Civilizations Syllabus

The Civilizations Series is the world history course your university never offered, because they couldn’t fit it all in a single course. The creation of an alliance between retired history teacher Dave Power and anti-imperialist writer Justin Podur, we cover everything covered in a Modern Western Civilization history class (around 1st year university level), but add in all the colonialism and imperialism that’s usually left out.

Here’s the syllabus and notes on sources, for this imagined 60-week course with lectures varying from 45-minutes to 3 hours!

Introduction to the Civilizations Series

Introducing the Civilizations Series. We’re going to go through the canon of a “Modern Western Civilizations” history course, but we’re going to fix it – we’re going to put the people’s, the east, and the global south in and re-center your civilizations history. This first episode is a short introduction to our plan. I’m joined by retired history teacher David Power.

Civilizations Series Episode 1: The World in 1492

A quick tour of the world around 1492 – Aztec, Inka, Ming China, Ottoman Turk, Mughal India, Kongo Kingdom, Haudenosonee Confederacy, and a breakdown of some European polities.

Civilizations Series Episode 2: The Absolute Monarchies of Europe

The transition of European kingdoms from feudalism to absolute monarchy, with Russia, Prussia, and of course France under Louis XIV as examples. We open with some discussion of state formation, mentioning Plato’s The Republic, Chanakya’s Arthasastra, and Charles Tilly’s Coercion, Capital and European States.

Civilizations Series Episode 3: Constitutional Monarchies and England’s Glorious Revolution

If the quintessential absolute monarchy was Louis XIV, the quintessential constitutional monarchy is England after the Glorious Revolution. We talk about King Charles losing his head and foreshadow (following Gerald Horne) the dire consequences of this for Africa and Africans as it enabled a massive expansion of the slave trade. For our anarchist listeners, we’ve also got Guy Fawkes, the gunpowder treason, the Diggers, and the Levelers. 

Civilizations Series Episode 4: The Enlightened Despots of Europe and Asia

Enlightened despots and the “greats”: Peter, Catherine, Frederick, Akbar, Abbas, Shivaji, Sejeong, as well as the Sikh Empire and the Ayuttaya Kingdom.

Civilizations Episode 5: The Bureaucracies of East Asia

Following Alexander Woodside’s book Lost Modernities, we talk about the Korean, Vietnamese, and Chinese Mandarinates, the peculiarities and pitfalls of a system based on competitive examinations, the interplay of meritocracy and feudalism, and the relevance of it all to today’s debates about standardized testing and education more generally. 

Civilizations Episode 6: The 18th Century Global Economy, aka slavery, genocide, and colonialism

The global economy was forged in the 18th century under European empires that committed genocides in the Americas and Africa, instituted mass slavery, and colonialism. This is the story. 

Civilizations Series Episode 7: Religion – Tolerance – Intolerance, Mostly in England

The rise of Protestantism, focusing on the characters of Martin Luther (including his advice to Philip Landgrave of Hesse), and Henry VIII.

Civilizations Series Episode 8: Ideas – Scientific Revolution – Enlightenment

We talk about the scientific revolution – Galileo, Brahe, Kepler, Newton, Rousseau, Voltaire, Montesquieu and others; and take a tour of the Enlightenment as well, and the importance of Enlightenment ideas in the revolutions that would soon follow it.

Civilizations Series Episode 9: Three Centuries of Power Politics (16th-18th)

From the Habsburg marriage alliances to the War of Spanish Succession, to the War of Jenkins’ Ear and the Seven Years War; to the Anarchy in India after Aurangzeb’s death and the founding of Afghanistan by Ahmad Shah Durrani. Some glimpses of three centuries of power politics in world history.

Civilizations Series Episode 10: The American (Counter) Revolution

In world history, the American Revolution created a republic that continued slavery and expanded a continuous war against Indigenous nations in North America. We look at the British imperial geopolitics, the propaganda, and the history. Why wasn’t the American Revolution the inspiration that the French Revolution was? Special mention to two sources: John Grenier and Gerald Horne.

Civilizations Series Episode 11a: French and Haitian Revolutions pt1

Chinese diplomat Zhou Enlai may or may not have said 200 years later that it’s too early to tell what the consequences of the French Revolution are, but we are dedicating five full episodes to it and doing it right, which means treating the French and Haitian revolutions together. In part 1 we go from the Storming of the Bastille to the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen and on, getting as far as 1792.

