Has the dictatorship over needs ended in eastern Europe?

By Laszlo Andor

Among state socialist countries, Hungary distinguished itself from the 1960s by introducing comprehensive economic reforms. These reforms, together with the so-called Prague Spring of Czechoslovakia, were typically interpreted as attempts to establish "socialism with a human face". A major feature of this new face was that the New Economic Mechanism[1] abandoned the Stalinist bias for forced accumulation and heavy industry, and improved the conditions of consumption and agriculture.

The reforms were aimed at political satisfaction, and it can be argued that they led to a better satisfaction of human needs as well. In the same period, a tendency of philosophy emerged in Hungary which made a major contribution to critical social theory by linking its critique of state socialism to the theory of needs. Since these critical works were written, the system has been overthrown. In the new era, the most ruthless neo-liberalism was introduced in the former state socialist world. Nevertheless, the above-mentioned philosophers do not raise the issue of needs and ignore their own earlier theories on politics and society.


A most forceful critique of east European state socialism (Dictatorship over Needs) was written in the late 1970s and published in Australia in 1981 by three Hungarian philosophers. Ferenc Fehér, ágnes Heller and György Márkus were leading representatives of the so-called Budapest School, i.e. the students of the outstanding Marxist philosopher George Lukács.

From a philosophical point of view, the background for Dictatorship over Needs was provided by an earlier work by Heller, The Theory of Need in Marx.[2] In this book, Heller argued that human needs were socially relative, i.e. specific to particular social systems or modes of production. According to Doyal and Gough, she took the scepticism about universal human needs to its logical extreme. She argued that "precisely because of the holistic impact of society on human consciousness and on the formulation of what is and is not a basic need, it is impossible to compare cultures with respect to their progress in maximising need-satisfaction."[3] In other words, due to the relativist approach, the dictatorship over needs became a political concept unrelated to living standards.[4]

In their critical study, Fehér, Heller and Márkus insisted that, instead of making progress towards a classless society, the east European systems represented "a dictatorship over needs".[5] This critique was a complex one, with conclusions in politics, economics and society. The authors identified with the goal of a democratic and socialist[6] world order. They distinguished between a dictatorship over needs and the manipulation or limitation of needs. They thought the latter was a feature of capitalism, though being only one option within that. In their view, since capitalism maintains at least a formal freedom of choice, the structure of needs is deformed rather than impoverished in that system.

Though the three authors presented a heavy critique of Leninist and Stalinist political practice, their work retained ties to Marxist philosophy and discourse. However, the gap between the Marxism of post-Lukácsians and the official Marxism-Leninism had been apparent for several decades.

The relationship between Lukács's Budapest School and the ruling Communist Party (HSWP) started to deteriorate after the Warsaw Pact military intervention in 1968, and became antagonistic a few years after Lukács died in 1971. Some leading followers of Lukács were expelled from the party and even from their jobs. They were also encouraged to leave the country. They did not, however, become jobless, neither in Hungary nor abroad. At home they were typically employed as translators. Abroad their dissident status created a good background for finding academic jobs, particularly because previously Lukács himself recommended his students to foreign colleagues.

By that time, a second generation of post-Marxist philosophers grew up as well the so-called Lukács Kindergarten. Their main representatives, János Kis and György Bence also used Marxist terminology to criticise "Soviet-type society"[7], even after writing a critique of Marx's Capital together with their professor György Márkus. Márkus had pioneered the theory of the "contradictions" between the young Marx and the old, the philosopher and the economist. Despite commodity relations being abolished in eastern Europe, their rationale ran, the true human liberation promised by the young Marx did not materialise. Thus Marx's "economic policy" could be abandoned.

The cannons of philosophy opened the way for marketisation, to the extent facilitated by real political circumstances. In order to challenge this position, the official ideologues of the party would have had to abandon the dogma they shared with the post-Lukácsians, i.e. that socialism can be analysed and measured as a national system. Since they were not prepared to do so, the party had no choice but to use administrative measures against the tendency they called revisionist. Even those politicians who sympathised with them had to comply with the party line.[8]


In 1981, Fehér, Heller and Márkus believed that in eastern Europe there could be no substantial social will that could carry out the restoration of capitalism.[9] The authoritarian subjects of the dictatorship over needs were not fighting for a radical change in their conditions "to gain new lords over themselves". Thus, together with the writer George Konrád,[10] they thought that capitalism in this region could not be restored by democratic means.

Apparently, state socialism and the "dictatorship over needs" were overthrown in eastern Europe in 1989. With the consent of the Soviet Union, a negotiated transition took place in Hungary, which was an outcome of the state socialist crises that had been ruled out by the philosophy of Fehér et al. Some of the post-Lukácsians, like János Kis, became active politicians to show the way forward for the transition, but they also failed to provide an analysis of the crisis and collapse, i.e. why this transition became historically possible.

In our view, purely systemic factors cannot explain the failure and collapse of state socialism in eastern Europe. True, the political and economic mechanism of the Stalinist system was only capable of achieving an "extensive" phase of economic development. To turn to an "intensive" phase, i.e. to improve quality of production and productivity of labour, economic and political reforms became inevitable. Without adequate reforms, the state socialist economies fell into stagnation.

