Eurocentrism and Its Discontents

Against the Current, No. 32, May/June 1991

Ellen Poteet

By Samir Amin
New York: Monthly Review Press, 1989,152 pages, paperback  $11.

SAMIR AMIN’S Eurocentrism follows by two years Martin Bernal’s Black Athena. Although an economist in scholarly training, Amin, like Bernal, has helped define the cultural issues of Eurocentrism. An Egyptian and a Marxist already well-known on the left for his analyses of Third World economies under capitalism, Amin begins from a position critical of European and capitalist assumptions of history’s culmination in the West. Nevertheless, Eurocentrism is dedicated “to the intellectuals of the Western left.” (150)

Using the model of the relation between a political, cultural and economic center and its periphery, Amin contrasts the pre-capitalist tributary mode of production (associated with royal states supported by the tribute of subject peoples) with the capitalist mode.

In so doing, Amin distinguishes two cultures. The first, with universalist and metaphysical aspirations, had its basis in the Eastern Mediterranean from the conquest of Alexander in 336 B.C. to the rise of Christianity in the first centuries A.D. On the periphery of that Near Eastern civilization arose the culture of capitalism. In the place of ancient thought and religion, images of European superiority, both racial and economic, now intervened. If there is a religion of the modern West, asserts Amin, it is economism, not metaphysics.

The challenges of Eurocentrism derive from the particular perspectives Amin brings to his subject and from the model of center-periphery he offers. The dialogue Amin seeks to initiate reflects his interaction with certain important developments in twentieth-century Western Marxism.(1) Very simplistically, the trends I note here in Western Marxism are: the idea of a new capitalist order defined largely by imperialism and state power, the interest in superstructural models, the conjuncture of Marxism and academia, and the corresponding separation of academia from the working class.

Western Marxism: The Early Years

In 1896, one year after Engels’ death and thirteen after Marx’s, Edward Bernstein was already arguing for a new phase in the history of capitalism. Capitalism, he insisted, was no longer running like a lemming to the precipice, and parliamentary socialism was the order of the day.

Bernstein’s position was countered by such leading Marxists as Rudolf Hilferding and Lenin. While appealing back to the centrality of working-class organization and revolutionary resistance, they too saw new political and economic alignments which shifted the matrix of power increasingly onto the nation-state whose imperialist expansion was the index of its vitality.

The rise of fascism reinforced beliefs in a changed historical order. Hilferding, after having tried, by means of legal opposition, to resist national Socialism in Germany in the early 1930s, fled to France and was finally killed by the Gestapo. In his last years he came to regard the state not simply as intertwined with the economy but as an oppressive instrument from above subordinating other spheres of society to its “conscious will.”

Conceptions of the independent power of the state supported arguments for a greater divide between the base and the superstructure of society than Marx himself asserted. Other factors played a part in focusing the interests of Marxist intellectuals since the 1930s on superstructural models. One was the publication in that decade of Marx’s earlier philosophical writings, setting Marxist scholars on a trajectory opposite from the one Marx had taken. Philosophical questions of discourse and method, and cultural studies on form and aesthetics, became leading issues of debate.

Another factor was the accommodation, even if uneasy, of Marxism with the university. Gramsci, who wrote from the exile of prison, was a notable exception to the commoner exile of academia for Marxist intellectuals. Not perhaps surprisingly, a number of left intellectuals have dealt with their retrenchment from proletarian movements and into the academic setting by viewing the working class itself in retreat from revolutionary political action.

Industrial workers of Western Europe and the United States, the argument runs, are too subsumed with the ideology of twentieth-century capitalism to be counted on as a historical force for change “Decline,” “Rise and Fall,” and variations on the same theme are often repeated elegies for the twentieth-century industrialized working class.

Amin’s Reading of Imperialist History

These themes, along with the African perspective of Amin’s work, help to shape the interpretations of the past (and the present) in Eurocentrism. Amin’s non-Western focus avoids the automatic identity of “ancient civilization” with the histories of Greece and Rome. He (mercifully) resists the idealization of fifth-century B.C. Athens and classical Sparta as the progenitors of all later Western political ideas and values by looking forward to what he calls the Hellenistic world: the age of Alexander and his successors. For Amin, Greece is no more Western than Islam or Christianity. All arose in an eastern Mediterranean and Asiatic context.

Moreover, in taking up the question of modes of production, Amin redefines the Marxist concept of the “Asiatic mode of production” (commonly associated with states holding power by means of particular technologies—large scale water works most often cited). Amin replaces this conception with a “tributary mode.”

