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February 11, 2018



Marx and the end of orientalism

In ‘Marx and the End of Orientalism’, Bryan S Turner has critically explored the inherent theoretical flaws of both the traditional sociological approach and the Hegelian/Marxist approach.


This book is relevant to the socio-political state of affairs in Pakistan. But it has been lost somewhere due to the lustre of the debate on orientalism that was started by Edward W Said’s work. While I wrote this review some years back, I found it to be extremely relevant in today’s context and decided to share it with my readers. Orientalism as a field of sociological inquiry encompasses vast areas of intellectual endeavour and especially includes postcolonial studies. The major critique of orientalist scholarship comes from Edward W Said – followed by postcolonial theory, cultural studies and the Subaltern Studies Group.

‘Marx and the End of Orientalism’ explores the inadequacies of the orientalist traditions that are implicit in the sociological study of North Africa and the Middle East. It also claims to challenge the basic assumptions of the Hegelian/Marxist treatment of the Middle East under the rubric of the Asiatic mode of production.

Turner shows that the historicist Hegelian/Marxist approach has its roots in the orientalist tradition. According to Turner, this tradition has sustained the traditional sociological dichotomies of the modern and the traditional; the dynamic and the stagnant; the democratic and the despotic; and the religious and the secular. He suggests that new concepts need to be formulated in Marxism to do away with some of the fundamental difficulties within Marxist theory to understand the colonial and postcolonial Middle East and North Africa.

In the first chapter, Turner succinctly typifies two distinct approaches of development in sociology. He asserts that neo-Marxist theories of development are based on a core-periphery model of the sociology of development that has invalidated the conventional sociological explanations of development founded on ‘internalist theories’. The core-periphery model bases its theoretical explanations of development on ‘externalist theories’ that confute the traditional focus of modernising families, educational systems and individual attitudes as the only way to keep up with the pace of Western development.

Turner argues that Marxism has not substantiated its own alternative on firm grounds. It is argued that Marx’s primary concern was to develop an analysis of those societies which had capitalism as the mode of production. He had fully established that his accounts on colonialism are only of secondary importance. Turner believes that this, however, is not sufficient to do away with the incoherencies of the Marxist approach with respect to understanding colonialism and neo-colonialism in the Middle East.

Within the context of the critique of orientalism, Turner takes strong exception to the ‘unidimensional’ end-state model proposed by Lerner. Lerner has attributed certain features to the West to distinguish it from the underdeveloped world. The West is distinct from traditional societies. According to Lerner, there are restrictions in the fabric of political and social life of traditional societies as they are controlled by tribal chiefs and religious leaders. In contrast, the West is a “participant society” and its people are capable of making informed choices. To Lerner, Western capitalism has acquired its present stage of development after centuries of unilateral evolution.

As per Turner’s analysis, the development of capitalism has not followed the path suggested by the arbitrary formulation of Lerner (ie, a gradual evolution of centuries from the primitive stage via competitive capitalism to the present-day monopoly capitalism). Turner cites the development of monopoly capitalism in Italy and Germany that sprang directly from feudalism instead of competitive capitalism.

Turner is equally critical of some of the theoretical aspects of Marx – especially his treatment of colonialism. By referring to some of Marx’s writings on colonialism, Turner has elaborated the need for a “careful theoretical reinterpretation”. He has shown why Marx’s concept of the Asiatic mode of production resembles the orientalist analysis of treating the ‘Orient’ as irrational and stationary and justifying capitalist exploitation as a historical necessity to destroy the pre-capitalist modes of production.

Turner has discussed some of the theoretical difficulties faced by Marxists in the Middle East, Europe and North America in understanding the complexities involved in Israel and Zionism. Marxism shares certain aspects of orientalism by presuming the role of capitalism as an inevitable means to destroy the pre-capitalist modes of production, attributing a progressive and a justified role to colonialism. Turner has asserted that capitalism has not necessarily demolished the archaic and pre-capitalist institutions. But he believes that colonialism has, in most cases, conserved non-capitalist relations of exploitation in various forms.

In the context of the Middle East, the historicist approach employed by Shlomo Avineri to his Marxian theoretical framework depicts the Hegelian teleology of historical necessity which, according to Turner, locates Marxism within the sphere of orientalism.

In his discussion on ethnicity and social class, Turner has illustrated that the diversity of Muslim societies is seen by orientalist scholars through a “mosaic model” whereby isolated social groups have impeded the formation of an integrated society. It was because of the mosaic diversity of Muslim society that no organised resistance to political authority could prevail for centuries.

Turner has mainly focused on Marxist traditions influenced by Kautsky that, for the most part, remained highly polemical because of their mechanistic approach of history. Kautsky conceived human history as a movement from one form of communism that prevailed in primitive societies to a far more advanced form that relies on the development of the productive forces in capitalism. Drawing on the rapidly developing anthropological research of the late 19th century, Kautsky estimated that the class-divided society of the West is an exception – a mere episode in the history of human society. This evolutionist approach of history, determined by the mechanical laws of history, was Darwinist rather than a Marxist.

Turner’s major concern is an epistemological one: a concrete theorising may create a new type of analysis, but it condones the political strategy that is at the core of Marxism. The political strategy of Lenin before the Bolshevik Revolution was based on a redefined theory derived from the experience of the working class in Russia. Although Turner has referred to Otto Boer, Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg in his criticism of the Marxist theory of nationalism, he has not drawn attention to the context of the whole debate on the national question among Marxists, especially between Lenin and Luxemburg.

Theoretically, national and cultural oppression was wrong and should be opposed while nationalism, in essence, was a bourgeoisie phenomenon. There was a consensus on this matter. The divisive factor was the issue of whether nations were entitled to statehood. There was disagreement on how to formulate a political strategy that is compatible with the changing political circumstances and identify the relevance of the working class struggle within a national liberation movement.

Marxism is both a form of theory and practice. Any Marxian analysis of objective conditions that is isolated from practice will, at best, remain ambiguous and, at worst, will not remain Marxist in nature. Turner has explored these ambiguities with regard to the Middle East’s elitist Marxist theory. He has emphasised the need for a new form of Marxian analysis to destroy the ethnocentric theoretical and epistemological roots of orientalist scholarship.

Marxism is theoretically capable of demolishing the orientalist theory and epistemology, which has been reinvigorated by the forces of neo-imperialism. But the task will remain incomplete without destroying the political and economic structures where power and knowledge converge to forge simulated realities. As a result, Marxism faces a dual challenge – one on an epistemological level and another on the political front. An epistemology germinates within a politico-economic system as a means to establish hegemony over the intellectual life of society. The end of such epistemology lies in the end of the system itself. Building on this debate, my next articles will develop a critique of the post-ideology, which is being promoted through NGOs in Pakistan.

The writer is a freelance columnist based in Islamabad.

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