The fake history of civilisational states

So-called civilisational states, including Russia, China and India, invoke fake histories to justify and buttress their contemporary political settlements. But those who cannot let go of the past are always at risk of finding themselves imprisoned by it.

A billboard with an image of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is surrounded by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) flags as supporters gather to celebrate election results outside the BJP headquarters in Mumbai in 2019
A billboard with an image of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is surrounded by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) flags as supporters gather to celebrate election results outside the BJP headquarters in Mumbai in 2019. PUNIT

When did we first take to the air? You might be forgiven for saying 1903 and the Wright brothers. But would you be right? A huge controversy was ignited in the scientific community in India in January 2015 at a science congress in Mumbai, when a paper was delivered claiming that the Indians invented air flight 7,000 years ago. The author appears to have been completed unfazed by the fact that over 40 years earlier a group of Indian scientists from the Department of Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering at the Institute of Science in Bengaluru (Bangalore) had looked into an earlier claim and found the designs, if ever built, would have violated the laws of physics.

Unfortunately science is being exploited quite cynically to advance the claim that India has always been a civilisational-state. It is also consistent with a growing demand on the part of institutions such as the Infinity Foundation to fit modern science into a Vedic framework. Take the concept of energy – the precise and quantifiable capacity of a system to perform a task – which is now interpreted by some ultra-nationalists as a gross-level sub-type of Shakti, or ‘intelligent energy’. Or take physics, which because it deals with causation is deemed by some nationalists to be an empirical species of the karma theory. Darwinism in turn can be seen as merely a lower-level materialistic rendering of the spiritual evolution taught in the Yoga Sutras. The entire approach is part of a cynical power play in the guise of the defence of tradition.

India’s recently re-elected Prime Minister, Narendra Modi is not averse to trying to harness his own political future and that of his party to a reinterpretation of the Vedic texts. Modi himself is representative of a theological school – Shakha – that takes them to be true historical accounts, not versions of myth. Genetic science, he claims, was present at the time of The Mahabharata. It is not clear whether he was going back to the origins of the text in the 8th and 9th centuries BCE, or the final form in which we know it today which is a product of the 4th century CE.

Whatever the chronology, the claim itself is embarrassing. Imagine a Chinese President claiming that genetic science was thriving in Confucian China or that Chinese students in the 5th century CE were taught genetics at the great University of Nalanda (Bihar), to which many came for instruction. What we do know is that the students studied philosophy, complex medicine, literature, architecture and astronomy. By the time Oxford University opened for business in 1096, Nalanda had been educating students for 600 years, many from as far afield as Japan and Korea. It was also the only foreign institution to which Chinese students would go for their education outside their own country. Even so, it never offered courses in modern genetics. There was of course no genetics before the discovery of the gene as a unit of heredity; genetics had to await the 20th century and the rediscovery of the pioneering work of an obscure German-speaking Augustinian friar, Gregor Mendel.

I am not a historian; I’m a political scientist but I’m fully conversant with how historical myths and manufactured narratives made history what it is. Back in 1968 the English historian J.H. Plumb wrote a book The Death of the Past in which he reminded his readers that every great society has its historical myths such as manifest destiny in the United States, and the Whig interpretation of history in 19th-century Britain. The past as he called it, to distinguish it from history, served a purpose – it gave meaning to people at a critical moment in its history. One example is Churchill’s splendid vision of an unbroken record of defiance against foreign foes which stood the British people well in 1940. It’s a myth that has done little good more recently with British delusions of global roles and historical destinies. As the historian Alan Taylor once observed, Churchill was the price the British people paid for reading history. But in Modi’s India history is not only being revised and reinterpreted, it is also being rewritten in pursuit of a distinctive political project.

This is made all the easier by the fact that so much of the country’s history has been forgotten. At the same time that the Egyptians were working away at the pyramids, the Harappans – a people who began living along the Indus five thousand years ago – were building the world’s first urban settlements with roads on a grid pattern, covered drains and multi-storey buildings. Unfortunately, the Vedic era has no Rameses II and no Cecil B. DeMille has managed to film it. There are no ruined cities or temples which you can visit and admire. It had kings but founded no kingdoms or empires. What it did leave behind was unique literature which allows it to live on in the Indian imagination through the Vedas – the great texts which are so dense and obscure, writes Robert Calasso, that once you become a Vedic scholar you are likely to be swallowed up into the vastness of the thinking.

But then the same might be said of much of India’s history. Much of it is a quicksand – not even its seminal dates are ever certain. If you are a Westerner, tracing your origins back to the Greeks, you probably would not give much thought to the fact that the West is missing all but 1% of Greek literature including most of the tragedies and much of its lyric poetry. Many Western students may be surprised by this – surely they live in the days of Project Gutenberg, and have access to exhaustive databases like Chadwyck-Healey? But the West is lucky to have all Plato’s works, as well as most of Aristotle’s (if only in the form of lecture notes taken by his students). And if his essay the Poetics is to be relied upon, the best Greek tragedies have survived (the ones Aristotle quoted or named in the work).

The point I am making is that the West is infinitely more fortunate than India, which has lost so much of its literature. Take the father of Indian medicine, Charaka, the supposed author of the Charaka Samhita, a Sanskrit compendium on health composed in the first century CE. But it is still uncertain whether Charaka refers to a man, or a school of thought. Or take the mathematician Aryabhata whose work dates from the 5th century BCE. Whether or not he compares favourably with Euclid he was largely forgotten until India’s first satellite was named after him. More is known of India’s Machiavelli who wrote the Arthashastra – or is it? It is tentatively ascribed to Kautilya, but it is also ascribed to two other writers both of whom may be the same person. The complete version of the text was only discovered as recently as 1905. Imagine European history if The Prince had been lost for 400 years.

But that hasn’t stopped Modi and his party from interpreting the history that we do know in a way that fulfils his own political agenda. Last year the Prime Minister unveiled a statue to Shivaji who is cast as a Hindu resistance fighter against Muslim occupation, i.e. the Mughal Empire. It’s the largest statue in the world. In Gujarat, Modi’s home state, history textbooks are being rewritten to show that the Mughal period was one of the low points of Indian history, a Muslim occupation indeed, in all but name. The period is being cast as one of principled persecution of Hindus by fundamentalist rulers embracing an alien faith. Yet the historical record suggests that, instead of tens of thousands, fewer than a hundred Hindu temples were desecrated by iconoclasts during the seven to eight centuries of Muslim domination. Add to that, despoiling and demolishing a rival’s temple was reckoned a rewarding and legitimate act of retaliation even by Hindu dynasts. Instances of discrimination and persecution on purely religious grounds were few: there was simply no correlation between the strength of Muslim power and levels of iconoclasm. In fact, argues the historian Richard Eaton, there was not even a ‘Muslim conquest’. During the course of their expansion down the Ganges plain and into the South in the 12th and 13th centuries, Delhi’s Muslim Kings and sultans enlisted Hindu recruits, reached accommodations with Hindu Rajahs and often reinstated the Hindu dynasts who had opposed them. The Mughals followed suit. Not only did they rely on Rajput allies and entrust their troops to Rajput commanders but they also intermarried with the greater Rajput houses with the result that in the veins of the last great Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb, a thoroughly devout Muslim, there flowed far more Rajput blood than Mughal. And yet Richard Eaton far from being respected for his pioneering work, is often pilloried as a ‘negationist’ (the Indian equivalent of a ‘denier’) for suggesting that the Mughal era was thoroughly Indian, unlike the British era that succeeded it.

Now, India is not alone in the remastering of the past. Take Putin’s Russia. We are back to metaphysics and in this case Oswald Spengler who was at his best when he left his wilder theories behind him in favour of memorable insights which though not always demonstrably true are nonetheless thought-provoking. One such idea was that whenever two civilisations interact with each other one is bound to be more powerful, the other more creative. In this situation the more creative will be forced to conform outwardly to the more powerful civilisation’s cultural configuration although the latter’s ideas will never really take root. He called the phenomenon ‘pseudomorphosis’ and thought it applied particularly to Russia – a satellite society which in the reign of Peter the Great was drawn into the field of European civilisation of which it never really became part. Some Russian writers would agree with him; they prefer to see their country as a civilisational – as opposed to a nation state and argue that the country when a young and undeveloped culture was set back by Peter the Great’s attempts to modernise it along European lines. In Spengler’s rendering of the story, the burning of Moscow in 1812 by its own citizens can be seen as a de-programming exercise, a rejection of Peter’s programme, even a primitive expression of a wish to return to its primal roots. The modernising Bolsheviks took a very different view: the novelist Gorky famously saw the Russian peasant as a ‘non-Russian nomad’ and argued that the country’s ‘Asiatic Mongol biological heritage’ had significantly ‘retarded’ its historical development. Yet it is precisely that historical inheritance that now divides Russian historians, with liberals insisting that their country should continue to see Peter the Great in the traditional light as the great moderniser, and conservatives insisting that Russia can only be true to itself if it re-engages with its Asiatic-Mongol heritage.

The latter will tell you that on the great Eurasian steppes a variant of Tatar genes, or so we are told got re-coded. The process was described as ‘passionarity’ by one of the first Eurasianists, Lev Gumilev (the estranged son of the poetess Anna Akhmatova). It is not a word that most Russians would recognise even though it occasionally appears in some of Putin’s speeches. It is the process by which organisms absorb bio-chemical energy from nature, in this case from the soil of Eurasia. Another writer, Peter Savitsky, later developed the concept of topogenesis, or ‘place development’ to explain the deep link between geography and culture. Cultural Darwinism doesn’t recommend itself only to novelists or poets; in Russia it has become a concept familiar to many political scientists. Group mentalities and invariant forms of bio-social organisation, write Peter Katzenstein and Nicole Weygandt, unanchored in history, ethology or even mainstream textbooks on civilisation have become legitimate topics in teaching and research and they are now well known to the country’s leading politicians. And that is one of the reasons, they add, why Russians are coming to self-identify in increasingly civilisational terms. Vladislav Surkov, a member of Putin’s inner circle, is trying to get the country’s constitution changed, to add a clause stating that Russian values are genetically innate.

But when you come to think of it the idea that civilisation is an organic entity is similar to Spengler’s belief that it is an organism that experiences life-cycles from birth to death. Like Spengler, there are Russian nationalists who feel that their own civilisation is measured by the seasons and pace of growth – and the more pessimistic, feeling that winter is already setting in, are given to dreaming of one heroic last act. If you visit Moscow you may see cars with bumper stickers proclaiming ‘To Berlin!’ and ‘We can do it again!’ (Both are rather crude allusions to the Second World War). In the West most people are metaphysically tone deaf but Russia is different; it always has been. And the concept of ‘passionarity’ shows an interest in exteriorising the nation’s psychic state in a physical setting. Although distinctly strange to a western audience, it offers Russians an emotional engagement with the environment – it allows them to reconnect with a history much older than the era of the great moderniser, Peter the Great.

And the message? It is a rather bleak one. Much of the recent writing on why Russia is a civilisational state turns on the antagonistic relationship between two opposing forces: western cosmopolitanism and Russian nativism which may one day end in war. Unfortunately, all this is a telling testament to how the imagination can shape identities in bizarre ways; and how intellectuals in bed with a political class can hoodwink both themselves and others. In Ismail Kadare’s novel The Palace of Dreams, an empire (which is loosely based on the Ottoman) has a department which monitors its subjects’ dreams for signs and portents of disaffection. Once collected, they are sifted through, classified and ultimately interpreted to identify the ‘master dream’ that they share. Every country, Kadare implies, has dreams that are distinctive; every civilisation has a collective unconscious. If only it were possible to put a country and its people on the couch. If you know the personality of a people and what they are dreaming you might be able to adjust your message to resonate more effectively. Anton Vaino, Putin’s chief of staff is working on a ‘nooscope’, a device to measure humanity’s collective consciousness. So, perhaps, Kadare’s novel is not that much off-field. Except for the fact that while electorates may dream, civilisations don’t. They are not unitary actors, unlike states, but that doesn’t stop governments from seeding dreams in the mind of their own citizens.

Unfortunately, there is also another feature of its unbroken history which plays into the idea of Russia as a civilisational-state, a term that Putin himself first embraced at a Valdai Club meeting in 2013. When in the following year the West imposed sanctions to punish Russia for illegally occupying the Crimea, the then Deputy Prime Minister, Dimitry Rogozin told the Western press that the Russian people have always been willing to suffer for a good cause. The regime knows that however bad things are at home, the Russian people still long for an identity and a role in the world in which they can take pride. And that yearning is driven by a sense of wanting a place in the world. The Russians, in short, still want to be noticed.

According to the historian Vladimir Pashtukhov, Putin has reawakened Russian messianism – a phenomenon that largely disappeared after 1991. ‘Russians do not fulfil a mission, all the more so when it’s unfulfillable; they live it and are its function.’ What is surprising, Pashtukhov adds, is not that messianism is back, but that it should have disappeared for almost a quarter of a century for it is an essential part of what he calls ‘the Russian cultural code’. It is a recurring theme in the country’s history which can be traced back to the writings of philosophers like Pyotr Chaadayev in the 1820s:

We are one of those nations which do not appear to be an integral part of the human race but exist only in order to teach some great lesson to the world. Surely the lesson we are destined to teach will not be wasted; but who knows when we shall re-join the rest of mankind and how much misery we must suffer before accomplishing our destiny.

I find it particularly telling that President Carter’s National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski should have chosen to conclude his memoirs with this quotation. For the US too has frequently entertained a messianic vision of its own destiny. In The Death of the Past, Plumb reminded his readers that every great society has its historical myths. The nation state indeed could not really be understood without them. When Plumb wrote his book, however the US was suffering from its moment of crisis – the Vietnam War which was being fought in the name of the Past. One day he hoped the Past would lose its appeal and that metaphors such as ‘Manifest Destiny’ would eventually become ‘a threadbare refuge for the ageing rulers of a society … from which all strong emotion is rapidly draining away’. ‘The Past has served the few’, he added, ‘Perhaps history may serve the many’. Belief in the Past got people killed.

This may be one reason why the US seems to be turning away from its historical mission. But then unlike the Russians, the Americans have always entertained a more optimistic outlook on life. It was the Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza who once remarked that we must love God without ever expecting Him to love us in return. The Americans, adds Harold Bloom have an excessive need to be loved by God; the Russians haven’t (their history has not been a happy one). If the Russian people have a unique historical role to play in the world, suffering seems to be part of the package. And who if anyone in particular is to be held responsible for the suffering? The West, of course. Indeed, the Russian state is constantly urging the Russian people to treat opposition to all things Western as constitutive of their own identity.

If I had time I could write at length about other valorisations of history. One example is the patriotic history courses in China, now mandatory for an entire generation of Chinese children which are stoking up resentment against the West for visiting upon the country ‘a century of humiliation’. Another is Erdogan’s Turkey where the history books are being rewritten too, to put less emphasis on the reforms of Kemal Ataturk and to re-emphasise the country’s Muslim and neo-Ottoman past.

All such terms are meant to bolster the regimes behind them, to bind the people more closely to each other but to the state. The really sad outcome is that they provide an alibi for not confronting the tragedies of the recent past. Regrettably, writes Milan Kundera in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (1979), we are separated from the past by two forces that go instantly to work and co-operate: the force of forgetting (which erases) and the force of memory (which transforms). We all have a responsibility to produce a version of history that is at the very least, life-affirming. If you read a popular book on Xi Jinping’s China, The China Wave, you will find that the force of forgetting is as powerful as the force of memory for there is no mention of recent history, especially the crimes of Mao. Western political scientists still tend to claim that twenty million people died in the Great Leap Forward. In fact, an internal CCP Party report admitted that the true figure was probably twice that number, which if true would make it the greatest man-made disaster in human history. In trying to eliminate the worst consequences of China’s ‘four olds’: culture, ideas, customs and habits, Mao later launched the Cultural Revolution which achieved what one writer calls ‘auto-cultural’ genocide on an immeasurable scale. The Party may well have lifted millions out of poverty, but it killed millions more in bizarre social experiments, and the collateral damage should not be forgotten whenever Chinese officials claim that India has lagged behind in its own path to modernisation.

When I was studying history at Cambridge in the early 1970s personalities tended to be airbrushed out of the picture almost entirely, to be replaced by social movements and economic trends. But it is people of course who make history, which is why political leadership is so critical. Daniel Kahneman makes this point when discussing the ideological giants of the 20th century: Hitler, Stalin and Mao. Each came to a movement which would never have tolerated a female leader, but each man’s genetic origins can be traced to an unfertilized egg that had a 50% chance of being fertilized by different sperm cells, and thus ending in a female baby. Or to put it another way, there was only a 12.5% chance that all three leaders would be born male, and an 87.5% chance that at least one would be born female. Imagine the history of 20th century China if Mao had come into the world as a girl, like his adopted sister Zejian. Imagine a Communist China spared the horrors of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.

If it could confront the past with greater honesty the Party might not have to make so much of ‘the century of humiliation’. Unfortunately, the victimisation narrative encourages what Xhen Wang calls ‘the arrogance of self-pity’ which plays unhelpfully into an acute status anxiety about its relations with the outside world. Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it – such is the Chinese Communist Party’s line. Unfortunately, however, those who cannot let go of the past are always at risk of finding themselves imprisoned by it. The great irony of course, as Susan Sontag once warned her fellow Americans, is that ‘devotion to the past is one of the most disastrous forms of unrequited love’. Like the nation state, the civilisational state may find this out in time for itself.

This essay originally appeared under the title ‘Civilisational states and the remastering of the past’ in ‘Past and Present – Perspectives from the Engelsberg Seminar’, Bokförlaget Stolpe, in collaboration with the Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation, 2019.


Christopher Coker