[OPE-L] Revealing the Eurocentrism of classical Marxism

From: Rakesh Bhandari (bhandari@BERKELEY.EDU)
Date: Wed Oct 26 2005 - 03:52:03 EDT

I have gone over some of this terrain in a yet unpublished piece.
I think Marx's writings are more complicated than Hobson understands,
however. I also would not have highlighted the importance of CLR James'
work for a rethinking of the Asiatic Mode of Production. But I submit
this to this list because my experience is that this is a
corrective and challenge to deepy held assumptions of many so called
Western marxists.


John M. Hobson
Deconstructing Rosenberg’s ‘Contribution to the Critique of Global Political Economy’
International Politics 2005 42

Revealing the Eurocentrism of classical Marxism
Eurocentrism or Orientalism (Said, 1978) had emerged in Europe by the 19th
century. It is a discourse that places Europe at the centre of progressive world
(dare I say ‘global’?) history-past, present and future. Ultimately, Eurocentric
thinkers made two critical intellectual moves. First, they constructed a ‘line of
civilizational-apartheid’ that prised apart the East and West into two separate
and self-constituting entities that stood in opposition. Second, Europe was
privileged as a superior civilization imbued with exceptional, progressive
properties that made inevitable its rise to modern capitalism. Inter alia, these
included the liberal state (and, for Marx, dialectical class struggle). This
fabrication was then extrapolated back in time to Ancient Greece, thereby
constructing a new ‘Aryan’ picture of a permanently superior, self-constituting
Europe (Bernal, 1991). Conversely, being imbued only with regressive
properties — most notably Oriental despotisms — unchanging social
structures, stagnation and slavery were (re)presented as the tragic story of
the ‘history-less’ East.
The upshot was the Eurocentric fabrication of an immanent logic to the rise
of Western capitalist civilization, wherein the story could be narrated as an
endogenous linear progression or unfolding of events and sequential processes
that occurred solely within Europe, beginning with Ancient Greece.
Conversely, the East could not progress of its own accord and was thereby
stripped of (progressive) history. Hence, it became the duty of the West —
charged with an Occidental Messianism and fuelled by the ‘moral obligation’
of the White Man’s Burden – to launch an imperial civilizing mission that
would deliver the East from the dark ghetto of poverty and despair to the
bright dawn of (Western) history. In this way then, the West is elevated into a
Eurocentric fetish that needs to be deconstructed. Unfortunately, to
paraphrase Rosenberg, instead of interpreting and deconstructing the
Eurocentric spirit of the age, Marx amplified it by endogenizing it within his
own theory. How so?
Strangely, Marx had less to say about imperialism than our popular
imagination would suppose, and it was contained (though not exclusively) in
numerous pamphlets and newspaper articles published mainly between 1848
and 1862. In many of these, he insisted that the East has had no (progressive)
history. To wit: China was a ‘rotting semicivilizationy. vegetating in the teeth
of time’ (in Avineri, 1969, 184, 343). Thus, China’s only hope for progressive
emancipation or redemption lay with the Opium Wars and the incursion of
British imperial capitalists who would ‘open up backward’ China to the
energizing impulse of Western capitalism (in Avineri, 1969, 442–444). The
picture of India was similarly disfigured through this Orientalist lens (e.g.,
Avineri, 1969, 132–133; Marx, 1973, 306–307, 320). The general formula, of
course, found its famous expression in The Communist Manifesto, where we are
told that the Western bourgeoisie
compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the [Western] bourgeois
mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilization
into their midst, ie., to become [Western] themselves. In one word, it [the
Western bourgeoisie] creates a world after its own image (Marx and Engels,
1985, 84).
In this way, the Eurocentric/Orientalist story of imperialism — as a Western
civilizing mission — found one of its clearest expressions.
But, more significantly, Marx’s dismissal of the East was found at the very
heart of his theory of capitalism developed in Capital and elsewhere. The East
was monolithically represented by the (residual) category of the ‘Asiatic mode
of production’ in which private property and hence class struggle — the
developmental motor of historical progress — was notably absent. The key
here was the Eurocentric theory of Oriental despotism. Thus, in Asia, ‘the
direct producersy [are] under direct subordination to a state which stands
over them as their landlordy. [Accordingly] no private ownership of land
exists’ (Marx, 1959, 791, 333–334; 1954, 140, 316, 337–339). Thus, stagnation
was inscribed or written into this publicly owned land system because rents
were extracted from the producers in the form of ‘taxes wrung from them —
frequently by means of torture — by a ruthless despotic state’ (Marx, 1959,

