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Book Review


Edward Ross Dickinson, The World in the Long Twentieth Century: An Interpretive History. Oakland: University of California Press, 2018. Pp. 377, including notes, select bibliography, and index.


     As an interpretive synthesis, The World in the Long Twentieth Century is a tour de force. A careful reading will feed a summer rethink of world history curricula, particularly those focused on the recent past. Dickinson offers big picture explanations for the forest of detail in AP World, European, and U.S. History courses. For those who have adapted "Big History" model to their college or high school classrooms, Dickinson offers a granular look at the way David Christian's themes (particularly the succession of energy regimes) have played out over the last fifteen decades.

     Students will benefit from two particular strengths of Dickinson's account. The first is its lucid explanations for a number of complicated concepts. The second is its reliance on hard data drawn from the World Bank, the OECD, the UN and other sources: The Long Twentieth Century incorporates, and heavily relies upon, over a hundred charts that substantiate its claims. That said, there are elements central to Dickinson's approach which may put off some potential readers.

     Before weighing the book's achievements and shortcomings, it's worth considering whether we actually need a longer twentieth century.

     For most of my life, I understood the "Twentieth Century" to begin with the guns of August 1914 and end in the USSR's 1991 collapse. This "short 20th century" scaffolded Eric Hobsbawm's Marxist-inflected Age of Extremes, and it matched the experience of my own family, marginal and expendable participants in this history on four continents.1

     In the generations born since the Cold War's end, this short 20th century, has gradually become unmoored from personal history. Historians too, never entirely comfortable with placing such strict boundaries on cause and effect, have sought to rethink the boundaries of recent history.

     The Marxist historian Giovanni Arrighi deployed the phrase "Long Twentieth Century" nearly thirty years ago, emphasizing in his work the continuity of First World exploitation of the Third from the late 19th century through the collapse of communism in the USSR and the apartheid regime in South Africa. Since then, specialists have plumped for China's Long Twentieth Century, Russia's Long Twentieth Century, and the USA's Long Twentieth Century. More will surely come.2

     What purpose is served by bracketing a hundred-fifty years into one big narrative? Why yoke contemporary events to their antecedents fifty, a hundred, and a hundred-fifty years ago?

     Back in 1964, Geoffrey Barraclough insisted that historians were fully justified in studying "contemporary history," that is, events which may have occurred within their own lifetimes. When does "contemporary" history begin? "When the problems that are actual in the world today first take visible shape."3

     This is exactly how Dickinson justifies his project. The Long Twentieth Century reaches back into the late nineteenth century to explain the environmental predicament in which we find ourselves, the economic volatility we have experienced, and the particularist (national, religious, ethnic) shape which most conflicts have taken, whether within countries or between them. Driving all this is an intensified revolution that spurred titanic changes in human economies, administrative capacities, scientific discoveries, and applied technologies, each strand reinforcing the other:

…starting in the middle decades of the nineteenth century, technological changes have continuously and increasingly transformed the relationship between the human species, on the one hand, and the environment and resources of our planet, on the other. All of world history in this period has fundamentally been driven by this development….The transformation has been unprecedented in its speed and scope (3).

Dickinson introduces these themes in his first two chapters. "The Biological Transformation of Modern Times" addresses population, the expansion of extractive enterprise into "challenging biomes" (that is, the tropics), and mass migration. "Foundations of the Modern Global Economy" addresses the scientific, technological, and organizational innovations which massively increased human capacities, whether organized in newly empowered governments or newly complex corporations.

     Dickinson's approach here recalls that of historians ranging from Lewis Mumford through David Christian.4 In their accounts, the key event is the transition between two energy regimes, the first reliant on wood, wind, water, and muscle for fuel, fiber and food, and the second on fossil fuels: coal and petroleum. In the first regime, fuel competed for arable land with fuel and fiber, creating regular and severe crises that limited economic growth. The second regime vastly increased agricultural productivity, and ushered an era of unprecedented material wealth, doubled life expectancies and vastly reduced the sum of human misery. This, Dickinson writes, was a "massive transformation, unique in the history of the last five or six millennia… almost unbelievably rapid [that]… has affected virtually the entire world" (1).

