Eurocentrism, Racism: What’s In A Word?: A Response to Bowden, Sabaratnam and Vucetic

The fifth and final post in our symposium on John M. Hobson’s The Eurocentric Conception of World Politics: a reply from John himself, responding to the commentaries from Meera, Srdjan and Brett. John’s original summary post is, of course, still available too.

Introduction: All for one and one for all?

I would like to begin by thanking most sincerely my three blog interlocutors for having gone to the trouble of reading my new book, never mind taking the time to write up their extremely thoughtful and interesting blog responses. Of course, the cynic reading all of this might be forgiven for thinking that such a blog forum is hardly a ‘testing environment’ for Hobson’s book, given that his interlocutors are either postcolonialists or at least influenced by postcolonialism and have presumably, therefore, been “cherry-picked” for their potentially sympathetic tendencies. Even the titles that they have chosen, so the cynic might think, would appear to be symptomatic of this, with Meera Sabaratnam’s piece proclaiming – extremely generously I must concede – that my book has succeeded in ‘blowing up the disciplinary citadel of International Relations’, while Srdjan Vucetic’s title projects even further the meaning of the front cover of my book to that which I had intended, suggesting that IR is a ‘foolish discipline’ given his resounding agreement that it suffers from a pervading Eurocentrism. In this vein it might be thought that Brett Bowden’s title – ‘Eurocentrism and More’ – chimes in with yet another wholehearted rendition of the now familiar chorus of ‘IR is a Eurocentric discipline’. So why the fuss about all this and is there much point in reading on? For it would seem that we’re all agreed and there’s nothing to debate, right?

Well no, not quite all for one and one for all. True, Meera claims that it would be more interesting to see the response of those people and those representatives of liberalism, realism and Marxism whom I have cast as Eurocentric in my book, thereby implying that this is where the ‘real action’ would lie. I don’t doubt that this would be a fascinating challenge – more gladiatorial, no doubt – but not in my view necessarily more interesting. For it is the case that Meera and Srdjan in particular have raised some very tough and fascinating issues, which would be at least as challenging as anything that my Eurocentric opponents might throw at me.

It deserves emphasising that I was happy for these three scholars to engage my book in large part because I wanted to gauge the reaction of those who are situated on my side of the intellectual fence. Not because I wanted to elicit favourable replies (heaven forbid!) but because I have set out to recast the meaning of what Edward Said originally called ‘Orientalism’ in ways that might very well elicit a range of criticisms from postcolonialist and postcolonial-inspired thinkers.1 Indeed, when I was writing the book I very much anticipated a range of responses from such thinkers, which might range from a possible low-level grumbling or sniping to a more high-pitched chorus of lamentation such as, to paraphrase Meera’s title: “The imperialist foundations of Eurocentrism have been blown up: What’s next to go?” (or “what’s left of the postcolonial critique?”) And one of the key litmus tests for the intellectual success of my book that I had set up in my own mind would be to see if I could pass my radical revisions to Said’s concept of Orientalism by thinkers such as Brett, Meera and Srdjan, all of whom are undoubtedly highly accomplished in the area that this book plies.

1. Splitting Finitudes or Splitting Hairs: Once More Unto the Breach?

The first potentially controversial issue hinges on my analytical disaggregation of ‘Orientalism’ into its constituent components of Eurocentric institutionalism from scientific racism (see my opening blog as well as pp. 3–10, 313–327 of Eurocentric Conception).2 At first sight, it seems as though Meera saw no problem with this, declaring that “I find this disaggregation useful and illuminating, both as an intellectual exercise and in terms of the political and normative questions raised by it”, before concluding that ‘I don’t see any real worry for Hobson here, nor for postcolonial critics”. ‘Phew’ I thought, ‘I’m off the hook!’ But just before I thought it was safe to read on, she then goes onto ask what an engagement between myself and Etienne Balibar, who equates modern Eurocentrism with ‘neo-racism’, might look like – thereby opening up the possibility that Eurocentric institutionalism and scientific racism are inherent bedfellows at the very least or are simply two different phrases for roughly the same thing after all. Srdjan also chimes in here claiming that while I have plumbed the depths of ‘imperialism versus anti-imperialism’ I have not undertaken the same vis-à-vis ‘Eurocentric institutionalism and scientific racism’. By which he means that I do not consider in sufficient depth the potential overlaps between racism and Eurocentrism, rather than the point that I have not gone into considerable detail as to how Eurocentric institutionalism and scientific racism are manifested, and indeed differentiated, within international theory. This is very much an issue that I had anticipated would rise to the fore in this blog forum, and I very much welcome it since it is such an important property of my book.

There is a very great deal that I could say here, though I shall keep my response relatively short (but for a much fuller discussion see pp. 322–4 of my book, where I draw out all manner of overlaps while holding to the position that these two generic metanarratives are ultimately differentiated). As I noted in the book, critical race scholars very much see modern Eurocentric institutionalism or cultural Eurocentrism as a more subtle form of racism, which they label as ‘racism-in-disguise’ or what Balibar calls ‘neo-racism’. Five years ago I found such labels attractive and useful and developed this in an article for a special issue of Review of International Studies.3 At that time I felt that the titanic ship of modern IR could be holed beneath the waterline with that one charge – that modern Eurocentrism found in most of IR theory is simply a reheated form of racism, and therefore deserves the label ‘neo-racism’ (since no one in IR would defend or support scientific racism). I don’t deny that it is a tempting charge to lay at the door of modern IR. But tempting though it undoubtedly is, nevertheless I feel that it is not merely unfair but that it ultimately undermines the postcolonial critique, in effect disarming it almost lock, stock and barrel.

