Z. Varga: The Hungarian Agricultural Miracle?

The Hungarian Agricultural Miracle?. Sovietization and Americanization in a Communist Country

Varga, Zsuzsanna
The Harvard Cold War Studies Book Series
Lanham 2020: Lexington Books
Anzahl Seiten
345 S.
£ 96.00
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Chris Hann, Max-Planck-Institut für ethnologische Forschung, Halle (Saale)

Given the backwardness of the countries they ruled, it can reasonably be argued that modernization of agrarian economies was the most fundamental challenge facing the Marxist-Leninist regimes of the twentieth century. This book provides an excellent overview of the policies debated ideologically and then implemented on the ground during four decades of Hungarian socialism. These processes and their outcomes were central to broader societal transformations in that country. They remain controversial in Hungarian historiography to the present.

Varga’s work derives from a Habilitation thesis defended in Budapest in 2014 and is organized chronologically. She begins with a survey of the rural society of pre-revolutionary Russia and the tensions of the 1920s. The Stalinist solution, elaborated definitively in 1935, envisaged the collective farm (kolkhoz) as the key institution of what Varga terms an “inner colony”, available for exploitation in the interests of industrialization. This model was transferred to the socialist states of Eastern Europe following the Second World War. The variation was considerable, but in Hungary as elsewhere the model was largely rejected as an affront both to evolved property relations and to established moral links between work and wealth at the level of the peasant household.

The Hungarian communists attempted mass collectivization in two failed campaigns before the revolution of 1956. Varga argues that previous scholarship has underestimated the significance of this watershed in and for the countryside. Whatever the extent of rural resistance, the legacies of the 1956 catastrophe played into the hands of those determined to forge a more dynamic socialist agriculture, one that would diverge significantly from the vertical structures of the classical kolkhoz and its reliance upon the "work unit" to determine remuneration. In the course of the 1960s, the "agrarian lobby" allowed producer cooperatives to behave very much like market actors. They could, for example, found ancillary units to pursue non-agricultural activities, motivating workers and members alike through material incentives. Even before the introduction of the New Economic Mechanism in 1968, rural society was transformed. Varga provides revelatory insight into the ways in which socialist farm managers gained access to the technologies of North American agribusiness. The dissemination of closed production units, initially for corn but soon spreading to other crops, brought huge improvements in yields. Not only did investments quickly pay for themselves: they made Hungarian agriculture successful on international markets and thus a vital source of foreign exchange. Seen from this angle, 1956 was not a failure after all.

This success did not put an end to the ebb and flow of political contention. Many veterans of the workers' movement, including János Kádár himself, had little sympathy for the countryside (apart from the hunting lodges frequented by high-ranking cadres and select foreign guests). Loath to abandon the traditional prioritization of heavy industry, conservatives in the Party fought back in the early 1970s, protesting that the cooperative ancillaries were siphoning workers away from orthodox industrial enterprises and encouraging rampant corruption. Successful business strategies were criminalised and cooperative presidents exposed to protracted trials with long periods of remand. Varga concedes that abuses did occur, but most defendants were not (only) lining their own pockets: they were acting to maximize the incomes of their group, yet this made them the objects of reproach and envy among those who clung to the higher collective morality of a socialist society.

It was impossible to put the genie back in the bottle. Following the global oil crisis, with a steady deterioration in Hungary's terms of trade, the agricultural sector was starved of investment. Profits from trade in agricultural and food products diminished. Yet these revenues became ever more essential to pay off the country's hard currency debts. Varga compares the sector in the 1980s to the "inner colony" of Stalinist collectivization. Hungarian academic experts came to agree that the sticking point preventing further expansion lay in property relations. Significant innovations were made to encourage more flexible forms of cooperation and "internal entrepreneurship". However, these matters were ideologically sensitive. By the time politicians at the highest level were prepared to consider more radical measures, it was too late. After 1989, accentuated by the emotional irrationalities of decollectivization, the system unravelled very quickly. Varga does not delve into these recent developments. Suffice it to note that, while joining the EU accelerated certain new forms of agribusiness, the former dynamism could not be recovered. By the 2010s the entire countryside was a bastion of Viktor Orbán's populism.

The publisher's blurb proclaims that all this added up to a miracle. In fact, Varga steers cautiously clear of simplistic interpretations.[1] She follows British sociologist Nigel Swain, whose title Collective Farms Which Work? (1985) also included a question mark.[2] Compared to capitalist agribusiness, the economic successes of this socialist transformation of rural society were distributed among many more persons. Low productivity of labour (not to mention enormous ecological costs barely registered at the time) speak against any notion of miracle. Perhaps only the 1960s were truly miraculous, when access to US technology was accompanied by toleration of deviation on the part of the USSR, not to mention cheap energy supplies and undiscriminating purchases. Americanization enabled the optimal technological exploitation of the large spatial units that Sovietization had brought into being. The Hungarian twist to this combination consisted in creating distinctive institutions that brought prosperity to rural society as a whole. Varga’s principal originality lies in uncovering the "bottom-up" character of this process. By casting farm managers as the key actors, she complements western anthropological studies of rural Hungary that focus more on the experiences of individual farmers.

The study is based on a multiplicity of sources, including copious official documents not available until the 1990s as well as extensive interviews, some of them with major players in the drama. Varga blends in case material from Hungarian journalistic sources, while paying intermittent attention to the scholarship on other countries. Her methodological sophistication is rooted in debates in transnational history pioneered by German scholars, the goal of which is to supersede older styles of comparative analysis by appropriate recognition of transfer. Although the title of this book implies a binary schema, the connections on the ground turn out to be rather more complex. There is an implicit homogenization of the western experience when it is noted (p. 18, citing work by Gábor Gyáni) that in pre-socialist Hungary only 30% of the agrarian population owned enough land to be self-sufficient, thus qualifying as peasant. Was this proportion really any higher across most of Western Europe?

German historians will also appreciate the respectful attention paid to the contributions of several generations of German specialists on socialist agrarian transformation, among them Karl-Eugen Wädekin, Stephan Merl and Arnd Bauerkämper. But they and other readers unable to manage Hungarian will be irritated by Varga’s reliance upon Hungarian editions of the works of Stalin and other Russian sources (and indeed for some recent scholarship originally published in English). While the use made of both primary and secondary sources for Hungary is superb, there are a few omissions. Varga pays close attention to the contributions of Ferenc Erdei as a politician and later as a key figure in the “agrarian lobby," but she ignores his earlier scholarly analyses of Hungarian peasant society. She also overlooks Ivan Szelenyi’s Socialist Entrepreneurs of 1988, a prize-winning sociological study which drew heavily on Erdei’s concept of embourgeoisement.[3]

Although the author has in places been let down by inadequate editing (in matters of layout, syntax and punctuation), the work as a whole reads well. The extensive quotations, even more clumsy and vacuously verbose in translation, are a deliberate reminder of how the dynamic processes taking place on the ground had to be camouflaged in turgid bureaucratic language. Varga’s study will be of interest not only to those researching the agrarian sector elsewhere, but to scholars of socialism generally, and to all historians as an impressive reconciliation of connectedness and comparison.

[1] However, her criticisms of coercion and insistence on the limits and limitations of later policies do not go far enough to satisfy some of her reviewers within Hungary, who consider her to be an apologist for the Kádár regime. See Csikós Gábor / József Ö. Kovács, Elbeszélés és történeti magyarázat ‒ „Magyar agrárcsoda” és a források vétójoga [Narrative and Historical Explanation ‒ the „Hungarian agrarian miracle“ and the sources’ veto right], 2021, https://www.archivnet.hu/elbeszeles-es-torteneti-magyarazat-magyar-agrarcsoda-es-a-forrasok-vetojoga [accessed on 10.01.2022].
[2] Nigel Swain, Collective Farms Which Work? Cambridge 1985.
[3] Ivan Szelenyi, Socialist Entrepreneurs. Embourgeoisement in Rural Hungary, Madison 1988.

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