Is Marxism too ‘eurocentric’? A critique of postcolonial IR theory

This is an essay originally written to discuss the charge of ‘western-centrism’ in international relations (IR) theory as a whole, though I have adapted it to address the charge against marxism in particular. I initially wrote this around October 2013.

Postcolonialism is a post-positivist theory, or critique, meaning that it rejects the idea that knowledge is static and material, and instead claims that knowledge is shaped by human consciousness and bias. It offers an assessment of world politics focused on race and the experiences of those parts of the world that have suffered colonisation and imperialism, which have been obscured in the international system and mainstream international relations (IR) theory. In this regard, postcolonialists charge IR theories with being ‘eurocentric’ or ‘western-centric’, and Marxist theory is included under this label.

Origins of ‘Western’ IR Theory

It is indeed evident that IR theory has its origins in ‘the West’. Although the ideas used in many key IR theories can be traced back many centuries, for example to Machiavelli, IR as a discipline didn’t arise until the 1900s and didn’t gain widespread popularity until after the Second World War. But why then? As Fred Halliday emphasised, ‘‘internationalization’ did not begin with post-war immigration, the EC and the multinational corporation . . . the national and international have always interacted’. One could argue that its increasing prevalence throughout the Cold War was a symptom of American capitalism’s rise to hegemony, as typically American scholars sought to rationalise and normalise American hegemony as an intellectual weapon against the Soviet Bloc countries.

Mainstream theory in IR – realism, liberalism and their neo- counterparts – are theories which postcolonialist John M. Hobson describes as ‘consciously eurocentric’. He explains that this is when a theorist ‘explicitly celebrate[s] all things Western while consciously or explicitly disparaging all things Eastern’. Liberalism could be said to display this through its idea of progress led by the ‘civilised’ developed western states. Liberalism is also particularly critiqued by postcolonialists for its ‘western’ Enlightenment origins. Realist theory could be said to rationalise the dominance of western society through the concept of an ‘anarchical’ society of states, in a ‘war against all’ where ‘the West’ has triumphed through its superiority. Some postcolonial theorists point to these concepts as proof of IR theory’s inherent racism.

But post colonialist scholars have considerable objections towards Marxism. They see Marxist theories as ‘indelibly Eurocentric, complicit with the dominative master-narratives of modernity (including that of colonialism itself) and, in its approach to text, vulgarly reductionistic and totalizing’. Hobson describes critical IR theorists as ‘subliminally eurocentric’; by which he means that while these scholars may indeed be disparaging of the West, they still assume that the West ‘lies at the centre of all things in the world’. He points towards classical marxist theory, arguing that the likes of Marx, Lenin, etc. see capitalist imperialism as a ‘civilising vehicle’ to ‘spread western capitalism . . . and thereby hastening the socialist day of reckoning’. Edward Saïd, one of the founders of postcolonial studies, described Marx himself as an ‘Orientalist’ with a ‘homogenizing view of the Third World’, who ‘saw the Orient as a locale requiring Western attention, reconstruction, even redemption.’ Some scholars go as far as to blame Marxism for the difficulties encountered by some decolonised states.

What is ‘Western’?

What needs to be qualified is the use of the word ‘Western’, as well as ‘Eastern’, ‘Oriental’ or even ‘non-Western’. To use these terms as analytical categories presents some issues. Firstly, it overlooks the struggles of Western peoples against their own exploitation, be that class, gender, racial, and so on, and seems to attribute some culpability for western imperialism on the proletariat living in ‘the West’. Similarly, it lumps all political thought together; no matter the wide variety of theories – from anarchism and marxism to conservatism and fascism – it is all ‘Western’. Conversely, classifying ‘non-Western’ or ‘Eastern’ societies as one category does the same; and ignores that typically ‘Eastern’ states are also capable of exploitation and oppression, both domestically and on the world stage. For example, Japan’s imperialist wars of conquest against China and Korea.

