Are Marx and Weber’s explanations for the rise of the west were Eurocentric or not

In this essay I will be analysing whether Marx and Weber’s explanations for the rise of the west were Eurocentric or not. Eurocentrism, in short, is looking at something from a European perspective. Firstly I will look at Marx. Marx looked at stages in history, most importantly in this case, the progression from Feudalism to Capitalism. With the emergence of Capitalism in Europe came the improvement of productive forces and changes within the social organisation, for example wage labour and capital. Work discipline was different to the Feudal way of life and there was a clear culture change. Marx saw Capitalism as the source of European power which then spread across the world. “As is well known, he declares that the slavery-feudalism-capitalism succession is peculiar to Europe.” (Amin, 1988, p 120) Marx saw the transformation from Feudalism to Capitalism a key factor in the success and rise of the west, here it is apparent this explanation is Eurocentric.

This succession being peculiar to Europe very much suggests that the transition from Feudalism to Capitalism did not prosper in the east and therefore saw Europe as the driving force for rise of the west. Marx believed it was only because of Europe and its unique progression to Capitalism that Capitalism was then allowed to spread. Therefore it reinforces the fact that the progression from Feudalism to Capitalism is a Eurocentric explanation for the rise of the West. “The discovery of America, the rounding of the Cape, opened up fresh ground for the rising bourgeoise. The east-Indian and Chinese markets, the colonisation of America, trade with the colonies, the increase in the means exchange and in commodities generally, gave to commerce, to navigation, to industry, an impulse never before known, and thereby, to the revolutionary element in the tottering feudal society a rapid development.” (Marx and Engels, 1967, p 3) Although Marx believed the rise of the West was because of European Capitalism, he also recognises the essential nature of capitalism meant that the bourgeoisie had to keep expanding and revolutionising production to fulfil proletariat exploitation.

“The need of a constantly expanding market for its product chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe” (Marx and Engels, 1967, p 18) Another explanation Marx gave for the rise of the West was the emergence of private land ownership. This was a key factor in terms of why Europe progressed so well compared to Eastern civilizations. Marx saw social progress derive from private land ownership and with this the inevitable process of class divisions which made the European Capitalist society flourish. (Lindner, 2010) In Eastern societies, land was owned publically and the forces of production were owned by the state, which created an economical standstill. (Hobson, 2004) “British rule, in his estimation, has lead to the emergence of a system based on private land ownership.” (Linder, 2010, p 4) Clearly this is a Eurocentric standpoint. In the East, Marx noted that India was a society of little progress in comparison to Europe at this point in time. In the 1850’s Marx decided to write essays on India, “One hallmark of these essays is Marx’s perception of India’s social structure as static.” (Lindner, 2010, p 4) Marx’s views when writing the essays on India were Eurocentric. At this time Marx regarded India as an agricultural country where central rule created villages to be stationary in terms of progress and this meant urban centres were unable to emerge.

(Lindner, 2010) In relation to the question, at this point in time Marx’s explanations for the rise of the west are Eurocentric, and suggest Europe and Britain especially to be a superior power over the East. However, “numerous historical analyses have established that, in pre-colonial India, land ownership was not centralised and landed property could be alienated, i.e., that private land ownership existed.” (Lindner, 2010, p 8) If this was the case, it questions Marx’s Eurocentric explanation for the rise of the west, that private land ownership generates societal progress. If private land ownership existed in India, then it raises the question, is private land ownership and class division a valid reason for the rise of the west? And if not, did Marx perhaps accept this in his later work and therefore create non Eurocentric explanations for the rise in the west? “Marx overcame his Eurocentrism in studying the 1857-1859 Indian uprising.” (Linder, 2010, p 10) However it still remains that Marx’s explanation for the rise of the west, which was private land ownership within Europe, whether it is right or wrong, is still a Eurocentric explanation. Marx saw Asiatic states to be despotic, (Hobson, 2004) Europe on the other hand was an area of prosperity and growth.

