Grasping the Global: Lessons from the 1970s

By Bence Kocsev

A couple of years ago, during one of his eye-opener lectures, Irish-American thinker James M. Skelly coined the term “recovering sociologist”. With this term, he tried to describe a type of social scientist who is striving to get rid of the dusty and outdated, however still commonly applied practices of their discipline. Although I do not want to comment on any ongoing methodological discussions on how to be a recovering historian, for me personally following the path that challenges the methodological nationalism (and methodological one-sidedness) – a path that many historians still pursue, consciously or unconsciously – is certainly a step forward to achieve this desired recovering status. At the same time, I have to admit however, that during my studies at university, I was completely unaware of the transregional or global turn that was very much under way across the humanities and social sciences. Despite the fact that most of the history departments in Hungary are continuously seeking to adopt themselves to the state of the art paradigms in history-writing, the transregional way of thinking was barely part of the curriculum. Nevertheless, as most of the researchers dealing with this kind of issues, I used to apply transregional perspectives without consciously realizing it. I had my first experience taking transregional approaches into account when I started to explore the late colonial period of the Southeast-Asian region, especially the history of the Dutch-East Indies. Evidently, transregional perspectives come to the fore in a region where crucial transit routes of long-haul trading projects were found; where rich Muslims, being active members of the Global Islam keenly attempted the Hajj; where a genuine transregional culture and society, the Peranakan, could more or less successfully be embedded into an already colorful milieu; or where 20th century nationalists not only attended the “colonial pilgrimage” (Benedict Anderson) and familiarized themselves with the political developments in the metropoles, but also had their eyes on the successes of the (post-)Meiji Japan or on the Kemalist Turkey, on the political movements in India or even on the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Later on, I embarked on a research project exploring the recent history of the Seychelles, an archipelago that has been maintaining strong ties with Europe, East-Africa, India, and the Southeast-Asian region since the very first French settlement was founded on Mahé. The Seychelles also gained importance by being a much-desired geopolitical bridgehead during the Cold War rivalry. Despite the researches on these topics, I became aware of the massive theoretical background of transregional research only when I joined the Sonderforschungsbereich 1199: “Processes of Spatialization under the Global Condition” and started my PhD in Leipzig where I was very much encouraged to critically engage with the fact that the nation-state is not the only unit of analysis.

Karl Marx Economic University of Economic Sciences, the initial headquarters of the Institute for World Economics (source: Fortepan / Budapest Főváros Levéltára. Levéltári jelzet: HU_BFL_XV_19_c_11).

Research on global socialism

Generally speaking, within the framework of the SFB, our research group is trying to draw attention to the various East-South entanglements within the geopolitical context of the Global Cold War. Thereby we contribute to the revision of the commonly accepted conceptualization of the Cold War, based on the assumption that considered the Soviet Bloc as an autarkic entity more or less insulated from the world economy. In contrast to this, we are opting for a rather different understanding that profoundly challenges this isolationist character of state socialism. In my current research project, I am raising the question of how and why Eastern Bloc states (and Hungary in particular) opened towards the decolonizing states and what kind of scientific activities stimulated these processes. In order to answer this question, the research particularly focusses on the Centre for Afro-Asian Research of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and on its successor, the Institute for World Economics (IWE). Both were of the utmost importance in forging relations with the Global South exactly at that time when the processes of globalization gained momentum. By providing substantial value added to the global understanding of development problems in post-colonial countries, the contribution of both institutes are exemplary of the upsurge of profound Hungarian scholarship on the problems of developing countries. In strictest sense these seem to not have survived the transition period of the 1990s, but somehow their legacies have been bubbling up in certain ways up until now. In addition, my research pays special attention to one of the most important United Nations initiatives of the 1970s, namely to the so-called New International Economic Order (NIEO) which aimed at restructuring the global economy in order to make it more advantageous not only for the developing but also for the socialist countries. Although the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (CMEA) had never managed to have a common strategy vis-à-vis the NIEO, the concept was nevertheless considered to be a serious opportunity in Budapest to open-up the centrally planned economy of the country towards the developing countries. To briefly sum up, my whole research aimed at arguing for a rather different approach where Hungary appears as an active participant of the world economy and showcasing the interconnected development of this particular country and the so-called “Third World”. Obviously, this thesis could not be researched without the toolbox of the transregional studies and fortunately enough, the researchers at the above-mentioned institutes are giving me a helping hand in this regard.

