In the flood of news about the covid vaccine, I’ve been reading about Katalin Karikó, the Hungarian scientist in Philadelphia who has been doggedly researching mRNA vaccines since the beginning of her career.
My mother’s side of the family is Hungarian and there’s a some heritage-type pride there (not to mention the Philly connection), so I read a bit about Karikó’s story. She did her PhD in Hungary at the University of Szeged in the 1970s, which was when she got interested in mRNA.
The date caught my eye. Hungary had a market socialist economy at that time. I got to wondering about the political-economic situation when she was going to school, particularly the relationship between the socialist economy and the university.
I’m interested in actually existing socialism and education’s contribution to it, and here we have an example of a scientific innovation coming out of a university in a socialist society. This post is very far from sufficient, but I did a little foray into the political economy of socialist Hungary’s education system and found some interesting things.
Extremely brief overview of economics and politics
Economically speaking, here’s a summary from Kornai on the socialist transition to a centralized economy, when the Allies decided Hungary would become a socialist republic as part of the larger Soviet Union in 1948 :
The majority of firms were nationalised, and a wide co-operative sector was established— mainly in agriculture. Public firms were controlled centrally, with the aid of a hierarchical multi-level apparatus. The fulfillment of production plans given to firms, as well as adherence to the input quotas allotted to them, was strictly obligatory. Price-setting and the allocation of investment were highly centralised. The independence of firms was narrowly limited.
But in 1968, there was a massive reform towards market socialism where
the firm does not receive an obligatory directive as to what it should produce in the next year. Rationing of inputs by obligatory quotas has almost entirely ceased. 'Command economy' has been replaced by a system in which independent firms are connected to a large extent through the market. Some prices continue to be set centrally, but the sphere of contract prices determined by the agreement of seller and buyer has been enlarged considerably. The right of investment decision is shared among central organisations, credit-granting banks, and firms independently initiating investment and also financing part from their own savings
After the reforms, Kornai (writing in 1980) reports 5-6% growth per year for ten years, which is pretty good.
Of course, politically, you can’t ignore what happened in between the centralization and market-socialization of the economy in 1956. There was an uprising throughout the country that toppled the government. Students started the action, which then led to workers’ councils taking control of municipal apparatuses. The rebellion was put down by the USSR with military force, killing around 3,000 and pushing out some 200,000.
It was a red-letter year for the USSR, as the rebellion in Hungary caused much disagreement on the international left. It was also the year the Khruschev spoke publicly about the regime under Stalin for the first time, shedding light on the gulags. But Kornai is right to say that Hungary’s political-economic system before 1989 was a grand experiment, which had clear benefits for education, particularly for women.
Simkus and Andorka’s work on Hungarian education in the 1980s was widely cited. They tell the story of Hungary’s pre-socialist system, which was two-tiered. Working class children got up from 4-6 years of elementary school, while elite children continued on for secondary and higher education. The dual system was as old as the Austro-Hungarian dual monarchy, and heavily favored boys.
Then the communist government took power and things really changed.
State control of education was consolidated through the nationalization of church-run schools. Control of the educational institutions became an instrument for changing the regime of social mobility. The expansion of the economy, the forced delassement of great landowners, capitalists, and those in positions of power, and the postwar emigration created a great demand for a new cohort of educated personnel.
They ended the dual system. How’d they do it? Quotas and shipping the elites to the countryside.
a minimum proportion of all students admitted to universities and [high schools] (approximately 50%) must be from working class or peasant backgrounds. Certain students whose family backgrounds were associated with the wrong political affiliations or gentry or bourgeois class backgrounds were prevented from obtaining higher education by merit of their being deported to rural areas.
That policy stopped after Stalin died in 1953 and was fully stopped after the 1956 rebellion was put down. What was left was a more equal education system.
According to Swain, communism was good for universities. From 1950-1952, 70% of money spent on education went towards building new ones.
He also notes that some basic numbers on education in Hungary between 1945-1975 are strong: number of classrooms doubled, number of teachers hired tripled, teacher-student ratios fell by a third, and average class size by half—though some of these numbers fall off as time goes on and must be understood in the context of low teacher salaries.
When the socialist government came to power, the education policy was indeed impressive says Szelényi, calling it a system designed with equality in mind. This is the system Karikó came up in. Here’s an image of the Hungarian school system c. 1982:
When it came to educational attainment, Andorka and Simkus, in that seminal study of Hungarian education in the socialist period, found that though there were a number of different increases in attainment within subgroups, particularly among children of manual workers, though their results showed largely downward trends in attainment.
But when you look at gender equalization, it’s pretty amazing. While fewer total proportion completed higher education, the gender gaps in that completion were almost entirely closed.
I’m sure there was analysis of these numbers after they published them forty years ago—and who knows how the analysis stands up now—but Róbert reran the numbers in 1991 and they came out roughly the same. (I’m wondering if they accounted for population increases, eg, and how statistical methods in measuring attainment have improved.)
The equalization between genders, particularly between 1955 and 1960, is remarkable. Simkus and Andorka note that “This convergence took place during the late phase of extensive development, as women's labor force participation was increasing dramatically.”
So the chances that a girl could make it through secondary school and then go on to study science at a university dramatically increased during the socialist period in Hungary. Not only were there more universities in general, but there were more women working and more women going to school than ever before. And that’s exactly what happened with Katalin Karikó.
And yet, this fact will probably go unappreciated.
While the Wired profile says Karikó left Hungary because the university didn’t have the right resources (that can happen anywhere), France 24 reports that she “fled communist rule.”
It’s a small word choice, but it matters. It feels really redbaity to say she fled the country when she was just going to study her specific research interest at a university that had the resources for it. That happens all the time now. Did she really ‘flee communist rule’ or did she just leave to keep studying mRNA?
To find out, I think I’d have to ask her. I considered this, but figured she probably has more important things to worry about.
The report goes on to tell a story about how Karikó had to stuff some British pounds into one of her toddler’s teddy bears to get it past Hungarian officials at the border. This was because Hungary forbade people from taking money out of the country.
Sure, there was a Cold War happening at the time and the countries involved weren’t particularly sanguine about anything that would weaken their economies.
But the research I’ve found shows that Hungary’s socialist government improved the chances of girls getting higher education by orders of magnitude, and there’s no denying that the woman who did the research that led to the covid vaccination came up in that system.