Colin Kidd

  • Birth of the Modern World 1780-1914: Global Connections and Comparisons by C.A. Bayly
    Blackwell, 568 pp, £65.00, January 2004, ISBN 0 631 18799 5

Globalisation presents formidable challenges for history, a discipline which is congenitally nationalist. The academic study of the past emerged during the 19th century in tandem with the rise of European nationalisms, and remains coloured by its origins. This sinister twinship wasn’t acknowledged, however, until in recent decades historians began to confront their subject’s provenance and the ways in which this early nationalist imprint had distorted its agenda and approaches. In reaction, some historians have displayed a willingness to transcend the limits of national history and to engage with the study of a variety of non-national entities such as border zones and marchlands, the multinational territorial acquisitions of great dynasties and the shared littoral worlds created by seas and oceans. Nevertheless, the primary focus of inquiry remains nation-states – not only their politics, but the societies, economies and ideas which sustain them. Conventional historical training provides inoculation against parochialism, but of a chronological rather than geographical sort: steeled against the temptations of teleology or hindsight, historians aspire to avoid the parochialism of the present by studying the past on its own terms. Otherwise, the bulk of the profession, oriented largely towards the West – Europe and North America – is only slightly less parochial than the society from which it is recruited.

Unsurprisingly, historians seemed much better equipped during earlier moments of rapid flux and uncertainty – 1914, 1939, 1989-91 – to participate in public debate than they are at present. Then, European (or Western) power politics and European ideologies, including nationalism, provided adequate frameworks of explanation. By contrast, on 11 September 2001 the generality of our Eurocentric, nation-fixated historians could not answer the big question: how did History get here? Nor did they have the training to engage with the debate over the future world order initiated by political scientists, most prominently Francis Fukuyama and Samuel Huntington. Unfortunately, both Fukuyama and Huntington grounded their prophecies on a schematic universal history of the sort liable to engender an allergic reaction in most historians. Whereas Fukuyama predicted that Communism’s demise signalled the end of meaningful, contested History – i.e. the global spread of liberal democracy and free markets – Huntington issued a stern corrective to arrogant Western assumptions (then, and still, widely held both by its champions and its detractors) about unilateral globalisation. In its place he offered a picture – now influential among the makers of foreign policy – of a multi-centred world of eight competing civilisations: Sinic (Chinese), Hindu, Japanese, Orthodox and Western; more tentatively, Latin American and African; and, not least, aggressively Islamic. Though much more sophisticated than Fukuyama’s thesis, Huntington’s rested overconfidently on a sketchy history of the emergence of distinctive civilisations, which underplayed the significance of cross-cultural contacts and entanglements.

Now historians, however cautiously insular, can at last see how a nuanced, historical response to Fukuyama and Huntington might run. For, though it ends in 1914, Chris Bayly’s erudite and engrossing account of the global birthpangs of modernity is not only a landmark contribution to historical literature but, indirectly and without a hint of overt engagement, a pertinent addition to contemporary debates about globalisation and the world order. This is a book that historians, foreign policy elites and protagonists on both sides of the debate need to read, if only to dispel some fundamental myths.

Bayly demonstrates convincingly that neither globalisation nor its associated litany of problems – uneven development, monocultural blandness, environmental degradation, anti-Western resentment – is a product of the very recent past. His principal subject is the long-term ‘growth of uniformity between societies and the growth of complexity within them’, as well as the heightened sense of difference which emerges in ironic reaction to such convergences.

Even before the competitive acceleration of overseas white-on-black imperialisms which underpinned the trend towards global uniformity, early modern mankind had a great deal in common. What Bayly terms ‘archaic globalisation’ was manifest, for example, in intercontinental trading networks and long-range pilgrimages undertaken for the sake of ‘cosmic religion’, while the claims of universal kingship compelled the widened horizons of multi-ethnic armies of soldiers and clerks. By the middle of the 18th century, at least 70 per cent of the world’s population lived in the agrarian empires of the Eurasian landmass and its environs, on and off-shore: Qing China, Mughal India, Tokugawa Japan, Java, and the Ottoman, Russian and Habsburg Empires, as well as the former territories of the recently toppled Iranian Safavids. Indeed, the fall of the Safavids and the imperial overstretch of the Mughals contributed in the long run to the near-global wreckage of the old regimes in the late 18th century. In 1739, the Persian conqueror Nadir Shah invaded India, where rapacious Europeans were eager to take advantage of Mughal decline. At the same time, economic decline in Iran created problems in the eastern portions of the Ottoman Empire. Bayly pursues chains of causation – economic, political, religious – which spiralled outwards and across regions, seas and continents, often in unexpected directions from specific centres of turbulence.

