Every year I post a list of every book I read the year previous, with my ten favorites bolded. You can find my past entries here (2020) here (2019) here (2018), here (2017), here (2016), here (2015), here (2014), and here (2013). As in those posts, I list the books in the approximate order in which I finished them. Some of these books I read bit by bit over several months. Others I finished the day I started them. All include a url, but the ten best (according to nothing but my own subjective judgement) are bolded and given a link. I only count books that I finished for the first time this year as eligible for “ten best books of the year.” A more condensed list of books that I started but read only in excerpt (or did not finish) can be found at the bottom of the post.
In December of 2020 I wrote a post titled “Leninist Politics: A Reading Course.” That post laid out a set of readings intended to be read over the stretch of year. There are vigorous debates over the relevance of Marxist theory, Leninist tactics, and Stalinist practice to the Communist Party of China in the 21st century; when I created that reading course, I felt like my knowledge of Soviet history and the Marxist texts that inspired the Bolsheviks was too shallow to meaningfully comment on these debates. Over the course of 2021 I went through the list—with some emendations—with a small group of similarly curious folks here in Washington DC. Our bimonthly meetings were the intellectual highlight of the year. I hope to continue this practice in the years to come, and have slowly been forming similar syllabi on various topics worth delving into (e.g. “imperial Chinese politics;” “American political culture & political theory, 1800-1920,” “East Asian geopolitics, 1890-1990,” “spirituality in early human societies,” “political authority in early human societies,” and so forth).
As the organizer of the reading group, I had to not only go through these readings, but read far beyond them, so that I might know whether alternative titles were a better pick for the group. It was through this I came across the standout book of the year: Yuri Slezkine’s gargantuan House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution. This 1,000 page historical narrative so thoroughly amazed me that it is the first time I have awarded the “book of the year” award to a book I have not yet finished.
Slezkine’s book is hard to summarize: it is one part a sociological study of the overlapping connections that tied together the ‘Old Bolsheviks’ who led Russia through red revolution; it is one part a literary analysis of the memoirs, letters, confessions, book reviews, novels, and short stories penned by these Bolsheviks (there has never been a set of revolutionaries as literary as the Bolsheviks were); and it is one part exegesis of the millenarian faith that bound the Bolsheviks together. Slezkine argues forcefully—and beautifully—that the emotions and urges that propelled the Bolsheviks to revolution were of the same kind that motivated Taoist utopians in China, the early Christians of the New Testament, their zealous Protestant grandchildren in Europe’s wars of religion, and the Mormon pioneers of antebellum America. The 100 page chapter where he lays this framework out (chapter 3) should be read by anyone with a serious interest in mass movements, comparative religion, or human nature. And that is just one chapter of a very long book.
Our reading group’s selections were divided between European and Chinese history. None of the Chinese focused works had the literary genius of House of Government—but on the Soviet side, House of Government stood next to several other books of similar literary merit (on this year’s list we have The Captive Mind and Red Plenty, but for the point I am about to make the reader is welcome to add in their favorite works by Serge, Grossman, Solzhenitsyn, Chambers, Koestler, Orwell, Muggeridge, etc.). I have noticed that this literary sensibility bleeds into the great histories of the Russian Revolution and the Stalinist era: famous historians like Isaac Deutscher, Richard Pipes, Robert Tucker, Martin Malia, Orlando Figes, Timothy Synder, and Stephen Kotkin are all over the place ideologically, but each believes that the events of Russia’s revolution demand sweeping histories instead of dry monographs.
This is not simply a matter of style, but focus: it is clear that these historians believe the October Revolution, the Russian civil war, and the totalitarian nightmare that followed are events that do not just speak to Russian history, but human history. This spirit also animates the less literary works on our list, like the books written by political theorists Neil Harding and Andrzej Walicki, or the biography of Bukharin by Stephen Cohen. Walicki’s survey of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Stalin is dense, difficult, wordy, and sometimes turgid—but a minor masterpiece nonetheless. I suspect the brilliance of his book stems in part from Walicki’s belief that the thinkers and events he picks apart speak to something universal in our natures. He does not write for a dissertation committee, or a subfield; he writes for humankind.
