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For a Marxist Critique of Eurocentrism, or Refusing to Throw the Baby out with the Bath Water

by Cemal Burak Tansel on November 16, 2014
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Up to the Greek insurrection Turkey was, to all intents and purposes a terra incognita, and the common notions floating about among the public were based more upon the Arabian Nights’ Entertainments than upon any historical facts . . . It is true that during the last thirty years much has been done toward general enlightenment concerning the state of Turkey. German philologists and critics have made us acquainted with the history and literature, English residents and English trade have collected a great deal of information as to the social condition of the Empire. But the diplomatic wiseacres seem to scorn all this, and to cling as obstinately as possible to the traditions engendered by the study of Eastern fairy-tales.

Friedrich Engels wrote this passage in March 1853 amidst an increasingly tempestuous state of affairs in Eurasia that eventually gave birth to the Crimean War. The entire article from which this paragraph is taken is a striking critique of the fetishisation of the geopolitical status quo by the European powers in the nineteenth century (as part of a series of articles Marx and Engels penned in the 1850s), but the real significance of the text lies in the identification of a certain modus operandi that Engels associates with the Western observers of his time.

Engels’ characteristically sardonic remarks about the vacuity of bourgeois portrayals and discussions of the developments concerning the ‘non-West’ effectively captures the mechanisms of Eurocentric knowledge production in three interrelated movements. Accordingly, the conception of the world that Engels describes (1) is concerned with the ‘non-West’ only if the processes and events therein have a direct bearing upon the West (‘Up to the Greek insurrection. . .’), (2) otherwise renders the ‘non-West’ invisible (‘. . .Turkey was, to all intents and purposes a terra incognita’), (3) engages with the ‘non-West’ from a perspective shaped heavily by a set of preconceptions that do not necessarily reflect the concrete conditions of these societies (‘diplomatic wiseacres . . . cling as obstinately as possible to the traditions engendered by the study of Eastern fairy-tales’).

I explored the extent to which this stratum of Eurocentrism has endured and further permeated materialist approaches in International Relations (IR) and International Historical Sociology (IHS) in an article recently published in the European Journal of International Relations titled ‘Deafening Silence? Marxism, International Historical Sociology and the Spectre of Eurocentrism’. In the remainder of this post, I will limit my discussion to the parameters in which I investigate the material and narrative components of Eurocentrism and why it is essential to revisit Marx’s corpus to tackle some of the difficult questions arising from the critique of Eurocentrism. I will not repeat here my analysis of the degree to which Marxist IR/IHS frameworks encompass/reinforce certain Eurocentric conceptions and perpetuate a ‘disciplinary silence’ on the role of the non-West in global history as the original article discusses these issues in detail.

Imperial_Federation,_Map_of_the_World_Showing_the_Extent_of_the_British_Empire_in_1886_(levelled)The critique of Eurocentrism in IR and IHS is not a novel endeavour—a great deal of labour has been put into the efforts to demolish the Eurocentric pillars on which the discipline of IR has risen and to reconstruct a non-Eurocentric imaginary with which to reinvigorate the study of global politics. From the works of Siba Grovogui and John M. Hobson to Gurminder Bhambra and Sanjay Seth, both the scholars working within the IR tradition and those who have joined the discussion from other disciplines have challenged the conceptual and historiographical lenses that distorted the ways in which IR/IHS have engaged with the non-West. Recently, Kamran Matin and Kerem Nişancıoğlu made crucial interventions, simultaneously challenging the Eurocentric underpinnings of international theory and reasserting the promise of historical materialism in overcoming such deficiencies. The argument I put forward in ‘Deafening Silence?’ is thus a new thread in a growing web of scholarship and should be placed alongside both the abovementioned efforts and the coeval exegeses in Marxist theory that critically examine the location of the non-West in and the so-called Eurocentrism of historical materialism.

In ‘Deafening Silence?’, I identify four major interwoven narratives that sustain the Eurocentric Weltanschauung. These include:

  1. the hypothesis that modern socio-economic development is an exclusively endogenous European affair and that the components of this trajectory can be found unanimously within a geographically and culturally defined Europe (and in general the West);
  2. a provincialist intertwinement of social theory and historiography that assigns a central role to a hermetically sealed Europe in devising, in Mustapha Kamal Pasha’s words, the ‘[i]deas of the State, sovereignty, secularism, nationalism, citizenship, civil society . . . with negligible or non-existent contact with Europe’s others and their organizing logics’;
  3. a paternalistic theory of history defending the universal validity of the European trajectory and the ultimate necessity for others to imitate the same experience;
  4. a persistent dismissal of the significance of global interconnections between social forces across time and space which then results in (I) the eradication of the role and effect of the non-West in engendering both conjunctural and epochal transformations, some of which are essentially constitutive of the emergence of the modern capitalist economy and the international states-system; and (II) the removal of a number of global events and processes from the analytical discussion, intentionally or unintentionally ‘whitewashing all of Europe’s sins’, including colonialism and imperialism.

