Tuesday, April 21, 2020

A historical meditation for Tea Day

Ahh, I do love a hot cup of Ahmad of London green tea at ten in the morning. And despite being (unapologetically) a left-Eurasianist, I’m still enough of an Anglophile to celebrate Tea Day in April rather than in December. My Anglophilia of course came before my Eurasianism, so I suppose it wouldn’t be quite kosher to blame Konstantin Leont’ev, Prince Trubetskoi or even that incorrigible lover of everything British Prince DS Mirsky for that. But I think I’ve made my point.

According to legend, tea was discovered by accident, in 2737 BC. The divine Emperor Shennong, who was also a skilled herbalist and physician, preferred to drink only water which had been boiled and thus cleansed of any impurities. It happened one day that the retainer whose job it was to boil the Emperor’s water left the cauldron unattended for a few minutes, and a dead leaf from a Camellia plant growing wild fell off an overhanging branch into the cauldron, turning the water a bright orange-yellow. The retainer, who realised almost too late that the water had been left boiling, rushed back to fetch the hot water but failed to notice the leaf which had fallen in. When Shennong tasted the water he praised his retainer and asked how the drink came to be so refreshing, which is how he came to discover the properties of tea.

For a long time, up until the Han Dynasty, the herb was treated strictly as medicinal – and it was grown mostly on the southwest border of the empire, in what is now Sichuan and Yunnan. It gradually grew to be used recreationally from the Jin Dynasty into the Tang Dynasty, when its first mention as a recreational drink is recorded by Lu Yu in the Classic of Tea, written around the year 760 AD. One reason for this shift was that the process of brewing strong tea became simpler. Instead of the laborious process of steaming, pressing and moulding tea cakes from the first flush, it was discovered that the same taste could be gotten by simply sun-drying or roasting the leaves. The price of tea plummeted and it became available to a wider number of people, and could be drunk socially instead of simply as a medicine reserved for the ruling class.

Naturally, around this time as well, the tea trade began in earnest, along both the Northern and the Southern overland routes. Chinese tea came into demand both from Tibetan highlanders and from Turco-Mongol nomads, who bartered for it from the Tang Emperor under the tributary system. Tea would reach Korea through the tributary system by the 640s, and Japan by 805. The Arab world also became aware of tea at this time, with an account of Chinese tea and salt taxation being given in the report of an Arabic traveller in Guangzhou in the year 879. The cultivation and harvest of tea leaves was kept under strict state control, precisely on account of its tributary value. There were even regulations to the effect that the tea bushes could be tended only by unmarried maidens, and the diets of these nubile young tea-gatherers were also regulated so that the oils from their skin would not damage the flavour of the leaves. The tea that was traded to the tributary states tended to be of a lower quality than that consumed domestically, and also tended to be shipped in bulk for convenience.

Shennong’s brew of course has a long-standing appreciation in both the English-speaking world and the Russian-speaking world, to the point where it was among the staple goods of trade along both the Maritime Route (a trade dating back to the Song Dynasty) and the Siberian Tract (dating back to the Yuan Dynasty). Speaking personally, my own tea-drinking habits were indelibly formed in Saimasai in Kazakhstan, where the custom is to serve black tea with whole milk and sugar, on a dastarhan usually decked out with copious quantities of pastries, cheese, fruits and sweets, and of course naan with butter and jam. (I later got spoiled by bottled Unif Premium Assam Milk Tea, delicious when chilled and readily available in your average chaoshi in Baotou…)

Ahem. At any rate, black tea largely arose as a result of this expanded trade. Raw green tea, even sun-dried or roasted, tended to spoil. As a method of preservation, tea traders on all three routes began to crush, roll out and oxidise the tea leaves in a controlled environment, only afterwards allowing them to dry, producing a stronger flavour and a deeper colour – and also a product that could be shipped over long distances and long travel times without spoiling. It was in this form that tea was introduced to Europe by a Portuguese Jesuit, Jasper de Cruz, in 1560. It goes without saying that the subsequent European thirst for tea was one among several reasons that the colonial European powers began to violently muscle their way into the Indian Ocean and prey upon trade on the Maritime Route through the fortified-port system. The destruction of the old Indian Ocean-centred tributary world system, and the creation of a new capitalist one centred in the Atlantic, thus had a great deal to do with the tea trade.

But don’t think I’m going to go all puritanical in some sort of self-flagellating leftist paroxysm over this history, even as I acknowledge it. Tea is something to be deeply enjoyed and thoroughly appreciated – and the variety and the methods of brewing make the preparation and drinking of tea a thoroughly-enjoyable pastime. In our house – having both Chinese and American drinkers – we drink loose-leaf, tea balls, bagged tea and matcha; and the favoured brands are Maiskii, Taylors of Harrogate (particularly Yorkshire Tea – that’s the good stuff) and of course Ahmad (both the house green and the Earl Grey), though Twinings, Bigelow and even certain parts of the Unilever mega-conglomerate also have a welcome. At any rate, a happy Tea Day to all – please do enjoy an extra cup or two!

Monday, April 20, 2020

Chinagate is the new Russiagate

Red Ogre and Blue Ogre, from the Legend of Momotarô

If you ever needed proof of the truth of the assertion by the great WEB DuBois, spoken in 1956, that:
I believe that democracy has so far disappeared in the United States that no “two evils” exist. There is but one evil party with two names, and it will be elected despite all I can do or say. There is no third party.
… one need look no further than the utter sham that is Chinagate, and the current mania on the right for ‘holding China accountable’ for the abject failures of the American government to keep its people safe. The idea that China is somehow responsible for the spread of SARS-CoV-2 around the world on account of the ‘six days’ (itself a brazen lie – China warned the world about the human transmission of SARS-2 on the fifteenth of January, not the twentieth) and that this is somehow to blame for the United States government doing nothing for two full months after the WHO announcement is risible on its face. That has not stopped the new nationalist right from promoting this narrative with every single outlet they have available.

But that is not the most interesting thing about Chinagate. What is interesting about Chinagate is how exactly it parallels Russiagate. I note, grimly and without satisfaction, that I had already predicted this turn of events in 2018. Tucker Carlson is the Rachel Maddow of the new nationalist right. The anti-China narrative uses the same tropes about China’s ‘authoritarianism’ to blow up the non-story – literally, the fake news – of China’s putative unresponsiveness to the outbreak. It uses the same media spread. Cable news is the primary medium, which is of course natural since MSNBC is based on the Fox News model. There’s the same sort of emphasis on ‘holding [Russia / China] accountable’, the same propping up of an élite-run innuendo-heavy nothingburger ‘investigation’ [Mueller Report / Wuhan Institute of Virology] as an outlet for carefully-massaged popular anger. There’s the same trotting out of ‘intelligence’ community ‘experts’, whose job is literally to spread misinformation, to bolster the narrative [Russia / China]. There’s the same orchestrations of performative flag-waving.

