James M. Blaut, “Eight Eurocentric Historians”


"Eight Eurocentric Historians" was the second installment in a trilogy on Eurocentrism. First came "The Colonizer's Model of the World" (Guilford, 1993), a broad statement of the problem. The final installment would have been "Decolonizing the Past." Offering an alternative model of history, it would give what Hegel called the "people without history" their proper due. While cancer last year robbed James Blaut of his life and halted completion of this important project, the first two volumes stand on their own as correctives to Eurocentric history.


The eight Eurocentric historians are Max Weber, Lynn White Jr., Robert Brenner, Eric L. Jones, Michael Mann, John A. Hall, Jared Diamond and David Landes. With his emphasis on European rationality, Weber is a forerunner. Although he enjoys enormous prestige as a founder of modern sociology, there is an racist streak in some of his work. In "The Religion of China," we learn that the Chinese have a "strong attachment to the habitual", "absolute docility" and a "lack of genuine sympathy and warmth."


For socialists, the presence of Robert Brenner among this pro-capitalist and occasionally racist group might come as a surprise. In a 1977 NLR article titled "The Origins of Capitalist Development: A Critique of Neo-Smithian Marxism," he recapitulated arguments made earlier in the journal "Past and Present." Among them was the proposal that capitalism and modernity were generated by conditions internal to and arising from the class struggle in late middle ages Europe, with England the most advanced example. Rather than looking to the pillage of the New World, Brenner gave little weight to the plantation system and Spanish forced labor mining. He specifically attacked the "dependency theory" of Paul Sweezy, Andre G. Frank and Immanuel Wallerstein that supposedly had failed to understand the role of the class struggle in sparking the rise of capitalism. They were following Adam Smith rather than Karl Marx. Blaut tweaks Brenner by suggesting that he is a neo-Weberian Marxist.


John Browett wrote in 1980 that "the age of the radical-liberal dependency formulations have come to an end" because of the Brenner thesis. Despite Brenner's best intentions, Blaut argues that his thesis served a backward agenda as the mood in the 1970s shifted dramatically away from support of the colonial revolution. This is something that touched him deeply as a long-time activist in the movement for Puerto Rican independence.


Blaut, a geographer by profession, makes his point through a telling graphic titled "maps of the world before and after 1500AD." It contains dots representing "dated place-name mentions" in Brenner's articles. No region outside of Europe is ever mentioned before 1500AD. After 1500AD, references occur more frequently but tend only to reflect what Blaut regards as "Brenner's view that capitalism began to diffuse outward to the rest of the world after its birth in northwestern Europe."


Given the more enlightened racial framework of today, Eurocentric historians today support their views with "hard" evidence drawn from agronomy, climatology, demographics, etc. rather than openly racialist claims. Few today would argue that the Europeans were genetically endowed with gifts for invention or rationality, or chosen by god. Rather, fortuitous historical circumstances moved them to the head of the class.


It is exactly these pretensions to hard, scientific evidence that Blaut succeeds in demolishing. Barely disguising his contempt, he answers one false claim after another. When Eric J. Jones asserts that Europeans were solely destined to become capitalists after the Middle Ages, Blaut cites Tomé Pires, the 17th century Portuguese chronicler, who described Indian merchants thusly: "They are men who understand merchandise; they are . . . properly steeped in the sound and harmony of it." He adds, "[T]hose of our people who want to be clerks and factors ought to go there and learn, because the business of trade is a science."


Among these Eurocentric historians farming practices loom larger than any other supposedly objective criterion underpinning the rise of the West. The West is the world of the plucky, inventive yeoman farmer, while the despotic East employed unproductive farming techniques. Benefiting from his early training and fieldwork in agronomy, Blaut presents an alternative interpretation. For example, while Michael Mann considers soil fertility in Europe to be the key to its rise, Blaut points out that until the arrival of the potato from South America, a vast swath of land across Europe remained unproductive because of excess rainfall, conditions beneficial only to potato growth. Meanwhile, crop rotation--supposedly unique to the West--was found in the rest of the world.


Combining scholarly erudition and a passionate commitment to the "people without history," James Blaut leaves a legacy for a new generation of scholars and activist committed to internationalism and working class solidarity.