Indeed, in the end terms like ‘neo-racism’ or ‘racism in disguise’ when applied to modern international theory raise far more problems than they solve; and I’m afraid that I feel unrepentant for saying so – much as I confess that somewhere very deep down I wish I could repent on this issue! In the first instance it assumes implicitly that before 1945 (or thereabouts) international theory was pretty much founded on a scientific racist base and that this has continued on, albeit in a more disguised mode, right down to the present day. But this claim is highly problematic at both ends of the spectrum. Key thinkers from the pre-1945 era including Karl Marx, Richard Cobden, J.A. Hobson, Norman Angell and Leonard Woolf were certainly not scientific racists but nor were they multi-culturalists.4 They were, instead, fully signed up Eurocentric institutionalists. Thus although Karl Marx was unequivocally a Eurocentric institutionalist there was, however, not a single racist sinew in his body theoretique (notwithstanding the frankly awful and indeed shocking things he had to say about his own Jewish race).5 Moreover, many thinkers such as Hobson, Angell and Woolf advanced their Eurocentric institutionalism very much by critiquing the racist approaches that were advanced by various racist-realists such as Franklin Giddings, as well as various liberal- and socialist-racists including Benjamin Kidd and Karl Pearson respectively.6 Still, it is also true that many liberals who argued against American imperialism in the debate that followed the Spanish-American War in 1898, such as William Graham Sumner, James Blair and David Starr Jordan,7 advanced their claims by adopting an anti-imperialist racism which, ironically, was hurled against the imperialist racism of the likes of Franklin Giddings, Harry Powers and Henry Cabot Lodge. Messy all this is – for sure. Messy, but not unfathomable – which is precisely why I set out to re-categorise international theory in the last 250 years through a sociological heuristic. But the key point is that even in the so-called heyday of scientific racism many international thinkers rejected scientific racist ethnology while maintaining various Eurocentric institutionalist ethnologies.

Here I want to point up some of the manifold and irreducible differences between Eurocentric institutionalism and scientific racism. One unequivocal difference concerns the point that unlike the vast majority of scientific racists, Eurocentric institutionalists have no problem with blood-mixing.8 Inter-relatedly, many racist theorists viewed non-whites, especially blacks, as virtual animals, with Comte de Buffon claiming that it was the Hottentot (the Khoi-Khoi of south-western Africa) who constituted the missing link between apes and humans.

Certainly no Eurocentric institutionalist would have thought it appropriate to exhibit a Black African pygmy alongside monkeys in the monkey house, as happened to Ota Benga in the Bronx Zoo in 1906 at the ultimate behest of the arch-Eugenicist, Madison Grant.

Ota Benga at the Bronx Zoo


Moreover, Buffon’s argument meshed neatly with Edward Long’s racist claim that: ‘Ludicrous as the opinion may seem, I do not think that an orang-outang husband would be any dishonour to a Hottentot female’.9 While most of us today would find little with which to quibble concerning the first part of Long’s statement, certainly no Eurocentric institutionalist covered in this book, past and present, would agree with the latter part.

Moving onto the recent past, was someone like Samuel Huntington, like his much earlier namesake, Ellsworth Huntington, a scientific racist? I do not believe so, though I am equally as adamant that Huntington was a Eurocentric institutionalist, and a particularly acerbic one at that. Do I deny certain overlaps between scientific racism and Eurocentric institutionalism? Not at all. For one of my main arguments is that after 1989 many Western-realists, though adopting a Eurocentric institutionalist modality, echoed many of the political themes of their realist or cultural realist racist predecessors who wrote between 1889 and 1945. Moreover, I point up all manner of overlaps between the anti-imperialist racism of Herbert Spencer/William Graham Sumner and the anti-paternalist Eurocentrism of Adam Smith/Immanuel Kant.

Equally, I note all manner of overlaps between the racist imperialism of the likes of Paul Reinsch, Henry Sidgwick, Alleyne Ireland and Woodrow Wilson with the paternalist Eurocentrics such as J.A. Hobson and Norman Angell, Alfred Zimmern and Leonard Woolf. Does this mean that the post-1945 international theorists have continued the racism of their predecessors? In political spirit – yes – but not in discursive metanarratival form. Thus Samuel Huntington echoes many of the political themes that concerned the anti-imperialist racist thinkers such as Charles Henry Pearson, Lothrop Stoddard and Madison Grant, focusing his arguments as they did on rejecting non-Western immigration in particular.10

Samuel Huntington

Does that make Samuel Huntington a racist? No, because for one thing, unlike Grant and Stoddard, Huntington did not call for the deployment of Eugenicist programs requiring the ‘racial purification’ or ‘racial genocide’ of inferior non-Western races. Ironically, while Grant and Stoddard were ‘qualified’ anti-imperialists, nevertheless their Eugenicist arguments provided a platform of arguments which wended their way to the terminus of Auschwitz via Adolf Hitler. Indeed, notable here is that Hitler wrote to Grant informing him that his book, The Passing of the Great Race, was his ‘bible’.

