‘Eurocentrism: Modernity, Religion, and Democracy. A Critique of Eurocentrism and Culturalism’ reviewed by Joshua Moufawad-Paul

Eurocentrism: Modernity, Religion, and Democracy. A Critique of Eurocentrism and Culturalism

Translated by Russell Moore and James Membrez, Pambazuka Press, Oxford, and Monthly Review Press, New York, 2nd edition 2009. 290pp, $17.95 / £12.95 pb
ISBN 9781583672075

Reviewed by Joshua Moufawad-Paul

About the reviewer

Joshua Moufawad-Paul works as an adjunct professor at York University where he received his PhD in …


Due to the influence of Edward Said’s Orientalism, and the subsequent rise of postcolonial theory, Marxist analyses of culture were often dismissed a priori as eurocentric and totalizing. Karl Marx, the narrative went, was a consummate European chauvinist who cared little for the struggles of non-European peoples; the Marxist tradition was further flawed because it proposed a homogeneous European discourse. Thus, the original publication of Samir Amin’s Eurocentrism in 1988 was a much needed historical materialist rejoinder to post-structuralist and postcolonial critiques.

Thankfully, Eurocentrism did not focus on an exchange of polemics with postcolonial theory. Aside from a few qualifications, Amin was more interested in theorizing a historical materialist concept of eurocentrism than airing his complaints about postcolonial anti-Marxism. Moreover, instead of simply dismissing the critiques of Said and other postcolonialists, the first edition of Eurocentrism’s strength lay in its ability to take these critiques seriously and transform them with a concrete and properly historical understanding of Europe and the eurocentric. Said’s Orientalism was not rejected out of hand (as Said did with Marx) but was treated as an important and informative text. Moreover, Amin not only demonstrated that he was in agreement with some of the postcolonial criticisms of Marxism, but was able to explain how historical materialism itself could provide even stronger critiques of the eurocentrism within its own tradition.

Unfortunately, the first edition of Eurocentrism was limited by its abbreviated size, organization, and the cavalier manner in which Amin used theoretical categories he had established elsewhere. In fact, I used to think of Eurocentrism as another section of Amin’s Class and Nation (Amin 1980) since, in order to properly understand its utilization of the concepts ‘tributary mode of production’ or ‘modernity,’ one needed to be familiar with Class and Nation. Although such a problem did not ruin Amin’s theorization of eurocentrism (and perhaps even demonstrated an important unity in Amin’s thought), it did render parts of the book somewhat opaque. The fact that the first edition did not possess an index, though more of a technical quibble, also made it difficult to locate passages in later readings. The second edition of Eurocentrism, expanded with a proper index, overcomes many of these obstacles.

The strength of Amin’s theory of eurocentrism lies in his ability to demonstrate that ‘Europe’ is a culturalist construction that masquerades as universal. That is, rather than presupposing that the binary of West/East––or Europe and its Other––existed in the pre-modern world, he argues that European civilization is an ideology that developed after 1492, the epoch of modern colonialism. Since the nation-states of the European continent were the colonial masters, eventually they began to conceive of themselves as a superior and united civilization. Eurocentric thought emerged when scholars in this continent began to mine the past and construct precedents for their supposedly superior civilization. This led to the invention of ‘an eternal West, unique since its moment of origin. This arbitrary and mythic construct had as its counterpart an equally artificial construction of the Other (the Orient), likewise constructed on mythic foundations’ (165).

Here Amin breaks from Edward Said’s analysis in Orientalism, arguing that Said’s theory, despite its importance, ‘has the fault of not going far enough in certain respects, and… too far in others’ (175). On one hand Said denounces eurocentrism without accounting for certain historical facts that led to the emergence of ‘Europe’ as a construct. On the other hand, Said appears to accept the eurocentric division of the world by proposing that the binary of Occident/Orient existed before European culture was constructed. In Orientalism, Said argues that the ancient Greeks possessed a eurocentric chauvinism in the way they read the ancient Persians. Amin is quick to point out that the Persians possessed just as many prejudices as the Greeks and that this type of prejudice was nothing more than ‘a case of banal provincialism’ (154). Moreover, since there was nothing called Europe, or an understanding of the Occident and Oriental, in the ancient world, one cannot account for the modern prejudice of eurocentrism prior to the era of modern colonialism.