Remember the Japanese legend of Momotarô. The red ogre and the blue ogre pretend to be enemies, but they really just want to kidnap the villagers and steal their food – in this case, the red ogre and the blue ogre both want to kidnap our votes and steal our livelihoods. And they both do so in this case by pointing to a horde of foreign devils and insinuating that the other ogre is in league with them. The scapegoating of China in 2020, like the scapegoating of Russia in 2016, is little more than a cynical ploy used by one wing or other of the Evil Party to manipulate voters into pulling the lever a particular way. And, of course, blue ogre Joe Biden – creepy old neoconservative dotard that he is – has jumped right on that train, attacking Trump from the right on China. The message is clear: we have always been at war with Eastasia.

The fact that this narrative of a generalised and overblown ‘authoritarian’ threat to the homeland from Asia has ‘sped up’ in recent years is no accident. The Asian continent has gotten a lot more integrated over the past decade, to the point where we are approaching something akin to a Eurasian power bloc. Strategically, this is a nightmare for the Atlanticists, who sought specifically to break up such a power bloc during the Cold War, and have sought to prevent it from recurring ever since. Little wonder that the chattering classes on both sides have begun hyperventilating.

Several things have contributed to solidify the current alliance-of-convenience between the powers of the Silk Road and the Tea Road. The most important contributing factor has been the overreach of the NATO alliance, going back to the accession of the Baltic states and the two wars with Yugoslavia. The wholesale betrayal and destruction of a democratic state which had somehow kept up friendly ties with Russia and friendlier ties with China caused a great deal of alarm in both countries, particularly after the ‘accidental’ NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999.

Successive acts of Atlanticist imperial overreach followed, which caused Russia and China – and later, Iran – to recognise and begin acting on their overlapping strategic interests: the war in Iraq in 2003; Saakashvili’s anti-Ossetian bombardment in Georgia in 2008; the war in Libya in 2011; the Syrian Civil War and NATO’s heavy involvement on one side; the continued support for the most extreme forms of political Zionism and hostility to the Palestinians on the part of the Atlanticist powers. Iran, China and Russia have been acting, with increasing degrees of coherence, as a bloc on all of these gæopolitical issues involving Asia. And their actions, at least in this theatre, have been entirely defensive!

This is not to say that real gæopolitical and ideological points of dissension do not exist between the three ‘poles’ of this new alliance. There is no such thing as a monolithic ‘authoritarianism’, still less ‘totalitarianism’, to which all three of these Asian powers ascribe. Real differences do exist, and thankfully the cooler and more realistic heads in all three countries continue to be mindful of them. What’s more: as a Marx-influenced left-Eurasianist I am very far from neutral on these differences. More on that in a blog post to come – watch this space. However, the fact that both the blue-ogre neoliberals and now the red-ogre new nationalist right have come to describe two poles of the alliance in a language which indelibly yokes them in the American imagination with the third speaks volumes indeed. And it says more than just that the American élite are simply incapable of thinking or acting strategically on the world stage.

We are now seeing the manifestations of a generalised hostility to Asia among the Washington donor caste. It’s generally ad hoc, but the primary raison d’être for this generalised hostility is to keep Americans afraid enough of the great external threat to control their electoral behaviour. However, some sectors among the Washington élite (notably former Trump appointees Bannon and McMaster, but also some, like Stoller, connected with the neoliberal Democrats) see the promotion of an anti-China grand narrative as the ‘big push’ necessary to lead a cultural, œconomic and financial renaissance.

Asian integration is still in its nascent stage. It’s also been mostly ad hoc, defensive and in response to aggressions by the Atlanticist powers in the Balkans and in the Near East. (Proactive œconomic organisations like the Eurasian Union and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation are the exceptions that prove the rule.) However, as Asian integration continues to deepen, we can expect to see the American government and its cable-news and legacy-media mouthpieces amplify the anti-Chinese, anti-Russian and anti-Iranian invective, which we can expect to become more violent and hateful. Hate crimes against Asian-Americans may be occasionally tutted over, but they will be ultimately considered as acceptable ‘collateral damage’ in the fight against the Great Enemy. In the meantime, it is incumbent on Americans that they don’t buy the propaganda. It’s not in our interest and never has been: the red ogre and the blue ogre aren’t actually as friendly as they pretend to be.

EDIT: If you want to see some actual investigative journalism on the Wuhan Institute of Virology and how that came to be a meme among the new nationalist right, here’s an excellent piece by The Grayzone’s Max Blumenthal and Ajit Singh. Also, Nature has a peer-reviewed journal article on how we know the SARS-CoV-2 virus to be naturally-occurring rather than lab-created.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

The Family Chronicle: a review

Autumn trees at Aksakovo, Orenburg Oblast
Farewell, my figures, bright or dark, my people, good or bad—I should rather say, figures that have their bright and dark sides, and people who have both virtues and vices. You were not great heroes, not imposing personalities; you trod your path on earth in silence and obscurity, and it is long, very long, since you left it. But you were men and women, and your inward and outward life was not mere dull prose, but as interesting and instructive to us as we and our life in turn will be interesting and instructive to our descendants. You were actors in that mighty drama which mankind has played on this earth since time immemorial; you played your parts as conscientiously as others, and you deserve as well to be remembered.
- Sergei Aksakov, Epilogue to The Family Chronicle
Russian hunter, fisher, literary patron, folklorist, novelist, nature writer and biographer Sergei Timofeevich Aksakov is unfortunately a bit overlooked in the great literary canon of that nation, despite having been a close friend and enthusiastic supporter of a certain young Nikolai Gogol (celebrated author of Dead Souls and The Inspector-General). He appears to be overlooked for several reasons: for one thing, he belongs to an ‘in-between’ generation in Russian literature, being the senior by several years not only of Gogol but also of Pushkin, Lermontov and Turgenev. For another thing: his creative period seems to have come in his waning years, by which times the tastes of the Russian reading public had decisively shifted. Aksakov’s scrupulous realism and focussed miniatures of Russian backcountry life were overshadowed by Dostoevsky’s psychological flourish and Tolstoy’s grand historical epic style. And yet: Aksakov was deeply appreciated by both Gogol and Turgenev, who saw in his work a depth of truth, closeness to nature, and a gift for exploring the subtler dynamics of psychology.