To smear Huntington in this way is not only unfair but it would most likely lead to an outraged Huntington – were he alive today – who would most likely reply, once he had calmed down, that he is certainly no racist and therefore the charge that his work is Eurocentric (if Eurocentrism is more-or-less synonymous with scientific racism) is simply moribund.

Or to take a more recent and more relevant example let us consider the very public spat that saw Niall Ferguson face down Pankaj Mishra who had pitched the racist charge against Ferguson.11 My feeling is that Ferguson was entirely correct and justified to deny the racist charge. But my claim would be that Ferguson is as much a Eurocentric as he is not a racist. Indeed in one of his recent books,12 on several occasions Ferguson happily bates the non-Eurocentrics by proudly proclaiming that Eurocentrism is an entirely reasonable position to take given his belief that after all, it is the West that broke through to modernity and created the modern world and not the East. Thus while Ferguson would happily admit to his Eurocentric institutionalism, he is entitled to defend himself against the racist charge.

But what’s in a word? Eurocentrism, racism – when all is said and done aren’t they basically just the same thing? Ferguson clearly thinks not; and on this point I am in agreement with him. It does matter a great deal that we get this right. This is so for two reasons: first that to conflate these discourses does an injustice to the extremely rich and three-dimensional, multi-layered tapestry that these discourses comprise. And second I advance a critical-strategic reason so far as a critical-emancipatory theory is concerned: for those who are charged as Eurocentric-cum-racist are entitled to say that because they are not racist so therefore they cannot be Eurocentric. In the process the Eurocentric charge loses its fuse and the well-aimed depth charge simply fails to explode beneath the waterline. More generally, I believe that the vast majority of thinkers in IR (and in many other disciplines for that matter) are Eurocentric. While some might ‘come out’ and proclaim their Eurocentrism as superior in a variety of ways to non-Eurocentrism, as have the likes of David Landes and Niall Ferguson, others might feel awkward or uncomfortable with such a charge. But I would be very surprised if anyone in IR would be happy with the racist charge; more likely they would be angry if not infuriated, and undoubtedly highly perplexed if not bewildered (though admittedly that is not a reason not to levy the charge). But given too that I view a great deal of critical IR theory as Eurocentric – Karl Marx’s theory as especially so – are we, therefore, to conclude that many critical theorists are really just racists-in-disguise? That would in my view be just as unfair as painting much of the mainstream with the racist brush. Unfair and, worst of all, self-defeating. For ultimately the charge not only does an analytical disservice to what these various metanarratives comprise but it no less threatens to defuse the Eurocentric depth-charge if it is deemed to be more-or-less synonymous with racism.

Before turning to a second issue that needs dealing with, in all of the discussion thus far I had assumed that the elephant in the room was my claim that Eurocentric institutionalism and scientific racism can be either imperialist or anti-imperialist. I had assumed that this might be highly controversial for postcolonialists and postcolonial-inspired thinkers. But not a murmur on this issue among my blog interlocutors… not a dicky bird – all eerily quiet on the Eastern front. So on this one it seems as though I’m truly off the hook – at least as far as this blog forum is concerned. I had wondered originally if this might have been something that would perturb Dipesh Chakrabarty when I asked him to write a puff for the back-cover of the book. If it did concern him he did not let on, given that his puff was extremely generous and kind. Even so, I still find all this quite surprising, I will confess, though I am not complaining about this potential issue failing to materialise!

2. From anti-Eurocentrism to ‘anti-Eurocentric Eurocentrism’ through to ‘Critical Eurocentrism’: What’s in these words?

The further issue that is raised by Meera concerns her asking what an engagement with Immanuel Wallerstein might look like. Here she raises an important 1997 article of Wallerstein’s: ‘Eurocentrism and its Avatars’.13 This is an extremely interesting question though to do full justice to the dialogue that could entail between my position and that of Wallerstein’s would require a much more extensive discussion to that which is possible here. It is, however, intriguing to say the least, given that Wallerstein would most likely place me in the category that he calls ‘anti-Eurocentric Eurocentrism’. Of course, to the reader who is encountering the whole ‘Eurocentric critique’ for the first time, the proliferation of terms such as these will appear bewildering. How can it be, my perplexed uninitiated reader might well be thinking, that the author of a book who claims that most of international theory is Eurocentric and is someone who is clearly not favourably predisposed towards Eurocentrism, turns out to be Eurocentric? Surely some mistake, ed? And to make matters worse, I have a detailed discussion in Chapter 10 of my book which argues that Wallerstein’s world-systems theory is highly Eurocentric. To fully understand all this would take us into the heart of the debate on the rise of the West and the rise of capitalism more generally; a topic which might seem all rather academic or even exotic to an IR-reader of this blog; a reaction that is for me, at least, disappointing given that this is a topic which I believe should register on the IR- and especially the IPE-radar screen.14 Interesting though it would be to open this up to deeper consideration, space simply precludes this and so I will simply cut to the chase here.

