Though Nikolai Trubetzkoy (1890-1938) remains more famous for his contributions to the field of linguistics, his other great achievement was as one of the founding fathers of the Eurasian movement. Riding on the dark wave of disillusionment sweeping the world in the wake of the First World War, he penned the seminal essay Europe and Man in 1920 while teaching at the University of Sofia. You can read Европа и человечество in Russian at the given site (unfortunately I could not find an online English translation).
Which is a pity, because much of what he predicted really did transpire during the 20th C and remains as relevant as ever today. In my opinion, every Kremlinologist, every “Russia-watcher” and indeed every Russian should read it. This was one of the first modern works to seriously question whether Western civilization, or “Europe”, is the culmination of “historical progress” (the other major contemporary challenge was Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West). In this post I will present his arguments and draw on historical hindsight to confirm the historical validity of his theory.
First, Trubetzkoy asks, “Is it possible to prove objectively that the culture of the contemporary Germano-Romans is more advanced than all other cultures that exist or have existed on earth?”
European Cosmopolitanism as Romano-Germanic Chauvinism
The concept of “advanced” implies a belief in a “linear history”, along which “progress” is supposed to occur and culminate in some kind of end-point like “universal human civilization”. Yet according to Trubetzkoy, this entire ideology is nothing more than a product of a fusion of the experience of several Celtic and Germanic tribes and their interactions with Latin culture. In other words, the typical “European cosmopolitan” does not morally differ from the Prussian nationalist or the pan-German activist, in so far as the object of his chauvinism merely encompasses a larger human grouping, i.e. that of the Romano-Germans. The biggest difference is that unlike the narrow ethnic chauvinisms of parochial, chest-thumping European nationalists, this “Romano-Germanic chauvinism” insidiously cloaks itself in the banner of universality – the easier to draw in converts from non-European civilizations.
Instead, the idea of European civilization as the apogee of historical progress stems from the egocentricity that is common to all humanity, which can express itself in adulation of oneself, one family’s, one’s province, one’s country and in the European case especially – one’s entire civilization. Yet this linear view of history suffers from a fundamental logical contradiction:
We have already noted that acceptance of Romano-Germanic culture as the most perfect of all historical cultures is rooted in the psychology of egocentricity. In Europe the notion of the absolute superiority of European civilization is viewed as a fundamental principle which has been established more or less scientifically. But the scientific nature of the proof is illusory, since the understanding of evolution present in European ethnology, anthropology, and the history of culture is itself permeated with egocentricity. Concepts such as the “evolutionary scale” and “stages of development” are all thoroughly egocentric…
Even if we acknowledge that this conception of the relationship between reality and evolution is correct, we still will not be able to reconstruct the evolutionary process. To ascertain which evolutionary phase is represented by any given culture, we need to know where both ends of the straight line of world progress are located. Only then would it be possible to measure the distance separating a given culture from both ends of the scale and to determine its place in the evolutionary scheme. But we cannot locate those beginning and end points without first reconstructing the evolutionary scheme. The result is a vicious circle: to reconstruct the evolutionary scheme, we must know its beginning and end points, and to ascertain its beginning and end points, we must reconstruct the evolutionary scheme. The only way out of it is to discover in some suprascientific, irrational way that some particular culture is the beginning or end point of evolution.
Trubetzkoy then refutes a few other common arguments given as evidence of Europe’s superiority over all the other cultures of the Earth.
Why Europe is not the End of History
1) The Argument from Self-Evidence. This is a simple logical fallacy – what is self-evident to you, may not be self-evident to me. There are many examples of “savages” (yes, Trubetzkoy puts apostrophes round the world in a fascinatingly modern, PC-ish way) freely rejecting Western civilization and going back to their traditional ways of life.
2) The Argument from Military Superiority. Not only is this rather crude – after all, aren’t advanced Europeans supposed to eschew coercive violence? – but there are many historical examples in which ostensibly primitive nomadic societies destroyed great civilizations. All the civilizations of antiquity were ultimately extinguished by barbarians, including the Greco-Roman world that figures so prominently in European dreams of universal empire.