Aksakov’s first quasi-biographical novel in what was to become a trilogy, The Family Chronicle (also titled in translation A Russian Gentleman), was published in 1856. The events it narrates, however, take place in the late 1700s under the reign of Catherine the Great. The Family Chronicle is, at its core, Sergei Timofeevich’s story of his mother, and her relationship with her father-in-law, the head of the family, whose surname in the novel is changed to Bagrov. But despite its short length, it is a sprawling, ambitious work of fiction which deftly weaves together a number of disparate strands. There is the naturalism and ethnography of the Tea Road frontier, where the author grew up – what is now the Oblast of Orenburg and the Republic of Bashkortostan. There is also the main story itself: the interactions between the author’s mother and father and their various relations. There is a depiction of the drawing-room habits of the Russian nobility in general, something which might not appear out-of-place in an Austen novel. And then through it all there are subtle social commentaries, embedded within keen observations, on ethnic relations and the class conflicts between serf and master, something which certainly echoes the Slavophile critique of the institution of serfdom.

What is noteworthy about these characters, as is hinted from the postscript from which I quoted a piece above, is that these characters are quite human. Indeed, the frank depictions of frontier life in The Family Chronicle occasionally met with the disapproval of the censors, and the version I have is peppered lightly with footnotes to this effect. The primary conflicts of the story arise between characters who genuinely mean well and genuinely care for each other. And yet their temperaments, life situations, loves and other priorities place them at odds, without malice – and yet not without hurt. True, some of these characters do exhibit malice and even cruelty: however, even in these cases, Sergei Aksakov is quick to point out the underlying logic of it, so that even if we do not condone, we may nonetheless understand what he is showing us.

The main character in the book is the author’s grandfather, Stepan Mikhailovich. A proud nobleman from an ancient Kievan line, descended from a distant Varangian ancestor named Shimon, Stepan Mikhailovich Bagrov is a short, wiry, fair and formidable lordling. Although he is all but illiterate, his general inclination is toward a ferociously-scrupulous generosity. He is willing to forgive slights, pranks, laziness and the common run of knavery and disobedience. But the one thing that gets under his skin are deliberate lies. He is brutally honest and demands the same honesty of others. And when he is angry, he has a tendency to fly into violent rages against his serfs and even his wife and children. The author neither overlooks nor excuses this, though we are meant to see it as preferable – in the case of his serfs – to locking them up or to involving the police.

With the ancient Bagrov estate at Simbirsk dwindling generation by generation after being parcelled away amidst an ever-expanding brood of cadets, Stepan Mikhailovich hears of the land rush in Bashkortostan and goes out there to try his luck. Though, being honest, he views the exploitation of the Bashkirs with extreme distaste, he nonetheless has no objection to buying such land on the cheap from a fellow Russian, and he purchases 12,000 acres on which to settle himself, his family and most of his serfs, 200 miles east of the city of Ufa. This settlement of ‘New Bagrovo’ soon becomes home to him and his family: his wife Arina Vasileevna; his cousin Praskovya Ivanovna; his four daughters Aksinya, Elizaveta, Aleksandra and Tatyana; and his son Aleksei.

What follows is a detailed gæographical and ethnographical description of the land and its people. Aksakov dwells at length on the beauties of the Bashkortostani woods and steppes and hills; the variety of its wild flora; the bounty of its fish and fowl; the abundance of its mineral wealth – and in this there is a tone of sadness as well, for he knows that much of that wild and natural beauty has been despoiled by the settlement of which his own family was a part. And he also describes with no small amount of Romantic admiration the free life of the semi-nomadic and loosely-Muslim Bashkir people, who in his telling tend flocks as well as keep bees.

An episode follows in which his pretty, orphaned young cousin Praskovya is seduced by a scheming suitor named Mikhail Maksimovich Kurolesov. Stepan Mikhailovich at once takes a fervent dislike to Kurolesov, but the young man has an uncanny knack for insinuating himself in the company of the women of the house. Attracted by Praskovya’s large fortune though deterred from expressing his intentions openly by Stepan Mikhailovich, he manages to convince Praskovya – then only fifteen years old – to elope with him by means of several intermediaries. Stepan Mikhailovich is incensed when he finds out, and forbids Kurolesov from visiting the house. His character is gradually revealed as a cruel, debauched tyrant, who takes pleasure in tormenting his serfs and taking the pretty ones to his bed. He hides this side of his nature from his wife as long as possible – though she does find out, after he beats one of her favourite serfs, Ivan, to within an inch of his life. After Praskovya lets him know he’s found out, he also beats her, and locks her in the cellar on her own estate. Stepan Mikhailovich hears of this and mounts a rescue at the head of an armed band of his own men, and carries her off without resistance from a drunken and incapacitated Kurolesov. Not long after this, Kurolesov dies suddenly, and despite having been deceived in his character so long, Praskovya bitterly mourns his death.

The bulk of the story, however, concerns Stepan Mikhailovich’s young son Aleksei – the author’s father under another name – and his courtship of and marriage to the author’s mother, under the pseudonym Sofya Nikolaevna. Aksakov details the sad childhood of his mother, condemned to a menial Cinderella existence in her own house under the harsh tyranny of her father Nikolai Zubin’s young but envious second wife. The wife takes deathly ill and begs the forgiveness of Sofya on her deathbed, which Sofya is all too happy to offer. Sofya Nikolaevna is true to that forgiveness, and cares for her younger stepsiblings as though they were her own flesh and blood. But her harsh upbringing has some startling effects on her character. For one thing, although she is proud, she cannot tolerate pride and tyranny in others. She cannot stand duplicity or pretension. But, a bit less attractively, after her experience with her stepmother she begins to have a fascination with exercising power, and entertains fantasies of control and mastery over her husband. This causes a great deal of friction in their marriage.

The language that Aksakov uses to describe his parents’ courtship wanders between the tolerantly-affectionate and the tragic. He spares no effort to describe the ill-suited nature of the match. Aleksei, though handsome, is a simple and forthright soul, very much a man of ‘the country’. He enjoys hunting and fishing – two pursuits which Sofya Nikolaevna views with disdain. Sofya, on the other hand, though far from Saint Petersburg society, is very much a city girl: sophisticated, clever, sensitive, learned in French and German, attentive to manners and the fine details of decorum. Aleksei meets her several times and is instantly smitten with her; for her part, Sofya is attracted by Aleksei’s humility and stoic quietude, and encourages him where she scorns the flattery of her prouder suitors. And she also begins to think of herself as Aleksei’s saviour, or a sort of Pygmalion: in Aleksei, she saw a man she could guide, tutor and raise in whatever image she saw fit.

