Anthropology, the relativizing countercurrent to Enlightenment notions of civilization and progress, has long challenged notions of backwardness. By contrast, Marxist-Leninist regimes had no doubts about the world-historical backwardness of the largely agrarian societies in which they came to power, which they sought to transform through rapid industrialization. According to some indicators, this socialist civilizing mission was rather successful. Yet memories are mixed, and complicated by the reappearance of typical features of backwardness in the postsocialist era. This article explores changing political economies and the spatiotemporal imaginaries of elites and villagers in Hungary. Historical and theoretical insight is drawn from Ferenc Erdei (1910–1971), a left-leaning populist whose analysis of rural Hungary has more general relevance. Case materials are presented from a region of the Great Plain that in the longue durée exemplifies the “development of underdevelopment” on the margins of Western capitalism. Civilizational transformations were instigated from the east in the socialist decades, but their vehicle was a collectivist ideology that remained alien. The politics and economics of time now render villagers susceptible to populist imaginaries entirely different from those of Erdei.
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