Updated: Feb 5, 2021
Me in my pioneer school uniform with my mom and my brother in the 1980s in Hungary.
What does the average American think of when socialism comes to mind? Empty grocery store shelves, civil unrest, dictatorship, chaos, loss of everything you ever worked for. The end of the world.
Socialism is always the ultimate boogeyman employed by conservatives to scare people away from choosing progressive Democratic candidates like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. But what exactly is socialism? In my experience, it depends on where it is being applied.
I was twelve years old when the occupying Soviet army left Hungary, where I was born and raised. Unlike the 1956 revolution, it was a bloodless affair; by 1989, the Soviet Union was falling apart and could barely keep itself together, let alone the rest of the Eastern bloc. When revolutions swept through the region, starting with Hungary, Big Brother folded, and long-awaited freedom—and capitalism—was embraced by all.
Even though I was relatively young at the time, I remember everything with surprising accuracy. I can still hear my parents quietly discussing which of their coworkers were spies working for the 3/3 state protection agency. I recall my grandfather telling us kids the truth about the 1956 revolution as well as his version of the chapters of Hungarian history, which the socialist regime did not favor in school curriculums. I have vivid memories of the minimal range of products available in the stores: only a few kinds of yogurt, bread, beer, chocolate, and other basic foodstuff existed. Everybody wore the same clothes and decorated their apartments with the same furniture. Even though I am in my early forties now and have enjoyed the luxuries of modern consumerism for decades, I still feel a sort of a holy dread when I walk through the aisles of Target; the never-ending display of products seems unbelievable at times and weirdly obscene. We had to wait for years for a telephone line or a car, but what I remember most is that our red passports were unlike any passports that exist today: these allowed us to travel only within the Soviet bloc. The Iron Curtain was as real as the state emblem of the Soviet Union plastered on every classroom wall, and no ordinary Eastern European was allowed to see what was on the other side.
My family was lucky because neither of my parents nor grandparents disappeared in the middle of the night only to wake up in a Siberian labor camp or in the cellars of 60 Andrassy Street, and we lost no family members in the retaliations after the 1956 uprising. However, the lack of opportunities maimed my father, who had an entrepreneurial spirit, and the awareness of living oppressed by another nation and having to pretend enthusiasm for a system we neither chose nor loved loomed over all of us always.
Not all was bad, however. People lived pretty well during the 'soft' years of socialism: everybody had enough food, and a roof over their head. Everybody had a job and could afford a summer house, a vacation (within the Eastern bloc, of course) once a year, and any of the three cheap kinds of beers available in the grocery stores. Good healthcare and great education were givens, both free of cost and the latter merit-based. If you were willing to keep your mouth shut, you could become anything that this environment could afford you. Life was simple, predictable, and comfortably depressing. If we had chosen this for ourselves, we would have been relatively happy.
When the Soviets left, and we finally regained our freedom, some aspects of socialism remained a part of Hungarian life. Healthcare and education are still free; maternity leave not only exists but can last up to three years; vacation time is ample; and government-subsidized sick leave is as long as necessary. And these aspects of a socialist society are pretty damn nice. If one can cherry-pick, one would be crazy to cast away these huge winnings that are nothing but beneficial to most lower and middle-class people.
And the fact is that socialism, in this form, is already here in the United States as well, even though most Americans are not aware of it.
Medicare for those over the age of 65, the minimum wage, child labor regulations, free elementary and high school education, social housing, free libraries, subsidized recreational centers, transit systems, road maintenance, and street cleaning are just a few things that are all paid for by our taxes. Americans are reaping the benefits of socialist features in so many areas of their life, even while they simultaneously try to fight it fiercely.
That's why I believe that socialism, or embracing some aspects of socialism, should not be frowned upon or being shied away from just because certain countries labeled 'socialist' have become notorious. Other factors at play led to misery in their cases, which becomes evident if you look at how it all went awry in Hungary.
First of all, our country was invaded by the Soviet army. After that, we lived in a totalitarian regime under the watchful eyes of Moscow. People had no influence on policies, elections were a farce, and even opinions were banned. My parents' generation always had to be on their guard not to say anything even remotely suspicious of dissent. Even as children we were warned not to share whatever was discussed at home because it was not safe. Any living being around you could be a spy and trusting even your closest friend was ill-advised. Religion was banned, patriotism was banned, many books and artists were banned. We lived a very small, crippled life.
Dictatorship was only one of the things putting a damper on everyday life; the economy was not exactly thriving either. By the time the Soviets overtook Hungary, our resources had been heavily depleted by continuous occupation for 500 years and by enduring two world wars. Ideological radicalism did not help the country get back in good shape; basing entire countries' operations on abstract ideas that often ignore the nature and needs of actual humans and available natural resources rarely leads to successful outcomes, and that applied to Soviet-occupied Hungary as well.
We always forget that people are people, and history keeps repeating itself. If you've ever read George Orwell's Animal Farm, you know that when the tables turn, 99% of the time those in power—regardless of ideology—will start favoring their families and friends and lackeys, take advantage of their position, and hoard wealth, and leave the majority of the people hanging out to dry. This is exactly what happened in Hungary as well and is still happening today under a different regime and leveraging different buzzwords.
In a healthy democracy like the United States and with a fundamentally strong economy, it is highly unlikely that this country would become the next USSR.
It's high time that the discourse about socialism changed. Instead of demonizing a word, we should eschew autocracy, radicalism of any kind, blind faith in ideologies, and greed, and focus on the citizens' welfare instead. Embracing measures that would create a more equal and livable world for all would be much more in line with the way developed countries live all over the world today. This is, of course, my opinion only but just as we've left 'an eye for an eye' behind, I believe we can leave 'every man for himself' behind as well.