Distinguished Oxford historian Priestland (The Red Flag: Communism and the Making of the Modern World) offers a “big history” based on the power struggle between three different castes, each of which, he argues, embodies distinct “ideas and lifestyles, which they often seek to impose on others.” Citing figures and events from antiquity through to the present, he explores how tensions among the three groups repeatedly rise to a fever pitch, and eventually transform their host society, and sometimes the world—the most recent example of one of these “tectonic shifts” occurred with the financial crisis of 2008, when the exploits of the merchant short-circuited the global economy. Priestland predicts that in the future, the Great Recession will be classed among the great shakeups of the 20th century: WWI and II, the Great Depression, the fall of the Berlin Wall—each of which he touches on. In the course of his “broad sweep,” Priestland is consistently engaging, whether in his discussion of the marshaling of Confucius’s teachings for political ends, or in pegging former President George W. Bush as a warrior. The author’s project is necessarily exclusive—what, for example, of the laborer or scholar, or mother for that matter?—but it is also ambitious, well organized, and insightful, and will appeal to scholarly and popular audiences. Agent: Gill Coleridge, Rogers, Coleridge & White (U.K.). (Mar. 25)
"The story of man, Oxford academic David Priestland writes in his new big-idea history entitled, can be told through the will to power of three castes of civilization… The book covers almost the entirety of human history, but really serves as an extremely long-tailed investigation into the financial crisis of 2008 and how civilization's failure to properly rein in the merchant in its wake might negatively affect the future… Priestland keeps things moving at a lively and readable pace."
The Daily Beast
"Priestland is consistently engaging, whether in his discussion of the marshaling of Confucius's teachings for political ends, or in pegging former President George W. Bush as a warrior… ambitious, well organized, and insightful, and will appeal to scholarly and popular audiences."
“Priestland marches us through history, showing us how his model applies to and illuminates everything from the Reformation to Robinson Crusoe, Adam to Adam Smith, Andrew Carnegie to Ayn Rand, Hitler to Putin, and Richard Wagner to Sinclair Lewis… He notes-no real surprise-that the world tends to get in trouble when it permits one caste to dominate… Useful, often-clarifying trifocals through which to view the world.
“Stimulating… In illustrating these larger processes of caste conflict and caste collaboration, [Priestland] offers crisp portraits of entrepreneurs, economists and warriors… Priestland has a wonderfully arch description of Davos, the Swiss mountain village where the world's leading businessmen and pro-market politicians meet every January… [with] sparkling prose and often arresting comparisons”
Ramachandra Guha, Financial Times
“[A] concise but extremely ambitious book… a schema well worth pondering and reflecting on. And among the many contributions to the dissection of our current predicament, this is surely one of the most thought-provoking.”
Sir Richard J. Evans, Guardian (UK)
“Lively, opinionated… The aim of this book is to use the lessons of history to understand the current financial crisis… Priestland has some interesting things to say about why power relationships shift and what happens when they do…”
“We have here a gripping, argument-led history, efforlessly moving between New York, Tokyo and Berlin, from the Reformation to the 2008 economic crisis ... dazzling ... here, at last, is a work that places the current crisis in a longer history of seismic shifts in the balance of social power”
BBC History Magazine
PRAISE FOR THE RED FLAG
"Mesmerizing… deftly combining academic rigour, personal histories and an engaging narrative."-Tristram Hunt
"Priestland writes with elegance and style… he introduces art, poetry, film and literature to illustrate his themes, which makes this a riveting cultural as well as political history."-Victor Sebestyen, Sunday Times
"The best and the most accessible one-volume history of Communism now available… A far-reaching, vividly written account." -Foreign Affairs
"Entertaining… astute… a fine new history of Communism." -John Gray, New Statesman
"In place of demonologies and apologies, a real history of modern communism from the beginning to the present.- It is an extraordinary story told with sympathy and with an incisive use of significant detail." -Gareth Stedman Jones
Oxford’s Priestland (The Red Flag: Communism and the Making of the Modern World), an expert on the Soviet Union and scholar of 20th-century comparative history, provides a nuanced, culturally aware, Marxist-influenced reading of the shifting ascendancies, rivalries, and collaborations of three elite groups (the “castes” of merchant, soldier, and sage). These groups are fluid; for instance, one of Priestland’s subjects, Robert McNamara, worked for years in corporate America (“merchant”), eventually heading Ford Motor Co. He was then recruited by President John F. Kennedy to serve in his administration (“sage”) as secretary of defense, whereupon his stewardship of the Vietnam War, first under Kennedy, then under Lyndon B. Johnson, enshrined his legacy as an exemplar of the “warrior caste.” Priestland begins his study with Genghis Kahn and Beowulf and with uncommon erudition pays equal attention to Asia and the developing world and Western Europe and the United States while managing to sustain narrative momentum. He is not sanguine about the future; his story ends with the warrior’s disastrous demise in Iraq, the Wall Street merchant’s destruction of investment as a driver of economic growth, and the dubious rise of “Davos Man,” a closed elite of extraordinarily wealthy sagesmany with business and military credentialswho annually attempt to contain the world’s problems at the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Switzerland.
Verdict Readers of serious intellectual history and contemporary policy will appreciate this relatively left-oriented yet nondoctrinaire assessment of the history of global power politics.Scott H. Silverman, Dresden, ME
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The author of The Red Flag: A History of Communism (2009) returns to present the skeleton of a new theory of human history. Priestland (Modern History/Univ. of Oxford) employs the term caste to mean "self-interested bodies seeking economic advantage but also as embodiments of ideas and lifestyles, which they often seek to impose on others." He identifies three of them (see title) and says there is also a fourth (workers and peasants) which, he writes, we should not neglect. He notes that each caste has, historically, allied with the others to varying degrees (the merchant-soldier, for example), but each has sought to dominate discourse and politics. After explaining his terms, Priestland marches us through history, showing us how his model applies to and illuminates everything from the Reformation to Robinson Crusoe, Adam to Adam Smith, Andrew Carnegie to Ayn Rand, Hitler to Putin, and Richard Wagner to Sinclair Lewis (George Babbitt does not fare well here). He notes--no real surprise--that the world tends to get in trouble when it permits one caste to dominate. In recent times, he bewails the warrior ethos that impelled George W. Bush to invade Iraq after 9/11 and the "pervasive merchant value system" which drove the world to near economic collapse in 2008. Occasionally, Priestland sounds very much like Paul Krugman, especially when he declares that the stimulus package of 2008 was too small; he sounds like Elizabeth Warren when he slaps the faces of investment bankers, who, he writes, need firm reins. The author acknowledges that this is a theoretical, not a practical, text, but he does offer some vague solutions: more awareness of history and a balanced contribution of all the castes. Useful, often-clarifying trifocals through which to view the world.
Lively, opinionated… The aim of this book is to use the lessons of history to understand the current financial crisis… Priestland has some interesting things to say about why power relationships shift and what happens when they do…