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Mike Duncan Takes On the Turmoil of History

In over 150 hours of his podcast “Revolutions” and a new book, Duncan wrestles with centuries of upheaval.

Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette is wounded during the American War of Independence, 11th September 1777.

Is history made by individual actors—by so-called great men—or by vast, impersonal social forces? Tolstoy, in War and Peace, saw history as the chaos of random events, a swarm of uncoordinated human actions that could never be adequately summarized without falsehood, nor directed by any individual. In Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, on the other hand, history has developed into a perfectly rational social science, thus allowing for the accurate predicting and planning of large-scale human behavior over the course of millennia. Splitting the difference in his 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Marx famously asserted that “men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”

It’s something of a false choice, a freshman dorm debate, not just because the answer must lie in between, but because history is not so much known definitively as it is lived and experienced and imagined. One can certainly memorize discrete major events—that Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, say, or that the Qing dynasty was established in 1644—but such dates in isolation are little more than trivia. History becomes meaningful through stories, and those stories in turn are often lies crafted to justify present political circumstances—for instance, that there has always been a coherent Czech nation dating back to the Middle Ages, or that the American Civil War was fought over tariffs, or that there were no local inhabitants to displace when Zionist settlers first arrived in Palestine. For popular history to be both truthful and meaningful, it must be rigorously combed through in great detail, and then those details must be presented in a way that is intelligible to nonspecialists and that allows space to draw conclusions without necessarily prescribing them. Succeeding at any part of this, much less all of it, is very hard.

Since the fall of 2013, the historian Mike Duncan has recorded, by his own estimate, about 150 hours of his podcast Revolutions, which is currently in the middle of its final season. I’ve listened to all of it, and while waiting for new episodes, I now marathon Duncan’s earlier podcast, The History of Rome, which I’m maybe a quarter of the way through. I also just plowed through Duncan’s newly released second book, Hero of Two Worlds, a biography of the Marquis de Lafayette (perhaps most familiar now as the speed-rapping, French-accented freedom fighter portrayed by Daveed Diggs in a certain Broadway musical), which expands upon three seasons of Revolutions while giving them an individual focus. I guess you could say I’m a Duncanophile, but apparently there are a lot of us—enough to provide Duncan, 41, with a comfortable income even as he makes all his episodes available for free (provided you can tolerate 30 seconds of him pitching Harry’s razors). And I keep winning converts, including my dad, who marathons Revolutions on long solitary walks. 

Revolutions is a chronological blow-by-blow of 10 historical revolutions that took place between the seventeenth and early twentieth centuries: the English Civil War of 1642, the American Revolution of 1776, the French Revolution of 1789, the Haitian Revolution of 1791, the Spanish American wars of independence of the early nineteenth century, the French Revolution of 1830, the pan-European upheavals of 1848, the Paris Commune of 1871, the Mexican Revolution of 1910, and finally the Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917. Each of these takes up a season, and each season is the product of roughly 20 to 25 books that Duncan has read and synthesized into a coherent narrative.

If that all sounds straightforward, it is, and yet it’s also completely addictive. It’s hard to say exactly why it works so well. There are no gimmicks, no skits, no interviews or special guests, no sound effects, no music besides a few bars of Haydn at the beginning of each episode. Duncan’s voice is cheerful and engaging but not all that distinctive—he sounds like a pretty regular guy who has bounced between the Pacific Northwest, Texas, and Wisconsin (and most recently France, but he’d be the first to make fun of his pronunciation of French and the several other languages he mangles over the course of Revolutions). He tells occasional corny dad jokes but doesn’t pretend he’s a comedian; he has some left-liberal political opinions but never gets on a soapbox. His interpretations of the relevant historiography aren’t particularly radical or groundbreaking, nor are they steeped in academic jargon. He’s folksy but not gratingly so, romantic about the sweep of events but never overwrought. He is, quite simply, telling us what happened.

All of this is more feature than bug; in an age of self-indulgent polemics, deranged conspiracy theories, and pervasive disinformation, to listen to Duncan while washing dishes or folding laundry is to believe that facts are knowable, that historical events of immense complexity can be made legible, and—to attempt to answer the question with which I started this review—that history is made neither by singular individuals nor by social forces, but by the idiosyncratic interplay of decisions within well-placed vanguard classes. Revolutions, in Duncan’s telling, tend to come neither autocratically from the ruling class nor organically from the masses, but via the agitation, organization, and plotting of small, relatively privileged classes with enough resources, education, and access to the actual ruling class to resent their comparative marginalization—and to believe they could do a better job in power. 

To put that more plainly, as Duncan might: It’s not that Napoleon Bonaparte was simply the figurehead for a vast army spreading bourgeois revolution across Europe, nor is it that Bonaparte was a world-historical genius who single-handedly remade Europe in his own image. Instead, Bonaparte should be understood both as a rare talent with the opportunity to make pivotal military and political decisions, and as an exemplar of a class of people (in this case, overwhelmingly men) who could advance socially in the context of the French Revolution and its affiliated wars. To make sense of Bonaparte’s career, one must know the careers of the other, far less famous officers and statesmen and businessmen he interacted with, understand the significance of his key decisions in the context of those relationships, and grasp how small groups of dedicated revolutionaries can change the course of history and how they can be overwhelmed by it—as even Bonaparte ultimately was. And what goes for him also goes for the other dominant figures of his age, from Alexander Hamilton to Toussaint Louverture to Simón Bolívar—all of them decisive actors, and all of them products of wider social networks that shaped events beyond any individual’s control.

