The frailties of bourgeois scholarship

James M. Blaut 70671.2032 at
Tue Aug 3 00:55:57 MDT 1999

Mark: This just got itself published, so I can transmit it to the list.
Sending it in two parts. By the way, what is your email address? I tried to
send the paper to you but the address turned out to be nowhere.

Chapter in _The Political Economy of Imperialism: CriticalAppraisals_, ed.
Ronald Chilcote. Boston: Kluwer AcademicPublishers, 1999, pp. 127 140.

Part 1 of 2:


                     J. M. Blaut
           University of Illinois at Chicago

                   1. Introduction
     The grand old anthem of Marxism, "The
Internationale," begins with these words: "Arise ye
prisoners of starvation/Arise ye wretched of the
earth..." At the time the song was written, in 1888,
Marxists knew very little about the faraway places
where most of the wretched of the earth lived and
starved. They held firmly to the world-model
bequeathed to them by Marx: Historical progress
occurs naturally in the European part of the world;
the rest of the world receives the fruits of this
progress by diffusion. Socialist revolution will take
place in the European world and socialism will then
spread out to the rest of the world and emancipate
all of the wretched of the earth, everywhere.
     Today we would label this view "Eurocentric" and
"diffusionist," and it certainly was that. But every
European thinker of Marx's time accepted the
Eurocentric-diffusionist model of the world's history
and geography. And the evidence about the non-
European world that was available to Marx consisted
mostly of books and documents written by the agents
and agencies of diffusionism: newspaper accounts,
colonial office documents, books written by colonial
officials and missionaries, and the like.1 Marx,
moreover, had no reason to question the traditional
historical accounts about the determinative role of
Europe in all of world history, given his classical
German education and his intellectual surroundings.
Summing up: Marx questioned all of the unfounded
elitist doctrines which he encountered; but he did
not, and could not, question such doctrines when they
related to places and peoples unknown to him.
     But though Marx could not have been expected to
reject the Eurocentric-diffusionist model, the same
excuse cannot be made for later Marxists. After the
turn of the century enough reliable information was
circulating in Europe about the nature of non-
European societies, and about anti-colonial struggles
(notably in India and the Dutch East Indies), to h)0*0*0*   iraise
questions, if anyone chose to do so, about the
naturalness and inevitability of European diffusions
into the non-European world. Yet most Marxist

thinkers refused to do so. In the writings of
Bernstein, Bauer, Hilferding, Kautsky, and other
major thinkers of the period, the European world was
still seen as the arena of historical changes, past
and future, and non-Europe as the recipient of
diffusions from Europe. In this matter they held
views not notably different from mainstream European

