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Unfree, but not Exploited in Eurasia

Is “unfree labor” good for business? Is it good for the unfree? Author Alessandro Stanziani aims to answer questions of labor, rights and freedoms in a comparison of Russian labor and business practices with those in Asia, Europe, and the Indian subcontinent. He covers this topic extensively in his new book, Bondage: Labor and Rights in Eurasia from the Sixteenth to the Early Twentieth Centuries, to be published this month. Below, in an excerpt from the volume, Stanziani gives an glimpse into nearly four centuries of Eurasian labor.



This book is about the evolution of labor and labor institutions in Russia as compared with Europe, Central Asia, and the Indian Ocean region, between the sixteenth and early twentieth centuries. It questions common ideas about the origin of labor institutions and market economies—their evolution and transformation in the early-modern and modern world.


Since the eighteenth century, comparative analyses of labor institutions and labor conditions in Russia have been developed as if the boundary between free and unfree labor were universally defined, and thus free labor in the West is frequently contrasted with serf labor in Russia and Eastern Europe.


This book intends to call that view into question and show that Russian peasants were much less bound and unfree than usually held. Furthermore, this book also shows that in most Western countries labor was similar to service, and wage conditions resembled those of domestic servants, with numerous constraints imposed on work mobility.


In colonies, this situation then gave rise to extreme forms of dependency, not only under slavery, but after it, as well (e.g., indentured labor in the Indian Ocean region and obligatory labor in Africa).


Unfree labor and forms of coercion were perfectly compatible with market development— economic growth between the seventeenth and the mid-nineteenth century in Russia, Europe, and the Indian Ocean region was achieved through the wide use of bondage and legal constraints on labor. This was not so because the population was somehow lacking, but because consistent economic growth took place throughout Eurasia at that time. The growth was labor intensive: family units, landlords, estate owners, proto-industrial and manufacturing employers, and state and public administrations all required labor.


The world of bonded labor did not collapse with the French Revolution or the British Industrial Revolution, but only with the second Industrial Revolution and the rise of the welfare state, between 1870 and 1914. During this time, free contracts gave working people real rights, which emerged in response to the strength of unions, political turmoil, and welfare. Yet this process involved only a minority of workers in the West (mainly workers in large units), while small units, agriculture, and, above all, the European colonies were only marginally affected until the mid-twentieth century at the earliest. Twentieth-century Russia also departed from the Western path, and the “great transformation” there was ultimately achieved through new forms of bondage.


Nowadays the question of the relationship between economic growth and bondage is again extremely vibrant: as the experience of China and global capitalism in its expressions in South-Eastern Asia, India and some African areas testify.




Alessandro Stanziani is Professor at the EHESS (Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales) and Senior Researcher at the CNRS (Centre National des recherches Scientifiques), Paris.  He is the author of four monographs, ten edited volumes, and more than one hundred articles.  His books include Rules of exchange: French capitalism in Comparative Perspective, 18th-20th Centuries( Cambridge University Press, 2012) and Bâtisseurs d’Empires. Russie, Chine et Inde à la conquête du monde(Liber-Seuil, 2012).


Volume 24, International Studies in Social History