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An Economic History of the English Garden

Author(s):Floud, Roderick
Reviewer(s):Elliott, Brent

Published by EH.Net (April 2023).

Roderick Floud. An Economic History of the English Garden. London: Allen Lane (Penguin), 2019. xiii + 399pp. £12.99 (paperback), ISBN: 978-0141981703.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Brent Elliott, formerly of the Royal Horticultural Society’s Lindley Library, London.


Roderick Floud’s book was published four years ago; it has since been issued in paperback and generally has been enthusiastically received and described as magisterial.

The originality of Floud’s book lies particularly in his standard of calculations for an historical comparison of financial figures. He had launched this standard a few years earlier, in a paper ‘Capable entrepreneur? Lancelot Brown and his finances’, published in Occasional Papers from the RHS Lindley Library, vol. 14 (October 2016). Capability Brown is the major figure in Floud’s book, followed by Joseph Paxton; both gardeners have been the subject of previous biographies, and forty years ago Peter Willis drew attention to Brown’s account at Drummond’s Bank, which has been a lively source of information for Floud. Few other figures have been as well documented, at least from the financial point of view.

Previous garden historians, I suspect – and know in my own case – had based their estimates of income and expenditure in previous centuries in the Bank of England’s website calculator, and that is largely based on a comparison of prices for consumer goods. Floud rejects this as unviable: ’Since consumer prices have increased by 128 times since 1741, we would multiply [Capability] Brown’s salary of £25 by 128 and conclude that he was paid, in today’s value, £3,200. But this figure doesn’t make sense. It suggests that the head gardener of the greatest garden in England in the 1740s was paid for a year the equivalent of someone working for twelve weeks at the current national minimum wage of an unskilled labourer’.  He goes on to enumerate some of the reasons why consumer prices are unreliable for long-term comparison: ‘the things on which we spend money have changed in nature and quality … We also spend less of our income on manufactured goods and good than we did two centuries ago and much more on services … We live our lives and spend our money quite differently’. He proposes as an alternative ‘to compare their pay with changes in average earnings over the centuries. In 1700 the average worker earned £12 and 8 shillings a year; in 2015 he or she received £25,609. … if something cost two-thirds of average earnings in 1800, we say that its equivalent is two-thirds of average earnings today’. This is the system of comparison used by the online calculator Measuring Worth, whose graph of changing money values Floud reproduces after his introduction.

On this basis, Floud calculates that Capability Brown’s £25 per year was the equivalent of £45,580, and for comparison, a century later Joseph Paxton, as head gardener at Chatsworth, was paid the equivalent of £47,120.  The results of this change in the mode of comparison is a salutary shock to the system, and over the last few years has shaken up the work of many garden historians as they rethink their calculations.

I do not think, however, that the matter can yet be regarded as settled. Floud’s litany of the changes in the content of consumer spending could surely be echoed by a list of changes in the status and functions of different types of work over the centuries. For example, having determined that Capability Brown was paid £45,580 a year, Floud adds, ‘or £63,810 if one includes the value of the house that came with the job’.  But should the value of the house be included? Brown didn’t own that house; as it came with the job, it was the property of his employer. On p. 177, Floud remarks that ‘The head gardener was provided, on top of his salary, with a free house and fuel and usually with free fruit and vegetables from the garden’. This makes the provision of accommodation sound like an unambiguous benefit, but socially and politically it caused difficulties. In 1840 Paxton, having been provided with an upgrade to his existing house at Chatsworth, bought a property in Darley Dale, and moved away from Chatsworth for six months to do it up, landscape the grounds, etc.; he then moved back to Chatsworth and leased the house out. Why? – an obvious reason is that by doing so, Paxton became a landowner, and therefore eligible to vote (people who lived in accommodation provided by their employers did not gain the right to vote until the Third Reform Act in 1884). For an aspiring head gardener, property investment could be considered as part of the necessary expenses for living the life of a true citizen.

Simple income, then, may not be the major determinant of status. Take a case from the eighteenth century. John Abercrombie wrote a manual entitled ‘Every man his own gardener’, but it appeared under the joint names of Abercrombie and Thomas Mawe. Mawe was head gardener to the Duke of Leeds and was apparently chosen to be identified as the principal author because of his high reputation. When Abercrombie first met him, he saw ‘a gentleman so bepowdered, and so bedaubed with gold lace, that he thought he could be in the presence of no less a personage than the Duke himself’. But despite his powder and lace, could Mawe vote in an election? If so, he must have been a property owner; where was his property?

All this ties in with the question of professional status, about which Floud has an informative section in his fourth chapter. The head gardeners of the nineteenth century longed to be recognised as professionals. In 1845, the young David Taylor Fish was offered a position ‘at £30 per year, with board, and the half of a footman’s room for lodging’; he angrily responded, ‘Why couple the knowledge and culture of professional men with the rewards of a livery servant?’ (See his autobiography, published in the Gardeners’ Chronicle in 1875.) But the hoped-for professional recognition was never achieved, and in the twentieth century gardening sank to the level of a ‘semi-skilled occupation’.

Floud’s book is organised into ten chapters: ‘The English garden in 1660 and 2020’; ‘Gardens and the state’; ‘The great gardens’; ‘Designers’; ‘The nursery trade’; ‘The working gardener’; ‘Technology’; ‘The people’s gardens’; and ‘Kitchen gardens’. Of these, the chapter on the nursery trade is the least adequate, largely because there has been no systematic history of the nursery trade yet published. John Harvey, the pioneer of nursery history in the 1970s, took the subject up to the end of the eighteenth century only, and the best works on the subject since have been histories of individual firms or of regions (like E. J. Willson’s book on the nursery gardens of Woking). Floud does not deal with the question of the price of land required for nurseries, and while he considers the role of the railways in the ease and speed with which plants could be transported, he does not deal with the way in which access to railways allowed nurseries to move away from the urban perimeter where they had traditionally flourished. He does make a lovely point about the advantage for nurseries of proximity to the urban horse population and its quantities of useful dung. In 1904, the Bedfont seedsman Alexander Dean worried that the replacement of horses by automobiles would lead to ‘the ruin of both agriculture and commercial horticulture’ by reducing the available stock of dung.

I find the chapters on technology, the people’s gardens, and kitchen gardens the most satisfactory. Floud’s figures for the costs of lawn mowers in the nineteenth century are particularly eye-opening. But it is the chapters on the great gardens and on garden designers – the traditional subjects of most studies – that have had the greatest impact so far on garden historians, by forcing them to rethink the costs of garden-making in earlier centuries. This impact is entirely beneficial, even if further research and economic studies lead to some reconsideration of the historical comparisons. And when scholars finally get around to writing the history of commercial horticulture, the questions Floud raises will provide a sound basis for getting started.


Brent Elliott, now retired, was formerly the Librarian, then the Historian, of the Royal Horticultural Society. He is a former editor of Garden History and the author of Victorian Gardens (1986) and other works.

Copyright (c) 2023 by EH.Net. All rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact the EH.Net Administrator ( Published by EH.Net (April 2023). All EH.Net reviews are archived at

Subject(s):Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Extractive Industries
Labor and Employment History
Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):18th Century
19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII

The Economic Consequences of U.S. Mobilization for the Second World War

Author(s):Field, Alexander J.
Reviewer(s):Eloranta, Jari

Published by EH.Net (April 2023).

Alexander J. Field. The Economic Consequences of U.S. Mobilization for the Second World War. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2022. 472 pp. $45 (hardcover). ISBN: 978-0300251029.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Jari Eloranta, University of Helsinki.


Alexander Field’s new book is a broad analysis of several important themes pertaining to the US participation in the Second World War and its aftermath. His overarching argument focusing on the overall supply side context is that manufacturing productivity declined during the war because production was shifted to producers and sectors that no prior experience in such activity as well as since the war disrupted the positive developments in innovation and human capital that preceded the war. Field’s book is an impressive new theoretical and empirical narrative to understand the war’s impacts and legacies.

How novel is his thesis? I would say it is definitely novel, especially when presented in such a comprehensive way, although economic historians have received some pieces of this argument from Field’s earlier work. While some studies on other war economies have made some similar points in a far less concise manner before, his analysis of the US case is unique. Moreover, the historical national accounting literature has touched on the topic of productivity changes due to the war only slightly, typically comparing productivity differences across countries. Many of these studies skip over the war period, which is a weakness in the literature. This book is also related to debates about the regional study of US economy during the war – for example, as Jaworski (2017) points out, the manufacturing productivity decline was not a uniform phenomenon in the US, namely in the South. Thus, there is work to be done to understand the regional and local levels comprehensively, which would possibly expose the network effects of shocks better.

There are several important insights arising from the book. First, it is a well-argued and persuasive answer to the enduring question of whether war can induce economic growth. His answer to this question is, in line with most defense economists, that in a larger sense it does not: the more limited positive impacts are outweighed by the negative effects of the actual war and its related costs. While some of the demand side implications of massive government spending are no doubt important, which Field acknowledges, the supply side disruptions to the economy have serious adverse effects. The government’s effort to prevail in the context of total war led to many detours and mistakes, which sometimes resulted in idle factories and delayed war mobilization – in fact, as he demonstrates with the skill of an experienced economist, the productivity performance of the US economy was quite disappointing during the war.

Second, Field’s book is a contribution to the larger debates about the causes and effects of the Great Depression and the New Deal in the longer run, namely whether the government interventions were effective in stimulating the American economy, both during and after the war. He argues that the command economy of the war period distorted the manufacturing sector’s productivity trajectory, and the expansion of the American economy after the war was related more to the productivity foundations in place before the war than the retraction of the government’s control of the production and rationing. The demand side expansion is not the focus in the book, and Field discusses that briefly in the concluding chapter. Yet, I think there is room to re-examine the demand side expansion too, especially the implications for the political economy and the post-war growth.

