Book review: “The Eastern Origins of Western Civilisation” by John M. Hobson


The Eastern Origins of Western Civilisation, by John M. Hobson. Cambridge University Press, 2004. R$ 71.25 (ebook,


If as a philosopher one wishes to instruct oneself about what has taken place on the globe, one must first of all turn one’s eyes towards the East, the cradle of all arts, to which the West owes everything. (Voltaire)

John M. Hobson, a professor of international politics at the University of Sheffield and grandson of the noted liberal anti-imperialist John Hobson, challenges what he calls the ethnocentric bias of mainstream accounts of the rise of the West, which assumes that since Ancient Greek times Europeans have pioneered their own development, and that the East has been a passive bystander in the story of progressive world history. According to the author, major developmental steps in the West could not have occurred without the East: Not only did Europe appropriate Eastern ideas, technologies and institutions between 500 and 1800, it also, starting in 1453, usurped Eastern resources (land, labor and markets) through imperialism.

Still, our understanding of history is dominated by what Hobson calls "the myth of the pristine West":

That the Europeans had, through their own superior ingenuity, rationality and social-democratic properties, pioneered their own development in the complete absence of Eastern help, so that their triumphant breakthrough to modern capitalism was inevitable. 

Thus, according to the Western world view, since specific European characteristics (such as empowering Protestantism, separation of political and religious power, etc.) were absent elsewhere, the rest of the world was destined to remain stagnant. Eurocentrism thus ended up by imputing to the East a permanent ‘iron law of non-development’. Hobson shows how ideas by many key European thinkers, such as Karl Marx and Max Weber, followed this Western-centric logic.

The author argues the opposite: There was nothing inevitable about the West’s rise, and for a long time, it was the East that dominated the global economy. He shows that China was still the world's largest economy by 1840. In fact, historical data shows that China held the position of the world's leading economy as late as 1870. The East was crucial in helping the West advance: Hobson argues that "oriental globalization", i.e., globalization led by non-European powers, "was the midwife, if not the mother, of the medieval and modern West." Hobson's brisk summary of non-Western global history largely relies on secondary sources, and thus does not reveal anything new to those who have studied the topic before. Still, it is well-written and helps strengthen his overall argument.

Learning about the sophistication of the Chinese economy around 1400, the reader will inevitably wonder why China failed to maintain its position as the world's leading power. In response, Hobson argues that China chose not to pursue imperialism, citing Fernández-Armesto: 

China’s ‘manifest destiny’ never happened and the world predominance, which, for a time, seemed hers for the taking, was abandoned . . . [China’s] forbearance remains one of the most remarkable instances of collective reticence in [world] history.

Around the same time, Europe began to enjoy the ‘advantages of economic backwardness’, as it could assimilate or emulate the superior resource portfolios pioneered by the early Eastern developers, all of which had diffused across through oriental globalization. In addition, Europe’s appropriation of American and African resources also helped it to catch up, also allowing it to reduce Europe’s perennial trade deficit with Asia. Hobson suggests that the European plunder of America's resources may have been the key to Western development. Between 1500 and 1800, 85% of the world’s silver production and 70% of the world’s gold output came from the Americas. Finally, Europe's benefits of the global slave trade contributed, according to the author, to the industrial revolution in Great Britain. In that sense, contingency - i.e., the luck of stumbling upon the Americas - was a decisive factor. While material strength was a requisite for imperialism, it only took place because Europeans believed, contrary to the Chinese, in a ‘civilizing mission’ - turning the colonial exploitation into a moral duty.

Hobson's approach is refreshing, for example when pointing out that many Enlightenment thinkers positively associated with China and its ideas, including Montaigne, Malebranche, Leibniz, Voltaire, Quesnay, Wolff, Hume and Adam Smith. Yet some of his claims seem somewhat exaggerated (for example on China's supposed origins of Great Britain's agricultural and industrial revolution), and often his description of how virtually everything new in Europe came from somewhere else is unconvincing. Some readers will accuse him of providing examples selectively to strengthen his claim. In Hobson's defense, we must recognize that providing more complete history would be almost impossible, considering that Hobson essentially attempts to provide a revisionist global history of the last millennium and a half.

Western appropriations of Eastern concepts seem somewhat less notable if we consider that the East, of course, appropriated many ideas, technologies and institutions from the West as well-- yet Hobson fails to mention them. This slight bias will lead some readers to accuse Hobson's book as yet another Sino-triumphalist (or "Occidentalist") work by a western writer. That may not be entirely justified, but it is true that the book sounds at times overly harsh on the West and glorifies the rest, somewhat similar to David Levering Lewis' book on Islam and the making of Europe (reviewed here). In addition, Hobson's rather provocative style may put off some readers. For example, in the preface, the author writes that in his book, "Da Vinci, Ficino and Copernicus kneel before the likes of al-Shatir, al-Khwarizmi and al-Tusi."

Still, despite these flaws, the book's major argument that very few ideas and technologies are entirely Western is important and necessary to gain a more balanced perspective on global history, and a useful counterbalance to books such as Ian Morris' Why the West Rules and Charles Kupchan's No one's World (reviewed here), which adopt a purely Western-centric perspective and assume cultural and geographical determinism. Indeed, even well-read Western historians are unlikely to have ever heard of some of the thinkers and rulers Hobson writes about.

Hobson's book raises important questions as we seek to interpret the shift of power away from the West and towards Asia. He cites William H. McNeill, who argues that those who study global history after the year 1000 fail to recognize that the rise of Medieval European civilization coincided with an eastward shift of the world system’s productive center from the Middle East to China. His alert to historians of that period that "it requires a real leap of imagination to recognize China’s primacy" seems very much applicable today, considering that China just overtook the United States as the world's largest economy (in purchasing-power-parity terms).

And indeed, most analysts' views of the future of global order are likely to be biased by a Western-centric world view. As The Economist predicted, "unfortunately, pax Americana is giving way to a balance of power that is seething with rivalry and insecurity." The newspaper regarded the claim to be so natural that it saw no need to explain it any further, merely reporting that recently "a Chinese fighter-jet and an American surveillance plane passed within 20 feet, just avoiding a mid-air collision." That is hardly a convincing example of post-American chaos. Hobson's argument about our Western-centric view of world history is thus useful as we seek to understand current international political dynamics.

Read also:

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Book review: “No one’s world: the West, the rising rest and the coming global turn.” By Charles A. Kupchan

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