Peter Gran, Beyond Eurocentrism: A New View of Modern World History (Syracuse University Press, 1996).

Horrifying events in the former Yugoslavia, Africa and elsewhere have proved that history did not end with the Cold War’s demise. Since the early 1990s, observers from left, right and center have wondered what, if anything, has ended and what is beginning. Scholars from a variety of disciplines have questioned whether the modes of historical explanation prevalent during the Cold War were themselves historical artifacts — products of a need to render contemporary conditions palatable, rather than reliable guides to the past. A key attempt to resolve this impasse, preached by the academic right, personified in Bill Clinton, and not so tacitly supported by the work of post-and neo-Marxists like Frederic Jameson, holds that the world has entered a new era. Diverse human societies are simultaneously fragmenting into amalgamations of autonomous individuals and coalescing into one “free” market, ruled by the impartial hand of capital. One’s politics are now defined by whether one celebrates or mourns this new and ineluctable reality. The advent of a resilient paradigm capable of confronting this gray orthodoxy is the most important achievement of a new book by the maverick historian Peter Gran.

Beyond Eurocentrism offers a manifesto for social historians and other scholars committed to the centrality of political economy in accounting for cultural differences. His work has potentially limitless implications for specialists in the Middle East and the formerly colonized world, and is no less important for scholars of Europe and the United States. It provides a tantalizing alternative to the compartmentalization of the humanities and social sciences into area studies, thus offering a way of transcending the Orientalist, Eurocentrist and American triumphalist ideologies so prevalent in academe.

Gran begins with the commonplace observation that all previous historical master narratives, whether nineteenth-century positivist, twentieth-century liberal or Marxist, have privileged the historical experience of Europe, particularly that of England and France. The level of civilization, democracy or class conflict in non-European histories is measured by a Eurocentric yardstick. Quite apart from issues of political correctness and ideology, Gran shows that Eurocentrism is ahistorical in two crucial respects: First, it insists on Europe’s primacy as a unit of analysis. Hence, divergent political economies, such as Italy’s and England’s, are presented as essentially similar. Second, Eurocentrism is presentist: It depicts the past as precursor to Anglo-American liberal democracy and capitalism (p. 3).

As an alternative to Eurocentrism, Gran presents a schema he describes as equal parts Gramsci, Foucault and his own views. He develops Gramsci’s idea of modern political and economic systems across cultures as hegemonies — divergent strategies for managing the essential contradictions of capitalism in any given culture. The ruling class in every society constantly seeks to hide or divert class conflict, the social force that threatens its wealth and power. Gran borrows Foucault’s critique of linear logic and his idea that power is diffused in society through a mixture of coercion and persuasion. Stable hegemonies, therefore, are manifestations of class collaboration, albeit between classes grossly unequal in power. Finally, drawing on his own expertise, Gran proposes that hegemonies are best understood in comparison to one another. A key component of his argument is that modern hegemonies coalesced during the years between 1870-1880, when capitalism became dominant in nearly every country. Different hegemonies follow different historical “roads,” which are not predetermined by the progress of humanistic ideas nor by the clash of capital and labor, but rather are a “series of lost opportunities for revolution,” a continuous challenge from the masses to the elite’s hegemony (p. 19).

Gran isolates four distinct historical roads which countries have taken since 1870, and, following his desire to circumvent Eurocentrism, adduces a European and a non-European example of each road. The Russian Road hegemonies (e.g., Russia, Iraq) obscure class conflict with rule by caste. They begin the modern period as peasant economies with small elites and weak civil societies. Italian Road countries (Italy, India, Mexico) are characterized by pervasive regional conflicts that pit one half of the working class against the other. It is not necessary that one section of the masses benefit from the oppression of the other, since the ruling class persuades the former that they are part of the oppressor culture, and, therefore, superior. Italian Road regimes alternate between liberal and corporatist strategies in dealing with the privileged masses. The tribal/ethnic hegemony (Albania, Belgium, Congo/Zaire) hides class conflict behind ethnicity. However, the root cause of the hegemony’s stability lies in its use of gender: “Even oppressed men have a stake in a system that accords them a higher public status than that accorded to women, whereas even oppressed women have a stake in a system that accords them a particular place and…a space ’to maneuver through male relatives’” (p. 194).