Third, this book is also a part of the newer crop of economic history scholarship in the last 30 years or so that has tackled the causes, impacts, mobilization, and aftermath of various conflicts. These studies have introduced several important contributions and findings, for example related to the world wars as the ultimate forms of total war. Mark Harrison and others were able to present a holistic accounting of what these wars meant for the larger participating states. (Harrison 2000; Broadberry & Harrison 2005) In particular, they argued that both world wars ultimately were determined by the mobilization and use of resources, with the US playing a pivotal role due to the size of its economy and industrial capacity. The richer and more democratic states were able to expand further than their authoritarian rivals, and thus they forced their adversaries into mistakes, both politically and economically. Field’s book provides much greater nuance to this aggregate view, namely that the expansion of the American war economy was also rife with problems and missteps, yet it still managed to expand way beyond what its rivals could have even imagined.

The first criticism that I would raise with this book pertains, in fact, to the lack of greater comparative content, which would have made some of the findings of the study even sharper. The similarities of the US with many other nations in terms of the missteps in the economic mobilization and output mix implications could have offered some further insights into the institutional consequences of various political decisions. Here I am referring to something that my own work has also touched on, namely how private-public partnerships evolved during the world wars, especially the Second World War. For example, Field cites Paul Koistinen’s work, but it would be interesting to know more about how producing some war goods privately or by government facilities affects the outcomes, also after the war. The MIC (Military Industrial Complex) literature suggests that the businessmen that were brought to manage wartime supply systems captured significant long-term rents in the process. Field discusses this issue for example. on p. 138, related to government-owned synthetic rubber production. He also analyzes contracts in the book at various points. However, a deeper discussion of the theoretical and empirical implications of the contracts would have been warranted, which has taken place for example in the debates of the Germany wartime supply system. One interesting book that touches on these topics is Boldorf & Okazaki (2015). To be fair, Field makes some important distinctions between the experiences of the US and the other warring parties, namely that a substantial negative output gap persisted at the beginning of the mobilization, which in turn made possible substantial supply engineering efforts.  This would be an interesting point to ponder also for other warring economies, to understand the actual mechanics of the economic mobilization better.

In general, Field has thus framed his book in terms of changes in the output mix and resource shocks that were at the core of the relatively poor manufacturing productivity performance. In addition, he touches on several themes that reinforce this powerful narrative. Perhaps the most important concerns the lack of innovation during the wartime, even though some prior literature has suggested that wartime demand side expansion had led to major innovations technology. This is a continuation of Field’s previous work, highlighting technological progress of the pre-Second World War period (and similar to Goldin’s work on human capital creation; see for example Goldin 2021). In this book, he showcases labor policies that failed to address labor shortages as well as the uncertainty the government’s contracting actions introduced. One road not taken was, of course, an industrial draft or something akin to that. Field addresses this for example on p. 220, with Selective Service draft calls actually leading to more labor shortages or distortions among the sectors of the economy. There were, of course, many forms of forced labor used globally during the war, with the use of prisoners of war as the most extreme and often inhuman option. But, in many countries there were campaigns to mobilize people for volunteer work too. All these forms were utilized in the US prior to the war, so the choices during the conflict are quite interesting and reflect the government’s willingness (or unwillingness) to address labor shortages in certain sectors. On the producer side, some were forced into converting their factories to manufacturing that they were ill-equipped for, and producers hoarding commodities and raw materials led to significant delays in firms reaching their imposed goals. Shortages were common, and rationing was an imperfect tool to manage wartime realities, although these problems were less pronounced in the American case. Again, a deeper comparative look at the rationing systems of other countries could have bolstered this argument. Field’s assertion that the US experience is unique may very well be true, but I cannot accept it on face value without a broad review of the other warring economies. And, if true, why would that be the case? There seems ample room for comparative research on this issue. Unfortunately, more often than not the study of rationing systems has not been linked with the analysis of productivity impacts.

Moreover, while learning by doing helped alleviate some of the immediate output mix problems, innovations were hard to come by even in the context of the American war economy. The US economy’s capacity to increase military production came at the cost of efficiency and distortions in the manufacturing sector. This was also enhanced, to a limited extent, by the actual war and the resources the US had to expend in fighting it. Regardless, innovations were on the decline, or at least they stagnated – Field showcases this by a detailed overview of patent and other data, which clearly suggest a dearth of innovative activity. While the overview in the book is quite convincing, Field could have gone deeper into the analysis of the patent data, in line with what some in the field are doing to capture the network effects of technological innovations and human capital creation. (see, for example, Diebolt & Hippe 2019; Esteves & Mesevages 2019)

Field also provides some interesting new historical and theoretical insights on the production and impact of strategic commodities and minerals. Chapter 3 examines the efforts to produce synthetic rubber in the US, given the loss of South Asian sources of rubber. Rubber was a crucial component for the war machine, since the vehicles that the armed forces used needed rubber for the tires, among other uses. These efforts were successful, with some missteps along the way, but they were also expensive for the American government. Moreover, these endeavors required sacrifices in other sectors of the economy, and this impacted the fossil fuel industries in particular. While the demand for rubber increased due to the military orders, rationing and limited consumption opportunities decreased its demand. In sum, the synthetic rubber production was not exactly a miracle inspired by the war mobilization and government intervention. However, he could have compared the US experience for example with that of Germany, as reflected by Streb (2015).

In Chapter 4, he analyzes gasoline and oil production, as well as other strategic raw minerals. As he notes, the war imposed some challenges to the US economic mobilization and war effort. While the overall impact of the economic warfare by Germany and Japan was limited, it did have an impact on the energy networks in the US. – moreover, it did have vastly different impacts on regions within the country. The global nature of the war meant that such commodities were not only difficult to produce in sufficient quantities but also hard to get to the various theaters of war. The economic warfare of the Second World War, for example the impact of U-boats and convoys, meant that the participants suffered significant resources losses during the most intense periods of the conflict. In this context, Field deftly analyzes the production networks and pipelines, and what the disruptions meant for the overall oil production capacity and the delivery of the products. However, he could have discussed the logic and extent of economic warfare more, again also in a more comparative way (see also Davis & Engerman 2006) For example, the Japanese war economy and its limitation would have provided further nuance into the US case, in addition to the German war economy that is discussed briefly in the book. (Again, to be fair, Field does discuss both Germany and Japan in the context of economic warfare for example on p. 150) Furthermore, he makes an important contribution to the literature on economic warfare by illustrating the lack of impact by convoys in protecting the Atlantic and Caribbean tanker traffic. What did this mean for the energy networks more widely during the war? This seems another fruitful avenue for new research.

On the whole, Alexander Field’s new book is an important contribution to the analysis of the US economic performance during and after the Second World War. It provides a powerful argument that even the massive expansion of the American war economy did not lead to lasting positive impacts during or after the war. Moreover, he highlights, based on different sectors and examples, that even the war mobilization embodied many problems and missteps. The productivity increases that carried the US into the post-war economic growth era did not arise from the wartime supply side mobilization impacts. This book is well written and cleverly argued, with a heavy dose of economic arguments and data, and it should be of interest to a large audience of scholars and general readers. If I had to nitpick about the few weaknesses of the book, I would highlight the somewhat limited nature of the comparative contexts contained in it. More engagement with the extant literature on the world wars and various country cases would have deepened and strengthened the analysis. Overall, I wholeheartedly recommend this book, especially to economic historians interested in the study of crises and warfare as well as the development of the American economy into the era of Cold War expansion.


Boldorf, Marcel, and Tetsuji Okazaki, eds. Economies under Occupation: The Hegemony of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan in World War II. Routledge, 2015.

Broadberry, Stephen, and Mark Harrison, eds. The Economics of World War I. Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Davis, Lance E., and Stanley L. Engerman. Naval Blockades in Peace and War: An Economic History Since 1750. Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Diebolt, Claude, and Ralph Hippe. “The Long-Run Impact of Human Capital on Innovation and Economic Development in the Regions of Europe.” Applied Economics 51(5): 542-563 (2019).

Esteves, Rui, and Gabriel Geisler Mesevage. “Social Networks in Economic History: Opportunities and Challenges.” Explorations in Economic History 74 (2019).

Goldin, Claudia. “Career and Family.” In Career and Family. Princeton University Press, 2021.

Harrison, Mark, ed. The Economics of World War II: Six Great Powers in International Comparison. Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Jaworski, Taylor. “World War II and the Industrialization of the American South.” Journal of Economic History 77(4): 1048-1082 (2017).

Scott-Kemmis, Don, and Martin Bell. “The Mythology of Learning-by-Doing in World War II Airframe and Ship Production.” International Journal of Technological Learning, Innovation and Development 3(1): 1-35 (2010).

Streb, Jochen. “Can Politicians Speed Up Long-Term Technological Change? Some Thoughts from a Comparison of the German and US-American Synthetic Rubber Programs Before, During and After World War II.” Essays in Economic & Business History 21 (2003): 33-49.


Jari Eloranta is Professor of Economic History at the University of Helsinki, Finland. He has published widely on the causes and impacts and causes of various conflicts in history, as well as military spending, for almost three decades, and also on the long-run economic history of the Nordic countries.

Copyright (c) 2023 by EH.Net. All rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact the EH.Net Administrator ( Published by EH.Net (April 2023). All EH.Net reviews are archived at





Subject(s):Economic Development, Growth, and Aggregate Productivity
Economic Planning and Policy
Military and War
Macroeconomics and Fluctuations
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII

Unravelled Dreams. Silk and the Atlantic World: 1500–1840 (reviewed in both English and Spanish)

Author(s):Marsh, Ben
Reviewer(s):Luque Pecci, José María

Published by EH.Net (March 2023).

