Communist Education as Modernisation Strategy? The Swings of the Globalisation Pendulum in Eastern Europe (1947-1989)

Monica E Mincu. History of Education. Volume 45, Issue 3. 2016.

Introduction: Eastern Europe between International Diffusion and Imperialism

Twenty-five years after the fall of the Communist regimes, scholarship on education in the European Communist world is less substantial and robust than expected. This situation is due, in part, to the historiographical pitfalls in approaching European history during and after Communist rule. Scholars have avoided the notion of Communist regimes, focusing instead on their more acceptable versions, such as (real) socialism and post-socialism. Similarly, Eastern Europe has been seen as a political construction and accused of hiding substantial differences between countries in the area. Teaching styles have been considered undemocratic and education systems have been seen as hyper-centralised, which has led to a negative assessment of education as a whole. More significantly, post-Communist scholarship has been dominated by a ‘modernisation lag’ perspective. One influential study theorised an even more radical ‘cultural gap’ thesis: ‘The distance between the two parts of the Continent is so big and, therefore, the separation is so complete that we dare to call it a cultural gap.’ It is evident that ideas of ‘catching up’ or ‘returning to Europe’ were not only present in these societies at large, but also significantly impacted upon how the history of education has been written so far.

The perspective I put forward provides a fresh understanding on the positioning of these countries in the wider international and global arena. A multiple modernities theory assumes that the Communist states were on a different modernity path. It also explains processes of international diffusion or globalisation, focusing on a regional and thus a lower level. From this sociological perspective Eastern Europe is a fruitful concept, indicating the satellite European countries. Conversely, Western Europe indicates the part of the Continent outside the Iron Curtain which were governed by multi-party political systems.

This article is in line with a growing interest in more recent histories of education and with a body of research that draws links between education and globalisation. A socio-historical perspective will shed light on three of the satellite European countries under Soviet influence: Poland, Hungary and Romania. Taking a comparative approach to the history of education in these three countries, I outline similarities and differences, and highlight the reasons that lie behind specific outcomes. The first level of analysis examines varieties in education. This comparative analysis of selected issues allows me to address, at a second and higher level of analysis, two broad research questions:

  • How should we understand the Soviet input to modernisation?
  • How should we understand the Western European influence in this modernisation?

In order to answer my research questions, I have selected structural-organisational issues along with key education politics, which offer an insight into the ‘hardware’ of the modernisation processes. I will not engage with the ‘software’, that is the curriculum, values and philosophical stances that provided a rationale for Communist education. By its nature, this study cannot engage with the quality of education before or after 1989, or explain more recent divergences in terms of institutional developments and achievement results in these countries. In order to respond to broader questions of quality, equity or efficacy, other sociological considerations, such as the profile of social stratification, the rural-urban dimension or the systems’ reform pace and orientation over the last 25 years need to be considered separately.

In order to answer these questions, I will set the historical scene of Eastern European education and then engage with a theoretical framework that will allow us to analyse pre-Communist institutional and cultural factors in education and globalisation trends and waves. The analysis of Communist education implies both the investigation of its relationship to the Soviet model and the main areas of convergence between the three selected countries. At the same time, variations in this area reveal a peculiar mix of specific cultural legacies and the circulation of new global models, of Western inspiration, in parallel with declining Communist politics.

Understanding Phases and Varieties of Communist Regimes

The period between 1947 and 1989 is usually known as real Socialism, Soviet-type or State Socialism. While these terms appear historically more appropriate, Communism indicates a set of social, political and educational ideals. Between 1945 and 1949, Communist regimes were imposed in the area, even in those countries in which Communists enjoyed a certain level of popular support, such as Poland and Czechoslovakia. Other historiographical interpretations see Communist regimes as a natural and foreseeable outcome, in line with the world-view of the Soviet Union that perceived itself as the moral winner of the Second World War and hoped to radically reform Eastern European societies.

Historians proposed a chronological view and identified four major sub-phases relevant for the three contexts:

  • The Stalinist regimes phase (1945-1953);
  • The crisis (1953-1963), leading to a ‘thaw’ or ‘revisionism’;
  • The re-launch (1964-1979);
  • The implosion (1980-1991).

