The question of “nomadic states” has appeared in Soviet historiography in the 1920s-30s, in connection with the Marxist issue of the passage of nomadic societies “from feudalism to socialism bypassing capitalism” [a common place usual in the writings of the Communist period as far as Mongolia, for instance, is concerned]. It was again fashionable in the 1950s, when discussions came to deal with the character of feudalism in Central Asia, in the 1960s when a possible “Asiatic mode of production” was debated, and again in the 1970s in connection with a growing interest in problems of nomadology. During these decades of academic debate, two apparently opposed positions took shape [in the following account, the date of publication of each quoted work will be given between square brackets to help the reader localize opinions of the time].

According to V. B. Popov [1990], the Middle Age Turkic states (Khakass, Khazar, and so on) had a landed basis: A genuine state with social classes could exist only thanks to a full integration of nomadic and farming populations. For Iu. V. Pavlenko [1968], nomads who develop without any sustained contact with neighbouring civilisations [= settled populations] are not able to reach the level of an early class system and not even of a state formation. S. M. Abramzon [1972] thinks that the state machinery of nomads merges with their warlike organisation, the tribe being the main unit. L. L. Lashuk [1967] notices the development of tribes founded on kinship and their unions or submission one to the other, with a widening of their political influence in sight. L. S. Vasil’ev’s theory [1987] is that the tribe (Rus. plemia), unlike the clan (rod), may play the role of a “proto-state”, a “chiefdom”, in so far as it is not based on a link of genealogical kinship. A. I. Pershits [1983] is against such an idea. Kh. E. Masanov [1995] has no recourse to the concept of “state” but uses complex periphrases to point out the regulation of social processes by a genealogical identification of the individual or of the group. A. M. Khazanov [2000] denies the appearance of a state among nomadic stockbreeders as a result of an inner evolution: It is well known that their governmental institutions follow the conquest of sedentary countries, i.e., their adaptation to an outside world.

There is even no agreement on the content of the concept of “nomadic state”. For example, for G. E. Markov [1970], it is the specific political organisation designed for the exploitation of a nomadic stockbreeding way of life. For V. B. Popov [1990], it is a tool for subjugating neighbouring tribes. For S. M. Abramzon [1972] it is only a military organisation which defends its members and their possessions. For L. L. Lashuk [1967], the Turkic term il or the Mongolian word ulus mark out the appearance of a super-tribe. For A. M. Khazanov [2000], a nomadic state can exist if it is a political organisation where the majority of the population is nomadic and is divided between ruling and ruled classes. For V. G. Lukonin [1987], in an economy which reproduces itself in the course of centuries, the necessary conquest of neighbours leads to the formation of a tribal community which entails a military democracy under the command of a tribal aristocracy. However, huge nomadic empires, lacking a serious economic and social basis, have a limited life expectancy. And N. N. Kradin [1987] agrees with the theory that the formation of a state may appear only when nomads merge with farmers.

We find another point of view with B. E. Kumekov [1972], N. A. Akishev [1998], K. A. Pishchulin [1969], and others, who point out the diversification of nomadic societies, which in some cases reach a political structure rather well developed. For example, S. G. Kliashtornyi [1994] recognises governmental institutions among ancient Turks at the “highest degree of barbarism” (according to Engels’ scale of periods of savagery, barbarism, and civilisation). The only Western scholar quoted by the author is the American P. B. Golden who classifies the ancient Turkic rule into the category of “early states,” but defends also a different view when he says that nomadic tribes organised themselves in states for exploiting vulnerable sedentary states in case of difficulties for getting products of agriculture and crafts. There is still the position which the author calls “the formative theory,” which was launched in the 1930s by B. Ia. Vladimirtsov about “nomadic feudalism.” In the 1950s, it was transformed into the theory of “patriarchal feudalism” and survival of a tribal structure, with S. Asfendiiarov’s works on the basis of material from Kazakhstan. A view that Japanese specialist of Turkic studies M. Masao adopted in the 1970s. Although it was criticised in the 1990s, this theory is still operative today.

The first fundamental sign of an early state structure is considered to be a territorial division of the population. In modern international law, the characteristics of a state are first a territory, secondly a people united into a lawful association of citizens, thirdly [according to Marx and Engels] a sovereign power exerted at least on the greatest part of the territory and population. However, this pertains to a kind of “possibilism”: In fact, it is the result of an intrusion of European historical characteristics of capitalist relationship, inadequate in the case of nomadic societies.

The specialists of nomadic studies have shown the great variety of typological schemes of nomadic life, from the simplest to the most complex forms, and at the same time they have cast light on the fact that an alleged “pure nomadism” with herdsmen wandering around without a stable itinerary, never existed. The first level of a genuine organisation is the family and clan community. Owing to the specific conditions of nomadic life, this level of organisation has endured distortions, for example by the adoption of a whole clan as a slave clan or the organisation of the people in ‘wings’. The unconditional principle of respect of the younger to the older has allowed submission to the order without systematic resort to state force. The ideology of a nomadic state, especially of ancient Turkic states, did not promote the defence of the ruling and wealthy strata, as in Europe, but the responsibility towards the community’s youngest members. If we look at nomadic societies in the Middle-Age, we see that none of them was self-sufficient, and that they were either subjugated or subjugating one to another, and this explains the conquests led by some entities. Finally, the main difference between nomadic and European states is the lack of antagonistic relationship within nomadic societies.

Françoise Aubin, National Centre for Scientific Research, Paris
CER: II-3.1.A-102