Beyond Eurocentrism: A New View of Modern World History
Readers are more likely to value Beyond Eurocentrism for its details than for its revisionist interpretation of the last 125 years. Armed with impressively broad, but often uneven, knowledge about the nine disparate countries that underpin his comparative analysis, Peter Gran challenges the world histories of William McNeill, Immanuel Wallerstein, Eric Wolfe [sic], Erik [sic] Hobsbawm, and others as too focused on “Western countries, their elites, and high cultures” (p. 4). Instead, [End Page 447] Gran proposes that the development of modern nation-states can be understood in terms of “four different hegemonic logics,” based on whether rulers disguised class conflict with an ideology based on caste (the “Russian road,” also followed by Iraq), regionalism (the “Italian road,” also taken by India and Mexico), gender (the “tribal-ethnic” road, exemplified by Albania and the Congo), or race (the “bourgeois-democratic” road, exemplified by Great Britain and the United States). Gran, who teaches world history and Islamic history at Temple University, not only traces the political economies of these nine countries, but also includes fascinating thumbnail sketches of their cultural histories and of their domestic historiographies. Along the way, he offers some stimulating comparative essays on caste and gender.
Gran’s thesis is not likely to satisfy most historians seeking a non-Eurocentric “new view of modern world history.” In the first place, the perspective offered is not particularly new, owing quite a lot, as the author frequently acknowledges, to the less dogmatic vision of Communism in Antonio Gramsci’s prison diaries of 1926–37, as well as to the writings of Karl Marx and Michel Foucault. In the second place, the analysis is not entirely free of Eurocentrism. Although Gran demonstrates that “Europe” is not one place but many, he introduces each of his “roads” to modernization with a European example. Working from Europe outward might be defensible if the book were arguing that the European states built “roads” that were imitated elsewhere, but—except implicitly in the case of the United States imitating Britain’s bourgeois-democratic road—this is not his thesis. Gran’s “roads” are sociological models down which states proceeded in parallel, not historical patterns forged by one state and consciously followed by others. Perhaps it is only the author’s reverence for Gramsci that keeps him from naming his second model after India, whose start down the road he dates nine years earlier than Italy’s.
Far more formidable than these superficial issues of novelty and Eurocentric approach are the problems at the heart of the book’s argument. One problem is that the categories of Gran’s analysis, though intriguing, do not seem convincing. The distinctions among different roads seem to consist in equal parts of telling differences and superficial coincidences. The “Italian road,” for example, is partly characterized by a cultural north-south split, which the author also finds in India and Mexico. Yet would it not be just as easy to find such a split at the heart of the modern histories of Britain and the United States? Can one really draw a clear line between hegemonies based on “gender” (a concept Gran stretches wildly to include biological kinship) and those that are not? Can one seriously characterize the development [End Page 448] of British democracy as “a hegemony based on rule by race” (p. 13)? While Gran insists that the four roads he identifies are the “only four stable forms of hegemony” (p. 337), even he finds it difficult to fit other major countries into them, suggesting that “Japan—and possibly China—probably warrant a characterization as a mixed road” —as, possibly, do Nigeria and Indonesia (pp. 338–39). Thus his analytical categories seem muddled.
A second fundamental problem is with the factual accuracy of the analysis. Others have found serious flaws in Gran’s treatment of their specialties (see, for example, the review by W. Warren Wagar in American Historical Review 102 : 784–86, on Russia). This reviewer also found much doubtful material in his own familiar region. The analysis of the Congo was superficial and dependent on the work of those inside the author’s ideological circles. Even before his overthrow, could Mobutu possibly be characterized as creating “a neo-liberal phase (1971–90)” (p. 225) of the country’s history, even if Gran uses “liberal” in a snide Marxist sense? In a brief exploration of Nigeria’s credentials for the Italian road, the author very oddly suggests that that state’s twentieth-century history might be structured around an analysis of the exploitation of the northern Hausa people by southern Nigerians, even though northern elites have mostly out-maneuvered southern ones both during colonial rule and since independence. Here, as elsewhere, Gran seems to have gotten into waters above his head.
Nevertheless, most readers will come away from this book with some useful new facts and ideas. However quirky and eccentric his thesis may be, Gran’s efforts to rethink the dynamics of this period provide much food for thought. For every mistaken assertion, there are a dozen unfamiliar facts that are most welcome.