Beyond Eurocentrism

Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Tue Jun 6 09:38:34 MDT 2000


H-NET BOOK REVIEW
Published by H-World at h-net.msu.edu (June, 2000)

Peter Gran.  _Beyond Eurocentrism.  A New View of Modern World
History_.  Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1996.  xii + 440 pp.
Bibliographical References and Index.  $19.95 (paper), ISBN
0-8156-2693-2; $49.95 (cloth), ISBN 0-8156-2692-4.

Reviewed for H-World by Boris Kagarlitsky <goboka at online.ru>, Center
for Comparative Politics at the Russian Academy of Sciences

Peter Gran's book, as evidenced by its title, promises to lead us
beyond Eurocentric paradigms.  Gran sees Western authors consciously
or unconsciously universalizing their own experience to others.
Contrary to authors insisting on a non-European approach, though,
Gran insists there is no unified "Western" approach anyway.  He
finds the whole notion of Western vs. non-Western vague.  Instead,
he compares regions whose social and economic development is
similar.  Thus, Russia is compared with Iraq, Italy with India and
Mexico, and Albania with the former Belgian Congo.  Finally, he lays
waste to the idea that democratic regimes are based on harmony and
consensus with his comparison of England and the US.

Indeed, his rejection of hypergeneralizing models appears
attractive.  In fact, this is exactly the approach Soviet historians
followed in their rejection of official dogma on history at the cusp
of the USSR's collapse.  Yet, comparisons often hobble, and a book
built on comparisons hobbles on two square wheels instead of one.

I found Gran's first chapter on Russia puzzling.  I suspect this is
because he relies only on the scholarship of US "Sovietologists."
He carries on polemics with these authors, but again, the range of
debate is narrow, like the sources.  Some nations are "luckier" than
others, as Gran shows great expertise with Iraq in plumbing the
depths of Arabic scholarship.  Yet, again, other regions, such as
Italy, contain no national scholarship of the state under study.
Limited use is made of Spanish language texts on Mexico.  India
fares well with heavier reliance on the work of Indian historians
and sociologists.  Granted, Albanian is a bit obscure, but much work
on Albania has been done by Italian and Russian scholars, and Gran
would have benefited from reading it.

To be fair, few of us can be expected to master this range of
languages. Yet, the relevant question is whether it is possible to
formulate reasonable comparative theories about Russia, Albania, or
Italian history without knowing their literature?  This strikes me
as being quite Western, and to be more candid, even hinting at the
very American self-assurance that Gran himself condemns.

A good rule to follow is the less one's knowledge of original
sources, the more careful the historian should be in their
judgments.  Peter Gran does not heed this caution and it leads to
problems.  For example, he informs us that foreigners saw Russia as
a paradoxical, half-European, half-Asian, etc. (p. 8).  Yet, this is
false.  In fact, the idea that Russia was mysterious and difficult
to understand came from Russia itself and not Europe.  Eighteenth
century French educators in Russia reported nothing odd about it.
But, by the same token, it was Russians themselves who stated that
Russian institutions, such as serfdom, were problematic.  Russian
philosophers as early as the time of prince Kurbski in the 16th
century commented on this problem.  Westernizers in Russia condemned
this peculiar institution.  Slavophiles, by contrast, held it to be
a source of Russian strength.  And, this is another problem with
this chapter on Russia in a book discussing Eurocentrism, why ignore
this central theme to understanding Russian history, the ongoing
conflict between Westernizes and Slavophiles?

Also, he has a weak understanding of Russian philosophers.  One
philosopher he does focus on, in detail, is M. Pkrovski.  Yet, he
mischaracterizes him as part of the liberal tradition of world
history, instead of understanding that instead he was Russia's early
world-systems theorist.  I also found problematic his focus on Roy
Medvedev's _Let History Be The Judge_ to highlight historian
dissidents in Russia. Medvedev is not a world historian, and his
book is merely a collection of accounts about the Stalinist terror.
Yet, it is readily available in English.  Better works putting this
topic in world historical context, such as Mihail Gefter's, are
ignored.  Again, rather than thorough knowledge of his subject, I
sense that simple availability of sources seems to have guided his
research, and thus conclusions, on Russia.

Use of terms also presents problems.  For example, Gran uses caste
in relation to Russia.  In one sense, the term is used
metaphorically in the Russian context, but then again more directly
in reference to India. Certainly, the meaning of any term can be
widened beyond its strict definition, but here we risk having words
lose all meaning in their overly broad application.  For example, to
refer to the Soviet nomenklatura as a caste ignores that caste is
based on closed groups.  The basis of nomenclature, by contrast, is
openness.  Dostoevsky described Russia's gentry as democratic
because it constantly replenished its numbers out from the masses.
Indeed, it possessed a surprisingly significant vertical mobility
for a still half-feudal society.  In fact, this was one of the very
causes of the 1905 and 1917 social explosions.  A consequence of
those revolutions was even greater social mobility.  The
nomenclature was first of all an open estate.  If one accepted the
rules, regardless of how odious, one could join their ranks.  He
then speaks of the Soviet nomenclature as a new class.  But, even
here, to borrow from Issac Deutscher, this "caste" was constantly
being washed away from the bottom, lacking the stable class culture
and ethics of caste.  In other words we see the direct opposite of a
caste structure.