                   2. Euro-Marxism
     By the time of the First World War, a few
Marxist thinkers had
begun to question the Eurocentric-diffusionist model,
or at least
major parts of that model. Luxemburg argued that the
survival of capitalism depended on wealth brought in
from the non-European world; hence non-Europe had an
important effect on Europe, as well as the other way
around. ("Europe," in this paper, refers to the
continent itself and European-settled regions
elsewhere, notably Anglo-America.) Lenin carried the
argument considerably farther. Unlike Luxemburg, he
maintained that colonies and other dominated regions
would carry out successful liberation struggles, and
so would stop, and turn back, the diffusion process
by which Europeans gained political control and
economic dominance of the non-European world.2
     Since the First world War, there have been in
essence two Marxist schools of thought on the matter
of Eurocentric diffusionism. One of these I will call
"Euro-Marxism" because it proclaims the centrality of
Europe in the past and present, the priority of
Europe at all times in historical progress, and the
naturalness and desirability of European influence on
the non-European world. The opposing school, which
can be called non-diffusionist or uniformitarian
Marxism, broadly denies these propositions. The
difference is not a matter of politics: there have
always been communists and evolutionary socialists on
both sides of the issue. One school questions the
traditional European doctrine of Eurocentric
diffusionism; the other upholds it. Most Marxist
thinkers in the non-European world -- now the Third
World -- tend to question and reject the doctrine;
most Marxists in the European world today are, to one
degree or another, Euro-Marxists. Marx himself was
not a Euro-Marxist: to be one implies a full
awareness of the alternative world-model, and Marx
did not have, could not have had, such an awareness.
 h)0*0*0*   iOe            3. Eurocentric Diffusionism3
     At this point in the discussion we should pause
and examine the doctrine of Eurocentric diffusionism
as it has evolved during the past two centuries. Its
origins go back to the 16th century, when Europeans
began to formulate theories about themselves in
relation to the non-Europeans whom they were
conquering and exploiting. After the Napoleonic
period, when colonialism was intensifying and when
Europeans were acquiring significant knowledge about
non-Europeans in the regions they had conquered or
planned to conquer, the doctrine solidified into a
theory, or more properly a world-model. In the 19th
century this model was built upon the following
grounding propositions: (1) Europe naturally develops
and progresses; (2) Non-Europe naturally remains
stagnant, traditional; (3) The main reason for
Europe's progress is some intellectual or spiritual
quality, some sort of rationality, which leads to
technological and social invention and innovation;
(4) The main reason for non-Europe's non-progress is
a lack of this rational quality; (5) A secondary
reason for Europe's superiority is its superior
environment; (6) The natural way that non-Europe
develops is by accepting diffusions from Europe,
consisting of new ideas and beliefs, commodities,
settlers, and colonial domination; (7) As partial
repayment for these gifts, non-Europe naturally
provides Europe with raw materials, plantation
products, labor, and art objects. Thus: two world
sectors, Europe and non-Europe (or core and
periphery), and interaction between them consisting
of the diffusion outward of civilizing traits and the
counter-diffusion of value.
     This Eurocentric-diffusionist world-model
explained why Europeans were superior to all others
and why it was natural and proper for them to conquer
and exploit the non-Europeans: in short, it was a
rationale for colonialism, and its hegemony in
European thought was explainable by the importance of
colonialism to Europeans (or at any rate to the
European elites). It underlay most grand social
theories of the period, theories about Europe's own
nature and history as well as that of the rest of the
world. World history was European history; to explain
any fact of earlier European history, one looked back
at prior European history, not at the outside world,
since progressive diffusions went outward, not
inward, and the non-European world was stagnant,
uninventive, and ahistorical. (I call this "tunnel
history.") All European thinkers of the 19th century
apparently accepted one or another form of this
world-model. Marx could not help doing so, since he
had no evidence of the historicity and h)0*0*0*   iprogressiveness of the
non-European world.
     This doctrine has not been abandoned in our own
time; merely modified and softened. After World War
Two it assumed the form of modernization theory.
European historical progress is still sui generis.
Non-Europe is historical in the sense that parts of
it, at certain times, have progressed, have advanced
technologically and socially, but more slowly than
Europe. All of the great stages in historical
development still happened in Europe. Today, the only
way that non-European regions can develop is by
following the route taken previously by Europe, up to
and including capitalism: by accepting modern
European diffusions of capital, technology, social
values; by integrating their economies with European
corporations; and by accepting informal political
control. The doctrine of Eurocentric diffusionism is
now more important than ever because it must persuade
non-Europeans, who now have political independence,
that the one, the proper way to progress out of
poverty is to accept European diffusions and

