Ricardo Duchesne’s Intellectual Defense of the West

[This article is adapted from a longer version that appears in the Fall 2011 issue of The Occidental Quarterly magazine.]

There was a time not long ago when the idea of Western uniqueness was received wisdom in the academic world. The West was characterized as uniquely rooted in individual freedom, representative government, science, and exploration. The intense dynamism of the West was responsible for dragging the rest of the world from its backward slumbers rooted in collectivism, superstition, and unchanging tradition. It was a view that coincided with a period when the West had a strong sense of cultural confidence.

But all that has changed with the rise of multiculturalism and an academic Establishment that is decidedly on the left. In the new dispensation, the West is seen as a historical backwater whose success is entirely due to luck—combined in some accounts with rapacious exploitation of non-Europeans—rather than anything unique, much less positive, about its people or its culture.

It’s no accident that the decline of the West as anything approaching an ethnic entity has coincided with the predominance of this academic Left and its scathing, politically- and ethnically-motivated critiques of the West. With the rise of multiculturalism in all Western countries, it is not only the people of the West who are in dire danger of losing their dominance over areas they have dominated for hundreds of years—in the case of Europe itself, for many thousands of years. The culture of the West is threatened as well.

Duchesne, a professor of sociology at the University of New Brunswick, is out to change all that. The Uniqueness of Western Civilizationis an extraordinary work written by an exceptionally wide-ranging scholar and thinker.

Duchesne begins by showing that the decline of self-confident assertions of Western uniqueness and cultural confidence began with the rise of the academic left in the 1960s. Any comparison of West and non-West became fraught with concerns about Western ethnocentrism. Standard college courses in “Western Civilization” were removed in favor of world history courses emphasizing multiculturalism and a downgraded role for the West. This was the beginning of what Duchesne terms “a crusade against the West”.)

In attempting to explain the rise of the West one fashionable strategy is to invoke luck. These historians “treat history as an unending series of ‘lucky shots’ and abrupt turns”   For example, Duchesne quotes Rosaire  Langlois, who maintains that Europeans “weren’t just lucky; they were lucky many times over” [The Closing of the Sociological Mind?, Canadian Journal of Sociology, 2008]

Then there’s Peter Perdue’s review of Ken Pomeranz’s The Great Divergence —undoubtedly the most famous and highly praised book on European economic ascendancy, titled “Lucky Europe, normal China.”

This is what one might term an anti-theory of Western uniqueness. In no other area of scientific inquiry would people be satisfied with a theory based on luck.

 Another aspect of the intellectual war against the West interprets Western success as due to exploitation of non-Europeans.  “Dependency Theory”, which proposed that the countries of the West, in Duchesne’s words, “had enriched themselves through the exploitation of Africa, the Americas, and Asia and repudiated the idea that European civilization on its own generated the means to out-develop the rest of the world” . Thus, according to Immanuel Wallerstein, an influential world historian, Western success was due to exploitation of non-Europeans via imperialism and colonialism.

But ultimately, Duchesne writes, “the attack on the West and on the possibility of universal history … did not stem from any one person or school of thought. It was the work of many elite groups, cultural relativists, post-colonialists, Foucault-inspired New Historicists, and deconstructionists.” .

Although the attack on the West was indeed a very widely dispersed effort, Duchesne emphasizes the role of two preceding intellectual movements identified in my book The Culture of Critique (but not by Duchesne) as Jewish: The Frankfurt School and Boasian anthropology. The Frankfurt School was active by the 1920s while Franz Boas was in full culture-war mode by 1910 and his disciples were in control of academic anthropology by the 1920s.

Duchesne characterizes Boasian anthropology as “the most devastating assault on the idea of Western progress” . Similarly, Frankfurt School stalwarts Max Horkheimer and T. W. Adorno, characterized the modern West as “the elimination of the Other”  and saw Western civilization as inevitably resulting in totalitarianism, thus eliminating the distinction between classical liberalism and fascism.

