What is this about
How badly we’re getting history
While the world of history and anthropology of the last 30-40 years has completely redrawn the picture of our past, the common perception of the overall shape of history and the development of humanity is still firmly rooted in the view that took hold in the 1800s’ mixture of enlightenment and romanticism.
On this view, we are the pinnacle of development, the logical and inevitable outcome of all that came before us. The development of what is us, the changes in history and culture, can be traced in a straight line from the primitive of the past to the sophisticated of the present. From the savage to the civilized (even if we may eschew these for more polite terms).
But nothing could be farther away from the truth. The shape of global history looks nothing like what we have in our minds from textbooks and popular culture. For a start, it is a lot more complicated, circuitous and fuzzy than we might imagine. That won’t surprise many people. Things are always more complicated when looked at closely. But what I would suggest is that the popular image has completely misplaced the centre of gravity of historical and cultural development. It is the universe before Copernicus and Gallileo, it is the physics before Einstein and Heisenberg.
Yet, all we need to find the right balance is readily available in print, online lectures and courses. We just need to seek it out.
What is on this list
In this post, I compiled what I consider key books of the last 20 years (with a few older exceptions) that can help anyone get a better picture of the history of human politics and culture. And through that history, we can also see the balance of the present better.
Not all these books are flawless and they all bring new biases into the picture. No doubt, they too, will eventually be subject to revision as new perspectives open up. Also, they don’t entirely reject all that came before them. They simply provide a better balance and shine light in important blind spots.
I can imagine that many people reading any one of these books might feel compelled to reject them as outliers. But together, they are hard to ignore. They come from different perspectives and disciplines, yet, they complement and reinforce each other.
This was originally meant to be a short list of a few key works but as I was going through my notes, I kept adding new ones. I tried to keep the list to books that synthesize larger areas rather than histories or ethnographies of individual societies even though, these can often be as illustrative.
Most of these books are histories or contain historical data. Yet, many are written by anthropologists or historians with a distinctly anthropological point of view. This very much reflects my personal bias towards the ethnographic.
I divided the list into 2 sections: 1. Easy reads for a general audience and 2. Dense and extensive works for specialists. But in this, I was very much going by intuition.
I decided to provide some illustrative quotes for each book but I went a bit too far with some of them. At the same time, I could have quoted many more important passages. Remember, they all make much more sense in context.
Where available, I also provided links to podcasts or online lectures by the authors. I also compiled a YouTube playlist with key videos which I will keep up-to-date as I discover more.
I would also recommend to anybody that they listen to the New Books Network podcasts. I find those from the New Books in History, Milirary History, South Asian Studies, Islamic Studies, Anthropology and Genocide studies particularly illuminating and would recommend that anybody goes through the archive, as well.
What are the key lessons
This section was rewritten based on Reddit comments.
The overarching message of these books is one of anti-reductionism. They do not look for inevitable overarching trends but they do show repeating patterns. The key points that stand out to me as a lesson to take away from reading these books could be:
- The global dominance of Western-European culture and politics is a lot more recent than our history books taught us pretty much starting with the Industrial Revolution and not completed until the end of the 19th century.
- The balance of global history lies in the East rather than the West. Even those we consider the roots of our civilisation (Rome, Greeks) looked to the East.
- We are blinkered by focusing our perspective on civilizational artifacts such as architecture and writing. This leads us to overlook important political and social units that outnumbered those we can see at any one point in history.
- The role of the state throughout history was much more complex and uncertain than it may seem from today’s perspective. It was much weaker, less stable and more transient. And it was also not nearly as attractive to its subjects – ie. walls were often built more to keep people in than out.
- We cannot view the ‘hunter gatherers’ and other ‘pre-technological’ societies of today as remnants of previous evolutionary stages of history. They are as much part of modernity as the technologically-dependent urban centres we know.
Who should read this
- Anyone who thinks ‘Guns, Germs, and Steel’ is the last word in historical analysis.
- Rationalists, economists and futurists. I very much enjoy listening to podcasts like EconTalk and Rationally Speaking. But whenever they or their guests make any points regarding history, I cannot but cringe.
- Anyone who makes historical analogies based on what they learned in school.
- When I last worked with Peace Corps volunteers, I shared some of these books with them and they were well received. So I think many development and international policy workers would also benefit.
- Curriculum reformers in the mould of Michael Gove or Pat Buchanan.
