Primitive accumulation in ”post-socialist” capitalism

The transformation from socialism to capitalism was an historically unique event. In order to understand the nature of ‘post’-socialist capitalism one should return to the theory of primitive accumulation, which Marx had originally deployed to analyse the origins of capitalism. Marx understood this as a social process of divorcing the producer from the means of production, allowing for the free development of capitalist relations of production.

During the original creation of capitalism from feudalism, labourers were separated from their means of production and subsistence, primarily via the expropriation of the agricultural producer from the soil and the destruction of petty-commodity production. This created the necessary social relation for capitalist development. On the one hand, stood the owners of money, the means of production and subsistence, who increase the sum of values they possess by buying other people’s labour power. On the other side, there stood a class of free labourers who survive through selling their labour power in conditions of market exchange. According to Marx primitive accumulation, ‘ is nothing else than the historical process of divorcing the producer from the means of production. It appears as primitive, because it forms the prehistoric stage of capital and of the mode of production corresponding with it.’

The question arises as to whether ‘primitive accumulation’ can be applied to understand the creation of capitalism in the ‘post-socialist’ countries: i.e. the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. In contrast to the feudal societies, the ‘socialist’ countries had largely industrialised and urbanised. Some have argued (e.g Michael Burawoy) that a process of primitive accumulation did not occur during the ‘post-socialist’ transformation, but rather a process of deaccumulation of capital, deindustrialisation and sometimes de-urbanisation took place. However, this ‘physicalist’ approach, fails to understand ‘primitive accumulation’ as a social process which also occurred in the unique historical conditions of the transformation from ‘socialism’ to capitalism.

The ’decommodification’ of labour in ‘socialism’ was upheld by the state’s monopoly control over production and trade and by such things as the policy of full-employment and provision of universal public services and goods. The ‘post-socialist’ transformation removed many of these barriers, thus creating the social relation necessary for the development of a capitalist economy. As within the social welfare states in western Europe, this is an ongoing process as capital attempts to remove protections and make workers reliant on selling their labour power to survive. Even to this day, many economic, social and cultural structures, inherited from the previous ‘socialist’ systems, survive and stand as barriers (or using Polanyian terminology counter-movements) to the expansion of capitalist economic forces and social relations.