To elaborate on this, Pinar Bilgin in her article ‘Thinking past ‘Western’ IR?’ makes some interesting observations about ‘non-western’ societies imitating what are typically seen as ‘western’ policies as a form of security. She uses the examples of India’s development of its own nuclear bombs, Turkey’s secularisation, Asia’s integration into the ‘liberal world order’ and Japan’s search for its own colonies. In the case of India’s nuclear capabilities, Bilgin argues that India was following the West’s example; becoming ‘modern’ by using technology––nuclear weapons––as a way of resisting the ‘West’. In the case of Turkey incorporating secularist principles into its constitution, despite its large Islamic population, Bilgin claims again that this is an attempt to leave ‘traditions’ behind and become ‘modern’; to ‘gain respect in the eyes of the ‘civilised world’ . . .  [and] remove the ground for ‘European’ interventions and claims to the right to rule the ‘uncivilised’.’ Furthermore, Japan’s search for colonies is an ‘attempt to be similar’. The point is that these actions, which constitute major themes in IR theory, are not exclusive to the ‘western’ world.

Nicholas Brown elaborates on the vague geographic descriptiveness of the term ‘postcolonial’. He asks: ‘Are the independent settler colonies postcolonial? How about oppressed, relatively autochthonous communities within them? What about the huge swathes of the literally postcolonial world, formerly allied with the Soviet bloc–Angola, Vietnam, Cuba, for example–that barely register at all in the discourse of the postcolonial?’ Murzban Jal also condemns this type of dichotomisation, highlighting that ‘what is known as the “beginnings of Western Reason” grew from a very close interaction between the Mesopotamians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, the Medes, Egyptians and Indians’. Jal argues that this ‘Great Wall of Separation that divides the west from the east’ presents an inability to ‘understand the history of humanity from the dialectical standpoint’. Furthermore, as capitalism is ‘an essentially systemic phenomenon’, correlating capitalism with ‘the West’ or ‘eurocentrism’ ignores the universality of capital. Thus, to analyse the effects of the expansion of capitalism is not to convey that ‘the West lies at the centre of all things in the world’, but rather to be able to understand the foundations of racism and the exploitation of colonised peoples as part of the ‘dialectical holism of world history’.

Marx and Marxism
In criticising Marx himself, many postcolonial scholars point to his writings on India for the New York Tribune in 1853 as proof of his ‘eurocentrism’. However, both Kevin B. Anderson and Aijaz Ahmad have claimed that these works are selectively quoted without the wider context by scholars such as Edward Saïd. Most importantly, Anderson and Ahmad observe that Marx’s disparaging remarks about pre-colonial India are no less deprecatory than his writings on ‘Europe’s own feudal past, or of the Absolutist monarchies, or of the German burghers; his essays on Germany are every bit as nasty’. Saïd particularly highlights Marx’s use of a stanza from Goethe (“Should this torture then torment us / Since it brings us greater pleasure?”), arguing that Marx is glorifying Britain ‘destroying Asia’ as it is supposedly bringing progress. However, Anderson points out that Marx has used this poem in his various other works, but rather in the context of the ‘dehumanizing of the industrial worker’, where Marx is rather using Goethe’s poem to illustrate capitalism’s savagery. Anderson claims that this shows that Marx’s use of the stanza in his writings on India are not intended to represent his own views on India, but rather the British colonialist perspective. In fact, Marx and Engels celebrated resistance to ‘civilisation-mongers’––that is, European colonialists––with the same admiration they would have for the Paris Commune. Murzban Jal argues that ’to insert Marx . . . in the domain of Colonial Reason, and the denial that he was a humanist and an internationalist, is a very specific right-wing project that is shared by neo-conservatives’. Instead, in Crystal Bartolovich’s words, Marxism is ‘not only not dismissible as Eurocentric, but it is not even in any meaningful sense a “possession” of Europe.’

