Home > BC: Hungary 1919-1945, In English > Agrarian misery, bondage and struggle

Agrarian misery, bondage and struggle

The poor peasants and wagewokers of the villages and farms also lingered on after the defeat of the revolution. The agrarian workers had „fixed labour-time” in the sense that they were working literally day in day out. They were usually on bread and water and ate some onion – this was their repast, which was calmly called lunch break. Their nutrition was „very manifold and abundant”, they ate meat and fruits very rarely, all the more bread, onion, and scrambled soup. In his book Néma forradalom (‘Silent Revolution’) Imre Kovács writes down in detail how the poor countrywomen (afterwards agrarian workers) had killed their children since the period of serfdom not to bear the children into misery, while the ruling class had been treating about the considerable wane of the Hungarian. In Zoltán Szabó’s book entitled Tardi helyzet (‘Circumstances in Tard’) an eleven years old girl of agrarian working-class origin who vegetated in Tard reported on the manifoldness of her diet as follows: “I don’t eat meat, because there is no meat.” Plain answer. (Nowadays the “condemned men” of the Diósgyor carcase-pit can eat some meat because they engorge the city’s carcases of dogs, of cats, etc. Corking repast!). This shocking world is unveiled against us, if we read the works of the Hungarian “narodniks”.3 he social imprint of the feudal-capitalist dirt of the misery: farm-hands, day-wage men sentenced to everlasting grind. The backwardness was reflected by the fact that the agrarian working class was unable even to form trade unions, thus only the social democrats and the Bolsheviks were agitating in the countryside, however they were not too successful. The formerly relatively strong agrarian-socialist movement, however, occurred from time to time and caused watchful nights for the gendarmerie for weeks at a time. The organizational level of our class, however, was not so depressing, as one could conclude from the above facts.

In this period, due to the capitalist transformation of the Hungarian economy, class antagonism became simplified to two antagonistic classes. Therewith the mental forms of feudal backwardness, however, dominated strongly. The landlords remained the same pitty monarchs at their lands, like they had formerly been as landed gentries. In spite of that capitalism had liberalized the economy, it took a whale of a time till the culture of capitalism also entered the old rustic milieu and displaced it from its secular lethargy. The Hungarian rural bourgeoise, with his genteel hobbies, romantic nationalism, and his intense greed, could exploit the wageworkers living there in the most extreme forms. There were genteel sprees (sticking pigs, hard drink and wine, bitches, pipe smoke and headache at dawn…), all these were paid from the exploited work of the farm-hands, day-wage men and ground-men. Meanwhile the arrogant former gentries were gradually becoming bankrupt and they had to abandon their feudal style of living and were under the necessity of acclimatizing to the day-to-day challenges of capital. Their subjects were the ground-men, the day-wage men, the farm-hands and the smallholders who were farming their small lands – the exploited agrarian working class consisted of them. There could be economic differences between them, like a street-cleaner differs from a greengrocer (who functions as the possessor of the means of production but unable to profit from it beyond his or her own living) who uses his or her own labour force and doesn’t exploit alien labour.

„The land reform of the counter-revolution created parcels of 2-3 acres which were unviable, over and above the redemption totally impoverished the new landholders. Since 1920 the number of smallholders increased from 720000 to 912932. Due to this the land reform not only made the distribution of the land even more unbeneficial, but increased the degree of exploitation of the agrarian labour force and caused catastrophic decrease in the wages of the day-wage men. It’s well-known that the smallholder, even within general conditions, was unable to pay his way only by farming his own land. He had to sell his labour force and to work for an other person in order to earn the money required to cover the shortcoming. Actually his interests are the same that of the day-wage man, since both of them, against the employer, try to obtain the highest wages possible. In case of unemployment, however, the smallholder has an advantage over the day-wage man living only from selling his labour force, because the smallholder can gain his subsistence in part from his land. The land reform not only increased the number of smallholders, but at the same time due to the redemption charged them. The smallholder couldn’t dreamt that working on his 1-2 acres’ parcel he would be able to pay both the redemption, the tax and would have enough money for his own living and for his family. He had to snatch with the avidity of despair for every realizable and unrealizable chance to work, for any wages. In fact the land reform opposed the smallholders who got some land to the day-wage men and according to the official data of the Ministry of Agricultural, between 1926 and 1931 decreased the yearly average wage of the agrarian workers from 429 to 227 pengos.” – noted the Marxist István Miklós Stolte in his brochure entitled Az ezer éves per: földreform és telepítés (‘The Thousand Years Old Cause: Land Reform and Settlement’).

