This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History

Souvenir portraits of Xi Jinping and Mao Zedong in Beijing, China. Photograph: Roman Pilipey/EPA

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

From replacing Canada Day to the origins of ‘geopolitics’, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.

Mi’kmaw culture and Indigenous resiliency replace Canada Day celebrations on July 1

Maureen Googoo
Ku’ku’kwes News

There was no parade along Main Street in the Village of Shubenacadie, N.S. this year to celebrate Canada Day. Instead, more than 200 people chose to gather along the banks of the Shubenacadie River on July 1 to join the survivors of the Shubenacadie Indian Residential School to take part in cultural activities to counter the devastating effects the former school had on Indigenous people in Canada. The day-long event took place at the bottom of a hill where the former residential school once stood. Tents and tables were set up on both sides of Old Indian School Road where people, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, could chat with elders or learn about Mi’kmaw traditions and games like waltes.

Other cultural activities also took place in the afternoon in nearby community of Indian Brook First Nation, which is part of the Sipekne’katik First Nation. Several children from Indian Brook performed the Mi’kmaq Honour Song for the crowd in Shubenacadie. For Dorene Bernard, a residential school survivor, she said this year’s July 1 gathering was moving“It really means a lot to me. I never really celebrated Canada Day much,” Bernard said. “I think it’s really moving that a lot of non-native Canadians also feel like this is a time for reflection,” she added. [continue reading]

The War on History Is a War on Democracy

Timothy Snyder
New York Times

In March 1932, the cover of Fortune magazine featured a painting of Red Square by Diego Rivera. A numberless crowd of faceless men marched with red banners, surrounding a locomotive engine emblazoned with hammer and sickle. This was the image of communist modernization the Soviets wished to transmit during Stalin’s first five-year plan: The achievement was impersonal, technical, unquestionable. The Soviet Union was transforming itself from an agrarian backwater into an industrial power through sheer disciplined understanding of the objective realities of history. Its citizens celebrated the revolution, as Rivera’s painting suggested, even as it molded them into a new kind of people.

But by March 1932, hundreds of thousands of people were already starving to death in Soviet Ukraine, the breadbasket of the country. Rapid industrialization was financed by destroying traditional agrarian life. The five-year plan had brought “dekulakization,” the deportation of peasants deemed more prosperous than others, and “collectivization,” the appropriation of agrarian land by the state. A result was mass famine: first in Kazakhstan, then in southern Russia and especially in Soviet Ukraine. Soviet leaders were aware in 1932 of what was happening but insisted on requisitions in Ukraine anyway. Grain that people needed to survive was forcibly confiscated and exported. The writer Arthur Koestler, who was living in Soviet Ukraine at the time, recalled propaganda that presented the starving as provocateurs who preferred to see their own bellies bloat rather than accept Soviet achievement. [continue reading]

China’s Communist party has rewritten its own past – but the truth will surface

Rana Mitter

A new museum commemorating the history of the Chinese Communist party (CCP) opened in June in Beijing as part of the runup to the party’s 100th anniversary. Online images of its collections show reverential black-and-white photos of the dozen or so young men who gathered at the party’s founding meeting in Shanghai in 1921. Those activists, one of whom was a young library assistant called Mao Zedong, would have found the China of 2021 impossible to recognise: an economic behemoth run by the most powerful and longest-lasting Communist party in the world.