Ben Marsh. Unravelled Dreams. Silk and the Atlantic World: 1500–1840. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020. 502 pp. $39.99 (hardcover), ISBN 978-1108418287.

Reviewed for EH.Net by José María Luque Pecci.

[Note: A Spanish-language review also appears in this document, after the English-language review.]


Although the history of silk in the Atlantic system is the history of a raw material which was never intended to be a mass consumer product, it has not ceased to be of economic interest and to be in the minds of many entrepreneurs. Ben Marsh presents a titanic work with fine historical details, in which the history of silk associated with the American Colonization is “unravelled” like a silk thread. The evolution of the silk business in the three main empires involved in the colonization of America is explained by means of private, social, and institutional motivations up to the early years of the United States.

The work presents three distinct parts: Emergence, Persistence, and Convergence of silk production in the Atlantic system. The author explains the birth and distribution of silk production nuclei over 340 years (1500–1840), from the European discovery of America until the consolidation of the United States as a nation.

The Emergence of silk in the colonized American territories begins with an accurate and documented relationship between the conquest of the kingdom of Granada by the Catholic Monarchs and the establishment of sericulture in American lands. The interest in silk cultivation of important figures in the early days of American colonization, such as Fray Bartolomé de las Casas (p. 54), is striking. The question about why silk represented a possible source of wealth for the colonized lands is immediately answered. In the Americas initially discovered, from the Caribbean islands to the Mexican lands, species of native mulberry trees were discovered. Since the existence or cultivation of mulberry trees is the starting point of any silk exploitation, the colonizers considered the opportunities for sericulture (breeding silkworms and cultivating silk). This was also the case in the English colonies of the Bahamas and Virginia, as well as the French colonies of the Mississippi Delta (p. 188). Thus, the presence of mulberry trees in the lands was the common motivating factor, but problems with labour represented a stumbling block.

After 200 years of American colonization, it was the English silk enterprises which consolidated silk production as a productive activity. The strong development of the textile manufacturing industry in Great Britain, and the dynamic population growth in its Atlantic colonies (p. 225), made the Persistence of sericulture possible, something which the Spanish and French had already abandoned at the beginning of the 18th century. It is also necessary to add other factors for the persistence of silk activities: the Enlightenment and scientific promotion. The birth of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) is a clear example of how institutional influence based on the development of science in the English territories fostered the excellence and success of colonial silk farms in Georgia and other colonies.

The third part of the book concentrates on the last years of the British dominions in North America and in the subsequent period called the Age of Revolutions (the American and French Revolutions). The author explains how silk production underwent a moral interpretation as a product of clear imperial tradition: silk was produced in the colonies and woven in England, and many raised their voices against it as a product that was the standard-bearer of European inequality. Cleverly, the Americans reconverted silk into a product of national pride, promoting the elaboration of fabrics in the territories of the incipient country (Convergence). The experience of George Washington, who in his first appearance as president on 30 April 1789, wore a suit of fine Connecticut cloth along with American-made silk stockings, illustrates the point.

Along with the detailed micro-historical passages that weave this magnificent work, it is necessary to highlight two social and economic phenomena that accompany the whole journey: Female and Child Labour, and Slavery. The role of Female and Child Labour in pre-industrial manufacturing such as sericulture is well known. (See, for example, Maxime Berg’s 1985 book The Age of Manufactures). Throughout Marsh’s book, we can observe activities associated with silkworm rearing that were performed by women and children. Collecting mulberry leaves, feeding the worms, taking care of the rearing facilities, were activities that would certainly not be performed by men, who were employed in more physically demanding tasks. Spinning, which is the first phase of the silk manufacturing process, was traditionally carried out by women (p. 192). This book adds to the literature on the importance of women in pre-industrial development. Women in the Americas, of European, African, and Native American descent, were linked to the second and shameful phenomenon: slavery. Slavery accompanied almost every episode recounted in this book. First, there is the enslavement of Native Americans that accompanied the Spanish colonization with the encomienda system. Under this system, the natives were ceded to Spanish or Creole landowners who sometimes acted as true slavers. Secondly, there is the enslavement of Africans and African Americans, first in the colonies of the three empires mentioned in the book, and later in the Southern states of the United States. As expected, slavery was closely connected to the North Atlantic silk trade due to the labour problems cited above.

What could be called the history of a failure – “Much (American sericulture) had been proven to be possible, but rarely had it been proven to be profitable” (p.453) – in my opinion, is the history of human development itself. It is the history of those who tried new enterprises and faced the difficulties of promoting an economic activity from scratch and obtaining some profit. The history of the silk industry told here is the history of a commodity, which, although it did not become the economic engine of entire regions, was a source of wealth for some local cases.

Finally, it should be noted that the work on all the sources that accompanies this masterpiece is of such dimension that it would be unfair to highlight one or another more than the others, but the great diversity of archives, languages and types of documents is worth mentioning. A meta-analysis of the book leads to the conclusion that it is a work of historical research, which could not be more exhaustive and complete. The immense myriad of sources used and logically placed, are a sublime example of rigor.


José María Luque Pecci is a doctoral student in economics at the Autonomous University of Barcelona whose thesis project is “Exports through the Port of Cadiz as an Indicator of Spanish Textile Production, 1720-1820.” He has also researched the contribution of the “high wages” of spinners to the First Industrial Revolution.


Spanish-language version


Ben Marsh. Unravelled Dreams. Silk and the Atlantic World: 1500–1840. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020. 502 pp. $39.99 (de tapa dura), ISBN 978-1108418287.

La historia de la seda en el sistema Atlántico es la historia de una materia prima que nunca estuvo llamada a ser un producto de consumo masivo pero no por ello dejó de tener interés económico y de estar en la cabeza de muchos emprendedores. Ben Marsh presenta una obra titánica donde se cuenta la historia de la seda asociada a la colonización de América pasando por finísimos detalles históricos como si de un hilo de seda se tratase, uniendo motivaciones privadas, sociales e institucionales para explicar el desarrollo que tuvo el negocio de la seda en los tres imperios que principalmente colonizaron América, hasta llegar a los primeros años de los Estados Unidos.

La obra presenta tres partes bien diferenciadas, aparición, persistencia y convergencia de la producción sedera en el sistema Atlántico, donde explica el nacimiento y distribución de los núcleos de producción sedera a lo largo de 340 años (1500–1840), desde el descubrimiento de América hasta la consolidación de los Estados Unidos de América como nación.

La aparición de la seda en los territorios americanos colonizados comienza con una acertadísima y documentada relación entre la conquista del reino de Granada por los Reyes Católicos y la implantación de la sericultura en tierras americanas. Llama la atención el interés que figuras tan importantes en los primeros días de la colonización americana como Fray Bartolomé de las Casas (p. 54) tuvieron por el cultivo de la seda. A la pregunta de ¿Por qué se plantea la seda como posible fuente de riqueza para las tierras colonizadas? la respuesta es inmediata. En toda la América inicialmente descubierta, desde las islas del caribe hasta las tierras mexicanas se descubrieron especies de moreras autóctonas que llamaron a sus conocedores a plantear la posibilidad de cultivar seda. Porque efectivamente, la existencia o cultivo de moreras es el punto de partida de toda explotación sedera. Este es también el caso en las colonias inglesas de Bahamas y Virginia o el de las francesas del delta del Missisipi (p. 188) en el intento de desarrollar la sericultura. Si la presencia de moreras en las tierras descubiertas para el mundo occidental fue ese factor motivador común, los problemas con la mano de obra fue uno de las principales escollos que encontraron los emprendedores.

Tras doscientos años de colonización americana fueron las experiencias inglesas las que se consolidaron como actividad productiva (persistencia). El fuerte desarrollo de la industria manufacturera textil en las islas británicas y el dinámico crecimiento poblacional de las colonias atlánticas (p. 225) sirvieron para mantener e incrementar las explotaciones sederas que españoles y franceses ya habían abandonado comenzando el siglo XVIII. Es necesario añadir también otro factor de persistencia de las actividades sederas como es la ilustración y la promoción científica. El nacimiento de la RSA “premium society” (p. 298) es un claro ejemplo de cómo el influjo institucional basado en el desarrollo de la ciencia en los territorios ingleses fomentó la excelencia y el éxito de explotaciones en colonias como Georgia.

Ya en la tercera parte, centrados en los últimos años de los dominios británicos en norte América y en el periodo posterior llamado la era de las revoluciones (Americana y Francesa), el autor nos explica cómo la producción sedera pasó el trámite moral de ser un producto de clara tradición imperial, la seda se producía en las colonias y se tejía en Inglaterra, donde no pocos alzaron la voz en contra de un producto que abanderaba la desigualdad europea. Inteligentemente lo supieron reconvertir en un producto de orgullo nacional fomentando la elaboración de los tejidos en los territorios del incipiente país (convergencia). La experiencia de George Washington (p.  403) que en 1789 en su primera aparición como presidente vistió un traje de paño fino de Connecticut junto a unas medias de seda también americanas zanja magistralmente el debate.

