Communist and Post-Communist Geographies

Efforts in geography to address the issues of socialism/communism failed to be seminal to the emergence of any powerful theory that could have been the result of putting the perspective of scientific communism on geography. It was the political economic approach of Marxism that imbued the geographies of state socialist countries the profoundly. Human geography was replaced with economic geography. Attention was focused on production.

In the Stalinist era and during the Cold War, ambitions to defeat ‘bourgeois pseudo sciences’ and building a socialist society were assigned as tasks to sciences. Geographical research was under state control and in support of the central planning. Physical and human geography were separated at the level of institutions for a long time.

In the countries of post-socialist transition, geography is characterized by (1) the restoration of the ‘pre-socialist’ relationship between economic and human geography; (2) a wider spectrum of researched areas, specialization; and (3) the emergence of pluralism in philosophy and social theories. The Western versions of post-socialist geographies differ from their Eastern counterparts mainly in terms of their approaches, methodologies, and interpretation of space. They provide evidence of the fact that post-socialism is both an Eastern and a Western phenomenon.

Definitions of Communist Geography

Geographies which (1) use the theoretical framework and concepts of scientific communism (socialism) for studying geographic issues; (2) provide support for a communist social and economic formation (mode of production) and social and political movements fighting for such a society; and/or (3) are institutionalized geographies cultivated in countries building state socialism (communism) can be regarded as ‘communist’.

The main underlying reason for such a multiapproach definition is the numerous meanings of communism. One such meaning is what is called ‘scientific communism’, which is – in addition to dialectical and historical materialism and political economy – an important part of Marxism and Leninism; it is a theory according to which it is inevitable that communism should replace capitalism and which explores the possible directions of building a socialist communist society. One of the tenets of this theory is that history is the story of class struggles. Under capitalism, the bourgeoisie owning the means of production exploits the proletariat that only owns its labor through the surplus value generated by the latter. In the same society, however, conditions for eliminating social exploitation and establishing a new socialist social order, free from the contradictions of capitalism, were also created. Production, which also acquired a social feature through the multitude of workers concentrated in large factories, requires that means of production should be in public ownership. Balance between the forces and relations of production can be restored through the nationalization of the means of production, that is, through the exploitation, for the benefit of the society, of exploiters owning the means of production. The way to a new classless society is a proletarian revolution. Marx and Engels’ theory of scientific communism in the mid nineteenth century was preceded by several other concepts and tenets – ranging from Plato’s Utopia of communism, theories on socialism in the era of feudalism, the petty bourgeois and bourgeois version of socialism to critical utopistic socialism and communism – on the transformation of the society along socialist principles and the principle of a just and equitable society. According to Marx and Engels, however, as class struggle becomes more sophisticated so even critical utopistic socialism and communism becomes an obsolete, reactionary, or even conservative theory on socialism. Advocates of this theory intended to achieve their goals in a peaceful manner. The theory itself is not based on extensive knowledge of the laws and motives of social development and fails to recognize the historical inevitability of a socialist revolution and ‘the vocation of the proletariat in world history’. By contrast, Marx considered scientific communism to be the generalized collective experience of the revolutionary movement of the working classes. Thus, communism also means a sociopolitical movement aimed at overthrowing capitalism and building a communist society.

Finally, communism is also used to refer to a socioeconomic formation which is based on the public ownership of the means of production and which can turn the principle of ‘to each according to his needs, from each according to his ability’ into reality. The first stage of the evolvement of this social formation is socialism, after it has been fully consolidated, followed by full communism with the complete ‘withering away of the state’. Not all the Marxists of the nineteenth century shared the view on the necessity of a socialist stage characterized by the dictatorship of the proletariat or on the characteristics of this stage as were proposed by Marx. Conducted with anarchists, debates focused mainly on how the revolution, socialism, and the exploiting state were interrelated. On the eve of the revolution in Russia, Lenin worked out (and even ‘fine tuned’) both the strategy of the revolution and the theoretical foundations of how a socialist state should be built. In order for practical tasks that emerged during the building of a socialist state, for example, socialist industrialization, the reorganization of agriculture, and the cultivation of a ‘socialist mindset’, to be fulfilled, an increasingly high number of new theoretical issues had to be tackled. The Russian Communist Party took such tasks in its stride and regarded them to be the order of the day.

