It would be plausible to construct a ‘variety of communisms’ theory, categorizing the state-socialist economies not only by region but by historical epoch. China, for example, imitated the Stalinist model in the first years after the Revolution, but by the 1960s the prc had developed its own unique social and economic institutions. The goulash communism of János Kádár’s Hungary, which took shape after 1956, differed drastically from the classical Soviet model. Nevertheless, during the last decades of state socialism, the communist societies were broadly on a convergence trajectory: the gap between Czechoslovakia or Hungary and the ussr, for instance, narrowed. State ownership of the means of production, the redistributive nature of economic integration and the political monopoly of the Communist Party created a homologous institutional environment. The system largely suppressed the legacies of pre-communist times.

In the first decade of the transition to market capitalism, however, the former communist countries followed different courses. During this early stage of transition, we may distinguish three distinct post-communist orders. The first is ‘capitalism from the outside’, the experience of Central Europe, which might also be described as the liberal or neo-liberal model. The second, ‘capitalism from above’, is to be found in Eastern Europe, Russia and the former Central Asian soviet republics. The third is the Chinese ‘capitalism from below’, which flourished from 1978 until the mid-1980s, the closest to the classical type of original accumulation of capital.footnote1 This paper will argue, however, that more recently the various types of post-communism have unexpectedly begun to re-converge around a new model, pioneered in Russia since 2000. Somewhat surprisingly, this new system seems to be attractive to some of the Central European countries, especially Hungary. Even China is changing. When Beijing first began to privatize the public sector in 1997–98, after two decades of reform, it followed the strategy of Eastern Europe. Since the ascent of Xi Jinping, there are indications of some convergence with the new Russian model. But before examining this re-convergence, we need to look in more detail at the three initial ideal-types of post-communist transformation.

The original accumulation of capital was by no means a promenade. Marx described the process with exceptional precision and clarity in Part viii of Capital, Volume One.footnote2 The leading figures of the American grand bourgeoisie, formed between 1860 and 1900, have often been described as ‘robber barons’.footnote3 Rockefeller, Jay Gould, Carnegie—and many others—started their businesses during the American Civil War. They were young men, many of them from dirt-poor families, who became multi-millionaires in a few years. Their breakneck accumulation of capital often took place under dubious conditions. They swallowed state subsidies, occasionally bribed legislators. Vanderbilt and Gould even had private armies that fought small wars against each other, much like the Russian oligarchs.footnote4 Some historians have argued that John Rockefeller was the richest person ever; his wealth in 1900 has been estimated at $200 billion in current prices, two or three times as much as Bill Gates owns today.footnote5 The robber barons rewarded their clients handsomely, but punished them severely if they were disloyal.

The analogies with the accumulation of capital under post-communism are striking. Nevertheless, the stories of the robber barons, and even the descriptions in Part viii of Capital, pale as we compare them with some—especially Russian—post-communist examples. Post-communist accumulation is unique. In all other historical instances of transition to capitalism, accumulation of some capital occurred within the womb of pre-capitalist formations. Communism was the only ‘pre-capitalist’ formation to have outlawed private ownership. In addition, the post-communist grand bourgeoisies enclosed the commons much faster than any of their predecessors; given the speed of the privatization processes, we should not be surprised to find mafia features in every post-communist capitalism. To put it bluntly: these were domains of robber barons, irrespective of the colour of the government.

The spectre of neo-liberal capitalism was already haunting the still state-socialist societies of Central Europe by the late 1980s. In this part of the world, a commitment to democratic policies complemented the commitment to neo-liberal economics during the transition. There were some differences among the Central European countries in the form these commitments took:footnote6 in the Czech Republic, Václav Havel was obviously more of a liberal by conviction than Vladimír Mečiar in Slovakia, Jarosław and Lech Kaczyński in Poland—or, for that matter, József Antall in Hungary. There were also differences in the speed and methods of privatization. Poland started out with neo-liberal shock therapy, whereas Slovenia adopted a more gradualist strategy. The Czech Republic ‘reprivatized’ some assets, giving back property confiscated under communism to its original owners; Hungary and Poland opposed such policies. Some countries, like Hungary, relied heavily on the market in their privatization processes, selling state-owned property at reasonably fair competitive auctions.footnote7 Many countries used vouchers to compensate people who had lost property under the communist regimes, or in an attempt to grant ownership to the workers, though the extent of these systems varied greatly. Nevertheless, within a decade ‘the commons were enclosed’; by the year 2000, for all practical purposes, public property had been converted into private assets.

In the course of the privatization processes, people had to compete for public property on the market. Once private property was established, the balance of power tended to shift from political to economic strength; at least in this respect, these new formations began to look more like classical capitalisms. Yet this needs some qualification. In the Central European transition, social and political capital played a more substantial role than in classical capitalism. Social capital is of course a very broad concept.footnote8 Here, let us say simply that those who possess it can use their social connections to obtain certain ends, though this requires continuous ‘investment’ in building and maintaining social contacts. Once they have accumulated enough social capital, they can expect returns or profits. I will define political capital as an instance of social capital accumulated in political institutions. If I join a party or enter office, I begin to accumulate political capital with which I can attain various goals. Personal enrichment may be one such goal; if this happens extensively, we may call it ‘political capitalism’.footnote9

Social and, in some cases, political capital often played an important role in the original accumulation processes of post-communist capitalisms. True, political capital was not quite as important as it had been under communism. In the late 1980s and early 90s, quite a few researchers had assumed that the new grand bourgeoisie would be recruited from high-ranking communist officials, who would convert their political capital into economic assets.footnote10 This was a powerful hypothesis. The available data on this subject are not particularly reliable, since those ‘converting’ political into economic capital may conceal their wealth. Nevertheless, the figures we have suggest that, though such ‘conversion’ of capital did take place in Central Europe, it was not the dominant mode of accumulation there; it was far more frequent in Eastern Europe, in particular in Russia and Ukraine.