To boil it down to its essence there are two reasons why Wallerstein would most likely categorise my argument as ‘anti-Eurocentric Eurocentrism’; first, because I, like most of the other non-Eurocentrics who ply this particular issue-area in world history/historical sociology, view the ability to develop capitalism as some kind of achievement (though I am making no claim here as to the morality of such an achievement).15 Notably here, Wallerstein considers that the breakthrough into capitalist modernity is not an achievement but is morally shameful. In this imaginary Wallerstein believes in effect that the non-Western states (bar Japan) are to be congratulated for not allowing the ‘toxin’ or ‘virus’ of capitalism to enter into the social body of their societies. Certainly I see what he is driving at here, but in the end I fear that this kind of argument provides fodder, or manna from heaven, for the High Priests of Eurocentric world history such as David Landes, J.M. Roberts or Niall Ferguson, to feast upon.16 For them such an argument would turn out to be a gift-horse in their battle with the non-Eurocentrics, merely reinforcing their entrenched belief that the breakthrough to modern capitalism could only have occurred in Europe owing to its unique and truly exceptional virtues. Or, put differently, this strengthens their belief that the East could not have developed into capitalism precisely because its peoples and socio-political institutions/culture were mired in irrationality and whose religions ensured that their societies were capable only of adapting to the world rather than being able to transform the world through what Max Weber called ‘the ethic of world mastery’. If Wallerstein’s response is to derail such thinkers, I fear that ultimately his argument serves to sacrifice non-Eurocentrism on the altar of Eurocentric world history.

The second point takes us into the heart of Wallerstein’s Eurocentrism. I would argue that Wallerstein’s approach here exemplifies the most vitriolic, or ultimate, expression of ‘critical Eurocentrism’, even though he believes that his is the one genuine version of anti-Eurocentrism – yet more terms, I’m afraid, with all due apologies to my bewildered, uninitiated reader! In essence, Wallerstein wants to argue that we must focus in single-minded fashion on the absolute centrality of the West in world politics and in the world economy (that is, adopt a tunnel mode of vision). We must not lose sight of this, nor must we dilute the monopoly of ontological absolutism with which he endows the West in the world with ‘fuzzy’ and only ‘weakly consequential’ conceptions of Eastern agency. Only then can we indict the West in the discursive court of social justice and hold it to account for its manifold moral crimes against global humanity. If nothing else, this position reveals that Eurocentrism is not necessarily something which worships at the altar of the West, as in the likes of Landes, Roberts and Ferguson, for it can be highly critical of the West.

3. A Gordian knot linking neo-Marxism with Eurocentrism?

Rather than get into a debate on this here – after all, I am taking a great deal of interpretive license here given that I am guilty of imputing his potential critique of my own position and it would be unfair to read words into his mouth since he is not an interlocutor in this blog forum – I would prefer to use the discussion of Wallerstein thus far in order to answer another set of points which are raised by one of the actual bloggers in this forum. Meera is perplexed by my treatment of Marxism as but a pronounced form of Eurocentrism (albeit one of a ‘critical Eurocentric’ bent). She raises several fascinating points here claiming firstly that neo-Marxism – especially neo-Gramscianism as well as neo-Trotskyism – could ‘absorb’ relatively easily much of the non-Eurocentric position that I am defending. Secondly, she claims that materialist theory tends to reduce agency of all kinds – not just Eastern but also Western. To a certain extent, in the case of Western agency, this point is somewhat semantic because structuralist Eurocentric theory reifies Western agency in the world, even if it does not use such a term… but no matter. From there Meera goes on to argue, reminiscent of Wallerstein’s position, that critical materialist theory has been ‘substantively important in attacking Eurocentric theories of world order’. She has in mind here various critical claims such as Western power in the world has entailed an on-going process of ‘accumulation by dispossession/primitive accumulation, though she also notes that much of critical theory needs to undergo various internal adjustments in order to retrack it onto the solid groove of the non-Eurocentric rails against Eurocentrism.

Brutal Force, as was instigated in Sharpeville, 1960, in order to enable the expropriation of land

Once again, all this is of fascinating import. And once again, to do full justice to this would take me into a lengthy treatment. In the interests of space I shall instead provide a few key points by way of response. Do I claim that neo-Marxism is irredeemably Eurocentric? No. There is a range of neo-Marxists, who would include neo-Gramscians such as Randolph Persaud, Mustapha Kamal Pasha, and David Slater, who develop non-Eurocentric Gramscian perspectives. I have discussed the re-emergence of Trotskyism in IR in a recent article, where I argue that much of this is Eurocentric, as was much of that which Leon Trotsky originally argued, but that a reconciliation with non-Eurocentrism is possible, as indicated in the important and indeed pioneering works of Kamran Matin and Justin Rosenberg.17 It is also the case that other approaches in IR, including the English School, are now beginning to turn to develop non-Eurocentric accounts of IR, as I noted in Chapter 9 of my book. So no, that much of international theory is Eurocentric does not make it irredeemably so; there is no Gordian Knot that links much of modern IR theory with Eurocentrism. But certainly, reconfiguring IR theory along non-Eurocentric lines is no simple task, though I believe that this is the central challenge for much of it going forward.

So far I am in sympathy with Meera’s suggestions. But I would differ to a certain extent on her point about materialist structuralism. In my view this ontological position tends towards Eurocentrism, though this is certainly not inevitable (as in the non-Eurocentric materialist structuralism of the likes of Andre Gunder Frank and Barry Gills).18 But I find such an ontological position problematic (though by no means flawed) because identity needs to be factored into the mix on the one hand, while Eastern agency needs to be factored in alongside Western agency and indeed Western structures of power. These points formed the foundation of my 2004 book.19 So to sum up my position here, while I accept that materialist structuralism is capable of developing non-Eurocentric analyses of world politics, I believe that a more effective approach can be achieved by focussing on agency and identity – Eastern as well as Western – alongside structures of power.