Civilizations Series Episode 11b: Haitian and French Revolutions pt2

The Haitian Revolution started with a well-planned conspiracy led by a slave named Boukman in 1791. The French Revolutionaries scrambled to figure out how to preserve the crown jewel of their colonies while accommodating their newfound principles of liberty, equality, and fraternity. In France, the revolution went from monarchy to Republic to the best-known symbol (sadly) of the revolution, the guillotine. Part 2 of our series on the Haitian and French Revolutions takes us from 1791-1794.

Civilizations Series Episode 11c: Haitian and French Revolutions pt3

This phase of the French and Haitian Revolutions was dominated by two very dominating figures: Toussaint L’Ouverture and Napoleon Bonaparte. We talk about their rise and how they surpassed their rivals and would end up facing one another.

Civilizations Series Episode 11d: Haiti wins Independence, Napoleon becomes Emperor. French and Haitian Revolutions pt4.

It took Dessalines to complete the job of winning Haitian Independence, after Napoleon had Toussaint captured and imprisoned to die in France. Napoleon went on to make himself Emperor of France and start what seemed like an interminable series of wars. This takes us to the end of both revolutions.

Civilizations 11e: The Haitian and French Revolutions pt5: aftermath

Dessalines became Emperor of Haiti in 1804, marking the end of the Haitian Revolution. Napoleon’s crowning as Emperor was the end of the French one. We talk about Napoleon’s wars, compare Napoleon’s exile and imprisonment to Toussaint’s, and talk about the momentous consequences of these revolutions.

Civilizations BONUS EPISODE: The case against the statues

Civilizations Series Episode 12a: South American Independence pt1 – Miranda and Bolivar

The struggles for Independence against the Spanish Empire rocked the Western Hemisphere at the beginning of the 19th century and changed the world. We focus on Simon Bolivar to tell this story in two parts. In this part, the Precursor, Francisco de Miranda, and the first half of Simon Bolivar’s campaigns.

Civilizations 12b: Bolivar and Latin American Independence pt2

At the beginning we quickly tell the story of Mexico’s Wars of Independence – Hidalgo, Morelo, and Iturbide. Then we return to Simon Bolivar from the Angostura period to the liberation of Peru and an assessment of Bolivar’s politics and legacy. We conclude by quickly telling the story of Brazil’s Independence and discern some patterns in these liberations. 

Civilizations 13: The Industrial Revolution

We cover the Industrial Revolution in England, from a few angles. Justin inserts his usual colonial determinism notes, as well as some environmental history about fossil fuels and energy sources for imperialism; Dave takes us through the revolution and what it meant; we talk about the rise of the working class, reveal that the Luddites pretty much had it right, and conclude with the early socialists: Robert Owen, and Marx and Engels.

Civilizations 14: Early 19th Century Political Ideologies

Choosing our avatars carefully, we take you through the political ideologies of the 19th century. Conservatism (Burke, Metternich); Liberalism (Paine, Locke); Radicalism (Condorcet, Gregoire); Anarchism (Bakunin, Kropotkin); Communism (Marx & Engels); and we throw a few more in as well (nationalism, humanitarianism, romanticism). This episode will set you up nicely for the next round of revolutions – 1830, 1848, and 1870.

Civilizations 15: 1830-2 French Revolution, Algeria Colonization, Muhammad Ali of Egypt, and Slave Revolts in the Americas

Your Western Civilization course covers the French Revolution of 1830. But the Civilizations Series gives you that and Muhammad Ali of Egypt, France’s colonizing Algeria, and the slave rebellions of Denmark Vesey in South Carolina, Nat Turner in Virginia, and Sam Sharpe in Jamaica. 

Civilizations 16: Chartism, Reformism, Police Origins, Irish Famine

We investigate Britain around 1848. Why was there no revolution? We look at the Chartist and Reform movements in Britain and in Canada, Robert Peel and the origins of modern policing, Australia and the early debates about how to create misery in prisons, the Irish famines and their repercussions.

Civilizations 17: The 1848 Revolutions in Europe

There were many revolutions in Europe in 1848, with complex and contradictory results and lessons learned by all parties for future revolutionary rounds. We spend most of the time in France, a bit of time in Prussia, and do a quick tour of the rest.

Civilizations 18: The Mexican-American War 1846-8

This episode is about how the US became the territorial empire that it is. We cover the Mexican-American War 1846-8, as well as the repeat performance when France invaded under Louis Napoleon. We end talking about US expansionism and its many 19th century wars with Indigenous nations.

