Politicians who want to improve life for young people should look to the Hungarian example
by Zsuzsanna Clark
The Guardian, Sunday 25 February 2007
Twenty million Scouts around the world last week marked Founder’s Day, and with it the 100th anniversary of the Scout movement. Their celebrations offer a powerful reminder of the ability of youth movements to bring young people together in a spirit of friendship and solidarity – qualities that have become all too rare in modern Britain. “Isn’t there more we can do to enable young people to come together and give service to their country?” asks David Cameron. Well yes, David, there is, and we did it in “backward” socialist Hungary more than 30 years ago.
Unlike those brought up in Margaret Thatcher’s devil-take-the-hindmost Britain, I was fortunate to be raised in a society where solidarity and togetherness were officially encouraged from an early age. The Pioneer movement, of which I was a member, was not about indoctrinating young people with the tenets of Marxist-Leninism, as many believe, but engendering a sense of community among the nation’s youth.
Many of the Pioneers’ activities were similar to the Scouts’, but the values were more collective and they involved all children and teenagers in the country, not just a minority. Pioneer membership was an integral part of school life, not just in Hungary, but throughout the socialist bloc.
Our motto as Pioneers was Together for Each Other. It was not an empty slogan: it was how we were encouraged to think. Being a Pioneer meant taking special care of the weak and vulnerable. We helped the elderly with their shopping and cleaning; we chopped up firewood for them and carried their coal in and out from the cellar. There were competitions, too: for collecting waste paper and waste metal, for sports activities and for other acts of good citizenship. But, reflecting the collective ethos of the movement, the prizes were nearly always for groups, not for individuals.
Each class had different duties which were rotated week by week. When we were on cleaning duty we had to go to school half an hour earlier and sweep the pavement outside the school. But no one ever seemed to mind: we carried out our tasks willingly.
The highlight of our year as Pioneers was our annual excursion. Every class went to the country for two or three days. When I was 13 I spent two weeks at Csilleberc, a camp near Budapest, with other Pioneers from all over Hungary. We travelled there on the famous Pioneer railway in Budapest. Opened in 1948, the railway was, with the exception of the drivers, staffed entirely by children and connected the previously inaccessible Buda Hills. The children worked the signals, changed the points and sold tickets. At Pioneer camp, we shared both tents and duties – just as it was at home, except we didn’t know each other as well. But by working and socialising together we soon made friends. Rabid anti-communists and adherents of the view that “there is no such thing as society” will no doubt sneer at what I have just described, but the Pioneer movement did create a real feeling of togetherness. Hungarians of my generation almost all look back at their Pioneer days with great affection, regardless of their views on other aspects of the socialist system.
“If we are unable to ensure young people the opportunities for positive, creative deeds, then in some cases a gang will serve this purpose instead.” So warned Gyorgy Aczel, Hungary’s minister of culture in the 1970s. When I compare my childhood to the atomised lives of so many young people in Britain today, one in which violent and antisocial gang culture seems ever more to predominate, I believe Aczel’s words to be as relevant as ever.