“Acquisitive Society” and State Socialism

Wednesday, 11 June 2014, 4:00pm - 5:30pm, IWM library
Golden Calf

The New Golden Calf / © HUNGART

There is a growing literature discussing various aspects of everyday and private life in Eastern Europe in the Cold War era. Much of it is “history from below” using untested assumptions as to what the intentions of those in power may have been. I for my part consider this an empirical question and maintain that familiarity with the agitprop literature on the “socialist way of life” will not help. Instead, I visit those who indeed took all the decisions that materially affected and structured the practices of the everyday: the central planners. I will discuss the two waves of designing long-term (15-20 year) plans in Hungary focusing on the ways in which issues of the everyday were addressed. Listening carefully to the worries and anxieties of contemporary politicians, economists and sociologists the following questions present themselves: What should define the newly emerging consumerism, and its various particular dimensions, as socialist consumerism? Just what is socialist about modern ‘mechanized’ households, equipped with washing machines, refrigerators, vacuum cleaners, dish-washers, etc.? How to explain the rapid change in the landscape of mobility due first of all to the landslide-like breakthrough of private (personal) automobilism? In general, why should the public believe that the emergence of consumerism and, hand in hand with it, an “acquisitive society” was part of and conducive to the project of a socialist modernity?

György Péteri is Professor of Contemporary European History at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Trondheim, and a Visiting Fellow at the IWM.