Perhaps this is arrogance. But if so, arrogance makes for better books. Members of the discussion group—almost all professional China hands of one sort or another—puzzled over this problem. Why were the best Soviet studies books generally so much better than the best studies of the PRC? Why are there no great literary statements on modern China? Why so little interest from the political theorists? Why so few sweeping histories? Why does our field seem like one long slog through narrow monographs and think tank reports written in RANDspeak?
Part of the answer may be that the birth of Soviet studies came while Stalinism stood as a beacon to intellectuals across the West; the first wave of seminal works were written by adherents or apostates of the Bolshevik faith. When the Soviets still looked like pioneers opening up a path all the West might follow, it was natural for authors to describe the Russian revolution as holding out lessons for all mankind. Their assumptions about audience and import were soon built into the discipline: the expectations of later generations of historians and theorists were set by the debates they read in their historiography courses. This is how you end up with historians who believe that 1,000 page tomes on the Soviet experience remains relevant well after that experience has faded into memory.
China studies does have such people—but they write about a China long gone, the China of Confucius and Han Fei, Du Fu and Su Shi. Modern China, the “New China” of Mao, Deng, and Xi, inspires few works so ambitious. Perhaps this is because China studies, with its arduous language requirements, inevitably seems to make particularists out of any universalist thrown into it. Or perhaps it is because Chinese culture is two steps too far removed from Western priors for modern China to be fertile ground for our generalist intellectuals to wade into. There may be other reasons yet—readers are encouraged to suggest their hypotheses in the comment section.
Robert D Atkinson, Mark Muro, and Jacob Whiton, The Case for Growth Centers, (Washington DC: Brookings, 2019).
Will Wilkinson, The Density Divide: Urbanization, Polarization, and Populist Backlash (Washington DC: Niskanen, 2019).
Sebastian Strangio, In the Dragon’s Shadow: Southeast Asia in the Chinese Century (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2020).
Vladimir Lenin, The Lenin Anthology, Robert Tucker, ed., (New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1975).
Neil Harding, Leninism, (Durham, N.C: Duke University Press Books, 1996).
Thomas Noone and Matilda Steward, Averting Crisis: American Strategy, Military Spending and Collective Defence in the Indo-Pacific (Sydney: United States Studies Centre, 2019).
Stephen F. Cohen, Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution: A Political Biography, 1888-1938 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980).
Philip Coggan, Spirit Worlds: Cambodia, The Buddha, and the Naga (Oxford: John Beaufoy Publishing, 2015).
Eric Hoffer, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements (New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2010).
Dexter Roberts, The Myth of Chinese Capitalism: The Worker, the Factory, and the Future of the World (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2020).
Ivan Turgenev, Fathers and Sons, trans. Richard Freeborn, Oxford World’s Classics edition (Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).
Colin Woodard, American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America, Reprint edition (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2012).
O. V. Khlevni︠u︡k, Stalin: New Biography of a Dictator, trans. Nora Seligman Favorov (Yale University Press, 2015).
James Mann, The Great Rift: Dick Cheney, Colin Powell, and the Broken Friendship That Defined an Era (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2020).
Peter K. Bol, Neo-Confucianism in History, Reprint edition (Cambridge, Mass.; London: Harvard University Asia Center, 2010).
Czeslaw Milosz, The Captive Mind, Reissue edition (New York: Vintage, 1990).
Mark Cancian, U.S. Military Forces in FY 2021 The Last Year of Growth? (Washington DC: Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2021).
Christopher Cooper and Robert Block, Disaster: Hurricane Katrina and the Failure of Homeland Security”>Disaster: Hurricane Katrina and the Failure of Homeland Security, (Times Books, 2007).
Robert Wiehbe, Self Rule: A Cultural History of American Democracy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996).
Karen Hughes, Ten Minutes from Normal (New York: Viking Adult, 2004).
David Kuo, Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction, (New York: Free Press, 2006).
Lucien Bianco, Stalin and Mao: A Comparison of the Russian and Chinese Revolutions, trans. Krystyna Horko (The Chinese University of Hong Kong Press, 2020).
Songho Ha, The Rise and Fall of the American System: Nationalism and the Development of the American Economy, 1790-1837 (Routledge: 2009).
John Taylor, Tyranny Unmasked, ed. Thorton Miller (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1992).