Why? Because “It is as if Marx saw the East as a ‘being-in-itself’ that was inherently incapable of becoming a ‘being-for-itself’. By contrast, the West was from the outset a ‘being-for-itself.’” (Hobson, 2004, p 14) What I think Marx means here, is that the embedded and conservative culture of the East, their compliance to its oppressive state and lack of progression, makes their society motionless in terms of development. In contrast, Europe was thriving, liberating and its culture change meant that unlike the East at this point in time, Europe was investing Capital into the growth of business. Workers were no longer undertaking agricultural labour for an unprogressive state, but rather working for money to allow bourgeoisie to get richer and for capitalism to expand. It is clear that Marx’s explanations are Eurocentric. He has no worries in dismissing the East and what they have contributed, in terms of trade and market opportunities to the rise of the West. Marx, along with other Eurocentric theorists have been greatly critiqued. “All of these characterizations by Marx were no more than a figment of his and other Eurocentric thinkers’ imagination anyway, and had no foundation in historical reality whatsoever” (Frank, 1998, p 15) Weber also sees capitalism as central to the rise of the west and like Marx; Weber’s explanations were also Eurocentric.

Weber focuses on the success and ethic of English Puritans, who were a group focused on Calvinist ideology which created Weber’s Protestant ethic explanation. This religious group had an ethic of hard work, discipline and asceticism. Weber argued this was the trigger for capitalist development in Europe. The Puritans would avoid time wasting and idleness. They were also self-disciplined and would reinvest profits back into their businesses instead of spending it. Thus Weber argues Calvinism shaped a set of ideals that directly encouraged modern day Capitalist practices. They lived a simplistic way of life, but would still strive for success as they believed certain individuals had been chosen by God, before they were born, to be part of ‘the elect.’ This elect group would be the ones to enter Heaven. Being part of this elect group was a predestined characteristic, and one would not know if they were part of the elect or not. By working hard and succeeding it was taken as a sign that they were chosen by God to be in the elect. “Even the most dutiful and disciplined believers could never know with certainty that they belonged among the elect few.” (Weber, 2002, p 32) Weber saw no Capitalist trigger in Eastern cultures like India and China. Therefore as Weber argued that Capitalism was a key factor in the rise of the West, and Capitalism emerged in Europe, his view is Eurocentric. However these cultures were very successful even very long ago, and although Calvinist doctrine encouraged the Puritans to work hard, it is argued that Capitalism arose before Calvinism and therefore instead of the Protestant ethic creating Capitalism, Capitalism was already there and the Puritans just attributed and justified their ethic to it. “The socio-economy of China was of quite a different order and much closer to that of Europe than the views of Marx, Weber or even Needham would allow” (Goody, 2007, p 136) Weber not only sees the Protestant ethic as a major factor in the rise of the west, but also puts across another Eurocentric view, that the West embraced the idea of rational thought and science much more so than the East. Weber sees this as an explanation for societal progress in the West. He believed that the East was stuck in a conventional society, and the traits of these societies, for example mysticism and state controlled merchants (Hobson, 2004) meant that they could not advance like the west. “He saw the development of the scientific spirit as more significant in the west and as linked to notions of rationality.” (Goody, 2007, p 181) Weber also states that the Public and Private sectors of society had to be split to encourage Capitalism, only when this split occurs can rationality and Capitalism progress. (Hobson, 2004) “Western capitalism modernity is characterised by a fundamental separation of the public and private realms. In traditional society (as in the East) there was no such separation.” (Hobson, 2004, p 18) However although this initially seems to be Eurocentric because Weber is looking at the superior progression of the West compared to the east, he does not actually mention Europe.