Several parts of the world – Egypt, the Caribbean, India and Java – were directly caught up in the events of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, and few areas escaped the ‘ideological backwash’ of the Revolution itself. Ideological hybridity was to be a universal feature of 19th-century culture, while governments across Old Eurasia felt similar anxieties and developed similar strategies to counter the threat of subversion, including greater bureaucratisation, the co-option of both old aristocracies and new bourgeoisies, and techniques of surveillance and policing.

The global age of revolutions between about 1780 and 1820 was not predicated on huge regional inequalities in wealth. A few of the competitive advantages which the West would enjoy were already visible, but the long-term economic subordination of the non-Western world was not yet a fact of the global economy. Drawing on the work of Jan de Vries, Bayly emphasises the multiple centres of ‘industrious revolution’ across Eurasia based on indigenous artisanal industries in South and East Asia and specialised local dominance of lucrative trades in precious commodities such as tea and spices. Some of the key ingredients of future Western prosperity – including a framework of commerce and the possession of useful knowledge – were characteristic of certain Asian societies in the mid-18th century, and by no means the exclusive preserve of western Eurasia. Nevertheless, there were already, as Bayly acknowledges, some significant – though not yet decisive – societal differences between East and West. Europe and North America, for example, enjoyed a ‘density of civil institutions’ beyond the state which was not apparent in either Asia or Africa.

Bayly outflanks the ideologically charged battle to explain non-Western underdevelopment. Was it, as the Western left and Third World nationalists tend to believe, the result of colonialism thwarting indigenous development and race slavery conferring an unfair competitive advantage? Or were non-European societies, as the right suspects, somehow incapacitated by indigenous cultural factors from joining the fast track to economic modernisation? Bayly believes that in the long term Asians may have been the victims of the ‘relative peace’ their continent had enjoyed during the 17th century. While the stable empires of 17th-century Asia had nurtured pockets of ‘industrious revolution’, the ferocious wars fought by the comparatively small, competitive powers of 17th-century Europe had brought about a revolution in military technology and the public financing of warfare, which eventually enabled European powers to impose their will by force on the rest of the world.

This isn’t by any means the whole story of the economic divergence of West and East, however. For the crucial era which determined the uneven development of the West and the rest came in the second quarter of the 19th century. It was only at this point that major disparities emerged between the sites of Western and Asiatic ‘industrious revolutions’. Nineteenth-century Western traders spurned the once popular artisan products of Asia and the Middle East in favour of agricultural produce; while indigenous merchants lacked the resources of Western capital and insurance required to mount serious intercontinental competition. Industrial production was, in Bayly’s arresting formulation, ‘repatriated’ to Europe and North America. The blanket adoption of liberal trading regimes – a nostrum aggressively peddled by Britain – seriously undermined the prospects for non-Western industrial competition. Effective tariff walls in North Africa and Asia might have made a difference. Egypt, which achieved a significant measure of autonomy under the rule of Muhammad (Mehmet) Ali, an imperial official of Albanian origin, made serious strides in the direction of Western-style modernisation. However, the Ottoman Tariff Convention of 1838, which reduced import duties throughout the empire, undermined Muhammad Ali’s plans for a cotton-based industrial revolution.

The mid 19th-century world witnessed a second age of revolutions. The Europe of 1848 was part of a wider bout of global dislocation which included the Indian Mutiny, the Taiping rebellion in China and the American Civil War. Bayly makes a convincing case for the international character and significance of these events, blending the endogenous origins of regional turbulence with fascinating diffusionist pathways of causes and consequences. The Taiping rebellion, which was directed against both the Manchu regime and Western penetration of its empire, began in late 1851. Fuelled by a combination of Christian and Buddhist millenarianism and led by Hong Xuiquan, the product of a Christian missionary education, who declared himself the younger brother of Jesus Christ, the rebellion exemplified a new world of ideological hybridity.

The American Civil War not only produced expected opportunities and dislocations within the immediate Atlantic world, not least in enabling Napoleon III to create an empire in Mexico in contravention of the Monroe Doctrine, but also had a direct impact much further afield, in Egypt, India and Russia. In Egypt, the distant war in America served first to accelerate, then to subvert, the modernising project of Khedive Ismail. With Egyptian cotton substituting for the blockaded cotton of the American South, the Egyptian government was able to borrow heavily on the European money markets; but the collapse of cotton prices in the late 1860s produced longer-term financial and political turmoil. The Indian cotton sector went through a similar experience of boom and bust, while Russian expansionists – suddenly exposed to their dependence on American cotton – eagerly eyed the central Asian soils suitable for establishing a cotton crop of their own.

