(This is a restating and paraphrasing of some theoretical work by the scholars Anatolii Khazanov and N.N. Kradin)
Feudalism is a term with such a varied and proliferated usage that it becomes almost meaningless out of context. In that way, it is not unlike the terms fascist, socialist, their derivatives. Modern historians of the Enlightenment and following centuries, largely in the 18th and 19th centuries categorized, explained, and rejected the feudal system of lords and vassals in Medieval Europe. In other words, from its very beginning, the term feudal was primarily used negatively against a precursor ‘other’ system.
In the Soviet Union, the Marxist definition of history was an understood required model for anyone hoping to publish. In this regard, the impossible problem was presented: how to make non-Western histories somehow adhere to a Marxist model. This model was teleological, meaning that it adhered to a belief in absolute progress and backwardness. The term teleological derives from the term telos, one of the four Aristotelian ‘Causes’ of change. Telos is the fourth and what Aristotle called the “Final Cause,” meaning the purpose, aim, or drive of a thing. Thus, a telos in history is the belief that there is an aim or purpose, that all of time is working to produce a specific outcome. In the case of Marx, that outcome was World Communism, a Utopian environment without property, money, want, crime, or the other social ills caused by inequality. Marx believed at the dawn of World Communism, mankind’s history would start anew.
How do we approach Communism? Another hallmark of teleology in history is the belief in linear development. This is likely because a belief in a final cause inspires a belief in steps or levels of progress towards that final cause. Marx identified several such levels, which are the so-called Stages of History. They are, in order,
- Primitive Communism, which ends with the development of private property
- Slave Society, which ends via exhaustion of resources
- Feudalism, which ends with the emergence of a significantly powerful merchant class
- Capitalism, which ends when the wage labor working class rises against the ruling class
- Socialism, or the “first stage of Communism”
- Communism, or the “higher stage of Communism”
I should explain first that it is possible for a person to be a “Marxist” historian without believing in this rigid set of stages or in the tenets of teleology.
In any event, when it came time to write histories of Kazakhstan and the Kazakhs, the impossible problem of fitting 3000+ years of written history in the steppes in this model was surmounted by locking the peoples of the East in a cyclical loop, starting in Stage One and ending in Stage Three before repeating once again.
The problem with this system is that at various times the nomad societies showed characteristics from several of these systems. That is not special in itself, as a univeral system of history is defined more by its exceptions and inaccuracies than anything else. In the case of the various nomad societies of Eurasia, they showed characteristics of various Marxist Stages of History while remaining quite ambiguous on other aspects, due to a lack of historical source material available to historians in twentieth century Kazakhstan.
Both the answer and its primary refutation to this impossible problem came, perhaps ironically, from the Mongols of the Mongol Empire. Thanks to the posthumously published work of Russian Orientalist Vladimirtsov (B. Vladimirtsov, Obshchestvennyi stroi mongolov. Mongol’skii kochevoi feodalizm. [Social Structure of the Mongols. Mongolian Nomadic Feudalism]. Leningrad, USSR Academy of Science Publishing, 1934), Soviet-trained historians managed to produce a thesis of nomad feudalism. This despite the fact that Vladimirtsov used the term outside the context of Marxism and the Stages of History. Rather, Vladimirtsov used the term to describe Mongolian systems of law and the charismatic transfer of power among the Khans. In 1934, the works of Tolstov (S. F. Tolstov, Genezis feodalizma v kochevykh skotovodcheskikh obshchestvakh. [The genesis of feudalism in nomadic livestock-herding societies) in Osnovnye problemy genezisa i razvitia feodalnovo obshchestva (Basic Problems of the Genesis and Development of Feudal Society), ed. by S. N. Bykovskii et al, OGIZ, 1934.) appeared to display both the rhetoric of Vladimirtsov and Marx, explaining that pastoral nomadism was, in fact, feudalism similar to that found in agrarian, backward Medieval Europe.
This quickly became the standard categorization and explanation of nomadism with regard to Western forms of economic and social history. Appearing in the first major non-Russian history in the Soviet Union (Pankratova et. al, Istoriia Kazakhskoi SSR, 1943, and its similarly ill-fated second edition in 1949), the terminology of Feudalism (lords, vassals, etc.) became standard in the history of the Kazakhs and other nomadic societies. And it remains to this day in at least some work published in the CIS and in collaboration with scholars from the CIS.