Easy, accessible reads
I felt the books in this section are more accessible and aimed at audiences outside the strict confines of their discipline. Some of them are fairly popular accounts but they are all sufficiently scholarly that it is possible to track down their sources and confront them with alternative perspectives. None of them are by popularisers in the vein of Gladwell or Pinker.
‘Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States’ by James C Scott, 2018
Scott is best known for ‘Seeing Like a State’ but this is a much more important and in many ways better book. His main thesis is ‘Everything we thought about the invention of agriculture and its role in the formation of early civilisations is wrong.’
In this book, Scott summarises recent decades of research on the emergence of agriculture and emergence of early states and finds that we cannot trust any of our assumptions. The early states were temporary, partial and patchy. They cannot be seen as a final stage in some sort of a process of social evolution. A point elaborated by Yoffee below in greater detail.
My main impression from this book is how recent the dominance of state control is. Until about 1500, most people lived outside the control of the great civilisational behemoths. And this was, for many of them, a conscious choice. As Scott described in his earlier book ‘The Art of Not Being Governed’ (also well worth a read).
Similarly to Diamond, Scott also focuses on the importance of certain crops but from the perspective of their utility for taxation. This point is elaborated in Graeber’s ‘Debt’ (see below).
You can see Scott speak about many of these points in several lectures.
Note: I wrote a review of this book for the Czech daily Lidové noviny.
“Contrary to earlier assumptions, hunters and gatherers—even today in the marginal refugia they inhabit—are nothing like the famished, one-day-away-from-starvation desperados of folklore. Hunters and gathers have, in fact, never looked so good—in terms of their diet, their health, and their leisure. Agriculturalists, on the contrary, have never looked so bad—in terms of their diet, their health, and their leisure.”
“In unreflective use, “collapse” denotes the civilizational tragedy of a great early kingdom being brought low, along with its cultural achievements. We should pause before adopting this usage. Many kingdoms were, in fact, confederations of smaller settlements, and “collapse” might mean no more than that they have, once again, fragmented into their constituent parts, perhaps to reassemble later. In the case of reduced rainfall and crop yields, “collapse” might mean a fairly routine dispersal to deal with periodic climate variation. Even in the case of, say, flight or rebellion against taxes, corvée labor, or conscription, might we not celebrate—or at least not deplore—the destruction of an oppressive social order?”
“until the past four hundred years, one-third of the globe was still occupied by hunter-gatherers, shifting cultivators, pastoralists, and independent horticulturalists, while states, being essentially agrarian, were confined largely to that small portion of the globe suitable for cultivation. Much of the world’s population might never have met that hallmark of the state: a tax collector.”
“Where grain, and therefore agrarian taxes, stopped, there too did the state’s power begin to degrade. The power of the early Chinese states was confined to the arable drainage basins of the Yellow and Yangzi Rivers. […] The territory of the Roman Empire, for all its imperial ambitions, did not extend much beyond the grain line.”
much that passes as collapse as, rather, a disassembly of larger but more fragile political units into their smaller and often more stable components.
‘Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest’ by Matthew Restall, 2003
The title of the book says it all. Almost anything we say (and Jared Diamond said) about the likes of Columbus, Cortez or Pizarro is wrong. Factually and structurally. Perhaps the most important myth Restall presents is that of ‘completion’. The Spanish and later other conquests were more a case of expanding enclaves and negotiations. To imagine the conquistadors as ruling a geographic area in the same way a modern state governs its territory is completely misleading. This is also a point repeated in Yoffee and Scott with respect to ‘ancient civilisations’.
The other point made by Restall is the complete dependence of the European invaders on local political aliances and the relative ineffectiveness and ultimate irrelevance of their ‘technology’. We see this expanded in Thornton and Sherman into other contexts
You can hear Restall talk about many of the same themes in an interview about his more recent book “When Montesuma met Cortez” in this New Books Podcast.
There is also an illustrated lecture available on YouTube that covers the same topics.
“Looking at Spanish America in its entirety, the Conquest as a series of armed expeditions and military actions against Native Americans never ended.”
“Only very gradually did community autonomy erode under demographic and political pressures from non-native populations. From the native perspective, therefore, the Conquest was not a dramatic singular event, symbolized by any one incident or moment, as it was for Spaniards. Rather, the Spanish invasion and colonial rule were part of a larger, protracted process of negotiation and accommodation.”
