The Value of Labor: The Science of Commodification in Hungary, 1920-1956

The Value of Labor: The Science of Commodification in Hungary, 1920-1956

by Martha Lampland

NOOK Book(eBook)

View All Available Formats & Editions

Available on Compatible NOOK Devices and the free NOOK Apps.
WANT A NOOK?  Explore Now
LEND ME® See Details


At the heart of today’s fierce political anger over income inequality is a feature of capitalism that Karl Marx famously obsessed over: the commodification of labor. Most of us think wage-labor economics is at odds with socialist thinking, but as Martha Lampland explains in this fascinating look at twentieth-century Hungary, there have been moments when such economics actually flourished under socialist regimes. Exploring the region’s transition from a capitalist to a socialist system—and the economic science and practices that endured it—she sheds new light on the two most polarized ideologies of modern history.
            Lampland trains her eye on the scientific claims of modern economic modeling, using Hungary’s unique vantage point to show how theories, policies, and techniques for commodifying agrarian labor that were born in the capitalist era were adopted by the socialist regime as a scientifically designed wage system on cooperative farms. Paying attention to the specific historical circumstances of Hungary, she explores the ways economists and the abstract notions they traffic in can both shape and be shaped by local conditions, and she compellingly shows how labor can be commodified in the absence of a labor market. The result is a unique account of economic thought that unveils hidden but necessary continuities running through the turbulent twentieth century. 

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226314747
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 09/15/2016
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 368
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Martha Lampland is professor of sociology and faculty director of the Science Studies Program at the University of California, San Diego. She is the author or editor of several books, including Standards and their Stories and The Object of Labor, the latter published by the University of Chicago Press.

Read an Excerpt

The Value of Labor

The Science of Commodification in Hungary, 1920â"1956

By Martha Lampland

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-31474-7


Moral Imperatives, Political Objectives

Agriculture was the backbone of the Hungarian economy, the productivity of labor its Achilles heel. Bemoaned as the "country of three million beggars," Hungary suffered from a surfeit of labor and a paucity of enthusiasm for modern business. Large manorial estates sprawled across the countryside, relying on an indifferent community of impoverished rural families to farm the land, while peasant landowners struggled to make do. Proposals to remedy the problem fell into two broad camps: advocates for land reform anticipated the growth of an intensive peasant agriculture while proponents of scientific engineering imagined a highly rationalized sector of large agrarian enterprises. The debate over these alternatives during the interwar period was framed in terms of economic advantage, both sides citing numbers and graphs to bolster their claims. The divisions, however, were grounded in deep moral convictions about the dignity of labor, the right to property, and the national purpose. Land reform advocates were associated with left wing politics; those endorsing rationalized modernization were strongly committed to conservative, right wing politics. At the end of World War II, the political compass of the debates pointed in new directions. Scientific rationalization became the byword of the Communist Party, making them strange bedfellows with conservative champions of capitalist business whose modernist vision supported collectivization in the late 1940s. Those who received land in the land reform in 1945 — most of whom had numbered among the agricultural proletariat — did not vote in the 1947 elections for the Communists but sided with parties on the right guaranteeing property rights. As we shall see, this about-face makes sense once the principles debated in the 1920s and 1930s are outlined. In the following chapter, I will discuss four crucial points of disagreement between the two factions during the interwar period — (1) economies of scale, (2) standard of living, (3) property rights, and (4) morality and the demographic crisis — to show how the debates unfolded. Arguments were legion but shared a common language: a reliance on statistical data and, when that was lacking, a recourse to complex commensuration exercises to produce comparable numbers. After the war certain claims lost legitimacy, such as arguments about property and race; institutions with which claims to land were associated, such as the Catholic Church, were subject to open criticism by social reformers and leftist politicians. Yet the core of the economic argument on behalf of large-scale production continued to be legitimate in the eyes of agrarian economists and work scientists, their position strengthened when thousands of new property owners failed to establish viable farms by the end of the 1940s.

