Asabiyyah/collective action

Central to Khaldun’s Muqaddimah is the concept of asabiyyah. In Khaldun’s study of the rise and fall of dynasties in North Africa and the Middle East, asabiyyah refers to the intense feeling of solidarity among members of a nomadic tribe that makes them willing to sacrifice their lives for the survival of the group (Khaldun 2005: 124). There are two key factors for this, one material, one symbolic. The material basis of asabiyyah among the members of these tribes was rooted in the harsh physical conditions of survival in a nomadic life (2005: 91—94). Condemned to a kind of primitive communism in deserts, valleys, and mountains beyond the reaches of civilization and lacking a specialized armed force (state), members of these tribes turned to collective action for security (Khaldun 2005: 94-95). In Khaldun’s view, the world of the Bedouins was one where collective action necessarily functioned as an essential productive force. A belief in shared common descent was the symbolic basis of asabiyyah. This essentialized the bond between the members of these nomadic tribes, with the result of requiring unconditional solidarity against the many external military threats (Khaldun 2005: 98-99).

Khaldun posited the rule that tribes with a stronger asabiyyah defeated tribes with a weaker asabiyyah (2005: 124). Aware of the almost invariable outcome of an armed encounter of nomadic tribes and sedentary people of North Africa and the Middle East, Khaldun recognized why sedentary people, considerably wealthier than nomadic tribes and possessing deterring powers of a specialized apparatus of armed force (state), were frequently defeated by nomadic warriors. He ascribed their loss to their diminished capacity for collective action, the result contingent on an asabiyyah weaker than their nomadic opponents (Hassan 2010: 193-195). According to Khaldun, a wealthier society has a more developed form of division of labor, meaning a greater dependency on the state, more fragmentation into classes, greater individualism, and, subsequently, less courage.

It should have been clear by now how Kivilcimli defined collective action as one of the main components of productive forces. Through a Khaldunian reading of Engels’ recognition of kinship as a productive force of primitive societies, Kivilcimli reinterpreted the effective essence of kinship as collective action and indicated its importance to the survival of nomadic tribes or “barbarians”. Kivilcimli then went further than simply defining collective action as one of the main productive forces by examining how collective action/asabiyyah extended its decisive effectiveness into class-divided societies. For Kivilcimli, the collective action of egalitarian kinship communities continued to play its role in the history of class-divided societies as the main, albeit external, dynamic of their rise and fall through “Historical Revolutions” until the English Revolution, which ended the era of “Historical Revolutions” and began the era of “Social Revolutions”.

"Historical Revolution" and "Social Revolution"

Synthesizing Khaldun’s theory of asabiyyah with historical materialism, Kivilcimli viewed collective action as one of the main productive forces, and he extended its decisive effectiveness to class-divided societies. To achieve this synthesis, he incorporated a third significant influence: Morgan’s Ancient Society. Categorizations of Kivilcimh’s original synthesis were mostly borrowed from this work. Based on Morgan’s periodization of the successive phases of human societies’ progress as savagery, barbarism, and civilization, Kivilcimli reframed the conflict Muqaddimah placed between nomadic Bedouin people and sedentary people as a conflict between barbarians and civilized.

In this reframing of Khaldunian concepts, Kivilcimli attempted to generalize the lessons of Khaldun’s theory and to situate his discussion into a “world-historical context” (Sathgan 2006: 47). More specifically, comparing his “History Thesis” to the history thesis of Marx and Engels, which is historical materialism, Kivilcimli claimed to have explored the laws of motion of the pre-capitalist civilizations or what he calls “Ancient History”, the term he uses to refer to the period between 4000-5000 BC and AD 1400-1500. Kivilcimli asserted that, since research on ancient societies was rudimentary during Marx and Engels’ life time, their theories on pre-capitalist social formations were based upon a very limited body of knowledge ([1970] 2018b: 13-20). Though Kivilcimh’s “History Thesis” was intended to address this deficiency in Marxist thought, his thesis became an original theory involving theses explicitly in conflict with historical materialism.

