Blaut on David Landes

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Sun Jan 14 07:23:15 MST 2001

(From "8 Eurocentric Historians")

Landes dislikes the empires of Asia, but he likes the European colonial
empires. He likes imperialism. He defines it as a sort of natural tendency
of societies to expand by conquest. He says imperialism is in our blood: it
is "the expression of a deep human drive." "Imperialism has always been
with us" (p. 63). Being "a deep human drive," it is not a crass strategy to
steal other people’s land and riches. "European economies gained little if
anything" from it.45 There have been two really important imperialisms in
history: the Islamic expansion and the "expansion of Christian Europe" (p.
393). European expansion started almost as early as the Islamic; for
Landes, European imperialism goes back to the Norse irruption, the
Crusades, the Drang nach Os ten. But the Islamic case, he asserts, was very
different from the European case: the Muslim expansion "rested on old
ways," was a matter of "zeal," of "passion" (p. 393). European expansion
rested on superior technology and was fundamentally an expression of power,
profit-seeking, some religious motivation, and curiosity. It was rational.
It was also natural. The natives were so backward, ignorant, docile under
despotism, that they could not really resist.

Landes’s discussion of European imperialism and its postcolonial aftermath
takes up about half of the pages of The Wealth and Poverty of Nations. It
is a key component of his theory of history: that Europe has been superior
to everyone else for 1000 years and still remains so in the globalized
world of today. But this is much more than a theory of history. It is a
political statement; in places even a political diatribe. Landes wants to
uphold and defend European-dominated capitalist society in the form that it
takes today: he says so over and over again in the book, lashing out at
scholars who claim that non-Europeans were and are the equals of Europeans
in one way or another; and at scholars who claim to find non-European
origins of European cultural advances; and at scholars who criticize
Western imperialism as a negative force in history or criticize aspects of
Western domination of the Third World today; and at scholars who diminish
European greatness by calling imperialism an economic strategy.46 These
critics of Eurocentrism are ideologues; Landes and those who agree with him
"prefer truth."

In Chapter 1 of the present book I defined Eurocentric diffusionism as a
theory or world model that is grounded in two fundamental arguments; both
are essential to its logic. One is the axiomatic argument that Europe
naturally progresses, while non-Europe naturally remains backward,
traditional, ahistorical. The second is the axiomatic argument that, since
1492, progress for the non-European world has consisted in the diffusion of
innovations from Europe. Thus we have a two-sector world in which the
European core advances through its own internal forces of progress, whereas
the periphery advances mainly by receiving the fruits of Europe’s
modernization through submission to European domination: or, as Landes puts
it, "European (Western) dominion and the fruits therefrom" (p. 63). The
Wealth and Poverty of Nations follows this logic exactly. Hence the
importance of Landes’s long, admiring discussion of European imperialism
and its present-day outcome.

The history of imperialism is summarized in a thoroughly traditional way.
Landes consistently minimizes the negative aspects and exaggerates the
benefits. Slavery and slave trading were, he says, merely borrowed from
Arab and West African slavers: the structures were in place and Europeans
only put slavery to productive use. (In reality, earlier slavery— much of
it carried out by Europeans who enslaved Europeans as well as others—was in
no way comparable in scale or character to plantation slavery in the
European colonies.)

Depopulation of the Americas cannot, of course, be denied by Landes, but he
minimizes its importance in the Conquest: we should not dwell so much, in
the tradition of Sauer and Borah, on disease as a factor; for Landes it was
the technical and cultural superiority of Europeans that really mattered.47
(Disease was in fact the decisive factor: had New World populations not
been decimated by Old World diseases brought over by the Europeans—perhaps
three-fourths of the American population died during the sixteenth
century—it is likely that the Americans would have quickly picked up
European military technology after 1492 and then driven the few thousand
European soldiers into the sea.) The Americans, Landes asserts, were cruel,
superstitious, in some cases cannibals.48 The Conquest was natural.

