What We Talked About At ISA2015: A Debate Around John Hobson’s ‘The Eurocentric Conception of World Politics’

Below is the text of my intervention at a roundtable organized by Alina Sajed entitled ‘Race and International Relations—A Debate Around John Hobson’s The Eurocentric Conception of World Politics‘. TDoT has hosted a symposium on the book: you can read an initial post by John, commentaries from Meera, Srdjan and Brett, and a reply from John. I’ve tried not to cover the same ground.

While race and racism have recently become topics of increasing interest in the rather parochial world of IR scholarship, few books have ranged so widely across time and thinkers as John Hobson’s The Eurocentric Conception of World Politics. This is a monumental work of scholarship that accumulates a staggering amount of evidence, were further proof necessary, of the white supremacist and/or Eurocentric foundations of IR as a discipline (I use the ‘and/or’ advisedly, because much of the debate that the book has generated and some of my own critique focuses on the complex relationship between the formations that Hobson identifies as ‘scientific racism’ and ‘Eurocentric institutionalism’, about which more in due course). So whatever my problems with the book, I want to endorse it as a deeply necessary intervention in the IR academy. Nonetheless, I find myself in sharp disagreement with some of its central claims in ways that have not been fully addressed in earlier discussions. I will focus here on two areas of disagreement: first, the book’s treatment of Marx, Lenin and Marxism in general; and second, its crucial distinction between ‘scientific racism’ and ‘Eurocentric institutionalism’.

Why focus on a critique of Marxism as Eurocentric and/or imperialist? (Again the ‘and/or’ seems necessary because Hobson’s careful mapping of European thought finds conjunctions of racism and/or Eurocentrism with both imperialist and anti-imperialist sensibilities). Partly this comes out of my own intellectual investment in denying what I believe to be the false choice that is often presented between Marxism and postcolonialism. As such, I find myself troubled as much by Marxist work that repudiates postcolonialism as I am by the opposite tendency (which I think is at work in this book). But partly this also comes out of a sense that if Marxism were in fact as Eurocentric and/or imperialist as Hobson suggests, this would leave inexplicable its enormous appeal in the Third World both in the heyday and aftermath of the great decolonization and liberation movements that it informed. More prosaically, I think Hobson’s readings of Marx and Lenin are temporally truncated and therefore somewhat misleading.

Marx: I take it as uncontroversial that Marx adhered to a Eurocentric conception of history, whereby societies mired in the ‘Asiatic mode of production’ would enter into modernity only by passing through the stages and processes of development that mark the European story. As is well known, Marx reads imperialism—and specifically British imperialism—as the force the propels ‘backward’ societies into capitalist modernity and thence into socialism and communism. Hobson quotes generously from Marx’s views about stagnant Asia, but it is worth bearing in mind that when Marx reminds his readers of the cruelties of India’s villages where the rigidities of caste and superstition condemn the vast majority to an ‘undignified, stagnatory, and vegetative life’, he does not sound particularly different from B. R. Ambedkar’s later unsparing critique of those very same indignities. (Does every critique of the non-white non-West by a white Western voice warrant the charge of racism and/or Eurocentrism?)

The more pressing question here, though, is whether his reading of history makes Marx ‘pro-imperialist’ as Hobson suggests (pp. 52-3). Aijaz Ahmad long ago wrote of Marx’s view of British colonialism in India as playing a progressive role in sweeping away the remnants of ‘Oriental despotism’ as being analogous to his view of capitalism as playing a progressive role in dismantling feudalism in Europe. As Hobson well recognizes, Marx’s ‘progressive’ reading of imperialism is heavily qualified by his recognition of the ‘misery inflicted by the British on Hindostan’. Yet if Ahmad is correct in his ‘capitalism in Europe = imperialism in India’ analogy, then it might be as odd to characterize Marx’s ambivalence about imperialism as ‘pro-imperialist’ as it certainly would be to characterize his ambivalence about capitalism as ‘pro-capitalist’. Moreover, the ambivalence over the capitalist/imperialist moment never eclipses Marx’s staunch conviction that the moment needs to be transcended and that this transcendence requires anticolonial struggle. Hobson’s characterization of Marx as ‘pro-imperialist’ misses the point that the full working through of his dialectical conception of history entails anti-imperialist struggle. Indeed Marx is categorical about this in his writings on India where he makes clear that the British bourgeoisie are simply laying the ‘material premises’ for the development of India’s productive powers, the full realization of which would require their appropriation by the Indian people either through the assistance of a proletarian revolution in Britain or at such time as ‘the Hindus themselves shall have grown strong enough to throw off the English yoke altogether.’

