[Marxism] Re: Civilization, civilisation
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
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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