Debate on Eurocentrism

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Sat Sep 25 15:14:38 MDT 1999

Over on PEN-L a heated discussion has been going on for more than a week
now over the issues raised by some leftists who deny that European
colonialism in the Americas has any connection to the world hegemony
enjoyed by Great Britain, France, Germany, the US, etc. today. The most
prestigious proponent of this point of view is Robert Brenner, a leader of
Solidarity and author of a recent article in NLR about the world economic
crisis that has also engendered a lot of discussion. Brenner wrote an
article in NLR 1977 titled "The origins of capitalist development: a
critique of neo-Smithian Marxism" that sparked off the so-called "Brenner

Jim Blaut, who is in the thick of the debate on PEN-L and in the outside
world, has written a lengthy critique of Brenner that I just set up a
webpage for at:

Here are the first few paragraphs:

This article was published in ANTIPODE: A RADICAL JOURNAL OF


J.M. BLAUT University of Illinois at Chicago


Robert Brenner is a Marxist, a follower of one tradition in Marxism that is
as diffusionist, as Eurocentric, as most conservative positions. I cannot
here offer an explanation for this curious phenomenon: a tradition within
one of the most egalitarian of all socio-political doctrines yet a
tradition which, nonetheless, believes in the historical superiority (or
priority) of one community of humans, Europeans, over another,
non-Europeans. Eurocentric Marxists are not racist, nor even prejudiced,
although most of them believe that Europeans have always been the leaders
in the forward march of history; that Europe is the fountainhead of
civilization, the main source of innovative social change. For these
scholars, the origins of capitalism are European. Capitalism's further
development consisted of an internally generated process of improvement
within its classic homeland, the European world. The impact of capitalism
on the rest of the world has been, on balance, progressive. Colonialism and
(today) neocolonialism are not significant for capitalism, are rather a
marginal process, a temporary aberration or diversion or side-show, not a
vital need of the system as a whole, which evolves in response to internal
laws of motion.

This point of view is basic diffusionism: autonomous development at the
center, diffusion of development to the periphery. It is also tunnel
history: a form of tunnel-vision which tries to explain the rise of
capitalism, and the rise of Europe, by looking only at prior European
facts, looking, as it were, down the European tunnel of time, ignoring the
history of the world outside of Europe both as cause of change within
Europe and as the site of historically efficacious change in its own right
(Blaut, 1989). The Euro-Marxists -- as I will call the socialists of this
tradition -- accept this view, and so they are diffusionists. To this
extent, they agree with their mainstream colleagues about the rise of
Europe, of capitalism, of modernization, of industrialization, of
democracy: basically all of it is European.

Euro-Marxism went into eclipse during the period when liberation movements
were decolonizing most of the world. In this period, the idea that the
colonial or Third World has been, and is, unimportant in social development
was not popular among Marxists. After the end of the Vietnam War, however,
this point of view became again popular, and indeed became the Marxism most
widely professed in European and American universities. Today we witness
the curious phenomenon that Euro-Marxists are quoted with approval by
anti-Marxist scholars, who can use them to show that "real" Marxist
scholarship supports some of the same doctrines, theoretical and practical,
that conservatives do.

Robert Brenner is one of the most widely known of Euro-Marxist historians.
His influence stems from the fact that he supplied a crucial piece of
doctrine at a crucial time. Just after the end of the Vietnam War, radical
thought was strongly oriented toward the Third World and its struggles,
strongly influenced by Third-World theorists like Cabral, Fanon, Guevara,
James, Mao, and Nkrumah, and thus very much attracted to theories of social
development which tend to displace Europe from its pivotal position as the
center of social causation and social progress, past and present.
Euro-Marxism of course disputed this, and Euro-Marxists, while strong in
their support of present-day liberation struggles, nonetheless insisted as
they always had done that the struggles and changes taking place in the
center of the system, the European world, are the true determinants of
world historical changes; socialism will rise in the heartlands of advanced
European capitalism, or perhaps everywhere all at once; but socialism will
certainly not arrive first in the backward, laggard, late-maturing Third

What was badly needed at this juncture was a strong Euro-Marxist theory of
the original rise of capitalism, a theory demonstrating that capitalism and
modernization originated in Europe, and evolved thereafter mainly in Europe
and with little influence from the non-European world and colonialism. The
crucial questions were matters of medieval and early-modern history, of
proving that Europe was the source of innovation back in those times, and
so the modern European world (joined lately by Japan) is still, by
implication, the main source of innovation. Robert Brenner supplied such a
theory in two long essays in 1976 and 1977, followed by another in 1982.2
These essays are among the most influential writings in contemporary
Marxist historiography, influential among conservatives and Marxists alike.

The first of Brenner's long essays, "Agrarian class structure and economic
development in pre-industrial Europe," appeared in the history journal Past
and Present in 1976. It was presented as a Marxist critique of
conventional, conservative theories concerning the origins of capitalism in
Europe (the rest of the world ignored), particularly those theories which
focused on demography and on trade and urbanization as prime causes. The
paper provoked a number of replies in the same journal, and Brenner issued
a comment-in-reply in this journal in 1982 ("The Agrarian roots of European
capitalism"). The whole exchange was then published as a volume, The
Brenner Debate, in 1985.3 Other comments on Brenner's essays have appeared
in various journals from time to time, and are still appearing.4

In 1977 Brenner published a very different sort of essay in New Left
Review. In this paper, "The origins of capitalist development: A critique
of Neo-Smithian Marxism," he restated his theory about the European origins
of capitalism and then leaped forward into the 20th century to use this
theory as a weapon against what he called "Third-Worldist" deviations in
modern radical scholarship. The main targets of this attack were three
well-known Neo-Marxists scholars, Andre Gunder Frank, Paul Sweezy, and
Immanuel Wallerstein. These three were at the time perhaps the most
widely-read English-language exponents of a theoretical perspective which
emphasizes the crucial significance of colonialism and neocolonialism, and
the struggle against it, in modern history and today; Frank's view, a form
of "dependency theory," Wallerstein's view, called "world-systems theory,"
and Sweezy's rather more traditional anti-imperialist Marxism, all differed
in some respects but held in common the proposition that events outside of
Europe have been crucial in social development since the rise of
capitalism, and the Third World is thus crucial in the struggle for socialism.

To answer this argument, Brenner said, in essence: The world outside of
Europe has not been important for social development since the Middle Ages.
It played no role in the original rise of capitalism. It was not prevented
from developing by European imperialism. And too much enthusiasm for Third
World struggles as against struggles within Europe (that is, by the
European working class) will favor meaningless reformism in the Third World
and will hinder, not help, the struggle for socialism in the world as a
whole. Brenner now labelled his opponents as followers of Adam Smith rather
than Marx, in their thinking about the forces of historical change, past
and present. Frank, Sweezy, Wallerstein, and those who agree with them are

Louis Proyect

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