However, stagnation itself could not lead to a terminal crisis without external economic, ideological and military pressure from the surrounding capitalist world. This pressure was aggravated during the early Reagan years, and manifested itself in austerity policies promoted by the IMF[11] and the World Bank in Poland, Hungary, Romania and Yugoslavia.

The former Lukács students, by this time ex-Marxists, never criticised the austerity of the Bretton Woods institutions that finally undermined the consumption-oriented economic policy of the Hungarian leadership. Whenever they analysed the crisis of the system, they took into account only internal factors. When they criticised the system as a socialist one, they by definition remained in the Stalinist and, as a matter of fact, Lukácsian framework of "socialism in one country", i.e. the claim that the new society could be achieved in coexistence with world capitalism..In the 1980s, János Kis and other post-Lukácsians in Hungary were intellectual leaders of the so-called Democratic Opposition, a small dissident movement whose writings were disseminated in samizdat, and whose ideas were progressively absorbed by the technocratic wing of the HSWP bureaucracy. Economists in and around the DO wrote for the illegal Beszél under pen-names, and also worked for the Ministry of Finance during the day. Some of them were prominent in preparing the 1984 reform resolution of the Central Committee of the HSWP, and also the 1987 stabilisation and recovery program of the government. Occasionally, activists of the DO were harassed and beaten up by the police, while they also became informal ideologues of the pro-market wing of the Communist Party.

Thus, in the 1980s, a tacit coalition for market reforms emerged between the technocratic elites of state socialist Hungary and the Bretton Woods institutions. Since, however, the external agents that promoted austerity remained hidden, the attacks on the living standards of the local working classes were underwritten by the ruling Communist parties. The irony of the situation was that the neo-liberal policies of the IMF and the World Bank compromised those so-called Communist elites who had been the most open towards reforming the system. This irony turned into an east European drama in 1989 and into a human catastrophe in Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

Ten years after

After the crisis and collapse of the state socialist regimes of eastern Europe, the roads of the former Marxist intellectuals took diverse directions.

In 1989, Heller and Fehér argued that a third way comparable to the social democratic welfare state of Sweden should be followed by the transition countries of eastern Europe. Soon after, Heller became active in popularising postmodernism in Hungary. Another philosopher who belongs to the former Budapest School, Mihály Vajda,[12] also became a postmodernist, though with a larger amount of Heideggerian influence. György Márkus and János Kis represent a human rights tendency of liberalism, while György Bence has become a liberal conservative. With the exception of Márkus, the emigrants returned home. Regardless of their diverse intellectual routes, the main figures of the Budapest School became heads of academic institutes and university departments. They also took control of some major social science periodicals.

Most post-Lukácsians became politically active in the Alliance of Free Democrats, a party that has been functioning as the political wing of the IMF in Hungary. This party has been the most consistent promoter of free-market capitalism, the very system that Fehér et al suggested would never be an option in eastern Europe. Though the Free Democrats never gained an absolute or relative majority in the general elections, their economic policies dominated the transition agenda throughout the 1990s.

The system that emerged as a result could by no means be called "a democracy of needs" at best it is "the democracy of want". Ten years after the transition began, the Hungarian GDP is just about to approach the level of 1989. We cannot, however, say that we returned to where we started from a decade ago, since this same GDP includes a much lower proportion of material production, and it is distributed much more unevenly. Mass unemployment and homelessness emerged after 1989, and the number of the poor has doubled in the 1990s.

Though pluralism has became a major feature of east European politics, the importance of human objectives in the policy process may have weakened during the past decade. Financial interest has been superior to the conditions of the sick and elderly when the question was how to reform the health care and the pension systems.[13] The electoral process has hardly any influence on the formation of actual economic policies, and the voice of employees and civil society is usually ignored.

The power structure of economic policy making has changed, but that does not mean that public involvement in the process is greater than before. The first two post-Communist governments came to office with promises to raise living standards, but within one year they made sharp U-turns towards austerity. The right-wing government that came to office in 1998 even abolished the Ministry of Labour and degraded tripartite bargaining to a symbolic level.

ágnes Heller, at 70, commutes between New York and Budapest. In her publications, she criticises the quality of sandwiches at the new Ferihegy airport terminal of Budapest perhaps a dictatorship of peripheral capitalism over her own personal needs. Together with some other post-Lukácsians like István Eörsi[14] and Sándor Radnóti,[15] she became a leading intellectual supporter of NATO's air war against Yugoslavia,[16] while some other liberal thinkers like George Konrád can be found in the vanguard of the pacifists. The post-Lukácsians' support for the aggression is a tragic development, and it is also ironic, since the first major political debut of the Budapest School was its collective protest against the military intervention of the Warsaw Pact against the Prague Spring.

Due to the confusion of philosophical discourse and political positioning, it is not easy to make a judgment about Heller, who remains the most active and best known member of the Budapest School. "A post-modern thinker accommodated with the modern world is standing before us."[17] The result, undoubtedly, is a grand perplexity that emerges as a logical outcome of such a grand intellectual tourism. "For the liberals, Heller seems to be a socialist. For contemporary social democrats her ethic seems to be a kind of postmodern liberalism. In reality it is both and neither."[18] This latter view should be seen as typical for the West, from where it is obviously more difficult to follow the intellectual twists and turns the subjects of our analysis have been making in their homeland.

