Communist Agricultural Policy and the First Wave of Collectivisation in Hungary1

The last phase of the seizure of peasant farmlands may have started sixty years ago this year, but there is little public awareness of the violent series of events that finally spelt the end of the traditional peasantry. In 1958–1959, the peasantry was the last big group in society to retain most of the elements of its autonomy. The rural economy, which was predominantly based on family labour in small village communities, produced mainly for its own self-sufficiency, which enabled it to remain independent from the redistribution system of the nascent Communist state. For the Communists working to build the proletarian dictatorship, however, it was precisely this economic and cultural autonomy that posed a threat. Doubly so, firstly because without colonising the provinces the party state would not have been able to marshal the human and material resources necessary for its programme of forced industrialisation, and secondly because any form of independence that remained, however stubbornly, offered an alternative for the social groups that had already been deprived of it. Thus, the system regarded peasants who toiled on their own land as both the allies of the working class and as the running dogs of the bourgeoisie. The collectivisation was intended to eliminate this duality – or “vacillation” as it was referred to at the time – permanently transforming the peasantry into a landless proletariat working in large-scale agricultural production facilities.

By the 1950s, the Communists that rose to power in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe with Soviet assistance after the Second World War had dismantled the market-based forms of industry and trade everywhere. The peasantry, a group accounting for 40–80 per cent of breadwinners in the countries of the region remained to be dealt with, but they could not be subjugated and brought into line through mere laws and the appointment of worker-managers. In their case, the ruling Communist party used intimidation and the most varied forms of violence to deprive the peasantry of their land. A special feature of this campaign was that the brutal treatment of the peasantry was organised, coordinated and implemented by the state.2 This was also how events unfolded in Hungary.


From the very beginning, the ideologisation of collectivisation and large-scale production as a higher form of production was present in Communist ideology, as was prejudice towards landowning farmers. It is clear from the Communist Manifesto published by Marx and Engels in 1848 that the steps in building up the Communist dictatorship and the post-1948 strategy for dismantling the peasant economy, although they followed the Soviet pattern, were also aligned with the doctrines of the founders. Marx and Engels did not consider the peasantry to be a “progressive” social class. In the Communist Manifesto they also discussed collectivisation in general terms: “The theory of the Communists may be summed up in the single sentence: Abolition of private property.” For the Communists, the first step in their strategy for taking power – on behalf of the working class, according to the propaganda – was to acquire political supremacy. Following this, “[t]he proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degree, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the State, i.e., of the proletariat organised as the ruling class”. The first step in this process was “[a]bolition of property in land and application of all rents of land to public purposes”. The seventh point again touched on the problem of land: “[The] extension of factories and instruments of production owned by the State; the bringing into cultivation of wastelands, and the improvement of the soil generally in accordance with a common plan.” The “common plan” refers both to the planned economy, and, where land was concerned, to communal farms created through appropriation. Marx and Engels knew that achieving all this was inconceivable without the use of violence instituted at systemic level: “The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims. They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions.”3

Following the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 in Russia, keeping hold of power was an existential issue for the Communists. With minimal support from society, they could only achieve this through terror. In the Soviet model, solidified into a regime of terror by Lenin and his successor, Stalin, all social groups that stood in the way of the Communists were seen as an enemy to be destroyed. Following the nationalisation of industry, from the end of the 1920s all efforts were focused on establishing exclusive cooperative and state ownership in the agricultural sector as well.

From 1924, after the death of Lenin, Stalin increasingly brought the dictatorship under his personal control. The strategies for development of the Soviet economy, and the means of their implementation, all reflected his will. When it came to agriculture, Stalin’s political objective was to create a large-scale, mechanised economy modernised with the help of the state. The steps taken to achieve this, however, led to a catastrophic slump in production and immeasurable human suffering. The cynicism and ruthlessness of Stalin as he unleashed the full arsenal of terror is reflected in his statement that: “It is not a matter of coddling the peasant and regarding this as establishing correct relations with him […]. It is a matter of helping the peasant to place his husbandry ‘on a new technical basis, the technical basis of modern large-scale production’; for that is the principal way to rid the peasant of his poverty.”4 The “help” arrived in the form of state-organised brutality, and in practice the “liberation from poverty” meant a policy of existential and physical destruction. From the outset, the Bolsheviks’ strategy for governing was based on the identification of more and more groups within society as enemies, and on the distortion of the original meanings of words.

