News | Party / Movement History - German / European History - Southeastern Europe What Was Life Like in Socialism?

An upcoming conference brings together young historians from around Europe


Soviet tourists on vacation on the Black Sea coast in Gagra, Abkhazia, USSR, 1973. CC BY 4.0, Photo: Vyacheslav Argenberg

We tend to associate the history of twentieth-century socialism with epochal events and iconic figures: Vladimir Lenin and the October Revolution, Walter Ulbricht and the building of the Berlin Wall, or Mikhail Gorbachev and the unravelling of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s. Indeed, most conventional narratives — whether from official sources in the East or more critical authors in the West — chronicled the history of these societies from the top down. We know about the powerful men (and few women) who crafted and implemented policy, the conferences where they negotiated with their allies and opponents, and the great conflicts they led. But what about the lives of everyday people — the workers and peasants whom these states claimed to represent?

Over the last few decades, a new generation of European historians has pioneered an innovative approach to social history known as Alltagsgeschichte, or “the history of everyday life”, that seeks to answer precisely this question. Rather than documenting and substantiating the grand narratives produced by ruling elites, Alltagsgeschichte looks at how the great upheavals of modernity impacted individuals and groups in society, and how they in turn responded and adapted to them.

This kind of historiographical approach is particularly relevant to the study of actually existing socialism, where both sides of the Iron Curtain tended towards one-sided, highly ideological interpretations of social reality. Surely, actually existing socialism had a number of deficits — not least the absence of democratic political mechanisms or freedom of speech. And yet, millions of people identified with and actively contributed to the system for decades. To simply dismiss their experiences ignores what for many was a meaningful existence working towards lofty political aims.

Alina-Sandra Cucu is a historical anthropologist focusing on Central and Eastern Europe and the author of Planning Labour: Time and the Foundations of Industrial Socialism in Romania (Berghahn, 2019).

Marcel van der Linden directed the International Institute of Social History until 2014 and has published numerous books and articles on labour and social movement history over his career.

In this spirit, the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s Southeast Europe Office in Belgrade is teaming up with the Centre for Cultural and Historical Research of Socialism in Pula, Croatia to host “Everyday Life in State-Socialist Societies”, an academic conference scheduled for 12–15 May that will bring together young scholars from across Europe to exchange and compare research on everyday life under socialism. In the runup to the event, Loren Balhorn spoke with conference organizers Alina-Sandra Cucu and Marcel van der Linden about socialist history, labour, and gender in the workers’ states, and what historians mean when they talk about “Coca-Coa Socialism”.

You’re both part of the organizing committee for the upcoming conference “Everyday Life in State-Socialist Societies”. For those of us who aren’t historians, can you explain what exactly that means? What’s the conference about?

MvdL: After the collapse of “actually existing socialism” in the early 1990s, the older generation of historians of Eastern Europe was often silent about events after World War II. In recent years, a new generation has taken the floor that is interested in the critical exploration of state-socialist societies.

Often these younger scholars work within their own national frameworks. One of our aims is to facilitate a dialogue between those different national perspectives. In that way we hope to foster comparative approaches and to learn more about differences and similarities between separate countries.

ASC: Our conference brings together several strains of scholarship that reflect an increasing interest in historicizing lived experience in state-socialist regimes. It works towards a synthetic view of these studies, which all reveal a deep preoccupation with bottom-up analyses of institutions and norms.

Our conference opens a space in which a new generation of scholars can join these conversations and offer their unique contribution to our understanding of state socialism not as a top-down, univocal project, but as a fluid, sometimes surprising social fabric in which people’s struggles for survival and finding their own path through life shaped state policy. It is also meant to (re)connect the study of state socialist regimes to the rich literature on Eigensinn and Alltagsgeschichte.

The Call for Papers mentions a “series of important monographs” that have appeared in recent years, as scholars turn away from institutional histories and towards the more mundane aspects of life. Can you give a couple of examples?

ASC: There have been indeed several important monographs and edited volumes that either focused on or touched upon everyday life in state socialism. There are already too many to mention here, and the list would be not only very long but also subjective, incomplete, and ultimately unfair.

From my own preferences, I suggest the work of Martha Lampland, Lewis Siegelbaum, Ulf Brunnbauer, Mark Pittaway, Katherine Lebow, Marsha Siefert, Susan Zimmerman, Sandrine Kott, Goran Musić, Wendy Goldman, Donald Filtzer, Jacob Eyferth, Ju Li, Rory Archer, Chiara Bonfiglioli, Jill M Goran Musićassino, Alissa Klot, Igor Duda, Mara Marginean, Douglas Rogers, Emanuela Grama, Adrian Grama, Jeremy Morris, Eeva Keskula, Dimitra Kofti, and many others.

Many of the authors mentioned will come to our conference, as organizers, invited speakers, or participants in the final roundtable.

Everyday Life in State-Socialist Societies
12–15 May 2022

Juraj Dobrila University of Pula
Faculty of Economics and Tourism “Dr. Mijo Mirković”
Pula, Croatia

Hosted by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation Southeast Europe and the Centre for Cultural and Historical Research of Socialism. Although the conference is closed to the general public, some events will be livestreamed on YouTube.