Considering the fact that the characteristics of communist geography, which later evolved into post-communist (post-socialist) geography, can best be studied in the former Soviet Union and in East Central European countries, which turned Marxism into a state ideology and which are today characterized by a post-socialist (post-communist) social order, what follows describes experience in this region.

Communist Geography as an Approach Linked to the Theory of Scientific Communism

We can hardly speak of communist geography as an approach that is linked to Marx’s theory on scientific communism and one that distinctly differs from other approaches.

Radical Western geographies of the 1960s and 1970s proposed concepts such as ‘integrated labor’ (rather than a division of labor), self sufficient regions (which interchange both products and ideas with other regions), and community control, which used an alternative society based on anarchist principles as its starting point. In geography, the most powerful advocate of what was called ‘anarchist communism’ was Russian theoretician and geographer Kropotkin. Published at the turn of the twentieth century, his works argued against both political and economic centralization. They cherished the idea of communities operating on the principle of cooperation and mutual support, where the ‘mess’ of the people will organize itself by itself. Geographies based on the principle of anarchist communism were, however, diametrically opposed to the Marxist–Leninist interpretation of state level ‘authoritarian communism’.

There is a school, however, which not only has brought Marxism into geography, but has also put geographical perspectives on Marxism. However, not even this school is labeled as communist; rather, it is referred to as Marxist geography, with the adjective ‘Western’ used for the sake of clarity and in order to set it apart from the geography cultivated in state socialist countries in the East. Followers of Marxist geography primarily use political economy and dialectical and historical materialism proposed by Marxism  for example, Harvey created a completely new ‘historical geographical materialism’. Fundamentally, they were committed to studying capitalism. They did not dig deep into the theory of scientific communism or the workings of state socialist regimes, toward which they adopted a critical attitude.

In contrast, human geography did address the issues of socialism (communism) in state socialist countries. However, unlike radicalism that characterized the theory of scientific communism (and Western Marxist geography) at its (their) inception, geography in these countries was technocratic rather than radical. It failed to be seminal to any powerful theory that could have been the result of bringing scientific communism into geography. Paradoxically, the creation of such theories was foiled mainly by the very totalitarian system, in which the ruling communist party, reiterating the building of socialism (communism), turned to the theory of scientific communism and Marxism–Leninism as a whole in order to justify its own etatism. Justification, however, came at the price of distorting the original theory. In general, the end of Stalinism also marked the end of an era when social sciences had to meet strict criteria and were under close scrutiny. However, the picture was far more subtle. Brought about by the popular movements/revolutions of the mid 1950s in GDR, Poland, and Hungary, the Prague uprising in 1968 and the cultural revolution in China, etc., changes, which differed from one country to the next, also affected geography.

Especially in the Stalinist era, but several decades later as well, as attested to by the works of a few researchers, geography contributed to a state level corruption of Marxism and Leninism. One of the most frequent manifestations of such corruption was the permanent use of the terminology of scientific communism and, in a broader sense, that of Marxism and Leninism. Thus, for instance, the word ‘population’ in a demographic analysis was only too readily replaced with ‘the forces of production’. Likewise, terms such as ‘mode of production’, ‘relations of production’, or ‘territorial division of labor’ were used left, right, and center in literature. Sentence starters like ‘In compliance with the requirements of our socialist societyy.’ were unlikely to be the results of the actual study of social inevitabilities. Rather, they were prescribed by the communist party or used simply as propaganda sound bites or as declarations of a sense of belonging (the use of the various forms of the first person plural) and personal commitment.

