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Russie ancienne et impériale

Alessandro STANZIANI, Les métamorphoses du travail contraint. Une histoire globale (xviiie-xixe siècles)

Peter B. Brown
p. 801-804
Référence(s) :

Alessandro STANZIANI, Les métamorphoses du travail contraint. Une histoire globale (xviiie-xixe siècles), Paris : Presses de Sciences Po, 2020. i-iv+5-325+i-ii p.

Texte intégral

1The ever-fecund Alessandro Stanziani in his latest work, a culmination to earlier studies, builds upon three themes preoccupying him for some time. These are the pitfalls of reliance solely upon the dichotomous terminology of “free” and “unfree labor,” the obligation of stressing how the latter—however defined—elides partially into the former—however defined, and the necessity of injecting international context to comprehend fully the first two. The phalanx of monographs undergirding Les métamorphoses du travail contraint include his Labor, Coercion, and Economic Growth in Eurasia, 17th-20th Centuries (2013); Bondage: Labor and Rights in Eurasia from the Sixteenth to the Early Twentieth Centuries (2014); Sailors, Slaves, and Immigrants: Bondage in the Indian Ocean World, 1750–1914 (2014). He organized a valuable international conference in fall 2015, “Captives, Recruited, Migrants: Empires and Labor Mobilization, 17th century to Present Days,” that was a staging point for many.

2Stanziani is both thematically and topically expansive, moving smoothly from diachronic to synchronic exposition and back. In this and in earlier works, his understated boldness in tackling major assumptions (even tropes) of Early Modern and Late Modern history encourage the reader to reconsider one’s own intellectual posture. His interest in words’ derivations and fluid meanings, especially in translation, and his underscoring the failure of historians to highlight words and to consider even more meaningful terminology build upon his earlier works. He is always on the alert for developmental contradictions undetected by other historians, and moves forward with credible ideas expressed straightforwardly.

3The range of Stanziani’s preoccupations is extensive, and the eight chapters of Les metamorphoses bear listing. They are 1. The Russian Mirror, 2. An Early Globalization: the Sailors, 3. What was “free labor in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries?, 4. The Abolitionist Movement, 5. Abolition in Practice (1,830s–1,860s): the Case of the Mascarene Islands, 6. From Abolitions in Russia and the Americas to the Great Transformation, 7. The Heart of Darkness: Imperial Violence and the Welfare State, and 8. Conclusion.

4Defining ‘free labor’ and ‘unfree labor’ and their numerous subsets is fraught and perhaps unresolvable due to the sheer fluidity of historical and perceptual change. Since there exists no formal bifurcation between free and unfree labor and given the multiplicity of statuses within these polarized concepts, there is a continuum of gradients, so argues Stanziani; some might argue that point is overdrawn. Whether in antiquity or in seventeenth-century Russia, a slave always knew what one was and so did non-slaves. He reminds us that seduction assails historians in a variety of ways, not the least of which is succumbing to absolutist argumentation and dichotomous assertions.

5Absorbing is his argumentation that Western powers’ formal abolition of slavery in the earlier nineteenth century spurred amorphous bondage and indentured labor in Madagascar and Zanzibar, the Indian Ocean Mascarene Island chain and French Equatorial Africa, more generally in Africa and along the Southern Asian littoral (251). His tracing, going back to seventeenth-century French galley-crew enslavement, of impressing unfortunates into becoming military and commercial sailors in the following two centuries is impressive (51, 53). The larger context for this practice was Early Modern military conscription into land armies, and he convincingly demonstrates how labor practices in one domain over time can metamorphose into others (49).

