In his critique of Eurocentrism, Immanuel Wallerstein has provided a useful discussion of a major issue for contemporary left politics and critical social science.footnote1 By contrast with the higher-profile subject of ‘multi-culturalism’, to which it is of course related, the Eurocentrism question has received less considered debate. Wallerstein’s contribution is therefore very welcome, providing a proper delineation of the problem and some firm steering away from false solutions towards a better approach. In this brief analysis, I want to draw attention to an important line of argument that would see Wallerstein’s own position, in spite of its crusading tone, as one which has insufficiently broken with Eurocentric thought patterns. However, I also want to suggest that such a critical line tends to promote an excessively moralistic climate of political debate, and also fails itself to escape the Eurocentric dilemma. In that context, it may be appropriate for social theorists of Wallerstein’s sort to step forward more boldly in acknowledgement, and perhaps even in defence, of those ‘universalist’ aspects of ‘Eurocentrism’ that are unavoidably part of their explanatory and political projects.

Wallerstein’s article contains two slightly different characterizations of Eurocentrism. One of these presents Eurocentrism as an allembracing epochal Weltanschauung, leaving it well-nigh impossible for social scientists or anyone else to escape its contamination, whilst the other framing of Eurocentrism portrays it more narrowly as a—dominant but optional—Western ideology. In the first vein, Wallerstein describes Eurocentrism as the ‘constitutive geoculture’ of the modern world, a culture whose values—humanism, secularism, modernism and so forth—altogether ‘permeate social science’.footnote2 This way of identifying Eurocentrism is to be found in many current texts of ‘post-colonial’ critical theory, challenging to the core the major assumptions and pretences of Anglo-American social thought—including radical currents like Marxism or feminism. The argument is that whilst there are certainly a number of important sub-traditions which are aware of the ‘downside’ of European modernity, these strands nevertheless remain part of The Tradition insofar as they merely offer variations on the definitive modernist themes of universal progress and scientific knowledge. Apparently radical, these sub-traditions nevertheless share in the cultural specificity, and thus the cultural imperialism, of their Eurocentric mainstream.

Wallerstein’s endorsement of the ‘gestalt’ approach to Eurocentrism is further evident in his notable emphasis on the need to avoid ostensibly anti-Eurocentric positions which in fact turn out to be nothing of the kind. For example, there are scenarios whereby Europe’s being first past the post of capitalist modernity is seen as a contingent and inglorious achievement, rather than a necessary and glorious one, because nonWestern civilizations either already contained significant modem/capitalist elements, or would have substantially developed them were it not for Europe’s ruthless cashing in on its accidental historical windfall. But such scenarios are still Eurocentric, Wallerstein accuses, and they are deviously so, because they continue to privilege modernist and capitalist mores, either as the historical end-point for all cultures, or as eternally present components of them.

Ironically, though, the ‘gestalt’ position can be turned against Wallerstein himself. Wallerstein’s intellectual goal, after all, is to offer a ‘true’ reading of the problem, and thus ‘correct’ and ‘further’ social science by overcoming the ‘distorting’ influence of the Eurocentric heritage.footnote3 But it is precisely this aspiration to attain a more objective and undistorted picture of reality that is identified by recent post-colonial theorists as central to Western scientific rationalism’s claim to cultural/cognitive superiority over other ways of knowing. They say—and in places Wallerstein seems to agree—that it is the motif of rational progress, and the obsession with it, rather than any particular content it is given, that defines the Western imaginary. Not only that: Wallerstein’s political goal, to which his intellectual argument is directed, is to produce a better (radical) form of secular humanism. Rather than completely reject the notion of human progress, ultimately what he wants to say is that capitalist modernity does not yield, on balance, decisive evidence of such progress.footnote4 Interestingly, in pursuing this latter point, Wallerstein resorts to the familiar ‘classical’ sociological image of society as an organic totality, envisioning Eurocentrism as a deadly ‘toxin’ which has managed to break through society’s protective layer, and which must be purged if the health of the global polity is to be sustained.footnote5