Transregional studies in the making

The establishment and expansion of the relations between the CMEA countries and various developing countries, as well as social, economic, and political developments in Africa, Asia and (especially after the Cuban revolution) Latin-America resulted in an increasing interest from the socialist countries towards the “Third World”. This term was barely used by socialist scholars since it did not fit with the binary concept of the world, though. The developments made the economists of that time aware of the necessity of thinking globally. As the former deputy at the IWE, Mihály Simai, stated in a recent interview, their research approach has always been global. By having a sufficiently clear view on an alternative world economy (see e.g. the efforts to make the NIEO project a success) and by providing a unique spatial understanding, these Hungarian economists give us instructive insights how they managed to overcome the initial obstacles when they tried to lay down the foundations of a new subdiscipline, namely the world economy that addresses its main questions with a transregional approach. These considerations on the applicability of comparative perspectives in order to better understand, for instance, causes and consequences of the similarities between the transformation processes in the developing and socialist countries are definitely helpful for researchers struggling with the same issues I have had. In this respect, using transregionalism as a new conceptual framework seemed interesting to them, especially in the context of conducting comparative studies on similar Latin American and Central European development trajectories such as delayed modernization, medium development level, and peripheral economic situation.

József Bognár, one of the found fathers of the Hungarian world economic research (source: Fortepan / Forgács Károly).

For me personally, the most fascinating example on how to conduct research that takes the pervasive global interconnectedness into account is being offered by József Bognár, a renowned professor of the Karl Marx University in Budapest, who left the field of politics after the crushing of the 1956 Revolution and became the director of several institutions and boards concerned with the development of the world economy. He was probably the first economist within the socialist countries who realized the importance of long-term structural changes in the world economy and, more importantly, claimed that world economy could not be described by simply researching the interactions between national economies, but much on the contrary, national economies and individual enterprises should be studied “in terms of their interactions with, effects on, and reactions to an encompassing global economy”. Clearly, I am a bit biased when it comes to the oeuvre of Professor Bognár, but he was exemplary in pushing studies towards a more global direction in order to exceed methodological nationalism. In addition, being the “first swallow” of this kind of consciousness in Hungary, Bognár had been, from very early on, aware of the impact of the mounting global environmental challenges the world has to cope with in the decades to come.

Besides assistance in methodology provided by the founding fathers of world economics in Hungary, they also demonstrated substantial sensitivity to history which not only makes their studies – at least for me – even more attractive, but which represents a very different understanding of economy than the one we got used to nowadays. Being a disciplinary trespasser, Bognár, for instance, started his academic career as a historian to gradually become one of the best-known Hungarian economists of the second half of the 20th century. Nevertheless, he could not manage to (or he simply did not want to) deny his initial vocation and wrote a paper on some glimpses of the history of Ghana immediately after getting assigned by Nkrumah himself to contribute to the development of the country’s first seven-year plan. Although the book could be rather considered being a sort of mental preparation before taking off to Accra than a decent history of the former Gold Coast, it also shows to which extent Bognár was aware of the world economic realities and the various (post-)colonial dependencies that the country had to face c the economic problems after gaining its independence. I have to say, this kind of global perspective was definitely a novelty in Hungary at the time. In this respect, we are in a convenient position, since we are standing on the shoulders of giants who paved the way for a new kind of approach decades ago that sets the bar high.


Citation: Bence Kocsev, Grasping the Global: Lessons from the 1970s, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 18.07.2018,

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