Hungary – reflections on European socialism
Hardly a day goes by that I don’t think back to the six months I spent in the Hungarian People’s Republic in 1985. And scarcely a week goes by that I’m not illustrating a political point with reference to my experiences there. I was deeply, favourably impressed with my first acquaintance with socialism in practice but, even without the benefit of current hindsight, I could see the problems looming. These would eventually sweep eastern European socialism away in a deeply regrettable act akin to throwing out the baby with the bathwater.
The trip from the airport was reassuring. The sun shone down on a snow covered city, which looked much more orderly and inviting than Rome where we had spent the previous few days. I arrived in Budapest with my wife and baby daughter during the coldest February since 1916. The Danube was frozen and snow was piled high along the footpaths. Our clothes were too thin for the minus 20°C temperatures. It was the first time I had understood struggle of societies like this one to stay warm by the expenditure of vast amounts of fuel. Unfortunately, in Hungary this struggle was fought with dirty brown coal. Heavy felt curtains hung at the front of stores to keep heat in. Every excursion out of our humble apartment was a battle to weatherproof ourselves. The combination of slush, coal dust, mud and other inconveniences saw our love of snowy winters melt much quicker than the real thing.
In other ways I was prepared. I had memorised about 3,000 Hungarian words and learned some of the incredibly complex grammar prior to departure. I practiced with Hungarian friends in Canberra; the same ones who recommended this particular socialist country because of its less stringent currency exchange and other rules. The embassy in Canberra had arranged a series of contacts with the Party and the trade union council – the SZOT.
My limited language skills were instantly called upon. Very few people spoke English in those days. Thankfully, from the time of my first visit to the supermarket onwards, I could usually explain what I did and didn’t want. The supermarket provided the first real evidence that this society was very different to our own or the western capitalist countries I had visited. It was much less of a consumer society. Week by week, there was one type of toilet paper, one type of breakfast cereal, one type of beer. This week it could be Polish toilet paper, next week it was Romanian or Vietnamese.
Labelling was comprehensive but packaging was no frills. A great effort had gone into standardising jar sizes in Eastern Europe so as to facilitate re-use and recycling. There was a section at the back of every supermarket where a docket for cash was issued for returned bottles. The return was a much higher proportion of the original price than in Australia where such schemes exist. Prices were usually stamped on goods and it was the same all over the country. There were shops with spare parts in tubs for all sorts of household appliances – coffee makers, toasters, you name it. This was not a throwaway society.
I didn’t mind the lack of range or the much smaller floor space given to retailing in the city than in a comparable capitalist one. The food was of great quality and in plentiful supply. I loved the public transport. There were buses, trolley buses, trams, a light underground railway and the metro to get you most places in the city and beyond. In fact, I loved most aspects of my new surroundings much more than the locals.
I would often find myself, a visitor from the capitalist world, defending socialism and its fruits from the criticisms of Hungarians. If I said I liked the objectively and demonstrably good child care centres and public transport I would be met with claims that they were “rubbish”. Many conversations got around to how many weeks, months or years it would take to save for a Japanese car, for example. A comment I heard frequently was that a particular product was “Hungarian but good”. Free education, cheap access to high quality cultural events, such as the theatre and opera, were taken for granted and their value sharply discounted in public opinion.
The complaints were many and were often excessive. A few were valid and distressing. Healthcare including surgery in hospital was officially free. We never paid a cent (or a forint) for the medical attention we received even though we were foreign nationals. Unfortunately, it was accepted practice for surgeons to receive huge payments – bribes essentially – to perform an operation. This was seemingly tolerated by the government and I never received an adequate explanation as to why.
People were issued a red passport for travel in the socialist countries and a blue one for capitalist countries. People had to prove their entitlement to a blue one far beyond the red one. Once when visiting the family of friends in the southern town of Paks, a relative, knowing my politics, turned the radio on in the car to demonstrate that the CIA station Voice of America was being blocked. “Good,” I said. “You don’t want to listen to that anti-Communist rubbish anyway.” He didn’t strike me as particularly political. His point was that he should be able to make that choice.
