Book Review: John M. Hobson, “The Eurocentric Conception of World Politics”

John M. Hobson, Professor of International Relations at the University of Sheffield, is (or ought to be) known for his excellent and trenchant critiques of Eurocentrism in history and political theory. In previous works such as the seminal The Eastern Origins of Western Civilisation (which I reviewed here), he has exposed how mainstream thought from both left and right in these fields is beholden to Eurocentric conceptions of world history. This expresses itself not just in terms of the subjects considered important. It goes much further than that – Eurocentrism reveals itself often in speaking of European experiences as if they were universal experiences, in granting agency only to European actors and denying it to all others, presenting historical phenomena as the unfolding of a purely European logic with no reciprocal input from ‘the East’, and so forth; never mind outright imperialist, racist, or chauvinist narratives. Hobson has been a serious, scholarly, and systematic foe of such narratives throughout his career, and his books are a great contribution to the struggle, both political and scientific, against Eurocentrism, chauvinism, and racism.

The Eurocentric Conception of World Politics: Western International Theory, 1760–2010 is a systematic historical overview of the major theories and theorists in international relations and their relationship to Eurocentrism. Hobson’s thesis is essentially aimed against the prevailing smug quasi-positivism of IR theory today and its blindness to the reality of Eurocentrism both in present and past practice. Where IR theorists today like to present themselves as being value-free scholars, concerned exclusively with descriptive depictions of the real interactions between state actors and questions of sovereignty and anarchy, Hobson charges them with a great deal of Eurocentric baggage smuggled in through ostensibly neutral terminology. What’s more, Hobson also shows that their reading of their own discipline’s history is one that conveniently erases or elides the roots of the various schools of IR thought in explicitly Eurocentric narratives. To expose this, the book presents a chronological overview of all the major IR theorists, from Kant, Hegel and Montesquieu through Marx and Mill onward to such diverse figures as Karl Pearson, Alfred Thayer Mahan, Adolf Hitler and Woodrow Wilson, and finally onto the present day with the Kagans, Huntingtons, Friedmans and Boots of our time. In each and every case Hobson demonstrates the Eurocentric content of their thought and how it explicitly shaped the development of their theories of state power, sovereignty, and interaction of states, not least as concerns the legitimacy of cultural or economic imperialism and the expansion of Western power. Hobson’s ultimate thesis is to demonstrate that despite its self-conception, almost all of IR theory has, in the final instance, been dedicated in one way or another to one cause: “defending and celebrating the ideal of the West in world politics” (p.345).

Hobson spends hundreds of pages of intelligent, critical, and dense close reading of a considerable number of greater and lesser authors to establish this fact. There is no purpose in recapitulating all his arguments; for that I would heartily recommend reading this excellent critical book. What is worth pointing out is that this work constitutes not just an argument within IR theory about its origins and purpose, but at the same time also takes position in a certain debate regarding the position of liberal, Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment thought in a global perspective. This critical re-reading of the history of ideas, often associated with ‘postcolonial thought’ although not really rightly limited to that, is an important development in the struggle against European/Western chauvinism masquerading as high theory.

But Hobson’s approach to this question in this book is subtle and in many ways better than that of many of his fellow critics. In The Eurocentric Conception of World Politics, he makes a number of important distinctions that help us understand the different types or categories of Eurocentric thought prevalent in 18th, 19th, and 20th century political theory. Crucially, Hobson distinguishes basically three axes of viewpoint: racism vs nonracism, imperialism vs anti-imperialism, and paternalism vs anti-paternalism (the last one concerning the need for Europeans to support or intervene peacefully to help achieve Western levels of civilization). As Hobson shows throughout the book, taking up a position along one of these axes by no means implies a given position on the others, nor are they reducible to each other. Contrary to critics such as Thomas McCarthy, Hobson rightly notes that to reduce Eurocentrism and various kinds of imperialist thought to purely a question of ‘veiled racism’ actually allows the Eurocentric, chauvinist thinkers far too much leeway. Someone like Samuel Huntington never writes about race, biology, or heredity anywhere, yet his work is evidently strongly Eurocentric. Equally, one can have out-and-out ‘scientific racist’ thinkers of the fin-de-siècle such as Lothrop Stoddard and Madison Grant, who were nonetheless generally opposed to Western imperialist ventures (for example because they would lead to white degeneration, or would stir up dangerous native activity). Hobson’s care to distinguish these different positions, presented in various helpful diagrams and classifications, not only sharpens and improves the political critique of Eurocentrism, but also generally aids in the process of a better understanding of post-Enlightenment thought and attitudes towards questions of empire, race, and political power.

