Between Two Utopias. The Political Economy of Communism

Course Description: 

The course takes an uncommon approach to the economic history of Eastern Europe and China in the 20th century. It invites you to an expedition through the jungle of collectivist economic ideas to arrive at a better understanding of communist practices and post-communist capitalism.The history of political economy under communism is often portrayed as a long period between experimenting with two utopias, a state-collectivist and a neoliberal vision of constructing all-encompassing economic regimes. Collectivist economic concepts played a crucial role at many stages of communist history, ranging from the utopia of War Communism, through Stalinist political economy, all the way down to the doctrines of workers’ self-management and market socialism. They not only aimed at establishing and justifying the planned economy but were also instrumental in reforming it and, ironically, even in designing the capitalist regimes that rose from the ruins of communism. Collectivist ideas laid the foundation for grandiose programs of social engineering under communism (e.g., nationalization), but affected the agendas of the post-communist transformation (e.g., privatization) as well. Despite the collapse of the planned economy in Eastern Europe, its radical liberalization in China, and the popularity of neoliberal rhetoric of the “transformers” in general, the attraction of collectivism did not ebb, and the local varieties of emerging capitalism proved unable to resist illiberal temptations.

Applying the notion of the “long 20th century”, the course will start back in the 19th century by discussing the fin de siècle components of collectivist economic thought, and end up with the analysis of economic ideas supporting the hybrid capitalist regimes in the early 21st century. Using primary sources, and focusing on the verbal (non-mathematical) aspects of economic thought, we will make attempts at solving a number of puzzles in communist economic history such as these: How could collectivist utopias prompt the allegedly pragmatic Bolsheviks to introduce War Communism after the revolution? Why did Stalin insist on rehabilitating the discipline of “political economy of socialism” during World War II? Where are the market socialists who supposedly became neoliberals prior to 1989 today?

Learning Outcomes: 

The goal of the course is to help understand the history of communist economies and societies by exploring a long detour in the history of universal economic thought, the rise and fall of communist political economy. Because the economic concepts/utopias will be discussed in the context of both communist history and (Western) economic theories of collectivism and liberalism, the students may develop a variety of skills in multi-disciplinary research on intellectual history. We will read and discuss a few (partly forgotten) classic texts written by communist political economists, their non-communist critics and historical analysts. Thus, the students will have an opportunity to compare not only the evolution of economic ideas in individual countries but also the ways in which these ideas were interpreted by authors of different professions and persuasions.


You will be expected to give an oral presentation in class, and write an essay (term paper) by the end of semester.


Topic: one of the assigned texts from the weekly unit (close reading + contextual analysis).

Length: 20 minutes.

Term paper

Topic (paper): one of the themes from the weekly unit; the paper should include a comparison of at least two countries or authors; it should be based on at least two book-length studies beyond those listed in the syllabus.

Topic (outline): research questions, working hypotheses, bibliography.

Deadlines: outline (October 29), paper (December 17).

Size: outline (1000 words + bibliography), paper (4000 words).

The outline and the paper must be submitted in both hard copy and electronic version.

Grading breakdown

Term paper (50%), seminar presentation (30%), class participation (20%).