I was a very vocal supporter of socialism and very defensive towards what I thought was a sort of disloyalty to it. One experience gave me a real lesson in humility. One day the supply of the Finnish brand of disposable nappies available in Budapest just dried up. The local, more basic alternative weren’t practical as we didn’t have a washing machine. We scoured the shops in vain. In the end, I called upon my comrades at the trade union council to help. They rang around and found a reasonable supply over the river.
My host Erwin and I drove to the shop and went to the storeroom at the back. I paid on the spot for the package and left by the side door, for some unstated reason. In the car, Erwin said to me “You see what you just went through? In previous years [the years of rigid centralised planning before the counter-revolution of 1956] it was like that for almost everything!” He chose the moment to deliver this lesson to the opinionated young Aussie guest very well.
Hungary had been topical in the western media for some time. It had a small but important private sector in hospitality and small scale tourist accommodation. Price controls had eased on a range of produce. More importantly, and worryingly, Hungary had racked up quite a big external debt and invited joint ventures from capitalist countries, mostly Western Europe. Living standards had risen but problems were looming.
I can recall the Hungarian ambassador addressing the Congress of the Socialist Party of Australia (now known as the Communist Party) in 1984, saying that we shouldn’t worry just because our enemies give us some praise – referring to the changes in the Hungarian economy. I can remember the advice of the late and very great Secretary of the Waterside Workers’ Federation, Big Jim Healey, to the contrary – that if ever the bosses’ press were to praise us we should have a good hard look at ourselves.
By 1985, even before the ascendency of Mikhail Gorbachev to the position of General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, change was in the air. Labour discipline was a problem in Hungary. Shop assistants were often rude and unhelpful. Unemployment was non-existent but there was an issue with “unemployment inside the gate” – people with very little and very menial work. People had no fear of unemployment. I recall a waiter at the writers’ club near where we lived got sacked for stealing one day. He walked down the road and had a job within the hour.
Just before we arrived we heard an episode of the panel show called Hatvan Hat (Sixty-Six) was broadcast. The format was for a debate to take place in front of a studio audience of 66 residents and they would vote on the winner of the debate at various stages. This night the topic was “Unemployment would be good for the economy of Hungary”. When the first vote was taken, the “ayes” had it, i.e. unemployment would be a good thing. Eventually, the trade union spokesman turned the debate around. Unfortunately, the government and the trade unions didn’t succeed in replacing the lash of unemployment with a more positive motive for contributing to society’s general health and prosperity.
Teaching bad habits
Appeals to personal ambition were more the style by 1985. Long-suffering guide Erwin took me to the Csepel auto factory in Budapest where bus and tram chassis were made. “I know what you’re thinking. You think that this is a beautiful factory [I wasn’t thinking that at all] but it’s not like this all over the country. We have no investment capital in the socialist world. It is very difficult for us.”
It was hard. There was also a technological blockade on the socialist countries. The son of a Hungarian diplomat I studied with later in Canberra was arrested trying to take his personal computer back to his socialist homeland. The German Democratic Republic was tasked with building computers for the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (the socialist countries trade organisation) but it was running behind schedule.
At the bus factory foreign guests were gathered in a room to hear reports on the factory and the benefits provided to workers. At one point a Polish representative asked how many hours the workers put in to take home the amounts quoted. It turned out to be a complicated question. Workers put in their regular hours for a modest wage but were employed as private contractors on the weekend at a much higher piece rate. Needless to say, workers took it very easy during the week to make sure lots of work was left for the weekend.
Back at the trade union council building, the debriefs started. A Czech comrade asked the group how much private enterprise could be allowed before a country would lose its socialist character. “Thirty percent private” would be ok, said one. “Sixty percent”, said another. I went home in a foul mood. It was becoming clear that initial “left” errors during the establishment of the People’s Republic had set the scene for future right errors. Hungarians used to joke that the Party was like a rider trying to mounting a horse. The jockey would fall on the left side and then the ride side but never get his bum planted properly in the saddle.