Ernest Mandel, in a review of the scholarship on the Asiatic mode, argues that Marx introduced the term as a description of contemporary Eastern socio-economic formations. Mandel defends the concept against interpretations that relegate the “Asiatic mode” to an early stage in the development toward capitalism.(2) Marx (and Mandel following his lead), however, thought about Asiatic economic organization in terms understandable to a Westerner. Two difficulties result: “Asiatic” becomes a term covering an array of cultures and histories; and its economic base is equated with technology rather than with people. Thus Mandel criticizes those who “suppress … the key role that Marx and Engels attributed to hydraulic and other large-scale public works in the establishment of this mode of production.”(3) With the focus on technology, especially from a nineteenth- and twentieth-century Western perspective of rapid technological advancement, evaluation of the Asiatic mode of production almost inevitably emphasizes its lack of movement.

Amin’s concept of “the tributary mode,” on the other hand, is a description of a set of social relations which might be rephrased as “rural dependence” The means of production here are not technologies but the peasants themselves and their village communities, which turn over tribute to the state. Thus, to look for and not find major technological advances in the ancient Near East does not signify stagnation the dynamism of the tributary mode of production rests in the state’s ability to marshal together the human means of production. In a pre-capitalist era, where ease of communication and movement are limited, this is a major feat—one which testifies to positive energies.

Secondly, Amin contributes another level to twentieth-century debates over imperialism and capitalist development by arguing for the importance of their interconnection before the twentieth century. Capitalism and imperialism, for him, are and have always been two sides of the same coin. The Renaissance, according to Amin, marks the break with tributary ideology because “from that time on, Europeans became of the idea that the conquest of the world by their civilization is henceforth a possible objective … capitalism as a world system did not exist until there existed a consciousness of its conquering power.” (72-73)

With imperialism placed at the center of capitalism’s history, Europe’s own history and its reflections on the past can no longer be studied in isolation from a “world system.” The dominant West exists in a void if set apart from those It seeks to dominate.

Thirdly, from the vantage point of imperialism’s decisive role in history, the state and culture cease to be subjects unrelated to each other. Imperialism concentrates power in the nation-state, which then depends on military might for its assertion, economic exploitation for its maintenance and the myth of cultural superiority for its justification. Politics, economics and culture together form an ideology of power denying the individual histories of those brought into subjection.

Amin, in challenging Eurocentrism, has shown that, in order for the dominant West to define itself against the colonized, the image of Greece and Western Christianity have responded to the ethical task of identifying racism with humanism.

The Problems With Amin’s Synthesis

Amin has brought the insights of twentieth-century intellectual currents to bear on the West’s views of its own, and others,’ history. Imperialism, culture and ideology—themes central to Western Marxist thought—provide a background that enables Amin to analyze Eurocentric assumptions about the past.

That framework has proved an invaluable tool. It also, though, being twentieth-century history, is in its own state of flux. To raise problems in Amin’s synthesis of history and ideas is not to deny the validity of his endeavors, but to recognize the ongoing movement of the twentieth-century Marxism, and to look for openings in extending the debate Amin has begun.

For despite its significance in understanding the development of capitalism, the theme of imperialism positions power where those with political and economic control seek to have it—in themselves. The imperialist world view subordinates individual and group interests to a nation-state in which internal exploitation and class antagonisms conveniently disappear.

An attack on Western imperialism does not necessarily break out of imperialist ideology itself. A condemnation of the oppression distinctive to Western European and U.S. imperialisms may still overlook internal dissent, and may still prioritize the imperialist state over the history of those people potentially challenging state power.

Thus Amin, in declaring imperialism and unequal development the most vital forms of political analysis, minimizes the movements of counteraction at the center He argues that “the forces of the Left and of socialism in the West … have been won over to bourgeois ideology in its most essential aspects … Eurocentrism and economism.” (141), even as he appeals to that left. A similar process of leveling is at work in his rethinking of the past In Eurocentrism, the historical actors who push their way to the foreground are conquerors, while those behind fall into ranks of unity and acquiescence.

Who Makes History?

Amin cites the conquest of Alexander as the decisive turning point for the Mediterranean and Near Eastern worlds. He writes: “The constitution of Alexander’s empire opens a genuinely new era for the entire region, for it brings to a definitive end the relative isolation of its different peoples and opens up the prospect for their possible subsequent unification. Until that time, attempts at conquest had only been sporadic, short-lived adventures without any lasting effect.” (25)

That view of Alexander is one which the Greeks themselves made every effort to publicize, and it is undeniably true that Alexander, when he died at age thirty-three, left an indelible mark on the history of the region. But his “empire disintegrated upon his death. The “Hellenistic world”—a term unknown to the ancient world—immediately was divided up among his generals who proceeded to undermine, battle with and, whenever possible, shorten the lives of each other.

