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Network revolutions: A 16th century German printing workshop (left); working on the AVIDAC computer in Chicago, 1953

This is an immensely stimulating historical tour d’horizon tangled up in an arresting, but only half-convincing, big theory of history. The big theory wants us to look at the past through the prism of the human network and see how different kinds of network have had very different effects.

Ferguson challenges the conventional idea that networks are second-order things, the channels through which other forces flow. But does the network really have the same sort of explanatory power that, say, economics or demography or social class have in understanding long-term historical change?

Ferguson points out that the two late-18th-century revolutions, the American and French, were inspired by similar ideas transmitted through similar clubs and correspondence societies. But, he argues, it was the different network structures of America and France that led to the dramatically different outcomes of the two revolutions. Really? Surely the different sociological starting points were far more important: America, as the author himself says, had no equivalent of France’s large, illiterate peasantry.

Is network not just another word for group, albeit (usually) a chosen rather than given one? Ferguson never really defines the term and applies it without distinction to what might normally be called clubs or cabals — the Illuminati, the Bilderberg Group, the Mafia, the Bolshevik Party, the 19th-century Houses of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha and Rothschild — as well as the much larger, looser associations such as 16th-century Protestants or the British inventors and businessmen who created the industrial revolution.

Why were the latter’s industrial networks strong enough to give birth to modern manufacturing but not strong enough to overthrow Britain’s “monarchical, aristocratic and ecclesiastical hierarchies?” It is one of the perennial questions of modern British history and it is not clear how the language of networks and hierarchies helps get us closer to an answer.

Contrary to the book’s own ambiguous publicity framing, this is not a new version of history from below — it is not networks versus hierarchies (popes, presidents and prime ministers). A hierarchy, it turns out, is just a special kind of network. The proper distinction is between hierarchical networks (think the regimes of Stalin, Hitler and Mao) and distributed ones (think the Enlightenment circles of Paris or Edinburgh or their ideological opposites in today’s violent jihadist networks).

Whatever my reservations about the big network theory, it does provide an opportunity for one of the best popular historians of our time to rummage around in the past and provide us with a stream of fascinating mini-essays on a dizzying variety of subjects such as the central role of freemasons in the American War of Independence, the KGB infiltration of the Cambridge Apostles and Henry Kissinger’s role in preventing a third world war.

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