Civilizations 19: The Crimean War

How did a military debacle lead to the abolition of serfdom in Russia? How did a disagreement over the nature of breakfast lead to a military loss? How bad was the Charge of the Light Brigade, really? Civilizations goes to the Crimean War, where Britain, France, and Turkey fought Russia from 1853-1856.

Civilizations 20a: 1857 – India’s War of Independence, pt1

1857 is up there with the other great revolutions of this time – 1848 or 1870 in Europe, or Bolivar’s campaigns in Latin America. Part 1 takes you from the antecedents and context through to the Delhi Liberated Zone under Bahadur Shah Zafar.

Civilizations 20b: India 1857 pt 2 – the Revolution Defeated

The Delhi Liberated Zone under Bahadur Shah Zafar falls; Tatia Tope and others fight on for another two years; the British kill perhaps 10 million Indian people (7% of the population); the 1857 has some victories even in defeat. But what does it all mean? We conclude our discussion with the concept of a point-of-view in history. I identify six different points of view (RSS, Congress, British imperialist, 1857 line, Subaltern Studies, and Marxist) and show how you end up having to pick one, and why I went with the “1857 line” on the event – for which the key source is Amaresh Mishra’s 2000 page book, War of Civilisations.

At the end of the episode, Dave and I discuss a table that I made about the different points of view I was able to identify in historical scholarship of 1857. The table we are looking at is in the Civilizations Resources Page under episode 20b.

I take full responsibility for this table, which I made up. Here is what I’d say is a representative source for each point of view. You may disagree – and I’m declaring my point of view, after reading all these, is with Misra and the 1857 line.

BJP – Savarkar, The Indian War of Independence

1857 line – Amaresh Misra, War of Civilisations

Marxist – Marx, the Indian War of Independence

Subaltern Studies – Guha, Prose of Counterinsurgency

British Imperialist – Kim Wagner, The Great Fear

Congress- Surendranath Sen, 1857

Civilizations 21: Italian Unification

Two very different characters – Cavour and Garibaldi – were instrumental in orchestrating the unification of Italy in the 1860s. We talk unification and consequences, and give a mention to Garibaldi’s famous letters to Abraham Lincoln of 1861 and 1863. 

Civilizations 22: German Unification and Otto von Bismarck

The name most associated with the unification of Germany is that of Otto von Bismarck. Bismarck was the great puppet master of Europe in the 1860s, but he may just have set things up for future conflagrations.

Civilizations 23a – American Civil War Part 1: Abolition and distant causes

Civilizations begins our study (at least four parts) of the American Civil War. We start with the abolitionist movement in the decades before the war, and the conflict between the British Empire and the United States over abolition. This episode relies on (among other sources) Kellie Carter Jackson’s book Force and Freedom, and Gerald Horne’s book Negro Comrades of the Crown.

Civilizations 23b: “This question is still to be settled”: John Brown and the Civil War pt2

John Brown routed 75 men with 14, defended Lawrence from raiders, wrote a manual for the Underground Railroad, and began the war that ended slavery.

Frederick Douglass, talking about Brown’s actions in Kansas, wrote that one could not read the history “without feeling that the man who in all this bewildering broil was least the puppet of circumstances – the man who most clearly saw the real crux of the conflict, most definitely knew his own convictions and was readiest at the crisis for decisive action, was a man whose leadership lay not in his office, wealth, or influence, but in the white flame of his utter devotion to an ideal.”

This episode of Civilizations is all about John Brown – relying on W.E.B. Du Bois’s 1909 biography

W.E.B. Du Bois’s maps of the Harper’s Ferry raid and John Brown’s Strategy (the Great Black Way).

Harper’s Ferry and the way up the mountain
The mountain chain is indicated; shaded areas are where 3 of America’s 4 million slaves were located.

Civilizations 23c: The American Civil War pt3 – the War

The American Civil War from Lincoln’s election in 1860 to the surrender of Robert E. Lee at Appomatox Court House. The major events, the commanders, and the decisive role of what Du Bois called the General Strike of the Black Worker. Part 3 of 4 on the US Civil War.

Civilizations 23d: American Civil War pt4 – the Rise and Fall of Reconstruction

We conclude our 4 part series on the American Civil War following WEB Du Bois’s book Black Reconstruction in America, talking about the brief, glorious moment of potential for genuine racial equality in the United States. In some ways, despite the gains made a century later, we still live with the consequences of the fall of Reconstruction. 

The sections of W.E.B. Du Bois’s bibliography for Black Reconstruction in America.