The Soviet government created two types of agricultural facility. The “sovkhoz” was a state farm, usually created on the site of a large estate,5 similarly to what would later occur in Hungary. The “kolkhoz” was a farming cooperative set up in a rural settlement, which was formally owned by its members, although in practice they had no say in the management of production or any right of disposal over their ownership share. The establishment of kolkhoz forms, which started at the end of the 1920s, met with stiff resistance from the Russian and Ukrainian peasantry. The resistance was triggered not only by the confiscation of land, but also by the unrealistically high proportion of produce that had to be handed over to the state. The Communist regime used brutal means to crush any attempt at individual or collective resistance or free speech. The Bolsheviks deployed all means at their disposal to ensure the successful establishment of kolkhoz farms, from starving villages through mass executions and deportation to the gulags for many years, leading to the deaths of millions of innocent people. The Soviet regime needed hard currency for its forced development of industry, and this could only be secured with products that were saleable in the global markets, such as grain. Thus, while the peasantry starved, grain exports to the west were held up as proof of the success of the Sovietised agricultural sector.6


After 1848, life as a free farmer only brought prosperity for a few of those who had been liberated from the serfdom of Hungary’s feudal system. One of the most important reasons for this was the unresolved nature of the land question at that time. The growing number of large holdings placed in fee tail trusts, which included the land acquisitions of capitalist investors, prevented the peasant community from acquiring land that suited their needs. The growth in the country’s population that occurred in the last third of the 19th century, and later the inadequacy of the land reforms that followed the First World War, contributed to mass agricultural poverty in Hungary, especially in the south-western, eastern and north-eastern counties.7

For the new Hungarian political elite that emerged at the end of the Second World War, it was self-evident that any solution to the social problems of the agricultural community would have to involve comprehensive land reform. The manifesto of the Smallholders’ Party promised to strengthen the rural agricultural middle class, maintaining a focus on economic efficiency and expertise. The National Peasant Party’s programme, on the other hand, placed the emphasis on eliminating the glaring social inequalities while treating the future viability of the new farms as a secondary consideration. The Hungarian Communists strove to adopt the Soviet model as soon as possible. In 1945 however, expecting social resistance, they did not yet openly advertise this programme, but did attempt to build mass support by making radical social demands.

From the beginning, the leadership of the Hungarian Communist Party, arriving with Soviet troops, used the issue of land reform to strengthen its position within rural communities. For the Communists, who until 1944 had only operated illegally in the capital and a few provincial industrial centres, it was a prime objective also to establish a base in the villages. Imre Nagy, returning from the Soviet Union, was given the agriculture ministry in the Provisional National Government, which clearly shows that the Communists wanted to shape the issue of land reform to suit their own purposes, and monopolise the resulting political gains, from the very beginning. Following the expulsion of the German troops, the occupying Soviet Army also provided logistical and military assistance for this. Although the distribution of land was ostensibly carried out in accordance with the programme of the National Peasant Party, in reality the interests of the Communists dominated. In this scenario, “land reform” was one of the first means of building up the proletarian dictatorship. The Communists’ thinking was that the ownership structure had to be radically transformed before the end of the war, so that the landed gentry, robbed of their property without compensation, still reeling in the general chaos, searching for their family members and saving their own lives, as well as the urban and rural landowning middle class, would not have a way of changing the status quo. Besides this, they hoped that they would be able to build up a power base from the winners of the radical redistribution of wealth.8

The war did not end in Hungary until April 1945, but by this time the land reform decree – citing the land redistribution that had started spontaneously in the region of the country to the east of River Tisza – had been announced on 17 March 1945. Under the decree, landholdings over 1,000 jugers [Juger (in Hungarian: hold): unit of land area equal to 0.622 acres.] were divided up without compensation, and those over 100 jugers with the promise of compensation. Some 35 per cent of the cultivated land went into the land fund (3.22 million hectares), and 642,000 of the 730,000 applications received land, approximately 2.9 hectares each on average. In addition to this, 150,000 plots for building houses were also distributed.9

