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Robert Bedeski Finds Lessons for Contemporary Political Thought in the Life of Genghis Khan

Robert Bedeski rides horseback in Mongolia.

March 22, 2017

A new book by Robert Bedeski, Affiliate Professor at the Ellison Center for Russian, East European, and Central Asian Studies, draws lessons from the life of Genghis Khan that provide insight into how states and societies form. Bedeski’s new work, Genghis Khan – Sustaining Existence, explores how the Mongol leader was able to survive to old age during a dangerous time of conflict. According to Bedeski, Genghis Khan’s life demonstrates how state-building progresses through three phases: individuals in a state of nature, organization of society, and finally the formation of the state. Bedeski, drawing extensively from The Secret History of the Mongols, claims that the Mongols progressed through these three phases during the life of Genghis Khan, a feat that can often take centuries.

“Genghis Khan was a man who existed first in a state of nature, then in a social framework, and finally in a new State,” Bedeski told the Ellison Center. “This happens over centuries in most societies. British society, for example, evolved very slowly. But it occurred in the lifetime of Genghis Khan. There was no state, and virtually no society, just tribes and clans fighting each other. The first thing Genghis Khan did was declare that Mongols will not kill Mongols. This formed a solidarity.”

According to Bedeski’s research, Genghis Khan’s obsession with preserving his own life drove the development of a complex security apparatus that helped form a Mongol state.

The Secret History shows through detailed descriptions of his body guards that Genghis Khan very much wanted to preserve his life and that people were dedicated to doing that,” he said. “When he died they kept it a secret. Scholars have said that this was a nomadic custom, but I tend to think that it was more the result of embarrassment among his body guards that they could not keep him alive and fulfill their purpose. Genghis Khan objectified his life and recognized that he was going to be the core sovereign of the Mongol state.

The particular incidents that are described in The Secret History of the Mongols told me that there are security actions. For example, Genghis Khan is wounded in a battle in Beijing when an arrow pierces his neck. They used poison arrows at that time, and his loyal general takes the arrow out, sucks the blood and demonstrates his loyalty. So loyal friendship is what saved his life.

In another instance, Genghis Khan as a young man was captured by the clan that had exiled him and his family. He is guarded by a different person every night. He takes a piece of wood, smacks the guard, and escapes. He jumps in the river and submerges himself up to his neck until the other people pass by. This demonstrates that the will to live is a very powerful motivation and that if you are going to survive, you have to want to survive.

The components of the theory are these three levels that Genghis Khan constructed. Within each level of existence, there are what I call ‘security action platforms.’ I’m able to identify 15 of them in The Secret History of the Mongols. They are things like the will to live, the nuclear family that protects children, and the natural environment from whence we get our food and water. We take actions that will preserve us.”

Bedeski also looks at how the Mongols shaped the formation of the Russian Empire and how their legacy persists to this day.

The President of Mongolia congratulates Professor Robert Bedeski on receipt of state-awarded medal.

“I look at three data points,” he said. “The first is the Mongol conquest of Kievan Rus. The second is Ivan the IV and how he took over the khanates of Kazan and Astrakhan. The third is the civil war following the Bolshevik Revolution. So you have the Asianization of Russia—the dismissal of Kiev and the western influences. Then comes the defeat of Christian Russia and the imposition this Asian regime on Russia.

Ivan IV accepted the notion that descent from Genghis Khan was something to be valued as a source of legitimacy for the tsar. He accepted this notion and it wasn’t until Peter the Great and his opening of the window to the west in Petrograd that you get the dismissal or conscious elimination of Asian values in Russia.”

During the civil war in Russia, Lenin and Trotsky were creating something new. They might not have been aware of it. They thought initially that they were part of this world revolution of the proletariat, but that never happened. They trimmed their expectations and their strategy. They accepted veteran officers from the tsarist army and initiated a policy of war communism as a means of creating a new state. What’s interesting here is that it became the pattern for Asia—for China and for other Communist Parties in Asia. So the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution was the end of Asianization and the final conclusion of Asian influence on Russia. There was then an inversion where the Russian Revolution became a major influence on Asia.

In a way, today’s Russia is kind of picking up on the White Russian attack against the Reds during the civil war. There is an alliance of the army, the party, and the church in contemporary Russia. Maybe Putin knows it, maybe he doesn’t, but this is where Russia is going today. If the White Russians had expressed where they were going, it would look like this—modernity, industrialization, and a little bit of westernization, but not so much that they want to become part of the west. I think that’s what Putin wants. And of course he wants to restore the territories that the Soviet Union controlled.”

Bedeski, whose previous research focused primarily on China, says his work on Genghis Khan and the Mongols demonstrates that there is a need in academia to consider other ways of looking at politics and state-building.

“I think the way politics has been taught in universities is very western oriented—Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Locke, Marx, Hegel. These are western theorists and we see politics through a western prism. I think it’s important to understand politics from the viewpoint of non Euro-Americans. I think we need new ideas to do that, so I’m trying to reach area specialists, political scientists, and anthropologists. I call my approach ‘philosophical anthropology.’

I also have some ontological issues. In civil society we react to symbols. Our discourse is symbolic. If you go back to Genghis Khan and the level of state-building, there is very little symbolism and very little vision in building the state. It was sheer power. I would like to see a new way of talking about politics, one that tries to understand what other people have gone through and are trying to accomplish. It is very rare that we understand others. The notion of freedom, for example, doesn’t exist in many societies. It’s something that we have invented and something that we value. In other societies, the notion of equality has very little currency. Chinese traditional philosophy, for example, is based on inequality. Maybe we have this utopian view of liberty, equality, and fraternity, but it is rarified and parochial and does not apply to much of the world. We should recognize that.”

Robert Bedeski will present his research on April 1 during the REECAS NW Conference at Reed College in Portland, Oregon.

To read Genghis Khan – Sustaining Existence by Robert Bedeski, visit the UW ResearchWorks Archive. 

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