These phases characterise both the Eastern area and Soviet society, though they are manifested differently and with various meanings in each country. Specific landmark events, such as Stalin’s death (1953) and Khrushchev’s ‘secret speech’ (1956), led to de-Stalinisation. The same can be said of Gorbachev’s approach to politics, with its openness to reform. These events represent an influence from outside the political centre of the so-called ‘Communist world’. Other significant moments took place in the satellite countries, such as the Prague Spring in 1968, a symbolic year after which revisionist and reformist hopes to change the Communist regimes were abandoned.

In the satellite countries, the Stalinist phase represented the moment of maximum convergence with a Soviet-type society. However, a process of social homogenisation should be viewed alongside what happened during the fascist era. The next phase was initiated by Khrushchev’s secret speech at the 20th Congress of the CPUS, denouncing the errors of the Stalinist view. The consequences were a ‘thaw’ and a search for new ways to re-launch the Communist project on new bases. The revisionist phase, typical of Hungary and Poland, showed the traits of a real crisis. The year 1954 marked the beginning of a ‘diversification’ of the Communist project, which included some critical developments but without challenging the system. The consequences were a decline in internal repression, a decrease in heavy industrial investment, and a greater tolerance towards artistic and intellectual experiments. The meaning of the 1956 revolution and Soviet military intervention in Hungary was more profound, representing a model and a tradition for the years to come. In the Romanian case, de-Stalinisation was a limited and strictly controlled process, showing more continuity with the previous phase.

Left-wing politics played a massive role in interwar Poland as a genuine internal tradition that opposed the Bolshevisation and Stalinisation of this society and fuelled opposition against the Communist regime. Conversely, right-wing politics were dominant in the interwar period in Hungary and Romania, so that both countries lacked such a powerful counterweight.

The years that followed were marked by a new closure, coinciding in the Soviet Union with the Brezhnev era, and symbolically characterised by the Prague Spring, with the decay of Marxism as a political source of inspiration. From a different perspective, Konrad and Szelenyi advanced the idea of an abandonment of the socialist ideal. Membership of the elite, previously restricted to Party and State officials (nomeklatura), was opened to intellectuals and professionals, and thus decisively contributed to a gradual transformation of the socialist system. Political tensions continued to characterise Poland and Romania, whilst the Hungarian ‘Kadarism’ proved successful in introducing a new truce based on political compromise and economic concessions.

During the 1970s and 1980s, a certain revival of the civil societies across Eastern Europe, thanks to new initiatives from intellectuals and dissidents. A certain attitude of resignation, permeated by the myth of the irreversibility of the Communist regimes, was contrasted by a culture of civic values, particularly in Poland. The glasnostj (transparency or publicity) era has been characterised as ‘a thousand and one communisms’. While Hungary embarked upon the ‘new economic mechanism’ and welcomed free market principles, Romanian Communism became more rigid and finally transformed into a new type of national-Communist regime. During the 1980s and under perestroika (restructuring), the Communist parties in the area adopted different political attitudes: the Polish and Hungarian parties endorsed a ‘Gorbachevist dynamic’ of openness, while the Romanian party adopted strategies of resistance. In this phase, Soviet pressure, which had remained a constant over a long period, proved to be one of innovation. This direction was welcomed by countries already engaged in similar reforms, such as Poland and Hungary; other countries adopted a ‘wait and see’ attitude (Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria), while the Romanian government advanced open criticism. At the end of the 1980s, these political regimes followed a different path: authoritarian (Poland), advanced post-totalitarian (Hungary), and personalistic totalitarian (Romania) regimes.

From a macro-historical perspective, three major reasons explain the variation of these regimes, particularly after the 1970s, when their impact on education is evident. In corporativist Poland, society fragmented along three main lines—the Communists, the Socialists in continuity with the robust pre-war Polish tradition, and the Catholics—which allowed for alternative visions in education. The Hungarian dynamic economy fuelled the possibility of introducing innovation under the Kadar regime, particularly to initiate reform of school autonomy. Finally, one reason behind specific Romanian developments, such as making 12 years of schooling compulsory, and a path-dependent selectivity, is to be found in the politics of nationalistic resistance.

