Chris Harman

A people’s history of the world

Further reading

This list is not meant to be at all comprehensive. It aims simply to suggest a few easily readable books which will enable the reader to go a little deeper into the issues raised in each section. Anyone who wants to do more than that should look at the end notes to the main text. Books in print can be ordered from Bookmarks bookshop, 1 Bloomsbury Street, London WC1B 3QE, telephone 0171 6371848.

Part one: The rise of class societies

Eleanor Leacock’s Myths of Male Dominance is the most accessible account of hunter-gatherer societies. Richard Lee’s The !KungSan looks in depth at one of them, as does Richard Turnbull’s The Forest People. Marshall Sahlins’ Stone Age Economics examines the original affluent society and the change from egalitarian societies to chieftainships.

V. Gordon Childe’s What Happened in History remains by far the most accessible account of the Neolithic and urban revolutions in Eurasia, although some of its material and chronology is dated. For a revised chronology, see Colin Renfrew Before Civilisation. For ancient Egypt, see Bruce Trigger and others, Ancient Egypt, A Social History, for the Americas, Frederick Katz’s Ancient American Civilisations.

Part two: The ancient world

Again Gordon Childe is invaluable. Jean Gernet’s A History of Chinese Civilisation is a very good introduction, as is Romila Thapars Penguin History of India volume 1. Geoffrey de Ste Croix’s Class Struggles in the Ancient Greek World is a detailed analysis of Greek slavery and the decline of the Roman Empire. For the earlier history of Rome, see P.A. Brunt’s Social Conflicts in the Roman Republic. I am critical of some points in Karl Kautsky’s The Foundations of Christianity, and of many points in his politics, but it should be read. Henry Chadwick’s The Early Church is useful in looking at the institutionalisation of Christianity.

Part three: The ‘Middle Ages’

Peter Brown’s The World of Late Antiquity and The Rise of Western Christendom look at early developments in Western Europe, Byzantium and the Middle East. Gernet again provides a good account of Chinese developments. The collection of essays edited by W Haeger, Crisis and Prosperity in Sung China, examine a key period in depth, and the various volumes of Colin Ronan’s abridgement of the work of Joseph Needham on Chinese science, C. Ronan and J. Needham, The Shorter Science and Civilisation of China, are a revelation not only about Chinese science and technology but also about technical development in general. The most accessible introduction to the Byantine Empire is Cyril Mango’s Byzantium. Bernard Lewis’s The Arabs in History provides the most accessible overview of early Islamic history, as do Maxime Rodinson’s Mohammed and Islam and Capitalism.

Basil Davidson played a pioneering role in exploring African history and his Africa in History and The Search for Africa are very useful, although new discoveries are continually being made in this field now the hold of colonial prejudice is finally dying. For Europe, Marc Bloch’s two volume Feudal Society remains the best general introduction, and Jacques Le Goff’s Medieval Civilisation is very accessible. Guy Bois’s two books, The Transformation of the Year 1000 (on the rise of feudal production) and The Crisis of Feudalism, are more technical but invaluable. Rodney Hilton deals with this crisis, in a similar way to Bois, in his Class Struggle and the Crisis of Feudalism. Jean Gimpel’s The Medieval Machine is a readable account of the changes in technology and the first rediscovery of ancient learning in the 14th century.

Part four: The great transformation

There is still nothing to beat the first part of The Communist Manifesto for providing an overviewof the sweep of the changes which occurred. The three volumes of Fernand Braudel’s Capitalism and Civilisation, covering the 15th to the 18th centuries, spell out in detail the changes in people’s lives and world politics with the rise of market, but are necessarily a little detailed. R.S. Duplessis’s Transitions to Capitalism in Early Modern Europe provides a shorter summary account of economic changes in Europe over the three centuries. The social character of the German Reformation is dealt with well in Thomas Brady’s The Politics of the Reformation in Germany, P. Dickie’s Communal Reformation, and J. Abray’s The People’s Reformation. Karl Kautsky’s Communism in Europe in the Age of the Reformation remains worth reading, as does Engels’ The Peasant War in Germany. Henry Heller’s confusingly titled The Conquest of Poverty is a marvellous analysis of the class roots of Calvinism in France. J.V. Polisensky’s The Thirty Years War is central to understanding one of the most confusing events in European history. So much has been written on the English Revolution, particularly by Christopher Hill and Brian Manning, it is difficult to know what to recommend, but for a good starting point try Hill’s The Century of Revolution and God’s Englishman, Brian Manning’s Aristocrats, Plebeians and Revolution in England, and Gentile’s The New Model Army. On China, once again Gernet is to be recommended On India, read Burton Stein, A History of India, while Irfan Habib’s Agrarian Structure of Mogul India is important for a deeper understanding of what happened in India while Western Europe was first beginning to overtake the rest of the world – but avoid Spear’s History of India part 2 as it is dry and difficult to follow.

