Regulating bodies: everyday crime and popular resistance in communist Hungary, 1948-1956



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On coming to power in 1948, the communist regime sought to transform Hungary into "a country of iron and steel." Industrialization and collectivization were made the order of the day; repressive police measures were necessary to force the project through. The effectiveness of this authoritarian regime has often been exaggerated by previous scholars. Drawing on archival documents, the "popular" press, and numerous contemporaneous interviews, I find instead that the communist administration was disorganized and ineffective, lending itself to manipulation by its subjects at all levels of the labor hierarchy from technocrats to factory workers to peasants. Its difficulties were further compounded by its clash with preexisting forms of social, economic, and cultural organization. In the countryside, peasants continued both traditional practices of resistance, such as wood theft, and cultural practices that were banned by the regime, such as pig-killing. Both of these forms of resistance persisted throughout the period; ironically, the products of these deviant practices were commodified as they found their way onto the black market. The party-state likewise proved unable to eradicate theft from work, black-marketeering, and 'cosmopolitan' forms of cultural consumption such as listening and dancing to American jazz. However, not all elements of society opposed the state at every turn; the limited successes the regime enjoyed were also due to these underlying forms of social organization. The patriarchal order that antedated communism carried through into the communist period, as is apparent in the regime's prostitution policy. Patriarchy's persistent influence was also a key factor in the nominal success of the regime's pronatalist policy in the early 1950s. Similarly, the regime's propaganda campaign against hooliganism resonated with a generational rift between the young generation coming of age under communism and its elders. Overall, though, most elements of society nursed numerous grievances against the authoritarian system. Although there is no direct linkage between outright rebellion and pig-killing, black-marketeering, or most of the other forms of criminal behavior I describe herein, their cumulative effect was the erosion of whatever fragile legitimacy the regime enjoyed and the society-wide normalization of anti-regime activity. In October 1956, the vox populi finally got its opportunity to talk back.