Studying the past to grasp the future

Mike Macnair reviews Boris Kagarlitsky's Empire of the periphery: Russia and the world system London 2007, 384pp, £35

Empire of the periphery is an extremely important book. It attempts to approach Russian history from a standpoint of Marxism, as informed or modified by the ‘world-systems theory’ of Immanuel Wallerstein and others. As such, it raises fundamental questions about ‘historical materialism’ - that is, about the ‘classical Marxist’ approach to human history, which informs Marxist political ideas today. And it raises equally fundamental questions about ‘imperialism’: that is, about the origins of the inequality between countries which is endemic in modern society. For these reasons this review will - very unusually for a book review - be spread over two issues of the paper.

Empire of the periphery: is an outline history of the successive polities from the early Rus centred on Kiev, through early modern Muscovy, to the tsarist empire of the Romanovs, the USSR, and today’s ‘post- Soviet’ Russian Federation. We tend to call these polities in shorthand ‘Russia’, and I will do so for convenience in this review. But it is worth bearing in mind several points which make this shorthand misleading. First, much of what was early Rus is in today’s Ukraine. Second, neither the empire of the Romanovs nor the USSR was a nation-state of Russian-speakers, even in the sense that the 10th-11th century Engla land was a nation-state of speakers of Ænglisc (both identified themselves in cosmopolitan terms: the tsarist regime as the ‘third Rome’, the successor of Byzantium; the USSR by its claim to be soviet and socialist). Third, even today’s Russian Federation, shorn of many of the subordinate nationalities of the tsarist empire and USSR, is still a multinational political entity - and also does not include substantial territories populated by Russian-speakers.

Boris Kagarlitsky is not a specialist professional historian, but a political scientist and activist. Empire of the periphery is written with present-day purposes in mind: to combat the revival in today’s Russian Federation of the pre-1917 ‘westerniser’ and ‘Slavophile’ discourses of Russian history. The first blames Russia’s historical woes and present problems on Russia’s ‘Asiatic backwardness’ and failure to become more like western Europe. The second (including Stalinist-nationalist variants) sees them as resulting from attempts to impose unnaturally ‘western’ or ‘liberal’ ideas on the Slavs.

In place of these discourses, Kagarlitsky argues that the character of Russian history flows neither from isolated ‘Asiatic backwardness’, nor from isolated ‘Slavic’ development, but precisely from Russia’s engagement in successive world systems. This interpretation draws heavily on those of the Bolshevik medievalist and early-modernist historian, Mikhail Pokrovsky, and of the more recent ‘world systems theory’ school of Andre Gunder Frank, Immanuel Wallerstein and others.

‘Westerniser’ and ‘Slavophile’ historical discourses are not part of present political problems in Britain. There is perhaps a remote analogy to be made with the European engagement of ‘Whig’ historical writing and the Eurosceptic Anglo-Saxonism or isolationism of the - recently dominant - ‘Tory’ historical writing. But the dominant attitude of mainstream politicians of all parties is Henry Ford’s ‘History is bunk’. Government policy, originated under Thatcher and continued under Blair-Brown, restricts school students as far as possible to learning a little archaeology of everyday life in primary school and ‘Our finest hour’ (1914-45) in secondary school. The resulting political problem is not nationalist and liberal historical schools, but mass historical illiteracy.

Kagarlitsky’s book is nonetheless important reading for the British left, and not just because knowledge of world history and that of particular countries is valuable in itself. In the first place, the multiple groupuscules of the British far left are heavily defined by particular attitudes to Russian history and in particular to 1917 and Stalinism. In a certain sense Empire of the periphery can be read as a narrative of the longue durée origins of 1917, of Stalinism and of its failure.