Bayly properly insists, however, that he has ‘not tried to "homogenise” world history’. Despite his sensitivity to global connections, he is scrupulously honest, and happy to argue with his overall thesis by foregrounding incidents of local isolation when these present themselves. But he does not retreat from his central position that ‘nationalist’ historiography is the intellectually limited small talk of the parish pump. Indeed, an autarkic nationalist historiography cannot make much sense of nationalism itself. Bayly stresses the international character of 19th-century nationalism, epitomised by the ineffectual career of Ludwig Mieroslawski, who proceeded from the Young Poland movement and the Carbonari by way of radical involvements in Berlin, Paris, Hungary, Sicily, Posen and Baden to the Paris Commune in 1871.

The spread of the Bible – which embodied the deeds of the Old Testament nation of Israel – helped to stimulate an idiom of ‘peoplehood’ and nationality outside Europe. Nevertheless, Bayly warns against the assumption that nationalism suddenly displaced feelings of solidarity for the old empires of Eurasia. The socio-economic conditions of 19th-century Eurasia did not foretell the doom of its empires, the Qing regime and the Ottomans both surviving into the early part of the 20th century. The latter was able to inspire a viable Ottoman patriotism among its Arab and Greek as well as Turkish subjects and to achieve a reasonable measure of success – not least from the perspective of 2004 – in regulating the multiple ethnic and religious tensions of its subject peoples.

Despite its superficial appearance as a work of historical prolepsis which establishes a longer chronology for globalisation, Bayly’s work does little to advance the proposition that modernity came earlier than is commonly thought. On the contrary, he avoids a crude equation of globalisation and modernisation. Resolutely unwhiggish and trained to resist the parochialism of the present, he does not puff the ‘modernity’ of the 19th century as an anticipation of 20th-century trends. Rather, he aligns himself – though in a heavily qualified way – with Arno Mayer’s controversial thesis that the Old Regimes persisted throughout the 19th century. As he notes, ‘continuities were empowered by change itself.’

Religion, moreover, plays a central and dynamic role in Bayly’s narrative. Mindful of Boyd Hilton’s work on the Victorian repackaging of Adam Smith’s political economy in the wrappings of Christian providentialism, he is unpersuaded by versions of 19th-century history – even in the West – which emphasise the displacement of religion by science and naturalistic thinking. Instead, Christianity features as a creative influence on ‘supposedly secular’ modes of thought. Bayly is well aware of the suppleness and plasticity of Christianity, not least outside the traditional borders of Christendom. Indigenous peoples – not missionaries – were the primary bearers of global Christianity. Yet in the competitive ‘mass expansion’ of world religion to sub-Saharan Africa, Islam proved more successful than Christianity, most significantly in Nigeria.

Anxious readers will want to know how Islam responded to the white Christian aggressions of 19th-century imperialism. Bayly cites various instances of jihad, but argues that most Islamic clergy tended to be ‘pacific’. Movements for Islamic purity need to be set against the calls of Islamic modernists across the Middle East and southern Asia for accommodation between Islamic faith and Western knowledge, while the Persian Babi revolt of 1848 saw the emergence of an ecumenical Bahaism. Perhaps a more characteristically ambiguous figure is Shah Abd al-Aziz of Delhi, the leading proponent of Sunni revival in the Subcontinent, who declared India a ‘land of war’, but whose careful reconciliation of tradition and the facts of historical change Bayly brackets with the balanced liberal conservatism of Tocqueville.

The ‘world religions’ of the 19th century were converging on an idea of what a religion should be, whose template was derived in large measure from Christianity and, to a lesser extent, from Islam. Religious reformers across Asia began to emphasise the more plausibly philosophical elements in their various regional ensembles of ritual and mythology. India’s loose ‘family’ of rites and beliefs was consolidated into ‘Hinduism’, with the most advanced Hindu reformers emphasising an aboriginal – and more acceptably rational – monotheism which, they claimed, had preceded its current polytheistic trappings. Similarly, Confucian ‘precepts for garnering virtue and ordering society’ became reified as Confucianism, the ‘religious essence of the Chinese people’. The Far East also witnessed the rise of Young Men’s Buddhist Associations.

