The transnational history of Hungarian economic geography and spatial planning in the state-socialist era, 1949-1989

Research plan

The importance of global and transnational history

Global or transnational history emerged in the past one and a half decades as a fresh, quickly spreading research approach. The traditional historiography which had its origins in the 19th century, dealt with world historical events and processes in an Eurocentric perspective that idealized Western development, and in nation-state „boxes” (referred to as methodological nationalism). However, parallel to increasing globalization and world economical restructuration in previous times, there is an increase in studies focusing on global comparativity, interdependent relations and networks. These studies analyze local scientific and policy development paths not in nation-state frameworks, but in their global embeddedness and transnational interconnectivity. The critical and revisionist appeal of this new approach confronts the dominant narratives on global economic development produced by the center, as it reinterprets global historical processes with the inclusion of voices in the periphery.

The reconceptualization of Eastern European development narratives

The dominant neoliberal narrative of the postsocialist „market transition” still refers to the Eastern European state-socialist era in an ordered discourse of the inner traits: underdeveloped modernization, state centralization and bureaucracy, inefficient economy and low production standards, and distorted social structures. However, the ideologically loaded distinction of the „market economy” and the „planned economy” in the Cold War era concealed the global intertwinedness of capitalist and socialist worlds, which was especially the case for Eastern European countries which became ever more integrated into the world economy. This research contests this one-sided narrative that emphasizes demarcation. It argues that the development of the state-socialist Hungarian economy was determined by its specific strategies of integration and catching up to the world economy (cf. „Hungarian model”), in the context of its semiperipheral position in the international division of labour and its interdependent relation to the global economy. The study turns to recent perspectives in globalization studies, notably world-systems analysis, dependency theory and postcolonial theory to look at the directions of socialist era Hungarian knowledge production and policy-making in its connections and interdependence with geopolitical and world economical conditions of possibilities.

The small-sized, resource poor and „open” Hungarian economy shifted its import substitution industrialization to export-oriented growth due to the development of East-West relations and the world economic boom in the 1960s. The country aimed to base its development on acquiring Western and Soviet technology imports and loans, and apart from traditional partners (like the European Economic Community) conducting foreign economic agreements and investments to the „Third World” or developing countries, and gaining benefits from post-WWII international integrations (Comecon, UN, GATT). Eastern European countries, especially Hungary, were integrally connected to the globalizing world economy through these new international organizations, and global development trends and economic cycles also provided the external conditions of local economic policies. However, accounts of economic history seldom analyze the networks of experts or the exchanges in policy knowledge, which laid the foundations of development models and orientations „behind the scenes.”

The transnational interpretation of Hungarian state-socialist economic geography and spatial planning

Following from the above, the aim of this study is to apply recent literature on the geographies of knowledge and policy mobilities with global and transnational history to reveal the international knowledge networks, geopolitical relations and world economic integration strategies that affected Hungarian state-socialist economic geography and spatial planning. The hypothesis of the research is that in semiperipheral Hungary the development path of regional planning was closely intertwined with world economic cycles, world hegemonic shifts, and external financing. The structural settings of the post-war world economic boom, post-Stalinist Soviet politics and increasing rapprochement in East-West relations led to the establishment of Hungarian and Eastern European regional planning (1958). The research shows that the „technocratic turn” emerging in the 1960s under state-socialism was closely connected to contemporary international trends, thus the Western (mostly American) „quantitative revolution” and efforts of integrating into the world economy, all of which conditioned the institutionalization of Hungarian regional economics and regional science.

The new directions of the Eastern European region were set by the Soviet Party congresses of the post-Stalinist era (1956-1966), which apart from introducing „long-term planning”, outlined directives for achieving the scientific foundations of socialism, the development and application of mathematical economic methods (modeling, prognosis), and the study of capitalist countries and world economic integration. The technocratic „neutrality” of mathematical methods and rational planning served as the ideological basis of the „critical” adaptation of globally spreading Western – mostly American and British – neoclassical economic perspectives and models of the „quantitative revolution” (regional science, regional economics). From the 1960s, there evolved active global debate and knowledge exchange of urban and regional planning methods: the East was seeking highly developed Western methods, while the West was interested in the promises of central planning.

