Speaking from the Semi-Periphery: Decolonizing Geographical Knowledge Production in Socialist Hungary, 1960s to 1980s

In recent months I’ve prepared a new research plan/paper on the stuff I’ve been doing, connected to my work in the 1989 After 1989 project:

The “spatial turn” in the history of scientific knowledge has called into question abstract notions of scientific development and specifically national disciplinary and institutional narratives. The past two decades has seen a growing number of studies in the historical geographies of scientific knowledge (HGSK), aiming to understand where knowledge is produced and disseminated, and how the content of knowledge changes in motion and adapts to local contexts and social interests (Livingstone 2003; Powell 2007; Withers 2009). Recently, increased globalization has summoned an upsurge of research focusing on interconnectedness through knowledge networks and circulations, transnational histories and global comparative studies, arguing against the “methodological nationalism” of previous research in favour of alternative transnational concepts (Keim et al. 2014; Conrad 2016).

On the other hand, postcolonial and decolonial approaches have contested Eurocentric or Westcentric epistemological frameworks and discursive formations, providing a reassessment of multiple or alternative modernities and elucidating the hierarchical orders of knowledge regimes (Chakrabarty 2007; Boatca and Costa 2012). However, much of this original literature on postcolonialism focused either on the global centre or the former colonial world, silencing in-between semiperipheral contexts such as Eastern Europe under transitory and provincialised terms such as “postsocialism,” while there has been little theorizing between the “posts” (Chari and Verdery 2009). This marginalization process has also led to the concealment of Second-Third World relations and the interdependency of centre and periphery contexts in an interconnected global context (Ward 2010; Mark and Apor 2014).

While the perceived non-colonial background of Eastern Europe provided excuses for many in the region to distance themselves from postcolonial studies (Moore 2001), historical studies have nevertheless shown the existence of long-term structures of hierarchical dependency and East-West “civilizational slopes” even since the Renaissance and the Enlightenment (Wolff 1994), which have well endured into socialist and postsocialist times (Melegh 2006). This continuity is well captured by the self-Orientalizing development and geographical concepts in social science, geography and economic history (Petrovici 2015). These can be exemplified by various contexts: the enduring dichotomies of “Eastern” and “Western” development (Éber et al. 2014), the “catching-up” neoliberalist transitology (Stenning and Hörschelman 2008), the “civilizing mission” of European Union accession (Böröcz and Sarkar 2005), the subaltern adaptation of development policy models, and the uneven reproduction of Western academic hegemony.

This research argues for “decolonizing” diffusionist and neoevolutionist theories that have been appropriated as the dominant narrative of the global centre and imposed upon the Eastern European context (Boatca and Costa 2012). Simultaneously it argues for a global perspective of transnational interconnectedness in understanding Eastern European developments in the production of geographical knowledge. It does so by using contemporary literature in critical geography and international relations, and specifically in postcolonial, decolonial theory and world-systems analysis to deconstruct internalised structures of dependency and global hierarchies inherent in Eastern European geographical epistemologies. By “speaking from the semiperiphery,” it aims to reassemble local knowledge production on global geographical concepts, in light of overlooked global historical interconnectivity between “East” and “West.” The research aims to apply these theoretical insights to understanding how Hungarian reform economists tried to position the country in various global imaginations between the 1960s and 1980s in the context of integrating into the world economy and thus breaking away with Cold War concepts amidst increasing global competition and economic restructuration due to crises.

After World War II, the imperialist and nationalist-revisionist ambitions of the Hungarian state elite crumbled with the demise of the previous “high imperialist” era. The Communist takeover and the process of Sovietization created a new setting under the imperial and colonial influence of the Soviet Union, and a rise of economist experts succeeding the pre-WWII primacy of geographers. Stalinist orthodoxy summoned a dichotomous Cold War imagination of separate “capitalist” and “socialist” worlds, soon to be called “world systems,” while the production of geographical knowledge and textbooks on regional geography also followed this essential dichotomy. But the détente period after de-Stalinisation and the gradual opening up of diplomatic and trade relations due to an economic upturn in the world economy and the process of decolonisation led to reconfigurations in global geographical and development imaginations.