     Dickinson acknowledges the substantial rewards for the new system's early adopters (most of them in the North Atlantic), and the substantial price paid by latecomers who ended up for some time under the thumb of Euro-American imperial states and international companies intent on "what we might call commodity extraction" (63, emphasis in original). But Dickinson also has his eye on the colonial state acting on its own behalf, noting, for instance, that taxation "drained away" much of British India's resources (96).5 Dickinson recounts the most abusive consequences of these systems, drawing, for instance, from Mike Davis's "late 19th century holocausts," the massive famines that coincided with El Niño weather patterns but whose effects (drought in Brazil, India and elsewhere) were exacerbated, first by the fact that acreage formerly devoted to food crops that traditionally provided some margin against famine, now were planted in globally traded commodities, and second by global trade itself, which set market prices for food which put even locally produced foodstuffs beyond the reach of local peasants (96).6  The liberatory movements of the 19th century, particularly the abolition of slavery in the Americas and serfdom in Russia, turned forced labor into "free" labor. But without capital, expanded property rights or access to agricultural technologies, former serfs and slaves remained on the bottom rail.

     Modernizing nation states treated peasants as developmental dead weight. Their plots were too small to be worked productively (and they got smaller as health care improved and infant mortality fell), they resisted modernization because they were fundamentally conservative, they resisted state demands for revenues, and their loyalties remained resolutely local rather than national (153–158). Throughout the 20th century, therefore, governments devised policies aimed at resolving the "Peasant Question." They forcibly transformed common grazing, hunting and agricultural lands into saleable private plots; removed indigenous peoples to reservations on more marginal lands; confiscated and collectivized village plots; and sometimes resorted to mass murder and genocide.

     Dickinson shows that such policies hardened peasant resistance, making the "Peasant Question" a central issue in global development throughout the century's fifteen decades, as states sought to vastly increase agricultural production by encouraging (or imposing) efficiencies of scale and modern technologies such as fertilizers and tractors.7

     In his discussion of agricultural technology, Dickinson links growing pressures on peasants to the rise of petroleum. While the first industrial revolution relied on coal, it was petroleum which defines the century. Dickinson traces both world wars not so much to balance-of-power calculations or to rickety hair-triggered alliance systems, but to incipient conflicts between the ambitious land-and-oil poor (particularly Germany and, later, Japan) and the land-and-oil rich (Russia, the United States, the British Empire).

     Also linking petroleum to peasants were the falling transportation costs made possible by diesel. They became more vulnerable to famine because their lands were used for commodity agriculture, and they could not undersell wheat, rice and other foodstuffs produced through the new methods. Meanwhile, petroleum-based fertilizers and petroleum-dependent farm machinery made for a capital-intensive agriculture that forced peasants off their lands, contributing to mass migrations of the 19th and 20th centuries, and indirectly fueling anti-immigrant politics everywhere.

     Dickinson lays out the strategic significance of oil very clearly. In the early 1900s, "the problem was that the United States produced about two-thirds of the world's oil, which gave it a key advantage in crucial modern industries" (148). The challenge for ambitious governments was to secure petroleum (and coal) somewhere besides North America. The Russians developed their own resources the region around Baku, and the British in the Persian Gulf. For Japan, Manchurian coal and Dutch East Indian oil seemed strategic necessities. For Germany, both Russian and British-controlled energy resources beckoned.

     These developments transformed culture as much as politics and economics. Some of Dickinson's best passages trace the consequences of global communications, migration, and commerce for cultural exchange. Those consequences were paradoxical. Chapter five, devoted to this process as it played out between 1830 and 1940, is entitled "Localization and Globalization":   local because ethnic, national, and linguistic solidarities served states as they sought to centralize and rationalize; global because these methods quickly spread beyond states to movements who sought unity against globalization, imperialism or more powerful and centralized governments. Nationalist projects generally demanded "strenuous efforts" via state schooling, linguistic standardization, the construction of national armies, and the veneration of national symbols (98–109). For Dickinson, nationalism was largely a top-down affair, the creation of modern political movements, modern governments.8

     Yet globalization also intensified cultural exchange. Dickinson devotes considerable attention to the Ruth St. Denis as well as to Mohandas K. Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore. The dancer/choreographer, the nationalist leader, and the Nobel-prize winning writer were inveterate travelers who both drew from the cultures they encountered and contributed to them. Some would now call this "appropriation" but Dickinson points instead towards intercultural synergy, hybridity, and syncretism (themes he unfortunately does not pursue so extensively beyond 1940).

