War and Peace and War: Two Decades Later

Peter Turchin


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Recently there has been a lot of interest in translating my books into non-English languages, a development that I heartily welcome (I touched upon it in my previous post and in this one). Earlier this month, Warsaw Enterprise Institute published a Polish translation of War and Peace and War (WPW). They asked me for something to prime a debate about my book that they are planning to hold on Tuesday.  So I thought I would offer a retrospective on WPW, looking back to when I initially wrote it. So here it goes.

The original cover of the hard-book edition (2005)

Greetings, my Polish readers!

War and Peace and War (WPW) is my first trade—popular science—book, published in 2005. When I started working on a science of history (which later got a name, Cliodynamics) in the late 1990s, I decided right away that I need to combine science writing (articles in scientific journals and academic books) with popular books. Scientific rigor—details of mathematical models and statistical analyses of data—would be relegated to the academic publications, which would free me to focus on the insights from this science unencumbered by the nitty-gritty. I also wanted to indulge my passion for history (which was one of the main reasons I decided to go into Cliodynamics). Of course, writing historical narratives has no place in an academic article.

Thus, when Stephen Morrow, who at the time started an imprint called Pi Press (which later was folded into Penguin Random House), asked me whether I would be interested in writing a trade book, I immediately agreed. Incidentally, Stephen’s offer was either foolishly brave, or showed an amazing degree of judgment (you choose), because at the time Cliodynamics was a two-year old baby, and I never before wrote a popular book. I literally had to retrain myself as a writer to be able to switch between academic writing and what is needed for a popular book. But I enjoyed the experience, and WPW was followed by my second popular book, Ultrasociety, and now I am working on a third one.

WPW has a somewhat unusual structure. It follows in the footsteps of Historical Dynamics, which was my first academic book introducing Cliodynamics. The questions it asks are familiar to any thinking person. Where did our large scale complex societies come from? Why do they periodically break down? Thinkers from Aristotle, Polybius, Ibn Khaldun (to whom I devote a lot of space in WPW) to Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee—all were fascinated by these questions. And so are contemporary historians and social scientists (there is now a whole new scientific discipline called Collapsology!). So what distinguished my approach?

My goal, from the very beginning, was to help start a scientific field, because a scientific discipline, combining formal models with analysis of big data, and advanced by a community of researchers, will always beat in the long run any individual, no matter how brilliant they are. Back in the early 2000s, of course, we were just at the beginnings of such a new field. Nevertheless, my colleagues and I had already proposed a number of plausibly sounding theories and even tested some of them with data. So my job, as I saw it, was to explain these new insights in non-technical language, and illustrate how the processes we identified worked in concrete historical examples.

As a result, WPW is a kind of a necklace. The string is the leitmotif, the theoretical backbone. The beads are historical narratives of how specific societies, which faced various kinds of challenges, surmounted them (or not). Each narrative illustrated a theoretical idea. Thus, there is a lot of historical detail, but it is needed to flesh out the general understanding of how history works.

Although the theoretical skeleton at the time of writing was still in flux, as my colleagues and I continually developed new models, collected new data, and confronted model predictions with data, overall the main explanations aged surprisingly well. New data, such as the ones now published in Seshat: Global History Databank, and in CrisisDB, currently in development, may have shifted the accents and added additional depth here and there. But overall the theories explained in WPW have stood the test of time.

I hope that you will enjoy the book!

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Dick Illyes

Widespread interest in the Big Picture of human behavior seems to be a unique feature of our time. Probably the influence of the Internet combined with the Boomer cohort reaching an age where contemplation is part of life. This has led to an interest in books such as WPW.

This book was part of an awakening to the study of history in ways I had never done.

I have become a believer in Simulation Theory which basically says that we are living in the ultimate virtual reality game. I share that belief with Dilbert creator Scott Adams and Elon Musk. As part of that I have come to look at humans in more objective ways, and see us for the imperfect creatures we are. Looking at history in the way WPW and following works presents is interesting and appreciated.

