The Hungarian transition from socialism stands out from other examples of political change in the region, in that the ruling Hungarian Socialist Workers' Party (MSZMP) suffered an erosion of political power generated largely from within the party itself. The study shows how the Communist Party, after its destruction in the revolution of 1956, sought to institutionalize its rule through a course of limited liberalization and the broad co-optation of the populace. This policy helped create a tacit social compact with society, particularly in co-opting younger intellectuals who identified with the goals of reform socialism. However, the party eventually marginalized this group, creating an internal party opposition that supported socialism but opposed the MSZMP. Consequently, when the limits of Hungarian reform socialism became evident in the mid-1980s, rank-and-file intellectuals within the party began to mobilize against the party hierarchy, seeking to transform the MSZMP into a democratic socialist party. These “reform circles,” drawing their strength primarily from the countryside, spread to all parts of the party and helped undermine central party power and expand the political space for opposition groups to organize. Eventually, the reform circles were able to force an early party congress in which the MSZMP was transformed into a Western-style socialist party prior to open elections in 1990.
The case is significant in that it indicates that the forms of transition in Eastern Europe were not simply the specific outcome of elite interaction. Rather, they were shaped in large part by the patterns of socialist institutionalization found in each country. Therefore, studies of political transition can be enriched with an explicit focus on the institutional characteristics of each case, linking the forms of transitions and their posttransition legacies to the institutional matrix from which they emerged. In short, the study argues that the way in which an autocratic order perpetuates itself affects the manner in which that system declines and the shape of the new system that takes its place.