     Modernization all but demanded cheap food, cheap fuel, and mobilization of shared identity. In one way and another, Dickinson argues, these facts account for the recurrent economic and geopolitical crises of 1914–1991. To put the case more succinctly, the "long Twentieth Century" explains the "short Twentieth Century." The "Problem of the Peasant" (150) became particularly pressing between the wars: "In the 1930s, nations increasingly perceived the question of who would control land and manage the agricultural economy as matters of their life and death." More, "both gains in agricultural productivity and the modern industrial sector depended on a single key resource: oil." (164). Meanwhile, nationalism's uglier strains metastasized into the virulent fascism that caused World War II.

     Of the Cold War, Dickinson writes that it was "not a shooting war" (179). While that statement is narrowly true, estimates for the total dead in American and Soviet "proxy wars" come to between ten and twenty millions. Robert McNamara came closer to the truth when, recalling his stint as Secretary of Defense under Kennedy and Johnson, he declared to filmmaker Erroll Morris, "Cold War? Hell, it was a hot war!"9

     Dickinson places the Cold War's stable but violent "(dis)order" in the context of three related developments: anti-colonial rebellion and "third wordlist" resistance; the "great acceleration" of technology, science, and productivity that began in the 1940s; the Euro-American economic hegemony (and, for a time, stability) enforced via the World Bank, the Bretton Woods Agreement, GATT, and other postwar institutions; and the yawning gap between core (Europe, North America, Japan) and periphery.10

     That gap is the subject of one of Dickinson's stronger passages, on the relationship between "development" and Cold War competition for Third World loyalties (229–235). Developmental policy frequently went sideways. Early emphasis on infrastructure and other capital-intensive projects contributed to debt crises when 1960s growth ended in 1970s stagflation. Political elites atop socially stratified societies "stubbornly defended their privileges," siphoning off aid. Many projects "merely assisted the familiar forms of commodity extraction" (233), leading to accusations of neocolonialism.

     It's at this point that the reader might expect Dickinson to embrace "dependency theory." He certainly is in sympathy with a similar reading of relations between metropole and colony a hundred years earlier. Indeed, he devotes a lengthy discussion to these ideas in chapter eight, "Revolt and Refusal" (see especially 236–246).

     Instead, he chooses "Transformative Modernity" as his title for chapter nine. By transformative modernity, he refers to a coincidence of developments: the Green Revolution, urbanization, the East Asian economic "miracle," the slowing of population growth, increasing efficiencies in energy use (even as the rate of extraction increased), the rapid diffusion of technological innovation, and the increasingly far-reaching bureaucratic apparatus of state and corporation. The result: a rapidly narrowing gap between the old core and periphery.

     Dickinson's argument for the economic convergence of third and first worlds owes much to the late Angus Maddison and his massive compilation of historical economic data for the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). The same argument appeared as well in the work of public health statistician Hans Rosling (whose website Gapminder has become a go-to resource for classroom historical projects). Economist Robert Fogel summed up this argument in the title to a slim book, The Escape from Hunger and Premature Death.11

     If things have improved so much, why are people around the world in such dismal moods? Dickinson here emphasizes modernization's knock-on effects. One such consequence is the transformation of gender, sexuality, longevity, and family. This shift, among the most far-reaching in human history, has impacted everything from the stability of "welfare states" tasked with supporting a growing elderly population to ideas about the very definition of "men" and "women." Throughout the world, much of the resistance against these trends has fed the political Right.

     Meanwhile, raw material extraction and industrial production accelerated, commandeering the natural world and, perhaps, replacing the Left's class-based militancy with environmental activism. While the "international community" come together in the early 1990s to ban chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) in order to patch the ozone "hole" over the Antarctic, that community proved unable to coordinate a sufficient response to this the far more serious threat of climate change. Dickinson is dismayed, but not surprised. Fossil fuels underwrote the entirety of the last 150 years of development, and governments faced with the consequences "may not be equal to the job" (328), leaving universities, corporations, or "superwealthy individual beneficiaries of economic globalization" to step up. "Of course," concludes Dickinson morosely, "none of these three options—and no combination of them—is entirely appealing (329–330).12

*   *   * 

     While The Long Twentieth Century offers world history teachers a useful approach to organizing recent history, I came away with several concerns which other readers may share.