Yet although much of the CCP’s propaganda is firmly focused on the future, the party is still obsessed with controlling the telling of its own past. The museum’s narrative is of a China brought to peace and prosperity by the inevitability of the CCP’s rise to power. The bumpy realities of history, from the failed policies and leaders of the party’s early years to the purges and brutalities that have marked its time in power, are played down or absent. The CCP has always been opaque about its own internal workings. Control of its narrative is another way of maintaining that mystery. [continue reading]

The Strange, Sad Death of America’s Political Imagination

Daniel Immerwahr
New York Times

The world didn’t expect much from Edward Bellamy, a reclusive, tubercular writer who lived with his parents. Yet if he lived small, he dreamed big, and in 1888 he published a phenomenally successful utopian novel, “Looking Backward, 2000-1887.” It told of a man who fell asleep in 1887 and awoke in 2000 to electrified cities, music broadcasts and “credit cards.” Even more exciting than Bellamy’s technological forecasts were his political ones. Unforgiving capitalism would be replaced by a welfare state, he predicted, with universal education, guaranteed incomes and supported retirement. His readers started Bellamy Clubs and set off a craze for utopian novels. In the 19th-century United States, only “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” sold more copies in its first years than “Looking Backward.”

Bellamy, and his fans across the country, felt confident a “radically different” future was imminent. And why not? The United States was a dynamic, almost volatile, country then. During the 1800s, the United States grew more than four times in size, its western edge moving from the Mississippi River to the South China Sea. In the first half of that century, it had transformed from a patrician society run by the propertied into a rough-and-tumble one in which nearly all white men could vote. The second half, when Bellamy lived, saw the end of slavery, the military defeat of great Native American powers and the explosive growth of industrial capitalism — events that, for good or ill, profoundly altered the country. Bellamy saw his era as “portentous of great changes,” and he was right. Not only did his technological predictions come true; his political ideas caught fire. In 1892, the Populist Party presidential candidate won five states running on a Bellamy-inspired platform that called for a shortened workday, a graduated income tax and the direct election of senators. The New Deal — with its income supports, economic controls and federal jobs — seemed straight out of Bellamy. [continue reading]

Illusions of empire: Amartya Sen on what British rule really did for India

Amartya Sen

The British empire in India was in effect established at the Battle of Plassey on 23 June 1757. The battle was swift, beginning at dawn and ending close to sunset. It was a normal monsoon day, with occasional rain in the mango groves at the town of Plassey, which is between Calcutta, where the British were based, and Murshidabad, the capital of the kingdom of Bengal. It was in those mango groves that the British forces faced the Nawab Siraj-ud-Doula’s army and convincingly defeated it.

British rule ended nearly 200 years later with Jawaharlal Nehru’s famous speech on India’s “tryst with destiny” at midnight on 14 August 1947. Two hundred years is a long time. What did the British achieve in India, and what did they fail to accomplish? [continue reading]

A Little Geopolitics Is a Dangerous Thing

Harold James
Project Syndicate

Any hope that Donald Trump’s messy departure from the White House would at least restore a modicum of calm to the world must now be discounted. Already, there is a dangerous new international threat: the return of “geopolitics” in shaping international security. Consider the events of the past six months. Within weeks of President Joe Biden’s inauguration, his secretary of state, Antony Blinken, got into an extraordinary spat with his Chinese counterpart at a bilateral meeting in Alaska. The United States has also tussled with the European Union over Nord Stream 2, a pipeline that will deliver Russian natural gas directly to Germany, bypassing (and thus weakening) Ukraine. And, for its part, the EU imposed tougher sanctions on China, citing its policies in Xinjiang, to which China responded with sanctions of its own.

Then, in June, a naval contretemps between Russia and Britain in the Black Sea evoked parallels to the 1850s Crimean War. And a meeting between Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin did little to reduce US-Russian tensions. When it comes, Biden’s first meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping is unlikely to be any warmer. The G7 is rebranding itself as a club of rich democracies that will set “basic rules of the road” for the rest of the world. Never mind that other powerful countries have no interest in rules set by someone else. “Geopolitics” is the word most used to describe these developments, most of which are framed as new iterations of old issues. Russia, for example, is said to be continuing the Soviet tradition of using energy exports to induce dependency in others. Hence, Nord Stream 2 reprises President Ronald Reagan’s struggle over German participation in the construction of a Soviet pipeline four decades ago. Blinken calls it a “Russian geopolitical project to divide Europe.” [continue reading]