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Implicit Questions in Michael Confino’s Essay

Corporate state and vertical relationships
Questions implicites dans l’essai de Michael Confino : État corporatif et verticalité des relations
David L. Ransel
p. 195-210


Le présent essai appuie les critiques stimulantes formulées par Michael Confino pendant de nombreuses années sur les conceptualisations communément utilisées par les historiens de la Russie. L’auteur admet les critiques de la notion de soslovie avancées par Confino dans son dernier article (CMR, 49 (4), 2008). Il laisse entendre qu’en adoptant le modèle selon lequel la modernisation de la Russie se serait opérée par le passage d’une société de soslovija à une société de classes, les historiens ont pu passer à côté d’une autre conceptualisation plus fructueuse et édifiante, associée d’ordinaire aux régimes latino-américains et ibériens plutôt qu’à la Russie, à savoir, le développement de la Russie par le passage d’un État patrimonial à un État et une société corporatistes. L’auteur pointe également les obstacles que soulève la notion de soslovie dans la compréhension de la microdynamique de l’histoire russe. La notion de soslovie tend à masquer un aspect de la vie russe que Confino lui-même avait commenté il y a longtemps déjà : les Russes de tous statuts sociaux vivaient en proximité étroite et étaient en contact quotidiennement. L’auteur propose des exemples extraits de différents travaux, dont les siens, et invite à utiliser davantage l’approche microdynamique de l’histoire russe.

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1We owe a debt to Michael Confino for his willingness to raise thorny intellectual issues. While members of our craft often set problems of framing aside and simply place our stories on the stage we are given, Confino asked us to think about how the stage was constructed. He wanted us to examine our presuppositions and to guard against uncritical acceptance of established conceptual categories and perspectives. Now again in his essay “The Soslovie (Estate) Paradigm,” he vigorously interrogated the meaning of this widely accepted term for defining social groups in Imperial Russia. What remained after Confino’s analysis was not pretty. In his judgment, soslovie had no meaning in regard to peasants and served merely to disguise the truly meaningful pre-existing institutions of peasant life. The soslovie concept likewise turned out not to be helpful in understanding most other groups in Russian society. It was either too freely employed as an identifier for city dwellers, yielding at least four urban commercial estates, plus all manner of professions – the learned estate, medical estate, administrative estate – or it was not applied at all to one of the fastest growing social groups, the “people of various ranks.” In the one case where it might have made sense, the Russian nobility, which, along with the clergy, was the closest thing Russia had to an ascriptive group, Confino questioned the usefulness of a category that covered people of vastly differing degrees of wealth, dignity, and status. Indeed, borrowing from the work of Roland Mousnier and of François Bluche and Jean-François Solnon, Confino even dismissed the utility of the concept of estate for analyzing French and other European societies. If the notion of estates in European history lacked explanatory value because it lumped together many disparate groups and obscured their influence on events, how would the importation of such an imprecise classification help to explain the development of the rather different Russian society?

2At the end Confino threw up his hands and wondered if we might not simply have to accept soslovie because of its established position in the literature. Here he seemed especially influenced by Vasilii Kliuchevskii’s use of the term to stand for a “social category.” Because Kliuchevskii was known to be precise in his language, Confino argued, his usage must have been common at the time he was writing. Confino therefore concluded that we might as well retain the term soslovie as a convenience, while understanding its limitations – at least until a better solution comes along.

3Confino’s thoughtful essay raises a number of questions explicitly but even more interestingly implicitly. I would like to focus on the implicit questions.

  • 2 Michael Confino, “The Soslovie (Estate) Paradigm: Reflections on some open questions,” Cahiers du M (...)

4The first of these was to ask “whither Russia?” Was Russia developing somewhat belatedly into a society of estates on the presumed European model and then into a society of classes, again on the presumed European model, as most scholars cited by Confino asserted? Or was Russia’s development, though following these general lines, compromised by a failure of Russian social estates and classes to replicate faithfully the European examples and therefore to lack internal cohesion and a consequent ability to resist obliteration by the state? Confino explicitly affirmed the existence of society in Russia and rejected the idea that social groups were “alienated from each other, fragmented, and isolated,” and he dismissed as hollow the shibboleth of a “divorce between state and society.”2

  • 3 The refusal of the neoliberal economists of the 1990s to articulate systematically their strategies (...)
  • 4 Yuri Zarakhovich, “Q&A: Putin’s Critical Adviser,” Time, Dec. 31, 2005, online: (...)
  • 5 Viktor Cherkesov, “Nel´zia dopustit´, chtoby voiny prevratilis´ v torgovtsev,” Kommersant, 184 (376 (...)