     First, Dickinson provides no list of his one hundred-plus charts and graphs. Writing this review, for example, I wanted to reference a chart that illustrates falling shipping costs, thanks first to coal and steam, then to petroleum and diesel. There are actually two such charts (3.13, "Freight Costs for British Shipping, 1740–1913," and 7.10, "Transport and Communication Costs… 1930–1980), and it took me several minutes to relocate them. Such scavenger hunts are frustrated by a bare-bones index, one which misses a number of concepts and individual names (particularly of historians and economists Dickinson mentions throughout the book). Were I using Long Twentieth Century in class, I'd likely assign each student one or two of Dickinson's graphs for a brief presentation, project, or paper. Before doing so, I would have to compile a list of these charts myself, turning a minor irritant to medium-sized annoyance.

     A second drawback is Dickinson's omission of conventional explanations for the century's central events. Granted, there are good reasons for doing so. In a book which aims to give readers the view from 20,000 feet, it is no bad thing that Dickinson should keep readers focused on the big picture. What's more, doing so keeps the book down to just over three hundred pages, a reasonable length. Dickinson explains himself this way:

That is not to say that other factors have had no effect. Ideas; political structures; calculations of national prestige or of strategic military positioning; legal, religious, and cultural traditions and standards; wars and their sometimes unpredictable outcomes; economic booms and busts and the policy responses to them; and the decisions of individual historical actors have all shaped the specific ways in which this fundamental transformation has played out….

Nevertheless, these complex forces and factors have all operated within the broader framework of the underlying profound, unprecedented, and explosive transformation of the relationship between humanity and its planet in the modern era, and between human societies living in different parts of the planet, brought about by a unique period of innovation and advance in science and technology.

Dickinson's focus on the "broader framework" makes catastrophes seem inevitable. Big History, with its billion-year timelines, may reasonably impose an unflinching historical determinism, but a narrative which reaches back just four human lifespans ought to be more cautious.

     As a result, I found Dickinson's version of world history to be flattened and mechanistic. My reaction is frankly personal. Family members died in some of the century's upheavals. They did not die because of titanic and unstoppable historical forces. They died thanks to policy decisions that were anything but inevitable. I am pretty sure that my family history is widly shared. The reason we recount to students the steps toward Mao's disastrous Great Leap Forward or the Versailles Treaty's finer points is exactly that we want students to understand that individual political decisions really do matter.

     Dickinson devotes chapter eight, "Revolt and Refusal," to what Immanuel Wallerstein called "anti-systemic movements" that encompass everything from non-governmental organizations like Human Rights Watch to Communist revolutionary movements.13 Ironically, Dickinson's discussion of political movements discourages students from believing that political participation matters. For example, he notes that the boycott and divestment campaign against South Africa helped end apartheid in 1991. He adds, however, that:

The divestment strategy … was an almost unique success. By the 1990s, the global human rights campaign appeared, for all its high media profile, to have accomplished remarkably little. Nevertheless, it was by then an important part of global political and cultural life. And it was more often critical of governments than supportive of them… (247)

Given the book's historical determinism, Dickinson's unintended message to students is this: there's not much you can actually do.

     This is only one book. The World in the Long Twentieth Century aspires to be a textbook. It is oversize (9"x7.5"), with very generous 2" margins along the sides, a feature I appreciated since it easily accommodated my reading notes. In my view, world history (and U.S. and European history) classrooms would benefit tremendously from exposure to Dickinson's synthesis. But I would generously supplement a class organized around this book with sources suggesting that we are not all heading for Hell in history's handbasket.

