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The Birth of the Modern World, 1780-1914
Global Connections and Comparisons

Christopher Alan Bayly

Malden, M.A. / Oxford 2004, Blackwell Publishing
540 pages, ISBN: 0-631-23616-3


Reviewed by Detlev Mares



If there will ever be a beast called "chaos theory of history," its protagonists will surely number Christopher Bayly among their ancestors. As in chaos theory, Bayly is aware of underlying connections in processes in different parts of the world. For example, he considers the importance of the French revolution for the ideology of Toussaint L'Ouverture's slave revolutionaries in Haiti, but also the slaves' reverse impact on Napoleon's political fate. The emperor's armies met their first defeat against the Haitians, who thus slowed down his advance in Europe: "Like the famous image of the butterfly fluttering its wings in Tokyo but ultimately creating a storm over New York's Central Park, the shock-waves carried over great distances" [99]. Throughout the book, Bayly considers both the effects of "Western" developments on other parts of the world and the repercussions of "colonial" experiences on "Western" and other non-Western societies throughout the 19th century.

Chaos theory is not chaos. The same applies to Bayly's book which constructs a wide-ranging, truly global argument of historical change around the world. However, although the title seems to suggest a close interest in the emergence of "modernity" around the globe, it is two different concepts that dominate the narrative— "interconnectedness" and "uniformity." The first term constitutes the centre of gravity in Bayly's analysis. With regard to the world-encompassing connections mentioned above, it is closely related to the concept of an "entangled history," linking events and developments which might seem totally unrelated at first sight. In addition, the term has a methodological side to it. Many historians' accounts favour either political, social, economic or cultural factors when trying to explain the changes that occurred over certain periods of time. Bayly tries to avoid such clear priorities. He offers "an analytical history which attempts to bring together political, cultural, and economic change" and wants to show "how they influenced each other, without giving any one of them overriding weight" [12].

This approach might indeed make for a chaotic book, with explanations picked out of the historical material seemingly at random. Indeed, occasionally the focus of the argument seems to depend on the density of existing research on single issues rather than on a clearly developed theory of historical change. But overall, Bayly manages to avoid this trap. It is at this point that the second concept, "uniformity," exerts its strength. With this term, Bayly captures the trajectory of history since the late 18th century. The Old Regimes about this time and in all parts of the world are presented as realms of "difference," with overlapping layers of government, uneven systems of status or rank and cultural and religious diversity. It is only from the late 18th century that these differences started to disappear behind a tendency to uniformity. The modern nation state excluded many former subjects along the lines of religion, ethnicity or class; cultural and social trends became more markedly similar, consumption patterns began to converge across the continents. As Bayly points out, uniformity must not be mistaken for homogenity. Local variations in the adaptation of modern elements of life are of utmost significance for his argument and create layers of complexity below the surface of uniformity. But it is the general tendency towards uniformity that characterises Bayly's account of the dynamics of world history and binds the wealth of material together.

More traditional histories tended to emphasize the economic, political or scientific advances of dynamic "Western" or "European" societies, whereas Asian or African societies were presented as stagnating, lethargic and "backward." In the first part of his book, Bayly sets the scene notably different. When describing "old regimes" in extra-European contexts, he underlines aspects of "modernity," such as the existence of critical public spheres in the Chinese Empire, Japan or India. On the other hand, in line with recent historical research, he downplays the speed of "progress" in Europe and the United States. For example, the time-honoured concept of the "industrial revolution" is replaced by the now fashionable competitor, "industrious revolution." This describes the consumer-led intensification of traditional forms of production and accounts for the slow, uneven progress of industrialization in Europe. More interesting for Bayly, "industrious revolutions" can also be observed in other parts of the world. Thus, he narrows the gap that former historians and sociologists, such as Max Weber, had opened up between Europe and the rest of the world.