Lastly, Gran describes the bourgeois democratic form of hegemony (Great Britain, the US), in which the ruling class fragments or coopts its opposition through race. Although white workers (and a small number of non-white, middle-class people) are citizens with votes and legal rights, they are prevented from exercising class power through the encouragement of “chosen people ideology,” which may or may not have a religious element. “Institutional racism” or “internal colonialism” then results (p. 251).

These hegemonies and their relationship to capitalism constitute the first part of Gran’s paradigm. He emphasizes ruling classes’ coercion of class collaboration and their obstruction of counter-hegemonic movements. In the second part of each country study, he stresses the power of persuasion expressed in the organization of culture and particularly in that great cultural marker of modernity, “scientific” history writing. States encourage histories that celebrate hegemony, such as nationalist histories, and usually frown upon social history, which exposes structural contradictions within society. In democracies, where history writing is lavishly funded and highly developed, the state prefers historians who highlight consensus (Charles Beard or Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. in the US; Jonathan Clark in Great Britain). In all hegemonies, history, reified in textbooks and popular culture, metamorphoses into heritage, an “ultra-romantic” set of notions about past glories that minimizes conflict (p. 5). Eurocentrism is heritage, not history.

As a paradigm and a teaching tool, the historical road paradigm offers clear advantages. It renders tribal/ethnic societies, otherwise labeled “underdeveloped” and outside the master historical narrative, comprehensible through the same paradigm as “advanced” capitalist nation-states. Interpreting bourgeois democracy as a hegemony (instead of equating it with freedom) nips American exceptionalism and claims about the superiority of “Western civilization” in the bud. Still, several problems stand out in Gran’s analysis.

Specialists in the schools of history and political economy cited by Gran will find his interpretations revisionist. The chapters on Russia and the US will certainly excite controversy. It is unclear whether Gran considers the Russian Revolution a genuine popular revolution gone sour or a volatile strategy for managing the hegemony. He clearly does not consider 1917 to be the watershed year in Russian modernity. Is Gran’s model of race relations sufficiently complex? He avoids the question of class divisions within non-white racial groups, particularly those pertaining to Asian American-African American conflicts. The great virtue of Gran’s approach is to state plainly that the current liberal fixation on multiculturalism will never remedy institutional racism.

Although Gran states that all hegemonies use gender, he only discusses this in his chapters on tribal/ethnic states. For other hegemonies, he confines his gender analysis to modern state policing of prostitution, which he says undermines the economic autonomy of poor women in the guise of enforcing morality. Gran’s gender analyses demonstrate his tendency to make provocative assertions and move on, leaving the reader hungry for evidence.

Gran intends to provoke his audience to read more critically. He partially succeeds in his attempt to write from a social-historical perspective. He clearly states from the outset that hegemonies are strategies for destructuring and managing social conflict; their existence assumes counter-hegemonic discourse and action. Gran repeatedly describes, however, the concessions to counter-hegemonic movements, such as the end of Jim Crow or the US withdrawal from Vietnam, as elite strategies for maintaining power. A more orthodox leftist would view these events as examples of social justice won (not given) through organization and agitation. Movements that wrest concessions from elites clearly possess great power, a necessary historical condition for reform. Indeed, many of Gran’s short histories repeat the theme of elite manipulation of events. A charitable interpretation of this tilt would recognize the need for a wider empirical base for social historiography, particularly in non-European histories. There is still very little data from which to theorize.

These objections notwithstanding, the neatness of Gran’s paradigm should tempt readers of this magazine to apply it to histories of the Middle East. What could the historical road model tell us about Egypt, for instance? Despite Gran’s experience as a scholar of Egypt, [1] this country warrants only brief mentions in footnotes as an example of an Italian Road hegemony. It is clear why Gran chooses this classification. Since the reign of Muhammad ‘Ali, successive Egyptian regimes have developed the north at the expense of the south, which has served as a source of cheap labor. Projects such as the Aswan dam produced deleterious side effects, most notably the dislocation of the Nubian population south of Aswan. In the long liberal phase that introduced capitalism to Egypt, the khedives, the British and liberal nationalists formed alliances with southern landlords to extract wealth for state-led or private development of the north.