726). Thus, it was the absorption of, and hence failure to produce, a surplus for
reinvestment in the economy that ‘supplies the key to the secret of the
unchangeableness of Asiatic societies’ (Marx, 1954, 338). This scenario was
fundamentally contrasted with the European state, which did not stand above
society but was firmly embedded within, and acted on behalf of, the dominant
economic class. Also, in allowing a space for Western capitalists to accumulate
a surplus through the exploitation of labour power, Marx reveals the key to the
secret of the unique or exceptional dynamism of Western societies.
Finally, Marx’s theory of history faithfully reproduces the Orientalist/
Eurocentric teleological story. For example, in The German Ideology, Marx
traces the origins of ‘progressive history’ back to Ancient Greece, and then
recounts the story of progress forwards through a linear succession of various
European modes of production before culminating at the communist terminus
of history (Marx, 1965). At no point does the East actively contribute to the
story. All in all, then, Marx makes the mistake of elevating the West into a
Eurocentric fetish and, albeit in different ways, much the same is true for most
of his many followers — ranging from Brenner and Hobsbawm to Wallerstein
and even Braudel.
Of course, the Eurocentrism of classical and neo-Marxism does not
necessarily render the theory obsolete, for much of it remains useful and often
insightful. It is true that, albeit a handful of, Marxists have recognized this
problem and have sought to rectify it in various ways — for example, Perry
Anderson and, most brilliantly of all, C.L.R. James, Eric Williams and Eric
Wolf. Interestingly, James at one time associated with Trotskyism, though he
later turned his back on it. Moreover, Alex Callinicos sees in some of James’
work a potential non-Eurocentric cue for Trotsky’s approach (Callinicos, 1990,
62–66). Accordingly, I shall return to this vital issue later. But, for the moment,
I simply note that the non-Eurocentric promise of these pioneering neo-
Marxist explorations (with the latter three in particular inspiring my own
research) cannot detract from the point that Marx’s theory remains trapped
within a Eurocentric cul-de-sac. Thus, I see little pay-off in Rosenberg’s
passionate call for replacing LGT with classical Marxism, for all it does is
substitute one version of Eurocentrism for another.
An alternative non-Eurocentric conjunctural method: Eastern/global
origins of Western capitalism
In seemingly throwing out the global baby with the liberal bathwater,
Rosenberg fails — in this article but not necessarily elsewhere (as we shall
see later) — to recognize the emergence of Western capitalism as, in large part,
a conjunctural phenomenon. I agree with him that modern globalization is an
expression of long-term historical transnational capitalism. But, in contrast to
Rosenberg and LGT, I see the latter as stemming back to about 500, thereby
confounding the conflation of globalization with modern Western hegemony.
This reveals ‘Oriental globalization’ and the existence of a global economy that
was built and reproduced by numerous pioneering Eastern agents between 500
and 1800 (see Hobson, 2004, Chapters 2–4). Whether this global economy was
capitalist in a Marxist sense is beside the point. For its ultimate significance
was that it was along its sinews that Eastern ‘resource portfolios’ (ideas,
institutions and technologies) diffused through Oriental globalization to fuel
the rise of Western civilization. This also demonstrates the considerable
‘impact’ propensity of Oriental globalization, thereby meeting LGT’s essential
test of globalization (Held et al., 1999). And it is from this ‘bridge of the world’
that we can deconstruct Marx’s Eurocentric fetish of Western capitalism and
LGT’s Eurocentric fetish of globalization to thereby reconstruct an alternative
Owing to the whip of external spatial compression, I shall undertake a
whirlwind tour of some of the major turning points in the rise of the West
to illustrate my point (see Hobson, 2004, Chapters 5–9). Most of the vital
technologies that promoted European feudalism were transmitted from the
East. Almost all of the financial institutions that the Italians unjustly
became famous for originated in, and diffused across from, West Asia.
There would have been no Italian commercial revolution without the
Eastern trade that flowed into Europe via West Asia and Egypt. Nor would
there have been a Renaissance without the assimilation of Chinese, Indian,
Jewish, African, but above all, Islamic ideas. All of the critical trans-oceanic
nautical and navigational techniques/technologies that made the so-called
European Voyages of Discovery possible diffused across from Islamic West
Asia and China, in the absence of which the Iberians would surely have
remained confined to the Islamic Mediterranean. The European military
revolution (1550–1660) was the beneficiary of the Chinese military
revolution of 850–1290. Last, but not the least, British industrializa-
tion and the European Enlightenment were significantly fuelled by the
assimilation of Chinese technologies, methods and ideas that, like all
the aforementioned Eastern portfolios, diffused across through Oriental
None of this is to say that Western capitalism was the pure product of
Eastern forces, since it was also enabled initially by a Christianized Eurocentric
imperialist agency after 1492, and subsequently by the racist agency of
European imperialists after 1780 (Hobson, 2004, 162–173, 219–242, 257–277,
305–312). But even then, Eastern resources — land, labour, bullion, raw
materials and markets — played a vital role. Finally, I note that it was only
during the 19th century that Britain eclipsed China.