     For a model of how to achieve Dickinson's aims without unduly discouraging students, it's worth rereading Jared Diamond's analysis of the postwar Dominican Republic and Haiti. Successive governments in the Dominican Republic, Diamond argues, chose policies that better protected their citizens than did their counterparts in Haiti. Diamond's argument came in for considerable criticism (he is no expert on Caribbean history), but he asks the right question: if history is somehow inevitable, then why, in two comparable cases, are the outcomes so different? It is this question that Dickinson rarely asks, yet it makes all the difference. Why were East Asian developmental policies more effective than those in Latin America? Why, within Europe was Germany's late 20th century economy stronger than that of France? Why did rates of interpersonal violence plummet in Finland and Greece but remain high in the United States over a similar period? In short, how is it that human action so often resists determinism?14

     A third feature of The Long Twentieth Century is its unrelenting political centrism. No surprise here: one thing the far Left and the far Right share is a conviction that they can, through their own collective efforts, change the world. Dickinson is skeptical of both. I share, to a degree, Dickinson's distaste for this "age of extremes." However, I think that Dickinson's critiques of Left and Right leave much to be desired.

     At first blush, Dickinson's sympathies seem to lean left. The initial thrust of his arguments echo those of Robert Marks's The Origins of the Modern World a text widely used in introductory world history courses, in large measure because it offers a cohesive worldview, one built on world-systems and neocolonialist theories.15

     Yet Dickinson dissents strongly from the Left's hostility to capitalism. Peasant rights are at the core of the Leftist arguments Dickinson frequently cites, undergirding Eric Wolf's distinctive brand of Marxism and James Scott's equally idiosyncratic anarchism.16 Like Jared Diamond, Dickinson both sympathizes and, in effect, blames peasants for making too little of their admittedly limited economic choices. In a generally thoughtful section on 20th peasantries, Dickinson writes that they were "not strongly oriented to markets" and were frequently hostile to innovation, "skeptical of borrowing money to make improvements, since they might well lose their land if that strategy failed to pay off" (154). In short, though you can hardly blame peasants for their reluctance to engage with a hostile global economy, you can't feed the world's rapidly expanding population if you don't.

     No surprise that Dickinson credits the Green Revolution with preventing famines that could well have overtaken vast populations. Dickinson deems the Green Revolution's hybridization of staple crops, agricultural mechanization, and intensive use of petroleum-based fertilizers essential to improving human welfare over the past sixty years. Dickinson expansively engages criticisms of the Green Revolution: over-reliance on fossil fuels, contributions to climate-changing CO2, and increased national indebtedness as countries struggled pay for all that imported machinery, fuel, and fertilizer when economic headwinds turned fierce.17

     Yet Dickinson is nearly as skeptical of the late twentieth century Right (280–289). True, he spotlights Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in a cogent passage useful to students unfamiliar with the 1980s. Dickinson goes wrong, however, when he assesses religious conservatism. As is true of many observers, he treats the rise of religious "fundamentalism" (a term deemed pejorative in some quarters) as a reaction against modernity with its unpredented reordering of gender relationships, family, and the balance between secular and religious cultural sensibilities. In short, Dickinson's account treats religious conservatives as if they had little agency. Dickinson's version of that history struck me as describing faith traditions which are merely tools for negotiating with a hostile world (an "opiate of the people"?).

     In the past few years, religious conservatives in the U.S. and Britain have been a-buzz about A Secular Age, philosopher Charles Taylor's critique of secular values and interpretations. Borrowing from Taylor, conservatives argue that their traditionalism isn't a mere reaction against modernity. Instead, it protects a robust store of values that reinforces humane relationships, both among persons and between those persons and God. Religious conservatives believe that, if unrestrained, the materialisms of the Socialist left and the Libertarian right18 would tear these relationships apart. Again, Dickinson tends to minimize agency, treating the religious Right as well as the Left as reactive rather than creative.

     This absence of agency increases with distance from Western Europe and the United States. To be sure, Dickinson mentions over thirty non-Western individuals by name, and deftly profiles more than a dozen. And Dickinson is very good in describing the Third Worldism associated with Franz Fanon, Che Guevara, Stokely Carmichael, and other figures from the 1950s to the 1970s. When it comes to integrating non-Western history with that of Europe and the United States, however, there is more to be done.