‘Empires of the Weak: The Real Story of European Expansion and the Creation of the New World Order’ by Jason Sharman, 2019
The central thesis here is that the relationship between the European conquerors and the conquered around the world was very different from the traditional stories. It was not sudden overwhelming military force but gradual exploitation of local political conditions taking place over the course of centuries that resulted in the world we see today.
Most importantly, the thesis of political competition in Europe resulting in European dominance by 1800 purely through superiority of Western military technology is completely dismantled. European weapons made little difference until the 1800s. Updated based on Reddit comments.
Sharman is a political scientist, so perhaps could be accused of moonlighting outside his core expertise, but we’ll see that this thesis is repeated again and again in many of the other books on this list from various perspectives.
I could not find any videos or audio recordings of Sharman about the book. But I’m sure some will appear, soon.
‘Europeans did not enjoy any significant military superiority vis-à-vis non-Western opponents in the early modern era, even in Europe. Expansion was as much a story of European deference and subordination as one of dominance. Rather than state armies or navies, the vanguards of expansion were small bands of adventurers or chartered companies, who relied on the cultivation of local allies.’
‘The Silk Roads: A New History of the World’ by Peter Frankopan, 2015
‘The Silk Roads’ is the history of the world that should be the core textbook for anyone interested in the balance of events. It provides the same correction to the shape of history that an alternative projection gives to the distortions taught to us by the Mercator of school atlases.
Frankopan’s book on the First Crusade is also extremely eye-opening and worth a read. It is the one that most balances the perspectives of east, west and the Byzantines.
Here are some places where you can see Frankopan talk about his book:
Jerry Brotton’s ‘This Orient Isle’ could be thought of as a companion book in that it rethinks the position of Britain in this newly rebalanced history. You can watch Brotton talk about his 2016 book ‘in an online lecture. Brotton’s ‘History of the World in 12 Maps’ also adds new perspectives on the orientation of the world.
We think of globalisation as a uniquely modern phenomenon; yet 2,000 years ago too, it was a fact of life, one that presented opportunities, created problems and prompted technological advance.
Rome’s transition into an empire had little to do with Europe or with establishing control across a continent that was poorly supplied with the kind of resources and cities that were honeypots of consumers and taxpayers. What propelled Rome into a new era was its reorientation towards the Eastern Mediterranean and beyond. Rome’s success and its glory stemmed from its seizure of Egypt in the first instance, and then from setting its anchor in the east – in Asia.
the ancient world was much more sophisticated and interlinked than we sometimes like to think. Seeing Rome as the progenitor of western Europe overlooks the fact that it consistently looked to and in many ways was shaped by influences from the east.
Cities like Merv, Gundesāpūr and even Kashgar, the oasis town that was the entry point to China, had archbishops long before Canterbury did. These were major Christian centres many centuries before the first missionaries reached Poland or Scandinavia.
Baghdad is closer to Jerusalem than to Athens, while Teheran is nearer the Holy Land than Rome, and Samarkand is closer to it than Paris and London.
‘Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane’ by F. Frederick Starr, 2013
Starr’s book was a real revelation. I had spent a lot of time in Central Asia and read some history of the region. But other than Samarkand, all of that history has now been lost. And I didn’t get a sense that the people living in the region knew much about it.
Much like Davies in ‘Vanished Kingdoms’ in Europe, Starr shows on a global scale how even major civilisations with real impact can disappear without much trace. But even more importantly, he shows that the trajectory of ‘modern’ intellectual development was much more complex than most people believe.
You can see Starr talk about his book in this online lecture.
“This was truly an Age of Enlightenment, several centuries of cultural flowering during which Central Asia was the intellectual hub of the world. India, China, the Middle East, and Europe all boasted rich traditions in the realm of ideas, but during the four or five centuries around AD 1000 it was Central Asia, the one world region that touched all these other centers, that surged to the fore. It bridged time as well as geography, in the process becoming the great link between antiquity and the modern world.”
“every major Central Asian city at the time boasted one or more libraries, some of them governmental and others private.”
“Above all, Central Asia was a land of cities. Long before the Arab invasion, the most renowned Greek geographer, Strabo, writing in the first century BC, described the Central Asian heartland as ‘a land of 1,000 cities.’”
