Postcolonial Hungary: The Positioning Politics of Semiperipheral Post/Coloniality

Jon Brett

I am thrilled to have applied for the “Dialoguing Between the Posts 2.0” workshop entitled “(Im)possible Dialogue Between the Progressive Forces of the ‘Posts’”. The interactive workshop is organized by Sanja Petkovska and Špela Drnovsek Zorko, with generous support from the Centre for Cultural Studies and Connecting Cultures at the University of Warwick, and will be held on 15 June, 2019 in Belgrade at the Faculty of Political Sciences. My proposal for contributing is a general overview of my “Postcolonial Hungary” project, with a focus on the current political stakes and potentials of understanding Hungarian colonial discourse in a long-term historical perspective of semiperipheral world-systemic integration.


Is there a postcolonial Hungary? While postcolonial studies have been preoccupied with the global economic center and periphery, the complex historical relations, experiences and epistemologies of Hungarian colonialism and imperialism have been remarkably silenced. This paper introduces the concept of semiperipheral post/coloniality to unfold Hungarian coloniality in the long-term historical context of integrating into the world economy, and offer a structuralist critique of constructivist approaches to postcolonialism. Hungarian semiperipheral integration articulated an uneasy and antagonistic in-between positioning dynamic: being colonizer but colonized, catching up to but contesting the center, bridging to but demarcating from the periphery. Historically, Hungarian colonialist-imperialist ambitions followed nationalist and global racial-civilizational aspirations, but pragmatically developed East-West in-betweenness and uneasy criticism against the imperialist West. After WWII, state-socialist anti-colonial solidarity contested geopolitical fault-lines and European Economic Community (1957) protectionism, but were driven by pragmatic, state-led foreign policy aims to lever East-West double dependency by opening to Afro-Asian decolonization. The postsocialist “return to Europe” and neoliberal “transition” silenced both anti-colonial critique and previous cultural-economic relations to the postcolonial world, resulting in “postsocialist amnesia”. After 2010, Orbán’s increasingly authoritarian “illiberal” turn repositioned Hungary in its “global opening”. Geopolitical maneuvering produced a new colonial discourse by positioning Hungary against the liberal, Atlantic-Western colonial-imperial center of the European Union, while constructing selective racial-civilizational demarcation from the periphery, and appropriating global colonial history for Hungarian victimization. The postcolonial identity politics of “we never had colonies” and “we will not become colonies”, and that globalization, multiculturalism and migration is the responsibility of former imperialists feeds the nationalist “defense” of sovereignty, but functions to readapt to ongoing hegemonic shifts in the world economy by exploiting Hungary’s silenced but complex experiences of coloniality. This paper explores the neglected long-term historical continuities and political stakes in the revival of this colonial discourse in current Hungarian politics.

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Historicizing “Whiteness” in Eastern Europe and Russia


Venue: Institute for Political Research, Spiru Haret street no 8, Bucharest, 010175

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Tuesday, June 25

9.15–9.30 – Welcome remarks

9.30–10.45 Keynote – Anikó Imre (University of Southern California)
Colorblind Nationalisms

10.45–11.00 – Coffee break

11.00–12.40 – Colonialism and Imagining the Self in Eastern Europe

Chair/Discussant: Steffi Marung (University of Leipzig)

Monika Bobako (Adam Mickiewicz University)
White Skin, White Masks. Re-reading Frantz Fanon from Eastern European Perspective

Zoltán Ginelli (Open Society Archives)
Hungarian Indians: Racial and Anti-colonial Solidarity in Post-Trianon Hungary

Marianna Szczygielska (Max Planck Institute for the History of Science)
Engendering Wildlife and Whiteness: Elephants, Ivory and Zoos (1870s–1940s)

12.45–14.15 – Lunch

14.20–16.00 – Eastern European Whiteness and the Other: Race, Religion and Gender

Chair/Discussant: Agnieszka Kościańska (University of Warsaw)

Kristína Čajkovičová (Museum of Romani Culture in Brno)
Shifting to the Gadžo Question: The Role of Racialized Sexuality in the Process of Czechoslovak Collectivity

Bolaji Balogun (University of Leeds)
Whiteness: A Mechanism that Sustains Polishness