Junto a los detallados pasajes micro-históricos que tejen esta magnífica obra es necesario resaltar dos fenómenos social-económicos que acompañan en todo el camino, el trabajo femenino e infantil y la esclavitud. El trabajo femenino e infantil asociado a las labores manufactureras preindustriales es bien conocido (The Age of Manufactures, Maxime Berg, 1985) y no es menos importante en la sericultura. A lo largo de la obra podemos observar actividades asociadas a la cría del gusano de seda que eran desempeñadas por mujeres y niños. Recolección de las hojas de la morera, alimentación de los gusanos, cuidado de las instalaciones de cría, eran actividades que seguramente no serían realizadas por hombres, empleados en tareas más físicas como el arado de tierras o el acarreo de mercancías. Además, la primera fase manufacturera en la obtención de la seda consiste en el hilado, la actividad preindustrial que desembocó en las primeras experiencias industriales de éxito (Cotton Mills) y que era realizada por mujeres, pues bien, en el caso de la seda esta responsabilidad recayó también en la manos expertas de éstas (p. 192). Sirva esta obra como un ejemplo más de la importancia del trabajo femenino en la modernización económica del siglo XVIII. Mujeres, en el caso americano, de ascendencia europea, africana o nativa americana, lo que enlaza con el segundo y vergonzante fenómeno económico-social. La esclavitud acompaña a casi todos los episodios que se relatan en la obra. En primer lugar la esclavitud de nativos americanos que acompañaron a la colonización española con el sistema de encomiendas, donde los nativos eran cedidos a los propietarios de la tierra españoles o criollos que actuaban en ocasiones como verdaderos esclavistas. En segundo lugar la esclavitud de africanos y afroamericanos, primero en las colonias de los tres imperios citados en la obra y posteriormente en los estados sureños de los Estados Unidos. Como era de esperar tanto la esclavitud nativo-americana como la africana estuvieron muy relacionadas con la historia de la seda en el Atlántico Norte quedando patente en varios capítulos del libro.

Lo que en términos generales se podría llamar la historia de un fracaso, “Much (American sericulture) had been proven to be possible, but rarely had it been proven to be profitable” (p. 453), es en realidad la misma historia del hombre y su desarrollo, la historia de los que lo intentaron y afrontaron las dificultades de promover una actividad económica desde cero, que si bien no se convirtió en motor económico de regiones enteras sí fue fuente de riqueza para algunos casos locales.

Para terminar, hay que destacar que el trabajo de fuentes que acompaña a esta obra es de tal dimensión que sería injusto resaltar una u otra más que las demás, pero sí cabe reseñar la gran diversidad de archivos, lenguas y tipos de documentos. Haciendo un meta-análisis de la obra, la conclusión es que se trata de un trabajo de investigación histórica, que no puede ser más exhaustiva y completa. La inmensa miríada de fuentes utilizadas y colocadas de forma lógica son un ejemplo sublime de rigurosidad.


José María Luque Pecci es economista por la Universidad de Sevilla e historiador económico por las Universidades de Barcelona y Autónoma de Barcelona. Actualmente está doctorando por la Universidad Autónoma de Barcelona con el proyecto de tesis “Las exportaciones por el puerto de Cádiz como indicador de la producción textil española. 1720-1820”. Desde el comienzo de sus estudios de posgrado en historia económica se ha interesado por la producción textil en el siglo XVIII presentando como trabajo fin de máster el ensayo, “¿Fueron los altos salarios de las hilanderas motor de la primera industrialización? El debate High-Wage Low-Wage Economy.”

Copyright (c) 2023 by EH.Net. All rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact the EH.Net Administrator ( Published by EH.Net (March 2023). All EH.Net reviews are archived at

Subject(s):Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Extractive Industries
Servitude and Slavery
International and Domestic Trade and Relations
Geographic Area(s):Europe
North America
Time Period(s):16th Century
17th Century
18th Century
19th Century

The Real Business of Ancient Maya Economies: From Farmers’ Fields to Rulers’ Realms

Editor(s):Masson, Marilyn A.
Freidel, David A.
Demarest, Arthur A.
Reviewer(s):López Alonso, Moramay

Published by EH.Net (February 2023).

Masson, Marilyn A., David A. Freidel, and Arthur A. Demarest, eds. The Real Business of Ancient Maya Economies: From Farmers’ Fields to Rulers’ Realms. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2020. xviii + 634 pp. $125 (hardcover), ISBN 978-0813066295.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Moramay López Alonso, Rice University.


The history of Ancient Maya Civilizations has long been of great interest to scholars of different disciplines and different parts of the world. The nature and quality of the sources available has shaped interpretations of this civilization. Over time, the discovery of different archaeological sites, the deciphering of Maya texts and their reinterpretations, and most recently the emergence of new technologies that facilitate archeological exploration have shifted paradigms by providing a growing body of evidence about the landscape and organization of ancient Maya civilization throughout its long existence. Recently, LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) technology has shed light on how vast the ancient Maya civilization was to understand how the landscape had been altered. This meant that institutions and organizations of the Maya Civilization were more complex and diverse than they had originally being thought. Especially it showed that there were markets and market exchanges; hence the ancient Maya economy could be studied from a different viewpoint than in the past.

The Real Business of Ancient Mayan Economies masterfully weaves together strategic management studies, archaeology, and economic history in a compilation where scholars from these different disciplines addressed the study of the Mayan economy in its diversity and complexity. It is a monumental volume that brings together the ideas and research of 57 authors compiled in 27 chapters. The book is divided in five main parts that show how, with new archaeological evidence, it is possible to study how ancient Maya economic systems worked by making the argument that it was a market-based society and what this could mean for our interpretations of the past. It would be impossible to address all important points made in each of the chapters so I will present the main overarching arguments of the compilation.

The first section presents the analytical framework that the authors will use as a connecting thread that to put the argument and evidence of their respective chapters in dialogue with the others. The evidence is diverse in time and space given that it encompasses the pre-Classic period to the early Post-Contact period in the different territories of the Maya civilization. The compilers of this collection begin by stating that the book will go beyond the dichotomous assertion that societies were market or non-market based and that there is the recognition of spectrums of institutional variability. It contributes to the scholarship that moves away from Betty J. Meggers’s environmental limitation theory. Additionally, there is a constant comparison with the civilization of Central Mexico and how market systems operated in the Aztec Empire, emphasizing how the two regions are very different and therefore inviting Mayanists to draw their conclusions and their own empirical data rather than receiving wisdom from comparative treatises.

The following sections are composed of chapters that present case studies of specific archaeological sites that examine household and community economies and resources; agriculture, climate, and land; political elites and economic administration; and spheres of economic exchange.

On the topic of autonomy, interdependence, and labor specialization, the authors examine their evidence in relative rather than in absolute terms. This is how autonomous and self-sufficient communities were compared to each other. The findings in different localities show that interdependency levels would coexist with various exchange modes so they could adapt them to the resources they had at hand and to potential climatic calamities while leaving the possibility to trade surpluses. Food shortages could be supplemented by imports or exchanges with other communities. Archaeological evidence shows the existence of gardens that served different purposes. Home gardens could be cultivated as a risk reduction mechanism but they could also be expressions of wealth. Although maiz was ubiquitous, a diversity of other plant species were cultivated, with variety corresponding to the different ecosystems. Researchers suggest the importance of maiz for the Maya may have been overstated by researchers due to the influence of post-1491 chronicles. That presented the opportunity for local specialization and exchange between environmental zones. So there was occupational specialization, exchange, and interdependencies.

Labor is often defined as the relationship between humans and land. In the case of Ancient Maya communities there is a variety of forms of landownership and cultivation, much more complex that than what Spanish colonial accounts would describe as communally held land. Farmers would cultivate land for both self-subsistence and a surplus to exchange. Salt-workers or fishers and those working in other subsistence industries, including slaves, could also engage in other forms of labor for part of the year, which could be for service to the community, voluntary or cooperative. There was a diversity of service occupations including corvée labor, masons, soldiers, non-crafting commoners, and market vendors. Labor was important for household production and exchange but also as a commodity in its own right.

On the topic of markets and merchants, archaeological evidence shows a circulation of various goods of different values, attesting to the existence of an integrated complex economic system. This does not negate the probability that goods were exchanged in other way such gifts or distributions. Additionally, findings move away from the argument that in ancient civilizations peripheries were uniformly impoverished and underdeveloped. Authors in different chapters show the existence of trading ports and affluent well-connected peripheries and core commercial nodes across regions. Ceramics are used as a proxy, albeit an imperfect one, for the exchange of other goods. The intricacies and variable traditions of ceramic economics in the different regions are recognized as a useful analytical tool that still has a lot of information to uncover. Markets and exchange also reflect the balance of power between merchant elites and royal elites in different regions. Merchant elites were important and their relationship with royals could at times be contentious. Surviving paintings and others records depict merchants as having less relevance, but it was royals who commanded these works. Studies also find that in places where merchant elites were stronger, the commoners were poorer. Still, the levels of inequality were not the same in every location. In terms of regional diversity, evidence makes clear that northwest Yucatán Mayan society was distinctive compared with the southern lowlands. The northern regions had a different economic trajectory that manifested in its architecture and pottery.

The Real Business of Ancient Mayan Economies offers no definite conclusions that would close a debate. It rather concludes by showing where research stands now and where it still needs to go. In that sense it is an invitation for scholars to make their contributions and further our understanding of the Mayan economy. This book will be an invaluable reference for an audience interested in the economic history of ancient civilizations, environmental studies, archaeology, and strategic management. It leaves the reader with lingering questions and promises more findings in a promising field.


Moramay López Alonso is Associate Professor of History, Adjunct Associate Professor of Economics, and Lecturer in Management Studies at Rice University. She is the author of Measuring Up: A History of Living Standards in Mexico, 1850-1950 (Stanford University Press, 2012).

Copyright (c) 2023 by EH.Net. All rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact the EH.Net Administrator ( Published by EH.Net (February 2023). All EH.Net reviews are archived at

Subject(s):Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Extractive Industries
Environment, Climate, and Disasters
Living Standards, Anthropometric History, Economic Anthropology
Markets and Institutions
Geographic Area(s):Latin America, incl. Mexico and the Caribbean
Time Period(s):Ancient

1931: Debt, Crisis, and the Rise of Hitler

Author(s):Straumann, Tobias
Reviewer(s):Wandschneider, Kirsten

Published by EH.Net (February 2023).

Tobias Straumann. 1931: Debt, Crisis, and the Rise of Hitler. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019. xxi + 240 pp. £12.99 (paperback), ISBN: 978-0198816195.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Kirsten Wandschneider, University of Vienna.