4. From Anti-Eurocentrism to Anglo-centrism to a conceptual bridge too far?

Thus far I have dealt largely with Meera’s critical suggestions and so I now want to turn to respond to Srdjan’s piece. I have already discussed his point concerning the relationship between Eurocentric institutionalism and scientific racism. The next substantive issue that he raises is an extremely important one. He suggests firstly that my book considers, for the overwhelming part, ‘Anglo’ writers. Given this he wonders how my conceptual architecture would stand up were I to have included non-Anglo thinkers. This leads onto his second point, where as a kind of thought experiment he offers up briefly the work of Alexandre Kojève (aka, Kozhevnikov) as a means of thinking through my own conceptual architecture of Eurocentrism and scientific racism in their imperialist and anti-imperialist guises. I think that his first point is fair – the vast majority of thinkers I examine are either British or American. And even the exceptions, such as Immanuel Kant, Friedrich List, Max Weber, G.F. Nicolai, Karl Haushofer, Friedrich Ratzel, (Austrian-born) Rudolf Hilferding, Richard Hennig, Heinrich von Treitschke, Friedrich von Bernhardi, and Adolf Hitler, turn out to prove the rule if we expand the term to ‘Anglo-Saxon’, and in its very broadest sense at that. Still, I would be selling myself slightly short here were I not to mention other writers such as the Russians – Jacques Novicow, Vladimir Lenin, Leon Trotsky, Nikolai Bukharin and the Jewish Russian, Rosa Luxemburg – as well as the Swedish geopolitician, Rudolf Kjellén, the Jewish Pole, Ludwig Gumplowicz, and the Austrian, Gustav Ratzenhofer.

Turning to Srdjan’s second and inter-related point, I have wondered how well my own posited conceptual architecture of Eurocentrism and scientific racism would stand up were I to have taken a magnifying glass to a range of say French and especially Eastern European international thinkers (including non-Marxist Russians). My hunch, though, has been that such an exploration, fascinating though it would be, would probably not disturb my conceptual architecture, nor reveal anything substantively new that might challenge in a fundamental sense my heuristic. I suspect that many Russian thinkers would probably fit into my various categories, with the main difference being for example, that Russian imperialist thinkers would advocate Russian imperialism as opposed to those German imperialists who advocate German imperialism or the American imperialist thinkers who advocate American imperialism. The question is, however, whether this is just wishful thinking on my part. Actually, I would be most intrigued as to whether my schema fits in the non-Anglo-Saxon world of international theory and, if necessary, I would be open to retooling my conceptual arsenal. Unfortunately I have not examined Kojève and so cannot enter into an informed discussion here with Srdjan. But it is interesting to note from Srdjan’s extensive discussion that in fact this thinker might well fit into several of my categories. I could, of course, go away and read through Kojève’s work to answer this question, but it is the wider point that Srdjan makes which is the key here – namely whether consideration of non-Anglo-Saxon thinkers might provide for an alternative heuristic. So I remain sceptical but certainly open to this, though until someone plies this potentially fascinating territory it is impossible to be conclusive either way.

The final major issue that Srdjan raises concerns my point about the need to resist ‘interpretivist imputation’. This is something that Srdjan advances in some detail and it is yet another very interesting point. I will confess that I have now had three goes trying to respond to this, none of which I am happy with since every time I try the response becomes too long and overly complex – frankly too complex to work in this blog setting. This is in large part because there are many issues that are tied up here and to unpack them all becomes an exercise of essay-like proportions. I would prefer to discuss this directly with Srdjan than go into it here, though in saying this I by no means wish to appear dismissive or to imply that the issue is not interesting or indeed significant.

5. Eurocentrism as an all-pervading property of International Theory?

Johann Gottfried Herder


Belatedly I now turn to consider Brett’s response. This will necessarily be very brief since as Brett explicitly states, his response was not meant to be a critique of my book but serves as a means of extending the critique of Eurocentrism in international theory. Having said this, though, he raises one or two issues that appear critical, albeit obliquely. He suggests that Oswald Spengler was not a Eurocentric institutionalist, contra my statement to that effect, but that Spengler enunciated claims which meet with postcolonial/non-Eurocentric sentiments. Interestingly, I would add that Arnold Toynbee made similar pronouncements. And Brett says much the same about Johann Gottfried Herder (with which I am in sympathy).

I assume that perhaps Brett is trying to imply that there were significant voices in the historical literature that could not be represented as Eurocentric or racist. If this is what he means, I can agree, though certainly before 1945 I remain wedded to the point that such thinkers were few and far between. Interestingly in private correspondence, Bob Vitalis has made this point to me and offers up what he calls the ‘Howard School of International Relations’, which comprises a group of Black Afro-Americans who included Ralph Bunche, George Padmore, Eric Williams and C.L.R. James,20 all of whom are directly critical of racism and Eurocentrism. I would include too the Black activist writer, W.E.B. Du Bois (only because I am unsure as to whether Vitalis includes him in the Howard School or not, though certainly he places much importance on Du Bois in various published pieces of his).21 This is an important point and I have drawn on the writings of some of these thinkers in my own non-Eurocentric work.22

Ralph Bunche, W.E.B. Du Bois, Eric Williams, C.L.R. James

So while I do not in any way wish to denigrate these important voices – and Vitalis is providing a great service in resuscitating this sublimated group of voices – nevertheless I do not believe that there has been a critical mass of such thinkers, at least prior to 1945, which could overturn my central claim. The debate between Eurocentric and non-Eurocentric IR is yet to happen.