And so, problems crop up from the start. Aleksei’s sisters, particularly Elizaveta and Aleksandra, take an instant dislike to Sofya and do their level best to blacken her name for Stepan Mikhailovich’s benefit, and the once-burned patriarch of the family puts his foot down hard. Aleksei threatens to commit suicide, however, and rather extorts his father’s acceptance of Sofya. This does not impress her. Sofya and Aleksei have further disagreements and miscommunications. Sofya starts to think of Aleksei as shallow and unfeeling, and Aleksei begins to tread on eggshells around a fiancée he sees as overly-sensitive. Even so, the wedding goes ahead: Sofya overcomes all her doubts through prayer to an icon of the Theotokos, and doubles down on her efforts to groom Aleksei into her image of the ideal husband.

Aksakov details many of these trials in his parents’ marriage. Sofya finds that she detests life in Bagrovo. She views the living conditions there as dirty and crude. The social circles there she finds to be limiting and low. She is repeatedly slighted, annoyed and attacked by two of her sisters-in-law particularly, who see her as a threat to their position in their father’s house. She starts to think her husband won’t stand up for her when they do so – though in truth Aleksei tries to smooth over conflicts without hurting anyone’s feelings. And she develops a keen jealousy of Aleksei’s attachment to the Bashkortostani outdoors, his hunts and his fishing trips.

The one factor that saves their marriage – and indeed the central relationship in the book – is Sofya Nikolaevna’s father-in-law Stepan Mikhailovich. Though Sofya is occasionally shocked by her father-in-law’s violent temper, she soon comes to treasure his fundamental honesty, openness and fair dealing. And the now-elderly patriarch of the family, for all that he had opposed the marriage, at once sees in his daughter-in-law a woman of deep piety, sound sense and formidable intellect. Stepan’s advice and guidance help the mismatched newlyweds to come to a modus vivendi, that helps them weather several crises that crop up in their early years.

The Family Chronicle does not carry any grand philosophical themes – it is truly a work of biographical fiction rather than memoir. There is very little exploration of the ‘great Russian soul’ or the promulgation of the great Russian truth in his work: though there is plenty of space, as can be seen, for the treatment of Russian souls in plural and in variety; and his patient love for all of them – even the ones who misbehave or who misunderstand each other – has the ring of its very own truth.

But certain strands of the author’s romantic high-Tory Slavophilia are there to be noticed. Aksakov is more observational than didactic when it comes to treating his surroundings, but his contempt for the institution of serfdom – as noted through its ill spiritual effects on even obedient serfs and well-meaning masters – comes through with remarkable clarity. His romanticist love of nature – probably better explored in his tracts on fishing and hunting elsewhere – also comes through quite notably, given his lavish and affectionate descriptions of the countryside around Orenburg. Some environmentalist themes crop up as well, as he does not spare his own family from criticism for despoiling the landscape with building projects, overhunting and overfishing.

But even here he evinces a certain preference even if he does not say so explicitly. He does his best to be fair to the town life in Ufa. But his great love is the wild countryside of the Tea Road; and despite the ill behaviour of his aunts to his mother, Aksakov nonetheless takes a high view of the closeness and affection that tied his rural spear-side of the family together. He admires the frankness and fair-mindedness of his grandfather even if he can never quite excuse or condone his rages. He also shows a high opinion of his father’s profound simplicity – mistaken by Sofya Nikolaevna for dullness or inattentiveness in good times, but showing his true and noble colours in times of difficulty.

Aksakov writes from the heart about people and places he knows intimately, and that sincerity shows in the result. The Family Chronicle is not what I would call a deep book, but it is a thoroughly enjoyable read and an excellent local treatment of life – among a certain class, anyway – on the Tea Road during the Russian expansion eastward.

Sergei Timofeevich Aksakov

Thursday, April 9, 2020

Russia and the Long Transition: a review

Samîr ’Amîn

The late, great and much-lamented Coptic Ægyptian world-system theorist and Third World activist Samîr ’Amîn put out the book Russia and the Long Transition from Capitalism to Socialism through Monthly Review in 2016, two years before his repose. A collection of his essays written between 1990 and 2015 and arranged with an eye to the era of hybrid war, they offer a critical look at both Tsarist Russia and the Soviet Union through the eyes of both global class struggle and regional and world gæopolitics. In Dr ’Amîn’s view, despite the failures of the Soviet Union to achieve its promise of radically-participatory politics, despite the grossly irresponsible cupidity and callousness of Russia’s ‘Jurassic Park capitalist’ nomenklatura during the Eltsin years, and despite a few of the missteps Vladimir Putin has taken in accommodating these new oligarchs, the particular history and gæography of Russia taken together have potentially placed it on a uniquely-informative long path towards a more just order.

Though far from a fervent supporter of any of the stages of Russian political development – ’Amîn offers critical words of all of Russia’s political leaders: the Tsars, Lenin, Stalin, Brezhnev, Gorbachev, Eltsin and Putin – ’Amîn treats the situation of Russia’s people and nation with a remarkable degree of sympathy. Though he calls himself, with somewhat misleading self-effacement, a ‘reader of history’ rather than a historian proper, it’s clear that his knowledge of history – and Russian history in particular – is quite extensive. The extent and care he demonstrates in that reading is clear also from his knowledge of Russian thought. He shows us a few of the cards in his hand in the first essay of the book, when he cites with approval the thought of left-wing religious philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev and linguist and Eurasianist pioneer Prince Nikolai Trubetskoi.

One theme that runs through this collection of essays is the sense that Russia has had privileged access to building a truly participatory politics, but has missed the mark on several occasions. As familiar as Dr ’Amîn seems to be with the history of Russian thought, this does not seem to be an accidental præoccupation. The call to a more just world order and a more participatory politics can be found in the thinking of both authors mentioned above, Berdyaev and Trubetskoi. In the thought of the latter two authors, this is mediated through the Slavophile emphasis on the rural peasant commune, the obshchina, as a living model of the spiritual sobornost’ that ought to define the ideal politic. In Berdyaev’s thought, sobornost’ refers a total togetherness and active mutuality that nonetheless does not override the personhood or the creative powers of its participants. ’Amîn does not make explicit reference to this ideal, but his references to the ‘messianic’ tendencies in Russian political thought show that he is aware of it and has been influenced by it to an extent.

These essays having been written over a period of fifteen years, they do vary quite a bit in terms of their scope and preoccupation. However, ’Amîn returns to many of the same themes in these essays. He probes the tension between gæography and history at the beating heart of Russian thought during Soviet times – a remnant, in fact, of the debates in the early nineteenth century between the Russian populist Aleksandr Herzen and his conservative Slavophile interlocutors Aleksei Khomyakov and Ivan Kireevsky. He notes the ahistorical and obfuscating usages of the terminologies of ‘empire’ and the Arendtian ‘totalitarianism’ discourse when it comes to discussing both Tsarist Russia and its successor Soviet state. He undertakes several cutting (but measured) critiques of Soviet and post-Soviet rule in Eurasia. And finally, ’Amîn assesses the resuscitation of fascism in world politics. Though that assessment has a certain emphasis on its rôle in the Maidan movement in the Ukraine, it also extends to the troubling resurgence of fascist politics in places like India, Brazil and the Middle East.