It was perhaps the political economic approach of Marxism that imbued the geographies of state socialist countries the most. Human geography was replaced with economic geography from the outset. Industrial, agrarian, settlement, and population geographies were, as a rule, regarded to be its subdisciplines. Attention was focused  while in several countries social and cultural geographies were simply nonexistent  on production, in connection with a materialist weltanschauung and the political practice of forced industrialization. It was a common ‘belief ’ that the development of the productive sectors would automatically lead to the development of the nonproductive ones, improve living conditions, and resolve the problems of social reproduction. Research focused on structures, especially on the macro scale. Locational analyses and the quantitative models of the optimal regional allocation of production with a command economy perspective put on them had the most far reaching influence in socialist countries. Theories of the ‘territorial productive complex’ (TPC) and economic regions (rayons), worked out in the Soviet Union, also ‘reached’ other countries, though their feasibility was the subject of heated debates.

In contrast to Marxist geography in Western countries, geography in state socialist countries did not participate in the conceptualization of the issues of class relations. Although descriptions of social structures were ‘sneaked into’ demographic analyses, changes in the ratio of the working classes to peasantry in agricultural cooperatives (and those in their living standards presented in academic literature from the 1970s and the 1980s) and how these changes were interconnected with industrialization and urbanization were the ‘hottest’ topics of the era. At best, geography refrained from going into details regarding the ‘individualism of the peasantry’ or the ‘unprogressiveness of villages’. Marx did not ‘promise’ an equal standard of living for the socialist stage, since it was division according to the principle of labor rather than that of needs that prevailed. Nevertheless, official party ideology made egalitarianism into one of its highsounding slogans. This is very likely to be one of the reasons why the Marxist theory of uneven development was not further elaborated during state socialism. Whenever regional backwardness was identified, it was not its underlying reasons that were examined. The fact that certain elements of the capitalist mode of production prevailed for a while was considered to be a natural outcome of the laws of dialectics. Therefore, whenever backward regions/settlements were studied, it was development opportunities rather than the causes of backwardness on which attention was focused, thereby offering assistance for the state with central planning. There were countries where debates pointing out the negative role of the state were conducted, as was the case in Hungary in the 1980s in the case of sociologists Szele´nyi, Manchin, and Ferge. However, geographical experiences did not feature in such debates. The above debate was about whether market mechanisms offset inequalities generated by the state in the socialist era, or they add their own inequalities, which happen to benefit the same social strata. To give Marxist theoreticians their due, it should be noted that those (e.g., Luka´cs, Bloch, Kolakowski, and Gyilasz) whose oeuvres proved to be influential found themselves in confrontation with the ruling orthodoxy: they were deported, imprisoned, or forced to emigrate from their home countries.

Communist (Socialist) Geography Supporting the Building of State Socialism

Marxism strives to both understand and change the surrounding world. Since the overthrow of capitalism was no longer a topical issue in state socialism, during the Stalinist era and the Cold War struggle against ‘bourgeois pseudo sciences’ and the building of a socialist society were assigned as tasks to sciences. The latter task (i.e., the building of a socialist society) was in conformity with the tenet according to which Marxist–Leninist epistemology was based on practice. Geography, too, would openly identify the satisfaction of the needs of the society with the objective of ‘serving working people’. However, apart from activities aimed at popularizing sciences among workers, such services were a far cry from today’s people’s geography project initiated by Western Marxist and critical geographies. In fact, they mostly meant applied research for and in support of the state. From then on, only within the boundaries of the prevailing status quo was it possible to make any change.

If there is communist (socialist) geography, direct or indirect assistance with central planning is very likely to be its universal characteristic. Economic (human) geography was most closely related to economic, regional, and settlement network development and planning in several different ways. Atlases popularizing the 5 year plans of the ‘people’s economy’, empirical studies ‘laying down the geographical foundations of economic development’, and theories and models that made the delimitation of economic regions possible were the ‘products’ of the era. Staffs at research institutions had to contribute to planning at various scales and some researchers were retained as experts. As tight political control was easing so some criticism was also voiced. Several countries adopted Soviet experience in the participation of geography in the gigantic ‘transformation of nature’ or at least references were made to such utilization of research. It was sometimes the case that geographers, not always making it a point of honor to refer to their sources, imported Western theories such as Christaller’s theory on the central place.