Prime Ministerial Decree 600/1945, serving as the basis for “land reform”, contained many passages that facilitated negative discrimination against former landowner groups. The decree stated that all landed estates over 100 jugers had to be added to the land fund, while so-called peasant estates with an area of up to 200 jugers were exempt from this. “Landed” status, however, was not defined in the law, so it could be applied to anyone whose holding was 100 jugers or more, and who they wanted to deprive of his or her land. What is more, absentee landowners were not notified of the land redistribution, so they only found out afterward that they had been divested of their wealth. Even in the case of Churches – especially the Catholic Church – they did not take into account the fact that the already modest income from the estates provided the financial base for maintaining an extended network of schools, hospitals and social institutions. Lacking income, by spring 1945 the Churches had become dependent on the state. In the course of the “land reform” the estates of war criminals, the Volksbunders (named after the ethnic German association that had represented the Third Reich in Hungary during the war) – by which they actually meant those of German ethnicity – were also confiscated. Here too, it was problematic that land could be taken without a court judgement to substantiate this classification, but simply based on the opinions of local Communists. The “land reform”, as the first complex manoeuvre in the process of sovietisation, rendered a substantial proportion of the historical Hungarian landowning classes economically unviable before the war was even over.10


Communist policy saw the world, and within it society, as a struggle between mutually exclusive opposites. To achieve the vision of Communism, that is, a society free of inequality, according to Marx, Engels and Lenin, and to Stalin, who put the principle into practice on a mass scale, all groups that stood in the way of “progress” and the “cause of socialism” had to be destroyed in a class war.

According to the party’s self-legitimising narrative, the socialist revolution had enabled the hitherto oppressed working class to take power and build up their state, the proletarian dictatorship. This permitted the apparatus of the proletarian dictatorship, within an institutional framework, to eliminate groups that posed a threat to it or offered alternative paths to prosperity for society. In Hungary Mátyás Rákosi, General Secretary of the Hungarian Communist Party and later the Hungarian Working People’s Party, often referred to as “Stalin’s greatest Hungarian disciple”, became the supreme leader of the party state that institutionalised the tools of terror.

The dictatorship would not have been able to achieve its objectives without mobilising the masses. For this, both the Communist and the national socialist and fascist dictatorships relied heavily on propaganda, a weapon that uses all forms of the media to bombard the populace with manipulative messages that distort reality and harness negative emotions. By creating new words and concepts and hijacking the meanings of existing ones, the Communist dictatorship created a new system of language in which it defined, in line with its own objectives, the groups of enemies to be conquered. Top of the list – as ranked by the party – were the groups of owners, who featured in the Communist dictionary as “capitalists, exploiters”. They were followed by the clergy, the “petty bourgeoisie” and, in rural areas, the “kulaks”; that is, the larger landowners vilified as the main custodians of exploitation, who sometimes also hired people from outside the village. The term “kulak” was borrowed from the Russian language and originally referred to a wealthy farmer. Turned into an enemy-defining word by the Soviet Communists it became a generic term for the rural exploiters who were to be “liquidated”. Significantly, this epithet was not given to a specific extant group but served as a category that could be expanded at will to include anyone regardless of their wealth, as long as the local Bolsheviks needed a pretext for undermining them.11

The building of Communism was possible if the proletariat rose to be the “leading class of the nation”; the Communists did not regard the peasantry as being of equal rank. The party’s reasoning for this was that workers in large-scale production were already familiar with the “most progressive form of production”, and were also capable of organising themselves as a genuine class, unlike the peasantry which produced in fragmented small farms using outdated technology, and had not yet organised itself into a consistent revolutionary class. Communist policy saw the differences within peasant society as an opportunity to prevent the agricultural community from taking steps towards solidarity for the protection of its interests. Its programme only treated the poor peasantry as the true ally of the working class that had been idealised by the propaganda, while the agricultural middle class were a group to be overcome in the relatively long term and affluent peasants an enemy to be eliminated in the short term. This strategy was summed up succinctly by Lenin: “Come to an agreement with the middle peasant, while never for a moment renouncing the fight against the kulak, and firmly relying solely on the poor peasant.”12