Another important axis of analysis is the question of agency. Hobson includes many authors that would often be considered anti-Eurocentric into his Eurocentric panorama based on this crucial point. Rightly, he judges the various thinkers on Eurocentrism not just by their perception of the correct Western attitudes and actions towards the ‘East’, but also on the degree of agency they accord to the Eastern peoples in their analysis of world politics. Often authors will give full agency only to Europeans, and present the Eastern peoples as fundamentally stagnant, responding only to Western initiatives and changing only insofar as Western activity causes them to do so. They either have no independent agency at all – as in the myth of the eternal, stagnant East – or have only what Hobson calls ‘conditional agency’, that is, they can achieve independent activity only insofar as they become like the West.

Some versions of Eurocentrism, in particular the ones Hobson describes as ‘defensive racism’ or ‘defensive Eurocentrism’ do accord great agency to the East, but only a purely negative and predatory agency. These are the theories of the ‘yellow peril’ type, often presented in terms of the fear of Eastern power, mass migration, and the need to man the Western fortress. One finds this in racist forms in Stoddard, for example, and in nonracist form in Huntington and Lind. In all these cases, sovereignty, the obsession of IR theory, becomes the formal vehicle through which these ideas of agency tend to express themselves. Full sovereignty is only granted Western states; others have either no sovereignty, or gradated sovereignty, depending on their degree of conforming to Western demands and expectations of other states. Even for anti-paternalist anti-imperialist thinkers such as Kant (in his political works) and Smith, this gradation of sovereignty and agency still operated, and for this reason Hobson qualifies them as Eurocentric nonetheless.

What is interesting for the purposes of this blog is how he also shares a great number of Marxist analyses of international relations under this banner. In a lengthy reading of Lenin’s classic work on imperialism, he describes Lenin as Eurocentric despite his strong opposition to either imperialism or paternalistic activities of the West. For, as Hobson points out, despite Lenin’s disapproval of Western imperialism and its rapacious power and destructive effects, he accords virtually no independent ability to resist to the Eastern powers or peoples, let alone any independent initiative or serious interactive role in the process of globalisation. This goes also, in Hobson’s view, for many of the ‘Gramscian’ and ‘world systems’ neo-Marxist theorists of IR, such as Cox and Wallerstein, who are inclined to dismiss the independent Eastern contributions to the development and maintenance of capitalism as a system or are unwilling to grant the subjects of imperialism any other substantial role than as victims. While this depiction as ‘subliminally Eurocentric’, in Hobson’s terms, may be politically hard to swallow for many Marxists, it is difficult to deny that many Marxist theories of global capitalism do develop their ideas from a fundamentally Eurocentric ‘world outlook’ (as the Soviets used to say) in terms of agency, however much they may wish the downfall of Western imperialism and of the capitalist world order itself.

This brings me, however, to some residual problems with John Hobson’s framework. This book is a deeply impressive work of scholarship and critical reading in its own right, and the clear and cogent framework for a more subtle and thorough set of criteria for analyzing Eurocentrism is a great contribution in addition to that. Nonetheless, there remain in my view two problems. The first comes to the fore in his reading of Marx as Eurocentric. There is certainly no doubt that the Marx and Engels of the 1840s and 1850s were Eurocentric and saw imperialism, though they opposed it, as a fundamentally historically progressive force; they believed all nations would have to become part of the unfolding European logic of capitalism, and the sooner it was done with, the better. Hobson does not seem to note any of the vast literature on Marx and Engels’ change in position from the late 1860s or so onwards on these questions, instead taking the Marx of the early journalism on India as canonical for all of Marxism. He not only ignores the work of people such as Kevin B. Anderson on the ideas of the ‘anthropological’ Marx, but uses some dubious sources on his and other works. He takes the work of Bernal on 19th century interpretations of the classical world without criticism, despite these having been refuted at length, and his main source on Marx’s views appears to be an obscure Cold War tract, rather than any of the established scholarship on the question of Marxism’s relationship to the non-European world. This is not fatal just in one or two cases, but it makes one wonder how well he actually knows the scholarly debates around some of the material he references – a (minor) problem I also noted in his book The Eastern Origins of Western Civilisation.