Karl Rove, Courage and Consequence: My Life as a Conservative in the Fight, Original edition (New York: Threshold Editions, 2010).
Mackenzie Eaglen and Hailee Coyn, The 2020s Tri-Service Modernization Crunch (Washington DC: The American Enterprise Institute, 2021).
Andrew G. Walder, China Under Mao: A Revolution Derailed (Harvard University Press, 2017).
Helen Vendler, Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012).
Franz Schurmann, Ideology and Organization in Communist China: Second Enlarged Edition, 2nd edition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969).
Scott Rozelle and Natalie Hell, Invisible China: How the Urban-Rural Divide Threatens China’s Rise (University of Chicago Press, 2020).
Michael Dutton, Policing Chinese Politics: A History (Durham: Duke University Press Books, 2005).
Francis Spufford, Red Plenty (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Graywolf Press, 2012).
Rush Doshi, The Long Game: China’s Grand Strategy to Displace American Order (Oxford University Press, 2021).
Mary Mcauley, Soviet Politics: 1917-1991 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992).
Richard C. Bush, Difficult Choices: Taiwan’s Quest for Security and the Good Life (Washington: Brookings Institution Press, 2021).
Moshe Lewin, The Soviet Century (London New York: Verso, 2016).
Robert Draper, To Start a War: How the Bush Administration Took America into Iraq (New York: Penguin Books, 2021).
William J. Bennett, Why We Fight: Moral Clarity and the War on Terrorism, (New York: Doubleday, 2002).
Susan Faludi, The Terror Dream: Myth and Misogyny in an Insecure America, First edition (New York: Picador, 2008).
Vladislav M. Zubok, A Failed Empire: The Soviet Union in the Cold War from Stalin to Gorbachev, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009).
Garrett M. Graff, The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11, (New York, NY: Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster, 2019).
Chris Miller, The Struggle to Save the Soviet Economy: Mikhail Gorbachev and the Collapse of the USSR (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2020).
Dov S. Zakheim, A Vulcan’s Tale: How the Bush Administration Mismanaged the Reconstruction of Afghanistan (Brookings Institution Press, 2011).
Richard N. Haass, War of Necessity, War of Choice: A Memoir of Two Iraq Wars (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010).
Sonnet anthology whose title I have forgotten
David R. Marples, The Collapse of the Soviet Union, 1985-1991, 1st edition (Harlow, England ; New York: Routledge, 2004).
Desmond Shum, Red Roulette: An Insider’s Story of Wealth, Power, Corruption, and Vengeance in Today’s China (Scribner, 2021).
Andrezej Walicki, Marxism and the Leap to the Kingdom of Freedom: The Rise and Fall of the Communist Utopia, (Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press, 1994).
Stephen Kotkin and Jan Gross, Uncivil Society: 1989 and the Implosion of the Communist Establishment (Modern Library, 2009).
Lowell Dittmer, Liu Shaoqi and the Chinese Cultural Revolution, (Armonk, N.Y: Routledge, 1997).
Ronald Coase and Ning Wang, How China Became Capitalist, (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).
Antoine de Saint-Exupery, Night Flight, Trans. Stuart Gilbert(New York: New American Library, 1942).
Ruan Ming, Deng Xiaoping: Chronicle Of An Empire, ed. Nancy Liu, Peter Rand, and Lawrence R. Sullivan, (Boulder: Westview Press, 1994).
Carter Malkasian, The American War in Afghanistan: A History, (Oxford University Press, 2021).
John Hadfield, A Book of Beauty (Vista Books, 1952).
Michael A. Barnhart, Japan Prepares for Total War: The Search for Economic Security, 1919–1941 (Cornell University Press, 2013).
Fyodor Dostoevsky, Demons: A Novel in Three Parts, trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (New York: Vintage, 1995).
Corey Robin, The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Donald Trump, 2nd edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017).
Albert O. Hirschman, The Passions and the Interests, Anniversary edition (Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 1997).
Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire (New York: Touchstone, 1990).
David B. Edwards, Caravan of Martyrs: Sacrifice and Suicide Bombing in Afghanistan (University of California Press, 2017).
