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.
Our edited volume Race and Racism in International Relations: Confronting the Global Colour Line has now been published. We asked some of the contributors to give us their thoughts on what has been (both deliberately and unwittingly) overlooked by the discipline of International Relations with regard to questions of race and racism; the challenges posed by (re)centring these vital questions; and how IR may atone for its implication in empire. At your service, Sankaran Krishna, Debra Thompson, Srdjan Vucetic and John Hobson.
What has been the least investigated aspect of race and racism in IR?
The question makes me want to laugh because to me mainstream IR is all about how not to talk about race and racism while constantly appearing to talk about the relations between different kinds of peoples and countries. I came to IR only at the PhD level. My masters in modern history had acquainted me with the history of colonialism, racism, genocide, man-made holocausts like the Great Bengal famine, the slave trade, and other such events, on a world-scale in the post-Columbian (ie; post-1492) era. In my first IR courses in the United States the focus seemed to be on how can we understand the social world through models that pretend humans are unthinking molecules or inanimate entities. Stuff like Bueno de Mesquita’s War Trap (I kept waiting for someone to tell me that was a joke, like they do on Candid Camera.) It was a few years later that I realized that the penchant for abstract theorization, distaste for historical specificity and woolly stuff like ideology, and fetish for numbers – all voiced in deep manly intonations about analytical rigor – were nothing but an assiduous refusal to face the world in all its racial violence and splendor. In other words it’s the absence of considerations of race and racism that coheres the discipline.
When you widen the frame beyond mainstream IR and include those at the margins – thinkers like DuBois immediately come to mind – and especially take into account writings over the last few decades, the picture is a lot better. From my point of view, there has been a tendency in self-proclaimed dissident literatures to be inadequately critical of the racial conditions of their own emergence: invocations of the Global South or postcoloniality or marginality or the colour line can themselves become fetishized and serve as screens preempting a closer inquiry into racial difference and the consequences of othering. Continually calling out the protean forms in which race and racism manifest themselves historically and contemporarily seems, to me at any rate, a worthwhile vocation.
What is the most important theoretical challenge to IR posed by an engagement with race and racism?
Debra Thompson Continue reading
Despite our justified renunciation of audit culture and academic hierarchy, we cannot not acknowledge the receipt tonight of OAIS (Outstanding Achievement in International Studies Weblogging) awards for both categories in which we were entered: best individual blog post (for John Hobson’s guest post on race and Eurocentrism) and for best group blog. How we won out over Cohen, Green and Wood on sexual violence and the Human Security Report will remain one of the great mysteries of democracy (seriously, go read), but we’re grateful nevertheless. Shout-outs too to Wronging Rights and Justice In Conflict, unjustly neglected.
May the stale halls of established academia shake with the news of our collective arrival.
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. Continue reading
For this fourth post in our symposium on John M. Hobson’s The Eurocentric Conception of World Politics, TDOT is delighted to welcome a response from Brett Bowden, Associate Professor of History and Political Thought at the University of Western Sydney. The first three posts included an introduction from the author, and responses by TDOT’s Meera and Srdjan. In the next few days we look forward to a response from the author.
Let me begin by stating what will soon become obvious: this is not a book review of John Hobson’s The Eurocentric Conception of World Politics. The earlier posts from Meera and Srdjan have done an admirable job of engaging with the book in greater depth than I intend to here. Given that this is a blog, I will lay my cards on the table upfront – I’m a fan of John Hobson’s work. And I’m a big fan of The Eurocentric Conception of World Politics, which probably comes as no surprise to anyone remotely familiar with my own Empire of Civilization (all three of you). More specifically, I largely agree with the general tone and thrust of John’s book and the larger points he seeks to make about Eurocentrism. I don’t always agree with the details or finer points, but I too don’t want to split hairs. For instance, as John notes, I am not so kind to Kant, as I think his Lectures on Geography cast a doubt on some of his cosmopolitan claims and anti-imperialist credentials. But this is a minor difference of opinion that has no real bearing on the larger points being made about Eurocentrism and the study of world politics, or more specifically, international theory, for there is a difference.