Amin further bolsters his position by examining the historical development of European capitalism and the Enlightnment break from metaphysics. Although he remains a staunch advocate for modernity, he points out that capitalist modernity is flawed by European culturalism. Rather than seeing modernity (the understanding that humans rather than supernatural forces make history) as a world project, the eurocentric position holds that European culture is the universal grounds for modernity. In fact, eurocentrism is a cultural particularism that masquerades as universal. Once again, Amin sets himself against the postcolonial position by rejecting the idea that universal values are exclusionary and violent. Rather, he asserts that the culturalisms that masquerade as universal are exclusionary in that they promote difference. The solution is to pursue a universal project free from European particularism, a ‘modernity critical of modernity’ (17).

Therefore, the progressive response to eurocentrism should not be based on a flight back into cultural difference, where one embraces particular ethnic identities and metaphysical notions of the world, but the pursuit of a modern project premised on universal values freed from the eurocentric vision of the world. The strength of this argument rests on Amin’s historical exposition of how European capitalism developed against the backdrop of other non-European cultures that, at that period of time, formed different centres of human civilization. Thus, although the values of modernity would eventually emerge in a European context, intrinsically connected to the birth of capitalism, the seeds of these values were evident elsewhere. The eurocentric annexation of the world, however, created the culturalist myth that modernity was a product of some Platonic European essence.

In these days, when it is still somewhat fashionable to dismiss the Enlightenment and modernity as eurocentric, the re-released and expanded Eurocentrism is very important. The fact that Amin begins this version of Eurocentrism with a discussion of modernity significantly restructures the text, providing the necessary background to his understanding of universalism. Moreover, this addition to the beginning of his book is not simply tacked on: the nuanced discussion of modernity lurked throughout the original text and thus required a conceptual preface. Also, this discussion of modernity is concluded with a final section that was not in the original English text: ‘Towards a Non-Eurocentric View of History and a Non-Eurocentric Social Theory.’ Here Amin has reworked his analysis of Political Islam within his overall framework, thus obliterating many of the spurious criticisms that, lacking any context of Amin’s general position, simplistically dismissed his critique of Political Islam as Islamophobic.

This edition also explicates his theory of the tributary mode of production, thus providing the reader the necessary background, as well as connecting to his concerns from Accumulation on a World Scale (Amin 1974) and Unequal Development (Amin 1976). Amin even draws on his more recent theoretical contributions––for example, his theory of “actually existing capitalism.” Finally, unlike the first edition, this version of Eurocentrism strongly and obviously embeds itself within the Marxist tradition, defending the reasons for an historical materialist approach (but one that is not eurocentric) in the first section.

Although I believe that the second edition of Eurocentrism overcomes the weaknesses of the first, my main problem is that many of the updates have been lifted and retooled from Class and Nation. For instance, Amin’s discussion of alienation in the first part of the fourth section of Eurocentrism reads almost word for word from a passage in the introduction to Class and Nation. Obviously this problem is not a significant flaw, but it does indicate a larger concern: I think that some of the expansion choices might be tangental to the overall thesis of Eurocentrism. The decision to import some of his older theories of unequal exchange further demonstrate this flaw. I am not saying that these concerns do not connect to Eurocentrism but that the revised text would be stronger without them. Indeed, I would be much happier if both Eurocentrism and Class and Nation were updated together and released as companion pieces with minimal redundancy.

Still, despite these qualifications, I am pleased that there is a second edition of Eurocentrism and that the expansions were not simply designed for a cash grab. I am also pleased that Samir Amin, after all this time, is still committed to a radical socialist project. Hopefully this version of Eurocentrism will be used in university courses as both a companion piece and an answer to postcolonial theory.