Gæography versus history: a Eurasian correction of Lenin

Samîr ’Amîn opens this collection of essays with what we might call a historiosophical critique of Lenin in relation to Russian history. In ’Amîn’s reading, Lenin adhered to a certain historical view, popular among German and French Marxists of the time, that the progression toward socialism was determined and linear through a series of discrete historical phases. The fact that Russia in 1917, and later China in 1949, were the first countries to implement explicitly-socialist revolutions posed something of a problem for this historical model. Lenin theorised that these countries revolted when they did because they were ‘weak links’ in world capitalism. ’Amîn takes partial exception to this view, and advances along a line of critique which is characteristic of the left Eurasianists, but which does not go as far as the particularist views of historian Andrei Fursov.

’Amîn begins his analysis of the divergence of Russia from Europe with the Crusades. In his view, the Crusades were a concerted effort on the part of Western Europe to ‘break into’ the world system of trade, by exploiting the weaknesses of an Eastern Roman Empire which was warring against the Arab Caliphate. Whatever the individual motivations of the Crusaders were, the people who financed them – based in Italian city-states like Venice and Florence – were mostly interested in gaining access to trade goods from India and China. The wealth which the Crusaders subsequently plundered from Constantinople, Damascus and Jerusalem subsequently went to finance Italian mercantile and colonialist expeditions in the other direction: out across the Atlantic. The northern ‘tea road’ was largely irrelevant to these gæopolitical struggles when the Crusades began; it rose to relevance only with the Mongols. Russia was, for a brief time, integrated into the mainstream of the world system through the Mongol horde. However, this integration would not last: the Mongol polity collapsed, and Western Europe bypassed Eurasia by using its colonial ventures in the Atlantic to muscle in onto trade in the maritime route.

Thus, the motives of the Tsars to expand Moscow’s power eastward were simply not comparable with the motives for the mercantile powers of Western Europe to expand westward. Peter the Great was looking to strengthen the state, but he was not motivated by the same population or financial pressures as the Western monarchs. As a result, Tsarist Russia neither systematically massacred nor systematically exploited the Central Asian peoples on its eastward march: the Tsarist state was content to merely exercise political sovereignty over the land. ’Amîn agrees with Berdyaev when he states that the history of Russia between 1500 and 1900 was no organic or linear progression, but riven by contradicting forces that pulled it both westward and eastward by turns. Although he dismisses the idea of Russia as an Asian or ‘half-Asian’ power, he also gives voice to the view that Russia’s brief, ‘Asian’ window of engagement with the mediæval world system offered it a unique vantage point for articulating an alternative politics. Here he comes very close to Eurasianists like Trubetskoi and Il’ya Fondaminskii.

He elucidates this further by comparing and contrasting the political formation of the United Kingdom – and its treatment in subsequent popular history – with that of the ‘gathering of the Russian lands’. ’Amîn notes that while the various Celtic peoples of Great Britain – to say nothing of those in Ireland – had been largely subjugated by English force and integrated into a ‘Greater England’ by less-than-peaceful means, in general the portrayal of this process in popular media is positive. That is very different from the grim tone that popular Anglophone media take when discussing Russia’s relationships with its neighbours. This, ’Amîn argues, despite the fact that the Tsarists treated the people in their Baltic, Caucasian and Central Asian acquisitions, not to mention the Belarusians and Ukrainians, no worse than they treated the people in Russia. That is to say: serfdom, brutal though it was, was the same everywhere no matter where you went in the Tsarist polity. The Russian Orthodox did not, as a rule, evangelise by the sword: Muslim, Buddhist, Tengriist and Shamanic minorities in Russia still exist. The Tsars – and later the Soviets – even allowed for differences in language: the Baltic, Finnic, Caucasian and Central Asian languages in the CIS are all still alive; while Gælic is no longer spoken in Scotland and rarely in Ireland, and Welsh was revived only by a minor miracle.

Here it is necessary to note that ’Amîn agrees, albeit in a rather roundabout way, with dissident critics of the Soviet Union like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. In Solzhenitsyn’s Letter to the Soviet Leaders, he castigates the Soviet leadership for siphoning the wealth away from the Russian heartland to subsidise the national minorities. ’Amîn notes this critique, though not ascribing it to Solzhenitsyn by name, as an example of how the Soviet Union cannot and should not be classified in an œconomic sense as an ‘empire’ in the same way that the colonialist powers of the West were (and are). The latter utilised their colonial holdings for extracting wealth from the periphery to enrich the core. The former did not.

At the same time, ’Amîn is quite far from being a particularist or an advocate of a Russian Sonderweg. As he himself puts it:
Capitalism introduced a new challenge to the whole of humanity, to the peoples of its advanced centres, and to those of its backward peripheries. By this I mean that capitalism cannot continue indefinitely as permanent accumulation and the exponential growth that it entails will end up in certain death for humanity. The question that the Russians posed in 1917 is neither artificial nor is it the odd product of their so-called messianic impulses or the particular circumstances of their country. It is a question that is now posed to the whole of humankind.
Russia is not exempt from the processes or from the deadly logic of capitalism. However, ’Amîn is critical of the lacuna in Lenin’s formula about Russia’s status as a ‘weak link’ in world capitalism, and offers an alternative explanation rooted in world-system theory.

Eurasia under Soviet rule: a mixed legacy

Samîr ’Amîn dedicates a significant part of this volume to a careful, nuanced critique of the Soviet leadership, which goes thus: the early bureaucratisation and centralisation of the Soviet experiment created structural flaws in the state system; split apart the early worker-peasant alliance; encouraged the growth of a state-aligned bourgeoisie which then promptly abandoned the Soviet experiment when opportunity offered; and barred the masses from participation in decision-making, depoliticising them and rendering them apathetic when the collapse finally happened. ’Amîn is emphatic that the dissolution of the Soviet Union was neither inevitable nor necessary – nor even desirable, from a Central Asian perspective! – but that there were warning signs dating at least to the 1950s if not the 1930s which signalled these structural weaknesses.

