Reply to Ellen Meiksins Wood

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Thu May 17 08:05:44 MDT 2001

Eurocentric Anti-Eurocentrism

by Ellen Meiksins Wood

LIKE ANY GOOD socialist, I fervently believe that the struggle against
racism, imperialism, and European "cultural arrogance" is absolutely
essential to our project. I also believe that scholarship designed to
combat "Eurocentrism" has often produced extremely important results by
challenging the idea-which comes in many different forms-that "the West"
has always been, for one reason or another, superior to all other
civilizations and is destined to remain so. But there are certain things
about the fight against Eurocentrism that I've never understood.

There are, to begin with, serious problems involved in lumping together a
very wide variety of writers in the category "Eurocentrism," as if they
were all centered on Europe in the same way, and as if they all shared the
same contempt for non-Europeans.

>>REPLY: Blaut takes great care in distinguishing crude Eurocentrics from
the likes of Robert Brenner. In Brenner's case, it is not a sin of
commission such as Max Weber labeling the Chinese as an "emotional" race.
It is rather a sin of omission. In charting references in Brenner's various
articles to the New World on an x-y axis, they are practically nil. Is this
contemptuous? I will allow others to make this judgment. In any case, John
Bellamy Foster pointed out that in Brenner's NLR article on the global
economic crisis, 3rd world countries were never discussed. So, as Detective
Colombo might have said, "Don't get me wrong, but something looks fishy

Let's look first at the standard "Eurocentric" account of how and where
capitalism began. Conventional non-Marxist European accounts of capitalist
development from at least the eighteenth century have been based on two
fairly simple assumptions. Beginning with a conception of capitalism as
simply "commercial society" (as it was called by Adam Smith and others),
they assume that it was largely the result of growing towns and trade; and
second, that this process of commercialization reached maturity when a
critical mass of wealth was collected.

We can call these two assumptions the commercialization model of capitalist
development, and the classical theory of primitive accumulation. What is
missing in these accounts of capitalist development is any conception of
capitalism as a historically specific social form, a system with
historically unprecedented conditions, certain very specific relations of
production or social property relations, which generate very specific and
unique "laws of motion." There is no acknowledgment that capitalism is a
system of social relations in which profit-maximization and a constant need
to revolutionize the forces of production are basic and inescapable
conditions of survival, as they have never been in any other social form.

>>REPLY: Actually, the way that this question is posed necessitates an
analysis of capitalism developing in a single country rather than through
a nexus of economic and social factors straddling national and
international borders. It strongly suggests the influence of English CP'ers
like Christopher Hill and Eric Hobsbawm on Brenner, who were key players in
the original Dobbs-Sweezy debate. In contrast, Perry Anderson, who was
sympathetic to the more globally-oriented Trotskyism, offers this
alternative approach:

"For all the power of this case (Brenner's thesis), there were always
difficulties with its overall context. The idea of capitalism in one
country, taken literally, is only a bit more plausible than that of
socialism. For Marx the different moments of the modern biography of
capital were distributed in a cumulative sequence, from the Italian cities
to the towns of Flanders and Holland, to the empires of Portugal or Spain
and the ports of France, before being 'systematically combined in England
at the end of the 17th century'. Historically it makes better sense to view
the emergence of capitalism as a value-added process gaining in complexity
as it moved along a chain of inter-related sites. In this story, the role
of cities was always central. English landowners could never have started
their conversion to commercial agriculture without the market for wool in
Flemish towns--just as Dutch farming was by Stuart times in advance of
English, not least because it was conjoined to a richer urban society."<<

Instead, capitalism is conceived as a more or less natural outcome of
age-old and virtually universal human practices, the activities of
exchange, which have taken place not only in towns since time immemorial
but also in agricultural societies. In some versions of this
commercialization model, these practices are even treated as the expression
of a natural human inclination, in Adam Smith's famous phrase, to "truck,
barter and exchange."

In other words, in these accounts capitalism doesn't really have a
beginning, and its development doesn't really involve a transition from one
mode of production to a very different once. They tend to take capitalism
for granted, to assume its latent existence from the dawn of history, and
to "explain" its development, at best, by describing how obstacles to its
natural progression were removed in some places as distinct from others.