Off to a bad start
I would often wonder why people seemed so indifferent to the future of socialism in Hungary. I know many things were handled very badly in the early years of the People’s Republic. Street names were changed to honour Soviet pioneers of socialism and local party figures who were extremely brave but largely unknown. Unlike neighbouring Yugoslavia or Czechoslovakia, Hungary didn’t have a large Communist party. Hungary was a fascist country and the most loyal ally of the Nazis. The repression from the time of the defeat of the Hungarian Soviet Republic by the invading Romanian army in 1919 was extreme. It was the Red Army and not a local uprising that defeated the Arrow Cross fascists in Hungary in 1945.
Overnight, and without consultation the football club named after its home base in working class Ferencváros (Frankstown) was renamed Vörös Csillag (Red Star). Nobody spoke well of the early years or the then Party General Secretary, Mátyás Rákosi. The sacrifices made to build an industrial base were simply too much. The right, organised around the Catholic Church and aided by NATO and the CIA, used the discontent to launch the counter-revolution of 1956.
Life was good in Hungary for most of the following period. By 1985, it was a fine example of socialism. For visitors from developing countries like Cuba, Mozambique, Angola, Ethiopia and elsewhere, who I had the privilege of meeting during my stay, societies like Hungary were their future. The loss of the USSR and the socialist countries of Eastern Europe must have been devastating for them. It certainly caused me a lot of distress.
I often wonder what life would be like in Hungary today. I notice media reports that the right and even the extreme right dominate the political scene. Racism, never properly eradicated by the Party during its time as the main influence over education and the media, is on the rise. You could be excused for thinking the country was always reactionary at its core and that current developments are perfectly understandable as a consequence.
That would be a mistake. The bourgeois “democracy” established in 1989 doesn’t truly reflect the aspirations of the people of Hungary. That should come as no surprise given Australians’ frustrating experience of the system so well adapted to the demands of capitalist exploitation. Poll after poll indicated that nearly three quarters of Hungarians believe they had a better life under socialism. The problem is that the country’s prosperity was linked to the world socialist system that has also disappeared. People are left with very limited “choices”. Communism and its symbols are officially banned. Conditions for Hungarian Communists still working politically are very difficult.
I recall an article carried in the Daily Mail Australia from 2009 by a Hungarian woman now living in the UK. Zsuzsanna Clark wrote:
“When communism in Hungary ended in 1989, I was not only surprised, but saddened, as were many others. Yes, there were people marching against the government, but the majority of ordinary people – me and my family included – did not take part in the protests.
“Our voice – the voice of those whose lives were improved by communism – is seldom heard when it comes to discussions of what life was like behind the Iron Curtain.
“Instead, the accounts we hear in the West are nearly always from the perspectives of wealthy émigrés or anti-communist dissidents with an axe to grind.”*
I remember the same things Zsuzsanna does. Happy, well-clothed and well-fed children, cultured and highly-educated people with a secure place in society. I can remember the Monday nights without TV resulting from the journalists’ day off and the government’s policy of promoting activity outside the home. Like many other residents of Budapest, our little family used to walk to the city centre to have coffee or ice-cream.
I loved taking visitors on the half-size Pioneer railway that wound its way among the Buda hills. It was built after the war for the Communist children’s organisation. Students who did well or showed improvement took time off to wave away the train, guide tourists aboard, clip their tickets, and so on. They wore their uniform of blue pants or skirt, white shirt, red kerchief and cap and took it all very seriously. Education was free and of a very high standard from kindergarten to university.
Many people had small allotments outside the city limits where they grew vegetables and made wine. The system allowed people’s considerable talents and resourcefulness to flourish. I wished I could have stayed longer.
I often wonder, too, why the working class of Hungary sat back and let their state power and all the benefits that flowed from it be taken away. Perhaps that is also the most important lesson from my time in Hungary and my knowledge of subsequent events – that it’s not enough for the Party to assume control on behalf of the working class. The working class must be the ruling class and be engaged as such. That will be the challenge for the socialist countries of the future.
* Quote from: Oppressive and grey? No, growing up under communism was the happiest time of my life. Read more: www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1221064