In so doing, he takes aim at two misguided notions in popular historiography of the Soviet Union. First: the idea that the Soviet Union was ‘totalitarian’. In ’Amîn’s view, this is a descriptor which yokes it unjustly to fascist dictatorships. ’Amîn, much like the modern day Russian historiosophist and cultural critic Aleksandr Shchipkov, himself not much enamoured of Soviet ideology, also has little patience for what Shchipkov calls the ‘binary theory of totalitarianism’ in part because it has so little explanatory power for how Soviet government actually functioned (or failed), and is unable (whether by oversight or by design) to theorise the necessary distinctions between Soviet corporatism and fascism.

The second notion he critiques is the loaded dispute over whether the œconomics of the Soviet Union was ‘really-existing socialism’ or ‘state capitalism’. ’Amîn finds both terms obfuscating in different ways, being ideologically-oriented toward a particular understanding of socialism as inherently yoked to the Soviet project, even after the soviet councils themselves were rendered powerless. Though he does not want to overlook the early potentiality of these councils for participatory politics, he believes it is wrong to ascribe that politics to the system that replaced them. At the same time, he has no desire to legitimate an ideological narrative that damns the Soviet Union for having posed an alternative to capitalism in the first place. ’Amîn therefore refers instead Soviet autocracy and corporatism, or the more neutral ‘Soviet mode of production’, in which vertically-integrated blocks consisting of workers and management in state-owned enterprises formed alliances and competed for political power within the bureaucracy.

The standard historiography in the West purports to show that the Soviet Union under Stalin was bent on taking over the world, or becoming the sole revolutionary superpower. ’Amîn disputes this as well. He demonstrates that the same centrifugal forces which during the Tsarist period pulled the government at various times both toward Europe (i.e., the reforms of Peter, Catherine and Alexander II) and toward Asia (i.e. the Slavophile-inspired movements of Paul and Alexander III) were also at work in the Soviet government: the Soviet leadership tried by turns to forge alliances with the powers of Western Europe, and only later to make common cause with China. The same statecraft problems of building up a modern œconomy from an agrarian base on the one hand, and defending themselves against imperialist aggression – mostly by Germany – on the other, presented themselves to Lenin, Stalin and Bukharin as they had to the Tsars. ’Amîn does not blame them for taking the same ‘realist’ route that the Tsars had to with foreign affairs, and indeed castigates the ‘academic Marxists’ in the Trotskyist vein for living in ivory towers and not dealing honestly or responsibly with the conundrums of actually trying to build and protect an alternative politics on the ground.

The Soviet Union’s biggest error, in ’Amîn’s view, was to force collectivisation on the peasantry and the indigenous peoples of Asia. This alienated the peasantry – who were so vital to Lenin’s success in 1917 – from the urban workers, and began the process of corporatist bureaucratisation and depoliticisation of the working masses. ’Amîn shows a preference instead for the Chinese solution of land nationalisation and smallholder tenancy. He hereby shows his indebtedness not only to Mao Zedong, but also to post-Maoist theorists on the Chinese Left like Wang Hui, who also explained the depoliticisation of the masses in a Chinese context.

The dynamics of fascism, from 1930 to the present

Samîr ’Amîn does not mince words: the Maidan movement in Ukraine in 2014 was ‘a real “Euro-Nazi” putsch’, motivated by the exact same political forces that promoted fascism in Eastern Europe in the 1930s, as a response to a putative ‘Judæo-Bolshevism’ on the part of Russia – and the narrative which refers to any sort of ‘revolution of dignity’ or restoration of democracy in this event, ‘is purely and simply lying’. However, the proper understanding of these historical forces is blurred by a discourse that deliberately misunderstands what fascism is and why it arises. ’Amîn here takes to task the other side of the binary Arendtian discourse. First: he manages to convincingly delineate the differences between fascism and the Soviet mode of production. Second: he produces a convincing schema of how fascism operates in different œconomic environments.

Firstly, ’Amîn is clear that fascism is not merely any governmental system with an authoritarian police state. Instead, it is always a managerial strategy undertaken by capitalist countries in crisis. It rejects democracy categorically. However, despite its polemical rhetoric to the contrary, the fascist strategy rejects neither modern industrialism, nor monopoly power, nor the hierarchical relationship between capital and labour. ’Amîn appeals to the tragic experiences of labour movements in Germany under Hitler, Italy under Mussolini and Spain under Franco to demonstrate the commitment of fascist movements to the principles of capitalism. Fascism, for all its posturing, is not an alternative to capitalism. It is the last-ditch attempt of capitalism to stave off alternatives.

However, it is not sufficient to stop here. ’Amîn is sensitive to the diverse ways in which fascist strategies are deployed, and divides the historical emergence of fascism into four categories, depending on how fascism in a particular nation responded to its nation’s place in the world system. Fascism varied tremendously depending on whether a nation’s œconomy was ‘developed’ or ‘developing’, or whether they were in a dominant or submissive position militarily. The fascism of Germany and Japan was aggressively-expansionist and based in notions of race superiority; whereas the fascisms of semi-peripheral capitalist nations like Spain, Portugal and Italy were neither expansionist nor race-based, but instead focussed on rooting out democratic and trade-unionist dissent at home. The fascisms of defeated and dependent nations tended to be subject to the whims of their industrial and military patrons.

’Amîn intimates that to understand the modern resurgence of fascism, it’s necessary to understand that capitalism has morphed from its original position as a servant to the nation-state – mercantilist policies designed to enrich a particular nation at the expense of others – to having a truly global logic accountable to no government’s interests and yet dependent upon governmental structures. For the sake of convenience, ’Amîn refers to the Triad. The Triad are governmental and quasi-governmental agencies based in the United States, Europe and Japan – the historical imperialist powers – which serve to promote the forces of global capital; siphon wealth away from Asia, Africa and Latin America in particular; and enrich a globalised haute bourgeoisie which are no longer loyal to or accountable to any single government entity.

The most recent wave of fascism – including not only Ukrainian and Eastern European but also Indian, Latin American and Islâmist forms – ’Amîn attributes to a crisis in this formation. Since around 2006, Russia and China, the peripheral and semi-peripheral nations in which capitalism was never fully completed, have begun gradually, but with increasing insistence, refusing to accept their designated place in a world dominated by the Triad. The resurgence of fascism has therefore been deliberately inculcated and weaponised against Russia, China and the assorted Non-Aligned nations that have begun signing onto their initiatives.

The grandchild must carry on the task of the ancestors

Though his assessments of the current standing and prospects of leftist politics are bracing, to say the least, ’Amîn has not relinquished hope that an alternative politics to capitalism can yet take form. ’Amîn rejects the socialism of the First and Second Internationals – what he calls ‘Socialism I’ – because this form largely capitulated to the imperialistic demands of capital in the core, and its adherents relegated themselves to tinkering with parliamentary and welfare-state patch-ups of core-nation capitalism. The socialism of the Comintern – ‘Socialism II’ – attached itself to the Soviet mode of production and has no route to a return to power. ’Amîn’s diagnosis of the post-Communist parties in ex-Communist states is quite a bit bleaker than mine: he says that by and large they have resigned themselves to appropriating the vocabulary and worldview of nationalism.