Conclusion: The past in the present and the present in the past

To conclude my response I want to embrace one of Brett’s key points: that Eurocentrism is not something which can be dismissed as some kind of historical throw-back, from which modern IR and the modern social sciences more generally have happily emancipated themselves. It is indeed very much alive and kicking today. And as Brett notes, it is for this reason that I wanted to show how modern IR theory not only has failed to break from the past in this respect, but how the present incarnation of IR theory has in fact gone in certain respects back to the future of the pre-1945 world. Thus my exploration of pre-1945 international theory serves two purposes in my book; first, as a means by which we can understand the changing forms of Western bias that infect Western international theory from 1760 through 2010; and second, as a means of showing how and in what ways modern IR theory projects us back to the future of an intellectual world that too many of us have assumed was magically brushed aside after 1945 or more importantly, after 1989 when the sentiments of universalist human rights and humanitarianism projected us into a supposedly ‘new’ and more egalitarian, tolerant global episteme. Unhappily, virtually the inverse scenario has come to pass.

There is still, therefore, much to be done before we can, as collective thinkers of both IR in particular and of the Social Science more generally, move into a brighter and more genuinely ‘multi-cultural’ world free of the numerous Western toxins that masquerade as benign universalist cures…

1 Edward W. Said, Orientalism (London: Penguin 1978/2003).

2 J.M. Hobson, The Eurocentric Conception of World Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).

3 J.M. Hobson, ‘Is Critical Theory always for the White West and for Western Imperialism? Beyond Westphilian towards a Post-Racist Critical International Relations’, Review of International Studies 33(SI) (2007): 91–116.

4 Eurocentric Conception, chs. 2 and 7.

5 See Karl Marx, A World Without Jews, edited by Dagobert D. Runes (New York: Philosophical Library, 1843/1959).

6 Eurocentric Conception, ch. 5.

7 Eurocentric Conception, ch. 4.

8 And even when a few scientific racists approved of miscegenation it was done so as a means for the superior white race to conquer and eradicate the inferior non-white races (e.g., Ludwig Gumplowicz, Gustav Ratzenhofer and Lester Ward).

9 Edward Long, cited in Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture (London: Routledge, 1994), 91.

10 Eurocentric Conception, 279–84.

12 Niall Ferguson, Civilization: The West and the Rest (London: Allen Lane, 2011).

13 Immanuel Wallerstein, ‘Eurocentrism and its Avatars: The Dilemmas of Social Science’, New Left Review I/226 (1997). Unfortunately because the online version of NLR fails to paginate its articles the following discussion of this piece will be unable to reference the relevant page numbers.

14 On this see my forthcoming article: ‘Part 2 – Revealing the Eurocentric Foundations of IPE: From Eurocentric “Open Economy Politics” to Inter-civilizational Political Economy’, Review of International Political Economy (2013). Note that Part 1 of this article (which will appear in the same issue of RIPE) makes the case that IPE, past and present, is largely a Eurocentric discipline. The task of part 2 is to set out what a non-Eurocentric theoretical and empirical research agenda might look like.

15 As in, for example: Andre Gunder Frank, ReOrient (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988); J.L. Abu-Lughod, Before European Hegemony (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989); J.M. Blaut, The Colonizer’s Model of the World (London: Guilford Press, 1993).

16 David S. Landes, The Wealth and Poverty of Nations (London: Little, Brown & Co., 1998); J.M. Roberts, The Triumph of the West (London: BBC Books, 1985); Ferguson, Civilization.

17 J.M. Hobson, ‘What’s at stake in the neo-Trotskyist debate? Towards a non-Eurocentric historical sociology of uneven and combined development’, Millennium 40(1) (2011): 147–66.

18 Frank, ReOrient; Andre Gunder Frank and B.K. Gills (eds.), The World System: Five Hundred Years or Five Thousand? (London: Routledge, 1996); Abu-Lughod, Before European Hegemony.

19 J.M. Hobson, The Eastern Origins of Western Civilisation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

20 Robert Vitalis, ‘The End of American Empire in American Political Science’ (forthcoming, unpublished book mss).

21 E.g., Robert Vitalis, ‘Birth of a Discipline’, in David Long and Brian C. Schmidt (eds.), Imperialism and Internationalism in the Discipline of International Relations (New York: SUNY), 159–81.

22 Most especially in my book Eastern Origins, ch. 11.

23 thoughts on “Eurocentrism, Racism: What’s In A Word?: A Response to Bowden, Sabaratnam and Vucetic

    • A fair question, Robbie, and one that rightfully puts this discussion in its place. In the Nafafe case it looks like a simultaneous academic/political denigration of the intellectual importance of issues of ethnicity, race and colonialism, as well as the spurious targeting of a BME colleague for redundancy. Eurocentric? Racist? Possibly both… although myriad other interpretations could be brought to bear and will be. I’m not sure the precise wording matters to him though exactly.