“At the Merv oasis the outermost rampart ran for more than 155 miles, three times the length of Hadrian’s Wall separating England from Scotland. At least ten days would have been required to cover this distance on camelback.”
‘Genghiz Khan and the Making of the Modern World’ by Jack Weatherford, 2004
Jack Weatherford’s portrayal of the Mongol conquests is definitely not non-partisan. He’s with the Mongols. Nevertheless, he opens important vistas about the foundations of modern interconnectedness. This is a good complement to Starr’s covering of the preceding period in the same region.
Here’s a video lecture by Weatherford about some aspects of this story.
In twenty-five years, the Mongol army subjugated more lands and people than the Romans had conquered in four hundred years. Genghis Khan, together with his sons and grandsons, conquered the most densely populated civilizations of the thirteenth century. Whether measured by the total number of people defeated, the sum of the countries annexed, or by the total area occupied, Genghis Khan conquered more than twice as much as any other man in history.
The majority of people today live in countries conquered by the Mongols; on the modern map, Genghis Kahn’s conquests include thirty countries with well over 3 billion people.
Genghis Khan’s empire connected and amalgamated the many civilizations around him into a new world order. At the time of his birth in 1162, the Old World consisted of a series of regional civilizations each of which could claim virtually no knowledge of any civilization beyond its closest neighbor. No one in China had heard of Europe, and no one in Europe had heard of China, and, so far as is known, no person had made the journey from one to the other. By the time of his death in 1227, he had connected them with diplomatic and commercial contacts that still remain unbroken.
‘Lies my Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong’ by James W. Loewen, 1995
This book is slightly outside the scope of this list, but I thought it would be of interest to those who were educated in the American school system. But many of its points apply to all school history books. It will open your eyes to how little you can trust to what you learned in school and what was then reinforced through popular cultural reflection of history.
Here’s an extended interview with the author.
“Many history textbooks list up-to-the-minute secondary sources in their bibliographies, yet the narratives remain totally traditional unaffected by recent research.”
“Most Americans tend automatically to equate educated with informed or tolerant. Traditional purveyors of social studies and American history seize upon precisely this belief to rationalize their enterprise, claiming that history courses lead to a more enlightened citizenry. The Vietnam exercise suggests the opposite is more likely true.”
Comprehensive and/or less accessible
These books require more serious commitment and possibly some comfort with reading relatively dense historical and ethnographic accounts. They are not necessarily poorly written or full of jargon but they are not primarily aimed at an audience too far outside the profession of the author (except ‘Debt’ which I included here because it is so long).
‘A Cultural History of the Atlantic World: 1250 – 1820’ by John K. Thornton, 2012
This is a truly impressive historical synthesis that covers an extensive geographic area as well as a significant stretch of time. It provides detailed elaborations of the central thesis of Sharman’s and Restall’s books and should be consulted every time we feel like we want to make a general statement about the developments in that region and in that time. Which we do all the time.
A podcast interview about this book from the New Books Network will give a good sense of what the book is about.
You can also hear Thornton speak on a related topic in this YouTube lecture on the Slave trade.
“Europeans did not possess decisive advantages over any of the people they met, even though their sailing craft were indeed capable of nautical achievements that no other culture up to that time was able to perform.”
“there was really no economic Third World at the time of European expansion in the fifteenth and sixteenth century, if one uses proxy measures of average quality of life as a guide. The crucial quality-of-life determinant was, in fact, social and economic stratification.”
“African states had the upper hand if the game of force was to be played. Although Europeans often fortified their “factories,” as trading posts were usually called, these fortifications could not resist an attack by determined African authorities.”
“Slow-firing weapons cannot allow small numbers of people to defeat larger numbers unless other factors are in play.”
“Cavalry are most effective only when massed in sufficient numbers to inflict sustained casualties on fleeing infantry, and the dozens and on occasion low hundreds of mounted men in Spanish service did not meet this decisive threshold. Native Americans were reasonably quick in establishing tactical countermeasures against the horsemen after the initial encounters.”
‘Myths of the Archaic State: Evolution of the Earliest Cities, States, and Civilizations’ by Norman Yoffee, 2005
This was perhaps the most embarrassingly eye-opening book for me given that I started out my early adult life by studying Egyptology. Yoffee, building on his work and that of others, shows the limits of what a so-called ‘ancient civilisation’ was and could have been. Collapses and interregna were all much less of tragedies for all involved – point made by Scott in a more accessible way. His reimagining of the position of Hammurabi as a political and literary rather than a legal document was just one of the many myths that this book burst for me.