What unity came to exist in the Near East was based to a great degree on the 200-year previous rule of the Persians, a length of time equal to many calculations of industrial capitalism’s life thus far. This was hardly a rule “without any lasting effect,” especially given the continuation of Persian history through modern times.

The Greeks have not been alone in valorizing Alexander. In the 1890s, French and British colonialists seized upon Alexander as incontestable proof of the benefits of Western conquerors. In their estimation, before Alexander, Asia was stagnant and her resources dormant Alexander was the herald of progress and unification—in short, civilization.

General Reynaud, in La Revue Hebdomaire (April 1914), chose Alexander as France’s model a “lesson for colonization,” who brought a fusion of races, the construction of roads, the foundation of cities, and the prosperity of trade and exploration. And Reynaud concludes that France will be the follower of Alexander in Morocco.(4) A Scythian ambassador to Alexander was more on the mark when he declared him to be the “robber of all nations.”

Such a rewriting, or writing out, of the past before conquerors continues. Thus, Palestine was a wasteland with only an isolated, nomadic population before the modern state of Israel. Amin’s own historical model parallels disturbingly the imperialist ideology he attacks, giving Alexander the clean sweep for which all imperialists daydream.(5)

A closely related problem in viewing history in terms of conquering power is a lessened interest in, or sensibility to, historical movement. For Amin, history concentrates itself in moments. After the fourth century A.D. and an outlived legacy of Greco-Macedonian invasion, “There is nothing, or almost nothing, of note in the six centuries that follow.” (56) Not until the Renaissance does history regain significance, “For the Renaissance is not only the moment of the break with the tributary ideology. It is also the point of departure for the conquest of the world by capitalist Europe.” (72)

Again, as in the case of Alexander, the moment of the conqueror appears on a faceless map of society. The paradox is that while Amin has overcome the stagnation of traditional Marxist interpretations of the Asiatic mode of production, the dialectical movement of history itself recedes from view.

It is the assumption that the “common mass of people” is a homogenous bloc of people existing on the sidelines of history. For, and this I think has serious implications, Amin (along with Bernal) is in line with a tradition of writing history in terms of elites—despite his opposition to the imperialism of the dominant culture.

Looking at history in terms of power, he comments: “For power must be mindful of what it is: the power of exploitative ruling classes. It prefers to govern the still uncouth masses, who are generally, though not always, content with simple interactions, hardly preoccupied with philosophy and the reconciliation of reason and faith, and disposed to live according to literally construed texts and formalized ritual.” (47)

This is to judge the culture and political life of the broad base of society by the standards of elitism the powerful themselves have set, as well as to ignore the inroads that elites, ancient and modern, can make into tiresome routines. Court ceremony is potentially as confining and stultifying as any peasant’s dwelling.

The Focus on State and Elite

Amin’s premise, given in his introduction, that ‘the central and/or peripheral forms of tributary society are characterized by the finished and/or unfinished degree of state formation and ideological expression” (8) derives, I believe, from twentieth-century concerns with the state and ideological constructs.

Just as many Western Marxists despair of historical change from today’s working class and have focused attention on political power structures, so Amin gives lessened attention to the human power and historical importance of the laboring people of the ancient world, where ninety percent of the population was needed to work the land for ten percent to live away from it.

Amin’s term, “tributary mode of production,” gives the state center place. That of “rural dependence” sets the people themselves in the light of history; even so, the “people” will remain a homogenous bloc of seemingly slight relevance where culture’s purview is abstract metaphysical thought, and where cultural evidence for a pre-industrial society is its textual literature. The harder to grasp, because in many ways the more vibrant is the material culture of daily life in rural villages and towns. Thus, to relegate the fifth to the eleventh centuries to a cultural backwater because, as Amin writes, “Kings, nobility and an even larger number of clergy are, like their subjects, illiterate,” (56) is to deny a vast extent of cultural activity beyond the written text.

Carolingian art and architecture of the eighth and ninth centuries, to take but one example, represented a crossing of styles and techniques from Celtic Ireland, Moorish Spain, the Germanies, Byzantium and Rome. It was a visually eloquent expression of cultural interaction between West and East whose development followed the skills of artisans and their schools. The twentieth-century Marxist intellectual’s turn toward theoretical and philosophical concerns rather than participation in political movements outside the university is not perhaps unconnected to the themes Amin traces.

Amin’s project, as stated in Part II of Eurocentrism, is to combat ideology with “the perspective of a search for general laws of the evolution of human society” (76) The assumption, however, is that culture and ideology—terms that Amin does not explicitly define and often conflates—are subject to a common systemization with governmental and economic institutions.