Secondly, a grand-sweep or longue durée history like Kagarlitsky’s is necessarily informed by a theoretical framework. Single-volume histories of countries ‘from the earliest times’ have usually been informed by nationalist ideas. HE Marshall’s Our island story (1905) - reprinted in 2005 after a campaign by the rightwing Civitas think-tank and The Daily Telegraph - dates from the high-imperialist period. It is a classic collection of English nationalist myths for children. More recent books tend to have the same fundamental nationalist-monarchist structure and character. FE Halliday’s A concise history of England (1963), though lacking the simple myths, is in the same strain. Even the Oxford history of Britain, produced by a collective of professional historians, is structurally shaped by English nationalism and ‘good’ and ‘bad’ kings.1

Whig-Liberal narratives of ‘progress’, like those of the Russian ‘westernisers’, are an alternative. One or another variant of Marxism is another. As I have already said, Kagarlitsky’s book is informed by Pokrovsky and the ‘world systems’ school. Both are debatable: Pokrovsky expressed sharp differences with Trotsky in 1922, before the emergence of the campaign against ‘Trotskyism’, while the ‘world systems’ school has been attacked from a variety of directions (also including Trotskyism and Cliffism).

Good or bad, these theoretical framework assumptions are relevant to present political choices, and not just in Russia. The Pokrovsky-Trotsky debate turned on ‘permanent revolution’ and its assumptions, and these issues were then relevant to working class strategy in the ‘backward’ or ‘colonised’ countries. Trotskyist comrades think they still are. ‘World systems theory’ was strongly associated at its birth with semi-Maoist third-worldism. Kagarlitsky draws from it internationalist conclusions, which ‘official communists’ or Maoists would call ‘Trotskyite’. But the original founders of the theory remain substantially closer to ‘soft Maoism’.2

There is, moreover, a real dispute as to whether such longue durée history is either necessary or useful to Marxists or leftists. ‘Orthodox historical materialism’, which its critics blame variously on Engels, Kautsky or Stalin, argues for an original human primitive communism and a historical succession of class forms (‘Asiatic mode of production’, slavery, feudalism, capitalism). Within this theoretical framework longue durée history is useful to political practice in two ways. In the first place, it helps us to disentangle matters of genuine human biological nature, or ‘species-being’, from ideologies of ‘eternal’ human nature, which are produced in support of various class orders.

Secondly, longue durée history tells us that prior class orders have come to an end (from which we can infer that capitalism will also come to an end); it can also tell us things about the processes of transition from one social order to another, which may be helpful in thinking about the transition from capitalism to working class rule and so to communism.

In this aspect, ‘orthodox historical materialism’ has been violently opposed by pro-capitalist academics in numerous disciplines. It has also been damned both by sub-Stalinist ‘western Marxist’ academics (whether originally ‘official’ communists or ‘soft Maoists’); and by the element of the far left which relies on semi-Hegelian readings of Marx’s method to promote spontaneism, opposition to electoral political action and workers’ councilism.

To simplify considerably, some of these opponents argue that the sequence of modes of production in the theory is ‘Eurocentric’. Others say that pre-capitalist societies are all pretty much of a muchness and undynamic, and the only real distinction is between pre-capitalist societies and capitalism. Yet others argue that the dynamics of capitalist political economy overdetermine all the other features of social dynamics, so that all the Marx we need can be found in the volumes of Capital and the drafts (Grundrisse, etc). In fact, on this view, we only need the parts of these texts which discuss the laws of motion of capital and not the parts which discuss prior social formations and the emergence of capitalism.

On the basis of any of these approaches, longue durée history is a useless diversion: it can be left to the professional historians. The professional historians, of course, are commonly not interested, since they are trained by the PhD to focus on micro-problems and micro-periods ...

Of these three objections, one - the argument that the sequence of modes of production is ‘Eurocentric’ - is simply worthless. We might as well argue that modern mathematics is ‘Indocentric’ from the Indian origins of the ‘Arabic numerals’, or Islamocentric’ from the Muslim origins of algebra. The world today is dominated by the products of the Mediterranean-European historical development, as well as its borrowings and thefts from other societies (like gunpowder and competitive examinations, copied from China). Neither the Taliban nor the Islamic Republic of Iran - to take extreme examples of opponents of the corrupting influence of European liberalism - are free from institutional influences from the European historical development. At the level of trivial symbols, Ahmadinejad appears in a jacket and trousers, not clothing of the Safavid or Qajar era. China is ruled by a so-called Communist Party, and Hu Jintao appears in a business suit, not a mandarin’s robes.