Norman Yoffee speaks about new perspectives on the collapse summarizing his more recent work.
“[Myth of the archaic states include:] (1) the earliest states were basically all the same kind of thing (whereas bands, tribes, and chiefdoms all varied within their types considerably);(2) ancient states were totalitarian regimes, ruled by despots who monopolized the flow of goods, services, and information and imposed “true” law and order on their powerless citizens; (3) the earliest states enclosed large regions and were territorially integrated; (4) typologies should and can be devised in order to measure societies in a ladder of progressiveness; (5) prehistoric representatives of these social types can be correlated, by analogy, with modern societies reported by ethnographers; and (6) structural changes in political and economic systems were the engines for, and are hence necessary and sufficient conditions that explain, the evolution of the earliest states.”
That the laws of Hammurabi were copied in Mesopotamian schools for over a millennium after Hammurabi’s death attests to the literary success of the composition and has nothing to do with its juridical applicability. […] There is no mention of the code of Hammurabi in the thousands of legal documents that date to his reign and those of his immediate successors.
Order could not survive the frequent shocks it suffered if people were not able to construct the institutions of legitimacy and to determine the quality of illegitimacy. Legitimacy normally invokes the past as something that is absolute and that acts as a point of reference for the present, normally by transmuting the past into some form of the present.
‘Debt: The First Five Thousand Years’ by David Graeber, 2011
I think this is perhaps the best intro to modern anthropological thinking in general. It is very readable and accessible but also very comprehensive. It certainly has its agenda but Graeber tells a convincing story that undermines the classical thinking about the role of exchange in maintaining civilisations. It is easy to get bogged down in the discussions about the nature of money when discussing this book but what it really does is show the great variety of ways in which people relate to each other.
Graeber gave a lecture on his book at Google which is available on YouTube. But this book works best when read as a whole.
there is good reason to believe that barter is not a particularly ancient phenomenon at all, but has only really become widespread in modern times. Certainly in most of the cases we know about, it takes place between people who are familiar with the use of money, but for one reason or another, don’t have a lot of it around.
Through most of history, when overt political conflict between classes did appear, it took the form of pleas for debt cancellation—the freeing of those in bondage, and usually, a more just reallocation of the land.
“Kingdoms rise and fall; they also strengthen and weaken; governments may make their presence known in people’s lives quite sporadically, and many people in history were never entirely clear whose government they were actually in. … It’s only the modern state, with its elaborate border controls and social policies, that enables us to imagine “society” in this way, as a single bounded entity.”
there are three main moral principles on which economic relations can be founded, all of which occur in any human society, and which I will call communism, hierarchy, and exchange.
“communism” is not some magical utopia, and neither does it have anything to do with ownership of the means of production. It is something that exists right now—that exists, to some degree, in any human society, although there has never been one in which everything has been organized in that way, and it would be difficult to imagine how there could be. All of us act like communists a good deal of the time. None of us acts like a communist consistently.
“baseline communism”: the understanding that, unless people consider themselves enemies, if the need is considered great enough, or the cost considered reasonable enough, the principle of “from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs” will be assumed to apply.
In many periods—from imperial Rome to medieval China—probably the most important relationships, at least in towns and cities, were those of patronage.
‘Vanished Kingdoms: The Rise and Fall of Nations’ by Norman Davies, 2010
Most of the books on the list focus on forgotten, misunderstood or ignored aspects of global history or culture. But Davies shows that even in our own backyard, entire kingdoms vanished without a trace in our consciousness. Perhaps, I should have chosen his ‘Europe: A History’ which is also revisionist in that it places Europe’s cultural, geographic and historical center of gravity much further east and south than is typical. But I found this book much more revelatory and impactful for the purposes of this list.
Davies gave a lecture about his book at the LSEwhich is available as a recording.
A brief interview with Davies about this book is available on YouTube.
“As soon as great powers arise, whether the United States in the twentieth century or China in the twenty-first, the call goes out for offerings on American History or Chinese History, and siren voices sing that today’s important countries are also those whose past is most deserving of examination, that a more comprehensive spectrum of historical knowledge can be safely ignored.”
Most importantly, students of history need to be constantly reminded of the transience of power, for transience is one of the fundamental characteristics both of the human condition and of the political order.