                 4. Ancient Society
     I will now describe some of the Eurocentric and
diffusionist theories that are important today in
Marxism and criticize them. Since this is a short
essay, the descriptions and critiques will have to be
brief and somewhat schematic. I have discussed some
of these theories in other writings and will
shamelessly cite these writings where it seems
appropriate to do so. Focus will be on Euro-Marxist
theories of history and Euro-Marxist theories about
modern interactions between Europe and non-Europe.
     One of the pillars of traditional Marxism is the
notion that history has proceeded through a series of
stages, each associated with a particular mode of
production. Primitive communism gave way to class
society. The first stage in the evolution of class
society was slave society or the slave mode of
production. Next came feudalism, the feudal mode of
production. Next, capitalism, the capitalist mode of
production. The future will see a socialized mode of
production and the elimination of class society. Marx
himself believed, as did other educated Europeans of
the mid-19th century, that Greece and Rome were the
first true class societies, and were underlain by
slave labor. Hence class society arose in Europe. And
the origin of class society signalled the origin of
evolutionary progress: other pre-class or non-class
societies, and presumably the ancient barbaric
civilizations, had no tendency to evolve toward
modernity. Therefore autonomous social development
was seen by Marx as a European innovation. This, of h)0*0*0*   icourse, is
one of the central propositions of
Eurocentric diffusionism: autonomous development at
the European center; lack of such development in the
non-European periphery.
     The belief that the Greeks somehow invented
progress was widespread in European thought until
roughly the mid-20th century. Today we know that
other civilizations, contemporary with classical
Greece, were also progressive and progressing, and we
know that the elevation of Greece to the status of
prime mover in history was, in part at least, a
product of racism and anti-semitism.4 However, many
Euro-Marxists either deny or ignore the new evidence
and continue to defend Eurocentric theories on this
matter, theories which were accepted by Marx but
which modern scholarship has shown to be false. One
of these proceeds from the idea that the slave mode
of production was the inauguration of class society
and class struggle, and then maintains that a slave
mode of production only existed in ancient times in
Greece and Rome. Another departs from the theory of
the so-called Asiatic mode of production and the
related theory of Oriental Despotism. A word now on
each of the two.
     Marxists can reject the theory that Graeco-Roman
slavery inaugurated class struggle without abandoning
the Marxian proposition that class struggle has been
"the," or even "a," motor force in history. One might
speak (as some Marxists do) of an "ancient" mode of
production, and allow both slavery and wage labor
(which was abundant in those times) to constitute its
exploitative basis. But the idea of a Graeco-Roman
slave mode of production as (so to speak) the
starting motor of history is still widely held in
Euro-Marxism. (See, for instance, Anderson 1974;
Padgug 1974; Manfred 1974; de Ste Croix 1981;
Godelier 1981; Milonakis 1993-1994.) Yet we know that
some combination of slave and wage labor was charac-
teristic of many civilizations contemporaneous with
classical Greece and Roman, including Han China and
Mauryan India (see, e.g., Elvin 1973; Habib 1969). We
know, also, that slavery was the most important form
of non-peasant labor only under very special
circumstances: in both Greece and Rome, the main
source of slave labor at all times was the capture of
prisoners or the purchase of slaves captured by
others (Finley 1981; Woods 1988). This could happen
only under conditions of military conquest or a very
strong trading economy, both of which were short-
lived in the Athenian Empire. It is hard to think of
this as a historically consequential mode or system
of production in the ancient world: the need to
capture or purchase slaves implies that ancient
slavery was never in long-term equilibrium; and it h)0*0*0*   iimplies that
ancient slave-based production would
have to be explained in terms not of a theory of
social evolution within a society but in terms of
theories of conquest and external trade. It is also
the case that the geographical area in which slave
labor was the predominant form of exploitation was
quite limited; perhaps slavery in the Athenian Empire
had a parallel in highly developed regions of
comparable size within the Han Empire. And finally,
as Habib (1969) has argued, something like a slave
mode of production existed in ancient India but it
followed, rather than preceded, a basically feudal
mode -- inverting the classical Marxist sequence. In
any event, the theory that slavery in Mediterranean
Europe was the nursery-bed of progress is false and
of course Eurocentric.
     In Marx's day, the belief that Europe had been
uniquely progressive throughout history was tied to
the then widely accepted theory of Oriental
Despotism. This theory stipulated that non-European
civilizations never had known the idea and experience
of freedom. These civilizations were innately
despotic. The most common explanation was a
combination of simple racism and a belief that only
Christians can be truly free. Marx (and of course
Engels) puzzled over the question why Asian
civilizations had not progressed through the normal
sequence of historical stages but had remained (as
they thought) in an essentially pre-class condition
and so stagnated (see Blaut 1993 for a discussion of
this matter). They explained this, as did most
thinkers of the time, in terms of the despotism that
evidently had prevailed in Asia throughout history.
But they were not racists, and they sought to explain
this despotism in naturalistic terms. They suggested,
somewhat tentatively, that the cause lay in the arid
climate that (they thought) characterized Asia; thus
the need for irrigation (Marx and Engels 1975:75-80).
Large irrigation systems would require despotic
management for maintaining canals, for allocating
water, and so on. These civilizations, then, were
characterized by a distinctive Asian mode of
production, with pre-class peasant communities and a
governing class that managed things despotically but
did not exploit: that was not truly a ruling class.
Hence no class struggle and little or no progress.
But in fact most of Asia is not arid. Irrigation is
not important in many of its regions, and, where it
is important (as in rice-producing areas) the canal
systems usually are local or small-scale affairs. In
the case of the large-scale irrigation systems of
western Asia, the ones Marx and Engels had in mind,
the associated class society is as ancient as it is
in Europe, and one can just as well argue that the h)0*0*0*   iruling class
forced the development of irrigation
systems as the other way around. The theory of an
Asiatic mode of production is simply bad historical
geography. But it continues to be advanced by many
Euro-Marxists (see, e.g., Godelier 1969; Bailey and
Llobera 1981; LaCoste 1969; Melotti 1977; also see
the 1957 book Oriental Despotism by the ex-Marxist
Karl Wittfogel). This theory forms one of the basic
foundations of Euro-Marxist history because it seems
to support the Eurocentric-diffusionist argument that
progress was natural only in Europe.

