An Historian of the 18th Century Looks at the Contemporary World

By Robbin Laird

We. have recently published a new book featuring the work of Professor Kenneth Maxwell. The work brings together in one book, the writings of Ken over the last decade, when he returned to Britain after his long working time in the United States.

This book is most likely to be read initially by the many followers of the work of Dr. Kenneth Maxwell, the historian. He is a well-respected and well-known historian of the history of Brazil and the Iberian Peninsula. Even though much of his work focuses on the 18th century, he is not an expert as understood in today’s society.

He is more like the philosophes of the 18th century, focusing on a subject but with a wide view.

The essays in this book brings us that wider view as reflected in his essays over the past decade.

This book brings together Professor Ken Maxwell’s essays published on Second Line of Defense and since 2012. Maxwell and I are writing a co-autobiography entitled Two Twentieth Century Men in the 21st Century: The Changing Context of Our Lives. Ken and I are leveraging our “storehouse of experiences” in writing this book. Ken Maxwell and I have known each other from our time at Columbia University. Ken was a professor at the University, and I was working in my post-PhD work at the Research Institute for International Change (RIIC), which had been created by Zbig Brzezinski as run up to his successful effort to become the National Security Advisor for President Carter. We ended up both being involved with RIIC over time.

We then worked together on several European issues in the 1980s, but after so doing, we lost touch for nearly two decades. We both faced life threatening diseases and had to navigate challenging roads back to having a normal life. We only reconnected when he had returned to England and moved to Devon, and as we did so we opened up an ongoing conversation on what we had been up to and discussing European and global developments. Those discussions led to Ken’s involvement with my websites Second Line of Defense launched in 2009 and then when it was launched in 2018.

I had for some time been interested in trying to explain to my four children, now all adults, with my youngest being 22 at the time of this writing, what it was like to grow up in the 1950s in a long ago cultural and technological era. When I raised that issue with Ken, we both reached the same conclusion that we should set in motion an effort to navigate our histories and sort out the different historical eras we had already lived through. Two Twentieth Century Men is a result of that effort. It is of course autobiographical, but from the sense of describing our lives and experiences as part of a series of evolving historical epochs. But it is co-autobiographical which makes it a relatively unique writing venture.

Part of what we have done was to sort through how we experienced history and how that experience can define the various phases of the late twentieth to the early 21st century. The point bluntly is that navigating from our childhoods to now has seen us live through with our generation a very different set of cultural and technological generations. Even though we are one generation chronologically, there is more discontinuity than continuity in the societies in which we have lived our lives.

In working on that book, I have had a chance to read through the pieces Ken has published on the two websites since 2012 and realized that collectively they provide an overview on many of the developments over the past decade. Ken is a noted historian, and has focused on Brazil, Spain and Portugal. He continues in the essays he published on the two websites to comment on developments involving these states but has broadened his commentary to his native country Britain, and of other parts of the world. Together, these essays provide a comprehensive perspective on the modern world as seen through the eyes of a professional historian who has worked extensively on the 18th Century.

These essays reflect an understanding of the world through an unusual lens. I view this book as a companion book to Two Twentieth Century Men and have edited and published the book for the many readers of Ken’s historical work.

A piece written by his long-term colleague Tomás Amorim published in 2005 provides a good overview on Ken, the man and the scholar.

“As the new coordinator of Brazilian Studies at the David Rockefeller Center, it is a treat for me to write a few words on Kenneth Maxwell’s arrival to DRCLAS, where he is now a Senior Fellow. To borrow John Coatworth’s words from earlier this year, “his appointment promises to be a great boon to the Brazilian Studies Program.” Indeed, it has been both a boon and a boom!

“In addition to his appointment at DRCLAS, Ken is now a Visiting Professor in the History Department where he is developing two new courses for the Spring of 2005: “Turning Points in Brazilian History: From Cabral to Lula,” a lecture course, and “Brazil Between Revolutions, 1776–1789,” a seminar. This Fall he is teaching the conference course “Contestation, Rebellion, and Revolution in Spanish America and Brazil.” These courses will fill a significant lacuna in Harvard’s curriculum pertaining to Brazilian history.

“Ken Maxwell brings more than thirty years of experience not only from academia (having taught at Columbia, Yale, Princeton and the University of Kansas) but also from the world of foundations (having been Program Director of the Tinker Foundation and a consultant to the Ford and Hewlett Foundations) and the foreign policy realm (having served for the last fifteen years as head of Latin American Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York).

“He is the author or editor of more than a dozen books, including, most recently, a new edition of his classic Conflicts and Conspiracies: Brazil and Portugal, 1750-1808 (Routledge, 2004), widely known in Brazil in translation as A Devassa da Devassa, and Naked Tropics: Essays on Empire and Other Rogues (Routledge, 2003).

“In a review of Naked Tropics in The New York Review of Books, the illustrious British historian Sir John Elliott described Maxwell’s extraordinary ability to show “why Luso-Brazilian history matters, and how it can and should be more effectively integrated into the broader picture of the history of Europe and the wider world.” Students and scholars at Harvard will now be able to explore this wondrous Luso-Brazilian world in Ken’s courses and research.

“He has certainly not shied away from controversy. His September 2002 op-ed in The Financial Times on the likely election of a former factory worker as president of Brazil created huge commotion for going against the conventional wisdom on Lula.

“Maxwell, as usual, had not minced words. He wrote then: “In Latin America ‘magical realism’ has faded as a literary fad. But when it comes to Brazil, fantasy reigns supreme within the IMF and on Wall Street. How else can you explain the demonization of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, presidential candidate of the Workers’ Party?” Not to mention the recent high-profile dispute over his book review on Chile’s 9/11 in Foreign Affairs magazine… As Sir John Elliott put it, Ken has “always [been] something of a romantic rebel with a hard realist streak.”

“The projects Ken has spearheaded over the years are too many to mention, as are the scores of young scholars he has mentored and supported along their academic and professional journeys. I am honored to be counted among them, and to be able to continue collaborating with him. Along with the many distinguished faculty and stellar students here, we very much hope to further develop and strengthen Brazilian Studies at Harvard and beyond.”

I have organized the essays by the year published. Each chapter is a year or in the case of the first chapter two years, 2011-2012 and the last chapter three years.

The essays appear in the order of the time of publication, the date of which is provided just below the essay. The essays end with the work on the manuscript for this book as of 1 June 2023.

These essays reflect the scholar while back in the England where he grew up, but of course much has changed — a focus of Two Twentieth Century Men in the 21st Century: The Changing Context of Our Lives.