The construction of Budapest’s second metro line was announced to the public on 17th September, 1950. It was an ambitious project, some say unnecessarily so. The aim was to emulate our Soviet allies and build a metro line crossing under the river Danube and end on the challenging hillside terrain of Buda.
Builders of the new metro line were underpaid and their living conditions were miserable. In lieu of a compensation, they were celebrated as the “heroes of socialism” and highly praised by the papers.
These work heroes dared the impossible: to dig a tunnel under the river and into the rocky hillside of Buda – without the adequate technology. The Soviet Union promised to deliver the drilling machines soon. Until that, they had to dig manually.
Their method of choice to circumvent the technical inadequacy was called “socialist emulation”.
Workers advanced only centimeters a day, sometimes even a meter. It looked like a losing battle. Anti-capitalist agitprop movies were made to celebrate the workers, who dug heroically – while the capitalist mole tried to sabotage their work.
“Socialist emulation” was the communists’ knee-jerk response to “capitalist competition“.
The distinction was crucial – and also insubstantial. A good socialist doesn’t compete. He works harder than his fellows, that is true, but for the collective. By omitting individual incentives from the system, the socialist ideologues hoped to develop a brave new world, where competition is evil – but things still get done. The word “competition” should be avoided.
Socialist emulation was meant to be voluntary – as opposed to capitalist competition. In reality, “socialist self-obligation” was fiercely enforced by peer pressure, state security, and the workplace representatives of the Communist Party.
Instead of management consultants, the Soviet Union exported experts, who taught how to organise work competitions – sorry, emulations. Propaganda films have been ordered where good socialist workers competed in “work emulation” and overcame the imperialist sabotage.
The Hungarians seem to have missed these nuances though. They translated “socialist emulation” (or социалистическое соревнование) simply to “work competition“.
It didn’t work either way.
Despite the early enthusiasm and massive propaganda efforts, the project stalled and had to be put on ice in 1954. Turns out socialist emulation alone didn’t cut it. The fact that the deep drilling technology they chose to imitate the Soviet metro building model was completely unnecessary (and overpriced) didn’t help either. (It was meant to ensure that the tunnel is deep enough for air raid shelter – because Cold War.)
The Soviet Union didn’t send the drilling machines for years. And even when the drills arrived, the pace of the digging hardly increased (from one meter per day to three on average). The absence of incentives for collective success sinks both socialist and nationalist collectivism.
The tunnel was used to store wheat and vegetables for years before the metro line was completed in the 1970s. But then it looked this cool.
To put the lessons in perspective, consider the construction of the first metro line in Budapest more than half a century earlier.
The first metro line of Budapest was built in just 20 months (instead of 20 years) to the highest technological standards of the age and was completed in 1896. It was the second underground line in the world, second only to London. It was built during the heyday of early Hungarian capitalism, when Budapest was a commercial and financial centre in Europe.
It was done by Siemens & Halske and commissioned to entrepreneurs, who competed for good old profit. Just take a look at the construction and compare it with the 1950s works.
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