For many scholars interested in German history, and indeed many Germans trying to come to terms with their country’s difficult past, the question of the underlying reasons that enabled the Nazis to come to power is of central and recurring importance. In his book 1931: Debt, Crisis, and the Rise of Hitler, Tobias Straumann offers an engaging new take on the issue. Straumann sees the fundamental cause for the crisis and the rise in German extremism in the tension between the internal and external demands placed on Germany in the 1930s.

The 2010 Euro crisis with its challenges of debt and austerity and the accompanying experience of rising international extremism serve as a contemporary ‘hook’ to introduce the key themes of the book. On the one hand, Straumann paints a vivid picture of German politicians trying to uphold external agreements in the hopes of sustaining a fragile peace and trying to meet reparation demands to maintain German creditworthiness. On the other, domestic political pressures built as extremists tried to exploit any international concessions. Straumann subtly cautions that early 1930s Germany serves as a powerful lesson that might illustrate a dangerous path to autocracy today.

While many of the historical details and the economic arguments in the book, such as the German political events and the constraints and different incentives put in place by the Dawes and the Young plan, are not new, Straumann offers a fresh, engaging take on the interplay of these opposing forces.

For Straumann, the chasm between the internal and external pressures comes to life in the decision-making processes of key characters, who individually maybe tried their best but collectively failed to see the precariousness of the situation or were not powerful enough to swing the tide. Some of the historical figures illuminated in the book include the Austrian-Swiss economist and banker Felix Somary, called the ‘raven’, who predicted the German crisis with depressing clarity; Hans Schäffer, who served as state secretary in the Ministry of Finance and took copious notes of all meetings before emigrating to Sweden in 1933; and Frederic M. Sackett, who served as US ambassador to Germany from 1930-33.

In addition to the rich secondary literature on the German crisis, Straumann draws on original sources, including autobiographical texts and archival notes. While painting a somewhat sympathetic picture of the book’s main characters, who appear as pawns in a larger game of political power play and historical processes that were put in place in the immediate aftermath of WWI if not before, Straumann contextualizes but does not excuse their actions. For example, he clearly labels shifts to authoritarianism introduced by Brüning, such as the adjournment of the Reichstag in October 1930 (chapter 5).

In addition to an introduction and a conclusion, the book is organized into three main sections, aptly entitled ‘Confidence’ (chapters 1-3), ‘Indecision’ (chapters 4-6) and ‘Despair’ (chapters 7-10), which chronicle Germany’s descent into dictatorship. The first section lays the groundwork by illuminating the German economic situation at the eve of the 1930s through the eyes of Felix Somary, detailing the conditions of the Young plan and its relative changes to the preceding Dawes plan, and introducing the reader to the German domestic political environment, especially Chancellor Brüning.

While this first part of the book ends on a cautiously optimistic note, with the stabilization of German finances by the Brüning government under the Young plan, the precariousness of the situation becomes evident in the second part, with the rapidly deteriorating economic conditions in Germany and abroad and the results of the Reichstag elections of September 1930, where the Nazi party rose to the second largest party, with 18.3% of the votes (up from only 2.6% in May 1928). The Brüning minority government struggled to stabilize German finances, but the international community failed to fully grasp the looming dangers.

The last third of the book then concentrates on the active phase of the German financial crisis, beginning with the run on the Reichsmark, the hapless attempts by the United States to support Germany through the Hoover moratorium, to the collapse of the Danat Bank and the ensuing German Banking crisis, and Brüning’s increasing isolation and his desperate attempts to maneuver through the predicament. While Brüning was able to hold onto his position as chancellor until May 1932 and Hitler was installed by Hindenburg in January 1933, Straumann argues that the deteriorating economic situation was strategically exploited by, and thus continuously benefitted, Hitler and the Nazi Party. This last claim, while not inconsistent with the existing literature (for example, Galofré-Vilà, et al, 2021) is the one aspect of the book where I wish Straumann had expanded the narrative and provided more detail.

Altogether, the book provides a vivid and very readable account of the dangers that lurk when international agreements and institutions ignore the realities of domestic politics. For this reason the book is a wake-up call for today’s politicians and economic policy makers, and deserves to be read not just by economic historians but by a wider audience as well.


Galofré-Vilà, Gregori, Christopher Meissner, Martin McKee, and David Stuckler. “Austerity and the Rise of the Nazi Party.” Journal of Economic History 81(1): 81-113 (2021).


Kirsten Wandschneider teaches economic history at the University of Vienna in Austria. Her research focuses on European interwar economic policies and financial markets.

Copyright (c) 2023 by EH.Net. All rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact the EH.Net Administrator ( Published by EH.Net (February 2023). All EH.Net reviews are archived at

Subject(s):Economic Planning and Policy
Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
International and Domestic Trade and Relations
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII

The Cambridge Economic History of the Modern World: Volume I, 1700 to 1870

Editor(s):Broadberry, Stephen
Fukao, Kyoji
Reviewer(s):Carreras, Albert

Published by EH.Net (February 2023).

Stephen Broadberry and Kyoji Fukao, eds. The Cambridge Economic History of the Modern World: Volume I, 1700 to 1870. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021. xvi + 490 pp. £120 (hardcover), ISBN 978-1107159457.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Albert Carreras, Full Professor, Department of Economics and Business, Pompeu Fabra University.


As the first of the two volumes of the Cambridge Economic History of the Modern World (CEHMW), this book covers 1700 to 1870. In title and format it bears a strong similarity to the Cambridge Economic History of Modern Europe (CEHME), also co-edited by Stephen Broadberry and divided into two volumes the same way: 1700-1870 and 1870-present. In both cases, there is an explicit attempt to systematically cover all countries and regions, not just the major ones. To stress the universal coverage, the two CEHMW volumes are mostly organized geographically. This volume’s nineteen chapters are divided into two parts. The first part’s eleven chapters cover “regional developments” and the second part’s eight chapters cover “factors governing performance differentials in the global economy.” Both volumes are organized almost exactly in the same way and include useful “Introductions” by the two editors, summarizing forcefully their purpose, organization, and contents.

The worldwide scope is the main success of the two volumes. A group of top-level contributors cover, in a well-integrated and cohesive manner, eleven major world regions, with some subtle differences between the first volume and the second (already reviewed in EH.Net). Volume one starts with a chapter by Stephen Broadberry, “Britain, the Industrial Revolution and Modern Economic Growth”, which sets the standard for all the other regional chapters, orderly reviewing the themes addressed in both volumes. It is the pièce de résistance of the whole CEHMW. The second chapter, by Giovanni Federico and Andrei Markevich, is on “Continental Europe” and closely follows Broadberry’s pattern. The volume then turns its focus to Asia, with “Tokugawa Japan and the Foundations of Modern Economic Growth in Asia”, by Masaki Nakabayashi; “China: The Start of the Great Divergence”, by Christopher Isett; “From the Mughals to the Raj: India 1700–1858”, by Anand V. Swamy; “Sustainable Development in South East Asia”, by Jean-Pascal Bassino; and “The Ottoman Empire, 1700- 1870”, by Sevket Pamuk. The Americas come next, with “The Economic History of North America, 1700-1870”, by Joshua L. Rosenbloom, and “Latin America, 1700-1870”, by Regina Grafe. The book then moves south, with “Africa: Slavery and the World Economy, 1700-1870”, by Patrick Manning; and “Australia: Geography and Institutions”, by David Meredith.

All these chapters attempt to follow Broadberry’s ordered checklist of themes to be addressed and provide many useful figures and tables that summarize high quality previous research. In some chapters the lack of data and the need to clarify the institutional factors oblige the authors to design simpler checklists to address less straightforward cases where failures in state capacity building are a major issue. Even so, the China and India chapters on the start of the Great Divergence fit in well with the theme and the ambitions of the volume. The Japanese experience emerges as an amazing counterexample of the dramatic Chinese and Indian failures. The South East Asia chapter comes surprisingly close to Broadberry’s checklist. North America and Latin America are well surveyed in chapters that focus on the causes and impact of the independence divide, just in the middle of the period under scrutiny. The Africa chapter is focused on the mass enslavement and export of African populations, and a lot has been researched recently that allows for a better drawing of the main facts. The Australia experience follows closely North American developments.

The editors’ dedication to a global approach to the entire 1700-1870 era is clearer still in the second part of the volume. Reviewing the “Factors Governing Differential Outcomes in the Global Economy” would seem a much more challenging task for 1700-1870 than afterwards. Nevertheless, it is amazing how all the chapters manage to provide a truly world history, mostly by focusing on the large regional units displayed in the first part – Africa, China, India, Latin America, North America, Ottoman Empire, South East Asia – and certain smaller countries (in surface or in population) that deserve to be considered individually – Britain, Japan, and Australia. Some continental European countries are mentioned individually, but not many. In this global approach to the major issues at stake, some parts of the world achieve a more central role than usual: China, India, and Africa. They are not footnotes but substantive parts of all chapters. Bearing this in mind we have two chapters on the proximate sources of growth: “Population and Human Development since 1700” (Romola Davenport and Osamu Saito) and “Proximate Sources of Growth: Capital and Technology, 1700-1870” (Alessandro Nuvolari and Masayuki Tanimoto). There are two chapters on the ultimate sources of growth: “Underlying Sources of Growth: First and Second Nature Geography” (Paul Caruana-Galizia, Tomoko Hashino, and Max-Stephan Schulze) and “Institutions” (John Joseph Wallis). Wallis’s chapter neatly complements Part 1 in its comparison of the institutional consequences of the English and Castilian colonizations.

A special chapter, “Consequences of Growth: Living Standards and Inequality” (Jan Luiten van Zanden, Bas van Leeuwen and Yi Xu), addresses and quantifies the trends in indicators of human development – real income, life expectancy and education – in all major regions, with an eye to changes in inequality.