The Lay of the Land

The Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed at the end of World War I. New nations were formed, such as Czechoslovakia and the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes, while the territory of Romania vastly increased by absorbing the territories of Transylvania and Bukovina. Hungary shrunk to one-third its prewar size, losing thousands of acres of plowland, meadows, and forests. In the decade following the war land reform was enacted by virtually all countries in the region, but Hungary's conservative forces forestalled any significant change, leaving it with the most skewed distribution of property in Central Europe. Close to 75 percent (74.7) of the farms in Hungary had less than 5 kh (2.85 ha). These small holdings covered only one-tenth of the land under cultivation. At the other extreme, we find that more than a third of the land (37.7 percent) was distributed among 0.15 percent of the total number of farms in the country. Farms between 50 and 100 kh (28.5 and 57 ha) — i.e., those considered large enough to be self-supporting — were scarce; they constituted only 1 percent of the farms and covered only 6.4 percent of arable land (Kerék 1939, 300; see table 1.1).

Manorial estates in Hungary resembled latifundia and colonial plantations familiar in the New World and Far East: an expanse of land, dotted with small outposts for resident workers, and a wealthy owner or renter rarely to be seen in the estate's vicinity. Among its residents we would find a steward, ten coachmen, three farmhands assigned to the coachmen, a farm boss, seven general use farmhands, someone in charge of feed for the animals, two dairymen, three cowboys, two pigherders, and one shepherd. Craftsmen lived on the estate as well. There would be several machinists, a blacksmith, an assistant to the blacksmith, a cartwright with his apprentices, a stonemason, and someone in charge of the warehouse. Two gardeners and two viticulturists would be counted among the specialists employed on the estate. The families of estate workers (cseléd) were housed in isolated clumps of buildings scattered across the land. In the summer months approximately fifty migrant workers would come to do all the fieldwork, and all additional tasks throughout the year would require hiring an additional 3,715 days of adult male labor. In contrast to the workers living on the estate, day laborers lived in nearby villages, whereas migrant workers came from farther away, sometimes far-flung counties in poorer regions. Landowners who lived in villages adjacent to or in the vicinity of manorial estates treated estate workers poorly — viewing them as little more than animals — and considered them to be as foreign to the region as migrant workers were, even though their families may have lived on the estate for generations.

Workers residing on the estate were paid on a yearly contract, the majority of which was comprised of goods in kind: a fixed amount of grain (wheat, rye, barley), firewood, and in some cases a kilogram of bacon and a measure of salt. A small amount of cash was allotted to each household. Housing was provided, if one could call it that: four large families lived in one room measuring approximately seven square meters. Families were given the right to a small garden plot and often had the opportunity to raise piglets until the age of one. In exceptional circumstances, manorial residents were allowed to keep a cow for milk. Migrant workers were paid with grains and room and board; only day laborers were paid in cash. What workers earned in yearly contracts or by day labor varied from county to county and sometimes from manorial estate to manorial estate. While the means of recruiting migrant workers resembled a labor market — a labor boss recruited a band of workers every spring — the contractual relationship was usually based on long-term ties between specific villages and particular manorial estates that siphoned off better workers, leaving only a motley crew of obstinate and lazy folk for everyone else. Under these conditions, labor productivity was extremely poor, difficult to improve, and even more difficult to measure. Modernizing production — rationalizing farms to compete internationally — was only a a pipe dream. Undaunted, agrarian work scientists and economic engineers sought to make this dream a reality.

Disagreements Economic and Moral

The conservative government often depicted Hungarian village communities as populated by the self-supporting, proud, and deeply nationalistic peasant landowner, wrapping itself in populist clothing while downplaying the need for land reform. Numerous essays and monographs strongly contested the image of a comfortable peasant lifestyle promoted by the conservative government, penned by leftist social critics known under the collective name of "sociographs" (e.g., Illyés 1936; Kovács 1937; Szabó 1937; see also Tóth 1984 and Esbenshade 2006). The land question was rehearsed interminably in publications of every sort (weekly newspapers, journals, pamphlets, dissertations, and book-length monographs). Academics, businessmen, and political activists of every stripe participated. Those who advocated on behalf of manorial farms included professional economists, religious leaders, conservative nationalists, and intellectuals associated with rightist causes, though their motivations differed sharply. Business economists and work scientists, for example, were primarily motivated by their interests in modernization and improved productivity in agriculture, while the Catholic Church emphasized its moral obligations to society. These claims rang hollow, since "the Catholic Church was one of the largest landowners in Hungary, deriving a good part of its wealth from vast estates in the south and west. Given this vested material interest, the episcopate could hardly support any serious effort at land reform that might improve the lot of Hungary's ethnic Magyar peasantry and so remained skeptical of anything that smacked of populism" (Hanebrink 2006, 130). Advocates for land reform clustered on the left of the political spectrum, though some conservative religious associations numbered among their ranks. Beyond simple arguments in terms of the equitable distribution of land, many in this camp envisioned a rejuvenated agricultural economy based on small farms specializing in intensified production as an alternative to manorial estates dominating the landscape.