Then we are offered a sequence of false and Eurocentric judgments about
plantation colonialism. The slave-plantation colonies were not really
important in history. (Absolutely untrue.) The Caribbean climate was too
hostile for European settlement. (An environmentalistic myth.) Sugar was of
course a very valuable crop, Landes allows, but it did not really have the
significance that some scholars (such as Eric Williams) have given it: It
did not significantly "alter the path of British development."49 (This
judgment is traditional in European scholarship but has been strongly
challenged: see Volume 1.) There was of course resistance by the slaves,
but, says Landes, it was partly European-inspired: the Haitian slaves,
"encouraged by revolutionary doctrines from France, rose in revolt.. . .
The French Iwere] defeated more by disease than by bullets."50 (Another
traditional myth; in fact, the Haitians made their own revolution. They
defeated Napoleon’s armies long before Waterloo.) Thus, for Landes, the
Europeans emerge as active subjects, the Africans and Native Americans as
passive objects.

Basically the same false picture is painted for colonialism in Asia. The
British in India merely wanted to engage in peaceful trade; the Indians
tried to squeeze them, and this "turned the intruders to thoughts of
violence" (p. 154). Pre-British India was supposedly a land of
technological backwardness, limited property rights, and great poverty. It
was ruled by tyrannical despots. (Not so.51) In effect, the British freed
the Indians from this unhappy condition by colonizing them. (But colonies,
almost by definition, are unfree.) The Dutch in Indonesia would have
preferred to be just middlemen, agents, processors, distributors; but
conflict with the Iberians back home in essence forced them, against their
better judgment, to become colonial rulers. Thus European colonialism,
overall, is depicted as something natural in human history, as motivated by
all sorts of forces among which the thirst for accumulation was relatively
minor, as something that (in spite of its admittedly dark aspects) was
beneficial to the natives who, in any case, were unable to do much about
it. And decolonization is depicted similarly. In Latin America,
"independence slipped in—a surprise to unformed, inchoate entities that had
no aim but to change masters." Indonesia was granted independence readily
"because [of] Dutch public opinion [and] penitent self-criticism" (p. 149).
In the colonies overall, "European ideals of freedom and the rights of man
proved contagious, and subject peoples learned from their masters how to
resist their masters" (p. 438). In short, everything diffuses from Europe.
Landes also discusses the postcolonial and present conditions in some parts
of the Third World, and what emerges is more of the same Eurocentric
diffusionist model. The message is: poverty is their own fault, and to
progress they must accept diffusions from Europe, most importantly global,
Europe-centered, capitalism, in which they are to play a submissive,
subaltern role. (This indeed seems to be the crucial message of The Wealth
and Poverty of Nations. Probably it is the chief reason why The Wall Street
Journal and the other canonical media gave the book such prominence.)
Landes discusses, in turn, postcolonial Latin America, early modern and
modern China, the early modern and modem Muslim world, and (very briefly)
Africa. He first asks why Latin America, after independence, did not
progress as did Anglo-America. There are cultural and environmental
reasons, he says. Whereas Anglo-America was settled mainly by English
families, Latin America was settled by single males from Iberia who
intermarried with the blacks and Indians to form a different sort of
society. There is no trace of racism here, but rather a curious judgment
that the mixed society of Latin America somehow was bad: "no direction, no
identity, no symbolism of nationality, no pressure of expectations. Civil
society was absent" (p. 313). He finds another, deeper cause in the fact
(as he has it) that Latin America had its origins in Catholic,
counter-Reformation Iberia. It was a "simulacrum of Iberian society,"
lacking "the skills, curiosity, initiatives, and civic interests of North
America" (p. 312). Landes of course ranks Europe above non-Europe, but he
ranks Catholic Europe much lower than Protestant Europe, and Spain lowest
of all. Protestant England was a skeptical, scientific-minded, dissenting,
work-ethic society—here a bow to Max Weber—and exported all of this to
North America. Catholic Spain was a docile society, ground under
"Counter-Reformation orthodoxy and superstitious enthusiasms" (p. 312).
(Hardly a balanced judgment.) Latin America’s poverty and political
instability are mainly explained in this way, but there were also
environmental causes: Latin America, being mostly tropical, has a miserable
environment for economic development.52 Landes scoffs at those who find
external factors in the explanation for Latin America’s poverty and
instabilty. He ignores the fact that only British settler colonies shared
in the economic development of modern Britain, that the rest of the world,
including Latin America, remained a happy hunting ground for Europeans to
exploit. And he acrimoniously denounces the dependency theorists for
blaming Latin America’s problems on imperialism.53