5Although it is hard to disagree with any of these positions, Confino seemed nevertheless to be sufficiently captive of the estates to class paradigm that he did not consider another model of Russia’s development that may have more explanatory power, namely, that Russia was developing into a corporate state. Was this not where Russia ended up in the Soviet period when huge ministries, industries, educational facilities, “voluntary” and other organizations were aligned with state objectives by party managers, and when a large part of the population’s wages, housing, personal identity, job or educational opportunities, and scarce household and food items were acquired through one’s place of employment? Now again, after a decade or so of no consciously articulated social and economic system,3 Russia seems headed back to a corporatist state structure. At least this is how some of both the critics and supporters of the Putin regime are describing its arrangements. Andrei Illarionov, a former economic adviser to Putin who turned critic of the regime, announced at the end of 2005 that the “process of this state evolving into a new corporativist (sic) model reached its completion in 2005. Quantitative changes have evolved into qualitative ones.” Illarionov went on to say that the “strengthening of the corporativist state model and setting up favorable conditions for quasi-state monopolies by the state itself hurt the economy. […] Cabinet members or key Presidential Staff executives chairing corporation boards or serving on those boards are the order of the day in Russia. In what Western country – except in the corporativist state that lasted for 20 years in Italy – is such a phenomenon possible? Which, actually, proves that the term corporativist properly applies to Russia today.”4 An importantly placed defender of the regime likewise defined Russia as a developing corporate state, and, in contrast to Illarionov, assessed this trend in a positive light. In an article in the leading Russian business newspaper, Kommersant, Viktor Cherkesov, head of the Russian Drug Enforcement Administration, claimed that the only development scenario for Russia that is both realistic and relatively favorable is continued evolution into a corporatist state ruled by security service officials.5

  • 6 See David L. Ransel, The Politics of Catherinian Russia: The Panin Party (New Haven: Yale Universit (...)

6This outcome should not be surprising. Movement to corporatism began in the imperial period, most visibly in the military and in large government ministries and other offices that bestowed on their members not just wages and pensions, purpose and respect, but even in many cases a social identity reinforced and made visible by way of a uniform decorated in colors and patterns specific to the person’s group. These corporate units exhibited cleavages in terms of wealth and responsibility, proximity to and distance from the ruler, and others. But they operated on the basis of common goals and allegiance to the leadership and in this sense grew out of or merged with older forms of loyal association, namely, personal clienteles of the kind that furnished the building blocks of Russian politics in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.6 In time other types of organizations became “incorporated” and subject to a form of state tutelage that is a characteristic feature of corporatism (see below). One of the reasons the soslovie and class models cause difficulty for scholars “even as a working hypothesis,” as Confino wrote, may be their failure to capture this more fundamental movement toward a corporatist state and society.

  • 7 For a recent enlightening analysis of the reasons that this development has not opened the way (as (...)
  • 8 Hans Rogger, “Was There a Russian Fascism? The Union of the Russian People,” Journal of Modern Hist (...)
  • 9 Umland’s comments are part of an instructive debate on fascism in Eastern Europe and the utility of (...)

7Analysts may have avoided describing Russia’s development in these terms because of the unfortunate associations that corporatism carries with fascism and Nazism, as the remark cited above by Andrei Illarionov suggests.7 But corporatism and fascism are by no means synonymous. As for Russia, Hans Rogger some time ago explained that fascism did not and could not have appeared in tsarist Russia, despite the efforts of some scholars to find it there.8 Even Stalinism, which exhibited some features of fascism such as the leader cult, did not include other characteristic elements such as glorification of a nation of blood, nostalgia for historical social arrangements, and explicit racism. Russia could not be usefully labeled fascist at any time in the past, and attempts by a few scholars to brand it so today are, as Andreas Umland has recently argued, unwise and possibly dangerous.9

  • 10 For the classic comprehensive definition, see Max Weber, ed., The Theory of Social and Economic Org (...)

8I use the term corporatism in two ways. The first refers to the incorporation of individuals into functionally differentiated bodies like the tsarist ministries, referred to earlier, and also business enterprises, labor unions, and other organizations that act collectively while imparting to their members a sense of purpose and identity. The second refers to social and governmental arrangements designed to mediate between these other bodies and to balance their interests for the common good. These arrangements have formed in democratic as well as in authoritarian systems and have been inflected by leftist as well as rightist ideologies. Democratic versions have appeared in Sweden and a number of other European states; leftist versions, even if we exclude self-declared “socialist” states, have appeared in Peru and some other Latin American countries. Although Philippe Schmitter and other theorists of corporatism have sketched typologies that include a number of variants, the concept refers in essence to a system of authority and interest representation that is designed to integrate labor and capital into a web of hierarchically ordered and functionally defined units that are guided or directed by the state to produce socially peaceful outcomes.10

  • 11 In the Ibero-Latin corporatist countries Roman Catholic political thought is considered an importan (...)
  • 12 For a general background, see Richard Pipes, Russia Under the Old Regime (New York: Charles Scribne (...)

