A GERMAN MIND IN THE RUSSIAN ACADEME: ETHNOS & SOCIETY
Alexander Dugin. Ethnos and Society. Arktos, 2018.
Sociologists, as a rule, consider themselves free from the demands of historical study in that they may make assertions that have no reference to human experience as though they were empirically verified facts. It is the principal failing of the discipline—and ironic, too, since the founders of sociological study populated their works with direct references to observations of human experience and eschewed groundless theorizing insofar as possible. Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the “Spirit” of Capitalism only really existed because of the ethnography he conducted for his earlier essay “‘Churches’ and ‘Sects’ in North America”, Durkheim’s seminal work On Suicide, probably his most important contribution for dissident Rightists, is exhaustive in its statistical considerations, and Tönnies’ great forgotten Community and Society is defined by his explicit protestations that he is working solely with Idealtypen that find no direct representation in human societies. Of course, the Fathers of Sociology formed their discipline in a profoundly German academic setting in which the marble mind of the age was Leopold von Ranke and historicism was the rule—and while the trappings of the sociological golden age still give form to the discipline, it has by and large given up the ghost and is animated by a wholly different spirit.
Alexander Dugin seems profoundly aware of the failings of the discipline that he professed at Moscow State University until 2014 when he was accused of calling for the genocide of Ukrainians. He has been demonized in Western media as a grim influence on the neo-Stalinist regime they have fantasised around Putin, bent on the domination of Europe, earning Dugin comparisons to Grigori Rasputin among other Russian undesirables. As such, his works have seen only limited circulation in the West despite their originality and utility in making sense of the post-Western world. It is profoundly fortunate that they should have found such an able publishing house as Arktos to bring them to a Western audience.
This audience has received Dugin as a sort of zephyr of vitality blowing from the Russian steppe across the decrepit megalopolitan landscape of Europe, a sort of Asiatic sage for the European New Right. He is able to deliver on expectations, though, because of the distance between his own thought and the Russian spirit. He is, in short, not actually a Russian—at least not in the sense that we think of Dostoevsky, Leontiev, or Solzhenitsyn as Russians who thought like Russians and wrote like Russians. Dugin is too systematic for the Russian soul, defined by the mystic sense of undefined Truth. Dugin appears this way because of his standard academic nihilism—that is, there is no absolute in his work; the Ding-an-sich is left untouched, and he contents himself with relative facts rather than absolute Truths. He is systematic and empirical (or he at least tries to be)—decidedly German traits, not Russian. Indeed, looking at his Fourth Political Theory and Foundations of Geopolitics, what one finds is a German mind in a Russian milieu. He forms very little from Russian sources—his thought is the reception and redirection of Modern Western thinkers, from Hegel to Levy-Bruhl. This is not an indictment of Dugin, of course—rather, it gives him a unique flavour of foreignness mixed with familiarity that makes him difficult to ignore as a thinker and a writer. His quality of writing and his originality are not diminished by his Germanness; but any Westerner looking to Dugin for a Russian future should not be misled. He is reading a German past into the present, not a Russian future.
This reality also dictates that any reviewer be as thorough as possible in reading one of Dugin’s works, for as monographs they are dense monuments of complex systems of perception that are meant to completely reorient the way their audience encounters their subject. What the geopolitical reality of Russia has granted Dugin is the freedom to ponder questions Western academics, even right-wing academics, either refuse to ponder or simply do not think of. This allows him to take the Western ideas for which he has real affinity and reorient them, as he ably did with the Baudrillardian concept of the simulacrum to great effect in The Fourth Political Theory as well as, in a more implicit way, Putin vs Putin. The latter, especially, has a great deal to offer Western onlookers in the way they must critique the populist movements filling so many people with hope in the Current Year. His most recent offering, Ethnos and Society, possesses all of the strengths and weaknesses of his other works—a double learning experience both because of the perspectives it offers and the critiques it will inevitably provoke.
Ethnos and Society is an introduction to a new discipline which Dugin calls “Ethnosociology”. In fact, this is not a new discipline, as the author admits, just as the Fourth Political Theory is not in fact a new political outlook—rather, it is a reorientation of existing disciplines by shifting focus. Ethnosociology is at its heart merely Anthropology which assumes certain rules about human society. At its heart is the belief in the ethnos, a new word for what has been called a “folk society”, exemplified in the book by savage tribes like the Siberian Evenki and Pacific Maori and Melanesians. The ethnos is conceptualised in three Idealtypen, perceived by means of ethnostatics (the ethnos in-itself, defined by an assumed self-identification that Dugin calls the “ethnocentrum”, a concept with tremendous potential, albeit illustrated rather unhelpfully as a circle containing the symbol of the Eurasian movement), ethnodynamics (the ethnos sustaining itself), and ethnokinetics (the ethnos resolving its conflicts). These types are both simultaneous as well as successive, as the tribal ethnos moves from a self-perception that is global, that is, a self-perception which assumes the tribe is the entire world, to a self-perception that is local, i.e. one that assumes the tribe is part of a wider world of “others”.
The first eighty pages of the 236-page book are dedicated to elucidating this concept, and even when he is finished, Dugin leaves his readers with as many questions as he does definitions due to the ahistorical nature of his theory. Nevertheless, the conceptualisation of the ethnos as koineme, that is, the most basic of all human societies, makes this a work of what we might call Quantum Anthropology on par with the work of Stephen Hawking in speculative physics. All human communities have some ethnic element to them—practices which are by and large restricted to what we call primitive societies (e.g. animistic or fetishistic religion) manifest themselves in a variety of ways outside those societies.