29 November 2010


  1. Good review and nice to see the Amin volume getting attention.

    But the review betrays no knowledge of the bogey-man of postcolonial studies. “poco’ is the one place where the critique of colonialism and imperialism, as well as their scholarly importance, live on in the global academy. Esp in the humanities and qualitative social sciences. Cesaire, Fanon, and that generation are far, far more likely to show up on poco syllabi and articles than anywhere else. Even Amin is as likely to get attention and citation there as in world systems crowds. Or in New Left Review or Verso circles.

    Said and Amin were close in many ways– I believe personally (ES often cited Amin) and even intellectually in some matters. The debate about the Greeks is a good one, but one way or the other it doesnt change much Said’s argument and history in the 1978 book. The point is the geographic division existed in the minds of the Greeks (allegedly) and not that they were real or full-blown orientalists.

    Orientalism is its own thing with a thick and documented and long and verifiable — ie debatable — history. Eurocentrism is more of a loose, umbrella term that speaks more to the popular imagination and a general bias/chauvinism in thinking. both are important. But the former and the Amin volume are not anything like the answer or alternative to the latter and Said.

  2. The line above viz. ‘the Greeks (allegedly)’ is interesting, and leads to a good point. But I think it should go much further. A number of ‘Greeks’ are mentioned in Thucydides as having fought on the side of the Persians, even changing sides during the conflicts, and then they appear as ‘returners’ and nobody is (apparently) very bothered about this. There were lots of ‘Greeks’ confronting ‘the Persians’ to be sure but they hardly all thought the same things about themselves or the Persians, given the testimony that we have (limited as it is). Suggesting that ‘geographic division’ amounts to some kind of (early) East/West binary seems to me overstated, and anyway part of something we should cease to do! namely we shouldn’t go on constructing and inscribing ‘the Greeks’ as our originary proto-occidentalism. There were lots of (very different and diverse) ‘Greeks’ thinking lots of different things over 500 years, and even during the epic conflicts there were diverse views, not all of them easily assimilable to our modern nationalisms and geographies. It is not even clear that (most?) ‘Greeks’ saw themselves as west of ‘the Persians’ given the polyglot, diverse and contested city-states of Asia minor, which constantly changed ‘hands’ and suzerains etc. Moreover it is also unlikely that any ‘Greeks’ at all identified anything much good about anyone west of themselves. It’s time to take a critical look at some of ‘our’ cultural furniture and consider sending it to the charity shop.

  3. Actually, I’m well aware that postcolonial studies courses do permit the study of theories that I would not precisely call “postcolonial.” My contention has always been, and this is what much of my academic work focuses on, is that that which we can philosophically call “postcolonial” proper (Said, Spivak, Bhabha) is marked by a post-structuralism and is far different than the anticolonial traditions that have often been appropriated and badly interpreted by postcolonialism (Bhabha’s horrible writing on Fanon, for example). Even the emergence of postcolonialism was problematic, as Ella Shohat (herself grouped in this school) has pointed out.

    I have great love for Said but his lack of rigor is a serious problem. And, as Amin does point out, the geographic division did not exist in the minds of the Greeks anymore than it did in the minds of the Persians: Said is ahistorical, just like so many other self-proclaimed post-colonialists, in this area. Martin Bernal’s work, I believe, demonstrates the historical problems of this position. So I truly do believe that Amin’s work (along with the work of most non-western anti-eurocentric marxists) is a serious answer to the holy trinity of Said, Spivak, and Bhabha.

  4. Amin’s project is very radical. He takes Marx to task on his use of the term “Oriental Despotism” as a catch-all phrase for non-European, pre-capitalist societies and his analysis of Eurocentrism follows from that.

    Amin opposes the conventional (if not clichéd), historical materialist description of humanity passing through a series of pre-capitalist forms: pre-class society, class society, slavery, feudalism and then capitalism (to be followed by socialism).

    This is one of the great “intellectual deformations” of our times, says Amin, which leads to such things as the myth of “the Greeks”. It is not just “the sum of Western preconceptions, mistakes and blunders with respect to other peoples”, he says, it is a systematic misrepresentation of history.