>>REPLY: To speak of capitalism having a "beginning" leads one down the
wrong path. A beginning invokes a point in plane geometry, when a more
appropriate symbol would be a series of moving points, parabola-like, such
as those identified in calculus, which is to mathematics as Marxism is to
society. Marxism is the science of society in *motion*. To try to pinpoint
the origin of "capitalism" is as sterile an exercise as identifying when
"socialism" began in the 20th century. Essentially, it leads to the kind of
idealistic and schematic doctrinal struggles that has fractured the Maoist
and Trotskyist movement into a thousand shards.<<

How, then, do anti-Eurocentric histories differ from these classic
explanations of the origin of capitalism? The critiques generally take one
or both of two forms.

First, they deny the "superiority" of Europe and emphasize the importance,
in fact the dominance, of non-European economies and trading networks
throughout most of human history, as well as the level of technological
development achieved by some of the main actors (for example, Andre Gunder
Frank's argument about the Asian-dominated world economy, which, he argues,
lasted until 1750-1800); and/or second, they emphasize the importance of
European imperialism in the development of capitalism.

Often this second thesis has to do with the role of British imperialism,
particularly the profits of sugar plantations and the slave trade, in the
development of industrial capitalism, though 1492 is also a major milestone
in the earlier rise of capitalism, as it is for J.M. Blaut, who attributes
European economic development in large part to the riches plundered from
the Americas.

These two theses may be combined in the argument that the dominant
non-European trading powers could and probably would have produced
capitalism (or maybe even did, though further development was thwarted), if
only they hadn't been ripped off by Western imperialism.

>>REPLY: Well, this is obviously true. Just take a look at Japan. It is an
island directly east of China famous for its samurai warriors, luxury
automobiles and sushi.<<

None of these critics seems to deny that at some point, Europe did diverge
from other parts of the world, but this divergence is associated with
"bourgeois revolution" and/or with the advent of industrial capitalism,
once enough wealth had been accumulated by means of trade and imperial
expropriation. Since trade was widespread in other parts of the world,
imperialism was the really essential factor in distinguishing Europe from
the rest, because it gave European powers the critical mass of wealth that
finally differentiated them from other commercial powers.

So, for instance, J.M. Blaut talks about "protocapitalism" in Asia, Africa,
and Europe and argues that the break which distinguished Europe from the
rest occurred only after wealth acquired by looting the Americas made
possible two types of revolution in Europe, first the "bourgeois" and then
the "industrial." "I use the word `protocapitalism'," he says, "not to
introduce a technical term but to avoid the problem of defining another
term, `capitalism.'"

This evasion is disarmingly candid, but also revealing. Since Blaut does
not conceive of capitalism as a specific social form, he can have no clear
conception of non- or precapitalist modes of production with different
operating principles, and no conception of a transition from one to the
other. Commercial practices shade into "protocapitalism," which grows into
"modern" capitalism.

>>REPLY: This is a totally undialectical understanding of how capitalism
takes root. Non or pre-capitalist modes of production are a minus,
capitalism is a plus. In reality, the capitalist system at its inception
ONLY BECAME POSSIBLE through reliance on FORCED LABOR and other
"non-capitalist" social relations. For a thorough examination of this
phenomenon, I refer people to Sidney Mintz's "Sweetness and Power: the role
of sugar in modern history".<<

In this version, the echoes of the old Eurocentric and bourgeois narrative
are truly uncanny: Not only is European development basically the rise to
power of the bourgeoisie, but advanced and wealthy non-European
civilizations seem to be cases of arrested development because, even if
through no fault of their own, they never did throw off their shackles by
means of bourgeois revolution. And here too, just as in classical political
economy and its notion of "primitive accumulation," the leap forward to
"modern" capitalism occurred because the bourgeoisie had managed, in one
way or another, to accumulate sufficient wealth.

>>REPLY: Totally bizarre. Blaut never says anything remotely resembling
"non-European civilizations seem to be cases of arrested development
because … they never did throw off their shackles by means of bourgeois
revolution." He states that Europe held them back through colonialism.
Class formation in Asia, Africa and Latin America was distorted because of
the ability of European manufacturing--British in particular--to flood
local markets with cheap goods. This is not some quaint, misguided
"anti-Eurocentric" interpretation. It was what Marx said about India and it
is true.<<

Louis Proyect
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