The last three chapters deal with the global economy: “International Transactions: Real Trade and Factor Flows” (Wolfgang Keller, Markus Lampe, and Carol H. Shiue); “Monetary Systems and the Global Balance of Payments Adjustment in the Pre-Gold Standard Period” (Rui Pedro Esteves and Pilar Nogués Marco), and “War and Empire, 1700-1870” (Philip T. Hoffman and Tirthankar Roy). All three provide truly global views on the far from peaceful making of global economic flows.

The first volume of The Cambridge Economic History of the Modern World is a set of top-quality chapters and authors. As there is less tradition of a fine-tuned chronology for 1700-1870, the absence of explicit temporal divides is not a major issue. On the contrary, the editors have taken care of pressing gently all the authors to provide, as much as possible, a common set of time benchmarks for the figures and tables to be more comparable. In a time of renewed grand views of world development, looking for major theories of why the West became richer than the rest of the world, this first volume provides, in a compact format, the best that the economic history of the world that witnessed the Industrial Revolution has to offer.


Albert Carreras is Full Professor in the Department of Economics and Business at Pompeu Fabra University in Spain. With Xavier Tafunell, he is the author of Between Empire and Globalization: An Economic History of Modern Spain (Palgrave Studies in Economic History, 2021) and editor of Estadísticas Históricas de España, Siglos XIX-XX, 3 vols. (2005).

Copyright (c) 2023 by EH.Net. All rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact the EH.Net Administrator ( Published by EH.Net (February 2023). All EH.Net reviews are archived at

Subject(s):Economic Development, Growth, and Aggregate Productivity
Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
Financial Markets, Financial Institutions, and Monetary History
Servitude and Slavery
Military and War
International and Domestic Trade and Relations
Living Standards, Anthropometric History, Economic Anthropology
Markets and Institutions
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):18th Century
19th Century

GATT and the Global Order in the Postwar Era

Author(s):McKenzie, Francine
Reviewer(s):Foreman-Peck, James

Published by EH.Net (February 2023).

Francine McKenzie. GATT and the Global Order in the Postwar Era. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2020. xiii + 323 pp. $41.99 (hardback), ISBN 978-1108494892.

Reviewed for EH.Net by James Foreman-Peck, Emeritus Professor of Economics, Cardiff University.


Both an organization and a set of rules, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) originated in the proposed post-1945 International Trade Organization (ITO) intended to prevent or soothe conflicts caused by trade. This was to be achieved by rule-based non-discriminatory all-inclusive trade regulations. But the ITO was never established at the end of the Second World War, so the GATT, initially a temporary expedient, became permanent in an underfunded existence. Eric Wyndham White, who ran the GATT until 1968 ‘ably assisted by the US’, was a liberal internationalist, seeing the secretariat as an honest internationalist broker. He used the threat of resignation frequently to encourage reaching agreements. He avoided admitting GATT subordination to GATT members by showing ‘flexibility’. Free trade internationalism was more common among the wealthier nations reacting against the 1930s, whereas poorer countries concerned with development were more likely to emphasis its disadvantages. However, as one negotiator remarked, ‘no country fully favours GATT objectives’, and it was only in the interest of a common Cold War front that tensions between Britain and the US over Empire preference were stifled.

International historian Francine McKenzie has consulted numerous primary sources around the world, as well as secondary sources, to write an account of this important trade policy institution. Organized around four broad themes – the Cold War, regionalism, development, and agriculture – the study shows and analyses what negotiators and policy makers thought, behind the often bland or triumphant compromise public statements.

The Cold War challenged GATT’s claims of inclusivity and universality. In fact, helped by the US, GATT became a pillar and instrument of the ‘free world’, even though the GATT secretariat encouraged communist countries to join GATT, with inevitable economic and political difficulties. The US treated GATT as a policy instrument, with the exclusion of Hungary two years after the 1956 revolution and of China after the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989. None of the changes brought about by the reduction in tariffs sought by GATT in a market economy were automatic under central planning. They could be implemented only upon the explicit instructions of the central planners. Moreover, the decisions leading to these changes need not be disclosed. There was no mechanism under central planning that a market-based trade partner could rely on to ensure the required reallocation of resources following the abolition of a trade barrier (Matejka 1990).

Neoclassical economics indicates that unilateral reduction of national trade barriers is most welfare enhancing, but this is not how tariffs were reduced after 1945. Rather, the GATT adopted a bilateral approach to multilateral tariff bargaining. Reciprocal request-offer negotiations were made voluntarily between pairs of countries about specific products. The most-favored nation (MFN) principle (Article I of GATT) then required the results of these bilateral negotiations be extended to the entire GATT membership. When deciding the concessions that they were prepared to offer, member governments could consider the indirect benefits they might have expected from the simultaneous negotiations between other countries. Preferential or regional agreements, inherently discriminatory, on theoretical grounds posed a threat to the efficiency of this multilateral system (Bagwell and Staiger 1999). Trade creation might outweigh trade diversion in aggregate but the individual country losers from the diversion were not necessarily compensated by the creation. Customs Unions and free trade agreements were nevertheless permitted by article XXIV of the GATT.

Even so the European Coal and Steel Community (1951) contravened the GATT. The European Economic Community (EEC) was granted a waiver because the US wanted a strong Cold War partner in Europe. There was no GATT discussion prior to the EEC’s discriminatory and restrictive Treaty of Rome (1957). Again, the US in effect favoured the EEC over GATT. The EEC’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) threatened to take agricultural protectionism to new heights, but the EEC refused to allow GATT to scrutinise it. The US had itself already been granted a waiver of the prohibition of agricultural import quotas in 1955 and was not well placed to object. The EEC prioritised regional interests unapologetically and conspicuously, refusing to give compensation for Common External Tariff in the Dillon Round (1959-62). In the Kennedy Round that opened in 1964 despite very significant liberalization elsewhere, little was achieved with agriculture. Once more the US saw the Round as fortifying the western alliance and GATT was obliged to show ‘flexibility’ again. Significantly, the EEC did not leave GATT because departure would signal rejection of cooperation, international rules, and interdependence. Mackenzie observes that prioritising rights over obligations of GATT membership was not restricted to EEC but the bloc’s size made it matter more.

Regionalism proliferated partly because achieving agreement was easier than with the larger GATT membership. In 1971 the GATT council agenda listed nine regional trade agreements covering almost 30 countries. Some, like ASEAN in 1977 were well received by GATT as genuinely liberalising and others, like the Canada-US agreement of 1989, ever, explicitly attempted to conform to GATT rules. Arthur Dunkel (Director-General 1980-93) claimed to see no intrinsic conflict between regionalism and globalism, but the regional agreements threatened GATT authority; by 1994 of 50 GATT working parties established to consider regional agreements, probably diplomatically only six reached any conclusion.

Though the original ITO had placed considerable emphasis on development, the GATT was persistently criticised by developing countries, who comprised the majority of GATT members. Especially when steered by Raul Prebisch at the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), they maintained that liberal policies were not applicable to them. Led by Brazil, one of GATT’s responses in 1964 was the International Trade Centre, to provide support for developing countries exporters. But GATT’s dithering then allowed the OECD and UNCTAD time to devise a generalised system of preferences (GSP) that, contrary to the MFN, provided for preferential tariff reductions for developing countries exports in rich country markets. In 1971 GATT members unanimously voted to adopt the GSP. However, more pertinent for dynamic developing economies were agreements such as the Multi Fibre Arrangement (MFA) from 1974 to 1994, imposing quotas on the exports of textiles and garments that developing countries could sell to developed countries.

Agriculture was another sector that faced a host of barriers for developing country exports. GATT rules did not exempt agriculture, but there was strong resistance to liberalisation from large GATT members especially the EEC, the US, and Japan. This challenged GATT’s credibility as a universally relevant organisation because there were so many agricultural exporting countries in GATT; liberalisation of agricultural trade greatly lagged manufacturing. in 1986 Australia was prominent in establishing the Cairns group pressing for ‘fair trade’ in agricultural products and in explaining how Australian farmers were being squeezed by the EEC policy. At the Uruguay Round (1986-1994) the US insisted on liberalizing agricultural trade, while the EEC led by France and Ireland maintained that the CAP was non-negotiable. Yet by the mid-1980s the CAP guarantees of high prices had led to huge food stockpiles; subsidies and other agricultural support took two thirds of the EC budget. Rice production was a nation-wide activity in Japan, so Japan lobbied (unsuccessfully) for a food security clause permitting the exclusion of rice imports. Director-General Dunkel’s widely criticised compromise proposal blended European and US positions: a 20% reduction in scope and volume of existing subsidies and no more export subsidies, dropping prices subsidies in favour of income support and converting non-tariff barriers to tariffs (NTB). Farmers round the world protested and in 1990 25,000 farmers gathered in Brussels, objecting to proposed reduction in subsidies. At least 40,000 farmers attempted to march on the Strasbourg parliament in 1992. 5000 protested in Tokyo and 20,000 in South Korea. The French government and farmers objected violently but were not supported by the rest of EEC. A US concession for French films and more gradual phasing the subsidy reductions permitted agreement, though the President of South Korea resigned over allowing rice imports. NTBs converted to tariff showed how high barriers to food imports had risen; among others the EEC tariffs were 235% on butter and on white sugar, 207%.

Membership of GATT grew throughout the institution’s lifetime, so in that respect the institution can be judged a success. Ceding some sovereignty by following international rules was perceived to have compensating advantages. The successor organisation from 1995, the World Trade Organization, continued GATT’s pursuit of trade liberalisation. Perhaps GATT worked best for the more advanced countries and liberalizers, judging by trade expansion (Subramanian and Wei 2007). McKenzie’s conclusion that GATT, a ‘do gooding’ organization, was never good enough at doing good, simply reflects that GATT’s mediation of divergent national interests necessarily required compromises for all parties.