Cătălin Berescu (Romanian Academy)
White Savior, Black Savior: Pro-Roma Activists in Search of an Identity

16.00–16.15 – Coffee break

16.15–17.35 – Anti-Semitism and Whiteness in Eastern Europe

Chair/Discussant: Emily Gioielli (Missouri Western State University)

Paul Hanebrink (Rutgers University – New Brunswick)
Anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and the Anti-Communist Legacy in Contemporary Eastern Europe

Raul Carstocea (Europa Universität Flensburg)
Ambiguous Whiteness and the Anti-Semitic Imagination: Jews in Eastern Europe between Colonised and Colonisers

20.00 – Film Screening, Cinema Union (Ion Câmpineanu 22, Bucharest, 030167)
Guardian of the Frontier (intro Catherine Baker)


Wednesday, June 26

9.30–11.10 – Eastern European Whiteness in Global Perspective

Chair/Discussant: Monika Bobako (Adam Mickiewicz University)

Dušan I. Bjelić (University of Maine)
Transnational Analysis of Mexico and the Balkans: Racial Formations of Nations

Catherine Baker (University of Hull)
The Yugoslav Wars and Transnational White Nationalist Historical Narratives

Špela Drnovšek Zorko (University of Warwick)
Re-routing East European Socialism, Historicising Diasporic Whiteness

11.15–11.30 – Coffee break

11.30–13.10 – Socialism as Ambivalent Whiteness

Chair/Discussant: Kristin Roth-Ey (University College of London)

Irina Novikova (University of Latvia)
‘White Gaze’ in the USSR?: ‘Race’ and Technology in the Soviet Films of the 1920s–1960s (from Lev Kuleshov to Mark Donskoi)

Zsuzsanna Varga (Central European University)
Hungarians and White Privilege in Africa: The World Hunting Expo of 1971

James Mark (University of Exeter)
A Revolution of Whiteness? 1989 and the Politics of Race

13.10–14.40 – Lunch

14.45–16.25 – Liminality, Post-Socialism, and Eastern European Whiteness

Chair/Discussant: Ivan Kalmar (University of Toronto)

Bogdan G. Popa (University of Cambridge)
“We Belong to a Great Race, the Dacian Race”: Slavery and the Construction of an Anti-colonial White Race in Romanian Historiography

Chelsi West Ohueri (University of Texas at Austin)
The Jevg Factor: An Exploration of Whiteness, Blackness, and Racialized Identities in Albania

Kasia Narkowicz (University of Gloucestershire)
The ‘Muselmanner’ as the Ultimate Other

16.25–16.40 – Break

16.40–17.15 – Concluding roundtable

20.00 – Film Screening, Cinema Union (Ion Câmpineanu 22, Bucharest, 030167)
Oktyabr and Rostov-Luanda (intro Kristin Roth-Ey)

Colonial Hungary in East and Southeast Asia: The Orientalism of János Xántus


Southeast Asia and Central-Eastern Europe: Forgotten Connections, Stories and Histories

Panel for the EuroSEAS 2019 Berlin Conference, September 10–13, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin


Dr. Jan Mrázek (National University of Singapore) –

Dr. Mária Strašáková (Palacký University, the Czech Republic) –


János Xántus (1825–1894) is remembered as one of the most famed Hungarian natural scientists of the 19th century. As a zoologist and ethnographer, he was a strong supporter and contributor to the Hungarian National Museum, corresponding fellow of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (1859), founder and first director of the first Hungarian zoo (1866) and the Ethnographic Museum (1872), and founding member of the Hungarian Geographical Society (1872). Becoming a political refugee after the failed 1848–49 Hungarian war of independence from the Habsburg Empire, in the 1850s and early 1960s he was drawn into North American expeditions, and developed a vast network to transfer specimens regularly back to Hungary. Finally returning to Hungary (for the second time), after the Austro-Hungarian compromise (1867) he gained the opportunity during 1869–71 to participate in a series of imperial expeditions to East and Southeast Asia, including Ceylon, Siam, Singapore, Java, China, Japan, Taiwan, The Philippines, and Borneo. The original plan of the Austro-Hungarian expedition was to develop foreign trade relations with the opening of the Suez Canal, but it did not fulfill this promise and internal political tensions evolved between Austrian and Hungarian counterparts. This paper focuses on this expedition to explore a postcolonialist and critical geographical interpretation of Xántus, and to elucidate his activities in colonial networks and his global comparative ideas about colonialism and race. This reading aims to epistemologically contest the dominantly biographical and documentary accounts of Xántus, which follow institutionalist or nationalist legitimation logics (focusing on his collections, personality and merits) and seldom engage critically with the wider social, economic, political-ideological and racial contexts of colonialism. While Xántus’ activities relied on national, imperial and colonial power networks and interests, he was known for his critique of colonialism and his solidarity with the colonially suppressed, and made various colonial and racial comparisons between his local Hungarian and foreign experiences. This paper aks whether he pursued Eurocentrism or anti-Eurocentric criticism in his Asian interpretations, and how his depictions of the East fitted in the wider colonial discourse of Western or European Orientalism. The case of Xántus may shed light on how Hungarian colonial knowledge production was embedded in global colonialism.

