Ethnogenesis in America

I’ve just finished reading Lev Gumilev’s Ethnogenesis and the Biosphere (which, for those of you who don’t know, is an influential work in neo-Eurasianist thought). It certainly isn’t light reading, and is more than a little odd. The idea that ethnic groups (ethnoi) are a product of an upsurge of people who have a mutation giving them a greater capacity to convert energy into work (passionarnost’) is weird enough. The idea that this energy comes from the animate matter of the ‘biosphere’ and also from some sort of mysterious and undefined ‘cosmic radiation’ is downright kooky. At least old Lev was smart enough to realize that the ‘noosphere’ [derived from the Greek word ‘nous’, meaning mind] was a load of nonsense, but otherwise I can’t say that he convinced me of his theories. I sympathize with those who think that they’re pseudo-scientific gobbledegook. Yet, looking at the United States, I can’t help wondering if there isn’t something to the theories after all.

An ethnos, Gumilev said, is not a social-economic phenomenon as described in Marxist theory. Nor is it a racial, or a cultural, or a territorial phenomenon. Nor is it, as Benedict Anderson has said of nationality, an ‘imagined community’. Ethnoi are very real, according to Gumilev, and what distinguishes one from another is that they all have different ‘behavioural stereotypes.’ Everyone except a newborn baby has an ethnos, wrote Gumilev, because everybody behaves in some way. How he or she behaves determines what ethnos he or she belongs to.

According to Gumilev, behavioural stereotypes are a product of adaptation to the physical landscape. Although he never said this, one could regard big cities as a type of landscape. The modern city has required adaptation which in turn has created new behavioural stereotypes. In other words, there has been a process of ethnogenesis which has led to the emergence of a new ethnos in the cities alongside the existing one in the rest of the country.

This model actually fits the United States, which in Gumilevian terms contains not one ethnos but two. Ethnos 1 lives in the big cities, and behaves one way; ethnos 2 lives in the smaller towns and the countryside, and behaves another way. If two ethnoi have sufficient ‘complementarity’ (another Gumilevian term) they can form a ‘superethnos’. To do so, they must share what Gumilev called a ‘dominant’ – that is some ideal which can be given verbal expression. The two American ethnoi, however, appear to increasingly lack either complementarity or a dominant. Consequently, the American superethnos is disintegrating.

In Gumilev’s theory, the rise and decline of ethnoi is not a constant; the graph has numerous peaks and troughs. Perhaps an unexpected shower of cosmic radiation will generate a great ‘passionary’ who will revitalize the American superethnos. Or perhaps the two American ethnoi will each throw up their own passionaries who will accelerate the process by which the two Americas become distinguished from one another. Or then again, the whole thing might just be a load of pseudo-scientific hogwash after all.

10 thoughts on “Ethnogenesis in America”

  1. Among Russian historians Gumilev has a terrible reputation:

    “from the Soviet era were still alive and passion for the “simple all-explaining” theory, an example of which – theory of L. N. Gumilev, very popular among Amateurs. Theory of L. N. Gumilev have repeatedly been analyzed by scientists, who consistently come to conclusions about their complete failure. The works of L. N. Goumilev not quoted (or even almost not mentioned) by professional Orientalists. Proponents of Gumilev are not a scientific school, but rather something like a religious sect. So to write another refutation makes no sense, faith is useless to argue. But of course, we must warn the reader…. ”


  2. “According to Gumilev, behavioural stereotypes are a product of adaptation to the physical landscape.”

    I don’t think this is all that different from the marxist view: being determines consciousness. And the word ‘physical’ indicates materialistic (marxist) angle.

    I agree that the urban-suburban-rural categorization is the most meaningful (in politics), but perhaps describing these categories as “ethnoi” confuses and mystifies more than enlightens…


    1. “I don’t think this is all that different from the marxist view: being determines consciousness. And the word ‘physical’ indicates materialistic (marxist) angle. ”

      Gumilev created a strange theory. But this theory is absolutely not Marxist. Gumilev”s Predecessors – Spengler and Toynbee, not Marx


  3. There are great many things by Gumilev that actually make sense – why not focus on them instead? E.g. – his theory about the results of “mxing”. In the end, when you try to get a “gestalt”, a “common value” etc of two essences (ethnoses in this case) you end up with not an equally important and valuable new thing but with a “pathcwork monster” akin to chimera in the end.

    Gumilev was too generorus here – or too poetic. There is a real life example of the thing which results from that. It’s called the “mule” – an infertile offspring of horse and donkey,

    American melting pot was/still is all about industrial production of the mules.


