[Marxism] Re: Civilization, civilisation

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Jun 2 07:25:07 MDT 2004

Inventing Western Civilization, by Thomas C. Patterson. New York: 
Monthly Review Press, 1997. $26.00; paper, $13.00. Pp. 156.

Thomas C. Patterson's Inventing Western Civilization reminds me of 
Gandhi's answer to a reporter's question concerning what he thought of 
western civi­lization. Said Gandhi, "It is a good idea." Patterson's 
book debunks not only the alleged superiority of Western Civilization, 
but explains how such a con­cept arose.

Civilization was essential to the ideology that accompanied the rise of 
the modern European state. The plunder of the Inca and Aztec empires 
facilitated the explosive growth of such states. Consequently a system 
of beliefs evolved to provide what Noam Chomsky has called the Necessary 
Lie. So the rulers of Spain, Portugal, France, Holland and England 
commissioned university-trained jurists to come up with explanations why 
it was natural for Europeans to murder and steal from the New World. In 
the 1560s, French jurists such as Jean Bodin and Loys Le Roy began to 
define the new rules. They used the words civilite and civilise to 
describe people like themselves, whose manners and morality were 
superior to the peasants of their own country, or the indigenous peoples 
of the Americas.

As the European states extended control over vast empires, the need to 
uphold the ideal of civilization deepened. Since some social critics 
such as Rousseau had already begun to question the benefits of civilized 
society, the ideological defense of colonialism became all the more 
urgent. This task fell on the shoulders of French and Scottish political 
economists in the 1760s and 1770s, who coined the term "civilization." 
The earliest usage, accord­ing to Patterson, is in 1766 when it was 
claimed that "When a savage people has become civilized, we must not put 
an end to the act of civilization by giving it rigid and irrevocable 
laws; we must make it look upon the legislation given to it as a form of 
continuous civilization."

The notion of a "savage people" was essential to Western Civilization 
ideology, since it had to have a way of rationalizing conquest abroad 
and repression at home. Patterson explains in Chapter Four ("Inventing 
Barbar­ians and Other Uncivilized Peoples") that members of the dominant 
soci­ety were always "refined, polished, and cultured" while the 
conquered were "un­civilized, barbaric, crude, rustic, wild or savage." 
Once you lumped the "other" into such a homogeneous and degraded group, 
it was possible to accept their exploitation more easily. Except for the 
occasional voice of protest from someone like the Franciscan monk 
Bartolome de las Casas, who criticized the brutality and excesses of 
Indian slavery in the New World, Europe re­garded the subjugation of the 
heathen as their God-given right.

Racism remained a constant element of Western Civilization ideology, 
since the barbarian's skin was often not white. In 1684, Francois 
Bernier, an acquaintance of John Locke, came up with a racial schema 
based on his travels in the various colonies. Europeans, Hindus and 
American Indians had skin color that was the result of overexposure to 
the sun, while the African's skin color was intrinsic. Lapps were "vile 
animals." For his part, Locke attempted a more sophisticated explanation 
for racial hierarchy. His doctrine of nominal essences allowed a single 
trait such as skin color to be the primary criterion of a society. The 
naturalist Johann Blumenbach put a scientific spin on all this in 1775, 
when he identified five races belonging to a single human species: 
Caucasian, Ethiopian, Mongolian, American Indian, and Malay. The 
Caucasians unsurprisingly were the original type and the rest were 

A century later, scientific pretexts for racism and Eurocentrism arose 
as the grip on colonial empires tightened. Western civilization had now 
become identified with the expansionist projects of men like Cecil 
Rhodes and Theodore Roosevelt. Reflective of the new ideological 
imperatives was Social Darwinism, an attempt tojustify racial and 
economic domination on a biological basis. If one society ruled over 
another, this was as much a func­tion of the survival of the fittest as 
warm-blooded mammals pushing aside the dinosaur.

Coterminous with the Social Darwinists was a new generation of critics 
of Western Civilization who viewed its ideology as a mask for class 
oppres­sion. Marx and Engels were the first to explain the class basis 
for the stateand its concomitant violence. That being said, it is rather 
surprising that Patterson does not address the rather mixed legacy of 
the Marxist move­ment on the topic of "civilization" versus "barbarism." 
While Marx and Engels always saw capitalism as a double-edged sword, 
there are occasional conces­sions to Social Darwinism among prominent 
Marxist thinkers such as Kautsky and Plekhanov.

Kautsky was an enthusiastic follower of Darwin and Spencer before he 
ever came across Marx. In 1881, he wrote an article for Die Neue Zeit 
titled "The Indian Question" that asserted that the reason the Europeans 
defeated the Indians is that they were technologically backward. 
Plekhanov's "Fun­damental Problems of Marxism" also exhibits much of the 
same mechanis­tic concept of historical change. In the chapter 
"Productive Forces and Geography," he makes the case that the Indians of 
North America remained at a low stage of development because they lacked 
domesticated animals. These questions are not just of theoretical 
interest since failure to under­stand them correctly led to divisions 
between the Sandinistas and the Miskitus, who were regarded as not up to 
the same cultural level as the Pacific Coast Spanish-speaking majority. 
When Marxists regard precapitalist social forma­tions as relics of a 
bygone era, the members of such societies can become filled with 
hostility to the revolution.

Unless Marxism divests itself of such Eurocentric biases, it will not be 
an effective force for social change. The best antidote for such bias is 
a deeper engagement with Marxism itself, which is the best weapon 
against the hier­archical social relations imposed by Western 
Civilization. The chief value of Patterson's book is that it provides a 
framework for such an engagement. By opening our eyes to the dubious 
merits of Western Civilization, it allows us to develop a more powerful 

(This review appeared in Science and Society, Summer 1999)


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