A Framework for Eastern European Modernity: Global Models, Soviet Influence, and Cultural Legacies

Comparative and historical research are both concerned with ‘processes of international and global influence’ and the way these affect ‘education in different nations around the world’. The sociological concepts of modernisation and globalisation shed helpful light on education under Communist rule. For Schwinn, plural modernisation paths are difficult to define as a single model, since they derive from various pre-existent cultural legacies, which affect responses to global influences. ‘Globalisation must be understood, then, as the consequence of dynamic relations of interaction between regions.’

As captured by Schwinn, ‘[m]odernisation initiatives by particular countries galvanise the elites of other regions into action; and these elites’ capacities to respond as well as their strategies of institutionalisation vary in accordance with culture-specific patterns of thought, material resources and historical preconditions’. Eastern and Western Europe are useful sociological ideas to understand modernisation strategies. At the same time, these concepts cannot by themselves hinder the unfolding of diversities between countries in a given region. This approach proves helpful to disentangle the role played by institutional and cultural legacies and the relationship to modernisation and globalisation processes, without losing sight of each country’s modernisation path and of the local processes of interpretation and adaptation of global models. A multiple modernity theory postulates that ‘a Western path to modernity can be acknowledged without denying parallel (even if more partial) developments in other regions’ and so a distinctive set of patterns first invented in the West but not unilaterally imposed by the West is not the only acceptable model. Eisenstadt and colleagues engaged with a regional dynamic of plural modernisation pathways in their well-known Daedalus issue, identifying mechanisms of mirroring and confrontation between such regions. Mechanisms of both ‘military and economic imperialism’ and ‘selection, reinterpretation, and reformulation of these imported ideas’, and finally appropriation leading to local adaptations, can be observed. Another step forward was taken by Arnason, who posited that ‘[i]f the Soviet model is to be analysed as an alternative form of modernity, then its global impact and self-presentation should be taken into account’. The idea of a ‘global model’ applied to the Soviet Union or to Western Europe is a sociological concept that helps us understand the international positioning of the Eastern European countries. I use the idea of a ‘model’ as a conceptual sociological device and therefore it is not to be understood in substantial historical terms. In addition, global models in education may be plural and sometimes divergent, a dynamic effectively captured in the words of the anthropologist Anderson-Levitt as the ‘swings of a pendulum’.

Following the pendulum metaphor, a historical investigation of globalisation in education should incorporate Soviet and Western European influence as two swings. Modernisation was initially fuelled by the transmission and translation of Soviet ideas. This influence needs to be conceptualised as both an imperialist force and a voluntary borrowing, followed by internationalisation with local adaptation. A notorious example of Soviet imperialism is the imposition of the Russian language in the school curriculum and of ideologically driven issues in education, linked to a censorship function and locally applied. One example of the Soviet Communist influence as a borrowing with local adaptations is the polytechnic idea in education and its continuous re-interpretation. Although internally diversified, the Soviet input served as a global ‘model’ relative to its area of influence, as a specific ‘swing of a pendulum’ that started in 1947 in the Eastern area. At the same time, this analysis highlights the European component of Soviet education, which proved to be competitive, alternative but not a radically different pattern of modernisation in education in the satellite countries.

In the years following the ‘thaw’ and in an economic scenario that partly introduced free-market principles or reinforced their economic links with Western Europe, these countries, including the more independent Romania, tended to compare themselves with and borrow from Western European countries, including in the field of education (e.g. school autonomy). At this point, a new swing of a global pendulum was leaning towards Western ideas in education, a process mediated by pre-Communist cultural legacies and the specific politics in each country. Following Schwinn, I have showed that ‘pre-existent cultural legacies’ influenced the direction of modernisation and the positioning of these countries in the international arena.

This article draws on a larger comparative and socio-historical study, both synchronic and diachronic, engaging with Hungary, Poland and Romania under Communist rule and in the first decay of the so-called post-Communist transitions, and is based on extensive data collection on the three education systems. In order to respond to key theoretical issues that I raise in this article, I present examples from major structural and curricular reforms over time and education politics.

The Soviet Input to Modernisation

The idea of Communist education was seen as opposing the practical application of the key principles of ‘liberal education’. This calls into question the idea of Soviet influence as historically representing the ideal-type of a Communist idea in education. The ‘new man’ regulative ideal and the classless society have been put forward as major principles for Communist welfare states.

