MERCHANT, SOLDIER, SAGE by David Priestland


A History of the World in Three Castes
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The author of The Red Flag: A History of Communism (2009) returns to present the skeleton of a new theory of human history.

Priestland (Modern History/Univ. of Oxford) employs the term caste to mean “self-interested bodies seeking economic advantage but also as embodiments of ideas and lifestyles, which they often seek to impose on others.” He identifies three of them (see title) and says there is also a fourth (workers and peasants) which, he writes, we should not neglect. He notes that each caste has, historically, allied with the others to varying degrees (the merchant-soldier, for example), but each has sought to dominate discourse and politics. After explaining his terms, Priestland marches us through history, showing us how his model applies to and illuminates everything from the Reformation to Robinson Crusoe, Adam to Adam Smith, Andrew Carnegie to Ayn Rand, Hitler to Putin, and Richard Wagner to Sinclair Lewis (George Babbitt does not fare well here). He notes—no real surprise—that the world tends to get in trouble when it permits one caste to dominate. In recent times, he bewails the warrior ethos that impelled George W. Bush to invade Iraq after 9/11 and the “pervasive merchant value system” which drove the world to near economic collapse in 2008. Occasionally, Priestland sounds very much like Paul Krugman, especially when he declares that the stimulus package of 2008 was too small; he sounds like Elizabeth Warren when he slaps the faces of investment bankers, who, he writes, need firm reins. The author acknowledges that this is a theoretical, not a practical, text, but he does offer some vague solutions: more awareness of history and a balanced contribution of all the castes.

Useful, often-clarifying trifocals through which to view the world.

Pub Date: March 21st, 2013
ISBN: 978-1594203107
Page count: 352pp
Publisher: Penguin
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15th, 2012


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