Nasserism seems to interrupt this narrative. Was Nasserism not a change in hegemony to the Russian Road model, with a “new class” (the middle class and bureaucracy of the provinces) seizing power from traditional elites, disguising class conflict with caste and coopting the working class through recourse to regional great-powerism? Gran anticipates these observations with the “state socialism” variant of the Italian Road, the strategy adopted by the ruling classes of India and Mexico in response to the popular struggles generated by liberalism. The notion of Nasser’s Egypt as a corporatist regime is well established in historiography, but the adoption of Gran’s paradigm connects it more seamlessly with the “liberal experiment.” [2]

When populist pressure is coopted and declines, the regime (a la Sadat), swings back to liberalism and attacks the material security of the lower middle class. Applying the Italian Road model to Mubarak’s Egypt reveals the extension of the liberal phase and the reemergence of a counter-hegemonic movement — political Islam — emanating primarily from the lower middle classes, particularly in the south, which one would expect from Gran’s paradigm. Hence, one could surmise that a future regime incorporating Islamists would adopt corporatist strategies, reintegrating the disaffected classes in the economy and culture without altering the fundamental imbalances of wealth and power in Egypt and (more important) without alienating the hegemony’s source of support in the West.

How have Egyptian historians supported the hegemony’s organization of culture? According to Gran’s generalization (p. 89), historians in Italian Road regimes are liberals. They identify closely with the rise of the modern state and praise great nationalist reformers (i.e., Muhammad ‘Ali, Zaghlul, Nasser and even Lord Cromer) for moving the country closer to its northern, democratic traditions and away from its southern feudalistic ones. In formerly colonized countries like Egypt, historians are keen to emphasize their country’s similarities with the West, however much they blame Western imperialism for arresting the country’s natural development. Methodologically, they are positivist. Reading this thumbnail sketch, one thinks of the works of ‘Afaf Marsot and Yunan Labib Rizq. [3]

Space prohibits full examination of other Middle Eastern case studies, but Gran frequently alludes to Israel, which he classifies as a bourgeois democracy. This classification has the double advantage of integrating into a global schema a country that both Zionist and Palestinian nationalist historiography persist in describing as unique, and, because democracy is hegemonic rule by race, it does not yield to Zionist mythology about Israel’s intrinsic “Western” (and therefore “good”) qualities.

This reviewer hopes that Gran’s transgressions of scholarly convention will not diminish the large audience his book so richly deserves. Beyond Eurocentrism should be required reading for both historians and theorists of political economy. The historical road paradigm will be particularly useful for graduate students grasping for political and theoretical moorings in a sea of post-modernist flotsam and jetsam. To those unsympathetic with the (supposedly) bygone era of radical scholarship, Gran’s book poses a powerful intellectual challenge. For readers unsatisfied by the works of Jean Baudrillard and Donna Haraway, Beyond Eurocentrism represents a welcome sign that the pendulum may finally be swinging in the other direction.


[1] See Gran’s work, The Islamic Roots of Capitalism (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1979).
[2] The best excursus on Nasserism as corporatism is found in Joel Beinin and Zachary Lockman, Workers on the Nile (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988).
[3] Rizq, a professor at ’Ayn Shams University, writes a serialized popular history of Egyptian nation building in al-Ahram and the English-language al-Ahram Weekly. As a liberal nationalist and a Copt, he fits the hegemony’s need to present itself as both progressive and inclusive. In 1994, when the Ibn Khaldoun Center for Development Studies attempted to host a conference on minorities in the Middle East (in which the Copts were classified as a minority), Rizq stood at the forefront of those Copts who insisted that they were Egyptians first and Copts second. The conference relocated to Cyprus.

How to cite this article:

Chris Toensing "Historical Road Maps for the “New World Order”," Middle East Report 208 (Fall 1998).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


Pin It on Pinterest

Share This