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“History is a set of lies agreed upon,” said Napoleon Bonaparte.

Turns out they forgot to send David Priestland that particular memo because he’s a historian with a penchant for disagreeing. Or at least for revisiting what most are happy to take as a given.

In writing Merchant, Soldier, Sage: A New History of Power, Priestland doesn’t just re-examine our history, he tweaks the angle of our vision, much like a skilled photographer, just enough to bring a different part of the picture into focus.

In the process he raises intriguing, challenging – some would argue contentious – questions about how we arrived where we are today.

In Priestland’s analysis, the world is broadly split into unofficial ‘caste’ systems, where castes define different power centres struggling for dominance at any given point in time. These castes – Merchants, Soldiers and Sages – symbolic of capitalists, militarists and the intelligentsia – are locked in a timeless power struggle that triggers a crisis when any one of these centres gains dominance around the world – such as inequality and social injustice threatening to overthrow unbridled capitalism in recent times.

It’s a rich, metaphorical argument and one that has made him one of the most shape-shifting historians of our time, one whose analysis throws up credible reasons, among others, for the 2008 economic crisis – he contends that it needs to be seen in the context of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution in Russia or the end of the second world war in 1945, as political systems fail and economies and societies collapse.

It is, as the Guardian called it in a detailed review, one of the most thought-provoking analyses of our current crisis and throws up, among others, a well-argued critique of capitalism. Especially flawed, says Priestland, is the western world’s conviction that capitalism always co-exists with democratic liberalism, a historic myth broken with the rise of China.

Priestland, who teaches history at Oxford, is not new to debate, bringing his long view of history to bear on the economic crisis through regular columns in the Guardian and other publications. He’s also an authority on Communism in all its forms, having studied the subject at both Oxford and at Moscow State University. In 2009, his book The Red Flag: Communism and the Making of the Modern World was shortlisted for the Longman/History Today prize for the best history book of the year.

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