[Part II] Blaut on racism

Les Schaffer godzilla at SPAMnetmeg.net
Wed Nov 15 12:39:19 MST 2000

[Part II of Blaut via H. Liu.]

                 iv. Cultural Racism

All of this notwithstanding, biological racism remained somewhat
respectable until the 1950s and 1960s, the classical era of national
liberation and civil rights struggles. Racist practice now needed a
new theory. At this time, mainstream scholarship was being assigned --
quite literally: with funds and jobs provided -- the task of
formulating a theoretical structure which would rationalize continued
dominance of communities of color in the Third World and at home. Such
a theory would have to accept two anti-biological-racist propositions
which were axiomatic in Non-European communities: that Europeans are
not innately superior, and that economic development can bring
non-Europeans to the same level as Europeans. The problem was to show
that non-Europeans, though equal to Europeans in innate capacity,
cannot develop economically to the European level unless these
societies voluntarily accept the continued domination by European
countries and corporations, that is, neocolonialism.

The outcome of this truly massive theory- building effort was the
theory of "modernization."  This theory argued, in essence, that
non-Europeans are not racially, but rather culturally backward in
comparison to Europeans because of their history: their lesser
cultural evolution. And it is for this reason that they are poor. So
they must follow, under European guidance and "tutelage," the path
already trodden by Europeans as the only means of overcoming
backwardness. Non-Europeans were thereby defined as inferior in
attained level of achievement, not potential for achievement. This was
the real essence of cultural racism.

One of the most interesting and important aspects of this
theory-building campaign was the deification of Max Weber by various
groups of social scientists, among them the Parsonian structural-
functionalists (see Peet 1991) and "traditional mind" theorists like
McClelland, most of whom were involved directly or indirectly in the
modernization-theory construction project. Weber himself, a
half-century before, had expressed the then-dominant European views
concerning non-Europeans, with some small improvements. Weber's
argument, though partially grounded in biological racism (see, e.g.,
Weber 1958: 30; 1967: 387; 1981: 299, 379; 1951: 231-232), could
easily be detached from that grounding because most of what he wrote
about European superiority was axiomatic argumentation about the
uniqueness of the European mind -- its rationality, its spiritual
capacity -- and historical argumentation about the unique rise within
Europe, and Europe alone, of institutions and structures which were
the source of modernity. (See in particular Weber 1951; 1958; 1981.)
Neither rationality nor structure was (in general) connected backward
to race, as effect of a prime cause. Thus the Weberian argument could
be, and was, detached from race and presented as a theory of
modernization grounded in the uniqueness of European mentality and
culture, permanent qualities which throughout history gave Europeans a
continuously more rapid course toward modernity than non-Europeans.2
Those who think that Weber became popular in the 1950s and 1960s
because of his well-known opposition to the Marxist theory of the rise
of capitalism are missing the bigger picture. Weber, and Weberianism,
became important at that time mainly because Weber provided
contemporary social scientists with a theory of modernization,
essentially an elegant and scholarly restatement of colonial-era ideas
about the uniqueness of European rationality and the uniqueness of
European culture history. Weber was to neocolonialism what Marx was to
socialism. In a manner of speaking, Weber was the godfather of
cultural racism.

Cultural racism, as a theory, needs to prove the superiority of
Europeans, and needs to do so without recourse to the older arguments
from religion and from biology. How does it do this? By recourse to
history -- by constructing a characteristic theory of cultural (and
intellectual) history. The claim is simply made that nearly all of the
important cultural innovations which historically generate cultural
progress occurred first in Europe, then, later, diffused to the
non-European peoples (Blaut forthcoming 1992). Therefore, at each
moment in history Europeans are more advanced than non- Europeans in
overall cultural development (though not necessarily in each
particular culture trait), and they are more progressive than
non-Europeans. This is asserted as a great bundle of apparently
empirical facts about invention and innovation, not only of material
and technological traits but of political and social traits like the
state, the market, the family. The tellers of this tale saturate
history with European inventions, European progressiveness, European