The maintaining of the Eastern European “buffer zone” necessitated the Soviet Union to foster trade relations both with the West and the so-called Third World. Eastern European reformers in Poland and Hungary pushed towards “market socialism”, as acquiring advanced technology and foreign currency from the West implied finding ways to finance development either through foreign loans or export-oriented growth, and facilitated exporting expertise and investments into the Third World and searching for state-led development models abroad, such as in Spain, South Korea and Chile (Bockman, Feygin and Mark forthcoming). These reformist ambitions generated a virulent debate and the emergence of new geographical concepts connected to the country’s shifting foreign trade policies and lobbying activity in international organizations (UN, UNCTAD, GATT) in order to manoeuvre between “East” and “West.”

While the concept of the “Third World” was disregarded by Eastern European socialist countries, they aimed to reposition themselves between “developed” and “undeveloped” countries in an urge to “catch up” with the West. By the 1970s in Hungary, some new concepts such as “semi-periphery,” “small economies” (Kádár 1971), “open economies” (Kozma 1980) had emerged in the Centre for Afro-Asian Research (1965-) and the Institute for World Economy (1973-) at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, which consequently developed the new field of area studies. In turn, some Western concepts, such as Wallersteinian world-systems analysis and the concept of “semiperiphery” were influenced by Eastern European economic historiography. In later developments, the series of Fejlődés-tanulmányok [Development Studies] published in 1978–1989 and journals such as Világtörténet [World History] introduced the new fields of development studies, world-systems analysis, centre-periphery thinking and postcolonial theory into the fields of area studies and international relations.

This research thus aims to understand through historical materials of scientific publications and policy papers connected to these institutions how alternative geographical conceptions of socialist globalization emerged and permeated global imaginations in area studies. The theoretical-methodological novelty of this research lies in connecting the approaches of transnational or global history, political economy and the history of ideas: Hungarian semiperipheral knowledge production is conceptualised in the interconnected contexts of centre-periphery relations.


Boatca, M., Costa, S. (2012): Postcolonial Sociology: A Research Agenda. In: Rodríguez, E. G., Boatca, M. (eds.): Decolonizing European Sociology: Transdisciplinary Approaches. Farnham and Burlington: Ashgate Publishing.

Bockman, J., Feygin, Y., Mark, J. (forthcoming): The Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and Alternative Globalisations 1950s–1980s. Manuscript.

Böröcz, J., Sarkar, M. (2005): What is the EU? International Sociology, 20(2): 153–173.

Chakrabarty, D. (2007): Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Chari, S., Verdery, K. (2009): Thinking Between the Posts: Postcolonialism, Postsocialism, and Ethnography after the Cold War. Comparative Studies in Society and History, 51(1): 6–34.

Conrad, S. (2016): What is Global History? Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Éber, M., Gagyi, Á., Gerőcs, T., Jelinek, C., Pinkasz, A. (2014): 1989: Szempontok a rendszerváltozás globális politikai gazdaságtanához. Fordulat, 21.: 10–63.

Gille, Z. (2010): Is there a Global Postsocialist Condition? Global Society, 24(1): 9–30.

Kádár, B. (1971): Kis országok a világgazdaságban. Budapest: Közgazdasági és Jogi Könyvkiadó.

Keim, W., Celik, E., Erche, C., Wöhrer, V. (eds.)(2014): Global Knowledge Production in the Social Sciences: Made in Circulation. Corchester (UK): Ashgate.

Kozma, F. (1980): A nyitott szerkezetű gazdaság. Budapest: Kossuth.

Livingstone, D. N. (2003): Putting Science in its Place: Geographies of Scientific Knowledge. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Mark, J., Apor, P. (2014): Socialism Goes Global: Decolonization and the Making of a New Culture of Internationalism in Socialist Hungary, 1956–1989. The Journal of Modern History, 87: 852–891.

Melegh, A. (2006): On the East-West Slope: Globalization, Nationalism, Racism and Discourses on Central and Eastern Europe. Budapest: CEU Press.

