Primitive Socialist Accumulation

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Primitive Socialist Accumulation was a concept developed by the Soviet economist Yevgeny Preobrazhensky to analyze the New Economic Policy (NEP) of the 1920s.

Adam Smith and other classical economists referred to "previous" or "primitive" accumulation of capital to explain the rise of specialization of production and the division of labor. Specialized production required the prior accumulation of capital to support specialized workers until their products were ready for sale. Previous accumulation occurred though saving, and the return to capital represented the reward for saving. Karl Marx parodied this self-congratulatory thesis, arguing instead that primitive capitalist accumulation represented no more than "divorcing the producer [i.e., labor] from the means of production." It was the process of creating the necessary capitalist institutions: private monopoly ownership of the means of production and wage labor.

Preobrazhensky sought to develop a comparable concept for capital accumulation in the Soviet Union of the 1920s. The NEP meant that private small-scale capitalist enterprises, including peasant farms, coexisted with the state's control of the "commanding heights" of the economy. To attain socialism the socialized sector had to grow more rapidly than the private sector. Preobrazhensky therefore set about to determine what institutional relations were necessary to attain this end. Primitive socialist accumulation was his answer.

As for capitalist accumulation, force would need to be the agent of primitive socialist accumulation, and it was to be applied by the. revolutionary socialist state in the form of tax, price, and financial policies to expropriate the surplus value created in the private sector and transfer it to the socialist sector, thereby guaranteeing its differential growth. Under what he called "premature socialist conditions" that characterized the USSR, Preobrazhensky recommended nonequivalent exchange, that is, the turning of the terms of trade against the peasantry and other private enterprises, as the main means to collect and transfer the surplus. During the transition, workers in socialist enterprises would experience "self-exploitation." Over time, therefore, primitive socialist accumulation would eliminate the private sector.

Although the concept appears to be consistent with Marx's use of it in the analysis of capitalism, Preobrazhensky's theory was roundly criticized by Nikolai Bukharin and other Bolshevik theorists, probably because he used the term "exploitation" in prescribing a socialist economic policy.

See also: marxism; new economic policy; preo brazhensky, yevgeny alexeyevich; socialism


Erlich, Alexander. (1960). The Soviet Industrialization Debate, 19211928. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Millar, James R. (1978). "A Note on Primitive Accumulation in Marx and Preobrazhensky." Soviet Studies 30(3):384393.

Preobrazhensky, E. (1965). The New Economics, tr. Brian Pearce. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

James R. Millar