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Reflections on Wood's "Eurocentric Anti-Eurocentrism"

Soon after Ellen Meiksins Wood died her 2001 essay A Critique of Eurocentric Anti-Eurocentrism was broadly circulated as if to demonstrate that the kind of Marxist political economy she practiced, i.e. “Political Marxism”, was a great fountain of anti-eurocentric wisdom and that the late Wood had something to contribute in debates about racism and the Marxist canon. Posted on multiple blogs, twitter accounts, and Facebook posts, exchanged by those who were unfamiliar with the debate it was meant to represent, the circulation of this essay was unfortunately a sad example of protesting too much: Political Marxism, long accused of being one of the more Eurocentric tendencies of Marxism, was attempting to defend itself, as part of a eulogy in Wood’s memory, as being free from the charges that it had endured and that Wood, in this essay, had attempted to defuse. The truth, however, is that those of us familiar with the reasons why Wood and Political Marxism were accused of Eurocentrism had dismissed this article years ago for failing to honestly engage in the debate.

While I do not want to downplay Wood’s significance as a scholar, and while I feel it is a tragedy when any Marxist intellectual dies, I think it is necessary to intervene in a shoddy cover-up and misrepresentation of Wood’s political line (and indeed the line of “Political Marxism”) in this regard, particularly since it misrepresents anti-Eurocentric Marxist tendencies by inverting the charge and claiming “no you’re the real Eurocentrists for daring to call my approach Eurocentric!” Although it is necessary to recognize Wood’s contributions, and the space she cleared in academia for critical Marxist scholarship, we would be poor Marxists to participate in a cover-up of the more troublesome aspects of the political economy she defended. Moreover, and to be honest, many of Wood’s failures as a scholar are due to the fact that, like many other political economists, became less rigorous when she veered into the realm of philosophy: this was an area where she lacked training but, like many political economists, she became a “spontaneous philosopher” and made erroneous proclamations about a number of things from post-structuralism to the base-superstructure analogy to the meaning of Eurocentrism. Thus, I do not find it entirely helpful that her death has led to a simplistic eulogization where some of her faults are being trumpeted as her strength––in this case, the fault of Eurocentrism.

Wood’s argument in Eurocentric Anti-Eurocentric appears, at first glance, as elegant and irrefutable. In a nutshell it goes like this: i) Robert Brenner, Wood, and other “Political Marxists” have argued that capitalism was a historically specific Western European phenomenon (due to the enclosure of the commons); ii) anti-Eurocentric scholars have called this argument “Eurocentric” because it ignores the fact that non-European nations “could and probably would have produced capitalism… if only they hadn’t been ripped off by Western imperialism”; iii) these anti-Eurocentric accounts are contradictory because they both admit the historical specificity of the emergence of capitalism while at the same refusing to provide reasons for this specificity (i.e. They do not treat capitalism as an historically specific mode of production, as all modes of production are); iv) these anti-Eurocentric accounts are in fact Eurocentric because they take what they know to be a historically specific social formation (this thing that Europeans called capitalism) and apply it as an “eternal destiny” to non-European nations; and thus, v) is it not more anti-Eurocentric to claim that capitalism, which is a terrible thing we need to do away with, is specific to Europe?

The above argument seems compelling and, if this was all there was to the charges of Eurocentrism that are heaped outside the door of Political Marxism, we would have to concede that they are themselves distorted reflections of the very Eurocentrism they hope to combat. In fact, I do not doubt that there are “anti-Eurocentric” positions that maintain such an untenable position, and are thus guilty of the same chauvinism they hope to challenge, nor do I doubt that some of the people Wood challenges would be incapable of responding to her argument and maintaining their supposed anti-Eurocentrism.

But what we need to ask, here, is whether she has honestly represented the Marxist political tendencies that have charged Political Marxism with Eurocentrism. Maybe she has done a good job of representing J.M. Blaut’s arguments, though I am not entirely sure––it’s been a while since I’ve read Blaut and, in any case, he’s capable of defending himself as he has done since Wood initially wrote this article. (I also know that defenders of Political Marxism generally do not read Blaut, though they often pretend that they understand Blaut based on this essay by Wood.) What I do know, however, is that Eurocentric Anti-Eurocentrism does not engage with any of the non-European Marxist political economy that has challenged the Political Marxist perspective by accusing it of Eurocentrism. That is, Wood does not cite or engage with Samir Amin, Anwar Abdel-Malek, Abdelrahman Babu, Walter Rodney, Eric Williams, or any Marxist thinker that challenges the Political Marxist perspective and, in these challenges, chastises it for being Eurocentric. Thus, what she has done with this essay is create an argument that is both a straw-person account (because it misrepresents the strongest position by identifying it with the weakest) and a red-herring gambit (because it distracts from the main issue by locating the argument elsewhere). In this sense, Wood’s Eurocentric Anti-Eurocentrism is a Eurocentric act of damage control. Eurocentric because she in fact ignores non-European Marxist challengers to her political line. Damage control because she is trying to salvage her political line by punching down on those thinkers that are easy targets.

