IN THIS tense anniversary fall, the ten-year-old postrevolution regime of János Kádár in Hungary faces precisely the same domestic problem that confronted, and defeated, his predecessors. The problem is, of course, endemic to dictatorships everywhere: how to loosen the reins without having the horse bolt away underneath you. But in Budapest today, as in 1956, restlessness is growing, and the regime is being forced to take calculated risks to satisfy it or stifle it.
Here the parallel ends; for under the surface the picture is quite different from ten years ago. In 1956, the demand and the hope pulsing through the country were for an immediate end to the Soviet occupation and an end to the Communist regime itself. The tide of agitation was political. These political hopes have long since been abandoned. The restlessness today is basically economic — the cry for higher living standards — with an agitation for certain “nonpolitical” freedoms thrown in, such as better facilities for travel to the West. In other words, whereas ten years ago almost the entire Hungarian nation seemed to be consciously gathering itself for that great October leap to change its way of life, now it is as though ten million Magyars have all made their own personal pacts with a regime which is apparently unshakable, and each is concerned only with getting the best possible terms for himself.
As a result, in contrast to most societies, where the young are in the vanguard of agitation and the old represent the detached virtues of tolerance, most of the political intolerance and ferment in Hungary today seems to come from the older generation. It is the ferment of bitterness, the outbursts of those too set in their ways and too proud of those ways to make any sort of pact with the Communist devil.
Take, for example, one typical anti-Communist ex-bourgeois Budapest intellectual, a man fiftyseven years old, who was imprisoned for his right-wing views in Stalin’s day, released ten years ago, and since has scratched out a living for himself in that trading jungle where the private and “socialist” sectors of the Hungarian economy meet. “I cannot understand what has happened to our young people,” he said. “Their apathy appalls me. All that the Communists have given us since 1956 is some bread and circuses, and even the bread — by which I mean better living — has been getting steadily scarcer again since 1960. On the spiritual side, there is bankruptcy. That is what the indifferent youth of today don’t seem to grasp. Moral bankruptcy! The Communists have turned the Hungarians into a nation of habitual liars. Children have to put on one face to their Communist schoolteachers and another at home to their usually anti-Communist parents.
“Party members still go to church — often, in the country, walking to the next village to make it look less obvious. Everyone has two jobs to make ends meet and lies to both employers. Everyone has two loyalties to save his skin and is therefore false to both. Can this ever be stopped? And if it is, won’t it take us a generation to wipe out the effects? We used to be proud of being a great Central European people. It’s the Communists who have balkanized the Hungarians, and that’s worse, I tell you, than anything else their secret police may have done to me and the likes of me. But no one seems to care anymore.”
He was equally bitter when asked whether anything had improved since 1956. “Jobs for the boys, jobs for the boys,” he snapped. “Of course they must make concessions here and there, and for that we have the revolution to thank. But the concessions cannot be allowed to go to the point where they threaten the hold of the 500,000 Party members. Not because of doctrine, but because of the power and privilege they are determined to hang on to. And nearly everyone just lies down under it all.”
Descent into pragmatism
György, his son-in-law, was one of those who “just lie down” — provoking countless family quarrels in the process. György is now thirty-five, the son of a minor landowner (dispossessed, of course) and therefore a bad risk from the regime’s point of view. Despite this, by working hard and studiously avoiding politics, he had become one of the departmental heads in a lightindustry factory. He had just realized a fifteen-year-old ambition by being allowed to register as a law student at the university. It was a desperately won toehold on the economic and social ladder, and he was not prepared to risk losing it just by “snatching at air,” as he put it.
“I’m resigned about the general setup here,” he continued. “If I ever think at all about the political future here—and even then I don’t open my mouth outside these walls — I think of a sort of left-wing democracy emerging over the years out of the husk of Communism. But that’s all long-term, and it’s the very best we can hope for. In the meantime, the only thing that makes sense for me is to try and get a better life for my wife and myself. We want to have children, for example, but we can’t do that until we get a bigger apartment.”
This headlong descent into pragmatism, as you move down the age groups of Hungary today, strikes the visitor most forcibly with the students — the twenty-year-olds, for whom the revolution was a vivid childhood experience but an experience which, after all, now lies half of their lifetime behind them. One young man is typical. He comes from a family which is fairly neutral toward the regime, a family of non-Communists who have done well under Communism. He himself wants to be an architect and at twenty-one is in the middle of his advanced studies.
“It’s absolutely idiotic to talk of overthrowing the regime,” he said. “And indeed, why should we? After all, we were born under it and have grown up under it. What we must do is make the best of it. Of course everything isn’t perfect; where in the world is it, for that matter? Take my own position, for example. My starting salary after I’m finished will be 1200 forints [about $52] a month. It’s absurd. One can’t live on it! Then there’s housing and all these travel restrictions. So much needs improving. But it’s the improvements we should concentrate on.”
