Soft Power Within – State Socialism and the Modern Everyday

Above: A cartoon titled “Bűnbeesés [Original Sin]” by Tibor Kaján, published in the weekly satirical magazine Lúdas Matyi on 19 April 1964.

György Péteri is Professor of Contemporary European History at the Department of Historical Studies at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim, Norway.

In 1980, at a conference discussing the 1970s, attended by leading representatives of Hungary’s official academic establishment, Professor Iván T. Berend summarized the history of the previous two decades in the following words:

The expanding, grayish, pre-fabricated residential blocks of housing estates and the Trabant, no longer entirely inaccessible to the average person, have become proof of an immense leap forward. At the same time, they signify the difficulty of finding new solutions outside pathetic imitations of the rightly critiqued ‘consumer society.’ 

Berend’s statement exemplifies the headaches reform-communist circles experienced when confronted with the need to account for advances in everyday life within the strictures of a socialist society. Those headaches proceeded from two causes: first, the meager results of modernization; and second, the fact that this “immense [and-yet-so pathetic] leap forward” was but an imitation of the Western (capitalist) models of modernity. In other words, Berend was troubled not only by the poor performance of socialist “consumer society” (i.e., the Trabant, instead of, say, the Fiat 500 or the Volkswagen Beetle), but also by socialism’s apparent inability to create an alternative (“systemically correct”) form of civilization.

What happened, then, to the Utopia that, in the official view, had been transformed into science?

If we consider just one aspect of modern everyday life — mobility — we would be justified in claiming that the last person to attempt the creation of socialist everyday life was Nikita Khrushchev. His vision of a national car sharing network that would keep private car ownership at a minimum had undeniable practical appeal. Private individual mobility (based on the private ownership of personal cars) had still been at a very low level throughout the Soviet Bloc at the end of the 1950s. It therefore neither presented communist policy-makers with a fait accompli, nor did it have an irresistible inertia.

Several decades later, the situation had changed. In Hungary, for example, the total number of personal cars in 1957 was less than 13,000. Fewer than a third of these (3,980) were owned by private individuals. By 1970, the total stock of personal cars in the country had grown to almost 240,000, with an overwhelming share (over 89%) consisting of privately owned cars. Ten years after that, the share of privately owned cars was close to 97 percent within a total stock of over one million personal cars. 

At the beginning of the quarter-century following 1956, central planners might still have considered and implemented alternative paths to developing modern mobility. In 1960, the density of personal cars (number of cars per thousand inhabitants) was three in Hungary – forty times less than in France, thirty-three times less than in Britain, and eleven times less than in Italy.  Modern mobility as “motorization” — understood as an increase in the number of personal cars in private hands — was still only a distant possibility, and certainly not a necessity.

Against this background, Khrushchev’s idea seems to have come at an opportune time. In fact, timing could not have been better: the car-sharing plan arose when no alternative form of motorization — one that would simultaneously emphasize collective transportation and meet demand for individual mobility (for instance, through well-developed taxi or rental services, rather than privately owned cars) — was truly feasible. By the 1970s and especially by the 1980s, however, the inertia of mass automobilism had grown overwhelming. In 1960s-era Hungary, personal cars constituted the fastest-growing sector of personal transportation, and their share in the total of means  of personal transport  grew from a mere 4.3 percent in 1950 (and even less in 1960) to more than 26 percent by 1972.

Thus, if we are to understand why, in János Kádár’s Hungary, modern mobility (and modern everyday life) developed according to Western patterns rather than a state-socialist Sonderweg — a systemic alternative — we must first answer another question: why was Khrushchev’s vision of a genuinely state-socialist solution to the mobility problem via car-sharing sidelined? I’d like to advance several interrelated and partly overlapping explanations:

First, by the end of the 1950s, inhabitants of the Soviet Bloc had grown weary of subjecting their everyday lives to “solutions” the state had deemed systemically correct, but which had consistently failed to deliver concrete improvements. Following what we might call the “rebellious 1950s,” communist leaders seemed to have understood the urgent need to re-prioritize consumption-related issues in order to actually deliver higher living standards. Khrushchev himself launched his New Economic Course. In 1959, he famously sparred with then-Vice President Richard Nixon in the Kitchen Debate, boastfully proclaiming:

We have existed for not quite forty-two years, and in another seven, we will be on the same level as America. When we catch up to you, we’ll wave as we pass you by…

When Brezhnev and Kosygin, after deposing Khrushchev, concluded what Under-Secretary of State for Political Affairs W. Averell Harriman labeled “the deal of the century” with Fiat, it marked not only the beginning of something new, but also put a decisive end to Khrushchev’s project. 

Second, what I termed “the rebellious 1950s” had been particularly traumatic for Hungary’s Communist leadership. Kádár’s counterrevolutionary consolidation had a busy enough agenda without the addition of ambitious projects like “socialist everyday life” or “socialist mobility.” After the Red Terror, Hungary’s leadership felt the need to pacify the country’s citizens. Their approach had three prongs: first, they would work to prove themselves to be genuinely anti-Stalinist in all policy matters (with the exception of the Party’s political monopoly); second, they would retreat from people’s private lives; and third, they would accept that people naturally sought improved living conditions and enable them to do so, preferably in proportion to their work output. It would no longer be considered sinful, still less criminal, to seek out the “good life.” An ever-expanding array of lifestyle choices became acceptable or tolerable at the very least. The necessity of breaking with the Stalinist political and social order while maintaining authoritarian attitudes toward people’s private lives could not have struck the Kádárist leadership as a feasible combination.

Third, norms and values, along with corresponding lifestyles, travel across national and even systemic boundaries; hence the concept of the “Nylon Curtain,” which I introduced almost two decades ago. The Kádárist leadership was keenly aware of the “soft power” within Eastern Bloc borders. Indeed, this had been a major argument for the economic reforms of the 1960s. As Rezső Nyers told his colleagues in the Political Bureau in 1966: 

What can we expect from this reform? More than just a few percent of improvement. The alternative is for our economy to fail to get the necessary investments, since we cannot find the resources, and for the population to remain unsatisfied… If we decide against the reform, we could actually continue working with these internal contradictions — except for our people’s [strong] desire for better living standards, except for capitalist competition …I am trying to say that there is no choice. If we take a really close look, there is no opportunity to choose. Our only choice is this [reform]. 

The economic reforms of the 1960s, in turn, further promoted the adoption of Western patterns for everyday life in general, and mobility in particular, by expanding market coordination, reducing bureaucratic planning, and tying individual incomes not merely to “work output,” but to the profitability of one’s enterprise.

Finally, and most importantly, the upper middle class in state socialism (largely co-extensive with the class of party-state apparatus elites) was instrumental in adopting and “importing” Western consumerist notions of the good life. The elite segments of Kádár’s counterrevolution badly needed to achieve a new contract with Hungarian society. The result was Kádárism’s fundamental trade-off between individual prosperity (or the chance to achieve it) and political citizenship. The party elites had in common with the citizenry beneath them the desires of the modern, individualist consumer. Both elites and masses craved the lifestyle enabled and embodied, among other things, by modern, personal car-based, private mobility. 

The consumerism of modern everyday life as it developed in post-1956 communist Hungary is not merely the story of the Kádárian “carrot” gradually replacing Mátyás Rákosi’s “stick.” It is also the story of an emerging vision of the “good life,” shared and pursued by rulers and ruled alike. This was the soft power within — an embarrassing fact for Viktor Orbán and his court historians, who are trying to reduce the history of communist rule to a tale of oppression and resistance.