     Consider, for example, Dickinson's discussion of the "The Welfare State" (225–235).19 Every specific policy he mentions is credited to U.S. President Johnson's "Great Society" programs (228–230). While he notes that Europeans also adopted such policies, he is not specific about them. Dickinson's silence may well leave students with the impression that these social insurance measures originated in the United States, though they in fact grew out of a combination of paternalist conservatism (Bismarck's, for instance) and 20th century Socialist platforms, in Canada as well as in Europe. It would be better still if Dickinson discussed comparable policy elsewhere in the world. Japanese and Taiwanese insurance systems, for instance, have equaled anything in Europe and the USA for quite some time. Dickinson might also have addressed policy experimentation in Latin America, both on the populist Right (for instance, under Brazilian President Getulio Vargas's authoritarian Novo Estado) and the populist Left (for example, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva's Bolsa Família). Broadly considered, social insurance policies were global, emerging in many places at once.

     Dickinson is similarly Anglocentric about global conservatism. Though Dickinson grants Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher all the credit, their brand of conservatism was neither the first and may not, in the long run, prove to be the most important. A global story might also focus, for instance, on the Christian Democratic parties which emerged in the 20th century have since influenced conservative thinkers throughout the world. The first meeting of political parties associated with Christian democracy, in 1925, included only European representatives. In 1960, however, delegates from around the world organized the Christian Democratic International. Even if limited to Europe alone, a discussion of Christian Democrats and their allied parties would introduce Konrad Adenauer and Charles de Gaulle, two significant figures whose legacies are neglected.

     I am surprised by Dickinson's silence on Christian Democracy given his attention to the Catholic Church. Dickinson frequently draws direct quotes the encyclicals of Popes John XXIII, Paul VI, and John Paul II. He mentions both Vatican I (1864–68) and Vatican II (1962–1965) a level of detail spared for very few other global events.

     To be sure, with over a billion adherents, Catholicism arguably exercises a greater global influence than any other single faith tradition (though it is under considerable pressure from China's government, from Latin American Pentecostals, and from African Muslims). And, in criticizing both socialists and libertarians while calling for communitarian economics infused with greater respect for the family, the Catholic Church positions itself apart from the mainstream of both Left and Right.

     Yet Dickinson has little to say about the Church's internal tensions, tensions which play out globally. He does not mention "liberation theology" a set of ideas that influenced Pope Francis and is associated with Latin American theologians writing in the 1960s and 1970s. Nor does he discuss the Catholic Right, dubious about the effects of Vatican II and particularly influential among Catholic bishops in Africa and through the Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX), founded in Switzerland and now international in scope.

     As for the nearly 70% of the world's people who are not Christian, he goes into depth only for the period 1880–1920 (109–116). Dickinson's treatment of non-Christian religious developments in the ten decades since are brief and, taken on their own, misleading. He discusses late 20th century Hinduism solely through the lens of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), whose "religious radicalism" he compares to that of Iran's ruling Shi'a clerics (285–286). Apart from Ayatollah Khomeini, Dickinson limits his discussion of Islam to late 19th and early 20th century figures. He does not mention the Muslim Brothers (organized in Egypt in 1928) or such moderate Islamic voices as that of Iran's Abdolkarim Souroush or Kuwaiti legal scholar Khaled Abou El Fadl. Nor does he discuss radicalizing currents in Sunni Islam, particularly those associated with Egypt's Sayyid Qutb. Given events of the last thirty years, such omissions are unfortunate.20

     In discussing religion in the early 20th century, Dickinson rightly notes that faith traditions contended with contradictory trends. Religious institutions have become more centralized while, at the same time, they have had to face fragmentation. They have expanded their flocks even as secularist views have spread. Students new to religious history will benefit from these considerations. Again, however, they are best understood in a global context and extended into our own era. One corrective may be found in Philip Jenkins' pioneering work on "The Next Christendom," which puts African, Asian, and Latin American Christianities at the center of the telling.21

     Then there is the matter of internationalism. Dickinson is completely correct to single out the international non-governmental organizations as a significant 20th century innovation (125–127).  However, nearly all the INGOs he writes about either began as projects of the North Atlantic core (this is true of both the Red Cross and HRW) or retain their headquarters there.

