|Labour as service in 18th and 19th century. A Russia-Europe comparison.|
|Since the 18th century at least, comparisons between Europe and Russia about labour conditions have been made as if the boundary between free and unfree labour was a-historically and universally defined. Free labour in the West is thus opposed to serf labour in Eastern Europe.
We aim to offer an alternative approach by including this comparison in a global intellectual and economic approach.
From the point of view of intellectual history, we will show that the invention of Eastern Europe, of serfdom and of backwardness is a part of a broader intellectual and political discussion in France and Great-Britain on the legal statute of labour. Discussions on Russian serfs are tightly linked with debates on slave labour and guild labour (in France) or with slave labour and master and servant acts in Britain. The idea of backwardness and political, juridical and economic reforms in Europe and its colonies are advanced in the light of the “Eastern Europe” experience.
However, these are not only intellectual debates. The legal-economic statute of labour is submitted to serious challenges at this time, in both Europe and Russia. In particular, we aim to show that in 18th and 19th century Europe, labour contracts were not those which are usually identified by economic and historical analysis. Labour was much closer to a service than to a free bargaining. Debates and litigations concerning the master and servant act in Britain and the louge d’ouvrage or louage de service in France will be evoked.
Quite the opposite, we will show that, unlike common beliefs in history, sociology and economics, in Russia a clear and formal serfdom rule was never adopted in law. Over a century and a half, we rather find a considerable number of rules defining limits to mobility in case of debt (as for workers in Europe) and rules defining who had the right to claim these rights or to be submitted to. The institutional definition of social groups (nobility, peasants, bourgeois, etc.) was the real stake of these rules.
In turn, this analyse will be completed by that on the using of these rules. Judicial sources put into evidence the way different groups, nobles, merchants, peasants, craftsmen used these rules and jurisprudence in order to solve litigation questions about free mobility. In the decades before the official abolition of what it was called, only after the 1840s, as “serfdom”, there were considerable shifts in the legal statutes of peasant population from private to state peasants, the late being free to move.