Landes next tells us why (as he believes) China did not develop during the
late medieval and early-modem centuries. His argument here is not only
traditional Eurocentric history, but it casually ignores a lot of modern
scholarly findings. (He cites only a handful of sources, none primary.) The
foundation, as we discussed above, is his view of China throughout history
as suffering from Oriental despotism and bad reproductive habits, with
poverty and nondevelopment as the outcome. But he must contend with the
conventionally accepted fact that China was at or above the level of Europe
in most aspects of technology until at least the thirteenth century. He
concedes that development was taking place before then without explaining
how it can be that China’s Oriental despotism and Malthusian difficulties
permitted this to happen. He then argues, as Eurocentric historians so
often do, that something happened in medieval China that stopped
technological and economic progress, even led to regression. Landes
describes this putative stoppage in colorful terms: "stasis and retreat";54
"technological oblivion and regression"; "Round, complete, apparently
serene, ineffably harmonious, the Celestial Empire purred along ... " (p.
98); "not only the cessation of improvement but the institutionalization of
the stoppage . . . " (p. 200). In a word: China just stopped.

China did not stop. This used to be the conventional view of Western
historians. But a great deal of research has been done in recent decades on
China’s medieval technology, and all of it shows uninterrupted progress
overall. Today most historians of China have accepted the hard evidence on
this matter. The Eurocentric world historians now retreat to one or another
fallback position. Either they focus on some fields of technology in which
Chinese progress slowed or stopped—as happens everywhere at one time or
another—and ignore or minimize those fields in which progress did not stop;
or they zero in on the fifteenth century and claim that some sort of sea
change took place in China then and the country backed away from
technology.55 Interestingly, Landes uses these fall-back arguments along
with his general assertion of complete stoppage. And, where he concedes
some progress, he minimizes its significance. For example, acknowledging
that East Asians invented printing with movable type, he says
(incorrectly): "Some Chinese printers did use movable type ... but the
technique never caught on as in the West." In prior chapters I reviewed
most of these issues, so I will limit myself here to a few comments.56 It
is wrong to view the history of Chinese technology and economy in terms of
the postures taken at various times by the imperial government. Most
sectors, including farming, were responding to market forces and local
power sources, including landlords.57 Imperial decrees sometimes favored,
sometimes inhibited, the progress in these fields, but these decrees tended
to be ignored or easements were purchased with bribes. For example, the
traditional view, echoed by Landes, has it that the Chinese backed away
from sea trade in the fifteenth century, and indeed imperial decrees were
issued at various times forbidding or restricting this trade, but in fact
the trade did not stop and perhaps did not even slow down.58

The important evidence concerns the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries,
not the fourteenth or fifteenth, and it is comparative: European sea trade
in Asia increased very rapidly while Chinese did not. But this is to be
explained with a completely different model, one that focuses on the
dynamics of European expansion, not on a mythical Chinese stoppage. My own
theory is set out in Volume 1 and summarized in Chapter 1 of this volume:
European expansion overseas resulted from the riches obtained in the
sixteenth century in America. Landes to the contrary notwithstanding,
Europe had no advantage over Asia, actual or potential, prior to 1492.

Before we leave China, a comment should be made about Landes’s mistaken
view that Europeans were better at seafaring than Chinese. He has to get
around the fact that the greatest maritime accomplishment of the Middle
Ages was the series of huge fleets sent out by China in the early fifteenth
century, fleets that repeatedly sailed into the Indian Ocean and reached
the coast of Africa, all of this some sixty years before Columbus’s first
voyage. This poses two problems for Landes: First, how does one minimize
the significance of this achievement so as to preserve the idea of Europe’s
absolute superiority in level and rate of technological development?
Second, if China reached as far as it did in long-distance maritime
voyaging, how do you account for the fact that Europeans, not Chinese, were
able to use long-distance voyaging as a stepping-stone to economic
modernization and world hegemony? Both problems are dealt with in a
standard Eurocentric way. First, the Chinese enterprise itself is subtly
diminished: the voyages followed "an orgy of shipbuilding" during which
"forests were stripped of timber," masses of illiterate workers were
dragooned into building the ships; the ships were "built for luxury"; the
enterprise was paid for by "a population bled white by taxes and corvée
levees" (p. 97); the voyages "reeked of extravagance" (p. 514); and so on.
And Chinese, he adds (falsely, and with no supporting evidence), were worse
navigators than Europeans. This is then contrasted with the more pragmatic,
more purposeful, more rational voyaging by the Europeans. But Landes here
is merely using literary devices to disguise (and distort) what was
certainly one of the most important technical accomplishments of the Middle

