From Socialist to Post-Socialist Primitive Accumulation - Maria Chehonadskih


“Primitive Socialist accumulation is accumulation in the hands of the state of material resources mainly or partly from sources lying outside the complex of state economy. This accumulation must play an extremely important part in a backward peasant country, hastening to a very great extent the arrival of the moment when the technical and scientific reconstruction of the state economy begins and when this economy at last achieves purely economic superiority over capitalism”, writes the Soviet economist and the member of the Left Opposition Eugeni Preobrazhensky in 1926. He continues with the comparison of capitalist and socialist primitive accumulation. If the main resource of capitalist primitive accumulation is the colonies, the only “outside resource” of Soviet state is the “non-socialist” village. Therefore, state has to appropriate the peasant's surplus product to accumulate capital for the industrialisation and rapid transition to socialism2. The so-called fundamental law of socialist accumulation discovered by Preobrazhensky was the foundation of the forced collectivization. The result was the creation of specific form of state capitalism and new class composition of society. 

The idea was to abolish such class categories as notorious kulak (the high-income farmer) and so-called serednyak (mid-income peasants) by means of transformation the peasantry into industrial workers. At the same time the dictatorship of the proletariat was in itself transmuted into the dictatorship of the Party. The abolition of the old classes and primarily peasantry went hand in hand with the creation of the new Soviet aristocracy: nomenclature (party bureaucrats) and ‘workers’ aristocracy’ (made of shock workers and active members of kolkhoz/collective farm). This new and problematic class composition of the nomenclature, ‘workers’ aristocracy’, the intelligentsia and industrial workers have formed specific hierarchies in the society3. The new socialist elite, the avant-garde of the Soviet Union became “kulaks” themselves.

Moreover, this tricky coalition of the new elite and other Soviet classes involved the complexity of the cultural and regional differences between the capital and periphery, the city and the village, the centre (Moscow) and Soviet republics. The further away from the centre of power, the deeper gap between declared class identities and the real working and living conditions. Imagine kolkhoz of the shepherds in the mountains of Dagestan and try to guess what kind of class form corresponds to their means of production and how this class identity express their regional and historical specificity? The only way to solve these contradictions between various ways and forms of life was to establish some kind of totalizing identity of “the Soviet people”. The idea was to overcome the non-socialist class forms by means of accumulation, i.e. by means of transition from class and cultural differences to the Soviet totality.  The Soviet totality was the kind of positive myth, which helped to hold the heterogeneous construction of the Soviet Union.

However, the Soviet totality was not the idea of classless society, but rather the ideology of a Soviet identity. The Soviet citizens are those who participate in the process of accumulation or those who are building socialism under the five-year plan program. The model of endless building and expansion of the Soviet Union, not only at the territorial level, but also at the level of the sovietization of life, replaced the problem of class abolition. The class contradictions were not the agenda, especially in late Soviet Union. The glorification and high respect of the working class was the only benefit from this constellation, but the result was mass depoliticization and devaluation of class discourse. Due to impossibility to discuss class issues (as class supposed to be not a problem in developed socialism), Soviet people became more and more preoccupied with regional, national and ethnical differences as the only way to break with the constructed totality. Indeed, not everyone felt comfortable in this imaginary unity. Instead of disappearance of non-Soviet elements, there had been created more and more anti-Soviet and anti-communist elements. The revolutionary desire of equality and internationalist spirit of October revolution were the forgotten past and the present of real socialism created a new desire for differences: individual, group or ethnical. Even the late Soviet ideology of the ‘socialism with human face’ was not able to subsume this will to difference. It was too late, because the capitalist will to separate, scatter and privatize was already there, inside of the Soviet subjectivity.

Did this dream come true? Without any doubts, the new world of differences knocked at each door.  However, this world of differences, in Marxist terms, is the new world of lumpenized and declassed subjects. It has dismantled the monstrous Soviet Union, but brought something unexpected. The ‘real capitalism’ was different from both idealized social-democratic model of “humanism” and dreams of an open country with European social, political and cultural ‘standards’. Contrary to the expectations of idealized individualism and differences, post-Soviet order appeared as massive precarization and survival under new conditions.

In 1997 another local primitive accumulation theorist wrote book with remarkable title “The State and Evolution”. The author was Yegor Gaidar, the prime minister of the Boris Yeltsin government in 1992, economist and ‘shock therapy’ proponent. The book refers to Lenin’s famous “The State and Revolution” and celebrates a “peaceful” transition from socialism to capitalism by means of reforms and so-called evolution of the State to the market economy4. One can read this book as a ‘subversive affirmation’ of Marxian Capital and Lenin’s theory of Imperialism. It is full of quotes from both authors, but they chosen to support the argument about the necessity of free market and shock therapy. Gaidar was educated in the Soviet Union and he perfectly knew Marx, but the irony was that exactly because he was educated in the Soviet Union, his reading of Marx and Lenin turned against Marx and Lenin themself. The most impressive pages of the book are dedicated to the analysis of the primitive accumulation dynamics in the late Soviet Union and the young post-Soviet Russia. He argues that accumulation of capital has started in Soviet Union, when nomenclature elite has secretly and illegally privatized public property and state property. The basis for the post-soviet primitive accumulation would be the capital of the nomenclature. According to Gaidar, the second stage of accumulation, which is the shock therapy, was realized ‘only partially,’ because there were not enough freedom of market and the socialist “way of thinking” blocked the ‘full liberalization’ of economy. Gaidar wanted more shock and less therapy. He even wasn’t satisfied when the Russian society got the new portion of shock in 2000s – the Second Chechnya war followed by anti-terrorist campaign and further privatization. The process of primitive accumulation has continued when the ex-nomenclature seized not only economic, but also politic power.

The Soviet totality has collapsed and faced the power of the capitalist deterritorialization. After the shock there was no therapy, but the wars, ethnic and national conflicts and a new round of declassification. Chantal Akerman’s film D'Est (From the East) made in 1993 caught up very precisely this moment of waiting and dreaming a new world to come. This is documentary and fiction at the same time. Akerman filmed various social groups; they are waiting for the buses, the trains, selling goods in the streets, watching TV. They stand in the different kind of lines and endlessly waiting, but what they are waiting is already there. What we see is the Soviet totality, the faces of the confused and disoriented people. They are still representing the totality (the whole society, somehow equal in its suffering). However, this totality of the post-shock society will be very soon scattered, atomized, separated and finally lose its common face:


  • 1. The image and video fragments in the post are from the documentary film of Chantal Akerman D'Est (From the East), 1993, 107 mins.
  • 2. Preobrazhensky, E., The New Economics. Clarendon Press, 1965, p. 84
  • 3. About collectivization and class formation under Stalin see: Fitzpatrick, S. Stalin's Peasants: Resistance and Survival in the Russian Village after Collectivization. Oxford University Press, 1994.
  • 4. Gaidar, E., State and Evolution: Russia's Search for a Free Market. Translated from Russian by Jane Ann Miller. University of Washington Press, 2003