Out of the workers exploited in the agriculture the typical wageworker, the day-wage man got the lowest wage, which was approximately 180 pengos per year (it was just enough to avoid dying of hunger) in the early thirties. The farm-hand earned yearly 200 pengos. The day-wage man beyond his beggarly wage got some flare, potatoes, flour, etc. in order that he could avoid dying of hunger and could go to work again. In general there were two gainers in an agrarian working-class family. In 1930 there were 220000 families of farm-hands and 560000 families of day-wage men, approximately. The day-wage men in average worked yearly 120-150 days, they usually didn’t have any work in winter so then the level of unemployment was very high. Out of the workers dragging on a miserable existence a lot of people were analphabet (accoding to certain sources in 1930 the administration „didn’t want to give Bible” into the hands of 433000 analphabets). And if somebody learnt to read, that person „was molesting the administration”, as the following report shows: „András Pethes, as the first member of the family who learnt to read and to write, ascribed unhuman power to the letters. He sent applications and petitions to all of the imaginable powers and listed his charges against the squire. In these he grouped the thousand year old discontents of the peasantry, which broke from his conscience out, with especial excitement. Finally the administration sent him into madhouse, since the father behaved intractably and was reiterating that the land concerns the people.” – wrote Géza Féja.

Against the mass of the agrarian working class stood the rural bourgeoisie (small capitalists and great landlords) as well as the urban aristocrats (of course they were also bourgeois) who possessed estates in the countryside. Since the mid of the 19th century (when the “civil revolution” had swept over Austria-Hungary, together with the industrial revolution) the feudal conditions had been gradually abolished by the capitalist development which commenced also in Hungary. But the level of the capitalist development fixated on a primogenous level of capitalist economy even in the first decades of the twentieth century and only slowly passed yesterday feudalism. The mode of production was transformed, the latifundia were farmed by wageworkers, however the rural provinciality was capitalizing very slowly. As Ferenc Erdei country-researcher wote: “An other feature of the countryside is its backwardness. It means that everything happens sooner in the town, and even the things which happen sooner in the countryside or happen only there, become important according to the town. In the town the newspapers appear, the news arrives sooner, most of the initiatives arise from there and especially the prices are formed there. Rain and hailstorm are the events of the countryside, but also these become a social affair through the price-forming, the news and the standpoints of the town market. And, above all: much or, one might as well say, all of the major events of the bourgeois society take place only in the town, so the countryside can participate in them necessarily only secondly, only as a follower or as a borrower. Now this secondary and backward condition forms either the affirmative acceptance of backwardness or the striving against backwardness as special rural attitudes. The village close to the town follows quickly and tries not to stay out from anything, but the godforsaken village – which hardly can do anything other – forms a principle from its backwardness, or languishes and dies under the burden of backwardness which cannot be remedied or beautified by turning it into a conservative principle.” According to this, the statements of József Révai (who had a sometimes very meaty dialectical critical ability, but who was advancing more and more towards Stalinism) are also valid: “Of course the main power – big capitalism – is in the hands of Budapest, but there is a Hungarian speciality – the dictatorship of the capital over the countryside gets along with the dictatorship of the countryside over the capital. Economically, financially and culturally, the capital is the master, but the countryside takes revenge, and it subjugates the capital in Budapest itself. The class compromise dominating over the life of the Hungarian society since 1867 manifests itself: the upper classes of Budapest borrow the strata, with which they keep both the countryside and Budapest below them, from the countryside. But the synthesis of the big capitalist and feudal forces is not a total fusion but only the ‘unity of the opposites’, that’s why a new unity has to be created – by struggle and bargain – again and again.”

So, this was the basis on which the resistance of the agrarian proletariat developed. Even during the most serious harassments, some agrarian socialist cells gave a sign of life. At the spring of 1921, and illegal cell was created in Endrod, other groups were formed later in Jászapáti and Jászszentlászló, and the organizing efforts manifested themselves also in the growing number of isolated strikes. Arrests and worrying were on the agenda. The Bolshevik fraction in Vienna kept contacts with those Bolshevik groups in Hungary which were regularly leafleting in the area of the Tisza river, cheering the “new proletarian power”. The social democratic party also continued its petty political practices (in the environs of Nagymaros, the party promised several thousand koronas for those who voted for them, but if they didn’t vote they were threatened with unemployment), while the agrarian workers, who were followers of the party, were continuously worried by the gendarmerie. At the 20’s, only a pale shadow remained from the old, powerful agrarian socialist movement, the main problem was that the industrial proletariat and the agrarian proletariat were unable to create their own unified party-cells. At the one hand, the agrarian proletariat had been startled by the practices of the Bolshevik-social democratic party during the Council Republic. During this, they experienced that the old masters had been replaced by new ones or the masters even remained the same, (“The Hungarian agrarian proletariat with its low level of education couldn’t understand that in technical and functioning questions it had to obey the same farm manager who had subjugated and bled it – in the name of the landowner – before the revolution” – remarked Jeno Varga in 1921, dealing with the agrarian critique of the Council Republic), they “hunger for land” had not been satisfied, just like before.

