Book Review from the April 2017 issue of the Socialist Standard
'The Silk Roads: a New History of the World'. By Peter Frankopan. (Bloomsbury £10.99)
The name of the Silk Road dates only from the late nineteenth century, but a connection between the Mediterranean and parts of south and east Asia began over two millennia ago. In this substantial volume, Peter Frankopan traces the history of this vast region and its influence on the wider world, emphasising its role in global movements of people, goods, ideas and armies. We cannot summarise the book here, just pick out some of its main themes.
One of the earliest commodities traded was indeed silk from China: it was a luxury product popular among wealthy Romans, but also an international currency. As Frankopan points out, globalisation was ‘a fact of life’ two thousand years ago (though perhaps the use of ‘globalisation’ here is a bit of a stretch). The Greek language, for instance, was spoken and written in central and much of south Asia around 200 BCE. Pottery and spices, among many other goods, were traded along these routes covering Europe, China and points in between, while western Europe was pretty much a backwater. Furs and slaves were transported in later centuries.
The crusades of the eleventh century CE onwards had a religious guise, but considerations of wealth and power were the real motivation, with access to ‘exotic’ goods for trade being at stake. The Italian city-states benefited from the capture of Jerusalem in 1099: Venice emerged as the most successful, as it was nearer to the Silk Road regions than its rivals. In the thirteenth century, both Venice and Genoa established new colonies, in Crimea for instance. Textiles were transported to the west, after being manufactured in Baghdad and cities in what is now Iran and Afghanistan.
The discoveries of the late fifteenth century changed the balance of power, as Europe became far wealthier and more important, and gold, silver, and other goods were carried across the Atlantic. Frankopan minces no words about what lay behind this: ‘The age of empire and the rise of the west were built on the capacity to inflict violence on a major scale.’ With reference to Thomas Hobbes, he argues that only a European author could have suggested that the natural condition of humans was a constant state of violence.
The founding of the British Empire, especially control of India, led to a decline in the overland trade routes. One thing the Empire lacked, however, was meaningful oil deposits. Massive oil finds in Persia in 1908 gave new life to the Silk Road, and oil came to be seen as an essential fuel for the Royal Navy. Shortly before the First World War began, the British government bought a controlling stake in the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (nowadays BP). A network of oilfields and pipelines was built up, and in the 1920s Iraq was cobbled together by Britain as an artificial country that could be pretty much run as the British ruling class wished.
All these shenanigans continued well into the second half of the last century. The US took Britain’s place as overlord of the Silk Road region, and MI6 and the CIA were instrumental in the 1953 coup that deposed Prime Minister Mossadegh of Iran. Oil-rich countries became wealthy enough to make massive purchases of weapons and nuclear technology from the US. Wars against Saddam and Gaddafi were all part of the move to control the oil and gas fields in the interest of US national security.
In the present century the Silk Road has re-emerged as a central area of great power rivalry, with the US being threatened by Russia and China, among others. Enormous supplies of coal, oil and gas still await exploitation, and gold and rare earths are available in large amounts. The wheat fields of southern Russia and Ukraine are extremely fertile too. As might be said, watch that space.
Peter Frankopan’s book can be hard going, especially in the early chapters, because of the amount of detail it contains. But it gives an excellent overview of how one part of the world has affected global history, and of what the real motives of conquerors and armies are.