Socialism: Ideals, Ideologies, and Local Practice

By C. M. Hann | Go to book overview

Chapter 12

Gypsies, the work ethic, and Hungarian socialism

Michael Stewart

In our country the government and the party have decided that everyone must have a registered work-place, that everyone will get their wages from their work-place. It is said that what these people do [Gypsy women scavenging for discarded industrial produce] is 'usury', they practise 'usury' with these goods.

(Manual labourer employed at
municipal rubbish tip, March 1988)

The regimes of 'actually existing socialism' in Eastern Europe did not just fall, they were pushed. Beset as they were by internal contradictions, they might yet have staggered on through another generation were it not for the capacity of ordinary people to conceive of an alternative life and struggle to achieve it. Despite repeated efforts to shore up these systems through egalitarian social and economic policies, they never achieved more than momentary legitimacy. Most commonly the governments of the region were met with active as well as with passive resistance to their efforts to reform society. This case study of Gypsy responses to Hungarian social policy provides one image of the sources of popular resistance to the massive experiment in social engineering undertaken by the socialist governments of the Soviet bloc. 1

For some twenty-five years from 1961 the Hungarian Socialist Workers' Party (communist) led a vigorous campaign to assimilate the near half-million Gypsy population into the Magyar working class. The aim of the party was to eliminate totally all traces of Gypsy lifestyle and behaviour. This was to be done by removing the conditions which it was thought reproduced Gypsy identity and community, in particular un- and under-employment of Gypsy adults.

The Gypsy assimilation programme formed an important plank in the overall social policy of the Hungarian regime for a number of reasons. Gypsies formed the largest single ethnic minority in Hungary. The largest part of this minority was living in conditions of shocking poverty. 2 The state, which was committed to modernization under conditions of social equality and was attempting to renew its socialist pledge after the political

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