3) The Argument from Childishness / Bestiality of “Savages”. Since most Europeans depict “savages” as either childish or bestial, this implies that they are at a lower stage of cultural development. However, Trubetzkoy shows this argument goes both ways. Basically, when two radically different cultures meet, their acquired traits are so different as to be horrifying, or hilariously, mutually incomprehensible. The only qualities they are able to recognize in the Other are inherited traits, i.e. those that all mammals and all children possess.
This is why when two radically different cultures encounter each other, their perceptions of the Other will range from viewing them as children, deserving of patience and benevolence, to viewing them as animals, deserving of enslavement or extermination. (It is interesting to note that during American consultations with former Wehrmacht officers after the Second World War, when the US was planning for a third with the Soviet Union, the Germans frequently described Russian soldiers in terms including irresponsible, lazy, cruel, bestial, morose, instinctual, etc, i.e. undeveloped humans / animals with no civilization).
Trubetzkoy also pointed out that even in some highly-stratified societies, different classes also have great difficulties in understanding each other’s habits, and instead tend to simply their behavior to a mix of mammalian and childish characteristics from their intrinsic sense of egocentricity. This happens especially often in civilizations where there is a great cultural rift between social classes, e.g. in Tsarist Russia between the Europeanized, French-speaking aristocracy and the Russian peasantry.
4) The Argument from Intelligence. Again, this is an egocentric argument which offers only a narrow definition of “intelligence”, based on one’s suitability for living in an industrial civilization (hence qualities like logic, numeracy and literacy are emphasized). However, the “savage” doesn’t need any of this nonsense. As long as a hunter-gatherer possesses all the qualities that his tribe values – excellent hunting and observation skills surpassing those of the most able European hunters, remembrance of the tribe’s vast repository of folklore, from social customs to botanical knowledge, etc – then he is as fit for his purpose, surviving in a natural environment, as any European is adept at surviving in his industrial environment. And that is all that matters.
Trubetzkoy concludes that there can be no objective proof of the superiority of Europeans over any other world culture, including that of its myriad “savage” tribes, because they rely only on one arbitrary, egocentric criterion when comparing various cultures to one another: ” What resembles us is better and more perfect than anything that does not resemble us… Rather than a ladder we obtain a horizontal plane; rather than the principle of arranging peoples and cultures according to degrees of perfection, we obtain a new principle of the equal worth and qualitative incommensurability of the cultures and peoples on this earth”. As such, Trubetzkoy answers the first question in the negative.
The Impossibility of Assimilation without Annihilation
Second, he asks: “Is it possible for any nation to assimilate in toto a culture created by another nation?”
Here he draws on the work of the French sociologist Gabriel Tarde, who argued that all cultures are defined by “the uninterrupted emergence of new cultural assets” – legal codes, political structures, scientific ideas, artistic styles, etc. These cultural assets accrue by way of two sources – invention, which is the product of the indigenous culture, and propagation, which is imitation of other cultures. When newer cultural assets clash with older, more established cultural assets, there ensues an ideological duel logique for supremacy.
This struggle goes more smoothly when the cultural asset is acquired through invention, because it is a product of the indigenous culture and can therefore more easily reach a synthesis with older cultural values; whereas propagation, stemming from a foreign culture, requires the forcible repression of contradictory elements of the indigenous culture. And even when propagation is successful, the older cultural elements still remain embedded deep below in the collective spirit of that civilization, making complete assimilation with the foreign culture a quixotic endeavor.
Not that assimilation is impossible – but that would require a full-scale “anthropological merger”, much like how the Prussians merged into Germany, the Hyksos into Egypt or the Manchus into China, or indeed how a scattering of Slavic, Finno-Ugric and Turkic tribes merged into what would become a united Russia. But for all practical purposes, the answer to the second question is again in the negative – full assimilation into a foreign culture is impossible for a nation without its degradation into mere “ethnographic material”, i.e. loss of all prior forms of cultural identity.
Westernization is a Sisyphean Endeavor
Trubetzkoy’s third question is: “Is the assimilation of European culture good or bad?” He begins by pointing out that though the non-assimilated Europeanized nation (or what Samuel Huntington calls a “torn” country – prime examples include Russia, Japan and Turkey) will have a higher number of cultural assets and hence a higher number of potential cultural inventions than the typical Romano-Germanic nation, these potentialities will never be realized since most will perish in the conflict with older, indigenous values.