STANDARD – ANTI-NEGRO PROPAGANDA

HISTORIANS (Fair or Indifferent to the Negro)

HISTORIANS (These historians have studied the history of Negroes and write sympathetically about them.)

MONOGRAPHS (These authors seek the facts in certain narrow definite fields and in most cases do not ignore the truth as to Negroes.)

ANSWERS (These are the answers of certain carpetbaggers and scalawags to their traducers.)

LIVES (These are lives of leaders who took part in Reconstruction and whose acts and thoughts

influenced Negro development.)

NEGRO HISTORIANS (These are the standard works of Negro historians, some judicial, some eager and even bitter in defense.) – Du Bois includes HIS OWN WORK in this section!

UNPUBLISHED THESES (These are researches by young Negro scholars.)

GOVERNMENT REPORTS 

Civilizations 24: Jamaica 1865 – Morant Bay Uprising shakes the British Empire

In 1865, Paul Bogle led an uprising in Jamaica that was repressed with extreme violence by the British, led by Jamaica’s Governor Eyre. The reaction was disproportionate and the story was big news in Britain, leading to a committee questioning Eyre’s brutality and a counter-committee forming to defend him. Both committees have some big names from Britain’s past: Darwin and Mill on one side, Dickens and Tennyson on the other – and many more.

Civilizations 25: The 1870 Paris Commune, as told by Karl Marx

The Paris Commune was so much more than a short bloody two-month interlude in European politics. In this episode, the story of the Paris Commune as related by Karl Marx in his address to the International Workingmen’s Association. From passing debt relief programs to tearing down militarist statues, the Paris Commune was a real revolution, for a moment at least. With the usual asides and notes about what else was going on.

Civilizations 26a: Canada pt1 – Devolution, Confederation, and Immigration stories

Part 1 of at least 3 on Canada, this one sets up the story of Canadian colonialism with some required historical touchpoints about Canada’s devolution into independence from Britain, the story of Confederation as a series of business deals, and the role of racism in Canadian immigration policy. 

Civilizations 26b – Canada pt2: disease, extinctions, and colonialism up to the Riel Resistance

Along with colonialism, smallpox and the driving to extinction of the beaver and then the buffalo played an immense role in the creation of what is now Canada. We tell the story of these factors in the development of Canadian colonialism from the days of New France and the Hudson’s Bay Company to the Riel Resistance of 1870, in part 2 of our series on Canada (that will go at least to 3 and probably 4 parts).

Erratum. The author of No Surrender is Sheldon Krasowski, not Kowalski.

Some readings:

CLEARING THE PLAINS – James Kaschuk

NO SURRENDER – Sheldon Krasowski

CANADIAN HOLOCAUST – Kevin Annet

DARRYL LEROUX – Distorted Descent

ELEMENTS OF INDIGENOUS STYLE – Gregory Younging

MOHAWK INTERRUPTUS – Audra Simpson

RED SKIN, WHITE MASKS – Glen Coulthard

AS WE HAVE ALWAYS DONE – Leanne Betasamosake Simpson

FRACTURED HOMELAND – Bonita Lawrence

THE RECONCILIATION MANIFESTO – Arthur Manuel

Civilizations 26c: Canada pt3 – Canadian colonialism: reserves, pass system, residential schools

By 1885, the Indian Act was in place, most Indigenous people were forced onto reserves, and the nadir of Canadian colonialism (so far) was set. Part 3 of 3 our series on Canada takes us through the residential school system and the racialist ideologies openly expressed throughout this phase of Canadian history.

Civilizations 27: Opium War 1, 1839-40

We reach back in time a little bit to start the Civilizations Series on 19th century China – now known as the century of humiliation. The Opium War was one of the moments that turbo-charged imperialism. We tell the story the way Civilizations does – going back and forth between the imperialists and the local forces that tried valiantly (and in the case of our protagonist this episode, Lin Zexu, honorably) to resist. The series will continue with Opium War 2, the Taiping Rebellion, the reforms, and the Boxer Rebellion – but first, Opium War 1.

Civilizations 28a: The worst civil war in history – Taiping Rebellion pt1 1850-1856

The end of the first Opium War was just the beginning of the horrors China faced under imperialism. Beginning in 1850, China was rocked by a 10-year long civil war that took an estimated 20-30 million lives. You read that correctly. In the middle of that war, the imperialists attacked China again and fought a second opium war, which we’ll get to next. But first, the first part of the Taiping Rebellion, from 1850-56.