Cards on the table. My opinion of these questions is, first, that longue durée history is necessary to any analysis of the near future (usually called ‘the present’). Second, Pokrovsky had legitimate objections to Trotsky’s outline analysis of Russian history, though his own analysis does not solve the problems it poses. Third, world-systems theory is a useful part of such analysis, provided it is not made into a pure determinism of trade, but tied to the analysis of the primary mode of extraction of social surplus from primary producers (slavery, villeinage, wage-labour) and its role in shaping the overall society. The strengths and weaknesses of Kagarlitsky’s book seem to me to demonstrate all these points.

Kagarlitsky’s narrative

Kagarlitsky’s book is already a summary argument based on a mass of more detailed work. To summarise further is inevitably to oversimplify; however, to make the attempt is necessary.

Kagarlitsky begins in chapter 1, ‘A land of cities’, by locating early medieval Rus in its relations to riverine trade routes. These ran from the Baltic to the Black Sea via the Dnepr (linking the Viking trade-piracy nexus in the Baltic, North Sea and north Atlantic to the Byzantine empire and its trade connections) and from the Baltic to the Caspian via the Volga (linking it to Iran under the Muslim caliphate and its trade connections east and south).

Following Pokrovsky against official Soviet historiography, he argues that the rise of towns, and from them of the Rus state, was not driven by the development of the internal division of labour, but by the role of the towns in the trade routes. In this framework, internal exploitation in Rus took the form of more or less ‘bandit’ taking of tribute in the form of furs and other forest products, and of slaves, to be sold abroad (it was in this period that the word ‘slave’, from ‘Slav’, replaced earlier terms3). This integration in long-distance trade circuits and the surplus that could be skimmed from it and from tribute-taking for export produced an ‘advanced’ and prosperous urbanism.

In the 13th century, however, Rus fell into decline (chapter 2). This decline has traditionally been blamed on conquest by the Mongols (Tatars), but Kagarlitsky points out that western Europe in the same period, the late 13th to early 14th century, also experienced a prolonged economic and demographic crisis, culminating in the Black Death (1348-51). Rather, following Pokrovsky, he argues that what was happening in Rus was fragmentation into smaller and smaller warring polities under the impact of feudalisation, comparable - if a little later - to the ‘feudal revolution’ of 11th century France. Meanwhile, the development of the Rhine trade route in western Europe undermined the significance of the Dnepr and Volga routes, while the rise of the Hanse confederation of north German trading cities put pressure on the ability of the north Russian cities, especially Novgorod, to control the Baltic end of these routes.

Contrary to Pokrovsky, however, Kagarlitsky does not see a complete collapse of trade in the 14th century. The principality of Moscow (Muscovy) began to rise in relation to other micro-states in the area as a client of the Tatars, but also because of its strategic location on trade routes between Novgorod and the Tatar centres. What has changed was that the termini of the trade routes were now dominated “by Germans in the north, and by Italians and Tatars in the south” (p62). There was a general further development of feudalism. The Novgorodian city-state ‘republic’ was merely a junior partner of the Hanse: its conquest by Moscow did not close off a ‘western’ option for development. The fall of Constantinople to the Turks (1452) and the later medieval development of north-south Atlantic seaboard trade did, however, remove the significance of the Dnepr route. Ukraine developed into a Polish possession, while Moscow was reoriented to conquests on the Volga.

This shift was also accompanied by others. By now, (proto) capitalist urbanisation and the shipping industry were developing in parts of western Europe. On the one hand, Muscovy’s social and state structures were falling behind those of the west: a phenomenon accentuated by the state’s decision in 1517 to identify itself as the ‘third Rome’ or heir of Byzantium. On the other, the western growth of urbanisation and the shipping industry created demand for raw materials: Muscovy, and following it the tsarist empire, was to be integrated in the world economy as a raw materials supplier.

This analysis supplies Kagarlitsky with a framework for making sense of the period of Russian history between the mid-16th century and the mid-19th, in chapters 4 to 9. The underlying terms of trade were that Russia supplied Atlantic powers with raw materials - from the 18th century mainly grain - and for some purposes with manpower for interventions in European wars, while the Atlantic powers supplied military high technology and competed for political control of the Russian regime. These different locations in the overall process of production meant that there was a permanent flow of social surplus product out of Russia for the benefit of its Atlantic trading partners. A Russian merchant class, serving a comprador role, backed the tsarist state. Dominance of primary goods export production, coupled with a flow of surplus value outwards, necessarily implied a forced-labour regime in Russia itself: the imposition of the ‘second serfdom’.