Bagwell, Kyle, and Robert W. Staiger. ‘An Economic Theory of GATT’. American Economic Review 89(1): 215-248 (1999).

Matejka, Harriet. ‘Central Planning, Trade Policy Instruments, and How Centrally Planned Economies Fit into the GATT Framework’. Soviet and Eastern European Foreign Trade 26(1): 36-65 (1990).

Subramanian, Arvind, and Shang-Jin Wei. ‘The WTO Promotes Trade, Strongly but Unevenly’. Journal of International Economics 72(1): 151-175 (2007).


James Foreman-Peck is Emeritus Professor of Economics at Cardiff University. His publications include A History of the World Economy; International Economic Relations since 1850 (Pearson, 1994) and ‘Trade Wars and the Slump’ (European Review of Economic History, 2007).

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Subject(s):Economic Planning and Policy
International and Domestic Trade and Relations
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII

Reckoning with Slavery: Gender, Kinship, and Capitalism in the Early Black Atlantic

Author(s):Morgan, Jennifer L.
Reviewer(s):Mitchell, Matthew David

Published by EH.Net (January 2023).

Jennifer L. Morgan. Reckoning with Slavery: Gender, Kinship, and Capitalism in the Early Black Atlantic. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2021. xvi + 296 pp. $27.95 (paperback), ISBN 978-1478014140.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Matthew David Mitchell, The University of the South.


As Jennifer L. Morgan notes in her introduction to Reckoning with Slavery, “The history of slavery has been routed down one path or the other—economy or ideology” (12). Morgan persuasively argues that the profession should break down the boundary between these two parallel lines of inquiry, as Eric Williams attempted to do with the publication of Capitalism and Slavery as early as 1944. And the fact that the boundary survived Williams’s intervention and has continued to characterize most scholarship on Atlantic slavery until very recently is in Morgan’s view due to the very “nature of the archival traces of the Middle Passage… in which mathematically fixed data are in the hands of economists” who treat them with ostensible “neutrality and rigor,” while more “malleable claims rooted in culture are in the hands of humanists and artists” (53).

Enslaved women and their stories, for Morgan, stand as the great exemplars of what we have lost because of this division. Yet they are also the reason why we should challenge that division and think about “gender, kinship, and capitalism” together rather than separately. For capitalism forced a brutal paradox upon enslaved women: “the entire economy of the colonies depended on the claim that African women gave birth to slaves, not to daughters or sons, not to kin” (155). The attempts of enslaved women to refuse this “systematic denial of their kinship ties” (60) to their own children are at the heart of what Morgan seeks to elucidate in her book.

To do so using the usual methods of historical inquiry, however, is a task of exquisite difficulty; indeed, Morgan positions her book as “not a formal history, for gathering a series of archive-based linear narratives is not possible here” (23). She instead follows Saidiya Hartman’s method of “‘critical fabulation’ in the face of the impossibility of recovering the histories of those whose absence from the archive is a systemic manifestation of the violence perpetrated against them” (169). Morgan’s recounting of the story of Belinda, enslaved in Massachusetts during the eighteenth century, is a particularly memorable example of this method. Working from Belinda’s 1783 petition to the General Court of Massachusetts for her freedom, Morgan states that Belinda’s

“language reflected her acumen about the value of her labor, which ‘augmented’ the ‘immense wealth’ of her owner, the loyalist Isaac Royall. The vast array of experiences that bolstered her ability to petition the legislature are lost to us now, but… Belinda clearly articulates the ways in which her work built Royall’s wealth on the painful ground of her own severed kin ties. Those ties continued to define her and her relationship to her past and her present even though in some ways her enslavement was rooted in the fiction that such ties didn’t exist. Belinda’s petition thus clarifies that the work of erasing kinship was always incomplete” (157-158).

Morgan casts a wide net in showing how European thinkers contributed to this “work of erasing kinship” between enslaved women and their children, even when not directly discussing slavery. John Hawkins’s accounts of his three slave-catching voyages in the 1560s, and Richard Hakluyt’s reproduction of them in his Principall Navigations, figure in this discussion. More surprisingly, so do such economic writers as Thomas Mun, author in the 1620s of England’s Treasure by Forraign Trade, whom Morgan presents together with Hakluyt as having “presented slavery as logically assigned to the [English] nation’s marketplace” (70-71). She also implicates the “political arithmeticians” of the later seventeenth century such as William Petty and John Graunt, whose work marked “a shift in practices of quantification that had profound implications for those ensnared by its new terms” (96-99). Morgan devotes a further chapter to the idea of “numeracy” as a special marker of racial difference, with Europeans figuring Africans as persons they could count, while “disavowing evidence of numerical rationality among Africans” (110).

Morgan likewise scrutinizes the ways in which modern historians count enslaved Africans, particularly by means of the online Transatlantic Slave Trade Database. In keeping with her recognition that the cultural and the economic stream of scholarship on Atlantic slavery need to be brought together, she does so generously, hailing the Database as “a model of collaborative empirical scholarship” (30) that “has been extremely productive for scholarship on the transatlantic slave trade” (44), even as she perceptively critiques the ways in which it “renders the processes that put [enslaved persons] there indiscernible” (20).

Even so, her reading of the Database falters at times, particularly in her attribution of the frequent invisibility of women in the records underlying the Database to a deliberate decision on the part of slave ship owners and captains. Noting that “almost nine-tenths of voyages” recorded in the online Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database do “not contain information on the sex of the captives” (31), she ascribes this to “the captains’ silence about the numbers of women on their ships.” Asking “what productive work such omission did for ship captains involved in a profoundly violent process of rendering human beings into cargo,” Morgan draws two inferences (47-48). First, had slave traders chosen to keep accurate information on sex ratios among their captives, they would have “r[u]n the risk of ascribing the same human capacity for familial connection to captives that the captain and crew members ascribed to themselves” (47-48). Second, “data regarding sex were inconsequential to the monetary returns on a voyage’s investments: had it been financially significant to have more men than women, those data would have been more scrupulously recorded” (51). Similar arguments recur throughout the book, all based upon the premise that “the evidence [in the Database] is gleaned from merchants, traders, and ship captains” (31).

But the reality is that exceedingly few documents produced by the owners or captains of slave ships survive to the present day. In many cases, the existing documentation for a given transatlantic slave voyage comes from newspapers, government sources, or the records of marine insurers, rather than being produced by those directly involved in the organization and execution of the venture. One prominent exception is the London-based slave trader Humphry Morice, whose papers were preserved by the Bank of England because he served as its Governor from 1727 to 1729. And while these do not offer full documentation for all of Morice’s voyages, those documents that do exist show assiduous record-keeping of “men,” “women,” “boys,” and “girls,” that were bought by, sold by, or happened to die aboard his ships.

Yet such difficulties are, I think, an inherent part of the process when the practitioners of two different strands of scholarship on the same subject begin to learn each other’s languages, borrow each other’s methods, and share each other’s interpretive concerns. Morgan’s account of the archival silence around the women who faced the predicament (as she evocatively terms it) of forced productive and reproductive labor is a worthy contribution to the growing body of literature that seeks to reach the multiple scholarly communities that study Atlantic slavery.


Matthew David Mitchell is Associate Professor of History at The University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. He is the author of The Prince of Slavers: Humphry Morice and the Transformation of Britain’s Transatlantic Slave Trade, 1698–1732 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020).

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Subject(s):Historical Demography, including Migration
Servitude and Slavery
International and Domestic Trade and Relations
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
North America
Time Period(s):16th Century
17th Century
18th Century
19th Century

Salarios que la ciudad paga al campo: Las nodrizas de las inclusas en los siglos XVIII y XIX (Wages That the City Pays to the Countryside: The Wet-Nurses of the Foundling Hospitals in the 18th and 19th Centuries)

Editor(s):Sarasúa, Carmen
Reviewer(s):Gómez-Galvarriato, Aurora

Published by EH.Net (January 2023).

Carmen Sarasúa, ed. Salarios que la ciudad paga al campo: Las nodrizas de las inclusas en los siglos XVIII y XIX. (Wages That the City Pays to the Countryside: The Wet-Nurses of the Foundling Hospitals in the 18th and 19th Centuries.) Alicante, Spain: Publicaciones de la Universidad de Alicante, 2021. 512 pp. € 22 (paperback), ISBN 978-8497177184.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Aurora Gómez-Galvarriato, El Colegio de México.


There has been a growing interest on studying the historic evolution of standards of living, poverty, and inequality. However, long series of wages—a basic input for these inquiries—tend to be scarce and of poor quality, particularly for female wages, and even more so for those living in rural areas. This book is a major step to overcome this hindrance for 18th-19th century Spain. It is the result of a collective project in which several economic historians delved into archives to collect data on wages paid to wet nurses by several foundling hospitals (inclusas) of the different Spanish regions. These institutions received abandoned or exposed babies and placed them in charge of women in rural areas who breast-fed them and took care of all their needs for extended periods of time, in return for a monthly payment.

Wet-nurses’ wages are particularly fit to produce homogeneous and comparable series through long time periods for several reasons. First, the labor required was always the same: raising a child (providing food, clothing, and other needs). Second, they were exclusively money compensations paid monthly, thus avoiding the common problem of dealing with partial retributions in goods or requiring calculating the number of days worked. Third, a great number of people labored in this occupation, thus holding great representativity. Finally, despite being institutional (ecclesiastical or civilian), their wages were very sensitive to the economic juncture since they needed to adjust rapidly to price increases. The series gathered comprise the years between 1700 and 1900 and include information from between 6,602 and 28,325 wet-nurses that offered their services to between 15 to 47 foundling-hospitals.