Moreover, such dividing forces as the various smallholders’ and farmers’ parties, associations, federations were present, which promised land reform and which had a strong influence thorough the country. The organizations of the urban proletariat were both numerically and organizationally weak to embrace the whole of the Hungarian working class, and a mere propaganda activity wouldn’t have been enough to revolutionize their fellow sufferers if those were not revolutionized by their immediate reality. The urban and the rural proletariat were dependent on each other, each of them would have had to encounter the bourgeoisie on its “own terrain” while trying to unify their forces. But except for some single events, this did not take place in the given period. Though the agricultural working class counted millions, it was isolated and scattered which enabled the power to keep it in check. The circumstances of the agrarian workers were even worse than those of the industrial workers, since its lack of organization made it naked to the landowner. The risk of the enterprise was partially shifted on them, since if there was a bad harvest, they received less wage for more work, this way unfreely taking over a part of the bourgeois’ loss. And if they tried to stick up for their interests then they could easily become unemployed since there was a considerable redundancy in agricultural workforce throughout the whole period.

Nevertheless, the army of the exploited, which was weakened after the revolution, slowly started to feel its legs. At the summer of 1920, several proles in Sümeg refused to swear an oat at the conscription, and shouting „We don’t swear!”, singing the International, they left the hall. The authorities literally hunted to our comrades at the homesteads, in the villages, in the dusty small towns and also in Budapest. Flatfeet were snooping around, until now this has been succeeded by the technique of universal camera-settings. The same disgusting atmosphere was scragging the agricultural and industrial proletariat, the bourgeois carrion-blow of which we can feel today again in the press, on the streets and squares, on the markets, in the villages and on the trams. Provincialism coupled with nationalist scamming and with the profit-hunting mechanism dictated by the ruling class. In spite of all these, the proletariat’s will to live manifested itself in countless ways – from the refusal of work until the arrests because of movement-organizing activity, from the strikes up until the bloody struggles on the streets. The state organs sorrowfully discovered that at a lot of places, the agricultural proletarians decorated their walls with the pictures of Marx and Lassalle instead of crosses. The series of tortures, interrogations couldn’t break the impetus of the agricultural proletariat’s struggle which was often unorganized but undoubtedly permanent. From the middle of the 20’s the strikes proliferated – in 1926 at the time of harvest the production was paralyzed in several places because the reapers stopped working. At this time there was a walk-out also in Nyírmártonfalva, the strikers were arrested for one month. There were strikes also in Moson, in Mezogyána and other places. Gumshoes and lurkers traveled throughout the country, and bombarded the state organs with their reports. In a report from 1928 we can read: „Unemployment spreads more and more, thousands of ground-men are condemned to inaction and discontent rises more and more. The vital interests of 70000 people who are able to work are in question, who will get into a crucial situation if we don’t help them by creating sufficient job opportunities. There are 5000 members in the ground-men’s contractor co-operative but these also cannot provide job opportunities. One must let the redundant workers to go abroad and the church must also work more on education to ‘fraternal love’ since as less we deal with our working masses as more their private and public life will be driven towards extremities – harmful internationalism and disbelief.” In several places there were imprisoned those workers who started to organize because of the sleazy fare and the low wages. The usually unorganized „labour troubles” were quickly smashed by the authorities, but they were not able to short out the self-organizing agricultural proletariat itself from the world of misery. Much were fired, the strikers were often doomed to prison or penalty (if the comrade was imprisoned at harvest time then its family was doomed to dying of hunger). The wage struggles usually ended with a defeat, and this intimidated the strikers since the bogy of firing and incarceration was hovering over their heads.

The Bolsheviks, thus also the MSZMP (‘Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party’; the legal cover-party of the Bolsheviks which was created in 1925) found out that the struggle of the agricultural proletariat and that of the industrial proletariat had to be swung to the same direction, this was also propagated by them in one of their proclamations distributed in the countryside, in which they urged the unification of the workers of the town and those of the countryside. But our Bolsheviks were not able to slough their elitist skin also in this case. Deeply scorning the agricultural proletariat, they stressed that it is the urban proletariat which is only capable of leading their struggle to victory. This typical, falsely understood vanguard-fudge was later accepted within the ranks of agrarian workers (after the “World War II”, in particular), but until that the Bolshevik agitation had harmed the life of the oppressed of the villages with less efficiency. Certainly, the unification of the forces – on the basis of mutual dependence – would have been important for the agricultural and the industrial proletariat, but this was not realized.

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