Focusing on ancient societies, Kivilcimli explored “the laws of the rise and fall of civilizations” (Kivilcimli [1965] 2012: 15). He defined the basic “laws of the rise and fall of [pre-capitalist] civilizations” as follows:

1. Unlike historical materialism, with its claim that “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles” (Marx and Engels [1848]

  • 1978: 473), Kivilcimli’s “History Thesis” asserted that the motor engine of the “fall” and “rise” of pre-capitalist civilizations was the struggle between the barbarians and the civilized. Though Kivilcnnh (2012: 199) does not completely deny the existence and struggle of social classes in pre-capitalist civilizations, he still limits the transformative role of class struggle in precapitalist civilizations to non-systemic issues. The dynamic of pre-capitalist civilizational change for Kivilcnnh was exogenous, not endogenous: the oppressed social classes of pre-capitalist civilizations could not achieve the required level of collective action (2012: 26).
  • 2. Unlike dominant versions of historical materialism that posit technology as the decisive productive force largely accounting for societal changes throughout the history of civilizations, Kivilcimli’s “History Thesis” placed collective action at the very center of its explanation of the rise and fall of pre-capitalist civilizations. In his view (2012: 24—25), the pace and differentiation of technological development was insignificant until the rise of capitalism; the productive force that made a considerable difference in ancient history’s mechanisms of change was the collective action of actors.
  • 3. The main agents of the rise and fall of pre-capitalist civilizations were barbarians, who, based on egalitarian and communal customs, traditions, and the relations of production of “primitive socialism”, achieved an incomparably stronger collective action than their civilized contemporaries. According to Kivilcnnh (2012: 323-333), pre-capitalist civilizations did not endow their civilized members with a collective action capacity comparable to the barbarians. Economically, such civilizations were based on private property that unevenly distributed the wealth produced. Socially, uneven distribution of wealth created social classes and hierarchy, specifically an unproductive and super-exploitative “usury-merchant capital” (tefeci-bezirgan sermaye). Culturally, the existence of social classes and hierarchies undermined group feeling and fueled individualism among the civilized. Politically, a civilized society, with its deep divisions, individualist culture, and lack of a strong group feeling, could be held together only via state violence, a situation that further undermined any potential collective action. Therefore, in military confrontations, the pre-capitalist civilizations were expectedly subject to a rule-like superiority by their barbarian adversaries.
  • 4. As an external striking power, barbarians fulfilled a progressive function by removing the obstacles ahead of historical progress whenever they destroyed a civilization (2012: 89-91). Kivilcimli argued that such civilizations were destroyed at a stage when they were under the complete sway of super-exploitative usury-merchant capital and despotic states. No longer serving the further development of productive forces, the civilizations prime for destruction lacked the internal revolutionary dynamism/collective action capable of reversing the decay of civilization. Kivilcnnh defined this creative destruction of decaying civilizations by “primitive socialist barbarians” as a “Historical Revolution”. The invasion of the lands of Western Roman civilization by barbarian tribes such as the Huns, Goths, and Vandals during the Migration Period, the victory of Mongolian nomadic tribes led by Genghis Khan and Timur over Chinese and Islamic civilizations, and the capture of Istanbul by Ottomans and the end of Byzantine Empire were all instances of “Historical Revolutions” against the civilized.
  • 5. “Historical Revolutions” were replaced by “Social Revolutions”. Historical change carried out by barbarians came to an end with the rise of modern civilization/capitalism. Conflicts between relations of production and productive forces came to be resolved via “Social Revolutions” carried out by social classes (e.g., the bourgeois revolutions of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the socialist revolutions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries). This replacement represents progress in the way radical societal change occurred, as the resolution of the conflict between relations of production and productive forces has become an intra-civilizational classstruggle issue, meaning complete destruction of civilization is avoidable.

There are main reasons for the rise of “Social” and the fall of “Historical” Revolutions since the English Revolution (2012: 30-31). Firstly, the transition of barbarians into civilization was completed, leaving behind no barbarian masses to instigate change. Secondly, owing to the cultural and technological achievements of modern civilization, oppressed social classes, whose equivalents in the ancient past could not achieve collective action to abolish the hegemony of usury-merchant capital, currently have the capacity to end class oppression.

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