In the terms of the Leninist theory of imperialism, Russia had become a semi-colony. That is, though the country was juridically independent, its policy and economy were in substance adapted to the needs of its imperialist sponsors. Meanwhile, it was also a sub-imperialism, expanding by conquest eastwards and southwards: “Russians became simultaneously an ‘imperial’ people, proud of their historic conquests, and an enslaved population, colonial in their essence” (p127).

In the Crimean War, the tsarist regime sought to alter this relationship by partitioning Turkey in order to secure Russian control of the Black Sea; just as, in 1904-05, Japan became an imperialist contender rather than a potential semi-colony by defeating the Russians and acquiring Korea, first as a semi-colony and then as a colony. Defeat in the Crimea forced the Russian state to abandon protectionism, but also to seek to ‘modernise’ and ‘westernise’ as rapidly as possible in the hope of winning any future war. Russia thus became even more deeply involved, still as a semi-colony, in the world system. In this period German, French and British capital were in intense competition for control in Russia, a competition which by 1914 had been won by the future Entente powers.

The result was intensifying contradictions - in particular the very rapid growth of an urban proletariat - which gave rise to the revolution of 1905. This in turn led (after and alongside the initial repression) to a further deepening of the ‘modernisation’ project. But by 1914 the militant workers’ movement was on the rise again. The 1914-18 war seemed like a way out (chapters 10-12).

Revolution and Stalinism

The war, of course, produced the revolution of 1917. In chapter 13 Kagarlitsky deals in a highly concentrated way with issues which are subject to massive debate in the global far left: the causes of the victory of the Bolsheviks, the rise of Stalinism, the Stalinist industrialisation of the USSR and the Soviet victory in World War II. He argues that the defeats of the tsarist regime were seen as a negative judgment on the strategy, pursued since Peter the Great, of “integrating Russia into the capitalist world system”; the revolution was “aimed against both the Russia of St Petersburg and the entire world system” (pp255-56).

The liberals, he says, pursued a strategy of modernisation based on the enlightened section of the capitalist, landlord and state elites. The Russian Social Democrats were also modernisers, but based themselves on the urban working class. The Bolsheviks in particular acted simply in the interests of the urban working class. While this made them “the only party capable of restoring order”, what they created was at first “a dictatorship of the city over the countryside” (p256). Their economic policies were “more a reaction to circumstances than the implementing of a project that had been thought through and formulated in advance” (pp256-57). The civil war “was fought not only and not so much between Reds and Whites as between the city and the countryside” (p257), leading to the creation of a harsh dictatorship.

In the New Economic Policy, the peasants won their aims (control of the land and of its produce), but the political regime became increasingly bureaucratic and repressive. Marketisation enabled some recovery, but not actual modernisation. ‘Modernisation’ within the capitalist world system, Kagarlitsky points out, is a chimera: “The more actively the periphery competes, the further it lags behind, and the more it helps the west to sprint ahead” (p260). After the revolution, “Soviet industry no longer served the accumulation of capital in the west, but the question arose of where it would obtain the resources it needed in order to catch up with the ‘advanced countries’” (p261). Russia was excluded from the world economy as a result of the revolution, but gradually began in the 1920s to export grain again to pay for capital imports. The debate in the Russian Communist Party about economic development, Kagarlitsky argues, was about how to get hold of the grain for export: Bukharin and his co-thinkers argued for a gradualist approach in order not to alienate the peasantry; Preobrazhensky and the lefts for the use of state control as a lever to force more grain out of the peasantry (‘primitive socialist accumulation’).

Kagarlitsky argues that the turn which became forced collectivisation was driven by two crises: on the one hand, the crisis of grain collection in 1927-28, which was due to the state pushing prices down to extort more surplus from the peasantry; on the other hand, the crisis of the world market itself, which erupted in 1929. By a series of ad hoc steps the party leadership round Stalin moved to a policy of war on the countryside (forced collectivisation) in order to maximise exports, for the sake of rapid industrial growth. The result was initially chaos, and a shift further into totalitarianism. By the mid-1930s, however, industrial growth was beginning to take off on the basis of US-supplied capital equipment; and this development was enough to allow Russia to win the 1941-45 war. The 1920s, Kagarlitsky argues, were comparable to the French Thermidor; the turn of 1929-32 was like French Bonapartism, as the state increasingly took on the forms of ‘empire’.

Chapter 14, ‘The Soviet world’, covers the period 1945-91. Of all the chapters, it is the least well articulated with the book’s general argument. Very broadly, Kagarlitsky argues that the cold war followed from the attempt of the US in 1946-47 to roll back Soviet control of foreign policy in the eastern European countries. In response, Moscow ‘sovietised’ eastern Europe, subjecting it to the existing Russian totalitarian regime: “The centralised system and mobilisational economy set in place in the 1930s as the Soviet answer to the great depression had been effective in the times of industrialisation and war. Now, when the country had already been industrialised, and life had settled into a peaceful pattern, these methods were simply failing to work” (p288). ‘Reforms’ aimed to deal with this problem by introducing market elements in the plan tended to weaken the party bureaucratic elite - as revealed in Czechoslovakia in 1968.

The crisis of the 1970s and the ‘oil price shock’ led the Soviet leadership to a new turn to oil exporting and large-scale equipment purchases, especially from western Europe. The debt crisis of the 1980s, however, destabilised the eastern European regimes and the USSR itself. In the result, the elite under Gorbachev and Yeltsin capitulated to the USA and IMF, leading to the fall of the regime.

Chapter 15 then surveys briefly the post-Stalinist regime, identifying it as a return to the place of a ‘peripheral’ capitalist country: a supplier of raw materials and buyer of technology, which however fast it runs, can never catch up with the centre.

The conclusion: “The experience of Russian history shows that remaining within the framework of the system means to condemn oneself to degradation, while to pursue salvation through separating oneself from the system becomes a sentence of isolation ... For Russia in the 21st century, as for all of humanity, there is only one way out: to change the world system” (emphasis added, p325).

And: “One can complain as much as one likes about an unfortunate past, or dream of a great future. Both these courses are best suited to ideological neurotics. Those who choose action need to remember a very simple truth. The fate of Russia is inseparable from the history of humanity, and we can struggle for a better world for ourselves only through trying to build a better world for everyone. And this, of course, can also be said of any country” (p325).

Looking back in order to look forward

Kagarlitsky’s conclusion exemplifies the whole of what he is doing in Empire of the periphery: looking back not to deplore or to celebrate the past, but in order to look forward. His fundamental conclusion is that Russia’s present problems cannot be solved except in the framework of an internationalist perspective.

In chapter 13 Kagarlitsky presents the different varieties of early 20th century ‘moderniser’ asking a very concrete question of the same sort. Why did the tsarist regime lose, successively, the war of 1904-05 with Japan and the war of 1914-18 with the Central Powers? Someone - whether Russian nationalist ‘moderniser’ or Social Democrat - who asked the question would do so with a view to avoiding a repetition of these defeats in the future. Kagarlitsky quotes two liberal commentators who made in 1989 just such a judgement on 1914-18 and 1941-45: that Stalin succeeded where pre-1914 ministers Witte and Stolypin failed (pp278-79).

The answer, of course, is that Russia had failed to ‘modernise’ sufficiently to fight a war with later 19th-20th century military technology: officers were incompetent aristocrats, the supply chains broke down because of endemic corruption and so on.4 But this is no more than the beginning of an answer. After all, both the German Second Reich and the Meiji regime in Japan were in the 1850s ‘backward’ countries relative to Britain, the US and France; but in extraordinary leaps forward they had brought themselves into the ranks of great industrial powers. So why did the same thing not happen in Russia?

The answer is inevitably going to have to be further back. It can have one of two characters. The first is the answer given by Kagarlitsky: Russia was not relatively economically ‘backward’ in the middle ages, but it was inserted into the European-dominated world market system which was growing up in the 16th-17th centuries in a way which ‘semi-colonised’ the country and led it constantly to lag further and further behind. In contrast, Germany and Japan turned to a protectionist policy of industrialisation and aggressively imperialist militarism before they could be incorporated in the world system as semi-colonies.