  4. I think the main difference between what Paul R calls Ethnos 1 and Ethnos 2 is that the cities that represent Ethnos 1 are mostly coastal cities that have easier access to the outside world, whether through better transport hubs like airports, border gates or ports, and so the people living in Ethnos 1 are more likely to be migrants or to have contact with migrants and have a wider worldview as a result. To put it simply, Ethnos 1 is cosmopolitan and Ethnos 2 is provincial or insular. How this happened could have been the result of US national policies over the decades aimed at keeping the bulk of the American population insulated from the outside world. No need for Gumilev’s theory of behavioural stereotypes. There is one huge hole in it anyway: how would he explain that someone growing up in Arkansas hillbilly country ends up behaving (and maybe voting) the same as someone in West Virginia coal-mining country? – the two environments are different yet the individuals and their communities might behave much alike.


  5. You need to put things into some context. The theory about mutation and cosmic radiation was interesting even to serious biologists at the time of its creation. And on the other hand Gumilev himself was highly doubtful of it in the end of his life. This whole thing is just a desire of a positivist to have a definitive explanation.

    What matters most about Gumilev are his ideas about ethnoi. How they come about, what defines them and how they interact. I do believe that generally he got it right. And his high point and high point of his theories is not “Ethnogenesis” but so-called “steppe trilogy”. “Hunnu”, “Hunnu in China” (my personal favorite), “Ancient Turks” and “In search of Imagined Kingdom” (could be mistaken last one with another book). Those are really great books.

    Another problem is Gumilev writing about Russian history. He came to it late and made rather a fool of himself in this field. But he is influential even there and for a good reason.


  6. I think there’s a further layer of complexity that’s deepening the divisions between the “two Americas”. In addition to their head-on clash with each other, both are suffering simultaneously from a sort of identity crisis. “Red state America” has traditionally been characterized by a firm adherence to American civic religion, a blend of Christianity, social conservatism, militarism and American exceptionalism. The George W. Bush presidency caused huge damage to this ideological framework by discrediting American exceptionalism and militarism and marginalizing social conservatism, while doing nothing to allay Red state fears regarding illegal immigration. The result was the defensive and nativist turn we’ve seen recently. The Red states no longer know what they’re for, but they certainly know what they’re afraid of.
    Blue State America saw its most confident period in the Clinton presidency. A coastal cosmopolitan culture that showed its progressivism by verbal adherence to vaguely “leftish” positions coexisted with an increasingly ruthless meritocracy in practice (thus the ease with which the party of the working people could launch a frontal attack on the poor and the party of the Civil rights movement could preside over the greatest mass incarceration of black men in recent American history). A contradictory synthesis like this was bound to fray at the seams sooner rather than later. Rather than two Americas, we’re looking at a situation with at least 4


    1. “…showed its progressivism by verbal adherence to vaguely “leftish” positions coexisted with an increasingly ruthless meritocracy in practice”

      Their “leftish” (not at all, imo) position is exactly based on meritocracy. Their main (and only?) complaint is that the ‘deserving’ individuals in the disadvantaged groups (by race, gender, sex orientation, etc.) are not being recognized according to their true abilities. And that causes inefficiency, which is unacceptable.

      As long as the ‘deserving’ black/female/lgbt individuals are serving on the boards of directors and political committees in equal proportion, liberals don’t care at all if the ‘undeserving’ ones rot in the ghetto (also as a race/gender-balanced group, obviously). It’s the quintessential capitalist demand for the most efficient utilization of “human capital”.


  7. Well, in accordance with Gumilev’s ideas, the city dwelling, cosmopolitan population would not be cathegorized as an ethnos but as an ethnic chimera (a kind of unnatural conglomerate of ethnoi living together). According to Gumilev chimeras ultimately never led to anything good for actual ethnoi and eventually lead to downfall of civilizations. If I am not mistaken, according to Gumilev, an ethnos is a very much biological unit and actions of members of ethnoi are not as much determined by the upbringing, but by the passionarity of the ethnos. So, with ethnos being a biological unit, the results of mixing of ethnoi can have positive and disasterous results for civilizations and empires. As Gumilev himself said: “mixtures of people, just like mixtures of wines and gases produce various results”. He also warned that we should not look at such results as good or evil, because these are natural processes. We wouldn’t say that a tsunami or an earthquake is evil. But we can study them and attempt to avoid the damage. Not that I agree with all of his ideas.


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