It should be clarified that, although I can identify a set of key principles, Soviet education cannot be seen as an internally coherent model. Between 1921 and 1984, the Soviet system incorporated six significant structural reforms, although as a reinterpretation of major key principles. In addition, these principles were assimilated in a highly fragmented way. For political reasons, their impact was more significant under Stalin, but after that it became weaker. The educational traits that are common to Eastern European systems of education can be traced back to the original effort to endorse the Soviet Communist orientation. Although there was no fully developed model, these elements proved to be significant in creating transnational commonalities of a Communist vision in education. For Mitter, some key elements were the uniformity of schooling processes and organisation, and polytechnic education. Karsten and Majoor identified the numerus clausus selective processes and centralised education planning, which moved both secondary and tertiary education in a more strongly vocational direction; the political and social conditioning of the whole education system; bureaucratic control and formal democratisation. In the same vein, Szebenyi proposed five major indicators of Central European countries: educational ideology, a detailed State-imposed curriculum, State monopoly on schooling, uniform school structures, and a highly centralised and uniform managerial apparatus.

The history of education systems from 1947 to 1989 and beyond can be seen as a slow and gradual erosion of the initial impact of a Communist orientation. It consisted in several key principles derived from Soviet education and cannot be seen as a perfectly coherent model. An erosion of these more ideological issues, and a stabilisation of some key characteristics, such as comprehensive schooling, was further combined with high selectivity at subsequent levels.

During the Stalinist regimes phase, Eastern European systems of education were transformed in line with Soviet principles. At that time, part of society considered Soviet education as radically different from a European model, and this fuelled further efforts to overcome and transform education systems. However, some major characteristics such as organisational centralisation came to reinforce centralistic traditions already in place, a result of French, Tsarist or Austro-Habsburg influences. Even the Hungarian system was considered overall as relatively centralised, despite a dual tradition that incorporated both centralisation at higher secondary level (a result of the eighteenth- to nineteenth-century Habsburg Catholic influence) and decentralisation at the primary level (under the nineteenth-century Protestant influence), on a municipal model of control. In fact, State control in education was increasing after the 1930s. The enactment of the Communist law actually acknowledged the status quo. To sum up, political and institutional centralisation was already a local tradition, which the Soviet influence confirmed and further reinforced.

Eastern European systems of education were traditionally articulated into primary and secondary schools (lyceum, in the Romanian and Polish cases and gymnasium, in Hungary), post-elementary grades, various vocational schools and tertiary industrial, commercial or other institutions. In the immediate post-war period, the reform principles of 1931 in the Soviet Union represented the core of a Communist as Soviet structural model implemented in the satellite countries: seven years of general school, two years of lower secondary polytechnic education and a two-year selective cycle of specialisation—technicum. This structural model was translated as a general comprehensive school of seven years initially (in Romania and Poland) and subsequently of eight years (in Hungary and Romania) or nine years in Czechoslovakia, followed by secondary education of four years (academic and technical) and of three years (vocational training). The restructuring of the Hungarian system of education meant not only the extension of primary school from four and six years to eight, but also the elimination of the middle school (four years) and the lower grades of the secondary school (from eight to four years). Bathory highlights the positive consequences of the eight-year general school and its common standardised curriculum introduced at the end of the war, in contrast to the cultural deprivation of the Hungarian workers and peasants, as in the other countries in the area.

Communist states eliminated private and faith-based schools and preserved their monopoly over the newly restructured school system. In Hungary, Romania and Poland, the Communist Parties further reinforced structural unification through curriculum standardisation, State monopoly of textbooks and direct control of the education systems. Dialectic and historical materialism became pervasive in textbooks, whilst religion was abolished. A homogeneous education offer was meant to promote equality through a system of unique textbooks.

Variations in Educational Planning

Educational planning based on a manpower approach was introduced in the area under Soviet influence in the 1940s, a global development not limited to the Communist world. However, intense bureaucratisation limited its potential and transformed it into a ‘mechanical implementation of decisions already taken’, at least in its early phases.