In a speech given on 20 August 1948 in Kecskemét, Mátyás Rákosi announced his programme of collectivisation, which he argued was necessary in order to facilitate the protection and prosperity of the poor peasants. Following the Soviet example, he too named the “kulaks” in his speech as the main enemy.13 In Hungary, by law, a “kulak” was classified as someone whose land exceeded 25 jugers in area, or 350 golden crowns in value. Converted into measurement units that are in use today: having more than 14.25 hectares, or in the case of better quality land or higher-value crops (vineyards, gardens, orchards) only three or four hectares, was enough to secure a place on the locally maintained, constantly updated and in itself stigmatising “kulak list”. The authorities, in thrall of the quotas, appraised on the work of the local apparatus on the basis of how many “kulaks” they exposed. In the spirit of the escalating class war, this led to craftsmen, publicans and even people with no property at all being classified as kulaks.14

Besides “liquidating” the “kulaks” as a class, at least as much energy was poured into the promotion and propagation of Soviet-style collectives. This was clearly only achievable if as many farmers as possible gave up farming individually and became members of farming cooperatives. Given that the ownership of a farm cultivated by the family took pride of place in the value system of the peasantry, the programme of collectivisation could only be moved forward through coercion. Rákosi spoke about this as follows at the Second Congress of the Hungarian Working People’s Party: “The present situation, where in industry we are standing with one foot on the ground of socialism, while in the villages our other foot rests on hundreds of thousands of individually cultivated peasant farms, needs to end as soon as possible.”15 Taking his cue from Lenin, Rákosi was warning of the danger that even in a village context private farms represented intolerable competition for the collective form of ownership.

The first farming cooperatives were set up in the autumn of 1948. It was mainly new farmers, who had received a few jugers of land during the land distribution of 1945, but had neither the acreage nor the expertise, capital or draught animals to make a success of it, who were inclined to join. In contrast, in the following years farmers classed as “middle peasants” attempted to retain their holdings and independence in spite of the higher taxes and compulsory donations of produce to the state, while the fate of the big farmers – and others – who featured in the “kulak lists” was ruin. The party saw the “curtailing of kulaks” as a “mission” that would make it possible to achieve the earliest possible “liquidation of the kulak class”, as ordered by the Politburo of the Hungarian Working People’s Party in 1951.16 In these years, in addition to the use of force by authorities, the party state waged a forceful media campaign against the “kulaks”, using all the means at their disposal for demonising the (big) farmers, from caricatures to news reports on show trials.


By 1948 the Communists had effectively eliminated the democratic parties and the Communist Party renamed the Hungarian Working People’s Party had absorbed the collaborating social democrats; schools and companies employing more than a hundred people had been nationalised, and the open persecution of the Churches was already under way. In the summer of 1948, at the second meeting of Cominform, delegates also voted for a motion stating that collectivised agriculture was the path to the future in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. This marked the beginning of a campaign waged against the villages on several fronts, the period of open terror. The levies and taxes on farmers increased dramatically, while the police and State Security Authority (ÁVH) used their wide-ranging powers to harass farmers on various pretexts. The first collectivisation drive had begun, and the policy of undermining farmers who were affluent, and thus classified as “kulaks”, was wound up to the max. Thousands were deported from the frontier zone created along the Austrian and Yugoslavian borders, and mostly resettled in Hortobágy. Tens of thousands of farmers were convicted in show trials imposing hefty fines and custodial sentences, simply because they were incapable of producing enough to cover the swingeing taxes levied on them by the state. By way of comparison: although the financial revenue of Hungarian agriculture in 1947, unadjusted, was already only 47 per cent of that registered during the global economic crisis of the 1930s, in the years that followed even this fell at an exceptional rate.17

At the meeting of the Central Committee of the Hungarian Working People’s Party held on 27 November 1948, Rákosi announced that 90 per cent of the peasantry should be farming collectively within three or four years.18 Three types of farming cooperative were created, depending on the degree of collectivisation. In the first type, only the ploughing and sowing were performed jointly, while the remaining phases of cultivation remained in the hands of the farmers. In the second type, the threshing was also performed collectively, and the members received proportionate shares of the income from the harvested crops. The third type was the “kolkhoz” style collective, where the cultivation took place on large fields ploughed together, and shares were measured in terms of “work units” assigned to the individual work phases. From the perspective of the farmers’ self-preservation, if joining a collective now seemed unavoidable, the first type proved to be the most favourable.