As to the matter of long-range implications for world history, Landes falls
back on a string of familiar arguments, all of which have been refuted by
modem scholarship, which he dismisses: "We have seen examples of this
Europhobia in recent discussions of the age of voyages and discovery" (p.
96). The Chinese, in essence, did not have the rationality to build on the
base of Admiral Zheng He’s voyages: the Chinese "lacked range, focus, and
above all, curiosity" (p. 96). And their society was stagnating,
regressing: in essence, it was just Oriental despotism. But China was
neither stagnating nor regressing. The great voyages served their purpose,
and (after about 1440) the government found it mote rational to devote its
resources to defending the land frontier in the northwest rather than to
underwrite further voyages. Landes asks, Why didn’t the Chinese voyages
reach America? and answers with all of the arguments just discussed about
stagnation, lack of curiosity, and so on. But the answer, as we saw in
prior chapters, is straightforward. The Americas are much, much closer to
Europe than to China. And Europe had a strong reason to venture out into
the Atlantic: the hope of reaching the wealth of Asia. The Chinese had no
such motive: what possible advantage would have accrued to China if it had
found a direct sea route to Europe? Chinese merchant ships continued to
sail to and from Southeast Asia and other foreign destinations; there was
no interruption. As in other aspects of technology and society, Chinese
were as progressive as Europeans—and as rational.

Landes next turns his attention to the Middle East. He claims that the
Islamic world, including Mughal India, simply had no chance to rise as
Europe did. Its history is "history gone wrong."59 His discussion of the
medieval and early-modern Islamic world is fundamentally erroneous. He
falsifies some aspects of early Islamic society. And he claims falsely that
Islamic society, throughout its history, is characterized and defined by
selected unmodem features of some versions of the Islamic religion, and
selected unmodern and undemocratic contemporary Islamic societies. (It is
rather like defining European history as a combination of the Inquisition
and Nazi Germany.) Says Landes about the religion and the society
(including here Mughal India): "Islam links faith to power and dominion....
Europe was spared the thought control that proved a curse to Islam" (p.
394). "Unlike Islam . . . Christianity early made the distinction between
God and Caesar" (p. 38). "Islam does not, as Christianity does, separate
the religious from the secular. . . . The ideal state would be a
theocracy.... A good ruler leaves matters of the [mind] to the doctors of
faith. This can be hard on scientists" (p. 54). To which one must reply:
the Islamic societies of the Middle Ages had as much freedom of thought, as
much science, as did the Christian world. This is widely accepted by
scholars of medieval Islam.60 As to modern Islam, among many
uncomplimentary assertions by Landes, this one stands out: "[The] ill is
far more general than the Israeli-Arab conflict. . . . It lies . . . with
the culture" (p. 410). I see no need to comment.

About Africa, little is said, apart from a few assertions about the
primitiveness of the cultures and the inhospitability of the climate. Here
are a few of Landes’s comments, taken out of context but conveying his
tone: "Sub-Saharan Africa threatens all who live or go there." "Traditional
nostrums and magical invocations may be preferred [by Africans] to foreign,
godless medicine" (p. 12). "The slave trade flourished" in precolonial
Africa (p. 69). Small farmers "scratch the soil" (p. 500). "In general, the
women do as they are told.... AIDS? Forget condoms; the men don’t like
them" (p. 501). And a general characterization of postcolonial sub-Saharan
Africa: "bad government, unexpected sovereignty, backward technology,
inadequate education, incompetent if not dishonest advice, poverty, hunger,
disease, overpopulation" (p. 499). If these negative judgments were backed
with scholarly evidence they might deserve to be taken more seriously. They
reflect ignorance.

Louis Proyect
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