This unequivocal recognition of the possibility that the Hindus might themselves overthrow the colonial yoke also calls into question Hobson’s reading of Marx as suggesting that once the East had entered into capitalism ‘the Western working class would come to the aid of the Eastern peoples in order to deliver them to the terminus of communism’ (p. 55). Hobson relies heavily on Jorge Larrain’s conclusion that ‘Marx and Engels at this time did not believe in the right of self-determination of backward nations and thought that the national struggles for liberation and independence had to be subordinated to the needs of the stronger and more progressive nations.’ But the crucial and ambiguous qualification ‘at this time’ (at which time?) is never interrogated. As Erica Benner has persuasively demonstrated, if in the 1840s the impetus for global proletarian revolution was thought to lie in the metropolitan working classes, by the 1860s—faced with the defeats of 1848, the expansion of European colonialism and, most importantly, the sense that there was no necessary identity of interests between the metropolitan working classes and colonized peoples—Marx and Engels came around to the view that national independence for the colonies could revitalize working class internationalism. It is in this context that they pay particular attention to Ireland. Hobson gives short shrift to the Irish writings, explaining away the centrality accorded to Ireland in these later writings as a result of the fact that ‘clearly Ireland was not characterized by the Asiatic mode of production’ (p. 58). Yet a closer engagement with Marx’s views on the Irish struggle might have revealed that his re-evaluation of the importance of anti-colonial struggle came in part from a recognition that colonialism divided the working classes on national lines and thereby weakened it as a revolutionary agent: Irish workers resented their working class English counterparts, making Irish freedom—in Marx’s view—a precondition for the social revolution in England. Marx pays attention to Ireland not because of its cultural similitude (indeed it is not even clear that the Irish are considered ‘white’ at this time—a point to which I shall return), but because the struggle for Irish freedom had the greatest potential to damage the interests of the English bourgeoisie who were, in turn, the most powerful national bourgeoisie of the time.

Lenin: In contrast to Marx, Hobson reads Lenin as clearly anti-imperialist but as guilty of a ‘subliminal Eurocentrism’ (p. 136). Hobson’s complaint arises from Lenin’s alleged portrayal of the East ‘as a helpless victim that is entirely defenceless and is stripped of both agency and dignity by a reified Leviathanesque West that struts the world stage like a Behemoth’ (p. 139). For Hobson, what makes Lenin’s worldview Eurocentric ‘is its inability to factor in even a semblance of Eastern agency within the narrative, either of a developmental or a resistance capacity’ (p. 142).

This is not a picture of Lenin that I recognize. Interestingly, all of Hobson’s references to Lenin date from before 1917 (p. 348). But 1917 is a rather odd year in which to stop reading Lenin. For, once at the helm of the new Soviet Russian state, he found himself in the midst of a dire strategic situation, encircled by counterrevolutionary powers providing assistance to White Russian enemies in the ongoing civil war, with the failure of revolutionary upheavals in Germany and Hungary suggesting that the prospects for communism in Europe were dim. It was in this context that Lenin proved receptive to the suggestion of Sultan-Galiev (the highest ranking Muslim member of the Soviet Communist Party) that the countries of the East were of potentially more revolutionary significance. Accordingly, the ‘colonial question’ assumed centre stage at the 1920 Second Congress of the Comintern. In the famous Draft Theses on National and Colonial Questions published in June 1920, Lenin calls—as much from anxiety as from ambition—for ‘the closest alliance, with Soviet Russia, of all the national and colonial liberation movements.’ Without an appreciation of these developments, it is impossible to understand how and why the Internationals became one of the leading institutional venues for anti-imperialist activity. The Draft Theses occasioned fierce disagreements with communist delegates from the colonies. The Indian communist M. N. Roy, for example, strongly disagreed with Lenin’s call for a temporary alliance between communists and bourgeois nationalist elements of anti-colonial movements. There is no denying that Moscow was heavy handed in its relations with colonial Communist parties, often dispensing grossly ill-informed instructions about the need for such alliances against the advice of local communists with disastrous consequences (the example of China in the 1920s is relevant here). Yet the crucial point is that what was at issue in these arguments was not whether Eastern peoples had agency, but the rather more complex question of what kind of Eastern agency communists should throw their weight behind.