The ideal of a centralised command-type economy supported vocational and technical education during the 1940s and 1950s. In 1951, the Hungarian Ministry of Education suggested that ‘utopic issues must be abolished’ and general education was a major priority, given the unbalanced numbers of graduates produced through vocational education at secondary and tertiary levels of education. During the 1960s, a participative and ‘socio-economic’ conception of educational planning was envisaged, in clear contrast with Communist ideology and the centralistic political orthodoxy. After the introduction of free-market economic principles alongside the centrally planned Communist economy in 1968, a new recursive concept of planning was put forward.

The same developments happened during the 1970s and 1980s in Poland, as a consequence of a similar economic reform and increased awareness of the difficulties of the education system. A top-down approach was abandoned in favour of a ‘demand creating’ model. In spite of these efforts to develop a national path to educational development, the numerus clausus policy to enrol to secondary school and university, an enduring trait of Soviet and Communist education, was preserved for ideological reasons. In fact, a major premise was that the State or society was supposed to guarantee graduates a job appropriate to their qualification.

An instrumental view of education as a means to economic and social ends started to be questioned, and a new concept of education for personal development slowly emerged. Though of Soviet inspiration, the consolidated functional view of education corresponded with satellite countries’ internal expectations of closing the gap with Western countries. At a deeper level, this was supported by a long-standing political myth, the cultural synchronisation of the East with the West. It is noticeable that a ‘Soviet as supra-national’ vision in education met with significant expectations and cultural legacies and finally led to a specific vision of modernisation.

The Romanian case of education planning followed the original top-down pattern, which can be explained by its increased isolation and lack of economic and social innovation after the 1970s. The final decline of a dictatorial Communist regime went hand in hand with an education politics aimed at abolishing school-year repetition. While in principle this transformation was in line with practices in some Western European countries, in practice the absence of effective politics of inclusion and support for those at risk of dispersion greatly diminished its potential. Its main rationale was political, since ‘socialist competition’ meant that schools were supposed to constantly report higher numbers of graduates. Technical and mostly vocational education was available for large numbers of students, but few could enrol into general academic education.

In brief, the reasons behind such variations are linked to the economic innovations in Hungary and Poland and the nature of the political regime and State economy in Romania. A new Western-oriented swing of the pendulum is visible in Hungary and Poland.

Adopting Comprehensive Education on the Soviet Polytechnic Model

The polytechnic principle is not unique to Communist education. It works on the principle of combining theoretical and practical preparation, balancing general academic with vocational and professional education, and came to coincide with a specific institution, the lower secondary school, which formed part of the general comprehensive school. Bîrzea considers that it legitimised Communist comprehensive schooling of a polytechnic type in the Soviet Union, DDR and Czechoslovakia, and formed an alternative to polyvalent schooling in the Federal Republic of Germany, Spain, Belgium and France or comprehensive education in Sweden, Great Britain and Holland.

The polytechnic principle was inspired by the objective need to prepare a qualified labour force and it incorporates the idea that each level of the education system should allow for both continuation of studies and integration into the working world. The ambiguity was visible when it was assumed to be ‘a technical orientation of the curriculum’ or a ‘laboratory practice’. It was one of the most relevant aims of Soviet education, though variously defined and pursued over time. Polytechnic aims formed part of the first Soviet education reform in 1921 and the associated creation of a unified school. The changes in 1931 linked this principle to the lower secondary school level, while the reform of 1958 extended it to the whole secondary education cycle. Subsequent reforms oscillated between more academic or vocational orientations. The 1964 reform was meant to strike a balance between these priorities, while the 1973 reform was again focused on the polytechnic aim through the creation of a school cycle particularly dedicated to this. The last reform in 1984 also prioritised vocational education with a polytechnic orientation.

While the satellite countries followed this idea closely, both rhetorically and practically, it is evident that these contrasting developments could not provide a coherent model ready to be exported and thus local borrowing and adaptation left considerable room for variation. Once again, there is no clear understanding and model based on the Soviet experience, but rather a myriad of developments. For instance, in the Romanian case, it was put forward as a principle of ‘integration between teaching, research and production’ particularly during the 1980s and as the very pillar of the whole system of education. On practical grounds, it led to the introduction of various vocational specialisms into secondary education, mainly industrial and agricultural, which brought with it a limitation for general-academic education.

