Book Review: Peter Kolchin’s Unfree Labor
Peter Kolchin’s Unfree Labor (Amazon) compares the systems of American slavery and Russian serfdom. Kolchin’s argument is compelling and has been widely accepted and regarded among his fellow historians.
Kolchin recognizes that at the time of the adoption of the labor systems of slavery and serfdom, both the United States and Russia were experiencing periods of agricultural growth. Kolchin works from the premise that a key ingredient to the development and continued existence of forced labor is low population density in a region, although the theory has been contested. While this circumstance existed in both Russia and the United States, there have been plenty of societies with low population densities in which unfree labor systems did not develop.
Kolchin sees American slavery as a more imposing and restrictive system than Russian serfdom. He does show, however, that enslaved Africans often found themselves better cared for than Russian serfs because slave owners viewed the slaves as investments. Unfree Labor states that both systems were headed toward their demise by the turn of the eighteenth century, but more for ideological than economic reasons. Both systems were inherently un-capitalistic and were becoming viewed as antiquarian in light of modernization, though Kolchin sees serfdom as quasi-capitalistic because its intentions were less commercial than slavery’s.
Unfree Labor concludes that although the institutions of slavery and serfdom were removed with relative ease, their influence and consequences resounded for decades. Kolchin’s was a very informative and interesting work in comparative history. His is an example that other historians can follow.