In the 1970s and 1980s, numerous studies (e.g., rural research and in Poland and Hungary social geographic research of German and British origin with an eye on practical application) were carried out in East Central Europe, which did put forward proposals for improving the living conditions of those in need. No comprehensive evaluation of such studies or applied geographic studies is available as yet. Some of the retrospective theoretical studies in the post-socialist era assert that not only geographical expertise but also expertise in social sciences in general were used as a tool for the legitimation of the political will and power.

Geography in State Socialist Countries

The term ‘communist’ geography  better known as ‘socialist’ geography  was the original ‘official’ term used to set institutionalized geography in state socialist countries apart from other geographies. In this sense, all kinds of geographies cultivated in those countries were socialist (communist). The authoritarian regimes ‘saw to it’ that geography, and any discipline for that matter, was or at least looked ideologically consistent. The most universal characteristic of geographical knowledge produced in such a social environment was, therefore, its attitude toward the ruling powers, which mainly affected the network of geographical institutions.

This institutional system was controlled and, hence, centralized by the state (the communist party). Institutes of geographic research which were spun off from universities and which were parts of the national academies of sciences were established. These institutes, adjusting to central planning in people’s economy, worked according to national research plans. Academies were responsible for using a Soviet type scientific rating system, which proved to be an efficient tool for state controlled cultural policy to establish a cadre system in the profession as a whole. During the Stalinist era, many geographers in several countries were severely criticized, stripped off their academic degrees, dismissed from work, or arrested. As actual cases attest to it, reasons included a World War II role, religious affiliation, a statement negating socialist development (e.g., that a given country is an agrarian rather than an industrial–agrarian country), the use of a ‘bourgeois’ approach (e.g., a morphologic rather than functional approach adopted in urban study), or the taking over of the locational theory from Western geographies. The scale of such ‘cleansing’ was completely different in the German Democratic Republic and Hungary (in the latter country even the Geographic Society, operational since 1875, was banned), due to their roles in the war, from that in Poland, where access to Western literature was easier and which had a wider network of international relations. Soviet hegemony was felt nearly everywhere; for example, guest tutors and researchers contributed to the teaching and the research carried out by their hosts and published in their journals, studies published in the Soviet Union were translated, etc. Generally, the grip of this hegemony only slowly eased, except in China, which broke away from the Soviet Union completely, Yugoslavia, which also kept its distance, and later in Romania and Albania. With dictatorship becoming softer, the number of bilateral Western relations grew and, in addition to the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (COMECON) research, wider institutionalized cooperation in the International Geographic Union also played an important role.

The separation of physical geography from economic (human) geography was also reflected in institutional fragmentation. The story of such ‘legal separation’ and later their unification during socialism can be less well interpreted on a philosophical basis than in a political economic context. Since the spread of the dualist approach led to breaking away from the pre-socialist tradition of unified geography in most countries, geog raphers turned to Marxism for explanation. Explanation was provided by the fundamentally different laws that underlay the development of the phenomena in the ‘two geographies’ and the suspected dangers posed by environmental determinism branded as ‘bourgeois’. In the Khrushchev era, prompted by Anuchin, a major debate was sparked between ‘monists’ and ‘dualists’ in the Soviet Union. Finally, the party joined in the debate and declared that the rigid separation of nature from society was erroneous and of a ‘Stalinist nature’, expressing that such separation ran counter to (economic) planning interests. The fact that reasoning had identical roots clearly reflected that ‘theoretical debates’ had nearly nothing to do with philosophy proper. Rather, such debates were a reflection of the power struggle. Both parties sought justification in the tenets of Marxism–Leninism, the practical need for planning and the national geographies of the pre-Stalinist era. At the time of a similar change in paradigms, Romania rediscovered its national roots, and Mihailescu’s 1936 university textbook advocating the unified approach was reissued in 1969. For such, a change in orientation in the Soviet Union was necessary. Nevertheless, the explanation provided for the reissuance of the book was also in line with Romania’s current regime’s concern with nationalism. The fact that, for instance, in China the balance between physical and human (economic) geography could not be restored can be ascribed to its complete confrontation with the Soviet Union. It is another story that the dominance of physical geography  being politically less risky  prevailed in most state socialist countries even in the era of the new integrative ‘constructive geography’ and despite the spread of the anthropocentric approach of landscape and environmental research.