For many postcolonial theorists, Marxism is a product of the Enlightenment, which is seen as one of the crucial sources of racism and colonialism. However, as with the use of the word ‘Western’, this one-sided view of the Enlightenment is another example of the way in which postcolonial theorists do not sufficiently differentiate the subjects they are studying. For example, one only needs to point to leading Enlightenment philosopher Denis Diderot’s critique of racism and proto-imperialism in his work; particularly in ‘The Fall of Natural Man’, in which he powerfully describes the barbarism of European colonisers in Tahiti. ‘The Tahitian you want to seize like a wild animal is your brother. You are both children of nature; what right have you over him that he has not over you?’
Henderson criticises Marxists for ‘normalising’ a ‘Eurocentric’ theory of global economic development. But as Benita Parry points out, Marxism has undoubtedly been the theory of resistance to many anti-imperialist and anti-colonialist movements outside of ‘the West’. In her words, ‘a Marxist presence in the intellectual cultures of the colonized worlds was historically ubiquitous, having begun around the 1920s when Communist Parties were formed inter alia in India, China, Turkey, Thailand, Indonesia, and South Africa, as well as in Latin and Central America.’ The very issues central to postcolonial studies – imperialism, nationalism, racism, subalternity, and so on – have long been integral to the works of Marxists. With this in mind, it could be claimed that the rise of postcolonialism reflects a wider post-Cold War retreat from Marxist theory. With the fall of the Soviet Union, many proclaimed the failure of communism and the triumph of capitalism, and consequentially Marxism became unfashionable. By ignoring the ‘foundational role’ capitalism has played in history, postcolonialists have been able to ignore any idea that the discipline may have an intrinsic relationship with contemporary capitalism. To abandon Marxism for an alternative ‘postcolonial’ critique is to resign to the status quo; in the search for an ‘effective critique of the violence of the contemporary world order as well as of the ravages of the colonial past’, as Bartolovich argues, Marxism is best suited for the job.

Bourgeois Nationalism

Aijaz Ahmad argues that postcolonialism encourages nationalism within ‘non-western’ peoples as ‘prime locus of the struggle against (neo-)colonialism’, while simultaneously encouraging the same epistemologies as the colonisers they struggle against; retaining the power structure of the dominant bourgeoisie against the majority of workers. While nationalism may indeed be a form of resistance and struggle for emancipation against ‘western’ colonisers – what Castles calls ‘good nationalism’ – it provides little framework for the overall benefit of a nation’s population. Without class struggle, the same structures of exploitation and oppression remain. As José Carlos Mariátegui put it, ‘anti-imperialism, even if it could mobilize the nationalist bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie on the side of the worker and peasant masses . . . does not annul class antagonisms nor suppress different class interests.’ The postcolonial focus on ‘culture’ doesn’t differentiate between oppressed groups within those cultures, and can be used as an ideological cosh and a way of ensuring the domination of one group. Furthermore, encouragement of nationalism can contribute to the development of ‘hatred and contempt for members of other national group[s]’, as is easily observed across both ‘Western’ and ‘Eastern’ societies.

As Arif Dirlik claims, postcolonialism ‘points to nothing beyond itself; that is, meaningful change beyond the airing of past grievances and `voices of the weak’.’  Furthermore, Dirlik charges postcolonial studies with shifting the focus from ‘collective identities’ to ‘localised identity politics’ through its rejection of social and political subjectives, and thus contributing to ‘the erasure of revolutions, or at the least to their further discrediting’. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, although recognised as one of the leading scholars of postcolonialism, argues in A Critique of Postcolonial Reason that often, postcolonialism as a discipline ‘seems to be as much a strategy of differentiating oneself from the racial underclass as it is to speak in its name’. Postcolonialist scholars appear, according to Spivak, to either disregard the aspirations the oppressed minorities of decolonised nations, or simply assume their interests by lumping them together with those of the national bourgeoisie. Spivak further explains how ’the postcolonial informant . . . either undermine[s] the struggle by simulating an effect of a new third world, by piecing together great legitimizing narratives of cultural and ethnic specificity and continuity, and of national identity . . . or, and more recently, the more stellar level predicates upward class-mobility as resistance.’ Here, Spivak appears to be arguing that, as we have seen, postcolonial studies can reinforce oppression through promoting the primacy of culture and ethnicity, and rather than advocating resistance against the ruling class, the oppressed are encouraged to endeavor to join them. Again, postcolonialism becomes the mirror image of ‘western’ IR theory through its justification of local elites.