However, lest that seem mere pedantry, I would argue the case of Marxism points to a deeper problem. I am wholly sympathetic to Hobson’s critique of Eurocentrism and also his useful revisions of the content of that classification. But there remains one element that is not satisfactory. While Hobson is surely right to critique as Eurocentric not just those who explicitly proclaim (in one way or another) the superiority of the West, or of Western institutions per se, there is a problematic that he does not fully explore. Hobson foresees the common counterargument to critiques of Eurocentrism, namely the old refrain that ‘it is Eurocentric because Europe really did become more important’ or ‘because Western values really are better’, etc. Hobson and many other people have shown that these are wrong in empirical terms, as Western history has not been the unfolding of its own immanent logic, Europe has not always been ahead of the East by any criterion imaginable and often only became so through imperialism (and even there with the collaboration of Eastern powers), and so forth. Much of these ideas are based on a thoroughly discredited Eurocentric empirical narrative. But Hobson does not wholly address the problem emerging from the use of Western criteria for historical analysis tout court. He seems to suggest in the book that the use of criteria from the West as universals is itself inherently Eurocentric, and here I would dissent.

It is undoubtedly Eurocentric to conveniently present the world as an opposition between ‘Western’ moral ideas, decent and civilized, versus the barbarism and sadism of the East, and similar tropes. But what to do with ideas that explicitly criticize the West itself according to their criteria also, and that do not present an opposition between the good West and the bad East? Many ideas have been developed in the West, or become globally influential through Western-dominated channels, that are nonetheless not inherently in the service of Western supremacy. Marxism could well be an example of one set such ideas, but there may be various, even perhaps certain liberal ideas. Hobson is right to oppose the empirical narratives of Western hyper-significance as unfounded. But certain ideas may develop universality despite originating or becoming popularized in the West, without thereby necessarily being Eurocentric, and this complicates his schema slightly – though I do not believe it invalidates any of his critiques per se.

This in turn leads to the second problem: Hobson’s understated alternative. In opposition to Eurocentrism, Hobson does not offer us any clear vision of what type of theoretical development, seeing the above contradictions, he would consider non-Eurocentric. He speaks at some length, for example, about the IR tropes of sovereignty and balance of powers as universalizing certain aspects of European experience, and offers as single counterexample the Chinese warring states and their development of a tributary (thereby apparently non-imperialist) empire. This seems a little meagre. More seriously, in the theoretical or methodological sphere he opposes nothing theorized to the Eurocentric flaws: running throughout the book is the counterpart of Eurocentrism in ‘cultural pluralism’ or ‘cultural tolerance’, once described as a substantive equality of sovereignty. But what is cultural pluralism? It seems Hobson wishes to steer us to the familiar Charybdis of an undertheorized ‘cultural relativism’ to avoid the Scylla of Eurocentrism, but this will not do as a substantive proposition. One very easily here falls into the postcolonial trap described by Aijaz Ahmad, where one takes the ‘cultures’ or nations of the ‘East’ as essential givens, and in the name of tolerating and supporting them against the chauvinism of the West, elides the many conflicts and (class) struggles that operate within them. A cultural turn of this sort can quickly turn to a form of quietism or bad faith that does not do the cause of emancipation any good.

Of course, one cannot expect an author to do everything in one book, and Hobson’s other books have provided substantial support for his empirical-historical views on the interaction between East and West as well as some of his ideas on the function and origins of concepts like ‘sovereignty’, the ‘Westphalian order’, etc. To provide a brilliant and learned critique of the type demonstrated in The Eurocentric Conception of World Politics is a work on par with James Blaut’s brilliant critiques of Eurocentric historiography and the readings of political theory as in the service of power by Corey Robin and Domenico Losurdo, among others. It should be required reading in any Politics or IR course, and is a fundamental corrective and warning to the many who believe that IR is a positive science uninfected by the legacy of Eurocentrism, racism, and imperialism that underpin it. It also implies a subtle and perhaps more interesting critique of ‘Eurocentric institutionalism’ and the way institutions and culture become core categories replacing race and civilization after WWII, while fulfilling the same functions in the narrative of Western triumph. Maintaining clarity and structure with such a huge number of authors and such complicated theoretical oppositions is no mean feat, either. It is therefore wholeheartedly recommended.

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