It is hardly a coincidence that integrated landscape geographic research adopting a new system approach became one of the areas that challenged descriptive static view. This, however, left the empirical or positivist nature of most human geographic research unaffected. The revamping and spread of quantitative methods also occurred in state socialist countries mainly in the 1960s and 1970s and due particularly to the weight of applied geography to which regional science quickly found its way. However, revamping failed to materialize in qualitative methods and social theories, except the Marxist–Leninist ones.

Characteristics of the Post-Communist/Post-Socialist Geographies

Unlike the term ‘communist geography’, ‘post-communist/post-socialist geography’ had a more unambiguous and more uniform meaning and gained more currency: it is used to refer to geography focusing on research on transition from state socialism (communism) into capitalism. Considering the fact that 198991 political changes in East Central Europe and the Soviet Union occurred before communism had been reached (only the Soviet Union declared officially the reaching of the stage of full communism), it stands to reason that the adjective ‘post-socialist’ was more frequently used than ‘post-communist’.

Post-Socialist Geographies in Post-Socialist Countries

Naturally, post-socialist geographies are cultivated in the countries concerned, that is, post-socialist countries. Privatization, market economy, and multiparty democracy have changed the relationship of geographical knowledge production with political powers, its institutional frameworks and nature. The length of time for political, economic, and social transition to occur seems to be varying from one country to the next, which further differentiates, the national human geographies of the former Soviet block. These geographies are in the state of transition themselves: current trends are, in several countries, the organic continuation of the processes that started in the 1980s (or even earlier). In the early 1980s, Kuklinski deemed developments in Polish geography to be a change in paradigm in which the issues/problems of economic, social and ecological crisis, spatial differentiation, new local and regional communities, and the changing system of values must be addressed/resolved with new methods and by using interdisciplinary relations. At an international meeting of the directors of academy run geographic research institutions in September 1989, the representatives of several countries already put the tasks and situation of geography in the context of a ‘political and economical crisis’, ‘social movements’, and ‘perestroika’. By contrast, at the same meeting, a participant from Cuba emphasized the importance of the second edition of a national atlas and a Mongolian attendee pointed out, among other things, the weaknesses of the supply of cadres. In the countries of post-socialist transition, despite their differences, the transformation of human geography shares a few universal characteristics:

  1. The relationship between economic and human geography has become what it used to be: they have ‘changed places’ in terms of their weight, hierarchical relationship, and institutional background. Research institutes, no longer controlled by party politics, found themselves to be subject to market conditions. University faculties have been reorganized – in general, there has been a marked change in direction, with everyone looking to the ‘West’.
  2. Human geography has become more diverse and further specialized. There has also been a renaissance of political geography, boosted by increasingly strong nationalism and as a revival of the traditions of ‘bourgeois geography’. Numerous geographers have been rehabilitated and several areas of research that used to be off limits (e.g., geography of religions) are now again accepted. Charged with new political content, ethnic geography has achieved high visibility. New subdisciplines have emerged including, for example, election geography, which was inconceivable in the era of state socialism owing to the lack of free general elections. And geography of gender, though with low visibility, is already a presence. Obviously, further examples could be put on this ‘list of changes’.
  3. Democratization also paved the way for pluralism in philosophy and social theories. First, challenging Marxism and Leninism rather than the emergence of unmistakably new trends is more common. Currently, experience gained in the totalitarian regimes seems to be supporting ‘value neutral sciences’. ‘Situated knowledge’ has not even been raised as an issue to be debated. Social and cultural theories as fomenters have hardly been able to penetrate into established geography. Critical geography has also hardly been able to gain in popularity in part for the above reasons and in part because of the negative connotation associated with left wing thinking in post-socialist countries.

