Eight Eurocentric Historians. By J.M. Blaut. The Guilford Press, New York, 2000. Pp. 228. ISBN 1-57230-591-6
History is the ideological mainstay of modernity and the queen of its disciplines: it is within a putatively historical vision that the modern man locates his subjectivity and legitimises his politics. Theories of history are thus the modern equivalents of ancient myths and medieval theodicies. Unfortunately, most narratives of modernity are also, Blaut’s present work amply demonstrates, irreducibly and irredeemably Eurocentric: they are racist, polemical, self-aggrandizing and false. In the name of world-history, they propagate the worldview of supremacy and under the guise of global sociology, they promote a regime of fate. To uncover the academic mask of modern historiography and reveal is mythical visage is thus essential to any scheme of intellectual resistance against the modern indoctrination.
Of course, Eurocentrism is far more grievous than any epistemological hiccups inside the history departments. As the warp and woof of racism, Eurocentrism determines the very texture of our world and creates all of its hegemonies and iniquities, all of its political overlords, social outcasts, economic slaves and cultural pariahs. Blaut, however, takes a far less dramatic view of the Eurocentric sensibilities. He uses the term ‘to indicate false claims by Europeans that their society or region is, or was in the past, or always has been and always will be, superior to other societies.’
Blaut’s criticism of Eurocentrism hinges on the key word ‘false’. For, it is not ‘Eurocentric’ for him to prefer European music to other music, or European cuisine to other cuisine. Rather, it is Eurocentric to make the claim that ‘Europeans are more inventive, innovative, progressive, noble, courageous, and so on, than every other group of people; or that Europe as a place has more healthy, productive, stimulating environment than other places.’ Consequently, he maintains, ‘it is not Eurocentric to extol “England’s green and pleasant land”, but it is Eurocentric to claim that this land is greener and more pleasant than all the other lands of the world.’ Thus, it is with these moderate and eminently reasonable criteria that he dismisses a number of acclaimed modern historians as ‘Eurocentric’.
Rather than debating the moral discomforts of Eurocentrism as a worldview, then, Blaut questions its ‘scientific’ validity. As an account of the emergence of the modern world, he feels, the Eurocentric model is inadequate and misleading. Having more to do with ideology and politics, it fails to satisfy the strictly historical criteria of neutrality and objectivity. Indeed, Blaut insists time and again, the rise of Europe cannot be explained in a Eurocentric way. Eurocentric history for him is quite simply ‘bad history’.
Four principal ideological claims, he recapitulates, underpin all Eurocentric explanations of the power and riches of Europe (or the West):
1. Religion: Europeans (Christians) worship the true God and He guides them forward through history.
2. Race: White people have an inherited superiority over the people of other races.
3. Environment: The natural environment of Europe is superior to all others.
4. Culture: Europeans, long ago, invented a culture that is uniquely progressive and innovative.
Significantly, though the religious claim is no longer crucial to modern Eurocentrism, which today legitimises itself through science and sociology, it does nonetheless belong to its deep-seated and innermost psychology. Similarly, though racist explanations may have fallen out of vogue, their emotive and destructive sway on the Eurocentric imagination can hardly be underestimated. Today, however, it is environment and culture which hold the key to European superiority. All of this, Blaut argues, is wrong, because ‘it is false history and bad geography.’ The rise of Europe after1500 can, in his view, be explained ‘without recourse to the uniqueness-of-Europe position.’
Blaut’s work is an empiricist’s unremitting haggling with the ideologues of modernity who wear the historians’ masks. The list includes the arch theorist of Western rationality (Max Weber), the advocate of technological determinism (Lynn White Jr.), the guru of Marxist diffusionism (Robert Brenner), the evangelist of the ‘European Miracle’ (Eric L. Jones), the advocate of modern social power (Michael Mann), the champion of European ‘Powers and Liberties’ (John A. Hall), the mandarin of Euro-Environmentalism (Jared Diamond), and the guardian of Pax Americana (David Landes). Common to these Eurocentric reflections are, of course, the perceptions and anxieties of the ‘lords of the humankind’; those who believe that theirs is the best of the worlds, and who therefore ‘want to freeze history right where it is here and now.’
Blaut’s present rebuttal of Eurocentric history proceeds from the critical perspective he earlier developed on ‘the colonizer’s model of the world.’ (This is the second volume of a trilogy by the same name.) According to this, non-Eurocentric reading of world-history, the rise of Europe began after 1492 and resulted ‘not from any unique, pre-existing internal qualities but from Europe’s location on the globe: Europe had immensely greater access to the riches of the New World than did any other Old World civilisation.’ European ascendancy, accordingly, owes its rationale to the fact that she acquired incalculable riches from the Americas after 1492, and that an entire hemisphere, six times the size of Europe itself, was ‘almost emptied of its populations by the importation of the Old World diseases.’ Contingency and fate, rather than rationality and foresight are the emblems of the ‘Great Transformation’ wrought by the Europeans.
Consistent with Blaut’s critique of Eurocentric history is his debunking of the diffusionist myth, the orthodox doctrine behind international aid programmes and globalisation projects that holds that the diffusion of wealth, especially after decolonisation, is from the West to the non-West. For Blaut, diffusionism signifies nothing but a resurge of the atavistic Eurocentric sensibilities. Further, he admits that ‘today the theory of modernization is tarnished because we know that poverty is not the result of the irrationality of its victims but rather of the greed and oppressive actions of landlords, tyrants, multinational moneylenders, and the like, and we also know, as social scientists, that the people of poor countries are not suffering from the Weberian malady of “traditional attitudes”. They tend rather to be waiting impatiently for any opportunity that may come along to help them rise out of poverty.’ If nothing else, the above quote reveals the extent of the civilizational – ideological, cultural, religious – sensibilities that pervade the supposedly empirical discourse of history!
Notwithstanding its volatile theme, Blaut’s book does not dabble in ideological polemics – at least not overtly and gratuitously. And though it makes a very powerful ideological statement, it does so by totally eschewing the language of ideology. In its observation of the decorum of academic debate, in its adherence to the cult of ‘facticity’, and in its pursuit of the analytical rigour, Blaut’s critique of ‘Eurocentrism in world history and historical geography’ is exemplary. By demonstrating the factual poverty of Eurocentric historiography, Blaut, historian of historians and Professor of Geography at the University of Illinois, manages to cast a long shadow at the self-legitimising discourses of modernity which pride in their empiricist rigour, just as he succeeds in putting non-Eurocentric scholarship in his eternal debt. Anyone traversing the intellectual, and ideological, landscape of Eurocentric modernity needs to encounter Blaut’s nuanced, detailed and highly cogent argument at first hand.
Finally, a few words about history and the conundrums of historical existence that do not find any room in Blaut’s essentially empirical argument: The empiricist vision, which sustains the enterprise of modern historiography, insists upon making an epistemologically salient distinction between ‘facts’ and ‘values’, ‘events’ and ‘ideas’, ‘happenings’ and ‘interpretations’; indeed between history and metaphysics. However, it is equally significant that modern philosophy has not been able to redeem this, rather fundamentalist metaphysical claim. When it comes to the concept of universal, or world-history, facts and values get hopelessly intertwined and history becomes indistinguishable from teleology.
World history, accordingly, is not only an account of the human past, but also a projection of its future; a vision of an end determined and dominated by the West. History is a modern effort at the creation meaning, a reflection over the ‘destiny’ of the Western man. In this sense, every history of modernity, every work on world-history, is essentially and irredeemable ‘Eurocentric’ and non-Eurocentric history is nothing but an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms. Blaut treats Eurocentric history as an aberration of the empiricist vision, but he remains committed to the worldview of history. His is a critique of history as historiography, not of history as metaphysics. Muslims, whose sense of meaning is ultimately transhistoric, have the obligation of bypassing both.
(S Parvez Manzoor)