  1. I enjoyed this blog series and plan to read Hobson’s book. I must say that I find the criteria for defining racism in the first subsection of Hobson’s reply to be extremely rigid. Does his reasoning imply that when Eurocentric thinkers stop short of advocating forms of eugenics and paradigms of biological determinism they can no longer be considered racists? From my perspective, the kind of institutional scientific racism that culminated in the Shoah by now has very few, if any proponents among contemporary social and political theorists, but I would argue that this fact does not alter the reality of deeply entrenched forms of racism that lie at the very center of Western thought.


    • Apropos Robbie’s and Patrick’s responses let me say a few things not least because the issues that they raise are linked. First, to Patrick’s point. I had anticipated that my differentiation of scientific racism from Eurocentric institutionalism would be controversial, especially for postcolonial and non-Eurocentric thinkers. In chapter 13 I hone in on this explicitly. Pages 313-327 provide an overview of how the different forms of Eurocentrism and scientific racism overlap while ultimately being differentiated. And on pages 322-324 I defend my claim that modern (post-1945) Eurocentric institutionalist international theory is not simply ‘scientific racism in disguise’. I shan’t go through all this again here but I would want to refer Patrick to this. He might still disagree, which is fine, but if so I’d be interested to learn why.

      Re Robbie’s point, this is again a very interesting one. The problem is that I cannot reply to the particular case that he raises as I don’t know the details of what has transpired in what is clearly an unfortunate situation to say the least. But reading beneath the lines I guess that what he is driving at more generally is whether the forms of bias and exclusion towards non-whites that go on in the real world (rather than in the world of international theory that my book examines) would be forms of Eurocentric institutionalism or scientific racism. Perhaps he might go further and ask whether it matters which word we label this behaviour by given that ‘exclusion is exclusion is exclusion’ (thereby pointing up the possibility that the two forms of bias in the end come to the same thing). Again, I would refer Robbie to the aforementioned discussion in my book. Clearly this is an important though extremely thorny area to ply. Nowadays we apply the word ‘racist’ (not ‘scientific’ racist) to those who in some way offend non-white people. It is the phrase-of-choice in everyday language. I could say much here, but in the end I shall close by saying that my principal task was to think though the different forms of Western bias that we encounter in Western international theory. But I promise Robbie that I will think this through more deeply.


  2. Thanks for the reply. I look forward to examining your discussion of this issue when I can get my hands on a copy of your book.

    For me, the separation between scientific racism and Eurocentric institutionalist international theory becomes more difficult to perceive when the shared origins of both “Europe” and racism are brought to bear on the question. I don’t wish to extend the present conversation excessively, but the following might give you some idea of the source of my difficulty.

    Prior to the emergence of anything that we could call a scientific theory of race, Europeans defined themselves in racial contradistinction to Africans and indigenous peoples in the Americas based on the perceived capacity for reasoning. Europe became the “proper home” of reason (and, therefore, of “true” human subjects) while Africans and indigenous Americans were relegated to the status of subhuman/irrational animals. Later on, the Darwinian paradigm of European biological superiority was developed and used to reinforce the already existing binary division between European Man and non-European subhumans. The modern scientific/biological forms of racism represent the continuation of an already established racial hierarchy, which itself was the fundamental component of European identity beginning in the 16th century. If Eurocentrism (institutional or otherwise) is a function of European man’s self-definition as the embodiment of “the Human” or “the Universal,” then it has its basis in racism whether or not it employs a biological/scientific argument. Sylvia Wynter is one philosopher whose thought has influenced me on this issue. Particularly relevant is her long essay, “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom.”


    • Patrick raises an extremely interesting, not to mention, important point concerning the problem he has viz-a-viz my distinction between Eurocentric institutionalism and scientific racism: namely the goings on following the ‘discovery” of America. I would agree that much of what emerged in the late 17th century onwards found its tentative roots in the post-1492 “discovery’ – or better still “invention” – of America. But trawling back before the time of scientific racism and mature Eurocentrism, I think, does not necessarily secure the point that Patrick is making. This whole issue is, I fully concede, very complex and I do not want to end up writing an essay here! I agree entirely with Patrick’s point that the likes of Bartolomé de Las Casas and, most especially, Francisco di Vitoria, in effect constructed a discourse that pitted superior Europeans against inferior ‘Indian’ natives as founded on a rationality/irrationality divide. The difference between us is that for me, this was a proto-Eurocentric institutional discourse – and just because it celebrates Europeans and denigrates Amerindians (and a little later on Black Africans) does not make it a racist discourse. And so when Patrick asserts that “The modern scientific/biological forms of racism represent the continuation of an already established racial hierarchy, which itself was the fundamental component of European identity beginning in the 16th century”, I would reply by describing this as a ‘proto-Eurocentric’- rather than ‘racial’-hierarchy at that time. Put differently, that there was a hierarchical construction of superior Europeans versus inferior Indians (and later on inferior Africans) does not make this ipso facto a racist distinction.