A proviso that should be made with regards to the extant Marxist IR/IHS accounts’ relationship to Eurocentrism is that they almost universally avoid the most egregious forms of Western triumphalism in that they do not ascribe any undue primacy to the West based on cultural or racial assumptions (No Marxist in my survey suggests that in China and India ‘copulation was preferred above commodities’ à la E. L. Jones). Rather, the problem stems from  the exclusion of the non-West from the realm of historical agency and the refusal to acknowledge that the modern socio-economic and political systems are not the products of a self-contained Europe, but the offshoots of a lattice of ‘connected histories’ comprising socio-economic interactions, modal transformations and political struggles between different spatio-temporal sites. Eurocentrism thus essentially consigns the non-West to, in Adam Morton’s terminology, an ‘ontological exteriority’ through which the non-Western world is either completely excluded or extrapolated only as a comparative utility to prioritise or underscore the European experience.

Diagnosing the enduring influence of Eurocentrism in these accounts is perhaps the easiest part of the overall problématique. More obstacles emerge once we shift our analytical gaze to the question of what to do about Eurocentrism. To a large extent, the in/ability to answer this question determines theoretical allegiances and the debate between Marxists and postcolonial scholars largely revolve around the formulation of strategies to overcome the vestiges of Eurocentrism. For many outside the Marxist tradition, the infusion of Eurocentric conceptions in Marxist IR/IHS stems directly from the canonical contributions of Marx and Engels, hence the implicit suggestion that non-Eurocentric frameworks have to be sought in non-Marxist approaches. John M. Hobson, for example, perceives the contributions of Justin Rosenberg and Kamran Matin to the theory of uneven and combined development as efforts to construct a ‘non-Eurocentric, albeit non-Marxist’ historical sociology of the international. (Many) Marxists, on the other hand, tend to dismiss the critique of Eurocentrism by immediately associating it with a poststructuralist incarnation of postcolonialism, hence as a coordinated move to disarm Marxism’s radical universalism. Following this dichotomy, we thus find ourselves in an undesirable position between the Scylla of Eurocentric Marxism and the Charybdis of a poststructural postcolonialism that eschews grand theory in the name of concocting an ‘antidote to the hubris of totalizing theories’.

My article attempts to resolve one part of this dilemma by revisiting primarily the late work of Marx. The aim here is to provoke Marxists to engage with the question of Eurocentrism seriously and to prevent them from taking the convenient shortcut of equating the critique of Eurocentrism with a poststructural postcolonialism, i.e. something inherently incompatible with historical materialism. The article briefly discusses the importance of Marx’s collected writings in his Ethnological Notebooks, on world history and his correspondence with Russian populists, but also contends that the idea of multilinear development, essentially a non-autocentric conception of change, runs through Marx’s corpus in a consistent, though not always explicit manner. The corollary of this investigation is that Marxist IR/IHS scholars cannot shy away from engaging with the critique of Eurocentrism on the basis that the source of this critique is something alien to the Marxist thought: the critique of Eurocentrism necessitates neither an unqualified withdrawal from the precepts of historical materialism nor the imposition of a purely normative assumption that the non-West has been equally responsible for the making of the modern world, as some Marxists tend to think. Equally, in ‘Deafening Silence?’, I challenge those who insist upon an inherent Eurocentrism in Marxism and signals that the theory’s internal sources of critique is capable of overcoming both its own shortcomings and the broader Eurocentric conceptions that plague the analyses of international history and global development (as demonstrated expertly, though not conclusively, by Rosa Luxemburg).

It is possible to simultaneously ‘welcome the contribution postcolonial criticism has made to broadening the range of issues in cultural and political criticism’ and reassert—with modifications if necessary—the centrality and utility of the core precepts of Marxism in explaining historical change and international development. Doing so would not only allow us to chart meaningful and constructive lines of dialogue between Marxism and postcolonialism as Kamran Matin has suggested, but also help us preserve the legacy of, inter alia, Aimé Césaire, C. L. R. James and Frantz Fanon, who turned to Marxism’s weapons of criticism to resist colonial subjugation. There is no reason to throw the proverbial baby (i.e. Marxist theory) out with the bath water of Eurocentrism.

Cemal Burak Tansel
Cemal Burak Tansel is Lecturer in International Politics at the University of Sheffield. He is the editor of States of Discipline: Authoritarian Neoliberalism and the Contested Reproduction of Capitalist Order (Rowman & Littlefield International, 2017) and has published peer-reviewed research articles in the European Journal of International Relations, Review of International Studies and Journal of International Relations and Development.
3 Comments
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  • christo engelbrecht
    November 18, 2014 at 1:56 am

    Some new food for thought, and I think questions can be asked about how Max Horkheimer’s views about the non-West could be studied in view of Tansel’s perspective.

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