Much of Duchesne’s book deals with the beast of multiculturalism that now overshadows academic discussion of Western accomplishments and uniqueness. Globalism is all the rage, and a corollary is that any developments in the West must ultimately be the result of complex interplay with other parts of the world. History is about interconnections among all the peoples of the world, rather than anything unique about the West. All peoples have the same potentialities and they react passively, not actively, to their surroundings, thus automatically precluding any Western exceptionalism apart from the luck of circumstance. There is no such thing as intra-civilizational change and progress. For example, Duchesne cites Patrick Manning (Navigating World History: Historians Create a Global Past, 2003) who describes the Renaissance as “global process occasioned by Europe’s connections to the New World and the more ‘advanced’ culture of the Near East” .

Duchesne is deliciously contemptuous of these historians, “happily ensconced” as he waspishly notes, “within a world of like-minded academics, backed by multiple grants and prestigious titles” (pp. 53–54).

Much of this “scholarship” is flagrantly anti-white. Duchesne is incredulous at Manning’s claim that Africa was interconnected with the rest of the world: “Yes, the same Black Africa that Marlow in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness called ‘the blankest of blank spaces’ on a map.” He notes that, according to the multicultural Zeitgeist, the story of Africa is an “idyllic pre-colonial existence” followed by enslavement and racism emanating from the West.

Another trend is the “current ‘need’ for ‘diversity’ and human togetherness.” While the positive features of other cultures are endlessly listed, the West is nothing but oppression and evil. Thus Filipe Fernandez-Armesto (The World: A History, 2007) analyzes Greek democracy not by noting its uniqueness and its benefits for many citizens, but  by writing that “When we look at [Greek states] now we see fragments of an oppressive system that made slaves of captives, victims of women, battle fodder of men, and scapegoats of failures” . Duchesne notes that the Greeks were themselves aware of many of their shortcomings. He comments that what really bothers people like Fernandez-Armesto is that “the Greeks may have been exceptional despite their failings”.

Duchesne reviews several books purporting to show the superiority of Chinese civilization compared to the West, particularly England. This is a technical discussion. Some of the high points are as follows:

  • “Colonial trade profits were neither sufficient nor necessary for the industrialization of Western Europe/England”.
  • Whatever benefits England obtained from its colonies must be seen as a result of having “earned her riches through her own virtues and talents as a nation that deliberately set out to achieve imperial greatness. It was Britain’s development of the best navy in the world, civil institutions, administrative and financial reforms that made it possible for her…to seize upon and appropriate raw materials and slaves in faraway lands” (emphasis in text). This is meant to counter historians blinded by moral considerations to the point of being unable to see England as anything but “inertly parasitic” and contributing nothing to its own greatness.
  • Against the claim that the colonies were indispensable for the rise of England, Duchesne points out: “First, the costs of empire (in people, taxes, and warfare) may have surpassed the benefits; second, Spain acquired enormous tracts of land but ended up poor and undeveloped, and third, countries like Switzerland, Germany and Japan, ended up extremely wealthy even though they lacked colonial annexations”.
  • “The question is not whether we approve or not of British imperialism. The question is why was the West so dynamic and original in empire-making, warfare, political theory, philosophy, architecture, and poetry? Why was it that the same England that created the greatest maritime empire in history cultivated religious toleration, freedom of expression, and representative government?”
  • “China’s post-1400 expansion was mainly extensive¸ in the sense that both total economic output and population were increasing at about the same rate with no increases in output per capita. … Conversely, … England did in fact experience a long process of incremental but steady increases in (agricultural) productivity [i.e., output per capita] from 1500 onwards” .

Duchesne contests standard academic works purporting to show that European culture was not creative or original, but borrowed mostly from elsewhere, particularly the East. He does not deny the contributions of the East, but he emphasizes that the Europeans were eager learners who elaborated inventions imported from elsewhere, whereas both China and Islam stagnated after the 13th century.

And unique to Europe was the contribution of the Classical Greeks, who invented scientific reasoning by offering explanations of natural events that were entirely general; Greeks were also unique in “thinking of the universe as a single entity or ‘cosmos’ with an underlying mathematical reality comprehensible through deduction and proof.”

