Is it all the west's fault?

Prophylactic pessimism in global perspective

By William Wetherall

A review of
Theodore H. Von Laue
The World Revolution of Westernization
(The Twentieth Century in Global Perspective)
New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.
xx, 394 pages, hardcover

A version of this article appeared in
Mainichi Daily News, 23 October 1988, page 9

Blue phrases were cut from the MDN version.
Other phrasing may also differ from the MDN version.

No book I have read comes as close to succeeding as this one, yet still fails, to convince me that "Westernization" is the cause of the world's internecine ills. But Theodore Von Laue, emeritus professor of European history at Clark University (who calls himself "a culturally self-conscious German who came to the United States in 1937"), has written a life work that deserves serious reading by everyone who shares his sense of moral and intellectual responsibility about the "anarchy of the global community"--whatever its origins.

Von Laue is pessimistic about the political chaos which he thinks threatens humanity with nuclear extinction. He calls his pessimism "prophylactic" because he hopes that his moralistic plea for mutual understanding and respect before judgment will prevent annihilation.

But the historically deterministic cultural relativism which he prescribes for world peace does not quite square with his definitions of political and cultural power and competition, however right he may be in his thesis that the ethnic self-consciousness, narcissism, and assertiveness that seem to come with Western notions of freedom can be dangerous in their nationalistic extremes.

Von Laue is certainly not against freedom or justice. He simply raises the fundamental issue of political power which divides people in quest of such ideals, to wit: "freedom for whom? justice for whose benefit? peace on whose terms?" And he warns that "In the name of the highest ideals the very unity of the global system promotes disunity" because the ideals of unity carry the seeds of ethnic self-interest.

Global instability has come about because human development in "the West" has led to its political and cultural domination of the world. By the beginning of the 20th century, Von Laue writes, some 85 percent of the world's land surface had been colonized by the West, and the remaining parts were being irradiated by Western influences. The high seas, he adds, had always been a Western preserve.

Natural forces

Because Von Laue attributes the human drive for territory and resources to natural forces, the impulse of Western countries to dominate is not itself an issue. Westernization presents two problems: it pretends to be universalistic; but the scope, intensity, and speed of the changes it has imposed on the world have politically disrupted and culturally displaced practically all non-Western peoples.

The bulk of Von Laue's book is given to an articulate and often brilliant overview of global conflict during the past century. His is not a static, monolithic West, but an omnivorous culture that absorbs the anti-Western ideologies it spawns, such as communism and fascism.

Before the revolution of Westernization swept through the world, it struck Europe. Von Laue's "West" begins in Spain and Portugal, both early colonial powers, then grows to include England and France, from which Westernization radiates eastward from England and France toward Germany and Russia, and westward to the United States.

Western idealism advocated first personal freedom and then even national self-determination. Both proved to be double-edged swords.

"Paradoxically," Von Laue writes at his stylistic best, "this soft inner layer of idealistic [liberal Western] universals closely interacts with its opposite, with the underlying cultural diversities which divide humanity. It stimulates them and thereby promotes counterforces to its conciliatory intentions. Given the stark differences in the world, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights [adopted by the United Nations in 1948], rather than advancing peaceful cooperation, endangers it; trying to cure the global anarchy, it promotes it."

The most conspicuous cases of "anti-Western Westernization" have been Germany on the fascist side (and Japan with its similarly indigenous capacity for expansionist racialism), and the Soviet Union and China on the communist side.

Germany reacted to the Anglo-French "West" with a strong sense of imperial envy and frustrated nationalism. German thinkers were moved to contrive a political and cultural defense which evolved into both a racialist and fascist ideology. Intellectuals extolled the essence and superiority of the German soul, while philosophers preached cultural relativism and plead the legitimacy of cultural otherness.

Granting Von Laue his request that the reader consider the larger framework of his thesis and overlook its errors in detail, one might accept his assessment that Japan "represents the most startling triumph of the world revolution of Westernization; a non-Western country signally successful in terms of Western achievements."

But this rings unconvincing beside his prediction that Japan will probably not "attain that leadership in an interdependent world which its admirers assign to it [but] will rather continue to be a self-contained stimulant for material progress in a world that craves transcendent universality."

Why? Because Japan's "admirable qualities can only be affirmed within the group, among fellow Japanese; they cannot be shared or universalized."

Which can only mean that, its "singular historic miracle" aside, Japan has not really westernized, and will continue to resist the transcendental universalism of true Westernization--and hence Von Laue's world revolution of Westernization will stop at the shores of Yasukuni's door.

Von Laue's theory of human organization is clear and well-argued: "Social life is not shaped by the ways in which, by Marxist analysis, human beings engage nature through production; it is conducted in communities that organize and control all aspects of life (including production) and compete with other communities for security, prosperity, and survival."

His view of historical causation is also persuasive. While both West and non-West sought to enlarge their dominion, "the flagrant inequality in their pursuit of self-affirmation . . . stemmed not from deliberate human intention but from nonhuman external factors, from the natural variety of geographic and historical circumstances in different parts of the earth." In other words, "Inequality [of West and non-West] was a fact predetermined long before the expansion of Europe; its roots extend deep into history."

Cultural relativism

Von Laue does not, however, pursue the Darwinian implications of cultural determinism for the future. He merely advocates cultural relativism as a way of transcending the problems of determinism.

It is here that I find the weakest link in Von Laue's otherwise very tight argument. I accept his thesis that history is best viewed through an analysis of power, political and cultural, and his view that many systems of thought are both "too power blind and culture blind to be of analytic value."

But what are culture and power?

In one paragraph Von Laue writes as though "political power" and "cultural power" were coordinate factors on the same plane, while in the next paragraph he claims that power is a matter of "culturally conditioned perception". In the latter view he seems to subordinate politics to culture, which better serves his argument that large-scale historical events are determined by "circumstances . . . and forces beyond human control."

Yet in an appended essay on culture and inter-cultural comparison, Von Laue defines culture as merely "the tool of collective human survival . . . a group instrument . . . handled by a politically organized sovereign body of people determined to affirm their collective identity under a specific set of external conditions."

If so, then it seems that culture itself can be manipulated to facilitate political ambitions. And if political forces are capable of indoctrinating a people with a sense of racial superiority and a will to dominate others--militarily, culturally, or economically--what does this imply for theories of cultural determinism and relativism?

Von Laue argues that "power is inseparable from morality" and that the age of globalism desperately needs a transcendent morality to help us understand "even the most repulsive" people before judging them. But he fails to tell us where--if all political cultures are relative because they are predetermined--our non-judgmental understanding of a group we perceive to be evil should end, and our moral condemnation of its customs or policies begin.

Equally compelling, but less readable, are the arguments against the cultural relativism inspired by German philosophers and American anthropologists, in University of Chicago political philosopher Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind (How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today's Students), New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987, 392 pages.

William Wetherall is an independent scholar who specializes in social issues.