History is no longer national, regional or civilisational but global in scope and complexity. This is the main theme in the author’s account of the birth of the modern world. He charts both the growth of uniformities in political formations, religions, political ideologies and economic life across a span of 140 years, but also argues that the interconnections which arose out of the development of a myriad of links heightened the differences and antagonisms between societies across the globe, and among their élites. The key driving forces of his narrative are the growing lead and control exerted by western Europe and North America over the rest of the world, but equally the absorption of western ideas and technologies by non-western peoples who grafted them onto their own traditions and developed them to service their own purposes. His story is not of a diffusion of western know-how, so much as a history of connections and processes which interacted and fed on each other.
Part One, charts the end of the old world regime, where 70% of humanity were governed by the agrarian empires of Qing China, Mughal India, Togukawa Japan, Safavid Iran, the Ottoman, the Russian and Hapsburg empires, and the still agrarian societies of France, Great Britain and the Americas. The central features of these dying years of the old regime included the great domestication of the nomadic societies of Siberia, Africa, the Americas or the periphery of the British isles, and in particular the emergence of the patriotic state’s abilities to wage war worldwide. For the author, it was the Seven Year’s war of 1756-1763, involving war in Europe, the Americas and Asia, that precipitated first the American and then the French revolutions, culminating in the climacteric twenty years of war from 1793 to 1815.
Part Two covers the period from 1815, when monarchs, aristocracies and priests are precariously back in the saddle until the great rebellions of the mid-century-the 1848 revolutions in Europe, the Taiping rebellion in China of 1850-64 in which up to 20 million people lost their lives; the 1857-59 sepoy rebellion against the East India company, and the civil war in the United States from 1861-1865. All of these were global events, with worldwide causes and repercussions. It was during these mid-years of the century that “blood and iron” politicians learnt to hitch industrial and financial resources to state power, innovated in city planning as did Baron Haussman in Paris, and toyed with the potent brew of national and democratic sentiments. As has been recorded by other historians, northern victory in the American civil war brought the modern Anglo-sphere closer together through the affirmation of theUnited Statesdemocracy, the hastening of the Canadian confederation in 1867, the emergence of a democratic New Zealand polity and the expansion of the vote in the United Kingdom in 1867.
Part Three discusses states and society in the age of imperialisms. This is the imperial period when the European states expanded with renewed energies into the rest of the world, but on a shoestring. As the author points out,Europe’s reach was assured by a “thin patina of power”, that rested as often as not on local networks. But it was backed by an overwhelming lead in organisational and scientific capacities, and underpinned by a confidence in the righteousness of European ideas and religions, however much these were in conflict with each other, or incoherent within their own terms of reference. However right or false they may have been, they were often as not believed in with conviction by their champions. One chapter deals with the impact of greater competition among world religions, initiated by Christian evangelicalism, and that prompted their leaders to start the arduous task of codification and centralisation. The Anglican communion, for instance, inaugurated theLambethPalaceconferences of bishops in 1867, and in 1870 the Roman curia declared the Pope infallible when pronouncing on matters of doctrine. By 1914, the claims of these standardising world religions were more broadly disseminated than ever before, while at the same time art had become both more secularised and market-based. Two leading figures in arts, Vincent van Gogh and Pablo Picasso, both turned for their inspiration to the non-European world. This third part ends on two chapters recording the persistence of the old regime, despite the many changes in the years between 1914 and 1780, and the last ditch resistance of nomadic populations against the onrush of settler populations. Violence was always close to the surface of the nineteenth century world.