As noted in an earlier posting, similar observations could be made about the humanities and social and behavioural sciences more generally, which is where, as an undergrad, I was first struck by Eurocentrism, albeit probably without knowing it by name. I can’t recall all of the details, but it was in a small seminar (only three students and a lecturer) on political philosophy where something we were reading and some comments on it struck me as rather odd; I made a point of raising my objections, which were dismissed by my three interlocutors, and I recall thinking to myself: ‘Wow, people still think like that’ – and well-educated people at that. Yes, Eurocentrism, along with a few other accompanying -centrisms are alive and well. This book won’t be the death of Eurocentrism, but hopefully it will shine a light in to some of the darker corners of the discipline and help to open the eyes and ears of a new generation of students and scholars. Which brings me to my purpose here; given that I’ve said I’m not exactly reviewing the book. The Eurocentric Conception of World Politics and some of John’s earlier work has done a great service in bringing contentious issues to the fore where they can be debated openly – and now that John has opened up the can of worms, I’m going to jump on the bandwagon, get on my soapbox and ride on his coattails. Continue reading
This is the third post in a symposium on John M. Hobson’s new book, The Eurocentric Conception of World Politics. The series began with a post by the author summarising the argument of the book, followed by Meera’s response. In the next few weeks, we will have a posts from Brett Bowden, followed by a reply from John.
Update: Brett’s response is now up.
Interest in the history of International Theory has grown, but the academic study of its origins has received relatively little attention to date. The reasons are multiple: the complexity of the subject, a powerful commonplace view that ‘disciplinary history’ equates scholasticism and navel-gazing, and, I would hasten to add, a collective unwillingness to deal with racism that often pops up in the writings of mythicized fathers of international theory. John M. Hobson is not hindered by any of these obstacles. What he does in The Eurocentric Conception of World Politics is tell a story that begins in 1760 and ends in 2010, assessing hundreds of international theorists past and present, from Adam Smith to Anne-Marie Slaughter.
This wide-ranging, authoritative book is a continuation of the author’s previous achievement of note, The Eastern Origins of Western Civilisation. There, Hobson argued, echoing Edward Said, that nineteenth century European imperialism was symbiotic with Europe’s “racist identity.” This symbiosis has had many implications, but none as big as this: “had racism not existed and had the West viewed the Eastern peoples as equal human beings, imperialism might never have occurred” (2004: 241). This meta-point is now revisited in a major way:
international theory is to this book what Western literature is to Edward Said’s Orientalism….given Said’s claim that Eurocentrism has a clear link with international politics – in this case imperialism – then international theory should logically constitute the ultimate litmus test for revealing this discourse in Western academic thought (p.2; all subsequent in-text references are to this book, unless otherwise indicated). Continue reading
This is the second post in a symposium on John M. Hobson’s new book, The Eurocentric Conception of World Politics. The series began with a post by the author summarising the argument of the book and laying out some provocations for sympathetic readers. In the next few weeks, we will have further posts from Srjdan and Brett Bowden, followed by a reply from John.
Update: Srdjan’s post and Brett’s post are now up.
I was at an IR event last year where the speaker jovially declared that they just did not care about being, and being accused of being, Eurocentric. At the time, I found it both a little shocking and depressing that they could see fit to dispense with that fig leaf of serious acknowledgement that often accompanies discussions of Eurocentrism. And indeed I thought, glumly, that it perhaps reflected many scholars’ underlying attitudes to the issue – a tokenistic practice of acknowledgement underpinning a wider apathy or disconnection. What only struck me later was also the possibility that the speaker also didn’t really understand the issue which was batted away so carelessly. Indeed, it is unclear that many ‘mainstream’ IR scholars truly understand the problem of Eurocentrism, given the mythologised twin deaths of colonialism and scientific racism in 1945 (or so).
So, Hobson is knocking at the door more loudly, with a bigger stick, and much more paperwork. Continue reading