The relative advantages of small versus large farms preoccupied those on both sides of the land reform debate. Economic arguments advanced by promanorial advocates claimed that large farms were more productive and offered more stable, secure employment. It was a matter of gospel in this camp that large estates were more able to modernize than small farms, in part because manorial properties were better equipped than their poorer neighbors. To assuage their leftist colleagues, conservative writers were fond of citing the debate Kautsky led over proper economies for agriculture as evidence for their position. Land reform advocates were fully cognizant of the distinct disadvantage small farms confronted in relation to economies of scale. Family landownings — accumulated through inheritance and marriage — were frequently divided up into small plots scattered across the outskirts of the village boundaries. In the absence of any substantial land reform, peasant advocates argued that consolidating holdings would significantly improve the viability of small farms. A popular alternative was a vision of "Garden Hungary," intensifying agricultural production to replace the obsolete "wheat factory" (gabonagyár) model of large estates inherited from the previous century (Kerék 1942, 92). This approach was considered a far more competitive and sustainable model for farming, better suited to the nation's climate and geographical position within Europe. Moreover, small-scale but intensive farming had the definite advantage of requiring greater labor inputs, a must in a country burdened with an unemployed agrarian proletariat.

The economy of scale argument did not necessarily support the idea that manorial estates should be kept intact, since large sections of land on manorial estates were underexploited. This was particularly true of the larger estates. Approximately one-third of the acreage of manorial estates larger than 500 kh (285 ha) was not cultivated (Kerék 1939, 316); the percentage of land devoted to forests at large estates varied from 12.9 to 42.8 percent (ibid., 302). Smaller properties, on the other hand, devoted a larger proportion of lands to cultivation: "The proportion of land under agricultural cultivation (plowlands, gardens, vineyeards, meadows and pastures) is largest at small farms (87.3–95.8 percent), somewhat smaller at medium-sized farms (78.4–80.9 percent), and much smaller at large estates (50.6–77.6 percent)" (ibid.). The discrepancies in land use were seen as evidence that large estates crowded smaller farms, preventing them from growing into more viable economies of scale, challenging the need to keeping estates intact.

Policies designed to resettle peasants within the country — to distribute the population more evenly and landownings more fairly — were a recurring feature of debates over agricultural modernization, reaching back into the nineteenth century following the abolition of feudalism in 1848. During the debate over the 1935 settlement plan in parliament, Samuel Mándy rejected the view that large estates crowded smaller farms: "In general we don't have overcrowded small farms. ... Even though the price of land is more than half as cheap as before, buyers are as rare as a white raven. Small landowners in particular are hard to find" (Köztelek, 20 Jan. 1935). Mándy overlooked the possibility that lands would not be sold off but simply parcelled out to neighboring communities.

To some minds it was folly to spend huge amounts of money dismantling manorial farms when the money could be better spent improving smaller farms (e.g., Köztelek, 24 Nov. 1935). A smarter way to remove the barriers to modernization and specialization at small farms would be to improve access to decent sources of credit. And of course, this would eliminate the need for radical land reform (Juhász 1983, 73):

As a helpful tool one could take advantage of hereditary leases, yearly rental properties [járadékbirtok], partial rental or a long-term tenancy, but more important than all of these is the re-creation of a land credit service in disarray from the war and inflation. This would make property credit with long-term, cheap mortgage deeds, as well as firm and investment credit cooperative bonds, accessible to the "acquisitive" person who has no money. (Czettler 1995:52)

Greater attention to the variety of resources available would assist the transformation of production and property relations.