Some claim that characteristically post-socialist directions of development underlie shifts in views that are relatively comprehensive and in keeping with Western trends. One example that supports this claim is a shift from the earlier dominance of structuralism toward human agents, individuals, their spatial behavior as well as the cognitive and decision making factors involved in such behavior. Underlying this trend is vigorous liberalism represented by individualism. The latter was inspired under the new political circumstances by the need to ‘liberate’ the individual oppressed by the socialist state. There has also been a shift in the political economic focus in several countries. The simultaneous emergence/strengthening of cultural geography has not, however, been a response to an increasingly self conscious cultural policy. Nor has it been inspired by identity based post-colonial or environmental social movements, since such movements are rather weak. This is, in part, the reason why ‘new cultural geographies’ in post-socialist countries are not linked to, for example, the homeless, the disabled, or the homosexuals whose spatiality is rather narrow, relative to dominant cultural realms. For the time being, it focuses on (mainly ethnic) groups that were ‘off limits’ in the socialist era.

Relations of Post-Socialist Geographies in the ‘East’ and in the ‘West’

There have always been researchers in the West who have taken an interest in studying state socialist countries. By today, the Western versions of post-socialist geographies have become institutionalized: in addition to a number of interdisciplinary institutes operational in several parts of the world, there is a Russian, Central Eurasian, and East European Speciality Group in the Association of American Geographers and a Post-Socialist Geographies Research Group in the Royal Geographical Society and the Institute of British Geographers. These organizations help to bring together scholars with an interest in post-socialist issues and organize East–West workshops. Similar to their Eastern counterparts, members of these organizations also contribute to revealing the national and local characteristics of key social, political, and economic trends in post-communist transition. However, while researchers in the West focus on for instance governance, power structure; socioeconomic and gender inequalities, social and cultural identities, and marginalization, those in the East adopt a different approach to such issues, focusing mainly on regionalization, decentralization; regional, settlement inequalities; territorial identities, and underdeveloped areas.

Overall, though both ‘parties’ adopt a wide variety of approaches to research on post-socialism, it seems that in post-socialist countries, at least for the time being, few regard geographical relations to be the outcome of social processes (and when they do, it is to a much lesser extent). Rather, they treat such relations as spatial patterns. One reason is the dominance of the concept of absolute space – space as a container, space as separated from concrete social processes. Furthermore, the mapping of spatial patterns is of quantitative nature. The fact that the development of qualitative methods has been put on the back burner does not help strengthen ‘social’ in social geography. Attention is paid to the real material world rather than the symbolic space. There is also a strong social demand for sticking to reality and empiricism, the current challenge being the understanding of a new era where the importance of mapping and documenting is higher than average. The significance of applied geography not only remains, but in East Central Europe it is also further strengthened because of regional European Union (EU) planning and because it is a source of income for many institutes. Applied geography, however, continues to be used in studies ordered mainly by the state. No studies as yet have been carried out in furtherance of social movements and in order to examine spaces of resistance.

One of the benefits of shared interest in post-socialism and of joint East–West projects is, among other things, that they do examine such subject matters. Nevertheless, with sovietization completed, criticism has been voiced concerning the dangers of the new postcolonializing of geographical knowledge and a Western (and, within that, British and American) hegemony. Advocates of relational geographies and the reflexive approach are seeking to mitigate such risks. The key starting point of research adopting such an approach is that post-socialist transition reshapes East and West alike and post-socialism is both an Eastern and a Western phenomenon.