              5. The Rise of Capitalism
     For Marx, the slave or ancient mode of
production gave way to the feudal mode of production;
to feudalism. Marx firmly believed that the feudal
mode of production was a strictly European phenomenon
(Marx 1972). This is no longer tenable. It is known
that several other regions (Japan, China, Turkey,
etc.) have been at one time or another feudal
societies. Serfdom, the manorial system, and indeed
all of the attributes which Marxists consider to be
constitutive of the feudal mode of production (or the
feudal economy -- an alternative concept preferred by
some Marxists) are found in many societies of Asia
and Africa; some even in precolumbian Mesoamerica
(Blaut 1993). Amin (1985) and many others now use a
broader concept, the tributary mode of production,
which they consider to have been characteristic of
many or most medieval societies; European feudalism
was simply a regional variant of the tributary form.
In spite of the newer evidence, and newer theory,
many Eurocentric Marxists still maintain that the
feudal mode of production was uniquely European (for
Laclau, 1977, it later diffused, quite naturally, to
the Americas). (Some of them accept the idea of a
tributary mode of production but insist that there
were two forms of this mode of production, a
progressive European form, anchored in rent and
exploitation, and a non-European and non-progressive
form, anchored in taxation: see Wickham 1988.) Euro-
Marxists use this argument as an underpinning for the
Euro-Marxist theory that, since capitalism could only
have arisen out of feudalism, and since feudalism was
unique to Europe, capitalism could not have arisen
elsewhere. This extremely important theory must now
claim our attention.
     One of the central beliefs of Eurocentric
diffusionism is what I have called tunnel history,
the assumption that the facts of European history are
to be explained in terms of prior facts of European
history, with no real attention to causal forces
entering Europe from elsewhere. Marx held to this
assumption. Until recently, most Marxist historians h)0*0*0*   itended to
accept it also, at least with regard to the
problem known as "the transition from feudalism to
capitalism." It is fair to say that European Marxists
did not know about the significance of colonialism,
as a source of accumulation in Europe, as a force
leading to internal social change in Europe, and as a
conduit for the diffusion into Europe of technology
and other factors of change, before the 1960s. Lenin
and some of his contemporaries analyzed the
significance of colonialism for modern capitalism,
but it was only with the work of several non-
Europeans, notably James (1936, 1970) and Williams
(1944), that the significance of non-Europe in the
earlier history of Europe began to be described.
After World War Two there was an acceleration of
research by historians, Marxist and non-Marxist,
European and non-European, into the history of Asia,
Africa, and Latin America, and this brought with it
new knowledge of the effects that these regions had
on Europe after 1492 (Blaut 1993). A very famous
debate on the problem of the transition to capitalism
took place in the 1950s and early 1960s (Hilton
1976); ironically, none of the participants were
really aware at this time of the new evidence from
outside of Europe, so the debate was mainly over the
question whether the rise of capitalism resulted from
primarily rural European forces, or primarily urban
and commercial European forces, although several
participants (Hobsbawm, Sweezy, Dobb) commented that
evidence was beginning to emerge about non-European
feudalism and this would perhaps force a rethinking
of the transition problem. None of this should be
described as Euro-Marxism: it was a matter of lack of
available information.
     After the mid-1970s, however, so much evidence
was available about non-Europe and its significance
for the rise of capitalism that any tunnel-historical
theory claiming that medieval European society was
solely responsible for the rise of capitalism in
Europe, and for the later industrial revolution in
Europe, should be categorized as Euro-Marxism. Many
such theories have been proffered. The most
influential one was put forward by Robert Brenner
(see Aston and Philpin, eds., 1985, a compilation of
Brenner's writings on the subject and various
comments by others; also see the critical discussion
of Brenner's theory in Blaut 1993, 1994). Brenner
theorized about the transition from medieval
feudalism to capitalism in some 200 pages of text
without once mentioning non-Europe for times prior to
the mid-17th century, hence long after the rise of
capitalism in his theory. He argued that peasants in
England failed in their class struggle with feudal
landlords and this led to the rise of a class of h)0*0*0*   ilarge-scale
tenant farmers who rented land and hired
landless peasants, becoming the first true
capitalists. Capitalism thus arose in the English
countryside (not in towns, not in other parts of
Europe, not in non-Europe.) A crucial aspect of
Brenner's theory is the way in which he used it to
denounce the views of those who were arguing against
Euro-Marxism (notably Sweezy, Wallerstein, and
Frank), arguing, that is, that the rise of capitalism
was a world-scale process, not a strictly intra-
European process. Brenner bluntly stated that the
historical insignificance of non-Europe proves that
"Third-Worldism" is wrong and Europe, even today, is
the center of social change (see Brenner 1977; for a
similar deduction see Godelier 1969). Other tunnel-
historical theories on this topic have been advanced
by other Euro-Marxists, and have been criticized in
their turn by Amin (1976, 1988) and others, including
the writer (Blaut 1991, 1992, 1993).
     Euro-Marxism offers historical theories dealing
with dimensions of culture other than the economy,
modes of production, and the like, and a word must be
said about two of these bodies of theory: the idea of
Europeans' unique rationality in history, and
Eurocentric theories about nationalism and the
national question. The first can be disposed of quite
rapidly because it is much less characteristic of
Euro-Marxism than it is of conservatie historiog-
raphy. In mainstream historical thought, considerable
weight is given to the Weberian theory that Europeans
possessed, throughout all or much of history, a
unique rationality that led to greater inventiveness,
innovativeness, progressiveness, etc., than was
characteristic of other societies (see, e.g., Jones
1981; Mann 1986; Landes 1998). This view cannot be
found in Marx, and it is rare among Marxists today.
Brenner advances one form of it, arguing that the
birth of capitalism in the late Middle Ages somehow
produced a new kind of mentality, one that would
generate rapid and continuous technological progress
(see Aston and Philpin, eds. 1985; Warren 1980; see
Blaut 1994 for a critique). Brenner deduces this from
Marx's argument that capitalism must always advance
in technology (but Marx was thinking of modern
industrial capitalism, not the late medieval rural
economy). Other Euro-Marxists who believe that
Europeans triumphed in history because they were more
rational than non-Europeans include Melotti (1977)
and Smith (1992).