6Things have names and ‘conglomerate labor tenure’ is the one this reviewer applies to what Stanziani analyzes in his monograph. There is always more, though, than what meets the eye. Stanziani refers to serfdom and slavery in such manner as to leave the reader feeling that these are undifferentiated statuses. In fact, there were any number of unfree labor statuses, with varying degrees of strictness, for example, in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and Ukraine—two places in need of analysis—from the sixteenth into the eighteenth centuries. In Belarus there were the cheliadin (agricultural or domestic slave), kholop (peasant), volostianin (royal peasant or former royal peasant with no right of departure), chelovek tiagly (royal peasants with corvée labor obligation), chelovek nepokhozhii, chelovek otchiznyi, otchich (enserfed peasant of a landlord), chelovek pokhozhii (free peasant with right of departure), nevolˈnik (slave derived from POW status), and zakup (indentured laborer). Such distinctions are important to grasp as they indicate that multiple differentiations along the free-unfree labor spectrum existed not only prior to late eighteenth- and nineteenth-century formal abolitions but persisted afterwards, since the precedent already was there. Though not mentioned, the convict-labor system in the Southern states is one case of a few coerced-labor practices created in the post-Reconstruction Era that further substantiates his thesis.

7Stanziani’s book by necessity is selective, wholly comprehensible in view of his subject’s immensity. Along with Eurasia, the Americas, meaning the U.S. Early National Period, appear. Brazil’s slavery, the stages leading to its 1888 abolition, and the persistence of slavery’s subterfuges thereafter deserve some mention. The Eastern Pacific Basin with its misión system, dismally combining serfdom and slavery, in Baja and Alta California and the quasi-serfdom of Russian Fort Ross in Northern California beckon. ‘The state is in,’ and its agency and politics merit discussion. How might collusion, co-option, malfeasance, ignorance, and sheer competency at the top have shaped post-slavery and post-serfdom abolitions? One avenue worth pursuing would be a ‘strong state’ vs. ‘weak state’ typology, for example, the Russian and Brazilian Empires with their unitary and federalistic governments. Admittedly, these matters are the stuff of future investigation.

8One of the most intriguing parts of his book is the claim that the growth of the later nineteenth-century ‘social state’ (État social) and attendant welfare policies, on the one hand, and yet another iteration of colonial coerced labor on the other were conjoined (256-68). Stanziani cites numerous British parliamentary acts of the 1870s and in following decades alleviating workers’ duress, thereby creating a more compatible domestic contract, yet vexingly accompanied by regressive labor policies in the colonies. Is this a zero-sum game? Perhaps the author is incorrect for the right reasons as the correlations do not appear strong; the causality seems strained. To be sure, he is not confusing the ‘social state’ with the ‘welfare state’ (État-providence), arguably making a cameo, but temporary, appearance in 1906 with the victory of the Liberal Party, though in earnest in 1945. By that time British colonialism was on the way out. Curiously, Germany does not appear, although the well-known Bismarckian social legislation and the German plunge into colonialism in the 1880s, with its unpleasant African labor practices, are glaringly apparent. One can argue that the German Empire embarked upon this path with its interesting domestic and foreign ramifications as a means of dampening social unrest. But does that apply to England?

9Stanziani is at the cusps of challenging the modernity thesis. His erudition is there, and his fallacy detection is highly commendable. Is it possible that Early Modern serfdom and slavery were rival forms of modernity and that their vestiges to this day remain a challenge to the standard model of modernity? (See p. 47) He should ferociously lock horns with Wallerstein and World Systems Theory. Correctly, he notes, contrary to WST, that the growth of grain exports from the Eastern European Region did not come at the expense of national and local economies. This was true of eighteenth-century Russia (46), as it was for the Polish economy from the mid-sixteenth century into the eighteenth century. Northern Europe was quite dependent upon Polish grain in the Early Modern Period, and the Polish armed forces for much of that time were most formidable. In fact, little Polish grain was exported given high domestic demand. This is hardly the profile of a country and region situated in a quasi-colonial status in relation to the Western polities as WST posits.

10We await even more forays by Alessandro Stanziani into the relentlessly engrossing subject of forced labor. Les métamorphoses du travail contraint gratifyingly sets us further along that track.

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Peter B. Brown, « Alessandro STANZIANI, Les métamorphoses du travail contraint. Une histoire globale (xviiie-xixe siècles) »Cahiers du monde russe, 63/3-4 | 2022, 801-804.

Référence électronique

Peter B. Brown, « Alessandro STANZIANI, Les métamorphoses du travail contraint. Une histoire globale (xviiie-xixe siècles) »Cahiers du monde russe [En ligne], 63/3-4 | 2022, mis en ligne le 02 décembre 2022, consulté le 03 décembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Peter B. Brown

Rhode Island College

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