- The Uniqueness of Western Civilization by Ricardo Duchesne
Historians trained in the languages and history of Asia, Africa, or Latin America have greatly advanced our understanding in recent years not only of their particular regions but also, by comparisons with Western history, of the larger scope of world history. These area-studies specialists challenged prevailing Eurocentric readings of history that either ignored the rest of the world or, in the case of those who sought to write more globally (such as Fernand Braudel), were dependent on sources in Western languages. The exploration of comparative world history is far from over. Two new books extend the horizons of the debates in different directions. Prasannan Parathasarathi’s Why Europe Grew Rich and Asia Did Not: Global Economic Divergence, 1600–1850 (2011) offers South Asian perspectives that break new ground in explaining when and why Asians lost their lead. In Civilization: The West and the Rest (2011) British historian Niall Ferguson tries his hand at contextualizing the West in world history, arguing that the unexpected ascendency of Western Europe from the 1500s may now be being eclipsed by an Asian resurgence. Rather different in intent is the volume by Ricardo Duchesne here under review, which seeks to refute the arguments by world historians and reestablish a rather traditional reading of Western Civilization.
Although The Uniqueness of Western Civilization may well upset or infuriate world historians, they have much to gain from reading it, since it presents summaries and critiques of a great many works in [End Page 950] comparative world, European, and Asian history. In all he cites nearly nine hundred works on subjects ranging across the full chronological spectrum of history and including major works in sociology, archaeology, philosophy, and history. Following Duchesne’s example, serious historians cannot afford to read only authors belonging to their own favored school.
The author, an associate professor of sociology at the University of New Brunswick, earned an interdisciplinary doctorate in 1994 from York University with fields in modern European history, political economy, and Hegel. His wide-ranging interests and knowledge of many fields make him difficult to pigeonhole. As an undergraduate, he says (p. 269n), he was a New Left Marxist, but his present views are more conservative. In recent essays he has complained about the dominance of leftists and political correctness in academe. Although he proudly counts himself among the Eurocentrists, Duchesne has also contributed articles to World History Connected.
This book presents the most wide-ranging critique of the field of world history that has yet appeared. It discusses a long list of authors, including many World History Association Book Prize winners. Duchesne begins by tracing the rise of world history in the twentieth century, generally praising the progressive approach of Marshall Hodgson, William McNeill, Leften Stavrianos, and others, while conceding the downfall of the Western civilization survey was sped by the bias against non-Western cultures that permeated many traditional texts. Where world history went wrong in the late 1960s and early 1970s was in coming under the influence of leftist writers like Samir Amin, Andre Gunder Frank, and Walter Rodney, who argued that the West was not a force for progress but one that fostered inequality and dependence. In Duchesne’s view, this has led to world history being part of a “multicultural effort to ‘provincialize’ the history of Western Civilization” (p. ix).
After taking issue with works by Immanuel Wallerstein, Jerry Bentley, Patrick Manning, and Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, Duchesne directs his most sustained attacks at recent works by Frank, Bin Wong, and Kenneth Pomeranz, who have presented evidence supporting the economic and intellectual dominance of the East, notably China, before about 1800. Duchesne challenges this revisionist world history on factual grounds. For example, he challenges Pomeranz’s comparisons of the Yangtze valley and Britain by citing recent studies of other parts of Europe showing rising agricultural efficiency. It seems reasonable to broaden and deepen the debate, even if one must leave sorting things out to the experts.
In the second half of the book Duchesne switches from a critique [End Page...