Most inventions perish in mutual conflict with or in clashes with the older cultural assets they oppose; and the greater the number of potential inventions, the longer and more bitter will be the struggle for recognition (Tarde’s duel logique). It turns out that the cultural work of a Europeanized nation is carried out in conditions far less favorable than in those found in a native Romano-Germanic nation. The former must grope about in various directions, spending its energies on efforts to coordinate elements from two diverse cultures, efforts that for the most part lead to nothing; it must seek out homologous elements in the store of assets from two cultures, while a native Romano-Germanic nation moves along a well-worn path, looking neither to the right nor left and concentrating its efforts on the coordination of elements from a single culture – homogeneous elements bearing the familiar stamp of its own national character.
This results in a very limited cultural output due to contradictions between indigenous and Western influences. Furthermore, not only is Westernization “extremely difficult and hemmed in by obstacles”, but is also a “thankless undertaking”, since all indigenous inventions, as well as most mixtures of Romano-Germanic and indigenous traditions, will be rejected by Europe because of their taint-by-association with non-European values.
One consequence of this is that a Westernizing nation “borrows its evaluation of culture from the Romano-Germans”. Cultural imports will always exceed cultural exports, creating a dependency relationship. And these cultural imports must always be implemented, regardless of how jarring or unwholesome is the resultant clash with indigenous traditions – “it must accept without protest everything that genuine Romano-Germans create and consider valuable, even if it conflicts with its national psychology and is poorly understood”. (This basically defines Russia’s unsuccessful attempts to create a Western free-market economy in the early 1990’s, which was carried out by ideologues and hijacked by insiders).
This has several very deleterious consequences. First, national unity degrades and there arise intense class conflicts and genealogical struggles in the Westernizing nations because of the big differences between various social groups in their degree of Westernization – “social, material and professional differences are much greater in Europeanized nations than in Romano-Germanic nations precisely because ethnographic and cultural distinctions have been added to them”. (Again, one could cite as an example the culturally ultra-stratified Tsarist class system).
The destruction of national unity and belief in oneself leads to a national inferiority complex – because the standard of comparison is with the West, and because the Europeanized nation is in a constant state of cultural backwardness, this results in low levels of social morale and lack of patriotism. The unfortunate nation is either dominated by, or is forced to take up a subordinate, dependent position relative to the Romano-Germanic nations – even though the latter aren’t really as good or talented as they present themselves:
Any nation that does not reject its “backwardness” quickly falls prey to some neighboring or distant Romano-Germanic nation, which then deprives this “backward member of the family of civilization nations” of its economic, and later its political, independence; it begins to exploit its prey shamelessly, bleeds it white, and transforms it into “ethnographic material”. But the nation that wishes to struggle against the law of eternal backwardness confronts an equally unhappy fate. To guard itself against threats from abroad, a “backward” Europeanized nation must maintain parity with the Romano-Germanic nations, at least in its military and industrial technology. But since… a Europeanized nation is unable to to innovate as rapidly in this area as native Romano-Germans, it must generally restrict itself to borrowing and imitating foreign inventions. Its backwardness continues to exist even in the area of technology. But in this case, despite certain chronic delays, the technical level is more or less uniform, and the difference from the Romano-Germanic consists rather in the lower intensity of industrial activity.
Not only do intense attempts to catch up with the West result in permanent, self-reinforcing backwardness (because their powers of indigenous innovation are hemmed in by structural obstacles, hence their forced spiritual dependency on the West), but they are also looked down upon by Westerners – either a) for not Europeanizing far enough, or b) deceitfully repressing their “true nature” under a European veneer. As an example of the latter, George Kennan in his The Marquis de Custine and his Russia in 1839 (1971) quotes the 19th century French travel writer and famous “Russophobe”:
I don’t reproach the Russians for being what they are; what I blame them for is their desire to appear to be what we [Europeans] are… They are much less interested in being civilized then in making us believe them so… They would be quite content to be in effect more awful and barbaric than they actually are, if only others could thereby be made to believe them better and more civilized.
