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  • Muddling through the Long Sixties: Ideas and Everyday Life in High Politics and the Lower Classes of Communist Hungary
  • Andrew C. Janos
János Rainer and György Péteri, eds., Muddling through the Long Sixties: Ideas and Everyday Life in High Politics and the Lower Classes of Communist Hungary. Trondheim-Budapest: Program on East European Cultures and Societies—Institute for the History of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, 2005. 225 pp.

In the prefatory words of János Rainer, one of the editors, this volume addresses the "concept of the Sixties" (p. 4), a watershed decade that divides the twentieth century not just in a chronological but also in a social, cultural, and political sense. Thus, as Rainer correctly points out, the decade was one of portentous developments not only in Western Europe and the United States but also in the Soviet bloc, in China, and in the Third World, where colonialism was being replaced by independence and nation building.

This somewhat eclectic collection of essays explores the topic in one of the countries of the Soviet bloc. In addition to Rainer's illuminating introduction, the volume contains seven chapters. Four of them (by Gábor Kovacs, Melinda Kalmár, György Péteri, and Zsuzsánna Varga) explore a decade of change in what the title designates the "high politics" of the Communist party and the intellectual class. The remaining chapters (by Tibor Valuch, Eszter Tóth, and Sándor Horváth) are historiography from the perspective of average men and women, "the lower classes" of Communist Hungary.

In the first group, Varga's chapter revisits the ups and downs of economic reform, from is timid beginnings in 1958 to the inception of the New Economic Mechanism in 1968 and beyond. This topic is well known and over the years has commanded a voluminous literature. Varga presents this literature by showing the grudging, step-by-step acceptance of the market principle of operation with the creation of a price structure to reflect production costs and the introduction of profitability as the criterion for [End Page 170] assessing enterprise performance. By now we know that these reforms were subverted early on, partly by the retention of subsidies to politically strategic enterprises, partly by rigidly applied full-employment constraints.

Culture, both high and low, is covered in two chapters. The essay by Kovács discusses the intellectual impact of Western writers such as Herbert Marcuse, Theodore Roszak, and Alain Touraine, coupled with the rediscovery of the "young Marx" and the broader applicability of early Marxist thought to capitalism as well as socialism. The chapter by Kalmár depicts the mundane efforts of the authorities to bring publishing and entertainment in line with new political priorities as well as market principles. Perhaps the most engaging essay of the group, indeed of the whole collection, is by György Péteri, on what T. H. Rigby once memorably labeled "crypto-politics," the manipulation of organizational restraints, and feigned compliance with organizational purposes to undermine the authority of rivals and superiors. In what amounts to a case study of this phenomenon, Péteri gives us an account of the "MEGÉV affair" (p. 98) in which the management of a large machine-building company resorts to carefully planted innuendo in the party press as part of a larger battle of conservatives and reformers.

In the second group of essays, Valuch describes the drudgery of farm life and the painfully slow rise in the quantity and size of rural housing, and Tóth tells us about the role of "flats, gardens, [and] oranges" (p. 160) in the reward system of a society still characterized by widespread scarcity of material goods. The final chapter, by Horváth, on youth culture in post-1956 Hungary, highlights the fusion of the symbolic mimicking of Western consumerism with the proliferation of youth gangs expressing their identity in various forms of hooliganism. Here the contrast between the 1950s and the 1960s seems exaggerated. Anyone with personal recollections of those now distant decades will remember that both forms of self-search and expression were as much part of the earlier period as of the later.

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