But, as ’Amîn puts it, ‘The death of a child does not bring the parent back to life. The grandchild must carry on the task of the ancestors.’ He promotes what he calls ‘Socialism III’, for which he sketches out the broad contours. At the national level Socialism III would, on the surface, look suspiciously like a ‘mixed œconomy’. That is to say: there would be a central development policy, ‘with teeth’, implemented by the state, but plenty of room for non-government actors to promote their own initiatives on a market. Participatory democracy would be promoted in both the political and œconomic spheres simultaneously. Key sectors of the œconomy would be nationalised and firms would be reorganised on a cooperative basis between workers and management, with the state acting as a mediator.

Given the hostility of the world-system to any such alternative, three immediate steps need to be taken for this grandchild to begin his chores. The first is that building the alternative must take precedence over catching up. The second is that œconomies need to delink from the Triad. And the third is that a multipolar world order must emerge. ’Amîn seems to believe that both the Tsarist and the Soviet legacy best equip Russia as the site where this new synthesis will emerge, though he insists that his analysis is not focussed on renovating a lost past, but instead ‘reading history’ to inform the roads currently open in the present for a political realignment.


The above being the general contours of ’Amîn’s essays, speaking as a reader I can’t help but notice a few connexions hinted at in the text. Though he belongs firmly and self-avowedly to a Third World vantage-point, Samîr ’Amîn’s discourse taps into and harmonises with a long and powerful vein of religious leftist thought in Russian émigré circles: a vein to which Nikolai Berdyaev, Sergei Bulgakov, Maria Skobtsova, Il’ya Fondaminskii, Nikolai Trubetskoi, Nikolai Lossky and Georges Florovsky all contributed. He draws from this vein specifically to enrich world-system theory with regard to Russia’s unique position on a historical axis of trade, rendered semi-peripheral by the ‘westward’ process of the European colonial powers. Though he gives little credit to the messianic aspirations of the radical Russian intelligentia, he nonetheless has a significant degree of respect for the conditions upon which they surfaced.

’Amîn is therefore emphatic about Russia’s difference – a vast state which did not comport itself the way the colonial empires of the West did. His ambivalence about Russian leadership, both historical and present, thus has a creative edge to it. Russia’s current contested position in a world order dominated by the Triad positions it well to begin experimenting with real, personalist alternatives to that order. Speaking for myself, this is an argument I have made with respect to China for a long time, as well. And I tend to agree with him that a multipolar world allows for a greater degree of political and œconomic experimentation, without (as much) worry of the instruments of global finance sticking their thumbs on the scales. This series of essays is short, but remarkably substantive; I highly recommend it.

Friday, April 3, 2020

The name of tea

One of the strongest indicators of the continuing influence of the historical ‘great roads’ of the mediæval world system, is actually in the very name for ‘tea’. Linguistically-speaking, the name a country adopted for tea generally depended on the great-road trade route on which it first encountered the beverage. In almost every European language the word for ‘tea’ is descended from the Chinese word 茶. However, depending on whether they got it over the maritime route, or over one of the land routes, the pronunciation of the word for ‘tea’ would vary. (Thus, even the name of this blog has a particular ‘orientation’, so to speak. The choice of Chai over Tea was deliberate, and is meant to give voice to an anti-colonialist position as well as the Eurasianist political preferences of the blogger.)

In general (though there are a couple of notable exceptions), the cultures which traded tea along the maritime route, took the mediæval Fujianese (or Min Nan) pronunciation of the word, which was . This is because Fujian was historically the easternmost terminus of the maritime route. As a result, in the Dravidian languages of South India, the word for tea looks quite familiar: for example, in Telugu the word for tea is ṭī టీ, in Sinhala the word for tea is තේ, as it also is in the Tamil compounds tēnīr தேநீர் ‘brewed tea’ and tēyilai தேயிலை ‘tea leaves’. In standard Indonesian, Malay and Javanese the word for tea is teh. In Khmer it is te តែ. And in Malagasy, spoken on Madagascar, the word is dite.

When the colonising Dutch managed to break in on the tea trade in the Indian Ocean in the 1600s, largely based out of their ‘fortified ports’ in Indonesia, they also took on the local name for tea, which was transliterated into Dutch as thee. The Dutch name caught on throughout Western Europe as they were the main suppliers of goods from the Indian Ocean throughout the century. Hence, French thé, German Tee, Spanish , Danish te and English tea. The notable major exception is the Portuguese chá, because the colonising Portuguese got their tea from the Cantonese-speaking port of Macau, where the local word for tea is caa4.

If, on the other hand, the major route of trade was over one of the two land-based routes, the etymology of the word for tea is then based in the Mandarin chá. Thus, for example, in Mongolian the word for tea is tsaj цай; in Farsi čây چای, in Arabic šây شَاي‎, in Kazakh shaı шай and in Russian chai чай. There is a pretty clear dividing line within Europe itself depending on whether they first got their tea from the Dutch over the sea route, or from the Russians and the Turks over the land route. In the South Slavic lands they used a cognate of chá while in Italy they use a derivative of . In Austria and Germany a cognate of is used, while Czechia and Slovakia use a cognate of chá. Hungarian has a cognate of while Romanian has a cognate of chá. The /chá divide even separates Finland from Karelia and the western Sámi from the eastern Sámi.

There thus seems to be a loose, not perfect and by no means altogether deterministic, distinction in gæopolitical orientation between language groups and chá language groups – that runs parallel to the thalassocratic vs. tellurocratic orientation of the historical trade behaviour of these groups. Certainly worth considering.

The three great Asian roads

In an age of realigning powers and the prædominance of the Belt and Road project in the œconomic and gæopolitical life of Asia, the old præmodern axes of cultural transmission and ferment are becoming ever more relevant and necessary to consider. One of these is a thalassocratic axis dependent on sea-power, and the other two are tellurocratic axes dependent on land-power. By way of introduction, then, this first blog post for Silk and Chai will discuss in the broad strokes these three historical roads.


First, let’s start with the old thalassocratic road, which is sometimes called the Maritime Route or the Indian Ocean trade network. This is the road occupied by Fuzhou, Hong Kong, Singapore, Bangkok, Yangon, Chittagong, Mumbai, Dubai, Aden and even Zanzibar. For a significant part of world history, this maritime trade network was the main axis of the world system and the main locus of mercantile activity, which was in turn dominated by Indian, Iranian and Austronesian concerns.