      At first sight, this will, of course, sound strange. But the development of scientific racism which locates difference principally (albeit not always exclusively) on biological rather than cultural/institutional grounds only starts to emerge properly at the end of the 17th century. Ultimately at Valladolid in 1550 the Catholic Church supported Vitoria’s (nascent Eurocentric) conception of the ‘Indians’ on the grounds that all peoples on the earth are capable of attaining rationality and developing rational institutions. It is not that the Indians were incapable of this – merely that they hadn’t realised their sublimated reason at that time. ‘Happily’, though, the solution was at hand which saw the Spanish engage the Indians through the Catholic civilizing mission that would work to bring this rationality to the surface (even if the practice of Spanish imperialism belied this ‘noble’ rationale!)

      Later on, especially during the 18th century Enlightenment, Vitoria’s ideas would be developed into a mature Eurocentric institutionalism. And at the same time, scientific racism began to be developed, though in Britain, at least, it was only after 1850 that racism became a discursive force to be reckoned with. That said, though, it is interesting to note that the racist ideas about blood difference stem in part back to the Spanish Inquisition, when lineage and ‘blood purity’ became markers of difference in the Catholic Church’s quest to maintain and police Catholic Christian purity within Europe. So, all in all, I don’t doubt that this whole episode is complex, but I do not think that it supports a position which conflates Eurocentric institutionalism with scientific racism, notwithstanding the point that there are indeed all manner of overlaps between these two generic discourses. But I guess that in the end, the proof of the pudding will lie in whether Patrick is persuaded by the efforts I made in my book to support this differentiation…


      • Hi all, sorry for late reply. Great conversation! I love Sylvia Wynter Patrick!!! I guess one of my questions is: what is the political – and not just academic – significance of distinguishing between scientific racism and eurocentric institutionalism? I get your strategic point John, and it is very valid, especially in terms of “outing” deeply eurocentric assumptions in IR. But as you are aware, in lived experience the two collide more often than not: not in the brain of the eurocentric (that is not the only legitimate site of investigation) but in the affect on the non-white person, academic or otherwise. When sin transferred from the bloodline of Jews in Spain to being auto-confessed on the epidermis of African peoples in the Americas, race and culture were born as congenital twins. In practice I have never come across racism that isn’t cultural. I would, in fact, say that in colonial-modernity culture is fundamentally racialized and that is the founding condition of international relations, or more accurately, the “family of nations” versus humanity. This did not start with Frank Boaz, but was comfortably in place by the time of Locke There is still a comfortable space in academia and other polite chattering places were one can say “i am not being racist, but…” and then (as you say) continue to do some eurocentrism thing. And yet scientific racism was always but ONE articulation of race. It is made SO BIG and such a discrete STANDARD OF MEASUREMENT because it was ultimately implicated in the terrible Shoah. But there is a politics of knowledge production to that, which is of importance too, as Aime Cesaire noted. It is the same kind of politics that is implicated in the left’s obsession with fascism and far right movements usually at the expense of analyses of everyday racism, locally and globally. Scientific racism is not THE benchmark of racism. At the heart of it all is the physiognomical practice of adjudicating competency and goodliness by the mark of the skin and other visible signs of sin. To my mind it is the fundamental practice cultivated by european powers to make their own kind of international relations, i.e., colonial-modernity, then to be pursued avidly, of course, by more than just white europeans. On a more particular note to the present-day UK: the likelihood of getting made redundant from your public sector job or being killed in police custody because you are black is present-day testimony to mundane racism. The question, then, is can we relate our academia – in all its lived experiences, not just textual – to these broader issues? Thank you John for your titanic push so that the gates are opened some more and these issues can be pursued even further!


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  16. Dear John,

    Please accept my apologies for not working harder to change the mood at the recent ISA panel, “Race and International Relations” designed to provide comments and criticisms of your new book, The Eurocentric Conception of World Politics. Please know that the panel created ripples of discussion for the next few days. I found myself playing the role of your defender in these discussions.

    I remain disappointed in our inability to engage you and your work in a more fruitful manner. I experienced most, if not all, of our comments to you as variations on a single theme: why didn’t you write the book in the way we wanted. Our pedagogy required of you to re-write the book according to our stipulations. Our failing was to assume that you hadn’t thought through the questions we asked and that you hadn’t weighed the risks produced by your decisions. I remain embarrassed by our patronizing tone.

    Allow my to specify my own failing. If in my comments I tried to show how your work has pushed my forays into the “how” of racism (see Blaney and my, “A Problem with Levels”), nevertheless I neither specified why I respect your achievement, nor did I articulate your book’s weakness. Rahul Rau’s comments, however, did help me understand your accomplishment. He said that when one arrives at your critique of contemporary scholars, you show that the “Eurocentric institutionalists” emerge directly from scientific racism. Further, he said that if prior to reading your book, one had only a vague sense of the racism in our field, one finishes it overwhelmed by one’s own ignorance and by the dread of knowing how truly damaged is our profession.

    I want to add that if contemporary scholars like Keohane are eager to admit their Eurocentrism, they would be loathe to do so if they had read your book. For reading it would force them to expose their own dark lineage. My takeaway from the panel was that the transition from “scientific racism” to “Eurocentric institutionalist” works both ways: if it gives contemporary scholars license to say that they are a rose of a different name, it also gives those with a longer historical frame evidence to insist that the two smell the same.

    An engagement with your book on its own terms might have highlighted some of these issues. A higher standard of critique might have produced a more collaborative and cooperative discussion. Instead, I worry we gave you the impression that your work somehow does not merit our full attention. If so, please know that, on this occasion, it was we who did not live up to the challenge your work presents.


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