The conference focuses on three main aspects: work, gender, and consumption in state socialism. What are you hoping to discover in those fields? What are some of the panels you are looking forward to the most?

ASC: We started from work, gender, and consumption because we knew they had a profound impact on people’s everyday lives in state socialism. However, we wanted the conference to move beyond these broad categories, and it seems we will be able to do so. We were lucky to have had so many applications for the conference, and we were sorry not to be able to accommodate more papers in our programme.

The papers we chose allow us to articulate new lines of thinking and, rather than investigating how work, gender, and consumption shaped ordinary life in state socialist societies, we can shed light on how these categories were themselves reproduced and remade when subjected to vernacular negotiations of practices, relations, and meanings.

It is, if you want, a work of rediscovering these three pillars of social history and historical anthropology through the lenses of everydayness, an exercise in finding new ways of historicizing them, and an attempt of reassessing the less obvious ways in which these categories were political.

I stumbled over the phrase “Coca-Cola Socialism” while reading up on the conference. Can you give us a hint what that might be about?

ASC: The expression hints toward the Westernization of everyday life in late socialism. Initially, it was the title of a popular book by Radina Vučetić, Coca-Cola Socialism: Americanization of Yugoslav Culture in the Sixties, published in 2018 by the Central European University Press. The book explored the mechanisms through which everyday life modelled on the American way became a source of legitimacy and a foundation for internal stability for the Yugoslavian Party-state, as well as a form of cultural imperialism during the Cold War.

We are curious to see how the notion is taken over by the new generation of scholars that is very well represented at our conference in Pula.

The conference is being hosted by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation together with the Centre for Cultural and Historical Research of Socialism in Pula. What kind of work does the centre do?

ASC: The Centre was founded in 2021 by Igor Duda, Lada Duraković, Boris Koroman, and Andrea Matošević at the Juraj Dobrila University of Pula. It is an interdisciplinary endeavour that brought together since its beginnings scholars in cultural studies, history, anthropology, literature, musicology, and ethnology.

The centre has been very active and established various forms of international cooperation through research projects, publishing (both a series of monographs and edited volumes), doctoral workshops, and other conferences like “Socialism on the Bench”. I am personally very happy that the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation put the Centre once again at the frontstage of research on state socialism and I am looking forward to further collaborations in the future.

Can we conceive of a common lived experience in the state socialist countries? How different was life in, say, Albania on the one hand, compared to a more liberal form of state socialism like the one found in Hungary?

ASC: This is one of the core questions we hope to have a preliminary response to after the conference. We hope our conference will put us in a much better position to envision further comparative endeavours that will account for commonalities and differences when we talk about state socialism as a lived experience.

Of course, we need to think about these similarities and differences not only in space but also in time, and understand state socialism as a shifting, highly differentiated epoch. I actually think we should go even further and put our research endeavours in a fully relational and processual perspective, which would allow us to ask even more interesting questions about how lived experience in socialist countries can be compared to other contexts.

How much does the experience of work, for instance, reflect a “socialist” project, and how much can it be understood as part and parcel of a broader structuring of practices and affects that all industrial regimes – including those in Western Europe and in the Global South – produced on the ground?

To what extent, if any, do these experiences continue to shape everyday life in post-socialist societies?

ASC: I can say there are important continuities that link the mechanisms of capital accumulation in late socialism to the global transformations brought about by the neoliberal transition, as authors like Oscar Sanchez-Sibony, Besnik Pula, James Mark, Sandrine Kott, or Johanna Bockmann have shown. Based on my own work, there are also local structures of kinship and social relationships that support intra- and intergenerational life projects, and about which we still know relatively little.

But your question is a fundamental one, and will be addressed during our final roundtable. Again, we hope to be in a better position to answer this question at the end of the conference, or at least to come up with a coherent research programme that would reassess the importance of historical continuities for post-socialist history. Actively articulating research programmes that take the historical logic of the socialist regimes seriously instead of regarding them as a failed Other of capitalist modernization should be a priority.

Formulating such a research programme would be an excellent outcome for our conference.

Do you think the experience of state socialism has lessons to each the Left today? Was it simply a failed experiment, never to be repeated, or are there elements we should seek to retain?

ASC: The Left is in a deep crisis globally and there seems to be a lot of despair and hopelessness when it comes to reimagining leftist politics. I doubt we will find the answers for our current political crisis in the state socialist projects.

In general, I believe we should not try to return to any specific histories, which bear the risk of being repeated either as tragedy, or as farce, as Marx would have put it. Of course, we can learn some lessons about job stability and life predictability from these societies. But state socialism was also a form of organized exploitation, so maybe we should struggle instead to free our political imaginary in order to find creative solutions to the problems we face now, and new paths for the future.

Personally, I don’t find the memory or the lessons of actually existing socialism effective enough for curing us from what Mark Fisher called “capitalist realism”, or, as a matter of fact, radical enough as a foundation for the politics of our times.