The interminable debate over farm size was also debated in relation to how many people were supported by various types of farms. In 1935 the government proposed legislation allowing the resettlement of the poor on underused or abandoned land. The position defending manorial estates was articulated in Baron Gyula Károlyi's intervention based on statistics he had compiled demonstrating the greater economic viability of manorial estates over small farms. According to his calculations, 1,000 kh (570 ha) of manorial production would sustain 156.9 families (784 souls), whereas if this land were to be broken up into farms of 20 kh (11.4 ha) in size, only 49 families (539 souls) could be provided for (Köztelek, 13 Jan. 1935). In response to criticism that his numbers were not generalizable, as they were based on only twenty-nine estates, Károlyi argued that his selection of these farms was not intended to be representative, since in his mind only well run estates should be the basis for discussions of social policy:

Every large estate only fulfills its calling and is desirable to maintain in the interest of society if it provides a secure living to more people than were the land distributed one by one to small, viable farms. Breaking these [estates] up is not desirable from the point of view of society, in fact it is dangerous because it deprives people the possibility of a living that the state is unable to provide by other means. In the case of those estates that, for some reason, cannot provide more people a living than a small farm ... then the state is justified in making arrangements for a better distribution. (ibid.)

Kesztyus, speaking on behalf of the Committee on Firm Statistics of OMGE (Országos Magyar Gazdasági Egyesülete, or the National Hungarian Agricultural Association), agreed with Károlyi that that the state could play a role, though his attention was focused on small and middle-sized farms. Based on his 1934 study of small farms in various regions of the country, Kesztyus believed that these farms could transform the value of their land and family labor into profitable income. The conditions for making that possible required solving a series of problems: "adjusting farm tax, acquisition of agricultural capital, consolidation, resettlement, tax reform, producer and marketing cooperatives, foreign trade contracts, industrial customs protection, railroad tariffs, agricultural vocational training, and the question of cartels" (Köztelek, 11 Aug. 1935; italics in original). If need be, the state would have to bear some of the costs of the agrarian poor, since as another participant in the debate explained, "wages are not a charitable institution" (Köztelek, 11 Feb. 1940). In the final analysis, agrarian economists argued that the question of appropriate size for a farm depended on a number of factors, such as climate, quality of land, degree of intensification, and crop profile (Heller 1941b, 705–6).


The promanorial faction was firmly convinced that manorial servants had a better standard of living than their village compatriots whose income was cobbled together from migrant work in the summer or occasional day-labor contracts. Landowners claimed privileged knowledge of village life and so were confident of their views (e.g. Köztelek, 11 Feb. 1940). Estate owners believed their farms were stable, secure sources of employment for poor agricultural workers who would otherwise be left to the mercies of a fickle labor market and poorly managed family farms. They backed up their claims by showing that unemployment was less common in regions dominated by large estates (Szeibert 1939, 20). Heller firmly believed, like Károlyi, that if manorial estates were dismantled, then a large number of manorial servants would become homeless (1937, 21).


Excerpted from The Value of Labor by Martha Lampland. Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

     Note on the Text
     List of Abbreviations
     List of Illustrations
Part 1
1 Moral Imperatives, Political Objectives
2 Rationalizing the Economic Infrastructure
3 Formalizing Practices
4 The Problem with Money
Part 2
5 State Matters
6 A New Matrix of Labor Value
7 Administering Coercion
8 Fighting over Numbers
     List of Archives

What People are Saying About This

Katherine Verdery

“Lampland is quite possibly the deepest theoretical thinker in the anthropology and history of Eastern Europe. One of her great accomplishments in this book is to reject the standard division of the region into pre- and postcommunism paradigms. Instead, she uncovers important continuities in the development of the science and economics of labor, offering a completely original, new view of Eastern Europe’s ‘sovietization’ process.”

Theodore M. Porter

The Value of Labor is a work of history that takes in, along with peasants and workers, the accounts by which their labor was organized. Routine little things like infrastructure, standards, and calculations of work and productivity are almost always enveloped in too much cunning and resistance to remain boring. Humor is one of Lampland’s specialties, and she deploys it brilliantly as she explains the evolving economic logic of rural Hungary in a period of intense tumult. Her work reveals that the ironies of socialist accounting were not least among the contradictions that brought down East European socialism.”

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews