Valuable but flawed

Issue: 119

Mike Haynes

Boris Kagarlitsky, Empire of the Periphery: Russia and the World System, (Pluto, 2008), £40

Boris Kagarlitsky is a prolific commentator on modern Russia who has also written on wider trends in global capitalism. It is impossible to read a book by him without learning something, and Empire of the Periphery: Russia and the World System is one of his best. It is also impossible to read a book by him and not be frustrated and irritated as wrong turns are taken, loose ends left untied and contradictions unresolved.

First, the good stuff. Kagarlitsky’s aim is to write an economic and social history of Russia locating it as a peripheral state in the global system. Starting with the formation of an embryonic Russian state in the early Middle Ages, Kagarlitsky takes us through a thousand years of history drawing on some of the best historians of Russian history. His aim—more challenging to a Russian reader than to one in the West—is to undermine both positive and negative claims about Russia’s unique position or nature. Anyone unfamiliar with the history of Russia will find this a readable account; anyone familiar with it will still learn some valuable things.

More, Kagarlitsky tries to situate this history in a theoretical framework formed out of three major elements. The first is the sense of capitalism as a global system where he links “world system analysis” and more traditional Marxist accounts.

The second, for which we should also be grateful, is a long overdue recognition of the achievements of the great Marxist historian of Russia, Mikhail Pokrovsky (1868-1932). Pokrovsky died before the final consolidation of Stalinism but was an early posthumous victim as his body of work was systematically rubbished and then ignored by a lesser generation of propagandists. In fact Pokrovksy was a brilliant historian and a committed revolutionary, a researcher, writer and Bolshevik. Some readers will know of his work through an appendix in Leon Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution where Trotsky takes issue with some of his ideas. But the depth of Pokrovsky’s achievement needs to be judged from his whole work, parts of which are available in translation (if often neglected and indifferent ones).

The third element of the Kagarlitsky schema is the idea of the Russian economist and Stalin victim Nikolai Kondratiev (1892-1938) that capitalist development takes the form of long cycles of growth and stagnation, overlaid on which is the normal economic cycle.

It is at this point, however, that the frustrations set in. Kondratiev, after the introduction, barely gets a look in. This is perhaps just as well, given the uncertain state of discussion of his long-wave theory. No one doubts that capitalist growth is uneven. But no one has convincingly shown that this unevenness is cyclical or that a mechanism could exist that adequately explains it.

But this is a lesser issue. The big one is how Kagarlitsky deals with capitalism as a global system and Russia’s role within it. Kagarlitsky writes too often from the inside, Russia, looking out at the whole world system. The evolution of the global economy and the way that it generates a range of semi-peripheral and peripheral forms (and for that matter advanced ones too), of which Russia’s experience was and is one, is less convincingly sketched.

Kagalitsky does not have a strong enough theoretical framework to understand the global economy and its forms. This includes, most importantly, the role of the state. He correctly argues that writers such as Immanuel Wallerstein and Andre Gunder Frank often stumble because of the lack of a strong political economy focused on production. But Kagarlitsky too does not address the real debates about how far we should take the argument that capitalism can only exist as a global economy. Indeed towards the end of the book he retreats from some of the important arguments made by Wallerstein.

Wallerstein’s work, despite its problems, is attractive because of the power of his claim that capitalism is a global system with a global history. What it needs is a clearer account of the way that different forms of competition—market, state, military, etc—operate and a better grasp of the role of the state including a proper confrontation with the idea of state capitalism. This is not only a question of Russia (and its satellites in the Soviet era) but also of what happens in, for example, capitalist war economies.

Yet in a long footnote Kagarlitsky notes that Wallerstein argues that the USSR remained part of the capitalist world system throughout and that, whatever its internal form, it has to be considered as part of the capitalist world. This is not the place to evaluate this argument (or Kagalitsky’s summary of it), save to say that readers of this journal would argue that it is a fudge to imply “of capitalism, in capitalism but not capitalism”. The problem is that Kagarlitsky will not even go as far as this. He argues that Russia effectively dropped out of the capitalist global economy in the 20th century. The reason is that it ceased to be part of the international division of labour (at least until the 1970s).

Reducing global capitalism to a market imposed division of labour unthinkingly replays older claims about capitalism. Do capitalism and the determining force of the capitalist global system really cease to exist when the international division of labour is suspended (as in war) or countries try to control and limit it (state-led development)?

In a book of history we should not expect too much theory but when Kagarlitsky retreats in this way from a central claim of the book he surely needs to tell us rather more positively what Russia was between the revolution and the 1980s? No less, if it was separated from the capitalist world system did it, as was claimed in Stalin’s time, exist as part of an alternative non-capitalist world system?

In Kagarlitsky’s analysis we cannot even be sure when capitalism was abolished because he notes that in the 1920s Russian development was more heavily affected by the international division of labour than in the 1930s. Then, from the 1970s, it was on the way to becoming part of it again, a position that was finally realised in the 1990s. But even then his account remains uncertain, for he claims that in the late 1990s parts of the system were still not integrated (are they now?).

This is not only theoretically confusing but politically confusing too. What is the enemy in Russia, and where do we look for it? The lack of clarity in the argument means that politically it can be made to appeal as all things to all people, which is no doubt part of its attraction.

Kagarlitsky also puts too much emphasis on Russia’s peripheral status. The account would have been more nuanced had he dealt more with the idea of Russia as part of the semi-periphery, and taken seriously the question of uneven and combined development. Russia is not a peripheral Third World state. It was not a Third World state in 1914. It is not one today, despite an offhand comparison with Zimbabwe.

Overall Kagarlitsky’s historical journey is fascinating. The long period under discussion allows him to draw some striking comparisons in his final chapter on modern Russia: the restoration of agricultural exports in a country of malnutrition, once a characteristic of the 19th century; the collapse of the livestock herd in the countryside, once seen as unique consequence of collectivisation; surviving on a sea of oil, once seen as the Achilles heel of the Brezhnev regime; and so on. However his implicit theoretical journey is much less convincing. But the fact that, like the Russian economy, this mixture is uneven should not prevent readers interested in Russia and arguments about its past, present and future learning from this book.