    Amin’s response is to question the use of the term “feudalism” to describe the European pre-capitalist experience; in fact, he questions whether feudalism as a category existed at all. Hence his use of the expression “tributary societies” to describe all pre-capitalist class societies

    Thus, ancient Rome was one form of tributary society, in which slaves paid tribute in the form of unpaid labour. Middle Ages Europe was just another form, in which peasants paid tribute in the form of levies and service. Chinese and Arab civilisations were other forms, where highly centralised bureaucracies ruled over rather independent villages extracting tribute in the form of taxes and sometimes communal labour on major works.

    Amin uses this scheme to prove that the Arab, Chinese and other civilisations were more stable than what is commonly referred to as European feudalism. In fact, Amin says, Europe was more tumultuous precisely because it never achieved the higher level of development that the Arabs and the Chinese exhibited.

    It was that very instability that drove Europeans out of their continental nest, opening up the world to trade and through that revolutionising their economic system into capitalism.

    Thus, Amin turns the tables on European claims to authority, undermining Eurocentrism: it was European backwardness and weakness that created capitalism and global domination, not superiority.

    Amin mounts a powerfully argued and passionate case, part of which is a very sophisticated analysis of the development of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, which is welcome because it cuts to the heart of contemporary racism. It allows Amin to sweepingly reinterpret world history and raise the prominence in particular of Islamic civilisation in human advancement.

    Amin has a double purpose: to show how pervasive Eurocentrism is in the construction of the modern world and to chart a revolutionary course out of it.

    However, the schema upon which he builds his whole argument is fundamentally flawed.

    If all historical forms of society can be swept together into one basket, then what are the differences in how economic systems and their attendant social forms reproduce, and what contradictions have driven history forward if everything in the world was similar before capitalism? If no essential difference was ever created before capitalism, has there ever been a revolution in the history of humanity?

    Certainly, in pre-capitalist class societies the only source of value (both use value and exchange value) anywhere in the world were peasants and slaves (slaves and peasants even existed in Europe until well into the capitalist era). Does that mean that all those societies were essentially similar?

    Roman slave society and its legal forms not only were fundamentally different from the feudal structures that followed them, they replicated themselves (ensured their continuation) in vastly different manners. Rome subsisted for an age on military conquest supplying a stream of slaves for its farms, mines and industries. Its professional armies existed to perpetually expand and protect the frontiers and facilitate the movement of slaves.

    When large-scale slave farm production (latifundia) rotted out the army’s social basis, the independent yeoman farmers, the state turned to hiring mercenaries. The problem was that when the German tribes, trained in Roman military methods as mercenaries, were pushed off their lands by invaders from the east, they swept over the Danube and conquered Rome.

    Feudalism, in contrast, subsisted on stasis, the economic and ideological construction of the never-ending bond of the peasant to the land and the hierarchical structures above them. When peasants were drafted into foreign expeditions their pay-off was loot extracted from the lands they passed through and stolen from the bodies of their fallen adversaries.

    The unceasing wars between the barons were precisely because land was the only source of wealth. There was no way in which to expand the value extracted from the labouring masses other than by stealing land (and the peasants tied to it).

    If, as Amin says, feudalism was essentially the same as, though inferior to, the Arab empires and the Chinese economic system in the fact that “tribute” was the mainstay, then why isn’t modern capitalism similarly “tributary”? Don’t modern workers pay “tribute” in the form of unpaid labour power to the boss?

    Moreover, while hard-headed on Third Worldist pretentions and scathing of Eurocentrism, in calling on Third World revolutionaries to voluntarily create autarky — maintaining revolutionary purity in splendid, poverty-stricken isolation — Amin is presenting an unsupportable idealism. Pol Pot organised on exactly that basis.

  5. Terell, thanks for that– great points and I agree about the furniture. That’s the main point here indeed. I’m not well read in the area but it does seem to make perfect sense to me that, beyond there being a perceived division at the time (which is one thing, as you say), it is another to see that as East vs. West. Would the ancient ‘Greeks’ have been thinking in that way, i.e. seeing themsleves as “Western”. Seems doubtful. Anyway this may not be Said’s point even but it has been taken up that way. Not unlike the translation of ancient Chinese reactions to ‘barbarians” — it may well not have had the connotations (xenophobia) traditonally attributed to it. At any rate I dont think Said was trying to be as trans-historical as it may seem, and it doesnt matter to me whether these splits and eventually orientalism happened that far back or much more recently.