     Such transnational organizing was also vital to the development of movements in the periphery. For example, the Pan-African Congress, organized by the Americans W.E.B. DuBois and Ida Gibbs, attracted delegates from the African diaspora as well as from Africa itself. The League Against Imperialism first met in Brussels in 1927, and was attended by delegates from Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean, the Middle East and Asia. Such meetings spurred working relationships on the sidelines, exposed delegates to an array of anti-imperialist tactics and strategies, and internationalized local resistance. Such international conferencing achieved much while bypassing Euro-American institutions.22

     That said, it is difficult to incorporate both complex narrative and interpretive synthesis into an introductory text of just three hundred pages. It speaks well of Edward Dickinson's ambition and concision that The World in the Long Twentieth Century succeeds as well as it does.

Tom Laichas, former editor of World History Connected earned his Ph.D. from UCLA (1999). He recently retired from Crossroads School in Santa Monica, California, where he taught for over thirty years. He has just released his first collection of poetry, Empire of Eden (Swindon, UK: The High Window Press, 2019).



1 Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 19141991 (Pantheon Books, 1994). See also Willie Thompon, Ideologies in the Age of Extremes 19141991 (Pluto Press, 2015). The 1914–1991 frame also informs the revised  edition of Paul Johnson's Modern Times: The World from the Twenties to the Nineties (Harper Perennial, 2001 [1984]).

2 Giovanni Arrighi, The Long Twentieth Century: Money, Power and the Origins of Our Times (Verso, 1994); Gail Hershatter, Women in China's Long Twentieth Century, GAIA Books, 1, available at; Choi Chatterjee, Lisa A. Kirschenbaum and Deborah A. Field, Russia's Long Twentieth Century: Voices, Memories, Contested Perspectives (Routledge: 2016); Michael Heale, The United States in the Long Twentieth Century: Politics and Society since 1900 (Bloomsbury Academic, 2015). Heale actually begins his story at the turn of the 20th century, but it has become so customary to break the "century" at 1914 that this comes as a mild surprise. In fact, he proposes extending America's "long" 20th century at least to 2012.

3 Geoffrey Barraclough, An Introduction to Contemporary History (Basic Books: 1964), 12.

4 See, for example, Lewis Mumford, Technics and Civilization (Harcourt, Brace & Company, 1934); Peter J. Hugill, World Trade Since 1431: Geography, Technology, and Capitalism; Kenneth Pomeranz, The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy, Vaclav Smil, Creating the Twentieth Century: Technical Innovations of 18671914 and Their Lasting Impact (Oxford University Press, 2005) and Energy in World History (Westview Press, 1994); David Christian, Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History (2005).

5 Here, Dickinson seems to echo early Indian economist Dababhai Naoroji's "drain of wealth" theory, presented in Naoroji, Poverty and Un-British Rule in India (Swan Sonnenschein & Co., 1901), especially 33–35. However, Dickinson refers to India's burden of taxation, while Naoroji emphasized India's trade deficit.

6 Mike Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World (Verso, 2001).

7 Here Dickinson draws explicitly from two classic works in agrarian history: Eric Wolf, Peasant Wars of the Twentieth Century (Harper & Row, 1969) and James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (Yale University Press, 1998). Wolf's work sought to place the Vietnam War in the context of global peasant resistance to capitalism dating back into the 19th century and through the Mexican, Russian, and Chinese Revolutions of the 20th century. Scott focused on how centralizing states tried and failed to simplify and rationalize the complexities of rural life for the sake of administrative simplicity and economic control. Both Wolf and Scott emphasize the agency of rural people in power struggles with centralizing institutions. While Wolf saw the state as a tool of corporate power, Scott, writing thirty years later, argued that the state often acted in its own interests. Revolutionary socialism is at the center of both accounts. But for Wolf, socialism and communism spread because they promised peasant liberation. Scott is more concerned with the harrowing and ultimately self-defeating agrarian collectivization imposed upon peasants by the revolutionary Left once it got hold of power, particularly in Stalin's USSR and Julus Nyerere's Tanzania. Ultimately, Dickinson's account is more closely aligned with Scott than with Wolf.

8 The origins of national, racial and ethnic identity has vexed scholars for decades. In arguing that modernization consciously forged widely shared but strictly bounded solidarities, Dickinson allies himself with, among others, Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (Verso, 1983 and later editions); Eric Hobsbawm, The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge University Press, 1983) and Nations and Nationalism Since 1780: Programme, Myth, Reality (Cambridge University Press, 1990); and Ernest Gellner, Nations and Nationalism (Cornell University Press, 1983). For a view from the bottom up, see, for example, Azar Gat and Alexander Yakobsen, Nations: The Long History and Deep Roots of Political Ethnicity and Nationalism (Cambridge University Press, 2013).

