Response to Sanderson's Review

21 Feb 97 23:41:16 EST
James M. Blaut (70671.2032@CompuServe.COM)

From: Jim Blaut,
Date: February 20, 1997
Subject: Response to Steve Sanderson

There are 1,001 Eurocentric explanations for the rise
of Europe. Steve Sanderson, in his review of my book
_The Colonizer's Model of the World: Geographical
Diffusionism and Eurocentric History_, which appeared
in the special world-systems issue of _Sociological
Inquiry_ edited by Tom Hall (66,4:1996), agrees with me
that most of these explanations are wrong. But not all
of them.

"Charges of Eurocentrism of much modern Western
social science have become very popular these
days, and these charges are often justified. But
they often go too far. Europe did have
developmental advantages over most of the world,
and there is no need to be shy or apologetic about
pointing these out." (p.513)

We critics of Eurocentric history "go too far." We
should accept the fact of the European miracle, the
uniqueness-of-Europe doctrine, the idea that Europe had
certain "developmental advantages" before 1492 --
before the beginnings of colonialism; before a Europe-
centered world system began to take shape -- but we
should of course explain the miracle in the right way,
Sanderson's way, and we should not be apologetic about

I have not read Steve Sanderson's other writings on
this subject, but his basic argument is summed up in
the review of my book. Of the 1,001 explanations for
the European miracle, Steve favors four rather
traditional arguments (numbers 84, 212, 403, and 593 --
he doesn't even go with the higher numbers, the more
recent innovative explanations, such as #822, the
Uniqueness of the European Family Theory, and #997, the
Palestinian Origin of Cognitively Modern Humans Theory,
the latter a new archaeological substitute for number
#1, the Garden of Eden Theory.)

European countries were small. "Large states are costly
to maintain and drain away resources that can be used
directly for economic development." This is a familiar
argument (it was made for instance by E.L. Jones,
Michael Mann, and for that matter by Max Weber) but it
is an empty one. Just why would large states have been
at a disadvantage in the 15th century? Was China not
developed? Were the fragmentary feudal-remnant states
of Europe so marvelously progressive? As I argue in my
book, this view is an heir to the late, unlamented
"Oriental despotism" doctrine. It has no empirical

"In addition, Japan and the leading countries of
capitalist Europe were located on large bodies of water
that allowed them to give predominance to maritime
trade." Capitalist countries in the 15th century?
Maritime trade? European mercantile-maritime centers
were inferior to such centers around all the coasts of
the Indian Ocean and into the China Seas, in terms of
radial travel distances and scale of trade. Japanese
centers were (I think) much smaller than Chinese and
Southeast Asian centers, and Japanese were not
prominent among traders in Southeast Asia in c.1500. (I
deal with the myth of Chinese withdrawal from maritime
trade in my book.) Europeans became preeminent maritime
traders after they discovered the profitability of
colonialism in the Americas.

"[The] fact that Europe and Japan both had temperate
climates helped them to escape colonialism, inasmuch as
colonial ventures were concentrated in tropical and
subtropical regions." When? In the period 1492-1650
colonial ventures went where there was gold, silver,
and valuable trade goods. After c.1650, colonial
ventures went also to Western Hemisphere sugar lands
and to midlatitude targets in both Americas. Here I
sense a telescoping of history: confusion with 19th-
century settler colonialism in North America,
Argentina, Australia, etc.

"Finally, Europe and Japan had strikingly similar
feudal sociopolitical structures that contrasted
markedly with the centralized states of much of the
rest of the world. Feudalism...gave the merchant
classes of both civilizations more freedom of economic
maneuver than they had throughout the rest of the
world." Notice first that "feudalism" here refers to
"sociopolitical structure": Steve is not advancing a
Marxist argument about classes or a Weberian argument
about seigneurial property. Apparently he is referring
to the fragmented-polities argument (see above) or to
chivalry etc. This, again, is a traditional Eurocentric
thesis and it is romantic nonsense. Nor were merchants
more comfortable in complex feudal landscapes, with
their myriad tolls and risks, than in large unitary
polities. But, this aside, feudal sociopolitical
structures were widespread in all continents of the
Eastern Hemisphere and here and there in the Americas.
Why, then, did European feudalism make a difference?
And why didn't Japan conquer the world?

Steve refers in passing to my "absurd" argument (p.
512) that Africa could have done what Europe did had it
not been for Europe's locational advantage. He
correctly summarizes my argument about accessibility:
there were no major mercantile-maritime centers in West
Africa because the great civilizations were inland and
traded overland to the east, south, and north, so
European mercantile-maritime centers were far more
accessible to America than were any competitors in
Africa or Asia. This argument "rings hollow" in Steve's
ears but he does not tell us why. And my claim "that
Africa was on a par with Europe is not only wrong; it
is absurd." I am tempted (but will resist the
temptation) to burden him (and you) with a long
statement in support of this claim which I posted on
the African history list (H-Africa) last December, a
statement which fomented some 40 comments, not all of
them in disagreement.

What troubles me most about this review is the fact
that it employs a world-systems perspective yet it
denies the importance of colonialism in the origin and
development of the modern world-system. Isn't that a
bit strange?

Jim Blaut