If the gaps between different societies were as small as Bayly claims, why, then, did European societies prove so successful in conquering and dominating large parts of the globe during the 19th century? It is clear from Bayly's approach that "domination" never was as complete as many former accounts implied; there always were "colonial" repercussions on Europe, and extra-European societies adapted Western influences in original ways and according to their innate, different traditions of modernity. Bayly thus does not have to explain a black-and-white picture of Western might and Eastern subjection but the much more subtle case of some Western societies preceding modern developments in other continents by a couple of decades. These few decades were crucial in securing Western societies an advantage during the 19th century, but on the whole, modernisation in non-European societies was not reduced to importing foreign concepts and technologies.

For Bayly, the great "climacteric" [96] was a period of converging revolutions throughout the world between 1780 and 1820. During this period, the old regimes lost their legitimacy, making them exceedingly vulnerable to upheaval and revolutionary challenges. While this can be observed in many places, the post-revolutionary European states became particularly strong and "aggressive" [198]. This allowed them to embark on the empire-building of the 19th century. Europeans had a comparative advantage over many African and Asian societies; their continent had been much affected by wars since the 17th century. These wars had led to fiscally strong and well-ordered states that were able to shoulder the costs of expansion in the following centuries with more ease than the relatively peaceful societies in Africa and Asia. Moreover, their public spheres were more extended than the critical publics in most other continents. And, after all, when industrialization finally began to make an impact, the Western powers could protect their fledgling industries against the competitors from other countries, which were forced into a reversal in economic policy. It was political clout more than economic prowess that secured success for many Western states. Britain in particular does not appear in a favourable light in Bayly's reckoning. Far from opening the world for trade, its free trade ideology was imposed onto less developed countries which had to open their markets to cheap foreign goods. This killed their emerging industries which would have needed protection before being able to compete with British or German products.

Bayly's book is structured by thematic and more chronological chapters. The second part is dominated by chronological chapters, which delineate the entangled processes of emerging Western world power, while the third exclusively consists of thematic chapters which analyse state and society in the age of imperialism. Apart from the state, arts and science it is above all religion that is treated in a masterly chapter.
Bayly presents the emergence of formalised religion as the result of the encounter of Western and Eastern religious modes of thought and practice. It was the mutual challenge of meeting new belief systems that created the need for stricter doctrines and more clear-cut separations from other spiritual experiences. Thus, it was not only Eastern societies whose religious thinking was transformed by the encounter with the West, but Western religions also notably changed their complexion. It is in these chapters of the third part that structures of modernity come to the fore most clearly.

In general, however, Bayly's concept of modernity does not play as prominent and well-defined a role as the use in the book's title implies. It is presented in a rather cursory fashion in the introduction, where it features as one of several possible interpretations historians have used to approach the 19th century. Somehow, the term seems to be dispensible for much of the argument since Bayly does not invest it with the same analytical power as "interconnectedness" and "uniformity."1 The book's title would lose little if it was simply called "The World 1780-1914. An entangled history."

Many "modern" or "modernising" developments may well be traced back several centuries—a line of reasoning Bayly generally chooses to neglect. Moreover, he does not really explain when the "birth" of the modern world actually brought about the thing itself, modern world proper. The fourth and final part ends with a chapter on the "great acceleration" between 1890 and 1914, culminating in the beginning of the First World War. But the factors which make this war the gate into the modern period, could be presented more energetically.

Despite this slight gap in the argument, the book, with is argument roaming literally all over the place, is deeply impressive. Bayly offers a masterly synthesis of research on developments around the world. The major strength of the book lies in its dense empirical foundation and its mind-opening suggestions of interconnections in world history. Of course, historical detail often has to take second place against the overarching sweep of the argument; the reader not as deeply immersed in world affairs as the author himself will occasionally yearn for more information to make his own judgment. But it will take many historians many years to work out the implications of the numerous multi-national comparisons which may be implied in a single paragraph of Bayly's book. Such challenges to the reader add further interest to the book, make it thought-provoking and a milestone for historians who from now on will have to consider national histories much more in the light of global perspectives than before.


1. For a thorough discussion of Bayly's concept of modernity see Jürgen Osterhammel, Baylys Moderne, in Neue Politische Literatur 50 (2005) 7-17. back




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