This simultaneous outreach towards the West, and the West’s rejection of it, evokes a tendency in the Europeanized nation to sporadically overcompensate by making leaps into the future in Sisyphean attempts to overtake the West, but this only leads to exhaustion and long periods of stagnation.
The Marquis de Custine and his Russia in 1839 (G. Kennan, 1971) quotes the19th century French travel
writer: “I don’t reproach the Russians for being what they are; what I blame them for is their desire to
appear to be what we [Europeans] are… They are much less interested in being civilized then in
making us believe them so… They would be quite content to be in effect more awful and barbaric than
they actually are, if only others could thereby be made to believe them better and more civilized.”
Europeanized nations, finding it impossible to keep pace with the Romano-Germans and so gradually falling behind, try to catch up from time to time by attempting long leaps. Such leaps distort the entire course of historical development. A nation must cover very quickly a distance that the Romano-Germans covered gradually and over a much longer period of time. It must skip several historical rungs and create overnight, ex abrupto, what arose in Romano-Germanic nations as a result of a “series of historical changes”. The consequences of such “leaping” evolution are terrible. Every leap is followed by a period of apparent (from the European standpoint) stagnation, when it is necessary to bring order to the culture, to coordinate the results achieved by a leap in a particular area with other elements of the culture. During this period of “stagnation”, the nation again falls even farther behind. The histories of Europeanized nations are always characterized by brief periods of apparent “progress”, alternating with more or less protracted periods of “stagnation”. In destroying the wholeness and the unbroken incrementalism of the historical process, such historical leaps also disrupt tradition, which is already fragile in a Europeanized nation.
Let us emphasize: unbroken tradition is a prerequisite for normal evolution. Leaps and jumps create a temporary illusion that the “common European level of civilization” has been achieved, but they cannot advance a nation in the true sense of the word. Leaping evolution wastes national energies, which are already overburdened owing to the very existence of Europeanization. Just as a person who, in trying to keep pace with a speedier companion, will become exhausted and collapse after resorting to long jumps to catch up, so a Europeanized nation will perish after choosing such an evolutionary path and squandering there its national energies. And all of this will happen while faith in oneself is lost, and without the sustaining sense of national unity which was destroyed long before by the fact of Europeanization.
Using Russia as an example, the red Bolsheviks – as well as their rabidly free-market, pro-Western Bolshevik descendants, the Russian liberals – are excellent illustrations of this entire phenomenon. Both tried their best to leap into the future of the West, which was perceived to be socialism in 1918, and free-market utopia in 1991 – yet both failed and were destined to fail because of the deep conflict between these Western values and indigenous Russian traditions. After a traumatic time of troubles, the contradictions were finally resolved in both cases: Stalin by returning Russia to its autarkic, authoritarian past-and-future within a socialist framework, and Putin by melding Tsarist and Soviet traditions with select borrowings from Western economic and political thinking. In both cases, the apostles of Westernization – the old Bolsheviks and the free-market Bolsheviks – were politically purged.
The Tragic Inevitability of Westernization
Yet although assimilation is impossible without a full anthropological merger, it is structurally impossible to refrain from trying to Westernize, in a tragic, Sisyphean manner. Either you slip into backwardness and come under Western colonial domination – or you acquire its military technology, industrial technics and the socio-political setup needed to maintain them – and thus paradoxically, you become even more “Western”, than what you tried so hard to prevent!
Whenever Europeans encounter a non-Romano-Germanic nation, they bring to it their goods and their guns. If the nation shows no resistance, the Europeans conquer it, making it a colony, and Europeanize it by force. If the nation considers resisting, then it must acquire guns and the latest European technology. To do this, it is necessary to have factories and plants and to master the European applied sciences. But factories are inconceivable without the European socio-political order, and the applied sciences are unthinkable without the pure sciences. Consequently, in order to resist Europeans, a nation must assimilate contemporary Romano-Germanic civilization in its entirety and succumb to Europeanization voluntarily. To resist or not to resist – in both instances, Europeanization appears unavoidable.
What is to be Done?
Trubetzkoy emphasizes that socialism is just the latest expression of egocentric European pretensions to universality, rather than the road to salvation from European spiritual tyranny. As it relies on “militant cosmopolitanism” for its propagation, global socialism is only possible in the context of “universal Europeanization”.