This is the kind of detail-oriented storytelling that Duncan excels at. He can tell you why it mattered that this general chose this particular strategy on that day, or why the procedural norms of this clandestine society’s meetings did or did not facilitate agreement, or why a particular monarch chose to listen to one sort of adviser and not another. All of these decisions carry real consequences, but at the same time history isn’t just a bunch of random flukes—there are patterns, there are best practices, there are better and worse instincts to give in to. To follow the intricacies of these events alongside Duncan is to recognize revolutions as neither glorious nor monstrous, but as catastrophes resulting from the accumulated failures of the old regime. Typically, the story Duncan tells is of an oppressive, decadent ruling elite that passes up too many chances to reform, and eventually crumbles in the face of organized violence. That revolutions almost invariably fall short of their ideals, devour their children, and conclude with the establishment of new governments, which have their own egregious defects, is neither more nor less significant to Duncan than the original state failures that set them off in the first place.

Duncan is generous to all the participants in his accounts. Revolutionaries and reformers and reactionaries, kings and bureaucrats and commoners, members of all races and nations and creeds are judged according to the circumstances in which they found themselves and the decisions they might plausibly have made, without any attempt to excuse, for instance, slavery as simply the way things were. This is not to say Duncan is morally neutral: He believes in human dignity, in liberation, in good governance, in the right to speak and worship and protest freely, and in guaranteeing food and shelter and economic opportunity to all. But his belief in human dignity is such that he is capable of empathizing with people in circumstances vastly different from our own, and of taking the choices they confronted as seriously as they did.

At the same time, careful listeners may notice Duncan drifting leftward over the course of the series—a process that is more apparent if one follows the much less filtered @MikeDuncan on Twitter. When Duncan covers the American Revolution in the podcast’s second season, he says the fact that so many Founding Fathers owned slaves simply can’t be justified, before returning to the conflicts over taxation and the colonists’ “rights as Englishmen” that they actually revolted over. Two seasons later, as he delves into the birth of Haiti, Duncan is confronted with a colonial independence movement that was itself overthrown by a slave revolt, and with the subsequent legacy of two centuries of white supremacist debt peonage that has hobbled Haiti’s development right up to the present. (One wonders how he might revisit the story of the Thirteen Colonies armed with this insight.) Over multiple seasons covering nineteenth-century France, Duncan traces the displacement of the political question (should a hereditary aristocracy be forced to give way to a more meritocratic bourgeoisie?) by the more intractable social question (should a government be responsive only to the interests of the wealthy?). And by the most recent season, on Russia, Duncan has clearly gotten deep into Marxist theory, and does a better job of explaining it in plain English than any leftist academic or agitator I’ve ever encountered. It’s also in the context of Russia’s revolutions that women start to play an appropriately central role in Duncan’s telling, not only as individual revolutionaries but as a class with their own demands and interests vis-à-vis the status quo.

Duncan is fair and evenhanded enough in his accounts that listeners of all ideological persuasions can draw lessons, but for those of us on the left, each season of Revolutions might serve as a cautionary tale. This is not to say Duncan is a scold or a left-puncher—his trajectory toward more radical forms of economic justice is clear. But the messy way revolutions play out in his telling amounts to a gentle suggestion that pragmatism and reformism have their virtues; and indeed, that revolutions become possible only when opportunities for reform are repeatedly ignored, and when governments fail in their most basic obligations to the governed.  

Duncan’s decision to center a whole book on Lafayette, the quintessential Enlightenment liberal revolutionary, is a bit of a tell as to his core convictions. Lafayette—whose complicated life and legacy are the subject of a recent Adam Gopnik essay in The New Yorker, based in part on Duncan’s book—was born into France’s rural aristocracy, but chose as a young man to cross the Atlantic and fight on the side of American independence, a cause the French monarchy would eventually come to support for reasons of realpolitik against Great Britain. Lafayette became close to George Washington, distinguished himself in battle, and was rewarded with U.S. citizenship and other honors. Nonetheless, he returned to France, where he played a central role in introducing constitutional governance (among other things, he co-authored the Declaration of the Rights of Man and was personally responsible for creating the tricolor banner that represents France to this day) and rejected his noble roots, throwing in his lot with the bourgeoisie of the Third Estate. He also became a committed abolitionist despite his past complicity in slavery, which Duncan is careful to document. Like so many of his comrades, Lafayette eventually ended up on the wrong side of the Jacobin terror and fled the country; he spent five years in various foreign prisons until Bonaparte humiliated the Habsburgs at the Battle of Rivoli and allowed Lafayette to return home. Under the Bourbon Restoration, Lafayette participated in various conspiracies against the monarchy, and when Parisians finally revolted in July 1830, it was Lafayette who emerged as an elder statesman of the movement and steered the nation in his preferred direction of constitutional monarchy, which it would maintain through his death in 1834 and until 1848, when monarchy in France ended for good. In the United States, Lafayette remains straightforwardly beloved (one of Duncan’s most interesting chapters depicts Lafayette’s grand tour through every state in 1824–1825, during which he was feted everywhere he went); in France, views of Lafayette are as contested as every other aspect of modern French history.

To judge from the conclusion to Hero of Two Worlds, what Duncan admires in Lafayette is not so much his political beliefs per se—as admirable as fighting for basic political rights and (at least gradually) embracing the cause of emancipation are—but rather his constancy, his earnest idealism, his lack of pretension, his willingness to reject his own class privileges in the service of a greater cause, and his internationalism: his commitment to the revolutionary cause across national boundaries and literal oceans. To the extent Duncan has an ideology, it’s that this is a set of ideals worth living by—among the practitioners of politics, certainly, but also among the interpreters.