Socialism and Postsocialism

Socialist states in eastern Europe defined themselves by having different property relations from 'the west'. The means of production were overwhelmingly owned by the state or by socialist cooperatives (as distinct from voluntarily formed associations). The demise of these states and the implementation in many countries of 'reforms' aimed at strengthening 'private property' bring us back to that European dichotomy between private and collective. We need to recognize the force of this dichotomy as a 'local model' and at the same time question how far it helps us analytically to explain social patterns of the first postsocialist decade.
Both western (neo)liberal approaches and the socialist approaches of Marxism-Leninism perpetate an unhelpful disembedding of property (to use the term popularised in economic anthropology by Karl Polanyi 1957, following Richard Thurnwald). The one camp privileges economic performance, while the other claims to privilege politics and social justice; but in their contrasting ways both the liberals and the socialists attach excessive importance to a monolithic vision of property relations. Their simplifications, emphasising either private ownership or collective ownership, cannot do justice to the complex bundles that actually prevail in all human societies. Even the most collectivist socialist systems did not disturb individual rights over many items of personal property, while even the most extreme neo-liberal regimes depend heavily on a set of conditions that can only be maintained by the state.
It is therefore clear that a more realistic and less ideological approach is needed. The investigation of property cannot be confined to the 'private law' notion of ownership but must open up to include 'public law' aspects of authority, citizenship and social cohesion (F and K von Benda-Beckmann 1999, Elwert 1999). Some may consider this too broad, but it seems to us a necessary step in understanding current postsocialist transformation processes. Certainly many of our researchers have found that this opening up to public, citizenship rights is a step taken by many citizens themselves, when we enquire about their changing property 'rights'.
A range of anthropological approaches to postsocialism was presented at a major conference on Actually Existing Postsocialisms, held in Halle in November 2000. The papers have since been published under the title Postsocialism: ideals, ideologies and practices in Eurasia (London, Routledge, 2002) (German translation: Postsozialismus; Transformationsprozesse in Europa und Asien aus ethnologischer Perspective, Frankfurt/M, Campus, 2002).

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