While the East stagnated, beginning in the 12th century, the West entered into a period of sustained and cumulative invention.

Duchesne argues that the West diverged from the rest in all areas of life, not simply economic production. Although other cultures have managed to have sustained economic growth, none could reasonably be seen as likely to have developed liberal democratic institutions: 

“The rise of this culture cannot be abstracted from the special developmental history of the Greek and Roman assemblies of citizens; the parliaments, municipal communes, universities, and estates of the medieval era; the reading societies, salons, journals and newspapers of the Enlightenment; the political parties, trade unions, and nationalist groups of the 19th century. … At the heart of Western modernity … is the ideal of freedom, and the ideal of a critical, self-reflexive public culture. “

This is important because the great majority of those who would dismiss Western accomplishments focus only on economic development (typically analyzed, as noted above, as the result of predatory colonial exploitation and simple luck), not on cultural differences that long preceded differences in economic development.

Duchesne argues that Western science is a unique accomplishment. Although the Chinese made many practical discoveries, they never developed the idea of a rational, orderly universe guided by universal laws comprehensible to humans. Nor did they ever develop a “deductive method of rigorous demonstration according to which a conclusion, a theorem, was proven by reasoning from a series of self-evident axioms” . (The same is said to be true of Indian geometry.)

Whereas there was a strong tendency within China for intellectuals to uphold ancient wisdom, emanating from Confucius, the Greeks

“challenged existing explanations by trying to deliver new and better explanations and by seeking incontrovertible truths [i.e., objectively true—true for all observers] based on the strictest modes of demonstration” .

Thus while the Chinese essentially gravitated to collectivist reaffirmation of social wisdom, the Western tradition was one of individuals questioning received wisdom and the weight of tradition.

Duchesne argues that the roots of the West lie in the aristocratic warlike culture of Indo-European speakers who spread throughout Europe during the 4th and 3rd millennium” BC. The novelty of this culture was that it was not based on a single king but on an aristocratic elite that was egalitarian within the group—what he calls “aristocratic egalitarianism”.  

These Indo-Europeans likely originated in the Pontic steppe region of south Russia and the Ukraine. In the Near East, Iran and India, they were absorbed by the local populations. In Europe, they displaced the native languages but not the natives: Originally, at least, as in the other areas they conquered, they were an alien elite ruling over the older Europeans.

Duchesne rejects a purely linguistic conceptualization of the Indo-Europeans. He says they were an ethnic entity, a race of horse-riding conquerors superimposed on an older European culture that was less aggressive, less hierarchical and less individualistic. They prized heroic warriors striving for individual fame and recognition, often with a “berserker” style of warfare — i.e., frenzied, foolhardy intensity.

The men who became leaders of this group were not despots but peers with other warriors. Successful warriors individualized themselves in dress, sporting beads, belts, etc., with a flair for ostentation. This resulted in a “vital, action-oriented, and linear picture of the world” —i.e., as moving forward in pursuit of the goal of increasing prestige. Leaders commanded by voluntary consent, and being a successful leader meant having many clients who pledged their loyalty; often the clients were young unmarried men looking to make their way in the world. The leader was therefore a “first among equals.” Duchesne writes:

“These ‘groups of comrades’…were singularly dedicated to predatory behavior and to ‘wolf-like’ living by hunting and raiding, and to the performance of superior, even super-human deeds. The members were generally young, unmarried men, thirsting for adventure. The followers were sworn not to survive a war leader who was slain in battle, just as the leader was expected to show in all circumstances a personal example of courage and war-skills. “

Heroes were individuals first and foremost — people who separated themselves from the others by their feats, as shown by these lines from Beowulf:

As we must all expect to leave

our life on this earth, we must earn some renown,

If we can before death; daring is the thing

for a fighting man to be remembered by. …

A man must act so

when he means in a fight to frame himself

a long lasting glory; it is not life he thinks of When these marauding bands descended to the Near East and India, there was significant interbreeding with the native populations. Because the cultures in these areas were already quite advanced, they ended up having more influence on the Indo-Europeans than the reverse. Thus in India the Indo-Europeans fused with the pre-existing Harappan culture, and similarly in Iran, resulting in non-Western cultures based on Oriental despotism.