In Hungary, the semi-market reforms of the „New Economic Mechanism” generated increasing demand for adapting modern spatial planning models, which were considered to be fully and holistically applicable in the long-term plans of small-sized, centrally planned Eastern European states (e.g. the 1971 Plan for National Settlement Network Development), a characteristic that caught the eyes of many „Third World” countries. Hungary’s semi-peripheral position in the hierarchy of the world-system was to be improved by participating in and benefiting from newly developed international organizations (Comecon, UNIDO, UNCTAD, GATT). Long-term planning coordination in Comecon enabled exchange in regional planning experiences, while increasing global openness facilitated the participation in Western conferences and the establishment of international expert networks (conferences and world congresses of the International Geographical Union, Ford scholarships, UN organizations and projects, joint seminars, exchange programs, joint committees). In the meantime, the 1950s wave of decolonization facilitated export strategy, knowledge transfer and prestige investments aiming at the „Third World”, which saw the establishment of a number of spatial planning programs in the 1960s and especially the 1970s (with the expansion of Comecon). Hungarian planners were also active participants in these programs, while many developing countries explicitly sought models of catching up that stemmed from Eastern Europe (e.g. Ghana, Tanzania, Cuba, Vietnam, Algeria, Egypt, Indonesia, Peru, Chile). The aim of this research is to look at expert connections both between the center-semiperiphery and the semiperiphery-periphery in order to reevaluate the history of Hungarian state-socialist spatial planning in a transnational perspective.

Hungarian spatial planning under flexible and interdependent world economic development

While in Hungary the normalization era after 1949 under communist Party rule led to the introduction of the Soviet system (rayonization, council system) and the autarchic economic policy of extensive heavy industrialization in a precarious geopolitical environment, later trends towards „market socialism” in the reform process necessitated a trained professional staff of planners (technocrats) and more intensive production in export branches, which constituted the basis of integration into the world economy. This called for the „complex” scientific „rationalization” of selective, export-oriented and flexible industry development and the settlement network, the development of the tertiary sector and infrastructure, and the industrialization of the countryside (export exchange mostly consisted of agrarian, light, machinery and chemical industry goods). This research thus interprets contemporary „regionalizing debates” (körzetesítési viták) between the industrial lobby of economists and economic geographers who were opting for territorial production profiles, and the urbanist lobby of architects and regional developers who called for raising welfare and consumption levels and developing infrastructure in this broader political economic context. With long-term planning, spatial policies focusing on risk management, company behavior and territorial decentralization came to the fore in the 1970s. The flexible, post-Fordian world economy after the 1973–79 oil crisis generated greater demand for intercompany cooperation, competitive small or medium-sized production units, warehouse reserves, while among location factors emerged market-based wage and price factors and the relational term of „economic spatiality” (e.g. price distances).

The aim of this research is to examine how the scientific and policy-making environment of Hungarian economic geography and spatial planning reacted to the above challenges in economic policy. These changes called for the development of permeability between socialist and capitalist systems, which was one of the most important international discourses of the era („market and plan” debate). This problem especially surfaced in the socialist „translations” of location theory and central place theory (von Thünen, Weber, Lösch, Christaller), which – in differing ways and extent – were based on marginalist economic foundations and supposed a market environment (e.g. ground rent theory) and a state-centralized structure in planning. The importance of these theories is shown by the fact that they constituted most of the scientific foundations and legitimation of contemporary policies in industry location and settlement network development, and also constituted the scientific canon of an emerging regional economics and regional science parallel to the West. Although location theory and central place theory had already been used in the interwar era (e.g. Gyula Hantos, Gyula Prinz, Tibor Mendöl) and the early communist period, they came to the fore from the 1960s Western spread of sophisticated quantitative methods, systems theory and probabilistic models that took into account market behavior (game theory, Monte Carlo simulations in diffusion). The research thus analyses East-West scholarly and expert connections and knowledge exchange, and interprets the development of Hungarian spatial planning in light of the differing applications of location theories and central place theory in the East and the West.

Postsocialist continuities in Hungarian spatial planning

The policies of spatial planning under the state-socialist era essentially determined the postsocialist spatial structure of the country (e.g. the 1971 and 1986 reconfiguration of the National Plan for Settlement Network Development). Whilst the increasing indebtedness of the country following from financialization trends after the oil crisis led to the rollback of reforms, economic stagnation, strengthening centralization, and a temporary decline in spatial planning, the strongly institutionalized regional planning in the 1980s (a network of research institutes under the Hungarian Academy of Sciences existed from 1984) increasingly sought to canonize Western spatial planning knowledge and methods, which proved to be important in the so-called „market transition”. It is less well-known however, that the emerging regional planning canon of the 1970s laid the foundations of the increasing institutionalization of Hungarian regional science and general developments after the system change, when planning came to a revival in the European Union regional policy, which took over much of state redistributional functions (signaled by the 1996 National Plan for Spatial Development). This research also elucidates the socialist history and experiences of regional planning knowledge later highlighted by the „new economic geography” of Paul Krugman in the 1990s, which is concealed by the one-sided narrative of neoliberal triumphalism and neoclassical economics to this day.