching privatization. A ‘genuine redistribution of capital and income’ began under the leadership of the late state-socialist technocracies, as a result of which ownership was transferred from the majorities of the societies concerned to the minorities, and in particular to the new economic elites (Szalai, 2001). However, this process could take place, and its benefits institutionalized for the ‘winners,’ only at the cost of the fundamental disruption of the lives and organizations of the majorities. The new economic elites were not interested in the further development of individuality and communalism, but, on the contrary, in their total liquidation (Szalai, 2003b). On the principle of “they do not know it, but are doing it,” by keeping the social actors in uncertainty (both in and outside the workplace), they, with the assistance of the media (and the support of the ‘superstructure,’) or more precisely the mechanism that came increasingly under their control, were the prime cause of the complex process of transformation described above. That, above all, is how and why complexity had become transitoriness.

20At the same time, it was not inevitable that the intervention of an external power, the ‘superstructure’ in this case, should have ‘magically’ transformed complexity into transitoriness. It could (and was bound to) perform that ‘magic’ because it enjoyed a significant superiority of power, because it was for its part moving from complexity towards one-sidedness (the new liberalism) and finally because in connection with its own problems it had a strong interest in eliminating the complexity of the societies exposed to it.

21According to the intentions of its power elites, it was the historical function of ‘existing socialism’ to destroy—or in reality, to loosen up—the semifeudal conditions it had found (of which the bourgeois–democratic conditions probably would not have been capable under the given historical circumstances), and to create the socio-structural and cultural prerequisites of semiperipheral linkages with—or more precisely, reintegration into—the system of world capitalism. In other words, ‘existing socialism’ was to generate an industrial workforce and subsequently—after a period of “dictatorship of modernization,” analogous to the original accumulation of capital (which varied in depth and time scale in the various countries)— to create “life worlds,” marked by relative autonomy and the interplay of communalism and competition, resembling those of the classical period of welfare capitalism (albeit with significantly different internal proportions and conditions that can be regarded as a mixture of the semifeudal heritage and elements pointing towards capitalism). Last but not least, ‘existing socialism’ was to bring forth elite groups governing a semiperipheral integration into the system of world capitalism, and, in parallel, to depoliticize and demobilize society.

22The road ran as follows: semifeudal, semiperipheral capitalism; ➝semiperipheral socialism; ➝ semiperipheral new capitalism. In other words, ‘existing socialism’ created—and could create—only the conditions for preserving our starting positions of the interwar period.


23Although ‘existing socialism’ had several models, as shown by my reflections so far, even in retrospect, I cannot see how the system as a whole could have developed very differently from the way it did. (As we saw, the tendencies that might have pointed towards a ‘real’ socialism, particularly in the impenetrable force field of the countertrends, proved to be extremely weak.) On the other hand, I believe that there were some real alternatives to the new capitalism emerging from socialism. I hasten to add: within the ‘world logic’ of capitalism. A fundamentally different system—as in the dawn of ‘existing socialism’—could have been created and run exclusively by political dictatorship (and a foreign policy of total isolation).

24In fact, a different kind of capitalism could have been ‘made.’ On the one hand, there were in the region, including Hungary, traces of initiatives and efforts coming from below to enable at least a group of employees to obtain a share of the so-called state property destined to be dismantled by privatization. This would have made it possible to introduce elementary forms of worker self-governance, at least at the level existing in Englishspeaking countries (Szalai, 1994)—all the more so since, counter to the assumptions of neoliberal economists, worker ownership, at least as occasionally realized in Hungary, operated no less effectively than classical private or state ownership (Boda–Neumann, 2002). These ‘germs of self-management’ daily prove their viability even in an environment dominated by capitalism. On the other hand, it would have been possible, and necessary, to avoid the present situation, in which the high ‘globalization level’ and the high proportion of processing industries in the countries of ‘existing socialism’ hide a range of assembling activities that could be provided anywhere else at any time in the world market (Pitti, 2002; Szalai, 2003a). As a result, the comparative advantage of a well-trained and educated but relatively cheap labor force is allowed to go to waste. (In Hungary, today it is more or less a thing of the past.)

25There could have been basically three, interrelated, ways of avoiding the omissions and traps described above. First, during the second half of the 1980s or at the time of the changes to the political systems at the latest, the important social counterelite groups – that is, the democratic oppositions that came into being within the ‘existing socialisms’ – rather than merely speaking about a ‘social market economy’ in general, should have formulated some clearly-defined ideas about the social and economic structure of the ‘social market economy’ towards which the countries should be directed. This would have been possible if the democratic oppositions had developed in the direction of a fundamentally social-democratic identity (in keeping with their earlier ideological traditions) in the critical one or two years of political change at the latest. It was not to be. The majority of the democratic dissidents soon shed their leftist mantle accompanied by ideas of self-management, and setting out towards liberalism many of them arrived directly at neoliberalism and conservative liberalism (Szalai, 1995).

26Second, from the mid-1980s, or at the time of the political changes at the latest, the intellectual advocates of democratic socialism, mentioned earlier, should have openly confronted and parted company with the status group in power. At the time of the political changes (and only then), they would have had a moral opportunity to mobilize the ‘working class.’ Rather than defending to the last ditch the ‘achievements’ of ‘existing socialism’ (to which I myself have given credit in the past), they should have developed a public strategy whereby the ‘working class’ could not only defend itself but also resolutely assert its interests in the neocapitalist system.

27This too was not to be. The democratic dissidents and the advocates of democratic socialism jointly could have represented a sufficiently strong counterbalance to the late state-socialist technocracies (and other old and new economic elites). Although in the circumstances a complete neutralization of these actors of power would have been a hopeless (and unnecessary) enterprise, the possibility of controlling and restraining them was not ruled out from the outset. The lack of control resulted in a significant superiority of the late state-socialist technocracies, and these (together with other groups of the economic elite) not only prevented a somewhat broader expansion of employee ownership, but in their neoliberal zeal also proved to be totally unable to generate a coherent vision of a societal and economic structure and a related concept of economic policy. Moreover, they were eager to impede all the serious societal forces that tried to do so. (Thus they placed the extreme right at the advantage of being able to take up this theme and thereby promote its popularity.)

28Last but not least: the East-Central European countries breaking away from the Soviet empire should have restricted the sharp competition that broke out between them from the first moment of political change, and adjusted their strategies and tactics for bargaining with the West. It is not true that the ‘system-changing’ countries had no bargaining position. As mentioned above, they had excellent cheap labor, jointly represented a significant demand market, and possessed at least partly valuable means of production.

29Thus, given a different evolution of the components listed above, there could have been an alternative to the ‘existing capitalism’ of the region, which combines all the disadvantages of capitalism without any of its real advantages (Szalai, 2001; 2003a; 2003c). A more organic (and possibly lengthier) process of transformation, better adjusted to the proclivity of individuals and groups for renewal and change, could have taken place, and as a result, perhaps a more balanced social structure, with fewer inequalities and less injustice, could have been born out of this labor.

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Title Summary of societal transformation
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© Central European University Press, 2005

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