World systems theory: In some ways, Hobson reserves his harshest criticism for World Systems Theory (WST), describing it as ‘one of the most Eurocentric international theories that have been formulated in the last 250 years!’ (p. 252). Here the argument rests primarily on a reading of Immanuel Wallerstein, whom Hobson criticises as Eurocentric, first, because of his account of the ‘rise of the West’ as attributable largely to endogenous factors, and second, because of his understanding of the construction of the global economic structure by a hyperagential West with the ‘victimized agency-less East’ locked permanently in relations of dependence (pp. 236-40). Hobson reads one instance of this denial of Eastern agency in the WST insistence that attempts by socialist states to delink from the global capitalist economy are not only doomed to fail but end up reinforcing the system as revolutionary states learn the bitter lesson that accommodation to the rules of the game is the price of survival in a hostile world (p. 240). I am not enough of an expert on Wallerstein to comment on Hobson’s reading, but to my mind WST is not so much a denial of Eastern agency as a sobering account of the constraints within which it must operate. Indeed the architecture of WST has been enthusiastically embraced (actually, prefigured) in the work of black Marxists. When C. L. R. James narrates the tragedy of the Haitian Revolution, he is effectively arguing that there were limits to what even the heroic agency of a Toussaint L’Ouverture could achieve. One might also read the third chapter of Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth (‘The Pitfalls of National Consciousness’) as a precocious account of dependency and WS theory. Outlining the structural relations between the metropolitan bourgeoisie, native bourgeoisie and native proletariat (prefiguring the categories of core, semi-periphery and periphery), Fanon provides a masterful account of the necessity, the difficulty, but also the possibility of liberation from these structural constraints. Conversely when Hobson invokes the ‘agential power of the East Asian NICs to break out of the periphery’ as evidence of the wrongness of WST (p. 242), he betrays the extreme voluntarism of his analysis: missing in his discussion of this phenomenon is any acknowledgement of the benign structural position (Cold War geopolitical alliances, defence umbrellas, access to markets and technology) in which these states found themselves. Fred Halliday’s caution against the extremes of structuralism and voluntarism is salutary here.

My reference to black Marxism above offers a useful segue into a discussion of race. I missed the presence of voices such as James and Fanon in this book. I understand, of course, that Hobson’s archive is white Western international theory and indeed he has performed an invaluable service in trawling through vast tracts of now little-remembered white supremacist thought that many of us would prefer to forget. Yet the relative absence of non-white non-Western primary sources engaging contemporaneously with that archive risks rendering this book a Eurocentric critique of the Eurocentric conception of world politics. To raise this point is, I must insist, not a version of that tiresome tendency on the part of so many reviewers to bemoan the fact that the writer has not written the book that they would have. It is instead to make two serious points about the nature of Eurocentrism and/or racism. First, it is not enough to diagnose the problem of Eurocentrism, we also have to dismantle it (you’ll recognize that as a paraphrase of ‘philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it’). And how else to dismantle the edifice of Eurocentrism in a way that is not Eurocentric than to acknowledge the deconstructive/destructive achievements of those outside or only ambivalently within Europeanness? Second, such an acknowledgement would more successfully circumvent the ‘defence’ that racists were voicing the views ‘of their time’, by demonstrating that these views were strenuously objected to by other human beings and beings-not-considered-human in their own time.

Finally, I want to say something about Hobson’s distinction between ‘racism’ and ‘Eurocentric institutionalism’, which has already become one of the most debated issues around this book. When the reader arrives at part IV of the book, which deals with the contemporary IR canon, something interesting happens. This is the juncture of the argument at which even a first year undergraduate with only a passing acquaintance with IR theory would sit up and take notice. Here one encounters many of the familiar names of contemporary IR realism and liberalism—Robert Cooper, Robert Kaplan, Paul Kennedy, Niall Ferguson and Samuel Huntington. In a highly convincing argument, Hobson demonstrates the astonishing parallels between the political thought of these figures and those of post-1889 ‘scientific racists’. Yet at the crucial moment, just when the reader anticipates a certain sort of conclusion, Hobson offers the following qualification:

…none of this is in any way to smear Ferguson, or any of the other ‘Western-realists’ whom I examine in this chapter, as racist… My claim, rather, is that they embody an ‘offensive’ Eurocentric institutionalism that reconvenes in content and ‘spirit’ rather than metanarratival form some of the key arguments or themes that illuminated the minds of some, though by no means all, of the racist-realists in the post-1889 era. (p. 278)

At first glance, this paragraph bears the shadow of a discussion with a libel lawyer. I say this in all seriousness: my only face-to-face conversation with the editor of my book was over passages that might have been construed as libelous. But Hobson then pursues a threefold conceptual distinction between ‘scientific racism’ and ‘Eurocentric institutionalism’ that warrants further scrutiny. I want to suggest that the persuasiveness of each element of this purported distinction is questionable.

First, Hobson argues that while scientific racists saw genetic/biological differences as markers of ethnological difference, this is not something that Eurocentric institutionalists would endorse (p. 323). This argument misses that although racists professed an understanding of race as genes/biology, in fact they were socially constructing ‘race’ all along. Whole communities were moving into and out of ‘whiteness’ at various historical junctures in ways that bore a complex relationship with class mobility and other factors (think of the Irish and the Jews). So focusing on the distinct ways in which ‘scientific racists’ and ‘Eurocentric institutionalists’ talk about ‘race’, misses the more important underlying continuities between historic ‘race’-talk and contemporary ‘culture’-talk (or perhaps more accurately, contemporary race-class-gender talk).

Second, Hobson suggests that Eurocentric institutionalists posit that all races and peoples are capable of developing, either spontaneously or once they have acquired rational institutions through a Western civilizing mission; scientific racists were more ambivalent about making such a universalist claim (p. 323). In the preface to the 2003 edition of his book Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World, Niall Ferguson helpfully lists the institutions that, in his view, constitute the credit side of British imperial achievement; but curiously, he does so in a way that blurs the distinction between institutions and ‘race’. Ferguson’s list runs as follows: ‘(i) the triumph of capitalism as the optimal system of economic organisation; (ii) the Anglicisation of North America and Australasia; (iii) the internationalisation of the English language; (iv) the enduring influence of the Protestant version of Christianity; and (v) the survival of parliamentary institutions’ (p. xxv). If ‘Anglicisation’ is read as the flip side of cultural and material genocide (i.e. as what takes the place of ‘aboriginal’), it is difficult to read this as a purely institutionalist argument.

Third, Hobson suggests that unlike the vast majority of scientific racists, Eurocentric institutionalists ‘have no problem with blood-mixing’ (p. 324). Relatedly, he suggests, unlike scientific racists who viewed non-whites, particularly blacks, as virtual animals, contemporary Eurocentric institutionalists would never make such claims. The thing is, at at least one level, slave owners didn’t have a ‘problem’ with blood-mixing either. And then there’s this:

2008 : 1949

2008 : 1949

Of course Hobson limits his claims to the IR academy, so perhaps he would readily acknowledge that ‘scientific racism’ is alive and well in the world—although this would rely on the further conceit that the ‘academy’ is in fact separable from the ‘world’. I am willing to be persuaded that there is a distinction between ‘scientific racism’ and ‘Eurocentric institutionalism’: certainly I can see that all instances of Eurocentrism are not racist; and all instances of racism are not Eurocentric. Instead, I am making two rather more modest claims: first, that the significant parallels that Hobson draws between post-1989 Western realism and post-1889 ‘racist realism’ compel a conclusion that he retreats from making; and second, that if there is in fact a distinction between ‘scientific racism’ and ‘Eurocentric institutionalism’ it must rest on something other than the three grounds he suggests.

In his own response to this critique in the Symposium, Hobson sets a peculiarly high bar for ‘racism’, expressing a reluctance to apply this label to various theorists because they do not call for the deployment of Eugenicist programs requiring the ‘racial purification’ or ‘racial genocide’ of inferior non-Western races. This understanding of racism reduces the injustice to the volitional perpetration of harm, missing the existence of ‘structural’ or ‘institutional racism’ (what do we call the phenomenon whereby black-majority areas ‘happen’ to have the worst public services?). But Hobson also offers a curious tactical reason for refraining from using the term: namely, that its targets of critique would fail to recognize themselves in those terms. Yet to expect this is to misdiagnose the career of the term ‘racist’. Before civil rights movements, the terms ‘racial’ (perhaps even ‘racist’) circulated as analytical categories (witness the title of the predecessor journal of the now venerable Foreign Affairs: Journal of Race Development). After civil rights movements, ‘racial’ and especially ‘racist’ become epithets. To expect racists to self-identify in terms of the epithet is to expect too much.


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