In the face of such evident religious hybridity, Huntington’s complacency about the existence of distinct ‘civilisations’ begins to look precarious. However, as Bayly makes clear, the consolidation of religions also led to growing confessional uniformities of a ‘civilisational’ sort, as in religious architecture, where a contemporary Western taste for the Gothic found parallels in fashions for the Arabic mosque, the late Qing Confucian temple and the tenth-century style of Hindu temple. Nevertheless, the relentless hybridising of political ideologies from the era of archaic globalisation onwards provides an implicit challenge to the notion of separate ‘civilisations’ with characteristic sets of political belief. Bayly not only demonstrates that the classical republican tradition of political thought, so influential among Western intelligentsias throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, had idiomatic counterparts outside the West (in the denunciations of samurai corruption in Tokugawa Japan, for example, which paved the way for Meiji renewal); he also points out that classical political theory had a direct impact outside the European world. Aristotle enjoyed a high profile across Asia from the 17th century onwards, translations of his works contributing to Ottoman ideals of good governance, Chinese reform movements and even anti-colonial sentiment in the greater Islamic world from Arabia to Java.

Contemporary political ideas enjoyed a similar worldwide vogue, though indigenous modification produced ironic results. Bayly traces the local transformations of Comtean Positivism in its dissemination across the globe, in Japan, Mexico, Brazil, Russia and, most surprisingly, in India, where it was pressed into the service of a reform movement aspiring to a Hinduism shorn of priestcraft, but in which caste would be preserved. Not that the West had all the best tunes. Multi-centred projects of modernisation and the creation of ideological hybrids meant that there were competitive claimants to the mantle of modernity, whose appeal was not limited to a domestic audience or even a particular ‘civilisation’. The non-European world thrilled to modernising Japan’s naval victories over Russia in the Russo-Japanese War. Not only was the elite of distant Abyssinia – which had enjoyed its own victory over the Italians at Adowa in 1896 – urged to emulate the Japanese example, but in the remoteness of rural India villagers gave their newborn babies the inspiring names of Japan’s victorious admirals.

The Japanese, however, proved the stunning exception to the dominant trend of 19th-century globalisation. For many indigenous peoples, the ‘white deluge’ literally meant the end of their world. Some apocalyptic movements predicated on that very fact involved the killing of domestic animals and the destruction of villages in a sad recognition of ethnic finality. Bayly finds consolation where he can in a desperate story of cultural extinction and extermination of the natural world, including deforestation and soil desiccation: by the end of the century, when the last major wars had been fought between native peoples and white settlers, some of the luckier losers began to acquire the techniques which ‘made possible their long-term survival, at least as the poorest relations within the world economic system’.

Unlike other histories with a global remit, people and their institutions – as opposed to impersonal trends such as plagues and environmental changes – shape Bayly’s account of the world. Elites – political, financial, industrial, religious – inevitably assume a high profile in the rise of global modernity; but ordinary life is not forgotten. Bayly is alert to the impact of global trends on bodily practices – the wearing of clothes, the eating of food. The emulative John Bulls of Meiji Japan began to eat beef, previously prohibited by their Buddhism, because it appeared to nourish Western imperialists. Similarly, in 1894 the Japanese compelled their bureaucrats to dress in the Western style. In the Islamic world the burkah grew in popularity, not because it was a medieval hand-me-down but as a form of modern dress which enabled women to escape the seclusion of the domestic sphere to participate – to a limited degree – in the wider world.

Bayly’s subtle, many-stranded arguments, which evolve with qualifications and refinements from paragraph to paragraph, defy easy summary. No single factor, or chain of factors, is privileged in his overall thesis beyond a ‘complex parallelogram of forces constituted by economic changes, ideological constructions and mechanisms of the state’. This does not, however, indicate a reluctance to make distinctions. Geographical discrimination is apparent in his tracing of neglected linkages between faraway centres of ideological innovation and political turmoil, and in his tracking of trajectories of actual and frustrated growth in sites of economic improvement. Readers expecting a blandly even survey of world history should not carp at the necessary regional imbalances in the account of the rise of global modernity. Japan, Ottoman Egypt, Mexico, China and India, as well as Europe and the United States, rightly loom larger, than, say, sub-Saharan Africa or Australasia – not that these latter areas are neglected.

Bayly has produced the most compelling and significant historical synthesis to appear for many years. Throughout, he remains level-headed, dispassionate, unsentimental; but a global story with so many unhappy endings makes emotional as well as intellectual demands on the reader, not least at those moments when Bayly appears to suppress an insistent elegiac note.