Popular memory-making plays many tricks. One of them may be called ‘the foreshortening of time’. Peering back into the past, contemporary Europeans see modern history in the foreground, medieval history in the middle distance, and the post-Roman twilight as a faint strip along the far horizon.
One has to put aside the popular notion that language and culture are endlessly passed on from generation to generation, rather as if ‘Scottishness’ or ‘Englishness’ were essential constituents of some national genetic code.
To all who have been seduced by the concept of ‘Western Civilization’, therefore, the Byzantine Empire appears as the antithesis – the butt, the scapegoat, the pariah, the undesirable ‘other’.6 Although it formed part of a story that lasted longer than any other kingdom or empire in Europe’s past, and contains in its record a full panoply of all the virtues, vices and banalities that the centuries can muster, it has been subjected in modern times to a campaign of denigration of unparalleled virulence and duration.
‘The Inheritance of Rome: A History of Europe from 400 to 1000’ by Chris Wickham, 2009
The ‘Fall of Rome’ and the subsequent ‘dark ages’ have been one of the big obsessions of historical introspection for centuries. They are the frequent source domain of civilizational analogies even though, as Chris Wickham shows, almost nothing we think of as a given holds up. This book is just one of many in recent historical scholarship that revisits the notion of the dark ages and shines a light on the period of ‘late Rome’ as seen from the perspective of its own time. Of course, many controversies remain but the change in emphasis seems incontrovertible. There are echoes of similar points in the early chapters of Davies’ ‘Vanished Kingdoms’.
I could not find any lectures on the subject by Wickham but some of these questions were raised in this panel he chaired on the middle ages.
Note: I wrote a review of this book for the Czech daily Lidové noviny.
There are also a number of lecture series on this period that reflect the latest scholarship in The Great Courses from the Teaching Company that are available via Audible, as well. I particularly recommend those by Kenneth Harl.
“Anyone in 1000 looking for future industrialization would have put bets on the economy of Egypt, not of the Rhineland and Low Countries, and that of Lancashire would have seemed like a joke.”
Byzantine ‘national identity’ has not been much considered by historians, for that empire was the ancestor of no modern nation state, but it is arguable that it was the most developed in Europe at the end of our period.
the East remained politically and fiscally strong, and eastern Mediterranean commerce was as active in 600 as in 400.
Far from ‘corruption’ being an element of Roman weakness, this vast network of favours was one of the main elements that made the empire work. It was when patronage failed that there was trouble.
The Persian state was almost as large as the Roman empire, extending eastwards into central Asia and what is now Afghanistan; it is much less well documented than the Roman empire, but it, too, was held together by a complex tax system, although it had a powerful military aristocracy as well, unlike Rome.
‘The Anthropology of Eastern Religions: Ideas, Organizations, and Constituencies’ by Murray Leaf, 2014
This was a late addition to this list and it is an imperfect volume in that, as one reviewer put it: “[its] worthwhile aims are met unevenly, resulting in a book that is certainly informed and informative, but often inconsistent in tone and level of analysis.” But I think its core message in chapter one of religion as a social institution which has much more in common with others than traditional religious studies would have us believe.
I couldn’t find any interviews or lectures. But I believe that this interview with Russell McCutcheon about the limits of religious studies would provide a useful complement.
The world religions are complex social phenomena. They use ideas of several different kinds. They include substantial systems of physical infrastructure. They have provisions for economic support. They embody their own systems of scholarship. They produce propaganda and they are politically important in many different ways. From time to time their leaders in various places have commanded armies and conducted wars. This cannot be explained simply by reviewing them as so many sets of beliefs.
The most conspicuous problem in contemporary comparative religion is that they underrate diversity. […] One result is to overstate what the major religions have in common with each other while understating or ignoring what they have in common with traditions considered non-religious.
The general class of cultural phenomena to which world religions belong can be described as large-scale, translocal, multi-organizational, professionalized cultural complexes.
Virtually all Japanese have recourse to the ideas and organizations of Buddhism and Shinto, and for the most part this is also true of Confucianism. […] Japanese parks are Shinto and the system of Shinto shrines in Japan has much the same place in Japanese emotional life as the system of national parks does for Americans. Confucian ideas are important in administrative and professional contexts.
‘Europe and the People without History’ by Eric R Wolf, 1982
This is the oldest book on the list and it has inspired many others.