The conclusion is entitled “the great acceleration”. The reference is to Lenin’s conviction that events accelerated after 1890, and is placed in contrast to the historian Arno Mayo’s argument that the ancient regime of before 1789 persisted up to 1914. Evidence for continuity resides in the persistence of the monarchies and aristocracy, with their pan-European ties; the continued subordination of the blacks in the southern states of the United States; the survival of Confucian China, despite the terrible blows of the mid-century Taiping rebellion, and then the defeat of 1894 by Japan; the subordination of women; the continued practice of slavery or the reach of the Ottoman Khilafat, when Chinese Muslims listened to Istanbul during the Boxer rebellion of 1899 against western imperialism. But in the balance of continuity and change, it was change that had the upper hand. The foundations of wealth were being revolutionised as wheat or beef imports from the new world undercut landed wealth across Europe; industrial fortunes were created on a scale hitherto unknown; the western powers intervened more forcefully in the Chinese and Ottoman empires; Germany, Japan and the United States emerged to created a new global power balance; global communications enabled socialists to organise conferences in London, Paris or Chicago; nationalist forces made their presence felt in Ireland, Bengal, and Egypt while the Young Turks took power in Istanbul in 1908, followed in 1911 by the overthrow of the Qing dynasty and the announcement of the new Republic. Across the world, the protagonists of radical socialisms were confronted by ethnic and religious revivalisms in competition for the loyalty of the masses. When the fissures opened up in July 1914 in core Europe, the networks and linkages forged over the previous century and a half were not strong enough to halt the drift of the European powers to war.
The book develops four themes: the first is that the sources of change which feed modernity are multi-centred, and therefore richer in texture than either a Euro- or Atlantic centric perspective, or a post-modernist narrative about the destructive nature of western European or North American expansion, can capture. The forces which the author charts as gaining ground from the mid-18th century on play on the three features of a pre-existing “archaic globalisation”, that persisted into the following century. These three features were a universalising kingship driving men, like Alexander the Great or Shaka, the great Zulu leader, across great distances; cosmic religions such as Islam, that inspired the great pilgrimages to Mecca, or in Christianity that drove the Jesuits to China and Japan, or the Quakers to preach peace and tolerance; and concern for bodily health, evidenced in the trade in tea, tobacco or opium as medicines. This trade was captured by the great European chartered companies in the years 1760 to 1830, while around the world and for differing reasons religious millenarianisms spring to life, and then inter-acted with the secular millenarianism which exploded to life in the French Revolution of 1789. Meanwhile the collapse of the Safavid empire in Iran led to the invasion of northern India by Persian and Afghan armies, the sacking of Delhi in 1759-the year of victory of British arms in North America and Bengal—the weakening of the Mughal empire, adding to the setbacks already inflicted on Muslim armies by the Hapsburgs in Vienna and the Balkans. Meanwhile, weaknesses were beginning to eat away at the Qing empire in China. The interactions between these European and global developments began to ricochet, as France sought compensation for the losses in North America by backing the American revolutionaries; Britain’s defeat in North America then prompted expansion of the East India company out of its Bengal base to much of India between 1783 and 1818; and the strain on French finances which resulted from Louis XVI’s American adventure precipitated the French revolution. This in turn fed into a worldwide trend to criticise corruption in the universal monarchies, while French revolutionary armies exported the “the rights of man” by force. Ideas of popular sovereignty stimulated the emergence of the “left”, but also fostered re-action by monarchs, aristocracies and religions. Though the author does not mention it, the Duke of Wellington, a leading member of the Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland, led a British army, whose ranks were swelled by Catholic Irish soldiers, to victory in the Iberian peninsula and then on the battlefield of Waterloo. As Napoleon remarked, “Waterloo was won in India”.
The second theme expounded in the book is the growth in uniformity powered by the growth of modern states and the reach of markets, prompting imitation, and absorption, but also contestation to preserve inherited polities, religions or interests. One of the first oppositions to western power was the uprising in Haiti, following Napoleon’s reversal of the revolutionary decree liberating slaves. The armies of the slave revolutionary Toussaint L’Ouverture, the “great black Jacobin”, proceeded to defeat British arms and preserved the revolution. The threat from France tightened the hold of the British government over its possessions; defeat at Jena and Austerlitz galvanised Prussia to reform; and the belligerence of the patriotic states in Europe later prompted emulation around the world, as the western powers compounded their military-technological lead over the rest, while their economies surged ahead. Free trade was brought to China in the form of the Opium War of 1839-42, leading to the Qing’s concession of Hong Kong to the British Crown, and the burning of the Summer Palace by British troops in 1856—in the midst of the disastrous Taiping rebellion—by far the most destructive war of the century. As mentioned above, the new leaderships of the mid-century hitched industry and finance more closely to the service of the modern state, but kept expenditures very low, at not much more than 10% of their economies, far below the norms of the mid-twentieth century world. It was the expansion of European empires overseas which stimulated the rapid development of the modern states across the whole arc from Persia to Japan.
The third and fourth themes are the growing velocity in international connections, and the undeniable rise of Western dominance, in particular the western powers lead in their ability to kill. The latter point runs like a thread throughout the book, and is recorded in the dying resistance of the nomadic peoples of the world, whether in North America, Australia, Africa or Siberia, and arguably most powerfully demonstrated, but not developed by the author, at the battle of Omdurman in 1898, when a British army commanded by Sir Herbert Kitchener, defeated the Mahdi’s troops who lost 10,000 dead and 13,000 wounded, to Kitchener’s force which lost 47 men with 382 wounded. Eventually, the ability to kill was turned against the European armies, massively expanded by contributions brought in from the French and British empires, in the war of 1914-18, where 10 million lost their lives. The period covered, the long nineteenth century, is one of overlapping networks of global reach, dominated by Europeans and Americans, but which other peoples tapped into, eventually creating powerful hybrids that eventually subverted and overthrew European dominance in the years following the Russian revolution and the post-1918 world. The overwhelming feature of these global inter-connections is the growing uniformity they induced, but also the greater complexities they created and the resistances they stimulated.
In many respects, Bayly’s account of the rise of the modern world is similar to the prolonged essay, first published in 1944 and written by Karl Polanyi, entitled The Great Tranformation. Polanyi covers much the same time span, and, like Bayly, places the emergence of the modern state and market economy, at the centre of his account. In Polanyi’s version, both feed on each other, in that a strong state first imposed free markets on society, and when market forces unleashed protectionist reactions, the state gradually expanded its functions to mitigate the destructive workings of the market. To Polanyi, social protectionism was a spontaneous reaction to the social dislocation imposed by an unrestrained free market, operating by the nineteenth century on a global scale. Polanyi threads this central interaction between states and markets through his selection of four key institutions: the balance of power between the major states; the gold standard, at the heart of the global economy; limited government; and the market. All of these institutions are sustained by the same set of actors as people Bayly’s account, cover the same geographic scope ranging from the Ottoman empire to China and Latin America, and reach similar accounts of why the feared “European War” would become, in the words of Ernst Haeckel, the German philosopher, “the first world war in the full sense of the word.”
At the heart of both Bayly and Polanyi’s accounts of the rise of modernity is the working of a dialectic, where the spread of western power, ideas and technologies, and western dominance of world markets, creates a reaction, which may take the form of emulation, absorption and rejection, and which in the longer term gives rise to Bayly’s powerful new hybrids which are capable of challenging and resisting existing patterns of dominance. Parenthetically, it is the device of global markets and local diversity which lies at the heart of the best books about multi-national corporations in the world economy of the past forty or so years. This point will be illustrated in future book reviews, when I will select a few of the leading writers on global corporations. But for the moment, I would like to end on three points.
One is that Bayly’s stimulating book may have benefitted by a clearer development of his thesis. Put another way, my advice is that he writes a second edition. There is no harm in that. The Rev. Malthus kept on writing updated versions of his one book about population and business cycles. In the second edition, my suggestion would be to write
Part One as a synthetic essay of , say, the four main themes: the multi-centric nature of global exchanges as they have developed across the historical period; the slow, emergence of the modern state, particularly in its relation to war, finance and technology; the growing velocity and scope of communications, and the density of exchanges of all kinds around the world; and the ways in which western dominance was affirmed through tapping into local networks, which then through a process of emulation and rejection, gradually developed their own forms of modernity.