Another plus of this book is that all chapters pursue parallel questions and follow a similar methodology to collect and analyze the information of the different regions: 1) Galicia; 2) Asturias, Cantabria y Vizcaya; 3) Navarra. Aragón, Álva y Guipúscoa; 4) Castilla; 5) Burgos, Soria y la Rioja; 6) León, Zamora y Salamanca; 7) Madrid y La Mancha; 8) Extremadura; 9) el País Valenciano y Murcia; 10) Almería, Granada, Málaga, Cádiz y Sevilla; 11) Canarias. This allows one to compare their results and place together the different regional pieces to form a picture of the whole country, observing the peculiarities of each region. The first chapter, written by the editor of the book, undertakes this task, offering a national perspective and placing the project and its results within the international debate on the subject.

Each chapter describes the evolution of foundling hospitals in the region studied, in terms of their governance, revenues, capacities, and spatial and social scope. The available sources in some cases limit the period studied, but all chapters seek to assess the number of wet-nurses employed, the areas where these women lived, the evolution of their nominal and real wages, and their relevance to the family income. Thus, the authors had to inquire beyond foundling hospitals, providing a regional mosaic of family characteristics and strategies, main occupations of the population, male wages, and costs of living across the Spanish geography.

The book makes a relevant contribution to the study of poverty, the strategies of those who suffered it, and the institutions devoted to mitigating it. The long period studied offers an extraordinary window to see the changes and difficulties these charitable institutions faced when their control passed from the church to the state, along with those that resulted from the political instability and fiscal penury that Spain suffered through the 19th century. It also shows how the different regions experienced in particular ways the institutional, political, and economic changes that took place in Spain over two centuries. Finally, it also enhances our knowledge on the economic role of women and their participation in the labor force, during an era when census data and other statistical sources are insufficient to assess it.

The richness of the information gathered is so vast that it could not be fully exploited in these chapters. Clearly, the authors that participated in this volume, as well as its editor, understood that it opened fruitful venues of research that go beyond their research scope. Thus, the book generously facilitates the use of the data collected by compiling it in its appendix. In contrast with most economic history studies that focus on analyzing the data and provide few information on how it was assembled, this book offers a thorough description of its sources and methodology. This provides future researchers with the necessary input to produce solid and rigorous analysis. It also opens the way to develop similar projects in other regions where foundling-hospitals existed, such as Latin America, and open the comparative scope of this work beyond Spain.


Aurora Gómez-Galvarriato is Professor of History at El Colegio de México at Mexico City. Her current research projects include the evolution of Mexico’s inequality, standards of living, and women’s participation in the labor force between the 18th and 20th centuries.

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Subject(s):Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
Labor and Employment History
Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):18th Century
19th Century

The Cambridge Economic History of China: Volume II

Author(s):Ma, Debin
Von Glahn, Richard
Reviewer(s):Hübner, Jamin Andreas

Published by EH.Net (January 2023).

Debin Ma and Richard Von Glahn, eds. The Cambridge Economic History of China: Volume II. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2022. 845 pp. $155 (hardback), ISBN: 978-1108425537.

Reviewed by Jamin Andreas Hübner, LCC International University and University of the People.


The second volume of The Cambridge Economic History of China picks up where the first volume left off (reviewed here). It covers 1800 to the present, which includes major turning points in the evolution of China’s economy. The most notable include Britain’s conquest of the flourishing Qing dynasty in the 1840s, its eventual collapse and the creation of the Republic of China in 1912, Mao’s establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the “Reform era” (post-1978), and the most recent phase (post-Great Recession), which is a return to top-down planning and Party conformity.

For over 2,000 years, “China has sustained the largest single human society on the planet through the development of one of the most sophisticated agrarian systems in history” (p. 87). Before British colonization of China, the Chinese empire was “the largest economy on earth” (p. 531), where the “Qing…enjoyed standards of living comparable or even superior to those of Europe” (p. 83). There was little indication that things would change. But the Opium Wars did just that. While trade with the West was fairly limited up to this point, the victorious British forced “free trade” (p. 83)—requiring that China open its ports abroad. As with any major change in trade, this was viewed as an investment blessing to some, but also “as a destructive force capable of impoverishing certain sectors of the population and economy” (p. 365). Furthermore, “foreign nationals were exempt from the jurisdiction of Chinese law” (p. 414).

This “semicolonial” subordination (p. 415) to western power inaugurated a great reversal that Kenneth Pomeranz, Andre Gunder Frank, and others have written about. Contrary to ordinary Eurocentric history, Western economic dominance was not a long-term, inevitable result of superior institutions founded over 2,000 years ago, but a highly contingent blip on the screen of Asian dominance in the world system. The book traces out these dramatic changes in chapters covering ideology, institutions and enterprises, finance, money, markets, business organization, foreign trade and investment, education, and other areas up to and beyond the Maoist era.

Readers may find interesting the unusual role played in the Chinese economy by Christian missionaries —who poured into the country starting in the 1860s. By the 1920s, “94% of Chinese counties had records of a missionary presence” (p. 391). This led to the development of a huge number of schools with new curriculum, as well as hospitals. “A great majority of the subjects in the curriculum of the new schools were novel to the Chinese” (p. 393), and improved healthcare opportunities facilitated further population growth (p. 394) and perhaps more critical reflection that helped the revolts of 1911. Readers also learn that (in crude and simplistic terms) “Communism and violent Communist movements originate from Christianity, and naturally the Christian church was essential for the creation of the first totalitarianism” (p. 541). That is, similar to Europe and Catholicism, the institutional churches and movements involved in China validated and empowered state ambitions.

The road to Chinese economic and political statism was gradual. “As early as 1912, Sun [Yat-sen] stated that all major industries in China should be owned by the state” (p. 185); China had to make up for lost time in industrialization. The world wars and threats of Japan provided further reason or opportunity to centralize economic control (p. 165, 186-87). The “institutional genes” of “imperial institution and secretive organization” (p. 543) also contributed to this move. By the time of Mao, the road to totalitarianism had already been laid, and Mao explicitly took Stalin’s model to greater extremes. However, some contributors contend, “Totalitarianism is foreign to the Chinese. When the CCP was established in 1921, the number of Chinese who knew constitutionalism was far more than those who knew Marxism or Bolshevism” (p. 543). There was nothing inevitable about China’s turn towards totalitarian communism—anymore than industrialization and capitalism was inevitable for the British over a century earlier. Whatever the case, the advent of the Maoist period was filled with contradictions not unlike the Bolshevik Revolution. Just as the Bolsheviks promised economic democracy and worker control but then reneged in 1918, so the Chinese Constitution “recognized the peasants’ rights to private land and the property rights of the owners of private firms”—only to nationalize/collectivize a year later (p. 549).

Maoism is popularly known for its cult around Mao and the “Great Leap Famine” (1958-1961), where about 30 million people (needlessly) died. This was apparently caused by (a) the use of grain to finance industrialization and repay Soviet debt instead of feeding Chinese people, (b) the cruel confiscation of metal from the population (including cooking tools) to support industrialization, and (c) the consolidation of agricultural cooperatives into ineffective “gigantic peoples’ communes” (p. 645). By this “Great Leap,” China would become “self-reliant,” and never worry about being colonized by the West again (p. 717-19). Maoism as a whole did eliminate excess wealth inequality, increase life expectancy and primary education, and achieved  “food security”; and China “fared better than many other countries—Meiji Japan and Industrial Revolution Britain come to mind—during the early stages of their industrialization” (p. 639). The Maoist consolidation also, in some ways, made the reform era more effective (p. 733), if not simply provided the industrial infrastructure for the next, and most successful phase of all (1970s-2008).

Formal recognition of private property came back in 2004 and, with other reforms, spurred a surge of private enterprise. Private investment, financial reform, entry in the WTO in 2001 (though see p. 827), and less restrictions empowered China’s economy. The Great Recession and Xi Jinping’s grand visions amplified—and overextended—China’s ambitions and initiated a resurgence of top-down control (p. 817-820) and a return of the leader’s personality cult. “Since 2013 all private firms and NGOs…are required to set up CCP branches within the firm and organization,” and “Discussions of constitutionalism and judicial independence are prohibited” (p. 562). Religious freedom is now being eradicated. Academics are facing new obstacles, like “restrictions on participation in international projects and conferences. Foreign textbooks now arouse suspicion” (p. 822). China is vastly better off than it was a half century ago. But the challenge is “how to overcome self-imposed obstacles that prevent improvements in knowledge and capabilities from generating intensive growth that outruns the accumulation of resources” (p. 823).

I greatly enjoyed this work, as much as the first volume. The research is incisive, clearly presented, and the volume is very cogently organized. At one point I wondered how the second volume might have been improved if the contributors had read or paid more attention to the first. I say this because second-volume contributors sometimes had contradictory different perspectives about pre-modern Chinese culture and socio-economic ideas, and this is an important topic given the stereotype of “Oriental Despotism” that economic historians are—or should be—trying to wash out of their clothes. Some discussion on the future impact relating to demographics (e.g., age, population, fertility) might also have been relevant and helpful.

Whatever the case, we stand in a very privileged position to be able to learn many lessons from such massive and historic economic system(s), and both volumes deserve a wide reading.


Dr. Jamin Andreas Hübner is a faculty member at the University of the People and a research fellow at LCC International University. He is a scholar of religion and economics, as well as an activist, and organizational leader, and is currently writing a book on cooperative economics.

Copyright (c) 2023 by EH.Net. All rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact the EH.Net Administrator ( Published by EH.Net (January 2023). All EH.Net reviews are archived at


Subject(s):Economic Development, Growth, and Aggregate Productivity
Economic Planning and Policy
Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
Military and War
Geographic Area(s):Asia
Time Period(s):19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII