25 January 2017

Thedeship, not nationalism

In my prior wranglings with the topic of nationalism, I’ve attempted to stake out an alternative language and space of meaning when it comes to distinguishing healthy forms of national solidarity from unhealthy ones. In the past I have done this by analogy and real-world examples – looking at forms of understanding the nation that I sympathise with (like Johnson, Chesterton, Gandhi and Wang Hui) as opposed to ones I don’t (like Mussolini, Bandera and Modi), and trying to find the factors that sort one kind of solidarity and national fellow-feeling from the other. The rise of the phenomenon of Trumpism makes this question all the more valuable and worthy of pursuit. What sorts of national solidarity are amenable to community-building? What are the markers of those sorts of patriotic feeling, which are best able to resist making carved idols of the state, or the race? What language should we use to describe them?

I have made several distinct attempts to draw the line between the kinds of ‘national’ solidarity that I approve, and the ones that I don’t. It can be tempting to say that the line is between left- and right-nationalisms (Gandhi and Wang Hui, at least, being very much figures of the left), but that would seem a crude and clumsy distinction since there are highly toxic left-wing nationalisms as well as healthy ones, and fascist movements tend to defy a straightforward left-right political topography in any event.

One interesting distinction made by Susanna Rabow-Edling when referring to the Slavophils was that between political and cultural nationalists. This is actually a tempting way to view things, since cultural nationalists tend to be less apt to take the helm of state and seek out enemies to destroy with it, and are more intent on education and cultural edification of their own people. This gets at something important in the distinction I want to draw, but in some ways it doesn’t quite fit, either. The Slavophils (or their High Tory English counterparts) did have certain political as well as cultural commitments, even if they rated politics as a secondary or even tertiary concern when compared with issues of culture and religion and education. That is one of the reasons why I was hesitant to call them anarchists, even after Rabow-Edling’s philosophical, Herderian definition. Khomyakov and Kireevsky were not anti-state; they were merely concerned that the state not encroach on and pollute the communal and social life of the people.

But Rabow-Edling did have the right idea; the Slavophils (and the populists who were inspired by them) made good use of the language they had inherited, in distinguishing between the principles of narodnost’ and natsionalizm. As Mother Maria Skobtsova herself highlighted that very distinction in The Crucible of Doubts:
The usual classical examples of Russian nationalism occur always as right-wing social thought and it relies upon chauvinism in [the Ukraine]. Nationalism in Russia cloaked itself mostly in the aggressive sovereignty-rights and territorial pretensions of the Russian empire.

Populism—the fruition of the thought of the left, the revolutionary circles of Russian society—was little interested in state pretensions to empire and it deciphered itself not in governmental, but rather in social maximalism. It sought after the national labour truth in that
obshchina-community, in those unique social peculiarities of Russian existence, wherein Khomyakov sought after his truth.

In no other language is there a delineation between the inner nuances of the words:
natsiya (nation) and narod (native-populace). In no other language do these concepts lead to the antagonistic word-images, natsionalizm and narodnichestvo. In Russia not only these concepts, but also the truth, contained in each of them—was harshly antagonistic to each other.
And this is the distinction that I want to get at. The nationality I have sought to defend here, before I had even heard of the term, was that of Mother Maria’s narodnichestvo: that is to say, the Slavophils’ narodnost’. It is the social-maximalist idea, that people of the same household, the same community, the same city, the same familial ties and language, ought to be united by bonds of deep love for one another; that we ought to work, give, fight and sacrifice for one another’s good. It is not the idea that our nation needs to be great or exceptional in a materialistic or political sense, or that we need to lord it over our neighbours, let alone countries on the other side of the world.

Because the linguistic distinction Mother Maria gets at between natsionalizm and narodnichestvo (or narodnost’) does not yet exist in English, I feel that we have to get creative. It is worthy of note that the latter term derives from a native Slavic root, and rolls fluidly off the tongue; whilst the former term is a five-and-a-half-syllabic mangle of Latin and Greek, jagged and broken, with hard consonants and a foreign taste. The latter term inhabits the space of the private dominium of pagan Rome and her idolatrous power-drunk Cæsars; the former, the common space of the Slavonic obshchina and the Christian devotion (not always sincere, but devotion all the same) of her foster Tsars.

Which is why English needs a similar construction, a Tolkienish neologism (or rather, a reconstruction), which in its very makeup hints at a way the West had but has since lost, without appealing to ideologies or artificial constructs. For that reason, the common translation of narodnost’ as ‘populism’ (as an -ismós, etymologically, of the plēbs, mixing Greek and Latin roots), though tempting, will not quite do.

What I have in mind, instead, is thedeship.

The poets of Old English talked of þéod, a collective noun referring to a ‘people’ or a ‘tribe’; of þéodisc and of þéodscipe, describing a state of being and a belonging to the people or tribe. The poetic way of referring to the treasure, or to the ‘common wealth’ of the people, was as a þéodgestréon. There is a particularity to þéod and also a commonality, which render it suitable. Also, it belongs to a pre-Norman world in which land not belonging directly to anyone by charter belonged, in fact, to the whole of the people; and at that, not by external authority but by the force of custom and by the wishes of the community itself.

I hope it does not need pointing out, that my pointing to a Teutonic word (indeed, to the word, ‘thede’, from which the ethnonym ‘Teuton’ comes) as a descriptor of a certain type of nationalism, and a counterpoint to its bourgeois forms, is emphatically anti-fascist. Fascism is a deliberate and atavistic revival of that pagan Roman spirit of dominium and Cæsar-worship, which was originally carried over into the Germanic fœderati like a plague, even as Christianity too was beginning to take its root among them. Such a political perversion of the very idea of the ‘folk’, was one to which both Mother Maria Skobtsova and Tolkien himself took strong exceptions.

The idea of thedeship as a deliberate attempt to translate the Russian narodnost’ across a broader spectrum of meaning, a kind of common rule and awareness among a people, rooted by common customs and common-pool property, points instead to those commonalities that great noble sociologist August von Haxthausen saw among the rural Slavs and the other ‘folk’ who lived on their marches. Thedeship proceeds from the love and common care that holds within families, within villages and neighbourhoods, even within and between tribes of people.

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