This massive bundle of purportedly empirical, factual statements was
woven together by means of a modern form of the 19th-century theory of
Eurocentric diffusionism (Blaut 1987a; 1987b). This theory evolved as
a justification and rationalization for classical colonialism. It
asserted, in essence, the following propositions about the world as a
whole and throughout all of history. (1) The world has a permanent
center, or core, and a permanent periphery.  The center is Greater
Europe, that is, the continent of Europe plus, for ancient times, the
Bible Lands and, for modern times, the countries of European
settlement overseas. The core sector, Greater Europe, is naturally
inventive, innovative, progressive. (2) The periphery, the
non-European world, naturally remains traditional, culturally sluggish
or stagnant.  (3) The basic reason why Europe is progressive,
innovative, etc., is some quality of mind or spirit, some
"rationality," peculiar to Europeans. (4) Progress occurs in the
periphery as a result of the diffusion, the outward spread, of new and
innovative traits from the core to the periphery. The diffusion
process itself is natural. It consists of the spread of European
ideas, European colonialism, European settlers, and European
commodities. Notice that the basic theory can be driven by religious,
biological, or cultural motors. In the modern, post-1945 form of the
theory, the motor was culture, or rather culture history. The theory
itself was softened in some ways, for instance conceding that some
progress takes place in non-Europe (in spite of cultural "blockages"),
but the structure remained basically the same.

Modern diffusionism therefore depicts a world in which Europeans have
always been the most progressive people, and non-Europeans are
backward, and permanently the recipients of progressive ideas, things,
and people from Europe. It follows that progress for the periphery,
today as always in the past, must consist of the continued diffusion
of European "rationality" and institutions, European culture and
control. The periphery, today, includes the Third World, along with
Third World minorities embedded in the European-dominated countries
like the United States, in ghettos, reservations, prisons,
migrant-labor camps.

The main proposition here is a kind of Eurocentric historical
tunnel-vision which can be called "tunnel history." Historical
causation occurs, basically, in Europe and its self-proclaimed culture
hearth, the ancient Near East. (Examples: the origin of agriculture,
cities, states, science, democracy, feudalism, private property,
discovery, capitalism, industry...)  Non-Europe participates in
history mainly as recipient of diffusions from Europe. The most
important part of tunnel history concerns the world before 1492. (And
1992 is a peculiarly appropriate year in which to point this out.) The
essential argument is this: Europe was advancing more rapidly than the
other civilizations of the world, and was more advanced than these
other civilizations, at the very beginning of the modern era, prior to
the rise of capitalism and modernization, and prior to the beginnings
of colonialism. Therefore, the superiority of Europeans as individuals
and of European culture has very, very old roots and, by inference, is
natural and fundamental.  This proposition accomplishes everything
that biological racism accomplished and more; indeed, there is a
structural as well as functional parallelism between this doctrine and
biological racism. It argues, in essence, that a cultural, not
genetic, superiority appeared in the European cultural pool very long
ago and, just like genetic superiority, it has led ever since to a
greater rate of development for Europe and to a level of development
which, at each moment in history, is higher than that of non-European
cultures. Something occurred long ago in European culture which pushed
it into rapid progress. This something then continued to operate to
generate progress throughout all of later history. In effect: a
cultural gene, or cultural mutation. But cultural racism claims that a
vast number of these European cultural causes of progress, cultural
mutations, occurred, throughout history, one after another, each
adding further impetus to the progress of Europe, each pushing Europe
farther ahead of all other civilizations.

v. A Few Examples

Before I give a few illustrative examples of modern cultural-racist
theories, I have to offer two introductory comments to avoid
misunderstanding -- serious misunderstanding. First: Precisely for the
reason that we have, these days, so much racism yet so few racists,
cultural racism is not, in most cases, propagated by people whom we
would want to label "racists." The doctrine is theory, not
prejudice. Those scholars who advocate one or another form of it are
people who believe that they are dealing with facts, and with the
policy implications of these facts. Most of them reject prejudice and
are not prejudiced. They simply believe that there are straightforward
empirical reasons, grounded in cultural differences, which explain why
some groups and individuals are backward.

Secondly, it is very important to distinguish between those statements
which merely assert that some culture traits survive for long periods
of time and those statements which assert that some ancient, or at any
rate tenacious, culture traits explain the superiority of this culture
and the inferiority of that one. Change is the normal condition in
human cultures. If there is lack of change, it is either because the
members of a culture do not want to discard some cherished traits or
have no choice because of impinging circumstances. No human group is
so stupid as to cherish misery, want, and death.  Culture traits which
generate or worsen such things are discarded, and quite deliberately
so. (There are exceptions to this generalization, but they are very
rare, though much publicized, particularly in freshman textbooks.)
Cultural ecologists speak of a "culture core" consisting of those
traits and institutions which lie close to the realm of human
survival: matters of life and death (see in particular Steward
1955). This part of culture is very plastic, very adaptive. People
resist change in other parts of their culture (such as religion). But
it is very questionable to infer that human groups will retain any
traits if doing so is destructive to their livelihood and
survival. Therefore, whenever you hear a statement like "this group is
unprogressive because of its religious values," or "that group is poor
because its members are tradition-minded and opposed to innovation,"
you should be on the lookout for cultural racism. It is one thing to
respect culture, and to appreciate cultural differences, and quite
another thing to rank human groups on cultural criteria, and to claim
then that you have explained history.

