- Free Labor—Forced Labor: An Uncertain Boundary?The Circulation of Economic Ideas between Russia and Europe from the 18th to the Mid-19th Century
From the 18th century down to our own time, comparisons between the economies of Russia and the major European countries have formed part of a wider debate about "backwardness." The goal has been to create a comparative scale to account for both economic growth and so-called blockages. These comparisons have often highlighted the nature of labor, which has been categorized as "free" in the West and "forced" in Russia and Eastern Europe. Free labor is said to form the basis of capitalist economic growth, whereas it is precisely unfree labor that explains the economic backwardness of Russia.1 However, numerous recent studies of slavery, as well as of labor and labor law in the United States, France, Germany, and Great Britain, have demonstrated that in terms of law and economics, in both thought and practice, the boundary between free and forced labor remained uncertain well into the 20th century.2 There has also been a renewed critical interest in [End Page 27] the character of serfdom in Prussia and east of the Elbe.3 In Russia, in contrast, although a number of works have sparked new debate about the thesis of serfdom's limited profitability, the intellectual origin of this category as a form of "unfree labor" and its connection to wage labor has been less explored, with the notable exception of Larry Wolff.4 He shows that the notion of serfdom permitted the invention of a difference between "Western" and "Eastern" Europe in the 18th century, with the latter becoming synonymous with backwardness, serfdom, and despotism.5
My goal is to expand on these reflections and show that the invention of both backwardness and Eastern Europe can be understood only in a global framework. That is to say, if in fact the Europe of the Enlightenment "invented" serfdom and Eastern Europe, this invention also owes much to a more general debate on forms of labor in the "West" and is a response to the influence of Russian thought and Russian reality on "Western" thought. In particular, I will show the interrelation in the 18th century between the debate over guilds in France, the question of slavery in the colonies, and the analysis of serfdom in Russia. It is thus a question of exploring more generally the reflections on the status of labor and the connection between free labor and forced labor in different contexts. That is why the French philosophes and economists tended to radicalize their critiques of different forms of forced labor only toward the last quarter of the 18th century, in response to the restoration of guilds in France, to slave revolts, and to their relationship with Catherine II. [End Page 28]
The mutual influences between Russia and European thought on labor and serfdom did not end with the French Revolution. The final quarter of the 18th century saw the reforms of Catherine II in Russia and the independence of the United States but also the publication of both The Wealth of Nations and the first works of Bentham. These events changed how labor, and the connection between free and forced labor, were understood. At first glance, the success of the so-called classical school in the "West" seems to confirm the association of free labor, free markets, and capitalism. I would like to reopen these arguments and show that the classical school of thought (Bentham, Ricardo), the socialist and Marxist school, and the French "liberal" school (J.-B. Say) all had difficulty fixing a dividing line between free labor and forced labor. The case of Bentham is particularly revealing. He is usually considered one of the fathers of the theory of the division and rational surveillance of labor but also of the interaction between liberal law and market economics. However, we will see that Bentham, too, like the other authors I mentioned, proposes no certain boundary between free and forced labor, as his system of labor surveillance is similar to the surveillance in prisons and the organization of hospitals and forced labor.