Fernando E. Mora

I remember reading WPW years ago (and, by the way, an Spanish translation is needed yet), because I think this book may help to illuminate situations as the present war in Ukrania. But, as the war of fake news, ethical standings and manipulation grows up from all the fronts, the fog of confusion is becoming so thick that many of us are so lost about the real causes and reasons of this war (something deeper than the common journalistic psychopathological approach about Putin’s mental and ethical health) that an analysis from a Cliodynamics perspective would be very opportune, appropriate and illustrative for all your readers. Please, may you begin to do the task?

Loren Petrich

A theme in WPW is metaethnic frontiers – people from different ethnicities cooperating to confront a shared threat. That’s what seems to be happening in Europe as a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It is making NATO stronger, and likely soon larger. Finland and Sweden, both neutral for a long time, are now considering joining the alliance.

Loren Petrich

Turning to Russia, Peter Turchin’s and Sergei Nefedov’s book “Secular Cycles” describes several structural-demographic cycles in ancient Rome, late-medieval / early-modern Britain, France, and Russia, and Imperial China.

The structural-demographic cycle is Integrative (Expansion, Stagnation), Disintegrative (Crisis, Depression). For Russia, the book covers two dynasties:

Muscovy: 1460 – 1620 — I,E: 1460 – 3530 — I,S: 1530 – 1565 — D,C: 1565 – 1615 — (no D,D)
Romanov: 1620 – 1922 — I,E: 1620 – 1800 — I,S: 1800 – 1905 — D,C: 1905 – 1922 — (no D,D)

“Secular Cycles” covered preindustrial societies, ending its coverage at where they industrialized. For Russia, that coverage ended at the end of the Russian Civil War and the founding of the Soviet Union. So I will try to guess how Russia’s more recent history might fit in.

The Soviet Union had an integrative-expansion phase from 1922 until the early 1960’s, expanding its size and international influence. This was despite such setbacks as the famines and purges of the 1930’s and Germany’s conquest of part of it in 1941. It then entered a period of stagnation that lasted until the 1980’s, and then a disintegrative phase. The first bit of disintegration was the Sino-Soviet split in the 1960’s, but that was not followed up until the late 1980’s, when the Soviet Union lost in Afghanistan. Then the Soviet bloc broke up, and then the Soviet Union itself.

Inequality? The Communist revolutionaries destroyed the previous elite, demoting its members, sending them into exile, or killing them. But in the Soviet Union, a new elite emerged, an elite of party bosses and the like. They enjoyed lots of privileges, like buying stuff imported from the capitalist countries. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, some of them ended up becoming capitalist oligarchs.

Some of what President Vladimir Putin is doing seems like trying to start a new integrative phase. Part of it making administration more central, and showing the oligarchs who’s boss, like what he did to Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Another part is military adventures and suppression of rebellions.

But his invasion of Ukraine has had only very limited success, with part of it being an embarrassing failure.

Vladimir Dinets

Putin made many mistakes, but the one that doomed him was that he never read War and Peace and War. If he did, he would learn that:
1. True to the literal meaning of its name, Ukraine is a textbook case of a country emerging in the borderlands. Centuries of imperial depredations by its neighbors forged a very strong identity, a vibrant civil society and, in the last few years, a level of asabiya not seen in the world since the Israeli war of independence.
2. Russia, on the other hand, is what Peter called “black hole” in his book: a cesspool left by a rotten-away empire, poisoning the entire world with its stench through propaganda and support of the worst dictators around. Asabiya there is zero. The last time people in some village got together and paved the main street without waiting for the authorities to do so was in the 1930s and all those people ended up in the Gulag. Putin’s attempts to reanimate this rotting corpse by pumping it with oil money and militaristic hysteria only cause it to decay faster.

Ida G Millman

Entertained by Ultrasociety, that I’m reading in the 96th year of my life, and hoping to read WPW

John Plodinec

WPW seems to be consistent with Joseph Tainter’s “The Collapse of Complex Societies.” Any thoughts on agreement or disagreement with his approach?

Craig Brackbill

Definitely not a good sign when Peter’s career shifts into higher gear. So little time left, so much to do.

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