Long Cycles Research Paper

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Only since the nineteenth century did the idea of “progress” begin to persuade many people that they lived in a world of unidirectional development. Throughout history long cycles—whether biological, sociocultural, political, or economic— have followed an up-down-up pattern generated by factors occurring within it. The concept of cycles is itself cyclical, going out of fashion when things appear to be on the upswing.

Sociocultural and political long cycles have received much attention throughout history. The Chinese—at least until the rise of Marxist historiography in China—and the ancient Egyptians conceptualized their history in terms of dynastic cycles, as did foreign students of China and ancient Egypt. Two fourteenth-century examples illustrate that point. China’s Luo Guangzhong, in the novel San guo zhi yan yi (Romance of the Three Kingdoms) wrote: “the empire, long divided, must unite, long united, must divide.” In Morocco, the historian Ibn Khaldun (1332–1406) identified generational cycles in dynasties in which the achievements of the founders were buried by the third generation, thus giving rise to a new dynasty. Reference to such generational cycles appear in Ancient Greek tragedy, which was marked by the principal character’s taking a tragic course of action as a result of the actions of those in previous generations, and in alternating progressive and conservative U.S. political thought and policy, as identified by the historians Arthur M. Schlesinger and Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.

But the concept of long cycles raises the question, how long is long? When, for example, does one generation end and another begin, since people are born all the time? In the case of climatic cycles, the sociologist Sing Chew identifies cycles that extend for millennia and that had important social consequences, such as ages during which civilization all but disappears. Climatologists can distinguish much longer cycles still, with biological and hence social consequences. So how long is long? Aristotle observed that people have a hard time identifying the long cycles they live through because a cycle—or even one of its up or down phases—can last more than a lifetime. We can also identify shorter cycles nested within longer and these within even long ones.

Cycles versus Progress

Only since the nineteenth century did the idea of “progress” begin to persuade many people that they lived in a world of unidirectional development; it was at that point that the concept of cycles began to lose fashion. Cycles were replaced by stages or a staircase of steps leading ever upward from “traditional” society ultimately into paradise. That was the view of the philosopher G. W. F. Hegel (1770–1831), who developed the idea of a dialectic of thesis, antithesis, and (improved) synthesis; it was also the view of the political theorist Karl Marx (1818–1883), who used Hegel’s dialectic to explain how political systems developed and were replaced. Subsequent Euro-American historians, philosophers, and social scientists have followed in their path, down to the scholar Francis Fukuyama, who pronounced the end of history in 1992.

But as most of the world was left out of (or fell or was pushed backward and downward by) the Eurocentric view of stages of historical development, cycles have come back into fashion again. That happens when things are going badly: when times are bad, people hope that they are only in a temporary downward phase of a cycle that will turn up again. When things are going well, on the other hand, they hope that good fortune will last forever, and cycles again go out of fashion. So interest in cycles is itself cyclical. Since 1967, the world economy has been in a long cyclical downswing of which (as on previous occasions) some—recently especially East Asia—have been able to take advantage to improve their position in the world economy at the expense of those most hit by the crisis of a long economic cycle, and interest in long economic cycles has mushroomed. Some, such as the economist and sociologist Joseph Schumpeter (1883–1950), believe that cycles are real and inextricable features of political life. Throughout world history, long cycles have created opportunities for social and political action on the upswing, and they have set limitations to such action on the downswing.

Relating Economic Long Cycles to Other Cycles

The Dutch economists J. van Gelderen (1891–1940) and Samuel de Wolff (1878–1960) and then the Russians Leon Trotsky (1879–1940) and Nikolai Kondratieff (1892–c. 1938) identified the phenomenon of the long economic cycle in the early years of the twentieth century. Long cycles are sometimes termed “Kondratieff’s waves” after the latter, who saw cycles of fifty to sixty years in length, about half of them expansive and the rest contractive. Strictly speaking, Kondratieff saw long swings only in prices, and mostly in the economies of single countries. Those cycles are complemented by twenty-year-long cycles, originally identified in the construction industry by and named after the economist Simon Kuznets (1901–1985). Beginning with Schumpeter in the 1930s, technological invention and (more importantly) its implementation through economic innovation have been seen as the engine that drives the cycles. Additionally, the search for both kinds of long cycles has been extended from prices to production and income, as well as to an ever-wider world political economy.

During the present downturn—which began after the post–World War II boom came to an end—Kondratieff long cycles have been traced even farther back, to the 1700s by the economist and historian Andre Gunder Frank, and then to 930 ce starting in China by the political scientists George Modelski and William Thompson. The social scientist Joshua Goldstein related major war to long economic cycles. The sociologist Albert Bergesen related long economic cycles to cycles of colonialism; with Immanuel Wallerstein he related them also to the rise and decline of hegemonic power in the world. The sociologist Beverly Silver related long cycles to labor movement. Marta Fuentes, writing with Andre Gunder Frank, related them to other social movements, and students in a seminar at the University of Amsterdam related them to social phenomena as diverse as colonialism and philosophy. Bergesen also attributes changes in artistic style and the current fashion for postmodernism to long hegemonic and economic cycles. Modelski and Thompson however, find two Kondratieff economic cycles for each long hegemonic cycle. Yet all long cyclists still remain in a small—though growing—minority. Some economists, especially Solomos Solomou, dispute on empirical grounds the possibility of measuring such long cycles, and indeed, their very existence. Peter Grimes devoted ten years to searching for and devising ingenious measures and indices to identify worldwide Kondratieff cycles, or even waves, but was unable to find them empirically.

Very Long Cycles

Several scholars have identified even longer political economic social cycles, some with two-hundred- or three-hundred-year up and down phases, or even longer. Moreover, these long cycles are now being traced, identified, and dated back into the fourth millennium bce with near simultaneous periods of expansion across most of Afro-Eurasia, which suggests that already then the peoples of this landmass were part of a single world system. Expansions were followed by subsequent long periods of crisis, such as the “dark age” between 1200 and 1000 BCE, when civilization largely died out in Anatolia, Central Asia, and North Africa, and when Moses led his people out of crisis-weakened Egypt. These were periods as well of breakdown of empires, nearcontinuous wars among smaller political units, and heightened authoritarianism within them. The question is whether or not the study of these earlier cycles will help us understand and act in our present and future.


  1. Bergesen, A. (1983). Crises in the world-system. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.
  2. Frank, A. G. (1981). Reflections on the world economic crisis. New York: Monthly Review Press.
  3. Fukuyama, F. (1992). The end of history and the last man. New York: Free Press.
  4. Kleinknecht, A. (1987). Innovation patterns in crisis and prosperity: Schumpeter’s long cycle reconsidered. New York: St. Martins Press.
  5. Kleinknecht, A., Mandel, E., & Wallerstein, I. (Eds.). (1992). New findings in long-wave research. New York: St. Martins Press.
  6. Van Duijn, J. J. (1983). The long wave in economic life. London: George Allen and Unwin.

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