Moore, D. C. (2001): Is the Post- in Postcolonial the Post- in Post-Soviet? Toward a Global Postcolonial Critique. PMLA, 116(1): 111–128.

Petrovici, N. (2015): Framing Criticism and Knowledge Production in Semi-peripheries: Post-socialism Unpacked. Intersections, 1(2):

Powell, R. C. (2007): Geographies of Science: Histories, Localities, Practices, Futures. Progress in Human Geography, 31(3): 309–329.

Stenning, A., Hörschelman, K. (2008): History, Geography and Difference in the Post-Socialist World: Or, Do We Still Need Post-Socialism? Antipode, 40(2): 312–335.

Ward, S. (2010): Transnational Planners in a Postcolonial World. In: Healey, P., Upton, R. (eds.): Crossing Borders: International Exchange and Planning Practices. London and New York: Routledge. 47–72.

Withers, C. W. J. (2009): Place and the “Spatial Turn” in Geography and in History. Journal of the History of Ideas, 70(4): 637–658.

Wolff, L. (1994): Inventing Eastern Europe: The Map of Civilization on the Mind of the Enlightenment. Stanford University Press.


Contribution of Arab geography to European “discoveries”

“Finally, maritime geography was the last kind discovered during the Ottoman Empire simultaneously with European “geography discoveries.” Columbus’ journey to the New World was motivated by Arab maritime geography. Vasco da Gama used Arab cartography during his journey to Africa and guided by Mal’im Cana. Marco Polo’s journey was guided by Arab sailors. Portolans, Rahnamjats were used by Europeans sailors. Oceanography was founded by Arab maritime geographers and continued on by European modern geographers. The spirit of Muslim Spain was reincarnated in the new Portugese and Spanish Christian geographers and Sailors.”

Contributions of Arab geographers.

List of Muslim geographers.

Islamic cartography.

Hanafi, Hassan (1992): World-views of Arab Geographers. GeoJournal, 26(2): 153-156.

Americanized “creative destruction” comes from Indian philosophy

I’ve just come upon wikipedia’s article on “creative destruction,” to read that this term, popularized by Schumpeter’s (1948) cyclical framework of technological development, was not only taken from Marx (although he did not use the term literally), but was important in the work of the less-known historical economist and sociologist Werner Sombart. Probably the most important here is that he was heavily influenced by Marx and thought of himself as a “convinced Marxian,” and Engels even noted him as the only German who understood Das Kapital. In his Krieg und Kapitalismus (1913), he wrote:

“Again, however, from destruction a new spirit of creation arises; the scarcity of wood and the needs of everyday life… forced the discovery or invention of substitutes for wood, forced the use of coal for heating, forced the invention of coke for the production of iron. That these events, however, made possible the enormous development of capitalism in the 19th Century, is beyond doubt for any well-informed person. Thus even here, in this decisive point, the invisible threads of commercial and military interests appear closely intertwined.” (p. 207)

The Austrian-American Schumpeter became well known from the 1950s due to the rising American capitalist hegemony and his theory of economic innovation and business cycles which became to flourish in the rising field of neoclassical economics (inspite his prognosis of capitalism’s fall). Sombart, however, was more-or-less forgotten in the Americanized mainstream together with German historical economics, also partly due to his increasingly radical German nationalism which led him close to the Nazi party (although he became disillusioned after 1938). Later, the term “creative destruction” achieved ultimate popularity in its narrow and technical application in neoliberal economics.