Ironically, it was this very Soviet social mobility which led to the
nomenklatura wanting to become a fixed class.  As economic
stagnation set in during the late Soviet period, Soviet elites
looked less favorably on ever new numbers joining them from below.
They aspired to become a genuine ruling class whose privileges would
be defended by the right of property and law.  This was the most
important element in the Soviet revolution from above in the late
1980s and early 1990s.

His reasoning about the USSR's collapse is further problematic in
its focus on ethnicity.  He sees it causing the Soviet fall when
ethnic groups became grounded in their original ethnic domains, thus
developing their own interests.  Yet, the participation of
non-Russians in the Soviet nomenklatura peaked early rather than
late.  Moreover, different ethnic groups were kept in rotation,
e.g., the Georgian "mafia" in Moscow, Ukrainians in Moldova, etc.
Yet, it was a striving to escape this situation and secure
privileges which led to the "policy of cadre stabilization" by 1964,
in which ethnic groups stopped moving and secured control over
specific territories resulting in the rise of local elites. I have
focused on Russia, and could reveal further problems with this case,
but I believe he displays similar weaknesses in other areas too.

Gran replaces conventional units, such as Europe, the Muslim world,
Latin America, etc., and instead focuses on "roads."  Yet, no one
explanation or consistent criteria are given for what a "road" is.
Indeed, the criteria seem to change from example to example.  When
characterizing the Russian road he uses terms such as: hierarchic
culture and political centralization, universal compulsory military
service, non-tribal state, etc.  Why not speak then about (with some
qualifications) German or Prussian roads?

Trying to show the similarity between Russian and Iraqi history, he
breaks with the conventional periodizations of 1905 and 1917.
Moreover, he condemns historians for losing sight of the masses.
Yet, it is precisely these conventional periodizations which reveal
when the mass has helped move history.  By focusing on the tragedy
of collectivization from 1929-32, he instead shows more when the
mass has been acted upon, rather than when it has acted itself.  On
Russia, I also would have liked to see a look at the Brezhnev
conservative period.  Without inspecting this era the Soviet crash
in the 1980s can hardly be understood.

Comparing Iraq to Russia would seem attractive since the 1960s Iraqi
elite consciously oriented itself toward Soviet development.  Yet,
this does not mean that the twentieth century saw Iraq following the
Russian road throughout this whole period.  What is more, why not
compare the Congo to Russia and Iraq?  Similar features are visible
among all three (e.g., "the tribal way"), not to mention Albania,
thus making a fourth.

Regarding India and Mexico, I do not think they have followed the
Italian road, at least not consciously.  If any road has directly
influenced these states, it would be England, the USSR; and with
Mexico specifically, France and the US.  And here too, Albania shows
a similar path to Italy. In sum, I wonder how much these
"connections" are consciously chosen between these are "roads," or
are merely coincidences.  Methodologically , and in terms of
explanatory power of this model, the answer will determine the value
of this "road"  approach.  In sum, the comparisons strike me as too
arbitrary.

Regarding the Italian road, there seems only one criterion offered
to define it: the rich north/poor south divide.  Just as compelling
as comparing Mexico to Italy would be to compare Mexico to the USSR.
Within Mexico City are located Mexico's cultural, mono-political
power structure, corporatism, and revolutionary traditions; similar
to Moscow.  In Latin America it might be more sensible to compare
Brazil to Italy with its dualism of the rich white south, and the
poor black north.  It too has a tradition of corrupt democracy,
penetrated by authoritarianism, but also strong independent trade
unions on the left.  Also, Gran states that the Italian case is
typified by economic self-sufficiency and expansion for security
reasons.  Is this not too like the USSR?

This book borrows heavily from Antonio Gramsci.  He is mistakenly
referred to as the founder of the Italian Communist Party (in fact
this was N.  Bordiga).  "Hegemony" has been fully employed in
English language sources since the 1970s and 1980s.  This is fine,
but we are left wanting for a definition that concretely states how
a ruling class supports its position. Left unanswered is the
difference between dictatorship and democracy.

The book claims to take us beyond Eurocentrism, but it ends up being
just that as analogies for every European phenomenon are sought
outside of Europe.  This strikes me as too mechanical an exercise to
reveal commonality among all parts of the world.  While this book's
subtitle is _A New View of Modern World History_, what this book
needs more of is precisely world history grounded in hard evidence.

     Copyright (c) 2000 by H-Net, all rights reserved.  This work
     may be copied for non-profit educational use if proper credit
     is given to the author and the list.  For other permission,
     please contact H-Net at h-net.msu.edu.






More information about the Marxism mailing list