xántus utazásai


Placing Polányi after 2008: The Double Movement of Social Embeddedness in Eastern European Economies

Karl Polányi and the Double Movement: Introductory Lectures and Roundtable Discussion

Roundtable Discussion

Corvinus University of Budapest, Building E, Lecture Room III
2 May (Thursday) 5:20 PM – 6:40 PM

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Chair: Zoltán Ginelli


Ilya Budraitskis (The Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences, Russia)
Mariya Ivancheva (University of Liverpool, UK)
Brigitte Aulenbacher (JKU Linz, Austria, International Karl Polanyi Society)
Balázs Krémer (University of Debrecen, Hungary)

Polányi’s legacy has been variously forgotten and selectively rediscovered. On the one hand, a holistic reconstruction of his life work would wrongly suggest a return to an “essential” Polányi, but on the other hand, selective rediscovery is not necessarily “wrong”, since everyone finds an own situated interest or influence in Polányi’s rich pool of ideas. On a further note, his own ideas changed over time and were later put to use in different contexts by different interpreters, and have influenced various fields and disciplines, ranging from political science, institutional economics, economic anthropology, economic geography, regulation theory to new economic sociology. During the 1990s, Polányi gained mainstream readership as a critic of neoliberal global capitalism, but was also read in the 1960s socialist bloc due to his ideas of controlled markets.[1] However, Gareth Dale has differentiated between the “soft” Polányi as the “institutionalist” theorist of the social embeddedness of economies, whose ideas have passed into mainstream conceptualizations; and the “hard” Polányi, the prophetic critic of free-market globalization and capitalist commodification, and the advocate of an alternative socialist transformation. In other words, we may distinguish between a “reformist” and a “radical” Polányi.[2] But whichever of his sides we may accentuate, Polányi’s “legacy” remains to “place economies” in a substantivist, comparative and global historical socio-economics.

Like all readings, ours will also be also situational. Polányi may have perhaps too optimistically thought before he passed away in 1964 that laissez-faire capitalism and market fundamentalism are gone for good. Today, he might be puzzled by the successful expansion of East Asian “small tigers” and “communist neoliberal” China, the protectionist turn of the United States, and the rising tide of so-called “illiberal”, state-centralized and nationalist authoritarian regimes from North to South and East to West, with their curious recallings, reinventions or reformulations of what we used to call “neoliberal capitalism”. The aim of this roundtable is to revisit some of Polányi’s key ideas and themes in order to understand how and why recent global capitalist restructuring and hegemonic shifts in the world economy after the economic crisis in 2008 affected the rise of these new authoritarian regimes in Eastern Europe. 

Polányian ideas as point of departure: double movement, embedded economies, and modes of integration

 In his seminal book, The Great Transformation, published during the war in 1944, Polányi introduced two of his perhaps most influential and closely interrelated concepts: the double movement and the embedded economy. These encompassed two wider propositions, which may be in conflict with each other:

1. Historical and progressive proposition

Polányi starts by presenting the evolution of 19th century modern capitalism as a process in which market relations were “disembedded” from social relations. This proposition was born from his debates with neoclassical economists, who envisaged the unilinear development of capitalism leading to an autonomous and self-regulating market, against which he posed his own normative vision of a socialist economy that may transgress the socially disembedded economy with a promise of a socially embedded one. Polányi ultimately believed in a social democratic world where the vicissitudes and inequalities generated by uncontrolled market conditions may be resolved and regulated by democratic planning and a new global order of redistribution.

