Thursday, August 24, 2017

Ibn Khaldoun and Nikolay Trubetskoy: nomads vs. sedentary populations

I recently read the translation of “The Legacy of Genghis Khan” by Nikolay Trubetskoy, famous Russian linguist, who is considered the founder of Euroasianism, an ideology currently experiencing a revival in some quasi-official circles in Russia. Alexander Dugin, an influential thinker, is a well-known admirer of Trubetskoy.

            I will not discuss here the ideology of Euroasianism which I do not know well, nor the entirety of Trubetskoy small, interesting, but in my opinion fundamentally misleading “Legacy…”  but will focus on  a contrast, that I am not aware has been made before, between Ibn Khaldoun and Trubetskoy. In fact, both Ibn Khaldoun and Trubetskoy address the relationship between nomadic and sedentary peoples but come to different conclusions where (to give my opinion away) Trubetskoy’s are vastly inferior to Ibn Khaldoun’s.

In Ibn Khaldoun’s “Prolegomena…” (published in 1377), the opposition was between the nomadic population of the desert, among which those that have so successfully conquered most of the Middle East and parts of Europe within a couple of centuries of Islam’s rise in the Arabian peninsula, and the sedentary populations.  As is well-known, Ibn Khaldoun’s view was that nomads, by their very way of life, are unable to create durable nomadic civilizations until they themselves get reabsorbed and “re-educated” by the sedentary peoples they have conquered. (Note that even the term “civilization” used in European languages comes from civitas, city, which of course is a feature of sedentary populations.)  It is only the  sedentary populations that are creators of arts, commerce and stable legal rules. The danger however is that nomadic populations are often militarily stronger since their way of life predisposes them to be braver and better warriors. Hence a danger permanently looms over the rather fragile fruits of human civilization.

Trubetskoy draws on the same contrast  in “Legacy…”, there made between Genghis  Khan’s Mongols and the sedentary and old civilizations of Persia, India and China that Genghis conquered before his descendants got reabsorbed into these culturally superior Asian civilizations. But for the Eurasian landmass (vaguely, from the center of today’s Ukraine to China), Trubetsoy’s conclusion is different. There he believes that Pax Mongolica created a superior form of governance, characterized by two key  features. First, reliance on the warrior class fully obedient to the hierarchical principles and not on the “inferior” human type of opportunistic and calculating servants. The former type is, according to Trubetskoy, characteristic of nomadic tribes and the latter of “civilized” sedentary cultures. Second, religious tolerance or religious syncretism that in many respects looks like the one practiced by Romans where religion as such was indispensable but the type of religion practiced was irrelevant. (In Gibbon’s famous words, different religions “were all considered by the people as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrate, as equally useful")

While Trubetskoy agrees with Ibn Khaldoun (only implicitly so since not a single author is mentioned in Trubetskoy’s small volume) that historical Asia was set back by Genghis Khan’s conquest, namely that “…Asia suffered damage because Mongol conquest, by taking some parts of Asia from their 'splendid isolation' and by breaking in from the outside into their historic way of life, arrested for a long time their cultural development”, he sharply disagrees that it was the case for the Eurasian space. There, the previous limited conflicts that existed between the sedentary states (the Kievan Rus, Khazar Kingdom and Khorezm are mentioned by Trubetskoy) and various nomadic peoples of the steppes were brought to an end with Genghis Khan’s unification of all these nomadic peoples under one rule and the formation of a huge, yet mobile, empire of Eurasia.

Genghis Khan is criticized for his ultimately unsuccessful and unnecessary forays into India and China, but is praised as the founder of a single political space of Eurasia (“a historical necessity” as Trubetskoy writes). The Russian state is then seen by Trubetskoy as the rightful historical heir of that single Eurasian political entity created in the 12th century. All Russian problems, from Peter the Great to Lenin, are explained away by Russia’s failure to live up to that mission and wrong-headed desire to get “Europeanized”.   

As I wrote in the beginning I will leave aside this noxious and rather implausible narrative of Trubetsoy’s (which is not devoid of some interesting insights) to underline the sheer implausibility of regarding a nomadic empire as capable of creating sustainable commercial, artistic and law-abiding state. Trubetskoy agrees with Ibn Khaldoun that such a role could not be fulfilled by nomads in regards to ancient Asian civilizations, but then turns around and suggests that it was with regard to Eurasian steppes.  

The implausibility of Trubetsoy’s argument is not shown only by this duality but also by the absence of any discussion of a way in which the Golden Horde was presumably able to advance progress. We are not given any realistic description of its modus operandi, nor any clam to its superiority in the matters of governmental, nor bizarrely, even in the matters of military organization. One gets the impression that the whole edifice was built on random use of force that eventually had to peter out since there was neither technological development nor cultural or ideological superiority to sustain it.

Trubetskoy’s encomium of a nomadic empire appears empty and the suggestion that Russia should find its world role as inheritor of such an empire makes sense only in a geographical sense since the Russia of the past two centuries is contained within the area circumscribed by the Mongol empire, but is substantively meaningless. Nothing shows better how meaningless it is than lack of encouragement to economic and political advancement that, as Ibn Khaldoun pointed out more than seven centuries ago, is immanent to all nomadic empires.

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