His use of the term “ideology” tends to conceal the distinction Marx made between the thoughts, ideas and institutions of human society growing out of a particular set of social relations, and, on the other hand, those ideas, values and institutions that the exploitative elements in a society use to further their own power. Moreover, the two processes described are rarely isolated categories but constantly interacting with each other.

In the case of Near Eastern monarchies before and after Alexander, the ideology of the state had to confront much more than a passive mass of subject peoples. The geographical area concerned extended from Egypt, to the Levant, to Anatolia (modem-day Turkey), to Arabia and the borders of India. In addition, in each of these areas, subsidiary modes of production operated in the broader context of the tributary mode. The state, Persian or Hellenistic, meant something different to a temple priesthood in Egypt, villagers in Syria and the nomad tribes in Arabia.

There also existed the problematic of elites among subject peoples being closer often to the Persian or Macedonian-Greek ruling class than were the poor farmers and laborers among the dominant ethnic group. Similar varieties of social relations are present in most empires, the United States included.

Beyond Eurocentrist and Imperialist History

The questions to be asked, then, are:

1) How did the ideology of the state work itself out among different peoples and different sectors within society?

2) What constraints were on the state as a result of having to form an ideology communicable to such diversity?

3) How does any ideology maintain itself? Despite the emphasis given by Amin on metaphysical thought, the fact remains that in the ancient world no imperial ideology could long survive without supporting military strength.

4) And what are the factors disrupting a particular ideology from within? The universalist aims of Hellenistic and early Christian religion and philosophy cited by Amin do not take into account vituperative religious controversies and driving political ambitions played out on the domain of orthodoxy vs. heresy.

A child’s prayer at baptism read, “Lord, give me the grace of good understanding, that! might learn letters and gain the upper hand over my fellows.” Religion, among other things, was a means of establishing local loyalties and fueling rivalries. St. Jerome, in the fourth century A.D., fled from monastic life in the desert of Syria to the city of Rome for some peace and quiet, and Jerome himself was no exemplar of gospel mildness.

Furthermore, even the most “cultured” elites felt the pulls of a more earthly life. Of the fourth-century Emperor Gordion, Gibbon wrote: “Twenty-two acknowledged concubines, and a library of 62,000 volumes, attested the variety of his inclinations; and from the productions which he left behind him, it appears that both the one and the other were designed for use rather than ostentation? (I.vii)

The problems raised in Eurocentrism are not obstacles to, but rather points of departure for, further discussion. Amin has given his readers an alternative perspective on the origins of capitalism, taking as the center of political power the Near East and thus seeing the opening for new developments where the tributary mode of production was weaker and where the traditions of Hellenistic civilization were either less entrenched or altogether absent. The inherent superiority of Europe becomes a moot point.

With the same model of center-periphery, Amin again looks for the possibility of change from the outer rings of capitalism’s concentric circles. He calls for the ”de-linking” of the countries of the Third World and for a renewed aspiration to a universalist culture, only now one originating from the periphery.

Eurocentrism seeks out forces of historical movement. Yet, even as the polarities of center-periphery help identify incentives for change, they also reflect a certain aspect of the capitalist mentality. A hierarchy of cultures and monolithic modes of production characterize history in Eurocentrism. As a result, few possibilities for historical process remain at the “center.” The most difficult transformation, because it is the most far-reaching, is that which recognizes the pattern of dominant and other, and simultaneously works to break out of it.

The center-periphery model is at its strongest when the people of history are glossed over in favor of social structures and ideology. The United States of the 1990s, however, offers all too many examples of contradictions at capitalism’s (decaying) center. Amin’s hopes for a universalist culture are better grounded in transformation within, as well as outside, capitalism’s heartlands. In the resulting alignments, the authority of a conceptual center itself may finally lose significance.


  1. The summary given here draws in particular from Perry Anderson’s Considerations on Western Marxism (London, 1979) and F.R. Hansen’s The Breakdown of Capitalism: A History of the Ides in Western Marxism (London, 1985). The latter book deserves more attention on the left than it has received.
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  2. Ernest Mandel, The Formation of the Economic Thought of Karl Marx (New York 1971), 116-139.
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  3. Ibid., 124.
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  4. Pierre Briant, “Imperialisms Antiques et Ideologie Coloniale dane la France Contemporaine: Alexandre le Grand Modele Colonial,” Rois, Tributs, Ptysans (Paris, 1982), 283.
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  5. George Bush and the Pentagon provide the most recent example of erasing the infrastructure of a society conceptually—and then in actuality. “Desert Shield” and “Desert Storm” both invoke images of a sand-swept Iraq, depopulated with no cities extant. The paradox is, of course, that the area of the Tigris and Euphrates gave rise to one of the earliest examples of ancient urban civilization.
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May-June 1991, ATC 32