9 Erroll Morris (dir.), The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (2003). For a transcript, see

10 The term "Great Acceleration" seems to have appeared after 2014 and is associated with the concept of the Anthropecene, that is, the human-made biological regime that has emerged over the past two centuries. It is associated with the environmental historian J.R. McNeill, The Great Acceleration: An Environmental History of the Anthropocene Since 1945 (Harvard University Press, 2016).

11 Before his death, Maddison wrote three works that undergird much of the contemporary developmentalist case: The World Economy: Historical Statistics (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, 2004), Growth and Interaction in the World Economy: The Roots of Modernity (American Enterprise Institute Press, 2005), and Contours of the World Economy, 12030 AD: Essays in Macro-Economic History (Oxford University Press, 2007). See also Robert Fogel et al., The Escape from Hunger and Premature Death, 17002100: Europe, America, and the Third World (Cambridge University Press, 2004). For Hans Rosling's work, see Gapminder, at For an introduction to Rosling, see his presentation, "Don't Panic—End Poverty in 15 Years," at and Rosling's TED talk,

12 Bill McKibben, The End of Nature (Viking, 1990). 

13 See Giovanni Arrighi, Terence K. Hopkins and Immanuel Wallerstein, Anti-Systemic Movements (Verso, 1989).

For the ways in which Wallerstein deployed that term to assess contemporary events (sometimes forseeing the future, sometimes not) see, "New Revolts Against the System," New Left Review 18, November/December 2002 at

14 Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (Viking, 2005), 329–357.

15 Robert Marks, The Origins of the Modern World: A Global and Environmental Narrative from the Fifteenth to the Twenty-First Century, 4th ed. (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019)

16 For Eric Wolf's "unorthodox Marxism," see "Obituary: Eric Wolf," in The Independent, March 13, 1999, at To get the flavor of James C. Scott's anarchism, see "'When the revolution becomes the state It becomes my Enemy Again,'" in The Conversation, September 16, 2016, at

17 Dickinson makes these points in three passages: "The Ecological Moment, 1960–1990" (252–262), ""Real Development, 1975–2000" (263–280) and "The End of the 'Natural' World?" (326–330). During this discussion, Dickinson rightly devotes attention to Paul Ehrlich, The Population Bomb (Sierra Club, 1968). For a critique, see Charles C. Mann, "The Book That Incited a Worldwide Fear of Overpopulation," Smithsonian Magazine, January 2018 at For Ehrlich's response, see "The Population Bomb, 50 Years Later: A Conversation With Paul Ehrlich" from Climate One (in association with KQED, San Francisco, 1998) at

18 Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Harvard University Press, 2007). For a sympathetic Christian conservative reading of Taylor, see Dale M. Coulter, "Charles Taylor and the Communion of the Saints," March 14, 2017, at

19 The term "welfare state" is something of a slur in U.S. political debate, and is heard (if at all) only from conservatives. Its origins apparently date from 1940s Britain. Asa Briggs, "The Welfare State in Historical Perspective," European Journal of Sociology 2:2 (1961), 221, claims that it found its first widespread use to in Britain's first postwar Labour government.

20 For the idea of a "moderate Islam," see, for instance, Richard L. Benkin (ed.), What Is Moderate Islam? (Rowman & Littlefield, 2017) and Khaled Abou El Fadl, The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam from the Extremists (Harper, 2005). For more on the Muslim Brotherhood, see, for instance, Carrie Rosefsky Wickam, The Muslim Brotherhood: Evolution of an Islamic Movement (Princeton University Press, 2013).

21 For Philip Jenkins, see for instance The Next Christendom: he Coming of Global Christianity (Oxford University Press, 2002) and The New Faces of Christianity: Believing the Bible in the Global South (Oxford University Press, 2006). Similar studies of diversity and change in Hindu, Buddhist and other traditions are available, though I am not familiar with them.

22 For more on early 20th century international anti-imperialist organizing, see Vijay Prashad, The Darker Nations: A People's History of the Third World (The New Press, 2007), particularly ch. 1–2.


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