Theft under Stalin: A Property Rights Analysis

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Recent work on dictatorship has focused on how repression is used by dictators to eradicate political opposition. This paper examines evidence from one of the most important dictatorships of the twentieth century to suggest that this may tell only half the story. As Stalin’s dictatorship progressed, repression was increasingly administered neither by the secret police nor the military—as in most dictatorships—but through the ordinary courts. The paper proposes an explanation, one broadly consistent with Mancur Olson’s hypothesis that Stalin was a ‘proprietary dictator’, an autocrat with a long time horizon who made major investments in public goods. Stalin’s new form of property—‘socialist property’—was one such public good. To legitimize the new form of ownership Stalin ruled that it should be enforced through the ordinary justice system, initially with high levels of repression. The paper also makes two further contributions. It shows, first, how Stalin’s theft campaigns are a striking historical example of what happens when an unpopular law clashes with social norms, and of how it might backfire. Second, it demonstrates how, as property rights theorists would predict, the main objects of theft legislation are generic or homogeneous goods with few property attributes.
Original languageEnglish
Article number12121
Pages (from-to)288-313
Number of pages25
JournalThe Economic History Review
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2016


  • Dictatorship, Repression, Property Rights, Theft, Joseph Stalin


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