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Book Review


Hobson, John M. The Eastern Origins of Western Civilisation (Cambridge University Press, 2004). 376 pp, $29.99.

In The Eastern Origins of Western Civilisation, John M. Hobson has written a provocative work in keeping with the irreverent tradition of his great-grandfather, the well-known British economist and journalist John A. Hobson (1858-1940). The elder Hobson, a highly controversial figure in his day whose work has gained much respect since his death, pioneered economic theories later developed by John Maynard Keynes. In addition, his 1902 study Imperialism, where he traced the origins of imperialism to capitalism, anticipated ideas typically identified with the Russian revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin. In The Eastern Origins of Western Civilisation John M. Hobson builds on the by-now plentiful work by scholars who have studied the contributions of non-Western societies to the making of the modern world. He presents a polemical historical narrative that turns conventional thinking on its head by making the following argument: the rise of the West to global dominance in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is best understood as an instance of late development, dependent on extensive borrowing from the non-Western world, rather than as an instance of autonomous, internally-generated transformation. 1
     There is hardly any original research presented in The Eastern Origins of Western Civilisation. Instead, Hobson, who is Reader in Politics and International Relations at the University of Sheffield, makes his case by piecing together scholarly findings from a wide range of historical sub-fields. Anyone seeking titles related to the theme of world history would be well advised to consult Hobson's footnotes (unfortunately, the book does not contain a bibliography). Hobson's contribution therefore does not lay in the presentation of new knowledge but instead in the offering of a compelling, synthetic historiographical essay that challenges readers to rethink historical ideas that have achieved virtual orthodox standing among scholars and lay people alike. 2
     Although his book is in places dense (and repetitive), Hobson's argument is straightforward and simple to grasp. He contends that Western Europeans did not invent the modern capitalist world wholesale beginning with the Renaissance, and that globalization did not begin in 1500. Indeed, Hobson argues that such ideas are simply powerful "myths" that have been perpetuated by Eurocentric thinkers. By contrast, he argues that well before 1500 other societies—primarily Chinese and Middle Eastern, and to a lesser extent African—pioneered virtually all of the major innovations that, combined, make up the foundations of the modern world order usually credited to the West. These innovations range from technological inventions to political and economic ones, and the main line of Hobson's argument is that absent the diffusion of non-Western ideas and practices into Europe the Western part of that "continent" would not have been positioned to take off in the early modern and modern periods. 3
     Hobson first discusses what he terms "oriental globalisation," a dramatic, transformative process that began with the advent of Islam in the seventh century and eventually linked a series of great empires (the Tang, Ummayad/Abbasid, and Fatimid) into the largest and most culturally and economically interconnected network of advanced societies in world history to date. Key here is Hobson's argument that Islam, far from being a regressive religion that blocked the development of capitalist institutions, in fact promoted such development owing to the Koran's emphasis on the importance of investment as well as to Muslim society's general acceptance of the important social and economic role played by merchants. These characteristics prompted Muslims to spread outward in all directions in pursuit of trade, thereby making the Middle East the most advanced and cosmopolitan region of the globe and what Hobson calls the "Bridge of the World." 4
     According to Hobson, China dominated the next phase of globalization. He asserts that Song China witnessed the "first great industrial miracle," which he calls the "single most important event in the history of global intensive power between 1100 and 1800." (p. 51) The transformation of Chinese society took place in many fields and included innovations in the iron and steel industry, the invention of paper money and the printing press, new agricultural methods, important leaps forward in navigational technologies, and a wide variety of military advances. Furthermore, Hobson argues that Chinese commerce was highly developed and that China did not withdraw from the global economy in the fifteenth century, as is often claimed, but in fact maintained its position as the most advanced society in the world into the nineteenth century. Hobson also argues that Japan and India played critically important and dynamic roles in the pre-nineteenth century world economy, and that none of the major players in the world economy before 1800 was European. 5
      Given all this, Hobson recognizes that he must account for the West's rise to a position of global dominance beginning in the nineteenth century. While arguing that Western Europe could never have moved ahead had it not had the advantage of being a late developer that could integrate technologies developed elsewhere, Hobson points out that the West did display agency that played a critical role in its rise to power. However, the agency that the West displayed was mostly of a negative type, according to Hobson, who also stresses that the very idea of Europe itself only came into being within a global context in the middle ages owing to the challenge posed by Muslims, who forced Europeans to define themselves in contradistinction to the Islamic Middle East. Hobson expands on this idea of European self-understanding in chapters on the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Here he posits that Europe's most important invention was in the realm of ideas, and consisted of racist thinking, a form of thought that divided the world's peoples and civilizations into hierarchies of development and relative value. Those peoples not deemed to be civilized were in need of Europe's civilizing help, which of course took the form of imperialism and colonialism in many parts of the world. 6
      For Hobson imperialism was not only a morally repugnant "moral vocation," it also helped account for the rise of the West by providing European powers—especially the British—with raw materials and markets for their goods. Hobson makes this point in the context of a broader discussion in which he sets out to demolish "the myth" of laissez-faire as the key to Great Britain's industrial revolution and economic take off. Once more inverting the standard line or argument, he refers to Great Britain as a despotic, interventionist state, and argues that the economic advantage over the rest of the world it achieved in the nineteenth century resulted from massive state spending, extensive state regulation of the economy, regressive taxation, and trade protectionism. More generally, Hobson contends that "without the plundering and exploitation of Eastern [and other] resources—land, labour, and markets—Europe would have failed to break through into industrial modernity." (p. 312) 7
      In conclusion, Hobson calls for an account of historical global development that is temporally relativist and that does not ascribe as permanent characteristics to Europe features that only came into being in the late modern and modern periods. Rather than viewing Europe's rise in the modern era as inevitable or wholly based on European developments, Hobson points out that "the East enjoyed the lead in both global intensive and extensive power between 500 and 1800 before the pendulum finally swung to the West in the nineteenth century." (p. 299) Only by abandoning a Eurocentric perspective, and by comprehending the many phases of the global economy and world system prior to the rise of modern Europe, as well as Europe's indebtedness to those earlier phases, does it become possible to recognize that the modern world is the product not merely of European advances, but of complex interactions across global regions and across time. For Hobson, modern Europe only makes sense and can only be understood in the context of a temporally broad, global history. 8
      In the main, Hobson presents a coherent and challenging historical narrative that will force scholars interested in these questions to think in novel ways and to search in new places, and I am largely sympathetic to his project. Hobson is certainly not the first to point out that globalization is neither an exclusively modern nor a primarily Western-driven phenomenon, but he has combined that observation with an emphasis on the diffusion to Europe of non-Western technologies and attention to the role of racist thinking and imperialism in the making of the modern West that serves to place the most recent wave of globalization in a new light. 9
      At the same time, I found Hobson's treatment of Europe to be highly selective. While he attributes agency to the West, the only agency he affords it is, as already stated, a negative kind, as though the rise of the modern West in relation to other societies can be explained by racism and imperialism alone. Perhaps Hobson believes that others have written enough about the positive reasons for the rise of the West in the modern era to feel that all that is left to him is to point out some of the problems with their accounts? In any case, his book would likely find a wider audience were he to devote at least as much time and energy to explaining the wide range of values and intellectual forces that combined to create the modern West as he does to the subjects of racism and imperialism. Hobson is not wrong to emphasize those subjects; however, in reading him I felt that his desire to rebut Eurocentric scholarship (and scholars) perhaps overwhelmed his ability to write a fully balanced account. 10
Timothy Weston
University of Colorado, Boulder

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