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Russia, Then and Now

Achin Vanaik

By Boris Kagarlitsky
Pluto Press, 2008, pp. 364, price not stated.

VOLUME XXXII NUMBER 9 September 2008

Boris Kagarlitsky, one of Russia’s best known Marxist dissidents has written widely on a range of issues. His latest offering, one of his best, is a history of Russia (and the Soviet Union) that situates it firmly in a wider European and world framework. It marks a break from the two dominant traditions in Russian historiography—the Slavophiles and the westernizers-liberalizers—that see Russian history as either unique or anomalous. The former perceive a distinctive essence, even a ‘soul’ that explains Russia’s historical trajectory; the latter try to understand why Russia deviated from a European ‘norm’ and therefore how it can return to its truer moorings.   Kagarlitsky sees Mikhail Pokrovsky, one of the most important of Bolshevik historians (1868-1932) as providing the key analytical prism—the role of commercial capitalism—for understanding the evolution of Russian state and society. But this remains an incomplete theoretical foundation until it is combined with a form of World Systems analysis whose most important practitioners have been Ferdinand Braudel, Immanuel Wallerstein, Samir Amin and Andre Gunder Frank. Only then is it possible to understand why Russia’s comparative backwardness vis-à-vis the major European countries and its peripheral status has been reproduced across the centuries.   There is then to begin with, a major theoretical dispute here between Marxist thinkers and historians pertaining to the very understanding of capitalism as a historically emergent phenomenon. One approach (which includes World Systems theory) locates the rise of capitalism through the spread of commerce, towns, money and markets and the growing international division of labour that accompanies and promotes this. In contrast the school now most associated with the work of Robert Brenner and his admirers has insisted on the rise of a stable agrarian capitalism first in England through the transformation of rural production relations—a capitalism in one country whose subsequent industrial and economic success and competitive pressure forced other European rivals to carry out from above (by the state) measures which in some cases stimulated bourgeois revolutions from below (and a civil war in the US) so as to enable a comprehensive capitalist transformation and development of these countries. A more in-between position is held by Perry Anderson who talks of a ‘value-added’ process of capitalist development in Europe and the North Atlantic. Both these positions differ decisively from Kargalitsky who has nailed his flag firmly to the mast of World Systems analysis ...

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