The Communists’ plan in 1948 was, by seizing the “kulak land”, to create a foundation on which – through the farmers who joined them – the collectives could be established en masse. This turned out to be a failure, however. The peasantry did not plan their future along the lines of the class war; and they did not join the collectives created by force on the lands taken from larger farmers. In 1948, only around five hundred farming collectives were established, with an average area of 100 hectares each. For this reason the collectivisation campaign continued in 1949 with aggressive agitation, and from 1950 in the framework of the first five-year plan, with the result that 1,300 farming cooperatives were formed, although they continued to have a low average acreage. The cooperatives hardly had any animals, and they were not permitted to have their own machines – these could be requested from the machinery pool in exchange for a fee. With the help of this voluntarist policy, by the summer of 1953 more than 5,200 cooperatives were operating in Hungary, but for most of them even elementary farming posed a challenge that was beyond their capabilities. It says a lot that with staple grain varieties and manual labour the individual farmers, despite being forced into tough circumstances, achieved yields that were on average 10–20 per cent, but sometimes up to 50 per cent higher than those of the farming cooperatives. The failure of the collective farms was obvious to their members, too, so it is no wonder that in 1953 they left the cooperatives en masse following the announcement of Imre Nagy’s government programme permitting a relaxation of the rules.19

The policy of undermining individual farming was implemented using a wide range of methods. Land consolidation helped with the acquisition of peasants’ land for the cooperatives. Although land consolidation was traditionally an important element of rational agriculture, here it was used as a means of undermining the larger farmers. As a legacy from the feudal era, the parts of the village boundary closer to the centre, which often had better characteristics, were owned by the descendants of families who once owned what were deemed to be relatively big farms. These were the areas where it was easiest to establish cooperatives that cultivated large fields. Under the pretext of land consolidation, the village and district leadership placed these sites into the hands of the newly established cooperatives, while offering their owners alternative tracts farther away from the boundaries of the given settlement, which were often of worse quality. If they accepted it, their farming was even less economically viable; but if they refused the offer, they had to look for another way of earning a living. Those who involuntarily parted company with the land in this way joined the hundreds of thousand migrating to industry. Between 1949 and 1953, some 70 per cent of villages were affected by the land consolidation campaigns. As a consequence of donations, by 1953 almost 10 per cent of the country’s arable land had become uncultivated “state reserve land”.20

The two weightiest burdens were the progressive income tax, with a discriminative rate that heavily penalised larger landowners, and the agricultural development contribution (“kulak tax”). The latter had to be paid in crops. “The amount of crop to be surrendered per juger of arable land in 1948/1949 was double the liability stipulated for poor peasant farmers with up to 5 jugers in the case of farms with 10–15 jugers, two and a half times in the 15–20 jugers category, and almost triple in the 20–25 jugers group.” Meanwhile, no allowances were made for the weather as a factor influencing the crop yield, or for the following year’s seed requirement and the subsistence needs of the family. The party state, using force if necessary, also deprived the villagers of their last reserves. This is expressed graphically in the Hungarian phrase “sweeping out the attic” – as a metaphor for taking every last item – which originates from that era. The peasants’ tricks for rescuing their crops were rendered ineffective by ordering that all threshing be performed on a shared threshing floor, to say nothing of the fact that the cost of transportation to and from the threshing site was also borne by the farmers. It is no wonder that massive tax arrears were racked up due to the impossibly high levies. Between 1948 and 1955 four thousand farmers were found guilty of endangering public supply. By 1953, the tax arrears per juger of land had topped HUF 1,400.21 The sale and purchase of land was prohibited for “kulaks”, and from the end of 1948 they were only permitted to own 40 jugers. The planned economy was extended to peasant smallholdings: their farming had to be managed in accordance with a central plan, with targets to be met. To further the imposed objective of achieving self-sufficiency for the nation, the party state forced the growing of a series of crops that were unsuited to the landscape and climate (e.g. rice, rubber root, cotton).