There may have been other Western Civilizations with similar rational and progressive characteristics to Europe. Therefore we can’t assume this explanation Weber gives to the rise of the West is unique to Europe. However, Europe did have the characteristics that Weber saw as the spark for progress, and was an excellent society, like no other, in terms of progression at the time. Nevertheless, a key point is that Weber is a Eurocentric theorist. In (Gran, 1996) their are nine criticisms of Eurocentrism, the second criticism being, “the term the West can used be more or less interchangeably with the term Europe.” Therefore it is possible, in this case, to look at Weber’s view on public and private realms as Eurocentric, even though he does not mention Europe, as a Eurocentric theorist, Weber is likely to be referring to Europe when mentioning the West. “In recent years a small band of scholars have claimed that the standard theories of the rise of the West – Marxism/world-systems theory, liberalism and Weberianism – are all Eurocentric.” (Hobson, 2004, p 3) Although this essay does briefly encounter a non Eurocentric interpretation of Marx’s explanations, in actual fact it is clear to see from this essay that Marx’s explanations for the rise of the west are indubitably Eurocentric. There has also been some ambiguity as to whether Weber is focusing on Europe alone in some of his explanations, or whether he is talking about the West in general. However, Weber’s core explanations for the rise of the west, being the Protestant ethic, which is evidently Eurocentric, and rationality, which although Weber does not directly link to Europe, was very apparent in Europe, more so than other Western regions, verify his Eurocentric ideology. Weber more so than Marx insinuates European superiority over the East and almost condemns the East when comparing it to the West. However it must be said that both theorists ignored East, in terms of their part to play, and criticised the East. This reinforces the answer to this essay, that their explanations are Eurocentric. “What was known in the middle of the nineteenth century about non-European peoples? Not much. And for this reason, Marx was careful about making hasty generalizations.” (Amin, 1988, p 120) Although Marx may not have generalized his theories, they were still, essentially, Eurocentric explanations for the rise of the west. “His knowledge derives from massively Eurocentric sources.” (Linder, 2010, p 2) Perhaps if there was more knowledge of Eastern culture and history at this point in time, Marx’s explanations for the rise of the west may not have been so Eurocentric. In reality though, both Marx and Weber had Eurocentric explanations for the rise of the West.

Amin, S. (1988). Eurocentrism. London: Monthly Review Press. Blaut, J. (2000). Max Weber: Western Rationality. In: Eight Eurocentric Historians. New York: Guilford Press. pp 19-29 Frank, A. (1998). Introduction to Real World History vs. Eurocentric Social Theory. In: ReOrient: Global Economy in the Asian Age. Berkeley: University of California Press. pp 1-38 Giddens, A. (1971). Capitalism & Modern Social Theory: An analysis of the writings of Marx, Durkheim and Max Weber. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press Giddens, A. (1986). Competing Interpretations: Industrial Society or Capitalism?. In:
Sociology: A brief but critical introduction. 2nd ed. London: The Macmillan Press Ltd. pp 23-42. Goody, J. (2007). The Theft of History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press Gran, P. (1996). Eurocentrism and the Study of World History. In: Beyond Eurocentrism: A New View of Modern World History. New York: Syracuse University Press. pp 1-22. Hall, J (1985) Powers and Liberties: The Causes and Consequences of the Rise of the West. Oxford, Basil Blackwell.

Hobson, J. (2004). Countering the Eurocentric myth of the pristine West: discovering the oriental West. In: The Eastern Origins of Western Civilization, New York: Cambridge University Press. pp. 1-28

Jones, E. (1987). The European miracle: environments, economies and geopolitics in the history of Europe and Asia. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Lindner, K (2010). Marx’s Eurocentrism: Postcolonial studies and Marx scholarship’. Radical Philosophy 161. Marx, K and Engels, F. (1983). The Communist Manifesto. London: Lawrence & Wishart. Said, E. (1991). Orientalism. London: Penguin Books.

Weber, M. (2002). The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism: New Introduction and Translation by Stephen Kalber. Oxford: Blackwell Publisher

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