In Europe, after the period of conquest by berserker aristocratic military units, the warrior ethic was lost but individualistic competition and the desire to be publicly acclaimed continued. Thus Duchesne writes that in classical Greece (i.e., after the Homeric period),

“the ultimate basis of Greek civic and cultural life was the aristocratic ethos of individualism and competitive conflict which pervaded [Indo-European] culture. Ionian literature was far from the world of berserkers but it was nonetheless just as intensively competitive. New works of drama, philosophy, and music were expounded in the first-person form as an adversarial or athletic contest in the pursuit of truth.

… There were no Possessors of the Way in aristocratic Greece; no Chinese Sages decorously deferential to their superior and expecting appropriate deference from their inferiors. The search for the truth was a free-for-all with each philosopher competing for intellectual prestige in a polemical tone that sought to discredit the theories of others while promoting one’s own.”

As the Western world of antiquity decayed, the West was infused with new lifeblood from the Germans:

“It was the vigor, boldness, and the acquisitiveness of Germanic war-bands that kept the West alive. These lads were uncouth and unlettered, much given to quarrelsome rages, but they injected energy, daring, and indeed an uncomplicated and sincere love of freedom, a keen sense of honor and a restless passion for battle, adventure, and life. “.

Even during the putative nadir of Western freedom and democracy, the medieval period, “the aristocratic principle of sovereignty by consent was the hallmark of feudal government. The king was not above the aristocracy; he was first among equals” (emphasis in original).

Duchesne concludes that “it is my contention that the aristocratic culture of Indo-Europeans was dominated by men whose souls were ‘too high-spirited, too intrepid, too indifferent about fortune’” (emphasis in text; the inner quote is from David Hume). He continues:

The expansionist aggression of the West is an inescapable expression of its roots in aristocratic men who are free and therefore headstrong and ambitious, sure of themselves, easily offended, and unwilling to accept quiet subservience. … The highly strung and obstinate aristocrat has been a fundamental source of destruction in Western history as well as the source of all that is good and inspiring.”

Modern liberalism, in Duchesne’s analysis, has resulted in this restless and fearless spirit to be just one of several human drives, like survival and comfort. It no longer dominates the West, its spirit “suppressed by the ethical demands of modern democratic liberalism, rechanneled into economic inventiveness, or confounded with bodily appetites.

Some caveats: In the longer version of this review published in The Occidental Quarterly, I suggest that the reason that the West retained its characteristic individualism for so long is that the primeval populations of Europe had already evolved in the direction of individualism prior to the invasion by the Indo-Europeans—thus explaining why other areas conquered by the Indo-Europeans departed dramatically from the Western model.

I argue that the invasion of an Indo-European-speaking elite warrior class is a variant on a previously existing culture of northern hunter-gatherers resulting in two quite different cultural stands in Europe: First, an individualist-egalitarian culture stemming from the older Europeans; second, an aristocratic-egalitarian culture stemming from the Indo-European invaders. This is consistent with the population genetic evidence indicating that the genetic core of European populations dates from Paleolithic times—well prior to the putative Indo-European invasion.

I argue that the older European culture has a tendency toward a more extreme egalitarianism and less ethnocentrism than apparent in the Indo-European warrior elite model. Contemporary Western culture owes far more to the reappearance of tendencies in older European cultures than to the Indo-European warrior elite model.

But no matter how these intellectual issues ultimately play out, Duchesne is to be congratulated on a wonderful effort to stem to tide against the barbarians at the gate in the academic world.

The Uniqueness of Western Civilization is a brilliant critical review of an incredibly wide range of scholarship covering the entire span of Western history. It is a book that is essential reading for anyone interested in understanding the vitality and creativity of Western civilization—and for understanding its current malaise as it struggles for survival against the forces of darkness.

Kevin MacDonald [email him] is professor of psychology at California State University–Long Beach and a frequent contributor to The Occidental Observer. For his website, click here.