Part five: The spread of the new order

George Rudé’s Europe in the 18th Century provides an overview of West European developments, R.S. Duplessis an overview of economic changes, and Angus Calders Revolutionary Empire an overview of the rise of Britain and its colonies. Robin Blackburn’s The Making of New World Slavery updates Eric Williams’ classic Capitalism and Slavery and details the rise of racist ideas. Patrick Manning’s Slavery and African Life looks at the impact on Africa. Keith Thomas’s Religion and the Decline of Magic details the growth of scientific ways of looking at the world in the 17th century, while various books by Robert Darnton (for instance, The Business of the Enlightenment) look at its social roots in the 18th. Isaac Rubin’s Marxist work A History of Economic Thought contains a very useful account of Adam Smith’s ideas.

Part six: The world turned upside down

Eric Hobsbawtn’s two volumes, The Age of Revolution and The Age of Capital, provide a view of the long sweep, especially as regards Europe. Gernet provides a similar overview for China, worth supplementing with Franz Schurmann and Orville Scholl’s compilation, Imperial China. Edward Countryman’s The American Revolution is indispensable for the War of Independence, as is James McPherson’s The Battle Cry of Freedom for the American Civil War. Albert Soboul’s The French Revolution, Peter Kropotkin’s The Great French Revolution and Andre Guerin’s Class Struggle in the First French Republic provide three differing perspectives, all very readable. C.L.R. James’s The Black Jacobins is the classic account of the slave rebellion in Haiti. Edward Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class covers the period from the 1780s to the 1830s, and Dorothy Thompson’s The Chartists carries the story through into the Chartist movement. Frederick Engels’ The Condition of the Working Class in England gives a graphic accounts of what the industrial revolution did to working people’s lives, and John Saville’s 1848 is a detailed study of the conflicts in Britain and Ireland in that year. Roger Price’s Documents on the French Revolution of 1848 is very useful, as is Jonathan Sperber’s Rhineland Revolutionaries. Karl Marx’s Class Struggles in France and The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte and Frederick Engels’ Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Germany (mistakenly published in Marx’s name in some older editions) are pioneering analyses. On Marx and Engels themselves, there is Alex Callinicos’s excellent The Revolutionary Ideas of Karl Marx and Franz Mehring’s classic biography Karl Marx. Lissigaray’s The History of the Paris Commune, Jelinek’s The Paris Commune, and Alistair Horne’s The Siege of Paris are all good, and Marx’s The Civil War in France remains spellbinding.

Part seven: The century of hope and horror

There are few satisfactory overviews of the century. The BBC television series and book The People’s Century present most of the major events of the century as experienced by participants, but in a somewhat haphazard manner. Eric Hobsbawm’s The Age of Imperialism provides a useful introduction to the forces at work at the beginning of the century, and his The Age of Extremes provides some insights on some of the major events and cultural currents of the century but suffers from not really examining either the development of social classes or the great clash between them that were so important in shaping the century. Gabriel Kolko’s A Century of War is good at dealing with certain episodes but is far from comprehensive. There are, however, numerous very good books dealing with concrete developments and events.

Thomas Packenham’s The Scramble for Africa shows what imperialism did to the peoples it conquered. Leon Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution remains the best single work on the Russian Revolution, but the abridged version of the Menshevik N.N. Sukhanov’s The Russian Revolution of 1917 is good. The first two volumes of Tony Cliff’s biography of Lenin are a good introduction to the history of the socialist movement in Russia, and the second volume also provides an accessible outline of the events of 1917. Paul Frölich’s Rosa Luxemburg is good biography and guide to the arguments inside the German Social Democratic Party, while Carl Schorske’s German Social Democracy is the best account of the party.