So let’s outline the anti-Eurocentric Marxist approach to the emergence of capitalism that Wood does not address in her paper, the oversight that demonstrates she was unwilling to take the charges of Eurocentrism seriously. Since I am not a political economist I am not going to try to defend the efficacy of this position––other political economists have done so, and you should read them––rather, since I am a philosopher, I am simply going to point out what she failed to address, what would be required to meet the claims made by her paper, and demand that this lacuna of meaning force a political choice. That is, I will outline the general claims of an anti-Eurocentric Marxism that challenges Wood’s Political Marxism, what she thought she was responding to when she straw-personed the challenge, so as to demonstrate the short-comings of her argument.

1. The Political Marxist account of the emergence of capitalism focuses only on the enclosure of the commons in Western Europe as if it has nothing to do with European colonialism. That is, while it is indeed the case that this enclosure of “primitive accumulation” where the peasants were ripped from the soil and turned into free labourers produces the class contradiction of capitalist-proletariat, it is also the case that this endogenous moment was hastened by exogenous factors of long distance trade, particularly colonial warfare and the slave trade… As, in fact, Marx points out in that same chapter of “primitive accumulation” that Political Marxists like to cite. Not to valorize a pure return to Marx, but the Political Marxists themselves like to define themselves as scholars who have returned to Marx. In any case, the anti-Eurocentric Marxist position is that we cannot treat the enclosure of the commons as a vacuum sequence; it must be seen in the context of worldwide colonialism.

2. Many non-European nations possessed class societies that were similar to Western Europe as modes of production but not particularly identical. Amin has called these similar societies tributary rather than feudal because he believes that feudal societies were only particular to Western Europe and Japan. This claim is in fact one that is historically specific, because it has to do with the universality of modes of production, and is significantly historical materialist: it does not reduce everything to chaotic particularisms that cannot, in retrospect, be analyzed. In this sense Western Europe was only particular in the type of tributary society it evinced, which would indeed be part of the historical specificity of capitalism, i.e. feudalism with long distance trade.

3. Many non-European nations were disarticulated by European colonialism in the process that aided capitalism’s emergence in Western Europe. None of this is to say that these social formations would have “developed capitalism” as if it was their historical destiny, only that the fact that they were societies that were initially open to the future––dynamic, class-based formations––that were rendered static by the process that built European capitalism. The point here is that a perspective that locate’s capitalism’s emergence only in the endogenous factors of a commons enclosure, without looking at colonialism, fails to recognize that capitalism emerged by shutting down the historical trajectories of multiple non-European nations. That is, while it indeed seems to be the case that capitalism was historically specific to Europe, this historical specificity prevented any historical development (not necessarily towards capitalism, that’s only the claim Wood puts into the mouth of all of her critics) of those nations European colonialism has obstructed.

Whether or not the above three claims are accurate is the business of political economists. My point, however, is that Wood did not honestly engage with these points, the real challenges to her chosen tendency’s Eurocentrism, and instead wrote an article addressed to a weaker variant. Such a decision is in itself Eurocentric because it demonstrates an unwillingness to address non-European Marxist political economists. Indeed the above three points are the points made by non-European Marxists such as Samir Amin in his Eurocentrism, an analysis that Wood refuses to address… perhaps because they also agree that there is a European specificity to capitalism, just not the specificity she would like to accept (i.e. that Western Europe was an underdeveloped mode of production that could be transformed quickly by its colonial apparatus), and so she falls back on straw-person adversaries.

Moreover, although it is correct to recognize that the emergence of capitalism is historically specific this is in fact a banal truism. That is, this supposed insight, when we think through it, amounts to the following: capitalism is historically specific because it in fact emerged in real history at a given space and time, or capitalism happened the way it happened, i.e. capitalism is historically specific because it is historically specific––a tautology. Obviously we can imagine alternative history scenarios where capitalism emerged in a different social context but this is not only the business of science fiction but, as Wood reminds us, assuming that capitalism is a historical destiny that would happen necessarily anywhere in the world even if it had not emerged in Western Europe. By this very same token, though, Political Marxism’s story of capitalism’s emergence (all you need is the enclosure of the commons, colonialism was just an exogenous quirk) is an act of science fiction because it would like us to imagine that capitalism would happen regardless in Western Europe even if the massive colonial project was non-existent. So much for historical specificity.

To conclude, the point here is that political economists should think through the ramifications of their claims, particularly when they try to argue against other tendencies. The moment two political lines are put into contention is often the moment of philosophical intervention and most political economists find themselves ill-equipped to think in this way just as most philosophers are ill-equipped to deal with the nitty-gritty of political economy. What happens in these scenarios is that the political economist becomes a spontaneous philosopher and, without much thought of what this other practice entails, ends up declaring the meaning of concepts without the same rigour they apply to their own discipline… How else can we explain Wood’s poor representation of the charge of Eurocentrism applied to her political tendency? She was either being dishonest or misunderstood the meaning of the charge; I prefer to believe she erred on the side of the latter. Thus, if Wood’s political tendency’s position regarding the emergence of Capitalism is correct it must do a better job dealing with the charges of Eurocentrism than she did with this essay. And everyone who bothered to think her essay was correct should instead think through its straw-person deficiencies and deal with the stronger argument, the one she didn’t address, instead of acting like conquistadors and pretending the matter is closed just because.