The second sort of answer would say that Russia was, in fact, much more economically ‘backward’ than Germany or Japan in the 1850s, and hence unable to make the leap to fully autonomous (imperialist) capitalism in the later 19th century. It is not difficult to make such an argument: it is symbolised by the presence of the sickle, long-obsolete as a harvesting tool in western Europe, as the symbol of the peasantry in the communist hammer and sickle. Population density, literacy, preponderance of market towns, and communication interconnections were all massively weaker in tsarist Russia (down to 1917!) than in Tokugawa Japan before 1867 or 18th-early 19th century Germany.

That, however, merely pushes the question further back. It is again possible that Russia’s ‘backwardness’ in the 1850s is attributable to semi-colonial incorporation in the developing world market in the 16th-18th centuries. But, on the other hand, if we use the same empirical criteria of ‘development’ listed above, Russia was arguably already much more economically ‘backward’ than western Europe in the 1500s and, indeed, in the 1200s, and perhaps even in the 800s.5 Perhaps this is why, when it was incorporated in the world market, it was incorporated as a semi-colony rather than as a potential full-capitalist power.

These are, of course, merely empirical criteria. The point could be formulated in a different and more ‘orthodox Marxist’ way. Thus Trotsky in 1905 and in the History of the Russian Revolution characterised the tsarist regime as partly ‘Asiatic’: that is, pre-feudal. It was this characterisation, taken from the liberal historian Miliukov, which produced Pokrovsky’s polemics against Trotsky. Pokrovsky considered medieval late Rus and early Muscovy to be feudal. Following that judgment and Lenin’s Development of capitalism in Russia, he considered that Russia was going through a process of at least partly endogenous capitalist development, analogous in certain respects to the early stages of the development of capitalism in western Europe, dominated by merchant capital.6

There were practical implications of these divergent views. For Lenin before 1914, a transition to capitalism in Russia was not out of the question, but in process; the basic question for the working class was how to make that transition take the form most favourable to the working class, while the socialist revolution would be - separately - posed at an international level, mainly in western Europe. Trotsky’s views, in contrast, implied that a transition to full capitalism in Russia could not happen; hence, the overthrow of tsarism would necessarily pose the question of a socialist overleaping of capitalism in Russia.

Pokrovsky in 1908-11 had been with the Vpered faction and, though he had returned to the Bolsheviks in 1911, in 1914 had contributed to Trotsky’s Bor’ba.7 But in his arguments against Trotsky he was basically committed to Lenin’s view on this issue.

Before 1914 these differences had operative implications for programme and admissible coalitions, though in 1917 they were subsumed by Lenin’s and Trotsky’s agreement that imperialism and the war immediately posed the question of world revolution.

The debate between Trotsky and Pokrovsky is thus a variant small part of the debate on ‘permanent revolution’. This, in turn, is intimately connected to the general issue of the origin of the systematic inequality between nations which existed then and continues to exist today; and how to overcome it. Arguments about the origin of European (and more recently US) dominance have to go back at least to the middle ages, even if it is only, like Janet Abu-Lughod, to argue that the roots are no further back.8

In the second half of this review I will discuss these issues in a little more depth. However, whichever view is correct, the fundamental point remains. To understand the present and near future and how to act in relation to it we need to go back not merely to the recent past, but to locate the present as an outcome of longue durée history.


1. KO Morgan (ed) Oxford history of Britain Oxford 1999.
2. In Andre Gunder Frank’s case remained, since he died in 2005.
3. Except in Anglo-Saxon England, where the word for slave was wealh (Welsh).
4. Kagarlitsky does not, in fact, discuss the tsarist military failure in 1914-17 in any depth. But see, for example, RW Pethybridge The spread of the Russian Revolution London 1972.
5. For this purpose compare Kagarlitsky’s chapter 1 with C Wickham Framing the early middle ages Oxford 2005.
6. Pokrovsky’s later summary of his criticisms of Trotsky (1931) is in the appendix to volume 1 of his Brief history of Russia (Maine 1968); this summary is almost certainly obscured by the needs of Stalinist orthodoxy as of 1931. Trotsky’s response to Pokrovsky is in 1905, chapter 27: www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1907/1905/ch27.htm
7. Pokrovsky Brief history introduction, piv.
8. JL Abu-Lughod Before European hegemony: the world system AD 1250-1350 Oxford 1991.