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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
Enlightened despots and the “greats”: Peter, Catherine, Frederick, Akbar, Abbas, Shivaji, Sejeong, as well as the Sikh Empire and the Ayuttaya Kingdom.
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.
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.
The rise of Protestantism, focusing on the characters of Martin Luther (including his advice to Philip Landgrave of Hesse), and Henry VIII.
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.
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.
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 sources: John Grenier, The First Way of War, Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz, An Indigenous People’s History of the United States, and Gerald Horne, the Counter-Revolution of 1776.
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. Readings: Eric Hazan, A People’s History of the French Revolution, Laurent Dubois – Avengers of the New World, and the indispensable CLR James, The Black Jacobins
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. Reading: Peter Guardino, The Dead March
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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 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.
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).
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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. Reading: Chesneaux, Le Barbier, and Bergere, China
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
We talk about the Ottoman Empire, show that the history is a little bit more complicated than a story of “decline”, and focus on the elite’s struggles to reform and modernize in the face of the growing ambitions of Western imperialists. Reading: Caroline Finkel, Osman’s Dream
Part 2 of our series on Islam and Imperialism in the 19th century: the Persian Empire’s struggles with the imperialists. In this period Persia was dominated by the Qajjars. We talk about their rise, the multiple wars with Russia, the attempts to modernize, the unequal treaties. We tell the story of Griboyedev’s demise from both sides, and talk about one of the biggest Victorian famines you never heard about – the Persian famine of 1869-1872. Reading: Abbas Amanat, The Pivot of the Universe, and Mohammad Gholi Majd, Victorian Holocaust – Iran in the Great Famine of 1869-1873
The British imperialists made much of the bad experiences they had invading and pillaging Afghanistan beginning in 1839, coining terms like the “Graveyard of Empires” and inspiring racist poets like Kipling. We tell the story straight – a bloody imperialist aggression designed to set back Afghan society. Still, the story has some unforgettable characters – from Shah Shuja to Dost Mohamed, from McNaghten and Burnes to Mohan Lal Kashmiri. The crimes, the atrocities, the massacres, the racism and the foolishness of the imperialists and the calculations on the Afghan side, in this long instalment in the Islam & Imperialism series of Civilizations. Reading: Farrukh Husain, Afghanistan in the Age of Empires and Priya Atwal, Royals and Rebels
We conclude the Islam & Imperialism segment of Civilizations with the Anglo-Afghan wars starting with the Army of Revenge in 1842 and going down to the fixing of the Durand Line. What could go wrong?
At the end of the 19th century the US acquired a substantial overseas empire – Hawaii, Samoa, Guam, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Cuba, as well as imperialist relations all around the world. In this miniseries we look at this Yankee Imperialism, focusing on the Spanish-American War. But first, the post-Reconstruction domestic situation in the US – the robber barons, the violent strikes, and the racial apartheid that fueled the American system. We use two books that are two sides of the same people’s history coin: Dave reads from Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States; Justin from J Sakai’s Settlers.
Starting in earnest in the early 1880s the US embarked on a prototypical regime change operation: propaganda demonizing the targeted regime, financial control of the targeted state, suborning of key government officials, deactivation and destruction of the sovereign military force from within, a coup, followed by an invasion disavowing any US ambition or interest, and finally the swallowing of the country in to the US Empire. After the subjugation of the Indigenous Nations after the Mexican-American War covered in a previous episode, this was one of the first regime changes, and it set the tone for the century-plus of regime changes to follow. We also tell the story of how from King Kalakaua to Queen Liliuokalani, Hawaiian leaders (and people) tried to protect their sovereignty. Reading: Julia Flynn Siler, Lost Kingdom
We tell the story of Cuba’s movement for independence from Spain following the remarkable career of Jose Marti from his teenage years to his unlucky demise. We pick up the story of the Spanish American War in Cuba from the USS Maine incident (“To Hell With Spain! Remember the Maine!”) and the possibility that it was faked. Part 3 of our series on Yankee Imperialism. Reading: Jon Sterngass, Jose Marti
Through their own efforts, Puerto Rican revolutionaries won a charter of autonomy from Spain and were on their way to winning independence. Then Spain handed its colony over to the US, and the US has colonized it ever since. We talk about how the US invented the concept of “odious debt” to avoid paying Spain’s colonial debt, then promptly saddled Puerto Rico with an odious debt of its own. Reading: Jorge Duany, Puerto Rico: What Everyone Needs to Know. And Natasha Lycia Ora Bannan, “Puerto Rico’s Odious Debt: The Economic Crisis of Colonialism”.
A complex multinational megaproject with layers of government corruption and massive government funds. A separatist movement created and sponsored by the US. A chunk of territory carved out of an existing country for imperialist use. Workers exploited to death. And a shining imperialist possession at the end. We talk about the creation of Panama and the Panama Canal, another prototypical imperialist operation that offers many warnings for the next 120 years.
General Jacob Smith was reprimanded for his order to commit atrocities in the war against the Philippine Republic, but he was not alone in giving such orders. The US war in the Philippines set the stage for more than a century of counterinsurgency, atrocities, and pretexts like the civilizing mission and the responsibility to protect. Using Renato Constantino’s work, also talk about some of the amazing characters on the Filipino side, like Bonifacio and Aguinaldo. Reading: Renato Constantino, A Past Revisited
A year and a half ago I approached my high school history teacher with the idea of launching a podcast with a massively expanded version of the content of the “Modern Western Civilization” course he taught me in high school in the 1990s, to include the whole world and the people’s histories.
We’re just about to reach the 20th century so we thought we would debrief and go over some of what we’ve learned. We read things like EH Carr’s What is History?; Dave discusses the limitations of podcasting and of high school teaching; we talk about where the history we do fits into current debates about Critical Race Theory; and we set up for the next two series to come – the Scramble for Africa, and the Three World Wars (WWI, WWII, and the Cold War).
Special Civ Miniseries: The Scramble For Africa, parts 1-5
And we continue our world history in the Year 2 course, World War Civ, covering World War 1, World War 2, and the Cold War.