In sum, then, with the current centre of global-productive gravity seemingly
returning to China, contra Marx and LGT, we can now contextualize Western
capitalism and ‘Western globalization’ as a late and relatively brief (albeit not
insignificant) interlude in the long Afro-Asian global durée that began around
500. The upshot is to recognize that the line of civilizational-apartheid which
separates East from West is but a pure Eurocentric intellectual construct that is
in urgent need of deconstruction. In the process, this reveals modern
globalization and Western capitalism as significant conjunctural expressions
of Eastern forces, thereby suggesting that the West is not a pure and self-
constituting entity, but an ‘amalgam’ or hybrid formation, reflected in my
preferred label — the ‘Oriental West’.
Eurocentrism in Trotskyism: non-Eurocentrism in Rosenberg’s approach
and its implications for globalization and classical Marxist integrity?
In returning to the issue of Eurocentrism in Trotskyism that was signalled
earlier, we reach the critical climax. First to Trotsky’s work. While Trotsky
followed much of what Marx wrote, he also departed from him in various ways.
Notable are his twin claims that historical stages can be skipped (or combined
simultaneously), and that Western capitalists do not create a world precisely in
their own image because ‘non-Western’ states combine external capitalism with
indigenous traditions (e.g., Trotsky, 1965). Both these aspects form the familiar
double meaning of ‘combined and uneven development’. Moreover, taking
Marx’s occasional comments on Ireland in new directions, Trotsky argued that
revolution in a backward Eastern country could promote revolution in the West.
But, in Trotsky’s work, this promising non-Eurocentric departure ultimately
stalls on the runway because progressive development in the East is made
possible in the first instance only by the imperial arrival of Western capitalism,
thereby returning us squarely to Marx. Moreover, his occasional statements on
Western capitalist development converge with the Eurocentric accounts of
Marx and Weber (cf. Trotsky, 1965, Chapter 1; 1973, Chapter 4; Hobson,
2004, 12–19). Concomitantly, whenever Trotsky discussed Asiatic states/
societies, it was always implicitly filtered through the Eurocentric lens of the
theory of Oriental despotism. Also, given that Trotsky failed to develop his
own historical–sociological analysis of the world prior to the onset of
European industrialization, we can only assume, therefore, that he follows
the standard classical Marxist historiography upto that temporal moment (cf.
Knei-Paz, 1978, 94–96, 328–331). Accordingly, as in Marx’s Eurocentrism,
prior to then the East is caught in a ‘pre-historical’ cul-de-sac, while thereafter
Eastern history begins, though only — and this entails yet another Eurocentric
signifier — by ‘emulating’ the Western powers.
But when confronting this issue in Rosenberg’s work, it is necessary to
examine a recent unpublished paper in which he advocates a Trotskyist
manifesto for the historical sociology of IR (Rosenberg, 2005), for here the
Eurocentric charge is far less clear-cut. In this piece, Rosenberg creatively fills
in the missing dimension of Trotsky’s work by analysing the pre-1800 world
through applying the concept of ‘uneven and combined development’.
alia, he produces a powerful historical account of Russian development —
significantly borrowing much from Eric Wolf — in which he reveals it as
considerably propelled by ‘external’ forces, many of which are ‘Eastern’. Thus,
it would appear that my own analysis of Western Europe (sketched out in the
last section) finds echoes in Rosenberg’s account of East European Russia.
Accordingly, the central twin questions now become: would Rosenberg be
prepared to do for Western Europe that which he has done so powerfully for
Russia? If so, he would enter the gateway into a non-Eurocentric universe. This
begs the second question: if so, what are its implications for his rejection of
globalization and the maintenance of classical Marxist integrity? With respect
to the first question, logically there would be a compelling reason to do so.
Indeed, having discussed Russia, he rhetorically asks the question posed above:
‘what would the consequence be for social theory if — as is indeed surely the
case — [the theory of uneven and combined development could be] applied not
only to Russia, but to every known society?’ And his answer confirms that
‘[a]ny enduring society — if we ‘fast-forward’ the replay of its historical life in
the way done for Russia above — reveals an equivalent interactive texture to its
historical constitution’ (Rosenberg, 2005, 28). So there we have it. For while he
does not provide such an analysis of Western Europe in this particular paper, it
is surely immanent.
But it is in answering the second question posed above wherein two critical
paradoxes or conundrums emerge in the context of the immediate article under
review. First, it requires him to accept, as do I, not only the presence and
autonomy of global forces/globalization today but, contra LGT, to recognize
their existence throughout the long period of the rise of the West dating back at
least 1500 years. Paradoxically, this would entail a more temporally extensive
and ‘thicker’ analysis of globalization than that provided by LGT. Second, in
applying Trotsky’s concept to ‘global history’, which would necessarily include
Western Europe, he is, at the very least, in danger of undermining the central
pillars of Marx’s theory of history and the rise of capitalism. And so we arrive
at the final conundrum. Would Rosenberg be prepared to accept the logical
inference of his Trotskyist historical sociology by moving beyond not simply
the spatial limitations of Marx’s own analysis, but also the very foundational
pillars of Marx’s theory of (Western) capitalism, thereby accepting the
significance and autonomy of (Eastern) global forces and globalization? But
ultimately, whichever avenue or ‘combination’ of avenues Rosenberg chooses
to take in response should not detract from the point that his approach is one
that I find attractive. And, more importantly, it is one that surely deserves to
take its place at the centre of the historical sociology of IR, if not of world
1 I thank George Lawson for his pertinent advice, though this is not to implicate him in any
2 I note, but leave aside Rosenberg’s reversal of Trotsky’s ‘combined and uneven
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John M. Hobson
Deconstructing Rosenberg’s ‘Contribution to the Critique of Global Political Economy’
International Politics 2005 42

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