Whilst Wallerstein does not directly confront the problem I am raising here, he offers two further arguments which help address it. Firstly, he suggests that science—and therefore, presumably, the search for objectivity—is not, despite appearances to the contrary, a specifically Western achievement. Rather, science is a genuinely universal cultural form, evident to some degree in all manner of other cultures.footnote6 However, given the pivotal place that attacks upon scientism and its social consequences occupy in contemporary post-colonial critique, this point is made in cursory and dogmatic terms, signalling a surprising lack of reflexivity in the article. Moreover, since Wallerstein had previously disqualified the not-really-anti-Eurocentric argument that since capitalism existed in several forms and in varying degrees in non-Western cultures, capitalism is a universal rather than specifically Eurocentric phenomenon, he can hardly employ the very same logic in his salvaging of science, which prima facie suits exactly that type of argument.

Wallerstein develops the additional reflection that it is not so much science as such that characterizes Eurocentrism, as the debilitating ‘two cultures’ split in Western modernity between science, on the one hand, and the humanities, on the other; between ‘disinterested’ objectivity and human values. Against this, he proposes that we strive to achieve a ‘re-united. . .structure of knowledge’ by treating the issues of ‘the true and the good’ as simultaneous and inextricable.footnote7 Yet even this eloquent formulation needs further probing: is Wallerstein really saying that the true and the good can be fused in the way that—according to some—characterizes past and present non-Westernized cultures? One would imagine a historian of Wallerstein’s calibre finding that kind of expectation somewhat superficial. But even posed as a utopian hope, is it really desirable to deny any categorial distinction between what is the case and what is good, between the general state of things and how things appear from our current social values and priorities? This seems highly unlikely—it would be hard, for example, to take seriously Wallerstein’s own seminal work on the structure and history of the modern world system unless we accepted that, politically inspired though it may be, its (theoretical and empirical) validity requires to be addressed as a rather different matter. The real task, then, appears not to be to completely scrap all forms of the true/good demarcation, but to avoid and criticize assertions of the total separateness of its elements.footnote8 But that, let’s face it, is a less dramatic proposition, and one that has found many expressions within the intellectual culture of modernity, even if the dominance of the ‘separatist’ view can be established (‘factually’, as it were. . .).

What I am arguing is that instead of representing an outright solution to the dilemmas of critical social science featured in Wallerstein’s subtitle, his essay exemplifies them, for it is demonstrably unable to shake off certain supposedly Western forms of thought in even posing what the ‘Eurocentrism’ problem involves. Certainly, having endorsed the ‘holistic’ model of cultural pervasiveness and contamination, it proves to be quite hard for Wallerstein consistently to develop his more specific analysis of the five dimensions or aspects of Eurocentrism.footnote9 Couched in the vein of ‘ideology critique’, it is the more noticeably ‘apologetic’ versions of Eurocentrism which are targeted there, rather than everything and anything which falls under the wider cultural umbrella. Thus, in the dimension of ‘historiography’, Wallerstein focuses chiefly on the Eurocentric assumption that whatever triggered the Western lead into industrialism can be retrospectively seen as a ‘good thing’, because capitalist modernity is definitively a good thing. Under the aspect of ‘civilization’, the benchmark ideology is that which presents and defends European culture as uniquely civilized. In terms of ‘universalism’, as noted before, ‘science’ is partially exempted from condemnation as being Eurocentric, and the paradigmatic villain of the piece is the claim or assumption that the emergence of European-type society was not only a good thing, but also inevitable, irreversible and applicable, in principle, everywhere. When it comes to Orientalism, we seem to be in the presence of remnants and hangovers rather than the real thing, and finally, under the heading of ‘progress’, it is accepted that, once its identification with the West is broken, progress is capable of being resuscitated for post-colonial politics.