For Polányi, the double movement represents a dialectical process of emergence: the socially destructive overreach of marketization and the commodification of land, labor and money triggers various forms of “protective” socio-institutional reflexes and counteractions. But Polányi saw in economic crises not only moments of social and institutional change, but also historical opportunities embracing a gamut of alternative political trajectories from revolutionary class struggle to new class compromises between labor and capital, and to political regimes ranging from socialism to fascism.

2. Epistemological and comparative proposition

In a general sense, the embeddedness of the economy means for Polányi that markets and economic activity are constituted through “instituted” processes embedded in social forms, behaviors, and relations. On the one hand, markets are inescapably formed politically and are subject to political contestation and manipulation or management; on the other, markets overflow into social spheres and generate institutional frictions, which create new local articulations or resolutions of economic crises.

Polányi worked with the tensions between holistic modes of analysis and qualitative difference-finding methods. For him, economies are substantive, situated in time and place, in heterogeneous socio-institutional contexts. Since all economies are socially embedded, what matters from a comparative view are their modes of embeddedness or integration. The Polányian economy is multilogical along at least three modes of economic integration: reciprocity, redistribution, and market exchange (according to Jamie Peck, a fourth may be householding).[3] Reciprocity is based on symmetrical relations and mutual sociality as seen in gift-giving economies; redistribution is based on central authority, regulated by custom or law and tax or tribute; exchange is driven by individual gain from priced commodities in an instituted market. Altogether, these different modes of economic integration establish the basis for (re)productive and (re)distributive capacities in societies, which are stabilized through culturally and politically institutionalized forms of regulation.

Questions to roundtable participants

In the current academic “regime debate” we can see rivaling political-institutional typologies of “illiberal democracies”, “populist conservatism”, “soft authoritarianism”, “semi-authoritarian regimes”, Steven Levitsky and Lucan Wray’s “competitive authoritarianism” or “hybrid regimes”,[4] world-systems analysts’ “semi-peripheral dependent development”, or the Varieties of Capitalism School’s typology of national and elite strategies on the different roads to capitalism in the postsocialist “transition”. It is still debated to what extent these new regimes are path-dependent on their local modes of postsocialist development, and whether they actually constitute new forms of neoliberal capitalism or protectionist counter-movements against a liberal capitalist order. But a Polányian explanation would start not with the “disfunctionality” of institutions compared to “democratic” societies, but with their new and comparative modes of socio-institutional integration into an evolving capitalist world order.

Reaching to Polányi’s ideas, we may ask the following questions:

  1. In many Eastern European countries, the 2008 global economic crisis seemed to signal the political failure of the promises of postsocialist “transition” to liberal market economies and democracies (“catching up to the West”). How can we understand the recent dialectic dynamics between the commodifying market-impulses of global capitalism and its local Eastern European social embeddedness: what comparative political-institutional strategies of integration into the capitalist world economy emerged since 2008?
  2. What new modes of social integration have developed under post-2008 political regimes regarding reciprocity, redistribution, or market exchange – new informal economies, new redistributional politics, and new market-regulation by the state and the political elite?
  3. Considering Polányi’s ideas about the double movement, how can emerging nationalist “illiberal” authoritarian regimes be regarded as local socio-political (protectionist) reactions to recent processes of neoliberal global capitalism, and what potentials or challenges remain for counter-movements of progressive politics, social movements or social policy?

[1] Lengyel, György (2016): Embeddedness, Redistribution and Double Dependence: Polányi-reception Reconsidered. Intersections, 2(2): 13–37.

[2] Dale, Gareth (2010): Social democracy, embeddedness and decommodification: On the conceptual innovations and intellectual affiliations of Karl Polanyi. New Political Economy, 15: 369–393.

[3] Peck, Jamie (2013): For Polanyian economic geographies. Environment and Planning A. 45: 1545–1568.

[4] Levitsky, S., Wray, L. A. (2010): Competitive Authoritarianism: Hybrid Regimes After the Cold War. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.