The second part of the work, which begins in the third section of the third chapter, opens by relating this new perspective to the passionarity theory of Lev Gumilev. Dugin critiques Gumilev for conceiving of the ethnos as a biological and material reality rather than as a koineme, or quantum universal; thus the homeostatic state of passionarity theory is essentially synonymous with what Dugin calls the ethnos and what Gumilev calls “ethnogenesis” is in fact “laogenesis”, giving rise to the laos or narod, what most would regard as an ethnic tribe or nation. Thus Dugin offers a solution to the problem facing world historians who have struggled to make sense of primitive societies that exist outside the realm of civilizations—what Spengler called the “prehistorical” or “ahistorical” societies of earlest Man—by defining them as unrealised ethnoi, not tribes or ethnicities in the common sense of those words.
This is also where some of his most useful observations are found—his discussion of potlatch, for example, the ethnic destruction of property to demonstrate power, can be very useful in understanding the tendency of certain demographics to riot as a means of demonstrating or celebrating power. Civilized societies, of course, consider such riots as counter-productive because when a fully realised narod riots, it is usually an expression of frustrated powerlessness, not a demonstration of social power. Dugin enables us to draw qualitative distinctions having nothing to do with environment or circumstance between the bread riots preceding the French Revolution and the Ferguson and Baltimore riots following the death of Black criminals in the United States or the more recent riots in places like Johannesburg. Another interesting observation is his understanding of slavery as a function that only higher civilization, the narod, is truly capable, since slavery creates irreconcilable contradictions within the structure of the ethnos. The primitive ethnos has no category for a slave, since the balance of the ethnos requires the “other” to be an absolute evil to be destroyed, while a slave is allowed to exist and remain “other” to the ethnos (he observes that the Egyptians referred to slaves as “living dead” for this reason – those who by all right should have been deprived of life but instead were kept alive to become tools for ethnic labour). The necessary connexion of slavery with complex societies and higher thought is rich fodder for Reactionary thought in particular.
Dugin, however, is not unimpeachable—he makes some erroneous assumptions from the start, deploying ideas that have long been disregarded by serious scholars even outside the academic orthodoxy. The first of these is adopting what Peter Brown has called the “two-tiered model” of religious historiography introduced by Hegel (Dugin draws on Otto’s concept of das Heilige in society, a concept which appears in Paul Tillich’s work as well) which assumes a rational elite dominated by theological religion and irrational underclass dominated by superstitious, shamanistic religion. This view of a strict divide in religious sensibilities is also rejected in Eamon Duffy’s work on the English Reformation. A more common assumption is the old idea that contemporary primitives can be taken as models for archaic forms of settled civilizations, an approach that ignores the historically demonstrable tendency of civilized people to decay into savages in favour of the decidedly more theoretical tendency of savage people to become civilized—a critique offered with uncharacteristic brevity by Chesterton in The Everlasting Man, critiquing H.G. Wells.
Perhaps more troubling, though, is that Dugin, for his brilliance, also appears to ignore many recent Western sources on nationhood and ethnicity in formulating his theories on the ethnos; for example, in spite of his renown and the direct relevance of his entire corpus to Dugin’s thesis, sociologist Anthony D. Smith makes no appearance in the pages of Ethnos and Society—an oversight readily granted if the rest of the work were not so thoroughly cited and efforts were not made to reference other ground-breaking anthropologists and sociologists like Lucien Lévy-Bruhl and Claude Levi-Strauss, who dealt only tangentially with ethnicity. He also assumes the easily discredited doctrine of hunter-gatherer Egalitarianism which is replaced by Patriarchy in settled societies, an idea pioneered by Gerda Lerner and Marija Gimbutas and originating in Second Wave Feminism. This is a crank theory, completely dismantled by sociobiologists like Steven Goldberg in the 1980s, and survives in the Western academe on political capital alone. It is perhaps the most egregious and unfortunate fault of this work that, in spite of his scholarly originality and intellectual free-thinking, as a trained academic Dugin takes this particular theory as granted. It is worth mention that this is also the only major idea taken for granted in the work that is not ultimately derived from 19th century continental scholarship. Another point of dissension, especially for an Orthodox believer like Dugin, is the identification of the contemporary Jewish religion with the ancient Hebrews, when the majority of defining texts and beliefs of contemporary Judaism date from no later than the first century BC. His claims of a European laos or nation from the splitting of the Roman Empire is also historically difficult so long as he never specifies the relationship of his concept of narod with the established concept of civilization, which Europe doubtlessly is and has been since at least the ninth century AD. The relationship of his work to civilizational studies as pioneered by authors like Nikolai Danilevskii, Oswald Spengler, and Arnold Toynbee would elucidate his theory greatly if it were more explicitly spelled out.
These critiques, however, do not invalidate his thesis as such—they diminish the perfection of the work as a whole, but do not tarnish the quality of the ideas put forward. Dugin’s text, especially the first section, provokes questions and offers new perspectives to diverse historical phenomena—far more, in fact, than the latter section which deals more explicitly with history. It is decidedly worth reading and deserves thorough and exacting critiques to help incorporate, or, at the very least, respond to Dugin’s more original ideas in the intellectual framework of Neoreaction.