    I agree with you about Bhabha in particular and the post-ism/pomo of much of postco studies, esp in literary and related subjects. It is a problem indeed but I also think the field, or parts of it, have been quite open to other strains and also self-critical. It can include someone like Tim Brennan for example. Said is not in my view a postie, though there is the Foucualt connection. Depends on how you read that 1978 book– i find Said to be historicist (in the good sense) and even materialist. O-ism involves movements of people, imperial projects, modes of investigation, flows of capital, and so on. Anyway I see Said and Amin as complementary and useful to read/think together.

    thanks for the exchanges

  6. To assert an “Enlightenment break from metaphysics” and then to aver “the understanding that humans rather than supernatural forces make history” amounts merely to a shift from medieval metaphysics (God, the supreme maker) to historical materialist metaphysics, a variety of modern subjectivist metaphysics. Denying “supernatural forces” does not get you out of metaphysics. The assertion that “humans make history” itself postulates three categories drenched in metaphysics: “humans” (subject/object split), “making” (the metaphysics of _poiaesis_; metaphysics to the present day has been productionist) and “history”, the last being incomprehensible without a metaphysics of time, which is simply taken implicitly for granted in historical materialism and elsewhere throughout the landscape of modernity. Time is the universal narrative washing line when it is not the linear real variable t. It remains unquestioned. Eurocentrism yea or nay e.g. remains a sub-plot.

  7. Postcolonial studies may be one place where the critique of colonialism and imperialism, as well as their scholarly importance, live on in the global academy. But this critique is not a progressive one. On the contrary, it discredits the modern norms (autonomy, equality, human rights, freedom of speech, etc) that render a progressive critique of oppression possible

    At best, postcolonial writers regard modernity (and its normative resources) as a European/Western cultural formation whose claim to universality masks the ‘provincial’ interests of Europe/the West (Chakrabarty). The term ‘Eurocentric’ is then applied to writers that apply modern norms to non-Western ‘civilizations’ such India, China or Islam for supporting ‘human rights imperialism’ (Taylor, Jacques)

    At worst, postcolonial writers regard modernity as an inherently racist, colonial and genocidal project, which culminates in the Holocaust (Bauman, Goldberg). Under the influence of Heidegger’s reactionary and self-exonerating critique of modernity, postcolonial writers discredit modernity in favour of otherness, hybridity, diversity, etc. To this end, Bhabha repudiates modernity’s oppressive uniformity in favour of a ‘postcolonial contra-modernity’, while condemning as Eurocentric writers that view racism, colonialism and genocide as countermodern phenomenon

    As Joshua Moufawad-Paul argues, Amin’s solution is to pursue a universal project free from European particularism a ‘modernity critical of modernity’. This means rejecting the view that modernity is a continuation of European/Western (Christian) culture (a la Löwith, Eisenstadt, Taylor). In favour of the view that modernity is a revolutionary project, grounded in the norm of autonomy – self-governance (Koselleck, Habermas, Pippin). Rather than comprising an expression of European/Western culture, modernity opposes the latter’s feudal (religious) heritage. If Europe/the West appears to exemplify modernity this is because progressive social movements have re-fashioned the former in the image of the latter. But Europe/the West is no paragon of modernity – nor can it be while capitalism imposes its self-valorizing imperatives upon humanity. For this reason, Marx argues capitalism retains a fetishistic character analogous to religion, which imprisons human beings in their own creation

    Eurocentrism cannot be overcome by identifying modernity with Europe/the West (and by extension European/Western racism, colonialism and genocide). Eurocentrism can only be overcome by redeeming the universal promise of modern norms. This means opposing social injustice wherever it is found: not least, the Western neo-colonialism that WikiLeaks confirms

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