Kaleidoscopic view of our common past

The Birth of the Modern World 1780-1914
September 10, 2004

Can an intriguing mix of unfamiliar juxtapositions and pairings serve to deepen our understanding of global history, wonders Asa Briggs.

There is a strong sense of drive behind this fascinating book, a genuinely pioneering exposition that C. A. Bayly correctly describes as "a reflection on, rather than a narrative of, world history". His reflection covers a multitude of themes, among them state and nation, empire, industrialisation, modernity and postmodernism, and he uses adjectives such as "exciting" and "exhilarating" in introducing some of the miscellaneous writers on whom by the very nature of his approach he has to rely. He characteristically describes Jan de Vries' concept of an "industrious revolution" preceding the "industrial revolution" as "intriguing", which it is, and his whole book is studded with memorable, often unfamiliar, general labels.

Yet, because the historical research on which he depends is patchy and uneven in quality, he finds it difficult to deal adequately with some of the themes he seeks to include - such as "bodily practice", a term of his own that covers deportment as well as clothes and food. Fashion is underplayed. So, too, are family relations. It is easier to sketch a global history of ideas or of the world economy than to disentangle the changing roles of women, children and families in a global context.

What Bayly has to say about religion - and he has much to say - is not always convincing, but he is right to conclude, using what he calls "modern jargon", that, while "worship" remained "radically decentred" at the end of his long 19th century (1780-1914), the "consolidation of a concept of religion" came early in the "period" - he employs the word - or even before it began. His chapter nine, on mid-19th-century "Empires of religion", which immediately follows a chapter on the "theory and practice of liberalism", takes the view that the 19th century saw "the triumphal reemergence and expansion of 'religion' in the sense in which we now use the term". In all the "world religions" there was a reformulation of doctrine and authority" more important for the global historian than liberalism or the concept of class. It was not only that Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism "reformulated themselves partly in response to vigorous missionary assault from Christians in the age of European empires". "The Christian religions [note the plural] themselves were irrevocably changed by the experience of proselytising and propaganda wars outside Europe." He finds space for the Sikhs, Bahais and Christian Scientists.

War, more usually treated in detail by historians than religion used to be, is crucial to Bayly's analysis, for its effects not only on mortality but also on finance and "administration"; and he ends his book with the First World War (my italics), which he treats as a "catastrophic conjuncture".

"People in many countries began to experience similar patterns of scarcity, conscription, death and disease." They did, but this comment in the last paragraph of the book raises the difficult question of difference as opposed to similarity - as does the next sentence: "Out of this carnage were to emerge fierce new ideologies which stressed even more vigorously the worldwide uniformities of class or race or nation-state."

Uniformities, yes, but sharp and essential differences, too. In his stimulating introduction, a major contribution to historiography, Bayly recognises that, "of course, in 1914, the heterodox, the transgressive and the fluid were still everywhere in view", but he balances this observation with the reflection that "all the same, these unpredictable and unstandardised forms of human life and thought were increasingly marked by the imprint of common forms of governmentality".

Historians will continue to argue about the "balances", as they have long argued about the relationships between "continuity" and "change" and as they should continue to argue about the chronology, usually vague, of the concept of "modernity" itself. "Conjunction" does not always seem to be the right word, although it is particularly appropriate when Bayly is considering the revolutions of 1848, one of the most interesting sections in his narrative.

It is when he introduces into his pages phrases such as "of course" and "all the same", along with "perhaps", that Bayly raises the most interesting questions, and on at least one occasion he places the words "it is difficult to deny" in front of a proposition that few of his scholarly British readers, at least, would ever dream of denying.

For the most part, however, he is careful not to go too far in advancing tempting generalisations, such as accounting for the "rise of Europe" in the late 18th and 19th centuries in terms of a "decline of the rest". He dislikes "reductionism", and, thus, while referring frequently to "changes in communications" in the 19th century, he does not treat them as the key to "globalisation".

In his chapter on "The world of the arts and the imagination" - not the most revealing in his survey - he acknowledges cautiously before examining the evolution of markets in the arts that "the arts, architecture and literature worldwide did quite often directly reflect the dramatic changes in political and social life which have been charted in this book". But, for once, his detail is more illuminating than his generalisations. There is an enormous gulf between Spengler, McLuhan and Bayly.

The reader is drawn throughout into Bayly's own preoccupations and enthusiasms, for while occasionally a few of his pages cover familiar ground in a familiar way, there are unfamiliar juxtapositions and pairings.

Thus, de Tocqueville is paired with Shah-Abd-al-Aziz, "the leading theologian of Delhi", and the Chinese statesman He Changling figures in the next sentence. China is focused on throughout the book, but some of the judgements on historical turning points are summary. For example, the events of 1911, when the Qing dynasty "finally fell", in Bayly's view represented "short-term financial crisis which got out of hand". "Confucian China was alive and well in 1900," he concludes. "Its complete demise could not have been predicted." In the next paragraph, as in other places, similarities with the Ottoman Empire are picked out. "The Ottoman Empire has been subject to a thorough-going re-evaluation in the last two decades."

The historians on whom Bayly relies are mainly those who have offered such re-evaluation within a period of striking 20th-century and 21st-century social and cultural change. They include Linda Colley and Catherine Hall for Britain, Geoffrey Hosking and Dominic Lieven for Russia, and R. Bin Wong, Kenneth Pomeranz, Wang Gungwu and Joanna Waley-Cohen for China. These men and women are, for Bayly, the pioneers of global history, the people who have laid the foundations for his own pioneering synthesis. Each one demands a profile. The historians who preceded them seem to him to have already passed into oblivion.

What future progress can be made in the study of global history? It is obvious that to deepen historical understanding, "national histories and 'area studies' need to take fuller account of changes occurring in the wider world". But will they be strong enough, not least in Britain, to withstand pressures to concentrate on nation and empire? Outside Europe, will the urge to "provincialise" Europe, to use Dipesh Chakrabarty's verb, dominate postcolonial thought? How will shifting perceptions, shaped by current events, affect attitudes to religion as well as to economics? Will the relevance of historical understanding to the strategies and policies being followed by world leaders be fully acknowledged?

What seems obvious to scholarly historians is not by any means obvious to politicians or to the consultants on whom they depend. It was not always so. As Bayly states firmly, "the discovery of history as the essential mode of explanation for all phenomena, natural and human, was the most revolutionary change of the 19th century". In the 21st century, for many reasons, this discovery - obvious to professional historians and many other scholars - is not generally identified. Nor is its significance generally acknowledged even by the media, whose operators spend more time on it than many schoolteachers and designers of university curricula.

Lord Briggs is completing, with his co-author Peter Burke, a new edition of A Social History of the Media: From Gutenberg to the Internet .

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

Author - C. A. Bayly
Publisher - Blackwell
Pages - 540
Price - £65.00 and £17.99
ISBN - 0 631 18799 5 and 23616 3

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