Understanding the ideas of dependency and world-systems theory helps us to understand the dilemma produced by the nationalism encouraged by postcolonialism in anti-imperialist struggle. Andre Gunder Frank, in his studies of Latin America, argued that ‘the national bourgeoisie …. and indeed the entire national metropolis and capitalist system on which it thrives, are necessarily so inextricably integrated into the imperialist system and the exploitative metropolic-periphery relationship it imposes on them that it cannot possibly escape from and can only extend and deepen the resulting underdevelopment.’ Nationalistic movements, along with the discrediting of class politics, maintain the capitalist system and bourgeoisie and cannot hope to liberate the masses of the people from colonial exploitation without the annihilation of the social, political and –especially– economic structures which maintain the dominance of imperialist powers.

As Lenin said, ’the economic quintessence of imperialism is monopoly capitalism’. To expand on this, Frank further explains how both ‘economic development and underdevelopment are the opposite faces of the same coin,’ in that ‘both are the necessary result and contemporary manifestation of internal contradictions in the world capitalist system … they are the product of a single, but dialectically contradictory, economic structure and process of capitalism. One cannot hope to resist imperialism without first defeating capitalism through class struggle. By dismissing class analysis and the relevance of economic analysis for colonialism and imperialism by labelling  them as ‘Western’, postcolonialists are simply giving way to further exploitation by normalising capitalist hegemony of the world system.

Racism and Divide and Rule

It is claimed by postcolonialists that Marxism is fundamentally racist in its supposed ‘civilising mission’ to ‘enlighten’ non-whites. Stephen Castles claims that Marxists view class struggle as being ‘more important’ than racial emancipation. But this isn’t the case. Rather, it is impossible to fully understand the origins of race and racism and thus racial emancipation without an analysis of class and capital. As Neville Alexander – a former South African revolutionary and prisoner with Nelson Mandela – claimed, the face of racism is intertwined with the development of capitalism. The idea of ‘superiority’ and ‘inferiority’ between races has its roots in slavery and colonialism from the 1600s. As capitalism began to take root in the nineteenth century, the growing need for exporting capital across the globe meant that so-called ‘biological’ determinism was used as justification for imperialism; as seen in the ‘scramble for Africa’, for example.

Although Castles plays down the economic basis for racism, he contradictorily proceeds to describe the important role of the capitalist class as the purveyor of racism. The capitalists exploit cheap migrant labour to maximise profits, which encourages racism amongst domestic workers who fear losing their jobs and livelihoods. This is ‘false consciousness’: workers identifying the enemy as amongst their fellow workers rather than in the ruling class who oppresses them. This method of displacing the enemy – or, divide and rule – has long been employed by colonisers and imperialists to neutralise class consciousness.

A good example of divide and rule tactics being employed to quell class unity can be seen in Ireland; a country which had suffered centuries of British colonialism. Despite deep-seated hostility between them, thousands of both Catholic and Protestant workers joined in unity in a general strike in 1907 and later in 1919 when 40,000 Belfast engineering workers went on strike. The ruling elite––the Unionists supporting British colonial rule––responded in 1920 by evicting 11,000 Catholic workers from their jobs ‘in what was the beginning of a calculated drive to subdue that section of society.’ Then, ‘at the same time and by the same forces of reaction, approximately 1,850 Protestant trade union activists were expelled from their workplaces in order to ensure that there would be no effective element within the workforce attempting to overcome sectarianism and unite Belfast’s working class’. Privileged status and concessions were granted to the Protestant population, giving the ruling Unionist Party who supported British rule ‘a comfortable majority that it would not have had if normal class politics had prevailed in the region’. As Tommy McKearney put it, the rulers saw it as ‘necessary and prudent to reinforce well-practiced tactics of discriminatory behaviour in order to retain the loyalty within the working-class and rural poor’.


By placing a blanket of criticism over all ‘western’ theory, postcolonialism faces the same issues as other postpositivist theories in that it leaves itself, inevitably, in an impartial position which thus, ironically, reinforces the dominance of ‘western’ capitalism and hegemony. Postcolonialism does not offer a coherent opposition, and is weakened by its ideological impartiality and its neglect of class and economic analysis. Most importantly, it is impossible to understand or hope to change international politics, including in those societies exploited by colonialism and imperialism, without the perspectives laid out by Marx. Far from being ‘eurocentric’, Marxist theory is internationalist.



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