This section has engaged with structural and organisational issues that fuelled a common Communist pattern in education across the countries under study. From the analysis conducted so far, the first research question can be answered: it emerges that the Soviet path in education was both imposed and also freely imported and reinterpreted, which matches the modernisation perspective advanced in this article. At the same time, although from within a common pattern in education, individual countries in the area exercised certain margins of autonomy. The Soviet influence mediated the introduction of (a Jacobin) modernisation and amply contributed to producing a regional version of modernisation in education based on educational planning and specific comprehensive schooling.

Modernisation through Western European Contacts and Ideas

Historical research indicates that a Communist paradigm remained robustly in place until 1989 and preserved its key characteristics, even in more dynamic education contexts such as Hungary. However, differences between countries became increasingly significant, as a result of long-standing legacies and the relationship of each education system with its economic and political context. Some Communist regimes allowed more innovation and knowledge circulation through increased contacts with Western Europe and the non-Communist world. This section will deal with selected historical, structural and organisational issues of relevance from this perspective, and will consider the Soviet influence as different from the European and Western educational tradition.

Cultural Legacies and Variations

Given its geopolitical location, since the nineteenth century various influences have impacted on the education systems in the area under study. Mitter maintains that Austrian and Habsburg politics influenced education politics of the ex-Czechoslovakia and Hungary, and parts of the ex-Yugoslavia, and have partially impacted on educational developments in Poland and Romania, in competition with French influences. In the Romanian case, various legacies can be discerned in some macro-geographical areas. In Transylvania, Banat and Bucovina, German and Austrian influences dominated, given the political dependence of these areas, while in the ‘Old Kingdom’ provinces of Walachia and Moldova the French influence was greater, since the elite intelligentsia was French-oriented. Reforms in the Old Kingdom at the end of the nineteenth century favoured the administrative unification of the education system after the national Unity of 1918. A German-Austrian influence was dominant in Hungarian education. In Hungary, this has been particularly related to technical, commercial and vocational education and to apprenticeship models, which played a significant role in the country’s development.

Long-standing institutional and cultural legacies acted in the region in various ways. In Hungary, the few faith-based schools that survived intensive nationalisation continued to play a symbolic role as an alternative to State education. These represented the memory of the pre-Communist past in which education diversification was allowed. At the end of the 1980s, the prestigious eight-year gymnasium was reintroduced in Hungary and ex-Czechoslovakia as one of the first measures of the post-Communist era and a clear sign of a long-lasting national characteristic. Another peculiarity was that across the area the length of primary and secondary studies was 12 years, instead of 10 as in the Soviet model. For instance, in the Romanian case, after 1965, pre-university education lasted 12 years, following a previous adaptation to the shorter 10 years of schooling. Another traditional issue that was revived was the distinction between science and the humanities in identifying the profile of the various schools, abolished initially by the typical Soviet classification between academic, technical and vocational institutions.

A line of research thinking on Communist education that emerged during the 1990s considered that the so-called ‘historical precedents’ in the education field that re-emerged during the 40 years of Communist rule were mainly of Western origin. The evaluation implicit in this assertion is that Soviet education was non-European and as such the Soviet influence in the area of the satellite countries was in clear discontinuity with the previous period. Classical scholarship on Soviet education and its relationship with a Communist education ideal proves to be more nuanced. In fact, many of the paradoxes of Soviet education, particularly related to polytechnic education and to its ambiguities, can be explained through a deep dissonance between Communist ideology promoting equality and the previous Russian education tradition in line with European elitist humanism. This tradition was typical not only of the Eastern area but of the Soviet Union itself. In fact, the ‘European tradition of elites, of the lower status of manual labour, of the high importance of learning, was bound to reassert itself in the kinds of education which were considered appropriate, and necessarily so, in the selection of students to pursue these different kinds of education’.

One could easily argue that the pre-Communist legacy acted as a point of contrast to the subsequent Soviet influence that would affect every country in the Eastern area, but also as a differentiating power between the education systems in these countries. Another line of argument is that Soviet education represented a mix of a European elitist model and a new ideal of egalitarian education of a Communist type, and as such can be seen as a carrier of globalisation. Comprehensive schooling, a national curriculum and education processes to establish uniform, fair treatment for all pupils were intended to facilitate social mobility, in line with similar developments in the West. These proved quite successful during the Stalinist phase and up to the 1970s. When new social stratification was re-emerging, at the end of the 1970s and during the 1980s, the education system was used differently, reinforcing social stratification (rural-urban divide, the numerus clausus, private schooling).

