This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History

Marc-William Palen
History Department, University of Exeter
Follow on Twitter @MWPalen

From reconciling capitalism with democracy to wedding socialism with populism, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.

Capitalism vs democracy: Europe’s hard problem

Mark Mazower
New Statesman

ill Europe’s past become its future? There is a simple way to answer this. At the start of the 20th century, the continent had fewer than half the number of states it has today and of these there was none truly independent that enjoyed universal suffrage. Only two of them – France and Switzerland – were republics, and the rest were ruled on some version of the hereditary principle. Forty per cent of the continent’s labour force worked on the land compared with roughly 5 per cent today. The state was a shadow of its present self – in Germany, public spending amounted to around 12 per cent of GNP compared with 40 per cent and more today, and at least half of this was spent on the military and not, as now, on health and pensions. Wheat was a more precious commodity than oil, and there were roughly 14 million horses and only 15,000 cars in Europe as a whole. Unless we believe the continent can revert to the agrarian, pre-democratic, monarchical model that prevailed before 1914, the past is gone forever.

But that is not what people usually mean when they imagine a returning past. The past in these cases represents something to be feared, something to ward off – the threat of an international system of states spiralling into war perhaps; or the threat of a resurgent fascism and authoritarianism. This is not a productive approach. It invites false analogies and poor history. A better alternative might be to use the past to think with. It is striking that the single most urgent challenge facing Europeans today is the same conundrum that has faced them for the entire preceding century: how to reconcile capitalism and democracy. History cannot tell us how to do this but it can help us comprehend some of the inter-relationships between them. [continue reading]

Kwame Nkrumah and the Quest for Independence

Adom Getachew

Depending on whether you looked from the North Atlantic or the Black Atlantic, the year 1957 appeared to signal two different political futures. On March 6, Ghana finally secured its independence from Great Britain after a decade-long nationalist struggle. At the independence celebrations, Kwame Nkrumah, the leader of the Convention People’s Party and the new prime minister, declared that Ghanaian independence marked the birth of a new African “ready to fight his own battles and show that after all, the black man is capable of managing his own affairs.” Less than three weeks later, on March 25, Belgium, France, the Federal Republic of Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands signed the Treaty of Rome, creating the European Economic Community (EEC). For West German chancellor Konrad Adenauer, the treaty was one more step in “the great work of fostering durable international reconciliation and a community of nations for the good of Europe.” While Ghanaian independence marked the emergence of a world of nation-states from the ashes of European imperialism, the birth of the EEC in empire’s metropoles looked forward to the transcendence of the nation-state itself.

Over half a century later, we continue to operate within the terms of this opposition. As new nationalist movements, this time in the North Atlantic, have repudiated internationalist institutions like the European Union, their critics reject calls for independence and autonomy as fantastical and dangerous. Such a view assumes that nationalism and internationalism are incompatible. Yet if we return to Ghana in 1957 and trace Nkrumah’s vision of decolonization, we find a view of national independence that could only be realized through internationalism. In the early days of independence, Nkrumah insisted that African states had to unite in a regional federation to overcome economic dependence and international hierarchy. Emerging concurrently with the EU, this account of regionalism was distinctively postcolonial. Rather than taming the sovereign state through regional economic linkages, Nkrumah’s pan-African federation sought to realize the nation-state’s promise of independence. [continue reading]

A Crisis of Legitimacy

John Heathershaw
Exeter Central Asian Studies Network

Over three years since Britain voted to leave the European Union in 2016, arguments have intensified and political turmoil has increased.  As I write, another turbulent week in parliament has left the country more divided than ever in my lifetime.

Many who voted leave simply cannot understand why we haven’t left yet and blame truculent Remainers for blocking Brexit, the democratic will of the people.  Many who voted remain simply see the chaos as indicating the stupidity of this choice and so damaging that it cannot be allowed to stand.  Both sides question the legitimacy of the other’s position.

As a former civil servant and political scientist (whom you may not be surprised to know voted remain), I recognise both these claims of legitimacy as being in turn procedural and substantive.  For leavers, Brexit is procedurally legitimate – that is the process was governed by fair rules and democratic consent – because it was passed by popular vote.  For Remainers, staying in the EU is substantively legitimate – that is in terms of its outcome– because the economic and political benefits of staying in are far greater than leaving. But both of these claims to legitimacy are dubious.  [continue reading]

The proposed accord with Taliban echoes another that turned out badly: Vietnam

David Welna


U.S. negotiators are closing in on a peace accord aimed at ending nearly 18 years of war in Afghanistan. As NPR’s David Welna reports, this deal echoes the peace agreement for what had previously been the nation’s longest military conflict – the war in Vietnam.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Some months after taking office, President Trump delivered a prime-time address promising a way out of a war he’d inherited.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: The American people are weary of war without victory. Nowhere is this more evident than with the war in Afghanistan – the longest war in American history.

WELNA: Forty-eight years earlier, another Republican in the first year of his presidency told the nation he had a plan to end the war he’d inherited; for Richard Nixon, it was Vietnam.


RICHARD NIXON: I pledged in my campaign for the presidency to end the war in a way that we could win the peace.

WELNA: But for both Trump and Nixon, before there could be peace, there had to be victory.


TRUMP: Our troops will fight to win. We will fight to win.


NIXON: North Vietnam cannot defeat or humiliate the United States.

WELNA: There are major differences between these wars. Most Americans fighting in Vietnam were drafted; in Afghanistan, all were volunteers. Vietnam claimed the lives of more than 58,000 Americans; under 2,400 have died in Afghanistan. And Vietnam prompted a widespread protest movement…


COUNTRY JOE MCDONALD: (Singing) What are we fighting for? Don’t ask me. I don’t give a damn. Next stop is Vietnam.

WELNA: …While Afghanistan has been nearly a forgotten war. Despite the two wars’ differences, former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker says there are many similarities. [continue reading/listen]

From Populism to Socialism and Back

Anton Jager

Can populists and socialists ever be friends? Daniel De Leon, leader of the Socialist Labor Party and longtime spokesman of the American left, certainly didn’t think so. In a 1910 entry for his (ironically named) magazine The People, he saw an unbridgeable gap between the two groups on a number of issues, ranging from wage legislation to rail nationalization. Populism, to De Leon, was a “false movement” that “proceeded upon lines of ignorance.” As he wrote after the movement’s defeat in 1898:

Good-bye, Populism, good-bye, thou wert an exhalation of the dead past. The present struggle of Civilization is not between WHAT IS and WHAT WAS; it is between WHAT IS and WHAT WILL BE.

De Leon’s sternness can be misleading, however. In the late 1890s and 1900s, American populists and socialists actually found plenty of things to agree upon. The first Socialist Party of America (SP) was founded by a group of Populists disillusioned by the People’s Party fusion with the Democrats (miserably defeated in the 1896 presidential election). As a candidate for the presidency, Socialist Eugene V. Debs consistently received his highest tallies in rural areas. States such as Minnesota and Virginia prided themselves on energetic worker-farmer alliances in the 1920s. In 1924, the Socialist Party endorsed the Wisconsin populist Robert La Follette’s presidential run. [continue reading]