Civilizations 28b: Opium War 2, 1856-1860

In the midst of the most destructive war in China’s history, the imperialists decided it was time to sack and burn China a second time. In this episode, on the Second Opium War, we talk about the deepening imperialism, get you into the bizarre imperialist mind of Lord Elgin as he rationalizes the burning of the palace in Beijing, show you again how Marx was well ahead of his contemporaries writing about the Peiho stitchup, and talk about the strategies of Ye Mingchen and of Prince Seng.

Civilizations 28c: Taiping Rebellion pt3 – the fall of the rebels

Having burned the palace of the ruling Qing dynasty, the imperialists decided to take their side and help them defeat the Taiping. As Zeng Guofan’s encirclement strategy takes hold, the imperialists are running the Ever Victorious Army with figures like Garnet Wolesley (who fought Louis Riel in Canada) and Charles Gordon (who we’ll meet again in the Scramble for Africa). It ends with the fall of Nanjing, terrible massacres, and an accounting of the death toll and what was left of China at the end of the worst civil war in history.

Civilizations 29: Japan joins the imperialists, 1853

India had Plassey in 1757, China had Opium War 1 in 1839, and Japan had Commodore Perry’s visit in 1853. After centuries of keeping the imperialists at bay, Japan found them knocking down the gates. And in a series of events studied by everyone in Asia but never imitated, Japan went from having a brief colonial encounter to joining the imperialists within a few decades. We don’t know if anyone can tell you why it happened, but we can tell you what happened, on this episode of Civilizations.

Civilizations 30: Korea’s Dilemmas from Donghak Uprising to Sino-Japanese War 1894

By the 1860s it was Korea’s turn to face the dilemma of how to deal with the imperialists. Qing China and Meiji Japan had a lot to say about what they thought Korea should do. We talk about the attempts to reform, Donghak Uprising in Korea, and the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-5.

Civilizations 31: The first anti-imperialist uprising of the 20th century: Yi Ho Tuan, or Boxer Rebellion of 1900

By pure coincidence, we are publishing this episode on the day the world contrasted the the Alaska Summit – a US-China meeting in March 2021, in which China told the US to stop posturing, to the humiliations of the Boxer Protocol of 1901. In this episode, we talk about the terrible famines of 1876 and 1896 in China and India that killed tens of millions of people, the context of the Boxer Uprising of lightly armed but tenacious anti-imperialists, and the further humiliations inflicted on China by the imperialists at the nadir of China’s century of humiliation.

Civilizations 32: Still a bit Victorian, aren’t we?

Racism, imperialism, repression of sexuality, hypocrisy, pugilism, world fairs, parades, animals on display, worship of a royal family… we look at the Victorian era and the Queen herself. Good thing we’ve come so far since those days… right?

Civilizations 33a: Darwin and 19th century scientific advances

Charles Darwin’s book On the Origin of Species was read by Lord Elgin before he burned down the palace in Beijing and by Marx, who was so excited he asked Darwin if he could dedicate a volume of Capital to him (Darwin politely declined, not wanting to offend religious sentiment). We talk Darwin and the debates he spawned, physics, Freud, and about the scientific advances and missteps of the late 19th century. Part 1 of a series on Science, Scientific Racism, and Racism in the 19th century.

Civilizations 33b: Scientific Racism

The old saying goes that Science ain’t an exact science, and nowhere is that more true than with the Scientific Racism of the 19th century. From its predecessors in the 18th century, we get into the unholy trinity of Pearson, Galton, and Fisher. We talk about craniometry, phrenology, IQ testing, “race development” (now called International Relations), and racism in all your favorite fields, from criminology to anthropology, to political science and economics, to sociology and statistical science itself. We talk about the history, so you can ponder the question: has science moved past all this racist baggage?

Civilizations 33c: 19th Century Racism in History and World Fairs

We talk about all the racist rewriting of history, the famous racist literature of imperialism, and the stunningly racist statements by public figures of the 19th century, from Kipling to Roosevelt and more.

Civilizations 34: Islam & Imperialism 1 – Western Civilization’s Ottoman Foil

Civilizations 35: Islam & Imperialism 2 – The Qajjars struggle to survive the Empires

Civilizations 36: Islam & Imperialism 3 – Afghanistan battles the Empires

Civilizations 37: Islam & Imperialism 4 – Egypt & Sudan

Civilizations 38: The Scramble For Africa, parts 1-5

Civilizations 39: Yankee Imperialism and the Spanish American War

Civilizations 40: What we learned from doing this podcast

We will continue our world history in the Year 2 course, World War Civ, covering World War 1, World War 2, and the Cold War.