Part Two could then spell out the chronological story, involving an elaboration of the various passages identified by Bayly from the old regime to modernity-the intense competition among the states and peoples of Europe which provided incentives to innovate; how war capacity developed unevenly in part in relation to the strengthening of domestic law, guaranteeing property rights and laying the foundations for capitalist accumulation; with a new component of how the Napoleonic wars proved a crucible to the modern world, from Thomas Jefferson’s acquisition of Louisiana from Napoleon, to the confirmation of British worldwide naval hegemony, a situation that lasted arguably from the battle of Trafalgar to the Treaty of Washington in 1922. This part would incorporate the excellent chapters on the post-revolutionary settlement of 1815 through to the linked rebellions around the world of the mid-century, each with their own global causes and impacts. I would suggest that this is the section where new chapters could be written on trade, technology, communications and finance. After all, the mid-years of the century saw the creation of the limited liability corporation, the growth of international finance, the consolidation of the gold standard, the introduction of the telegraph and railway, laying the ground for the “great acceleration” from the 1880s on. This is also the part where the chapter on industrialisation, thenew cityand the spread of working class politics fits well enough.
Part Three could stand on its own, drawing out the themes developed of how ideas, institutions and economic changes inter-acted in such powerful ways. This part has some of the most interesting chapters of all in this excellent book. One is on the myths and technologies of the modern state: in view of the importance attached to war making capabilities, I would suggest that more in this portion of the new version of the book could be made of the military lessons or non-lessons taken from the United States Civil War; the Prusso-Austrian war of 1866; and the Prusso-French war of 1870; the impacts on armaments, and the development of imperial armies for wars in the non-European world. This is also the part where the chapter on nationalism would sit alongside the chapter on the theory and practice of liberalism, the chapter on the “empires of religion”, and the fundamental changes underway in the world of the arts and the imagination.
The concluding chapter of Bayly’s tour de force draws the multiple strands that he has been weaving throughout the book, and it would be on this note that I would like to conclude. At the root of The Birth of the Modern World 1780-1914, Global Connections and Comparisons, is a discussion by an eminent historian of India, and empire, about history and its uses. As he writes in his acknowledgements, “”A book on this scale is deeply endebted to a whole generation of historians and to many others from earlier times”. One of the fascinations of the book is the discussion about past and present interpretations of history. In the early stages of the book he discusses three contemporary debates about history: the materialist explanation, for which he chooses as example the British communist party member Eric Hobsbawm’s four volume history of the period; the post-modernists, who reject the “grand narratives” of the past; and the modernisation school of the 1950s and 1960s, that saw urbanisation as promoting secularism. To Hobsbawm, Bayly responds that economic phenomena are clearly vital, but they do not walk in lock step with ideologies or the development of states. To him, world history posits a more complex interaction between political organisation, ideas and economic activities than is accounted for by a mono-causal materialist argument. To the post-modernists objection to the special pleading which they discern in the “grand narratives” which have doubtlessly been deployed, and are still deployed, in the service of power and domination, he rightly points out that they, too, have an implicit grand narrative: if western development had not taken the course it did, a better world might have evolved. And to the modernists of the 1950s and 1960s, who assumed that the West exported and the Rest imported, he argues that the modernisation project is more than being “up with the times”, i.e. converging on U.S. middle class life styles, but is a process through which exchanges and interactions multiply. As he points out, the secularists were surprised in the 1980s by the eruption of religions around the world.
In other words, the denser global interactions become, the less predictable the future is. This is a book that debunks uni-linear accounts of the way the future unfolds. It implicitly argues that the future is not known: hence the corrections given to Lenin, Hobsbawm, the modernists and the post-modernists. It is a book for global times, which draws on a many-vectored history and the social sciences to discuss the road to modernity as a key to an understanding of the world we are in.