Nostalgia in Hungary - Longing for Socialism
BY BETTI CSIBA
Objectively, most Hungarians have a higher standard of living now, in 2017, than they did before the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989. As the market-based economic and political system took over after decades of socialism, entrepreneurship skyrocketed, shelves were filled with foreign goods, and the travel ban to Western countries was lifted. Hungary was finally beginning to catch up. Subjectively, however, that’s not how some of the older generations remember these changes. They are prone to remember socialism as a positive force.
For starters, many of them argue that things weren’t so bad from the mid-1960s onwards. Indeed, the term goulash-communism is well-known and used to describe the lightening of hard-line socialism. It refers to a period after 1956 that saw a slight easing of violence and repression on the part of the Soviet regime and the limited liberalisation of the economy. Many Hungarians seem to be nostalgic about this specific period of socialism saying things like: “If you were careful and did not agitate against the state, you could have a decent life,” and: “In retrospect, life looks worse than it actually was.” Goulash-communism, even though it was still far from the current economic and political freedom enjoyed by many European democracies, was regarded as a substantially better system than the previous one.
People who grew up under socialism got used to relying on the nanny state, something which was by no means unique to Hungary. At the time, the state acted as an extreme version of today’s welfare state. It provided free education, health care and ensured the safety and security of its citizens. Private employment barely existed, since most companies were (at least partially) state-owned and guaranteed employment to most people.
“The Hungarians that started their active adult lives under socialism still have a hard time adjusting to the current market-based system ”
Naturally, the whole concept was economically flawed and unsustainable, as the state struggled to finance these social programs. The setup was also highly inefficient because people did not have to compete to get a job, so performance-orientation was not necessary. However, many claim that they felt significantly more secure about their present and future well-being than they do in the current system. The Hungarians that started their active adult lives under socialism still have a hard time adjusting to the current market-based system in which competition is fierce and everything has a price tag. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that many of these people are nostalgic about socialism.
Add to this the fact that Hungary, despite undergoing dramatic transformations, did not soar economically as many had hoped at the time. The transition to a market-based economy did not live up to people’s (often unrealistic) expectations. In the new era, many Hungarians were beginning to see proof of the peculiar Hungarian saying that “the fence is not made of sausage” (the equivalent of “money doesn’t grow on trees”). Despite drastic improvements in politics and economics (things such as free elections, performance-based competition and no forced investments into heavy industry), many people were disappointed and disillusioned with capitalism and began longing for the reality they knew and trusted: socialism. To this day, this longing persists in the collective memory of many Hungarians.
Missing sense of community
It's not only the (economic) safety and security that they miss. Lots of middle-aged people claim they miss the sense of community they experienced while growing up. They see a lack of this in younger generations. Back in the day, there were many ways of actively contributing to community life. Even though it was steeped in ideology, many youngsters were “pioneers” (similar to scouts), some were members of the KISZ (Hungarian abbreviation of Hungarian Young Communist League), others participated in fairs on International Workers’ Day or the annual procession on the 4th of April. Lots of teenagers went to summer camps where they worked in agriculture; they picked cherries, harvested corn or spudded the soil around the grapes, all in return for not only money but also prestige.
To today’s Hungarian youth, these programs sound like terrifying remnants of an oppressive time, but for the older generations these were breeding grounds for life-long friends. They prided themselves in learning the value of hard work and spending their time as productive members of the community. Among them, there are many who wish their children could have similar experiences.
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“The current government is doing everything it can to paint all aspects of socialism black and overemphasise the negativities of the era.”
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Yet some Hungarians remember socialism very differently. It was a difficult time; many were victims of the terror enforced by the secret police. Others suffered from the lack of economic and political opportunities. These experiences are unlikely to make anyone reminisce about the good old days and wish life were like it was in socialism.
Those who didn’t experience socialism get their information about the past from secondary sources like their parents and exaggerated museums, like the House of Terror in Budapest. The current government is doing everything it can to paint all aspects of socialism black and overemphasise the negativities of the era. There are several popular TV shows in Hungary that portray the terror of socialism, most of them revolving around highly personal stories that are often taken out of context.
This lack of accurate information kills the possibility for nostalgia and an open discussion about the topic. The popularity of right-wing parties like Fidesz (the current ruling party) and Jobbik (an extreme-right party) and the relative unpopularity of nearly all left-wing parties can, to some extent, be explained by this partly intentional misinformation.
A polarised society
The rift between those who are nostalgic about socialism and those who never want to experience it (again) has polarised a Hungarian society that is struggling to come to terms with its socialist past. This divide has led to the lack of acceptance towards the opinions and experiences of others; debates are turning into arguments, opinions are stated as facts. Polarisation infiltrated all classes and circles in Hungary and people, instead of trying to work together to solve existing issues, are attacking each other and fail to have constructive and open communication. Name calling has become widespread, and words such as “liberal” and “leftist” have become tainted with a pejorative meaning.
The attitude of the government is not helping either. Fidesz has already passed a bill called lex-CEU (against which many protested) regarding the regulations of privately funded organisations from abroad. Many students joined the protests because they felt like the government was going against the fundamental values of democracy by trying to make the university’s position untenable. Members of the older generation agree but also see additional dangers. For them, lex-CEU demonstrates the government’s will to limit the freedom of speech that reminds them of life during the socialist era. However, while young and old come together to oppose the ruling party, there is still a substantial share of the Hungarian society that agrees with the government’s actions.
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“No problems can be solved until people’s attitude towards their collective socialist past and each other changes. ”
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Many supporters of Fidesz believe that organisations like CEU represent all that is wrong with modern societies: liberalism, leftist thinking and foreign agents aiding destructive processes. Homophobia, xenophobia, islamophobia and other exclusivist and hate-filled trends are on the rise, and even though these problems are not directly linked to the divide between those longing for socialism and those denouncing it, the roots of the current issues lie in the country's deeply conflicted past.
Many people think there are bigger, more urgent issues to resolve right now: a crumbling public health care system, the refugee crisis, a stagnating economy. However, no problems can be solved until people’s attitude towards their collective socialist past and each other changes. The way forward (for all generations) should be to open up a discussion and share one another's stories, all the while pursuing the truth - one rooted in objectivity and evidence. It is an overwhelming but not impossible challenge. Where there's a will there's a way.