Decolonizing the City? Traversing Urbanscapes in the World-Systemic Transperipheral Histories between Socialist Hungary and the Global South

Photo by Hungarian architect Zoltán Boór, Plain Ouest II 980-apartment housing project in Annaba, Algeria.
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Urban Memories Between Hungary and the Global South

Budapest. Lumumba Street. Nehru Coast. Havana Housing Estate. Places we pass, places from the past. Or are they past? After 1989, the ‘return to Europe’ resulted in the neoliberal ‘whitening out’ of the Hungarian memories of socialist era anti-colonial solidarities to the Third World. The recent upheaval around the George Floyd incident in summer 2020 sparked an unprecedented spree of political debates in Hungary about racism, Black Lives Matter, and the legacies of colonialism and anti-colonialism. However, this political discourse has been largely Westcentric and focused on colonial memory, collections and monuments. “We never had colonies”, “we never held slaves” – this dominant exceptionalism still continues to ignore Hungarian historical relations to colonialism and decolonization.

Against Westcentrism and Eurowhite ignorance, we need a world-systemic approach to decipher the ‘transperipheral’ relations within the Hungarian semiperipheral world-systemic integration to global capitalism. I look at socialist era exchanges between Hungary and the decolonized Global South: how guest workers, students, architectural and development projects shaped urban environments and social memory. Based on the Transperiphery Movement exhibition project, my analysis aims to contextualize memory, knowledge and materiality within the structural conditions of global economic cycles: from the 1960s–1970s expansionist boom era of infrastructure and housing construction as well as export mobilities up to the 1980s global debt crisis to see how the capitalist pressures of competition, growing dependency on foreign currency and loans and the widening gap in the uneven exchange in exports ultimately led to the breakdown of these relations and the 1989 system change.

Lumumba Street in the 14th District of Budapest was renamed to Róna Street in 1991. Wikimedia Commons.
1st of May parade in Budapest, at 56ers Square (Parade Square) in 1970. Béla Szalay / Fortepan.

World-systemic Conditions of Socialist Anti-Colonialism

From the late 1950s, due to various global political and economic pressures, Hungary and other Eastern Bloc countries opened up to decolonizing Afro-Asian countries, which provided new opportunities to compete with Western hegemony. Although mobility was restricted and state-controlled, decolonization offered an unprecedented opportunity for Eastern European states to expand their mobilities, diplomatic relations and export economies through socialist globalization.

Anti-colonial alliances and anti-racism was propagated as a state agenda to enter and compete in a huge education market now opened up by Afro-Asian decolonization. Knowledge became a key export product offered by the Hungarian state to students from the Global South who mostly came to study medicine and engineering, or were workers who were involved in training programs. While some even stayed and took up citizenship, their urban experiences, interactions and memories remain an unprocessed social history. Cultural gestures, including the naming of streets to anti-colonial leaders, artistic and cultural exchanges based on anti-colonial and anti-racist solidarity, political rallies or state ceremonies in which foreign students were involved, began to reshape urban environments.

Cuban women workers in the spinning mills of Budapest, 1985. Péter Horváth / Fortepan.

Reina Lidia (1963, Santiago de Cuba) arrived in 1982 from Santiago de Cuba to Hungary, to work in the framework of a Hungarian-Cuban labour exchange agreement in a spinning mill in Kaposvár. Later on she decided to settle in Hungary. Today, she is living in Budapest and works at a kindergarden. In this film, she speaks about her Hungarian experiences.

Guest workers from the Global South (e.g. Cuba, Vietnam, China) increasingly arrived to Hungarian industrial neighborhoods in the 1980s as a form of cheap labor for export production (textiles and machinery). They were exploited by both the sending and the Hungarian states. Exporting expertise and technology was an important way of generating state revenue, especially precious foreign currency, but was even used as a diplomatic tool to foster export investments in infrastructure, housing and production facilities. Much has been forgotten about how these exchanges shaped not only Hungarian cities, but the urban environments and developing industries of the Global South.

The map below indicates the export projects of the Hungarian industrial planning company IPARTERV in Africa and Asia, and a graph showing the share of exports from the company’s total revenues. Remarkably, in 1973 and 1974 more than 1/3 of the company’s revenue came from export projects. Similar trends could be seen in the case of other major state planning companies, such as VÁTI (urban and regional planning) or UVATERV (railway development). The company of IPARTERV had less export projects compared to more “globalized” institutions such as VÁTI, because it was more constrained by domestic state commissions. From the 1970s on, there was growing political pressure on these companies to produce convertible foreign currency for the socialist state, in order to pay for rising debt costs and increasing trade deficit due to uneven exchange that worsened by the 1980s.

Export projects of IPARTERV Hungarian state company until 1968–1988.

IPARTERV company’s share of revenue from export projects, 1968–1987.

The most valuable of these export projects were carried out in the capitalist West (mostly Europe), but some major industrial projects in the postcolonial South created a significant share of income. The map indicates that by the 1970s Hungarians “specialized” on specific regions, such as Algeria, which became an independent country in 1962 after a bitter anti-colonial war against the French. Algeria became so important that in a tv news interview an engineer student from the Budapest University of Technology said that his main carrier plan is to work in Algeria, because engineers made “good money” there. In the early socialist era Hungarian export projects in the planning and construction of healthcare buildings were so successful that the cover of the 1964 textbook “Hospital planning” depicted the earliest of such projects, a lung sanatorium in El Hassake, Syria in 1959.

Architectural and industrial development projects (housing, schools, hospitals, industry) and the working office of Hungarian planners of the KÖZTI state company in Algeria, Syria and Nigeria. Photos: KÖZTI, Zoltán Boór & IPARTERV state company archives courtesy of János Dobai.

Tracing Transperipheral Movements in the World-System

We need to rediscover our important Eastern European connections to the Global South, which have been largely forgotten after 1989. After the system change, the indebtedness of the economy and resultant West-driven privatization led to the dissolution of the socialist system and the dismantling of most of these connections, institutions and trade networks. This put a stop to socialist globalization and the often successful exchanges and export industries that had been driven by the structural pressures of semiperipheral economic integration into the world economy.

Citation: Ginelli, Z. (2022): Decolonizing the City? Traversing Urbanscapes in the World-Systemic Transperipheral Histories between Socialist Hungary and the Global South. Paper for the conference ‘Urban Inequalities: from Right to the City to Taking (Back) Control’, 17–19 June, 2022, Sofia., 24 April.