In terms of wages, the young architect’s salary puts him in about the same bracket as Hungary’s bank clerks, shop assistants, and other low-level white-collar employees. The average unskilled worker today may get slightly more— up to 1500 forints; while the skilled factory hand brings home up to 3000 forints a month. These basic workers’ rates, not much above the 1956 levels, look far smaller in a tour of the shops. A decent pair of shoes, for example, costs around 500 forints — ten full days’ labor for the unskilled workman.
The wife of a medium-grade factory clerk at Tatybanya, the big industrial center thirty miles west of Budapest, put these statistics in sober perspective. “Compared with 1956,” she said, “there is a bigger variety of goods in the shops — food as well as other things. After all, there ought to be. That was ten years ago. But it hasn’t increased steadily, and lately it has been getting worse, especially the food prices.” This woman was scornful about the government’s claim that real wages had increased 9 percent between 1960 and 1965. “Figures, figures! They can prove anything. We hardly read them anymore. But that 9 percent is certain to include overtime as well as basic pay, and as we are all forced to do more overtime these days to make ends meet, we are in fact working harder just to stay in the same place. Then, on the other side, there are lots of dishonest things going on in the shops — substandard children’s clothes being sold at full rates, for example. These are really hidden price increases but are never reckoned as such. For people like ourselves, who cannot afford to buy in the ‘Maszek,’ they will have to do something pretty drastic.”
The gray market
The “Maszek,” another of those faceless Communist portmanteau names, is a nationwide phenomenon, operating in defiance of the state. The label is short for the words “Magan Sektor,” or private section of the economy. It exists not as an illegal black market but as an officially tolerated gray market. It operates from “factories” or unlicensed shops in ten thousand cellars and attics. It bargains and advertises at a hundred thousand meetings, at street corners and café tables. Its watchword is private enterprise, its motive is profit, and its target is that great consumer goods gap which is still left yawning — above all, on the quality side — after twenty years of “Socialist planning.”
Down in a cellar, for example, Mrs. X has her “shop,” where she sells poultry, buying it privately from peasants, and fresh eggs. In a bad month she will clear 30,000 forints profit, and in a good month over 50,000. There are thousands like her, not just selling food but making things — women’s hats or even shirt buttons—and operating more or less in the open.
Dabbling with capitalism
The regime’s new economic plan, announced at the end of May, is the official answer to Maszek’s challenge. The brainchild of Reszo Nyers, the party’s economic planning expert, it had been under general study for eighteen months and under detailed debate in the Central Committee for several weeks preceding its final release. The declared aim is to raise living standards by injecting Western “market economy” methods into the rigid, overcentralized Socialist Structure. Detailed production targets will be scrapped, and individual plants will be encouraged to find their own way to greater efficiency and “company profits.” Workers’ wages will be fixed individually and personal incentives given for better output. Supply and demand on the market will henceforth be a major and “flexible” factor in all planning. “Free” market prices are officially admitted as part of a new price system. Above all, the emphasis is on quality.
Introduced this year while popular unrest was mounting, these reforms represent a nervous genuflection toward the stifled spirit of the revolution and the growing supremacy of the customer. Yet their significance goes much further than market techniques. Underlying all the regime’s technical debates is one anxious, unspoken question: If economic liberty is granted, can political freedom be far behind?
No politics for writers
Hungary’s writers have been at the center of its shifting political kaleidoscope ever since Hapsburg times. It was the writers, grouped in the famous Petoefi Circle, who created the whole climate of the 1956 uprising and helped to lead it when it came. Most of the literary lions of the uprising are no longer in prison. One can visit and talk to them, but, understandably, they are reluctant to be quoted.
The younger and less exposed writers, on the other hand, have no reservations, provided the talk does not become too political. Miklos Vojda, for example, discussed very frankly his job as literary editor of the English-language Hungarian Quarterly, a brilliantly conceived and produced “public image” publication sponsored by the regime.
“Though the government supports us, we on the editorial staff are not party members,” Vojda said. “There is no party interference about the articles, stories, and poems we select for reprinting, but obviously there are certain things we know we cannot do — so we don’t. Attacking the regime, for example, or Communism as an ideology; attacking Russia or the Soviet forces in Hungary, or the basic lines of the regime’s foreign policy.”
Laszlo Kery, the secretary of the Hungarian P.E.N. Club, said, “We have absolutely no direct state censorship anymore. It’s all selfcensorship by the editors of the magazines. Of course, borderline cases of politically delicate novels do crop up, and then we simply use our own judgment. Whenever this happens, there are two important criteria we use: what is the literary merit of the work, and what is the professional standing of the author?”
He thought that this was rather like the approach used in the West for prosecuting obscene literature. The parallel was not inapt, for to a Communist regime, real criticism is obscenity.