There is a mass of stuff in German on the revolutionary years 1918-22, but in English the most comprehensive work remains my own The Lost Revolution: Germany 1918-23. The book The Rise of Italian Fascism which Angelo Tasca wrote under the name Angelo Rossi is the best on that subject but difficult to find. Giampiero Carocci’s Italian Fascism is helpful, and can be supplemented by J.M. Cammett’s Antonio Gramsci and the Origins of Italian Communism and Paolo Spriano’s Occupation of the Factories. Donny Gluckstein’s The Western Soviets draws together the experience of workers’ revolts in Europe in the period. Duncan Hallas’s The Comintern and Alfred Rosmer’s Lenin’s Moscow describe the early years of the Communist International. C.L.R. James’s World Revolution carries the story through to the early 1930s, and Fernando Claudin’s The Communist International provides a full history Victor Serge’s Memoirs of a Revolutionary is a marvellous introduction to the movement and the period. Jean Chesneaux’s The Chinese Labour Movement is the fullest account of its growth and defeat in the 1920s. Harold Isaacs’s The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution is excellent and easier to find. The second volume of Isaac Deutscher’s biography of Trotsky, The Prophet Unarmed, and the third volume of Tony Cliff’s Trotsky both deal, from slightly different standpoints, with the changes in Russia in the 1920s, while Moshe Lewin’s Lenin’s Last Struggle details Lenin’s distrust of Stalin. J.K. Galbraith’s The Great Crash is a fascinating account of the crash of 1929 but unfortunately does not go into the economic crisis of the 1930s in any depth. Charles Kindelberger’s The World in Depression concentrates mainly on the international financial wranglings of governments. Donny Gluckstein’s The Nazis, Capitalism and the Working Class deals with the slump’s most disastrous political effect. France in the 1930s is covered very well in Julian Jackson’s The Popular Front in France. G.E.R. Gedye’s Fallen Bastions tells the story of the Vienna rising. There are a number of very good books on the Spanish Civil War, notably Broué and Temime’s The Revolution and the Civil War in Spain, Ronald Fraser’s oral history Blood of Spain, Felix Morrow’s contemporary account Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Spain, and George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia. The fascinating story of the US labour movement in the 1930s is to be found in Art Preis’s Labor’s Giant Step, and the story of one of the most important strikes is told by one its leaders in Farrell Dobbs’s Teamster Rebellion. A.J.P. Taylor’s The Second World War provides a simply factual account of the war. Gabriel Kolko’s The Politics of War looks at the manoeuvrings of the Great Powers that led to the suppression of the resistance movement and then the Cold War. Ian Birchall’s two books, Bailing Out the System and Workers Against the Monolith, deal with the behaviour of the social democratic and Communist parties of the West in the post-war period. Brian Lapping’s End of Empire (based on a television series from the mid-1980s) is an excellent account of some of the major anti-colonial movements in the British sphere of influence. Nigel Harris’s The Mandate of Heaven is a critical account of the Mao period in China. Tony Cliff’s State Capitalism in Russia (first written in 1947) looks at the real dynamic of Stalinist society while my own Class Struggles in Eastern Europe describes the establishment of the Stalinist regimes in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and elsewhere, and the crises that beset them between 1953 and 1981. There are now dozens of books on the black movement in the US in the 1960s. Garrow’s Bearing the Cross tells the story of the civil rights movement through a biography of Martin Luther King. The compilation edited by Colin Barker, Revolutionary Rehearsals, tells the story of some of the upheavals of the late 1960s and 1970s, while his Festival of the Oppressed is full of the Polish workers’ movement in 1980-81. Paul Ginsberg’s A History of Contemporary Italy and Robert Lumley’s States of Emergency both provide accounts of the movements which swept Italy between 1969 and 1974.

Some of the best recent oral history is to be found in television documentary footage, which can often be obtained on video. Highly recommended are the BBC’s People’s Century, The Nazis: a Warning from History, and the story of the black movement in the US, Eyes on the Prize; less consistently good is The Cold War. The film The Wobblies is a documentary look at working class militancy in the US in the first quarter of the 20th century and Battle for Chile parts one and two a riveting look at what happened to the Allende government.


Last updated on 26 January 2010