During World War I, Lukács justified his turn to revolutionary Marxism with reference to the world spirit. A similar argument could justify the funny disintegration of the Budapest School. The Lukács School and the Lukács Kindergarten wear the impact of political struggles on their faces. The authors who thought their philosophy to be more authentically socialist than Marxism have become leading ideologues[19] of a capitalist regime, including some authoritarian tendencies within that.[20] Hegel was right: history is full of irony. A progressive analysis of our times needs other sources.



1. Endnote>. For political reasons provided by the 1956 uprising, János Kádár and other leaders managed to raise living standards continuously until the early 1980s. The so-called New Economic Mechanism introduced in 1968 remarkably improved the supply of consumer goods.

2. ágnes Heller, The Theory of Need in Marx, Allison and Busby, 1976.

3. Doyal Len and Ian Gough, A Theory of Human Need, London: Macmillan, 1991.

4. In our view, Doyal and Gough are right to pursue a universalist interpretation of needs, which also makes it possible to make a judgment on the transition of the 1990s from the point of view of needs.

5. Fehér Ferenc, ágnes Heller and György Márkus, Diktatúra a szükségletek felett, Budapest: Cserépfalvi, 1991.

6. This verbal commitment to socialism made the post-Lukácsians popular in the circles of the western New Left. This popularity of course raises questions about the economic conception of the New Left, but the discussion of that would exceed the limits of this paper.

7. Kis and Bence wrote their main work, The Soviet-type Society from a Marxist Point of View, under the pen-name Marc Rakovski.

8. Ferenc Fehér was particularly close to György Aczél, the cultural chief of the Kádár regime for nearly three decades. In 1974, however, Aczél also suffered a political setback, together with Rezs Nyers, another Politburo member, who had been in charge of the 1968 reforms, and expressed dissent against the resolution on the "revisionist" philosophers.

9. It needs mentioning that some major Marxist critics of Stalinism, like Trotsky and Lukács, did consider it possible that a capitalist restoration could follow state socialism in Hungary. Lukács thought that the 1968 market reforms could lead to the restoration of capitalism, and advocated a third way, by which he meant a radically democratised socialist system (see Democratisierung heute und morgen).

10. George Konrád also attended Lukács's seminars in the early 1950s. In the 1970s he wrote The Road of the Intelligentsia to Class Power with sociologist Iván Szelényi.

11. The IMF had an influence on the Yugoslav economy throughout the Cold War period, and gained leverage over economic policies in Poland and Hungary when the global debt crisis emerged in the early 1980s.

12. Vajda, translator of Heiddegger's main works into Hungarian, was the first in the Budapest School to claim that Marxism was dead and capitalism could not be superseded. At that time Márkus and Fehér protested and claimed that Vajda would break up the Budapest School with this position.

13. Market reforms in the post-socialist public sector have been described as dismantling the "premature welfare state" by the economist János Kornai. This is of course a politically correct name for an aggressive destruction of all different forms of social protection. If, however, Kornai is right that state socialism delivered welfare beyond its means, the fallen system would deserve the name "dictatorship of needs" instead of "dictatorship over needs".

14. István Eörsi, a student of Lukács, became a popular writer and lived in Germany before 1989. He has been a leading voice of the so-called left-wing of the Free Democrats. He criticised Konrád in an article for his peace message.

15. Sándor Radnóti is an aesthetician who was an intellectual "son" for Ferenc Fehér. He called the pacifists "naive idiots" and claimed that by protesting against the bombing of Yugoslavia they side with the dictator.

16. Concerning the Balkan war, Heller argues that the pacifists value life more than liberty and that is why they take an apparently neutral position instead of calling for an all-out fight, which would be the right behaviour.

17. László Perecz, "A gondolatdetonátor. Heller ágnes hetvenéves", Népszabadság, May 12, 1999.

18. Peter Murphy, "Az önrendelkezés etikája", Kritika, May 1999.

19. For the sake of historical accuracy, we must mention that there are some outstanding students of Lukács who remained critical towards capitalism, e.g. István Mészáros in London or Miklós Almási in Budapest. The latter, an aesthetician with one foot in postmodernism, has been the most popular author in Hungary on the crises of the global financial markets.

20. Ending a press debate launched by the philosopher Gáspár Miklós Tamás, Heller defended Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who restricted the activity and publicity of parliament and placed his corrupt friends above the law. Tamás, another great geographical and intellectual traveller, recently made an appeal for a broad left-wing alliance with a radical program against the arrogance of the new bourgeois class power.

László Andor is associate professor at the Department of Economic Policy, Budapest University of Economic Sciences, H-1093 Budapest, F vám tér 8. Phone and fax: 36 1 2174721. E-mail: gpol.andor@gpol.bke.hu. This paper was written for the Seventh International Karl Polányi Conference on "Rethinking Human Needs" (Lyon, May 26-28, 1999).