9The historical foundations of modern corporatism go back to the patrimonial regimes of early modern times, in which public and private domains easily interpenetrated one another and elites and the state administration cooperated in absorbing and directing rising social forces.11 In Russia, this type of regime emerged as early as the fifteenth century. According to Richard Pipes, the most prominent western student of Russian conservatism, patrimonialism or the notion that Russian rulers are private owners of their domains and everything that resides in them, derived from the reality of power in the period of Mongol conquest when public authority rested with the Mongols and Russian princes were understood to be merely private owners of appanages. As Mongol control receded, the Moscow princes (as well as other less wealthy princes) elided their newly-acquired public power with their private ownership. All land, goods, and persons in their domain belonged to them as patrimonial rulers. The Russian Orthodox Church reinforced this power by allying itself with the ruler and conferring on him the title of Caesar (tsar), a designation previously reserved for the Mongol khan. Given this merger of personal ownership and state sovereignty, when independent enterprises developed profitably, the ruler freely appropriated them as regalia.12 By the same logic, when other organized bodies emerged, they were absorbed and directed by the state. Indeed, the state itself created corporate units with the aim of fostering military or economic strength, for example the dvorianstvo and magistraty. Although these two state-constructed units coincided with soslovie groups, they did not, as Confino rightly concluded, function as social estates and were always subject to state tutelage. Take, for example, the dvorianstvo. After creating this service group in early modern times, the state set the conditions of entry by enacting the Table of Ranks, formed noble societies for the estate in the reforms of Catherine II, and thereafter increasingly regulated relations of the landed nobility and its labor force (the enserfed peasantry). Finally, in the reforms of Nicholas I the state again redefined membership in the nobility and in the following reign divested it of its labor force by emancipating the serfs.

  • 13 It is interesting to observe that even voluntary associations, which are thought to be the core of (...)

10From this point on the tsarist government, acting in fits and starts and without a consciously conceived long-range plan, was converting the patrimonial state into a modern corporate state system. As modern corporations, organizations of industrialists, labor unions, and professional and voluntary organizations supplanted older social formations, the state bureaucracy sought to manage and direct them toward economic development under conditions of social harmony.13

  • 14 Daniel T. Orlovsky, “Professionalism in the Ministerial Bureaucracy on the Eve of the February Revo (...)
  • 15 Istoriia predprinimatel´stva v Rossii (Kniga vtoraia. Vtoraia polovina XIX-nachalo XX veka) (M.: Ro (...)
  • 16 Hans Rogger, Russia in the Age of Modernisation and Revolution, 1881-1917 (London: Longman, 1983), (...)

11Indeed, the state bureaucracy was itself a primary example of corporate organization. I have already mentioned the corporate character of the ministries in their provision of purpose, identity, and security. It is enough to add that by the twentieth century each specialist ministry had, as a leading historian of the bureaucracy writes, “its own microcosmic world of educational institutions, offices, and other career support systems in the provinces.”14 In short, the ministries provided a life course for ambitious and loyal recruits and their families. Corporatism can be seen, too, in the close tutelage and protection given to industry and banks, which were regularly subsidized and bailed out by the government. The Society for Assistance to Russian Industry and Trade worked hand in hand with the government to develop policies of protectionism.15 Syndicates and cartels were permitted and in some cases even encouraged by the government.16 The Department (later Ministry) of Trade and Industry brought into its advisory structures the leading representatives of industry. In 1906 a permanent Council of Representatives of Industry and Trade was formed to act as a corporate lobby for a wide range of business enterprises.

  • 17 Frederick C. Giffin, “The Formative Years of the Russian Factory Inspectorate,” Slavic Review, 25, (...)
  • 18 Frederick C. Giffin, “I.I. Yanzhul, Russia’s First District Factory Inspector,” Slavonic and East E (...)
  • 19 There was also the Council of Trade and Manufacture, a quasi-governmental advisory body (its member (...)
  • 20 Ibid., 4-6.

12While a central objective of the corporate state was the promotion and protection of commerce and industry, it also sought to manage relations between business and labor. Here, too, the aspiration of the Russian government was clear, even if its plans ultimately fell short of intentions. Efforts in this direction began as early as the 1850s with the convening of state committees on the labor question, and intervention began in earnest in the early 1880s when the government enacted a series of laws for the protection of women and children workers. At the same time it established a factory inspectorate to monitor compliance.17 A far-reaching labor code followed in 1866, much to the dismay of factory owners and industrialists. Although the conscientious efforts by factory inspectors to enforce the law prompted a backlash from the employer associations that led to the dismissal of the finance minister who had sponsored the reforms (Nikolai Bunge), the inspectorate remained, along with provincial factory boards, for the regulation of relations between labor and management. It is worth mentioning that a pioneering historian of the factory inspectorate, Frederick Giffin, pointed out in Bunge’s defense that he had “not violated the traditional practices of the government […] On the contrary, his efforts to regulate the relations of management and labour merely reflected the unique extent to which in Russia the state customarily intervened in the social and economic affairs of the people.”18 After the turn of the century, new measures were added that required employers to provide health insurance and for sick opleure, a qidentity. The second refers to social and governmental arrangements designed to mediat of Soc theand theirclear, ev associ for sries in core ote, ancratic as well aofficesae secondid="bodytoemeext the reasingly re serfs. had to labor code followed in 1866, much to ass="textandnd., 19advisorysf such ancossie, t goods, aey opera> An anagement a4">15yhe perion (New Yt goods, a supite àa 7 But corporcialesdsrclear, ev associ ovisinoworateld afthieown wor àt-ntries. Alasted f