              6. The National Question
     Marxist theoreticians have given a great deal of
attention, for rather obvious reasons, to the problem
of explaining the formation of nations and nation- h)   0*0*0*   istates:
the national question (Blaut 1987). There is
consensus among both Marxists and mainstream thinkers
that the first modern nation-states were Britain and
France and their emergence had something to do with
the political triumph of capitalism in the 17th and
18th centuries. Since the 1840s Marxists have been
preoccupied with the problem of understanding, and
deciding how and when to participate in, struggles to
form new nation-states. As a result, a number of
Marxist theories of nationalism have been formulated,
some of them very similar to conservative theories,
others very different.
They can be classified into
two sets: theories that view national movements as
basically independent inventions, although usually
associated with the (peaceful or violent) diffusion
of capitalism, and theories that view nationalism
itself as a European phenomenon that has diffused
outward from its original home in northwestern
Europe. The classical Marxist view, which mainly
concerned the national question in Europe, was,
broadly speaking, non-diffusionist or independent-
inventionist (see, e.g., Engels 1974). Marx and
Engels argued that rising capitalism persuaded local
bourgeoisies to struggle (sensibly in some case, not
so in others) for a state of their own, and Marx and
Engels also had accepted a small bit of the Germanic
or Hegelian doctrine that there is a natural tendency
in ethnic groups to want to have a state of their own
(again either sensibly or otherwise). The important
and influential non-diffusionist theory on the
national question was formulated by Lenin in the
period 1914-23.5 He argued that the great capitalist
states oppress ethnic communities within the state
(as in Russia), and in colonies, because this is an
imperative for accumulation. Not only do local
emerging bourgeoisies struggle against this
oppression in order to "rise," but workers and
peasants sustain even greater oppression, as well as
"super-exploitation" (i.e., exploitation greater than
that experienced by workers in the imperial centers).
Hence, national movements arise quite naturally, and
they are multi-class formations (not just "bourgeois
nationalism"). In the case of colonies, they are
progressive and -- here a major departure from other
Marxist theories of the period -- they are likely to
win their struggles, defeat colonialism, and create
new states. This general theory was the first
formulation of a center-periphery world model which
envisions centripetal as well as centrifugal forces,
back and forth struggle, between the two sectors.
This world model underlies most modern Marxist and
dependency theories about the Third World in relation
to Europe.
     Stalin put forward a fully diffusionist theory h)
of nationalism in 1913; ironically, his point of
departure was Lenin's earlier views, before Lenin had
analyzed the dynamics of colonialism and imperialism.

   `    `                   SEE PART 2

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