Although leading families of the overseas Chinese diaspora were key players, and indeed became the local mercantile élites in the ports associated with it, the Chinese government’s interest in this thalassocratic trade network during the Yuan, Ming and Qing periods was largely peripheral, and concerned with extracting tribute from the peoples to its south. The Qing dynasty in fact relegated the southern trade network to a secondary status of importance. It remained so until the reconsiderations of the Qing-era New Text Confucian scholar Wei Yuan, who took pains to convince the Qing leadership that European encroachments and fortifications along this sea route constituted a security threat to the Empire. Wei would turn out to be quite correct on this point.

Indeed, the rise of the capitalist powers in the West can be directly traced to its predations on the Maritime Route, as the Portuguese and later the Dutch and the British would begin plundering the West African coast for slaves, and move onto the East African coast to begin leveraging naval power against these trans-Indian trade networks in cash crops (the ‘spice trade’) and precious stones. The ease with which they did so points to certain contradictions internal to the Maritime Route which may be worth some future consideration.

Also, it is necessary to take account of the strategic interests of Western powers in the old Maritime Route when discussing the recent political developments in Hong Kong – which may really be considered an extension of the old Portuguese, Dutch and Anglo-American ‘fortified ports’ strategy which caused the Opium Wars and the cession of Hong Kong to Britain in the first place – as well as the rise of takfiri-Salafist Islâmism in Malaysia and Indonesia, the attempts to isolate Burma and Cambodia from the world stage, the rise (and collaboration with the West) of Hindutva in India, terrorism in Sri Lanka, and the continuing brutal Saudi-American strangulation of dirt-poor but strategically-crucial Yemen.


The northernmost tellurocratic axis of cultural and œconomic transmission, the Siberian Tract, at its height stretched from Moscow in the West to Beijing in the East, going through Murom, Omsk, Tomsk and Irkutsk. It incorporated the trade networks controlled by the Volga Bulghars, the Mongol Empire, the Golden Horde and the Kazan Khanate. Called ‘the Tea Road’ by Martha Avery, the Siberian Tract began and was strengthened by the rise of Petrine Moscow on one side, and the Qing Dynasty on the other. These two powers were land-based rivals and enemies for much of their historical existence.

However, the sheer volume of the tea trade along this road, accounting at its peak in the mid-1800s for nearly two-thirds of China’s tea exports, shows that there were peaceful and mutually-enriching endeavours to be seen along this Tract as well. Also, the witness of Confucian statesmen like Wei Yuan on the Chinese side, and of Russian Orthodox monastics like Hyacinth Bichurin and Peter Kamensky on the Russian side, show that the cultural exchanges between the two great powers were not always hostile.

The Russians maintained mostly-friendly connexions with the Tatar-Turkic, Finnic-Ugric, Iranian, Yeniseian, Mongolic and Tungusic peoples who inhabited that road: Hyacinth Bichurin was ethnically Chuvash; Peter Kamensky was versant in the Tatar and Mari languages. Thus they were able to gain a far truer, more balanced and more realistic understanding of Chinese material life and values, than the distorted images brought back by Jesuit missionaries on the thalassocratic road. To Russia, Qing China – and the later Republic and People’s Republic – were realist powers to be treated as such. To the West, China was either the object of rationalist envy or of Orientalist-imperialist superiority.

The Tea Road currently deserves the attention of world-systems analysts, because it remains the primary axis along which Chinese-Russian gæopolitical coöperation will continue – though the primary goods being traded will not be tea, but instead (at least in the current-day short run) a very different brew of natural gas and rare-earth elements. It is quite true that Washington’s hostility to both Beijing and Moscow has brought the two powers closer together – but there are both historical and œconomic positive precedents for coöperation that cannot be lightly ignored.


The Gate of Saint Thomas, or the main route of the Silk Road (and what most people imagine when they encounter the term), is the middle tellurocratic route linking Damascus to Luoyang. Running through Ctesiphon, Qûmis, Merv, Samarqand, Qeshger, Dunhuang and Xi’an, this route was historically important both for material reasons and for religious ones. It linked China to the Arab world through Mongolic and eastern Turkic khanates and the Empire of Persia. Like the Maritime Route, this trade route has been important since antiquity, and several of the post-classical and mediæval Chinese empires – like the Han and the Tang Dynasties – lavished great attention on it. A good deal of œconomic thought in the post-classical period attempted to take into consideration the value of the trade with ‘barbarian’ states to the west.

Historically, the close and friendly relationships between China and the Arab world were based on mutual security and trade interests against the threats of banditry and extractive powers along the route, going back to the Rebellion of An Shi. This is also the route along which the disciples of Saint Thomas – to wit, the Iranian and Syriac Christians of the Church of the East – reached China and established a presence in the same period. This presence was not to last, but it did produce some heroic figures in Chinese history and popular culture such as the patriotic Christian general of the Tang Dynasty, Guo Ziyi. The Gate of Saint Thomas was important for spreading both ideas and material culture from the Near East further east, and also for creating healthy engagements with Far Eastern culture in the Mediterranean.

In modern times, many of the gæopolitical conflicts that are currently plaguing the Middle East and Central Asia can be traced to the attempts of China to rebuild this trade network and infrastructure in the Belt and Road Project, and the attempts of the old imperialist powers to stop them from doing so. Any discussion of the (supposed) mass internment of Uighurs in Xinjiang must be seen in this light. The Uighurs are too good a political tool for the West to waste, on either side of the Silk Road. Takfiri-Salafi forces from Xinjiang play an integral part in the predations of al-Qa‘idah on the Syrian countryside. The continued efforts to keep Turkey in NATO must also be seen as a part of this strategy of disruption on the part of the capitalist-imperialist bloc.


This blog, Silk and Chai, therefore, is dedicated to left-Eurasianist and world-systems œconomic and gæopolitical analyses of these three roads. As the name is deliberately meant to suggest, a particular focus will be the two northern overland routes, though the southern maritime route will also receive due consideration. Silk and Chai stands in solidarity with the ‘long game’ struggles of Russia, China, Iran, Syria, Palestine and other Non-Aligned powers to realign the world system. This blog is naturally critical of both neoliberal and neonationalist politics within the OECD bloc – though the older strain of political realism is welcomed and encouraged. This blog is also critical of social-liberal and anarchist attempts to downplay structural issues and elevate bourgeois individualist, gender-expressionist and identity-political concerns in their place. Cultural and historical analyses are also expected to show up here. So please, dear guest, pull up a rug, have a seat at the dastarhan and pour yourself a cup!