Although I found this when I was meddling with Max Weber, this story connects to my research in the historical geographies of knowledge, where I look at the construction of the hegemony of American economics, and how they used German knowledge (and scholars) in a reinterpreted form, leading to an often biased selection of ideas and local interpretations. My episode comes in the picture, when Americans mainstreamed German location theories but totally concealed their origins, e.g. Alfred Weber’s ideas on industrial location and agglomeration effects were taken up but his historical context and critical thought were largely dismissed for the sake of his mathematized “model” to be applied in industrial planning. As for Sombart, he was a hugely important figure as the leading economist in the Younger German Historical School of economics, and the author of a highly influential book Der moderne Kapitalismus (1902), which many compared to Das Kapital. Nevertheless, his negligence is indicative in that his main work never got translated into English. Of course his anti-capitalist, anti-Jewish and anti-British sentiment might also have been an important factor, as according to Harris (1942: 813), he accused the British to possess the Jewish spirit of capitalism, which should be eradicated by the German Volk and National Socialism. As Hugo and Eric Reinert (2006) explain:

“However, during the period after World War II, Sombart and all pre-war II German economics went into an eclipse. Part of the explanation for this was the rise of mathematization of the profession, which was very much against the German tradition. Another part of the explanation was that to a surprising degree what was a healthy scientific baby was poured out with what was perceived as the post-nazi bath-water. The German tradition in economics therefore came to be represented solely by Marx and Schumpeter, a feature which made these two economists seem much more unique than they in effect are when seen in their own historical context. As we have already mentioned, Schumpeter himself assisted in this process, also by systematically neglecting the philosophical foundations of German economics in his History of Economic Analysis (Reinert 2002).” (Reinert and Reinert 2006: 72)

In fact, on Schumpeter’s role, they write:

“Schumpeter’s originality in the Anglo-Saxon environment was then to a large extent also a product of the ignorance, outside Germany, of the traditions on which he built. Part of what Schumpeter did was to filter Sombart’s work  and the economic debate in Germany between the world wars to the Anglo-Saxon world.” (Reinert and Reinert 2006: 73)

But what is even more interesting, as the Reinerts unravel, is that the dialectic idea of “creative destruction” must have arrived into German economic discourse from Johann Gottfried Herder’s philosophy, which influenced Arthur Schopenhauer and the orientalist Friedrich Maier via Nietzsche. The orientalist Herder wrote extensively on Hinduism in his Philosophy of Human History (Ideen zur Philosophie der Geschichte der Menschheit) (Herder 1790–92, volume III, pp. 41–64.) in turbulent times when Western Europe, and especially the Germans, were enthused by ideas from the “East” (Confucianism, Hinduism, etc.), which they interpreted in favor of enhancing their – often radical – political ideas. “Creative destruction” was a concept deriving from the Hindu god Shiiva, who represents the paradox nature of simultaneous destruction and creation. Sombart himself fished this idea second-hand from German orientalist discourse, quoting extensively from Goethe, Fichte, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche:

“Nietzsche’s influence on the work of Werner Sombart is well documented both through Sombart’s many references to Nietzsche and through his biographers. Also the people who most influenced Sombart, some of which were his close friends, were strongly influenced by Nietzsche (Lenger 1994:141). Sombart was himself known to quote frequently from Nietzsche’s Zarathustra (ibid.:247).” (Reinert and Reinert 2006: 73)

It is not that essentialized ideas should always derive from some sort of “authentic origin,” but if scratching the genealogical layers of Western discourse, one can find much more reason in these suppressed discourses and networks of interaction than from “out of nowhere” intellectual developments or historical statemens of founding fathers. This is especially true in cases as such, where the “East in the West” aspect can be highlighted so acutely. Another thing that beautifully surfaces from this is the role of shifting hegemonies in the dissemination of knowledge and interpretation. Truly geographical stuff, indeed.

Harris, Abram L. (1942). “Sombart and German (National) Socialism”. Journal of Political Economy 50 (6): 805–835.
Reinert, Hugo; Reinert, Erik S. (2006). “Creative Destruction in Economics: Nietzsche, Sombart, Schumpeter.” [Word document]
Sombart, Werner (1913). Krieg und Kapitalismus [War and Capitalism]. Leipzig: Duncker & Humblot. p. 207.
Sombart, Werner (1928[1902]): Der moderne Kapitalismus. Historisch-systematische Darstellung des gesamteuropäischen Wirtschaftslebens von seinen Anfängen bis zur Gegenwart. Final edn. 1928, repr. 1969, paperback edn. (3 vols. in 6): 1987 Munich: dtv. (Also in Spanish; no English translation yet.)