Unlike Graeber, reading Wolf is hard going. This is certainly for the committed but it repays the effort. Even just looking at the maps showing the intricate trade routes going from the heart of Africa to the Baltic Sea is eye-opening.
Wolf’s central point is also the central point all the authors on this list return to again and again. We invented history based on the things that were easy to see. But this was very much looking for the keys under the lamppost where the light was and not where we lost them. Wolf (similarly to Graeber and Scott) has a distinctly untraditional politics leaning to the left (if perhaps not as much to anarchism).
“Africa south of the Sahara was not the isolated, backward area of European imagination, but an integral part of a web of relations that connected forest cultivators and miners with savanna and desert traders and with the merchants and rulers of the North African settled belt. This web of relations had a warp of gold, “the golden trade of the Moors,” but a weft of exchanges in other products. The trade had direct political consequences. What happened in Nigerian Benin or Hausa Kano had repercussions in Tunis and Rabat. When the Europeans would enter West Africa from the coast, they would be setting foot in a country already dense with towns and settlements, and caught up in networks of exchange that far transcended the narrow enclaves of the European emporia on the coast. We can see such repercussions at the northern terminus of the trade routes in Morocco and Algeria. Here one elite after another came to the fore, each one dependent on interaction with the Sahara and the forest zone. Each successive elite was anchored in a kin-organized confederacy, usually mobilized around a religious ideology.”
Pre-cursors and proto-revisionists
In many ways, almost any history is revisionist history. Each generation writes its own history books to reflect new knowledge but also new perspectives. Most history book authors feel they have something new with which to contribute and that can revise current understanding of the subject matter.
So it is not surprising that even revisionism in the vein that I’m looking at here is not just a matter of the last 20 or so years.
Much of the current revision was inspired by‘The Great Transformation’ by Karl Polanyi) published in 1944 which in turn rests on many of the anthropological revisions started by people like Franz Boas in the US and Bronisław Malinowski.
There is a continued thread of back and forth since at least then. Marshall Sahlins’ ‘Stone Age Economics’ from 1972 (with papers going back to the mid 1960s) started much revision and revision of the hunter gatherer condition. And so on.
At the same time but independently, people like Joseph Needham were painstakingly collecting data on the great civilizations of the ‘East’ which can now give us a fuller and more balanced picture of the world.
We should also not forget the work that has gone into revising the simplistic view of the 19th and 20th centuries, most notably to do with the emergence of the nation state. Here names such as Eric Hobsbawn, Ernest Gellner, Miroslav Hroch and, of course, Benedict Anderson, come to mind. And then there are the many people who are rethinking more recent events such as Timothy Snyder or Antony Beevor.
The list just goes on.
The other side of the coin
Of course, there is also the other side. Historical revisionists with grand schemes and overarching historical narratives. I’ve already mentioned Jared Diamond but also worth reading is Ian Morris. I’ve critiqued some of their work in my thesis proposing the metaphor of ‘History as Weather’. There are also people like Niall Ferguson who cannot be doing with all this rebalancing and want to put ‘the West’ back at the centre of things. I found his attempt in Civilization extremely unconvincing but he is a prominent voice in the anti-revisionist camp.
Note: I wrote a joint review of Morris and Ferguson for the Czech daily Lidové noviny under the title of ‘New historical eschatology’. I also wrote a positive review of Jared Diamond’s ‘Collapse’ soon after it came out which I would now revise significantly – see Questioning Collapse and After Collapse.
Steven Pinker’s ‘Better Angels of Our Nature‘ is another example of a grand sweep of history that tries to make the progress of humanity appear more directional and straightforward than the books on this list suggest it is or can be. And we should not forget the great systematisers of the 1990s Fukuyama andHuntington.
The temptation to discover the key to what makes human history tick is great. FromToynbee to Hari Seldon. And it is not difficult to discover interesting patterns.
The picture that the books on this list paint is that grand narratives of history do not stand up well to scrutiny. They may provide a useful lens through which to view the past, or more often the present. But there is always another grand narrative just around the corner.
In thinking about the predictive utility of history, I asked: “So what is the point of history then? Its accurate predictions are not very useful and its useful predictions are not very accurate.” History and ethnography show us the range of possible ways of being human. They don’t tell us what to do next or how to be, but they are essential components of our never-ending quest to find out what we could be.