Openness to Western European Ideas

The three contexts considered here have known phases of openness to and partial synchronisation with developments that were in place in the non-Communist world. In the Romanian case, this phase took place before the establishment of a totalitarian regime (1963-1974), while in Hungary and Poland it coincided with the late 1970s and 1980s, when Hungary evolved into an advanced post-totalitarian regime and Poland into an authoritarian military regime. This phase manifested in the Romanian case with knowledge circulation and intense translation, particularly in social sciences and sociology, that proved to be a relevant input to studies on social stratification. In Hungary, more significant contacts with the non-Communist world in the education area had been in place since the International Evaluation Association (IEA) studies, including the Hungarian case, which greatly contributed to stimulating reforms in the country. As is the case with the more recent PISA studies, public discussion regarding the negative IEA results on Hungarian education opened the way to new directions. In the Polish case, similar developments are visible in the 1973 policy report The Principles and Thesis of the State of Education Report in the Popular Republic of Poland, which commented on ‘the strong influence of international debates’. Another vector of globalisation proved to be a traditional social actor, the Catholic Church. Its role has been considerable in proposing an alternative vision to official Communist ideology. A certain pluralism in education has been ensured by the presence of a Catholic pedagogical culture, defended by the Catholic Episcopate in 1973 on the occasion of education reform debates.

Hungary proved to be most robustly oriented towards a Western global model of education reform. Economic changes such as the introduction of the market economy and the type of Communist regime in Hungary allowed significant space for manoeuvre under the official rhetoric. The Hungarian pedagogical community was tightly linked to major international actors such as UNESCO and the World Bank, and had high visibility in the international educational arena. From 1978, Hungary created a mixed model based on a central standardised curriculum, officially approved school textbooks and a number of measures that allowed for more choice. Choice was introduced through electives, the possibility to distinguish between minimal and optimal standards, and the possibility for the teacher to choose between three alternative sets of textbooks. Curricula developed at the level of individual schools were encouraged from the centre and subsequently diffused through the central administration and locally contextualised, as well as certain margins of teachers’ autonomy. This reform was introduced during a period of social consolidation, usually considered to be less likely to promote reforms in education.

The 1985 Hungarian Education Act was a coherent attempt to radically alter the Communist pattern of Hungarian education, after more than three decades. While during the 1970s a more neutral concept of education reform was put forward, during the 1980s the more radical idea of autonomy guided the vision of reform. It is clearly suggestive of the increasing relevance of a new global (as per Western) orientation, in line with structural adjustment reforms promoted by the World Bank in developing countries. It advocated more flexibility in teaching and educational organisation with the abolition of the system of school inspection, in favour of the use of global criteria in evaluating institutions. These new directions could not be implemented straight away, since the gap between rhetoric and practice was substantial, but such new liberal horizons were indicative of how the scenario was changing.

As outlined for each context, specific cultural legacies in education and the intensity of the contacts with Western education were important factors in producing divergent developments in education. At the same time, the presence of social actors, such as the Catholic Church in Poland and NGOs in Hungary, prepared the way for new divergent developments. However, it should be noted that at the end of the 1980s, at least in terms of structures and processes, education was more similar than dissimilar across the area. Nonetheless, such internal factors accumulated and paved the way for the post-1989 radical reforms in Hungary, alternative civic schools in Poland and the explosion of the private higher education market in Romania. Their influence was particularly visible during the 1990s in terms of reform orientations and the pace of system restructuring.

Specific cultural legacies mediated processes of modernisation. While not divergent on educational grounds, the two global models, the Soviet and the Western European, at times intermingled. These countries looked increasingly to the West for fresh ideas and a repositioning in the global arena.