The range of tools for “liquidation of the kulaks” was similarly rich. Those classified as “kulaks” were recorded on constantly updated local lists. It was effectively impossible to be taken off these lists; a total of approximately 60,000–70,000 farmers were listed as “kulaks”. Although the practice of listing was discontinued after 1956, informally a record was kept of those who had previously been classified as “kulaks” well into the 1960s. In the 1950s the “kulaks”, as class enemies, were not allowed to become members of cooperatives even if they wanted to.22

Open resistance to the party state’s policies would not have been successful; but several techniques with which the peasantry attempted to mitigate their losses are known. Younger family members, if they had the opportunity, took jobs in industry and mining. During the week the elderly and women tended the land and livestock, while the commuting men took part in the farm work outside of working hours and at the weekends. Those who took on industrial jobs were able to pay the taxes on the land from their wages. A widespread practice among those listed as “kulaks” was to divide up land titles between members of the family or lease out all or some of the land. Between 1950 and 1952, when taxes shot up to an unbearable level, the last resort was to “donate” their land to the state in an attempt to survive – thus also bidding farewell to the farming lifestyle. During these years more than 300,000 people abandoned agriculture. From 1952 onwards – due to a dramatic increase in uncultivated land (1.5 million jugers) – “land donations” were no longer permitted; instead, under a system of forced cultivation, farmers had to meet centrally determined crop yield targets.23

Translated by Daniel Nashaat


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Tóth, Judit: Padlássöprések kora: A beszolgáltatás Pest megyében [The Age of Sweeping Out Attics: Compulsory Submission of Produce in Pest County]. Pest Megye Monográfiája Közalapítvány, 2011, Budapest.

Valuch, Tibor: Magyarország társadalomtörténete a XX. század második felében [Social History of Hungary in the Second Half of the 20th Century]. Osiris, 2001, Budapest.

Weis, István: A mai magyar társadalom [Today’s Hungarian Society]. Magyar Szemle Társaság (Magyar Szemle könyvei 2), 1930, Budapest.


1 Thanks to Réka Földváryné Kiss and Zsolt Horváth for their comments on the manuscript.

2 For perspectives on state brutality, see: Horváth S. 2015 and Ö. Kovács 2015.

3 Quotes from Marx–Engels 1980 [1848]: 58–59, 68–69, 89

4 Stalin 1950 [1928], 277.

5 See: Lenin 1950 [1917], 348.

6 Kenéz 2008, 123–130; Heller–Nyekrics 2000, 193–202.

7 For an overview of agricultural poverty before the Second World War, see: Weis 1930, 146–150; for the regional distribution of poverty, see: Kerék 1939, 333–348.

8 For more on land reform as the first step of sovietisation, see: Ö. Kovács 2017, Horváth G. K. 2017.

9 Szakács 1998, 289–293.

10 Horváth G. K. 2015; Ö. Kovács 2017.

11 Teaching Materials 1951–1952, 28–34.

12 Lenin 1950 [1918], 433.

13 Rákosi 1950 [1948].

14 Erdmann 1992, 96, 108; Belényi 1996, 169–173; Valuch 2001, 192; Nagy N. 2013, 84–85.

15 Teaching Materials 1951–1952, 3.

16 MDP PB Resolution… 1951, 53.

17 Kiss 2004; Nagy N. 2013, 82–108; Szakács 1998, 306.

18 Szakács 1998: 331; Nagy N. 2013, 83.

19 Szakács 1998, 332–333, 339.

20 Szakács 1998, 334; Nagy J. 2009, 158; Tóth 2011; Nagy N. 2013, 89–90.

21 Szakács 1998, 335–336.

22 Valuch 2001, 192; Nagy J. 2009, 270–287.

23 For a summing up, see Erdmann 1992.

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