In an article yesterday for RT, my Ottawa colleague Professor Piotr Dutkiewicz discussed the influence of Lev Gumilev on the thinking of Russian president Vladimir Putin, particularly in terms of the idea that the world is divided up into distinct ‘civilizations’. In this, Professor Dutkiewicz notes that,
‘The Russian leader believes that the long period of the last three centuries in which the West has been a dominant economic, cultural, and political force is not only ending but is being replaced by a new paradigm. This paradigm features the emergence of the civilizational model of international relations and regional dialogue, in which cultural/civilizational similarities and differences will possibly influence global patterns of collaboration, confrontation, and dependence.’
I’ve discussed Gumilev before in my Crackpot Theory series, both in relation to Eurasianism and the concept of ‘passionarity’, but today I want to move beyond him to this broader concept of civilizations, as it seems to me to be decidedly dodgy.
The idea that the world is made up of distinct civilizations dates back to at least the late nineteenth century and Nikolai Danilevsky’s book Russia and Europe. Danilevsky rejected the historical determinism of Western liberalism that saw the world as a whole as progressing towards a single end (normally defined in terms of Western liberalism, though communists gave it a different spin). Instead, he claimed that the world was divided up into distinct ‘cultural-historical types’ that progressed according their own particular dynamics. Variations on this idea were then developed by the likes of Konstantin Leontiev, Arnold Toynbee, and in more recent times Samuel Huntington.
The initial problem with the theory is that the very idea of a ‘civilization’ is extremely vague. Dutkiewicz comments that, ‘Civilization rests on its participants’ faith in joining a specific stream of history. While the final historical destination is unclear, an embedded sense of belonging forms the base upon which members of a civilization ground their sense of purpose.’ One might ask what then distinguishes a civilization from a nation, given that nations are also founded on a ‘sense of belonging’. The answer might be that civilizations are not individual nations, but groups of them. But to what extent can it truly be said that groups of nations anywhere share an ’embedded sense of belonging’ and ‘sense of purpose’? At times, they may come together in alliances for specific reasons, but beyond that ‘civilizations’ as such are rather intangible and hard to identify.
To a certain extent, I think, this idea is one that is transposed from the West to the rest of the world. There is some sort of sense of ‘the West’ as a collective whole, founded on a common Graeco-Roman and Christian heritage, and nowadays bound by commonly accepted liberal values which provide a sense of universalizing historical mission. But it’s hard to see how this model applies elsewhere. Take a look at the civilizations identified by Huntington – these include such amorphous ‘civilizations’ as ‘Orthodoxy’ (many of whose members are now part of the ‘the West’), and ‘Sub-Saharan Africa’ and ‘Latin America’ (are these really areas with an ’embedded sense of belonging and obvious sense of common destiny?). Huntington’s ‘Muslim World’ is not a unified whole, and others of his ‘civilizations’ are actually single states – China, India, and Japan.
In short, civilizations are not just hard to define, they’re even hard to locate.
They are also decidedly fungible – states move in and out of them. Britain was part of the EU; now it’s not. Do Brits really feel ‘European’? Clearly, a lot of them don’t. Can you lump Ukraine in with Russia as part of ‘Orthodox’ civilization, when it’s obvious that a large part of the Ukrainian population has decided to throw in its lot with Western Europe? And in any case, is Russia really that different from the West? It seems to me that whatever the differences, they are less than they were 40 years ago when I first visited Russia. Back then, in Soviet times, it was a far more alien place than it is now.
Yes, there are differences between Russia and Western states, but there are huge differences between Western states themselves. There are large cultural divides even between states as close as Canada and the USA – not to mention, of course, the cultural divides within Western states, especially contemporary America.
This brings us on to another problem: ‘civilizations’ are not constant. What counts for Western civilization today isn’t what counted for Western civilization 100 years ago, let alone 200 or 1,000 years ago. When something changes that much, does it make sense to consider it a single thing?
Beyond that, when I listen to Russians trying to explain why they are a distinct ‘civilization’, most of what they say isn’t distinctively Russian at all. For instance, they say things like ‘Russia has a more collective culture than the individualistic West, exemplified in its attitude to social welfare.’ Yet not only is this disputable in and of itself (some commentators consider Russian culture to be highly individualistic), but collectivism, social welfare etc, are visible in many Western states – e.g. Canada where I live.
Or take another so-called aspect of ‘Russian civilization’ people talk about – ‘family values’. Russia has a very high (though declining) abortion rate, lots of divorce, marital violence, etc etc – hardly proof of ‘family values’. As for Russians attitudes to LGBT issues, they are merely where the West was 20-30 years ago. That’s proof of a time-lag but not of a distinct ‘civilization’.
In other words, the idea that Russia and the West are distinct ‘civilizations’ doesn’t meld with reality.
Nor it is obviously the case that alleged civilizational distinctions determine geopolitics. Japan is part of the ‘the West’ in geopolitical terms, for instance. Many Asian, African, Middle East, and Latin Amerian states are also closely allied with the West. Meanwhile, as Chinese influence spreads, it will among states that have nothing to do with Chinese ‘civilization’ – e.g. in Africa. ‘Civilization’ per se isn’t, and wont’ be, the primary determinant in international affairs.
The Western liberal model of history sees everybody starting off in different places and then gradually converging, albeit retaining some national peculiarities. The civilizational model of history views things the opposite way – Danilevsky compared it to roads leading out of a common town square, i.e. diverging not converging. On the whole, despite its many imperfections, I think that the former model is rather closer to reality.
What we in the West get wrong is trying to force the pace of change on others, and also assuming that convergence means convergence towards the West, rather than mutual convergence. But despite those failings, I don’t buy into the civilization discourse. I see its popularity in Russia as being founded on its ability to excuse Russian divergence from some Western norms, as well as on its ability to justify Russian resistance to Western geopolitical pressure. But its utility as a political tool doesn’t make it right from a historical/philosophical point of view. Civilizational theory fits the political zeitgeist of Cold War 2.0, but to my mind competing national interests have far more to do with the current state of East-West relations than amorphous ideas of civilizational difference.