Recent opinion polls show that a majority of Hungarians find life so miserable that they would like to live somewhere else. Many consider that life was much better before 1989 when people enjoyed full employment and an advanced welfare system. Capitalism has destroyed all that. However, as our correspondent points outs, what existed before was not genuine socialism, but a Stalinist regime that people rose up against. What is required is state ownership and planning, but under the democratic control of the workers themselves.
"People no longer have job security. Poverty and crime is on the increase. Working-class people can no longer afford to go to the opera or theatre... TV has dumbed down to a worrying degree - ironically, we never had Big Brother... but we have it today."
What country is this quotation referring to and to what period? Britain, America, anywhere in Europe? 40 years ago, 20 years ago or today? It could be all or any of the above, but it is from an article that appeared in the Internet edition of The Daily Mail, “Mail on line” in October 2009 and it refers to Hungary.
At that time the press was celebrating the 20th anniversary of the “fall of communism” in Central and Eastern Europe, but Zsuzsanna Clark, the author of this article, gave a very different account from the usual coverage. She explained what it was like to grow up in Hungary in the 1970’s and 80’s and compared it favourably with life for young people in present day capitalist Hungary or even with her adopted country of Britain, where she settled in 1999.
“When people ask me what it was like growing up behind the Iron Curtain in Hungary in the Seventies and Eighties, most expect to hear tales of secret police, bread queues and other nasty manifestations of life in a one-party state. They are invariably disappointed when I explain that the reality was quite different, and communist Hungary, far from being hell on earth, was in fact, rather a fun place to live. The communists provided everyone with guaranteed employment, good education and free healthcare. Violent crime was virtually non-existent...
“But perhaps the best thing of all was the overriding sense of camaraderie, a spirit lacking in my adopted Britain and, indeed, whenever I go back to Hungary today. People trusted one another, and what we had we shared...
“One of the best things was the way leisure and holiday opportunities were opened up to all... My parents worked in Dorog, a nearby town, for Hungaroton, a state-owned record company, so we stayed at the factory's holiday camp at Lake Balaton, 'The Hungarian Sea'...
“The government understood the value of education and culture. Before the advent of communism, opportunities for the children of the peasantry and urban working class, such as me, to rise up the educational ladder were limited. All that changed after the war...
“The communists did not want to restrict the finer things of life to the upper and middle classes – the very best of music, literature and dance were for all to enjoy. This meant lavish subsidies were given to institutions including orchestras, opera houses, theatres and cinemas. Ticket prices were subsidised by the State, making visits to the opera and theatre affordable.”
She is not alone in having these nostalgic sentiments today. The result of a recent Hungarian opinion poll shocked radio audiences with 53% of those asked expressing either a wish to leave the country or a willingness to pick up any chance of living and/or working abroad – and this only one year into the government of Viktor Orbán and his FIDESZ/KDNP who came into office with a landslide two-thirds majority as the “most popular politician Hungary has ever had”.
The last twelve months in Hungary have been a shock for both supporters and opponents of the government. Orbán called last year’s election a “voting booth revolution”. He took it upon himself to use his two-thirds majority to rewrite the Constitution, to remove the word “Republic” from the name of the country, to “reform” the pension system, including the abolition of the right to early retirement even for those that have already taken early retirement.
He also took on many layers of society, starting with the press, which is now hamstrung by a new Press Law, under which a small, unelected body, consisting entirely of FIDESZ/KDNP appointees/members decides whether articles, TV programmes or publications are anti-Hungarian or not. Punishments under this law include crippling fines which would threaten the existence of all but the most lavishly financed radio and TV stations or newspapers. Many commentators have compared this law to the McCarthyite witchunts searching out un-American activities in the 1950’s.
The latest section of society the government have taken on are soldiers, police officers and fire fighters, whose pensions and early retirement entitlements are under threat, along with their working conditions.
Social security entitlements are being reduced and withdrawn unless the most spurious conditions are satisfied. Disability pensions are being reviewed with many long term unemployed threatened with the withdrawal of their benefits unless they are prepared to join workfare schemes.
Healthcare is severely cut, especially in the countryside where many people are unable to travel to faraway hospitals for treatment with the travel subsidies having also been withdrawn.
The list is endless. The weak, the poor, the ethnic minorities are the biggest losers of the Orbán government’s attempts at balancing the books. Even with a lot less austerity, most people, regardless of political affiliation, would be likely to look to the “communist” past with nostalgia.
I grew up under the same system as Zsuzsanna, although a couple of decades before her. I can concur heartily with her comments praising the achievements of the Kádár regime and even those before him in the sphere of full employment, education, healthcare and a sense of security that most had in those days. The dark despair that capitalism has brought and is bringing daily to Hungary and the rest of the countries of Central and Eastern Europe contrasts starkly with memories of no unemployment, enough spare time to have a family life and hobbies and a hope for a better future, which most families managed to build for in the past.
What Zsuzsanna’s article does not mention, however, is that in spite of a better life for the majority, which many dream about now, the years between the end of the Second World War and the fall of what she calls “communism” were the years of a totalitarian, one-party dictatorship, where a privileged bureaucracy ruled and the rights of the working class to organise and run society were non-existent. Hungary, along with all those countries in the region that were liberated from Nazi rule by the Red Army, had seen the establishment of regimes in the image of the Soviet Union, not the Soviet Union as established by the Russian Revolution of 1917, not the Soviet Union run by the soviets, led by Lenin and Trotsky, but the degenerated Stalinist country that it became after the failure of all the other socialist revolutions of that period and its subsequent isolation in the world.
In post Second World War Hungary the Communist Party ruled – in theory – in the name of the working class, but trade unions had become part of the state apparatus and dissent was brutally suppressed. It was precisely because of this that Hungary – along with Poland, East Germany and others – rose and tried to throw off this bureaucracy and take power into the hands of ordinary people in the 1950s. Hungary, of all these countries, went the furthest in its revolution in 1956, establishing the basics of a workers’ government, a workers’ militia and workers’ councils in all spheres of life. It was precisely because of this that it was brutally put down as, unlike in Poland or Germany, no compromise could be made with an armed people on the verge of taking power with guns in hand.
János Kádár, the father of “goulash communism”, much beloved by Zsuzsanna Clark, participated in that revolution, but then betrayed the thousands of workers who fought it leaving them to their fate to die in the torture chambers of the secret police. No subsequent liberalisation or ‘goulash communism’ could make up for that. However, the very fact that even an oppressive and one party state, run without democracy could achieve such advances in its economy, industrial production, education, health, transport and security based on state ownership of the means of production and a plan, as Stalinist Hungary did, should give heart to all socialists and communists within or outside of Hungary today.
Imagine what could be achieved on the basis of genuine workers’ democracy, with all aspects of life, industry, agriculture, culture, education, health, transport, all services etc., run by the people, accountable to each other in a harmonious society? It isn’t a utopia! It is the only way forward. Owning the means of production in common, running society democratically and in the interest of the majority is not a pipedream, it is the only way to get rid of the Orbáns of today, the multinationals of today, the exploiters, crooks, bankers and other leeches of today who are standing in the way of progress, peace and our future.
From a socialist Hungary nobody would want to emigrate, nobody would have to fear the future for themselves and for their children. Socialism is the only system capable of providing for all and having established it worldwide, humanity could, for the first time in its history, call itself civilised.