The Rise and Fall of Civilizations: A Reader Course

A Scholar’s Stage forum member reports that he and a friend recently finished reading John Darwin’s After Tamerlane. Enraptured by Darwin’s account of flourish and fall, they ask what else they might read to understand the rise and decline of peoples and powers over the course of human history.

              In my mind there are four central parts to this tale:

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On the Party and the Princelings

Desmund Shum is a red billionaire. Red Roulette is his memoir, a tell all expose of his family’s climb to the summits of wealth and the foothills of power. The book describes how he and his ex-wife maneuvered to the top—and why they subsequently crashed back to earth. Their fall was as dramatic as their rise: Shum now lives in exile; his unfortunate ex now lives in prison. With nothing to lose, Shum lets loose: his memoir promises to hang Beijing’s dirty laundry for all to see. What a sight this laundry turns out to be! Read this book. Though Shum is unreliable narrator, his memoir is the best single introduction to elite Chinese life yet written.

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As the Generations Churn: The Strategic Consequences of Cultural Change in Communist Russia… and China?

Vladislav M. Zubok’s A Failed Empire: The Soviet Union in the Cold War From Stalin to Gorbachev is a surprising counterpart to my essay, “Culture Wars are Long Wars.” That essay proposed a general theory of cultural change. Key to its thesis was the observation that most cultural change does not occur because people change their ideas, but because people with new ideas replace people with old ones. As most people form their essential political worldview by the time they are 30 and only adapt it on the edges to new circumstances, only the most earth shaking events have the power to fundamentally shift the frameworks and values that the majority filter their politics through. Large scale cultural shift is largely a story of generational churn.

While the focus of that piece was on American domestic politics, this is a general phenomena that applies across cultures and time periods. Vladislav Zubok understands this. The generational nature of political change is a recurring theme of Failed Empire, which chronicles the ups and downs of Soviet diplomacy from the end of World War II to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. While we often describe Soviet history in terms of the leader reigning at the top of the system, Zubok argues that shifts in Soviet strategic behavior reflected not only the differing leadership styles of the various CPSU General Secretaries, but broader transitions from one generation of leaders to another.

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Understanding Taiwanese Nationalism: A Historical Primer in Bullet Points

  Noah Smith has a recent substack note discussing Taiwan. In the comments section there are a number of heated arguments over whether Taiwanese language, history, politics, and so forth are enough to justify thinking of Taiwan the way Smith does: as its own “civilization.” When reading through these debates I was struck by the […]

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Where Have All the Great Works Gone?

A few months ago I wrote about Oswald Spengler’s attempt at comparative world history. I expressed severe reservations with Spengler’s methods and conclusions.[1] But for me the most fascinating parts of the book were the footnotes to Spengler’s main argument. Take, for example, Spengler’s attempt to compare and contrast members of his chosen pantheon of […]

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Spengler and the Search for a Science of Human Culture

Several months ago I wrote a few reflections on Ross Douthat’s newest book, The Decadent Society.[1] As I noted, Douthat’s most interesting claim is that we live in an age of intellectual sterility. We cycle ever backwards to the intellectual, cultural, and political priorities of 1975. In response, I argued that complaints of cultural sterility […]

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The World That China Wants (II): The Communist Case In Brief

Add caption One month ago I announced a series that would investigate “the world that China wants,” using Dan Tobin’s recent congressional testimony and Nadege Rolland’s recent research brief as the foundation of this discussion. My original plan was to dissect each of these documents at length. However, I put that aspect of the project […]

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