Concluding Remarks

Modernisation and globalisation cannot simply be dismissed from sociological and historical research. The use of these concepts, and their presence—or absence—are always indicative of the specific theoretical (and political) stances of those who (re)write history. In unveiling their meanings and explanatory power in the historical field of Communist education, my perspective is both theoretically oriented, purposefully showing their value in Eastern European history, but also experientially derived. Following Eisenstadt, I critically use the modernisation concept to indicate a non-coincidence with Westernisation but, instead, a complex historical process of mirroring, adoption and translation. The same pattern is evident in the Sovietisation process in education, which followed a partial and less divergent path from the Western one. As I have argued in the case of Soviet education, neither can be considered as a coherent model, but instead as a rough influence based on a common denominator. Last but not least, what historians recognise as a specific modernisation (Communist) path, sociologists have typically dealt with in terms of a specific welfare state profile, based on a wide-ranging recognition of social protection and the reduction of civil and political rights. This study shows the interpretative power of these concepts in the light of a precise theoretical framework. As advocated by many historians and sociologists, such comparative analyses of specific transfer processes are imperative to explain modernisation paths in the global arena.

More specifically, I have shown that modernisation processes and openness to outside ideas followed a complex dynamic in Eastern Europe, which cannot be simply described as a lack of modernisation or the effect of profound cultural gaps. Comparative approaches and sociological clarifications offer new insights into the history of education in this area.

Following Caruso, I identify an initial phase of international diffusion of Soviet ideas, identified as ‘above’ the national context. This was followed by Western influences, ‘beyond’ the national context, particularly visible in the Hungarian context, where they were mediated by international organisations and specific cultural legacies.

Several elements allow me to define a specific profile of a ‘Soviet-influenced and Western oriented modernisation’. The impact of such ‘models’ has been mediated by cultural and structural factors specific to each context, which explains the variation between countries. First, centralisation as a structural factor involved the wider political principle of democratic centralism and, in doing so, it clearly represented an important Soviet influence, although mediated by pre-existent traditions. The vertical development of a comprehensive school was another significant outcome of the same influence, in line with wider modernisation processes across the European area. Second, centralised educational planning based on Soviet input or models proved important during the 1950s. This development was, however, convergent with similar trends in liberal countries. The subsequent increased variation and the emergence of new ideas powerfully illustrates the emergence of a pattern of Western-oriented modernisation, sustained by new economic principles. Third, the Western influence has clearly been at work in the form of enduring cultural legacies, through a variety of similarities with specific countries and inputs, mainly French, German and Austrian. From the 1970s onwards, in the disillusionment years, in different economic and social contexts, a more general Western influence was increasingly visible and culminated with the initiation of a school autonomy reform in Hungary. However, even contexts less oriented to endorsing radical changes, such as Romania, were less inclined to look East in search of models, for political reasons related to ensuring relative independence. In a context of increased social stratification, competition for the most desired public institutions at secondary and higher education level led to an increase in private tuition as a family strategy to cope with the system, across the area—emptying of significance the supposedly egalitarian Communist provision.

As argued throughout this article, the Soviet influence in education should be conceptualised both as an imperialist force and as a voluntary borrowing, followed by internationalisation with local adaptation in the Communist area. Nevertheless, as a result of transmission and translation processes, Communist education cannot be conceived of as a coherent model. Soviet education itself was transformed over time and incorporated Western and elitist elements.

In addition, from the historical and comparative analysis, it is possible to assert that Communist—in its local manifestations in each country—and Western education proved to be competitive, alternative but not radically different patterns of modernisation in education in the satellite countries. The Soviet influence, encapsulating relevant contradictions in itself and prevalent during the Stalinist phase as a supra-national global vision in education, met subsequently with local expectations and path-dependencies and finally led to a particular vision of modernisation. Linked to growing variation in each country was a visible change in orientation towards new global models, with a clear anticipation of the Western neoliberalism of the late 1980s in Hungary.

A revised reading on education in the light of the multiple modernities theory suggests that, while a Communist pattern is visible up to 1989, nevertheless significant differences emerged at the interplay of path-dependencies, local adaptations of the Soviet global model in this region and the relationship with Western education. Moreover, it can be seen as a variation of the developments that occurred in the Western area, with the major difference of the ideological factor in illiberal political regimes. The arena model of global modernity explains how two swings of a pendulum finally led to the building of modern systems of education in the Eastern area.