People sometimes ask me what “goulash communism” was. Outside Hungary, goulash is a nondescript tomatoey stew often served over noodles. In Hungary, it is a hearty beef soup with potatoes and carrots seasoned with plenty of spicy paprika. It is bright red in color. Originally it was the food of the cowboys (gulyas) of the Great Hungarian Plains cattle country. It was cooked in a metal cauldron hung on a stand over a wood fire. Now it is served as a soup before a light entrée, such as pasta. Both in and out of Hungary, the dish symbolizes the abundance of tasty food.
Goulash Communism as a term refers to developments in Hungarian communism after the 1956 Revolution was crushed by Russia. Hungarians did not get what they fought for: political freedom, the end of Russian occupation, the end of communist government. A new Russian puppet, János Kádár, replaced the hated old puppet, Mátyás Rákosi. With the acquiescence of Russia, Kádár implemented a series of major economic reforms. Perhaps there was concern that the hothead Hungarians would revolt again and needed to be appeased. The system remained politically communist under the Russian thumb until 1989, but Kádár made significant concessions. Certain areas of the economy were privatized so that Budapest received fresh fruits and vegetables from the gardens of individual peasants surrounding it. Food became plentiful in the privatized market. Rock music, once forbidden, was allowed, and Hungarians wrote their own rock operas on nationalistic themes, like Attila and St. Stephen. Some travel was allowed outside the country, so people could go to Paris and Vienna. In general, there was a serious, even if limited, liberalization in all areas, such as movies and publishing. You could still go to jail if you crossed the new lines, but the quality of life was much better.
In fact, it was so much better than in neighboring countries of Eastern Europe, that people came to Hungary on vacation to enjoy a nearly Western-style of luxury, when they could not go directly to the West. After 1989 the Soviet Union collapsed, and Hungary was liberated from Russian communist rule. Not surprisingly, free elections brought far-right governments, and the left was tainted with the communist past. As many of the communist health and social nets were transformed or disappeared, and as millionaire oligarchs emerged overnight, there were those who looked back on the goulash communism days with nostalgia.
What China did in the late 1970s, was to institute its own goulash communism. They kept the authoritarian one-party system with its rules and punishments, and liberalized the economy with a market system of individual entrepreneurs. Food, luxury, investment ensued, so that China is now the second largest economic system in the world. This has turned out to be an advantage. Because the Chinese communist elite controls the economy, they can plan with a longer view in mind than the West with its short-term investment goals and dissentious political parties.
As someone who has grown up in a communist state in its early, austere form and later in a capitalist world, I have had trouble understanding both the extreme positive and negative reactions to communism. Both seemed hysterical and/or mystical to me. While as a child I didn’t know all the ins and outs of the communist system, I lived its daily manifestations for both good and evil. I was aware of the millions executed in the name of its progress, especially in Russia. I could not comprehend the intellectuals of the 1930s and ’50s, otherwise brilliant people like Jean Paul Sartre seeing communism through rose-colored glasses. It seemed to me that to them communism was a mystical religion. At the same time, I could not understand the US Unamerican Activities committee of Joe McCarthy in the 1950s ferreting out and punishing communists in the US, like the Inquisition ferreting out heretics. What were all these people thinking of? Communism seemed to be not just a form of government but a religious cult to be hated or loved.
Marx’s idea of communism began in late nineteenth century as a corrective to the extreme inequalities of capitalism. Inspired partly by the state-controlled rule of the ancient Inca that took care of the peasants and lower classes, Marx imagined a future in which the lower classes would rule in an egalitarian society. He thought this would happen in the most advanced West. In fact, of course, it was attempted in the economically backward areas of Russia and China. Nor did Marx foresee the extreme violence with which the social reversal was undertaken. He did not predict the totalitarian rule of Stalin and Mao. The ideal of communism was tainted by the reality of its application.
Centralization vs democracy has been the major political issue of the twentieth century. Western theory has held that democracy was the natural culmination of historical development and the primary cause of great economic success. The rise of Chinese economic power was seen as temporary and that democracy would inevitably follow it. However, it now appears that China’s one-party control over the economy has actually been an advantage, while the West’s constant democratic political turmoil may be a problem.
A recent example is what is likely to happen to the internet. The internet was a western military invention made available for the whole world. Recent problems with it, however, have been intractable for the West in combining inefficient corporations and governments in action. Emerging areas, such as India and China, are developing their own state sponsored and efficient internets. The Chinese one in particular may prove to be the world internet in the future, according to some current pundits.
It would now seem that it is the concept of democracy that has been surrounded by a rosy glow and that communism is winning, not through ideology, mass murder and conquest (the domino theory), but through practicality.