Now some examples.

1. Many historians, today as in the past, claim to find a uniqueness
in the culture of very early Europe, something which they connect with
the early Indo-Europeans (e.g., Lelekov 1985; Baechler 1988) or the
Germans (e.g., Macfarlane 1978; 1986; Crone 1989) or the Iron-Age
peasants (Mann 1986; 1988), and quite regularly attach to the ancient
Greeks as contradistinct from their non-Indo-European neighbors (see
the analysis of this matter in Bernal 1987). In Marx's Germany, the
conventional wisdom was that ancient Germans were uniquely
freedom-loving, innovative, individualistic, aggressive, and rational;
the modern form of the doctrine does not depart much from this
formulation except as it admits Celts and Greeks to membership; no
modern evidence adds support. Here, now, are some of the historical
theories built upon the doctrine. (i) Ancient Europeans were uniquely
inventive and technologically innovative, and thereafter remained so
(Jones 1981).  (ii) Ancient Europeans acquired a unique love of
freedom, which matured then into a democratic state (Mann 1986; Hall,
1985). (iii) Ancient Europeans, because of or in close association
with their individualism, adopted a unique family type which then
acted to favor progressiveness, innovativeness, and, incipiently,
capitalism (Jones 1981; Macfarlane 1986; Todd 1985).

2. Many theories begin Europe's uniqueness with Roman times, or
slightly earlier, often focusing on the Church, or the partly
pre-Christian "Judeo- Christian tradition," or the later Western
Church.  Different theories find different causes for the emergence of
the new, and unique, and uniquely progressive culture. The effects
also are manifold.  For instance: (i) Lynn White, Jr,. argues that the
Judeo-Christian teleology explains Western technological inventiveness
and innovativeness (see Blaut forthcoming 1992); (ii) Anderson (1974)
sees something uniquely scientific and intellectual in the cultural
heirs to the Greeks and Romans; (iii) Werner (1988) believes that
European s became uniquely progressive because Christianity alone gave
prominence to the individual.

3. A great many present-day historians believe that Europeans long ago
acquired an ability to resist the Malthusian disasters which
supposedly blocked development in every other culture, some of the
arguments starting with the ancient Iron Age folk, some with an
amalgam of Germanic and Christian elements, some with medieval
Northwest-Europeans (see Mann 1986; Macfarlane 1986; Jones 1981; Stone
1977; Crone 1989 and many others). This then becomes a general theory
explaining what some call the "European miracle," by arguing that the
(mythically unique) European family, nuclear, late-marrying,
companionate, led to population control (Hall [1985: 131] speaks of
"the relative continence of the European family"); led also to a
capitalist mentality (Macfarlane 1986; Laslett 1988); even led
unmarried European men to go forth and conquer the world because of
their sexual frustration (Stone 1977: 54).

4. Paralleling all of these arguments is a set of arguments to the
effect that non-Europeans, long ago, acquired cultural qualities which
blocked development, or -- this is perhaps the more common formulation
-- such qualities are "traditional," and therefore have always been
present in non-European cultures. Todd (1985: 192) thinks that
Africans and African-Americans do not progress because the African
family has always lacked the father-figure. Many other scholars point
either to specific old traits in specific cultures as causes of
non-change, or else depict a world-wide zone of "traditional cultures"
-- including almost all non-European cultures -- which "traditionally"
lacked rationality, or achievement motivation, or sexual continence,
or some other quality necessary to forward historical motion.  It must
be added that this argument is also used very routinely to explain the
poverty of minority people in countries like the United States. When,
for instance, lack of progress among Mexicans and Puerto Ricans in
this country is attributed to the "traditional culture," its supposed
"fatalistic attitudes," "docility," etc., etc., this is still cultural
racism even though the source of the cultural argument is not ancient
but rather a kind of undated "traditional society."

Cultural racism is rooted most fundamentally in historical mythology
about the priority of Europe and thus the supposedly more mature,
evolved, rational character of Europeans, today, at home and
abroad. By way of closing this short paper I will simply note that,
even if all of the roots are torn out, the vine will not wither: it
will grow other roots, a new theory of racism, unless racism is
attacked, not as theory but as practice.

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