Once such a new world order is created, its champions will have to remain “armed to the teeth” to protect it – “The first order of business for the European socialist states would be to impose this system everywhere by fire and sword and then to exercise great vigilance to prevent apostasy”. The class system will not wither away; instead, a new stratification will appear based on professions, which will again be more pronounced among the Europeanized peoples than amongst the Romano-Germanic world.
This prediction of his seems to have been borne out by reality. The Soviet Union possessed a structurally militarized economy from the late 1930’s, and true to form, a new class system did indeed set in, especially during the era of stagnation (zastoi) from the 1960’s – in itself, yet another phenomenon he accurately predicted would follow in the ebbing of the revolutionary spirit. And ironically, the Germans – the modern progenitors of linear history from Hegel to Marx – made much better socialists than Russians. The German Democratic Republic was the richest and perhaps the least corrupt of all the nations in the socialist bloc, and even today many East Germans pine for its return.
Trubetzkoy in the end suggests careful borrowing of certain aspects of Western culture and the creation of a global bloc to combat European cultural imperialism as the solution to sufferings of the Rest under the domination of the West.
… One of the principal conditions for the inevitability of Europeanization is the egocentricity that permeated Romano-Germanic culture. One cannot expect that they will correct this fatal flaw themselves, but Europeanized non-Romano-Germanic peoples can purge European culture of egocentricity entirely during the process of assimilation.
This means that a) the intelligentsia of non-Romano-Germanic nations must realize, at an instinctual level, that Europe is no universal utopia, nor is it desirable to discard their own cultures in the service of a European chauvinism masquerading under the cloak of “world progress”, “end of history” and other lofty concepts, and b) if they do that, then Western imports “no longer have the detrimental effects discussed above and will actually enrich their national culture”.
Saying this is much easier than implementing it in practice, as Trubetzkoy himself points out. According to him, the elites of many non-European nations fell under the “hypnotism of Romano-Germanic egocentricity”, and while they originally planned only to acquire the most essential things (foremost, military-industrial technologies), with time they became seduced by the false gods of the West and succumbed to it (the преклонение перед западом, or “kneeling before the West”, that Soviet ideologues warned against).
For instance, though Peter the Great initially wanted to acquire only military and naval technologies from the “Germans” (AK: at the time, all Western Europeans were called “Germans” in Russia), he eventually got too carried away, even though “nonetheless, he realized that sooner or later Russia would acquire everything she needed from Europe and that she should then turn her back and develop her culture freely without trying to emulate the West”. But his vision was forsaken after his death, and the rest of the Tsarist age was taken up by the “demeaning aping of Europe”. He points out that Japan since the Meiji Restoration experienced a similar process of cultural submission to the West.
However, he is adamant that whatever the difficulties, the struggle must continue – “Compromises must be ruled out: If it’s to be war, then let it be war.”
Without the support of Europeanized peoples, the Romano-Germans will not be able to continue the spiritual enslavement of the whole world. Quite simply, upon realizing its mistake, the intelligentsia of Europeanized nations will not only stop helping the Romano-Germans, but it will try to thwart them, at the same time opening the eyes of other peoples to the true nature of the “benefits of civilization.
In this great and difficult work to liberate the world from spiritual slavery and from the hypnosis of the “benefits of civilization”, the intelligentsia of all the non-Romano-Germanic nations that have set out on the path to Europeanization or are planning to do so must act together in the spirit of full cooperation and agreement. They must never lose sight of the true problem and not be distracted by nationalism or by partial, local solutions such as Pan-Slavism and other “pan-isms”. One must always remember that setting up an opposition between the Slavs and the Teutons or the Turanians and the Aryans will not solve the problem. There is only one true opposition: the Romano-Germans and all the other peoples of the world – Europe and Mankind.
The entire world today has rejected insularity and backwardness. It is also increasingly rejecting the West – though Stalinist Russia was the initial spearhead of the reaction of the Rest, the anti-Western revolution is now more global more mature, more embedded, its clearest manifestation being in the rising economic, military and cultural power of the BRIC nations (Brazil, Russia, India, China). Nearly a century hence, and Trubetzkoy’s vision of a World Without the West is slowly, almost stealthily, coming into fruition.