READ IN PART
The Organizational Weapon: A Study of Bolshevik Strategy and Tactics; Marx-Engels Reader; A People’s Tragedy; The Russian Revolution; The Bolsheviks in Power; House of Government; Stalin: Paradoxes of Power; Rise and Fall of the Soviet Economy; China’s System Face to Face; Rise of the Red Engineers; The Genesis of Chinese Communist Foreign Policy; The Politics of China; Prisoner of the State; Governance of China (3 vols), America Against America; China’s Quest; From Rebel to Ruler; A Paradise Built in Hell, Humans of New York; Boondocks Treasury;Classical and Christian Ideas in Renaissance English Poetry; Lost In Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of Intellectual Life; The Poetry of Christina Rosetti; How To Teach Your Children Shakespeare; Chinese Through Poetry; The Poetry of Robert Frost; Defense of Japan 2021; The Republic of China Quadrennial Defense Review 2021; Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China, 2021; Extreme Privacy; First Aid/CPR/AED Participants Manual; Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism, Masters of the Universe; The Enigma of Ethnicity; Angels in the Machinery; Albions’ Seed; The Harmony of Interests; The Populist Moment; The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party; The Politics of Individualism: Parties and American Character in the Jacksonian Era; The Market Revolution in America; The Market Revolution; Making of the American Self;The Tariff Question in the Gilded Age; Iraq and the Evolution of American Strategy; White House Warriors; Woodwards’ Bush at War series, Cobra II;Decision Points; Known and Unknown; War and Decision; No Greater Honor; In My Time; Love and War; The Afghanistan Papers; Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War; The Right Man; Taking Heat; Speech-less: Tales of a White House Survivor; The Back Channel; What Happened; Leap of Faith; Blood, Metal, and Dust; The Threat Matrix; Directorate S; The Punishment of Virtue; No Day To Die; Days of Fire; Bush; Dead Certain;Understanding Early Civilizations; War in Human Civilization; On Kings; On Revolution; Facing the Cambodian Past: Cambodian Buddhism; This Culture of Ours; Neoconfunianism: A Philosophical Introduction; The Mandate of Heaven and the Great Ming Code; Heaven Has Eyes: A History of Chinese Law; Everlasting Empire; A History of Chinese Political Thought; various textbooks and workbooks of Chinese.
As a Pole, just a minor correction: *Andrzej* Walicki.
Thanks for catching that. Fixed!
“Why were the best Soviet studies books generally so much better than the best studies of the PRC? Why are there no great literary statements on modern China? Why so little interest from the political theorists? Why so few sweeping histories? Why does our field seem like one long slog through narrow monographs and think tank reports written in RANDspeak?”
The Cold War was a 5-decade confrontation across the world, and on the foreign policy level it was so all-encompassing that even older “normies” like my father know who the major players on the Soviet side were, and can give a brief account of what they did and why they mattered. In contrast, it’s been roughly 5 years since Americans earnestly started considering the possibility of strategic competition with China.
Over those decades, the Cold War penetrated America so wholly that it there was little barrier to engaging with it-and that’s when you get the philosophers, theorists, literati, scientists, and yes, “normies” talking about it. The first few groups pick up Russian or work with people who know it, and then you have a field of study.
Without that penetration, you have a field that only technically-minded experts will engage with. By the 2040s, when we’ve had decades of strategic competition with China, you’ll have more people from all backgrounds who have been marinated in themes of America-China rivalry. Some of them will be inspired to pick up Chinese, and then we’ll start to get better writing.
So true H.M.! Also I think because the Cold war had a very clear demarcation/start. Soon after WWII ended the Cold War began and everybody knew it. There were only two major players left standing. We had Churchill’s Iron Curtain speech… Like somebody fired the starting gun for a race.
Great list as always.
I’d love to see those two syllabi “spirituality in early human societies” and “political authority in early human societies”
Simple reason: the Mao (and Ho Chi Minh) era was iconic (thus the many histories of the Cultural Revolution and Great Leap Forward), the Deng era and later (to most Westerners eyes) seems less like a descendant of the Mao regime than the Brezhnev era was of the Stalin regime and more closely related to the KMT one party state regime, which is, to Western eyes, naturally boring, like Suharto’s rule in Indonesia or the current Thai regime. Another reason: the Soviet Union came first, and industrialized more successfully with less capitalist elements.
On your recommendation, I read Doshi’s book. I rate it one and a half stars.