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Book Review


Christof Dejung, David Motadel, and Jürgen Osterhammel, eds., The Global Bourgeoisie: The Rise of the Middle Classes in the Age of Empire. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019. Pp. 396. $99.95 (cloth), $29.95 (paper).


      “The need for a constantly expanding market for its products,” Karl Marx famously wrote in The Communist Manifesto, “chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe.” The fourteen case studies that comprise this important and enlightening collection—there is also a superb introduction by the co-editors and a more theoretical concluding essay—examine the nineteenth- and twentieth-century bourgeoisie wherever it appeared, be it the Ottoman Empire, India, Iran, China, Japan, East Africa, the United States, and even, occasionally, in Europe. This volume offers a rewarding, thought-provoking deep dive into what it meant to be middle class and how the middle class(es) operated. While it does not exactly rescue the middle class from “the enormous condescension of posterity,” as E. P. Thompson might have put it, this book, “the first truly global survey of the history of the bourgeoisie” (3), places the middle class front and center in the emergence of global modernity. It does so by decentering Europe and foregrounding colonial connections, implicitly arguing that the global bourgeoisie was made not in the factories of Manchester or Hanover, but at the interstices and intersections of empires.

            Not surprisingly, this volume eschews the traditional Marxist definition of class which focuses on Produktionsverhältnisse (“relations of production”). Instead the essays adopt a looser and more culturally constructed delineation that describes the bourgeoisie in terms of “lifestyles, tastes, and values” (2), “education, culture, politics, and the family” (74), and “aspirations” (167). As Utsa Ray puts it in her chapter on “Domesticity, Cooking, and the Middle Class in Colonial India,” “economic factors are not enough” (128). Instead, the historians featured here emphasize the bourgeoisie’s cosmopolitanism; its particular forms of sociability and associational life (theaters, reading societies, balls); its sartorial practices (suits and hats, whether brimmed hats in Europe or the Ottoman fez); its work ethic and pursuit of respectability; and its commitment to separate spheres for men and women. Ray herself analyzes cookbooks, consumption patterns, and the idea of refined taste to look at how the Indian middle class “borrowed, adapted, and appropriated” certain elements of colonial rule and then “tweaked and subverted them” in its “project of self-fashioning” (124).

            This book makes clear, first and foremost, that the bourgeoisie was global in both reach and outlook. As Marcus Gräser observes in “‘The Great Middle Class’ in the Nineteenth–Century United States,” the American middle class was “globally configured at its start because of its colonial dependency” and in turn “became a globally dominant social player” (83). Even in Europe, the middle class developed in no small part through its global endeavors. In other words, “the making of the middle classes across the world can be explained only by considering the worldwide circulation of people, ideas, and goods” (4). The global middle classes were linked by “commerce, colonialism, and communication” (15) as well as by “cooperation” and occasionally “confrontation” (19). The global middle class both made and was made by its globality. Alison Bashford makes this point in her chapter on “Population Planning for a Global Middle Class,” which highlights not only the “planning”—itself a value and mode of conduct associated with the middle class—but also the “global”—looking not only at Euro-Americans but also at Indians, whose Neo-Malthussian League is a perfect example of “globalizing a middle-class trend” (91).

            Secondly, the global bourgeoisie consisted of more than just industrialists and merchant-capitalists. Padraic Scanlan reminds us that “form-filling, check-signing, and ledger-writing connected clerks in Kingston-upon-Thames with their counterparts in Kingston, Jamaica, and Kingston, Upper Canada” (148). In his chapter on emancipation and the global British middle class, Scanlan develops the concept of “bureaucratic civilization” by which he means “recording and publicizing information about the lives of non-white British subjects and lower-class Britons to enforce a moral order of bourgeois respectability and an economic order of property and wage labor” (147). As he cleverly puts it in a section on the relationship between slavery and industrial capitalism, “Cotton made paper and paper made cotton” (156).

            Kris Manjapra pursues a similar angle in “The Semiperipheral Hand: Middle-Class Service Professionals of Imperial Capitalism,” which highlights the role of accountants, actuaries, and other service professionals around the Caribbean and Indian Ocean. He applies Immanuel Wallerstein’s schema of core, periphery, and semiperiphery not to place or product but to skill and function to look at the role of managerial manpower in imperial states, beginning with Napoleon’s Egyptian expedition of 1798-1801, which included a veritable army of scholars. It was, he writes, a conquest not just by “armed might” but also by “the muscularity of universalist knowledge” (191). Weber’s shadow looms large; in fact, he is referenced more times in this collection than Marx.

            Another of the book’s important themes concerns the difficulties of locating and describing the bourgeoisie in societies that did not have a traditional European class system. Alison Smith, in “The ‘Missing’ or ‘Forgotten’ Middle Class of Tsarist Russia,” discusses the distinctions between meshchane, the lower-ranking townspeople or petty bourgeois, and the merchants (kuptsy), who were generally viewed as a backward class or estate. She argues that by the end of the tsarist era there were many people who were by almost any definition middle class but who remained individuals rather than constituent members of a middle class. “They were bourgeois,” she writes, “but not a bourgeoisie” (311). Similarly, H. E. Chehabi points out that Iranian society was traditionally conceptualized in terms of elites and commoners, although a middle stratum of merchants began to emerge in the nineteenth century. Importantly, though, “the adoption of European bourgeois cultural patterns began not among the middle strata of society but at the elite level” (51). In East Africa, Emma Hunter makes a strong case for the existence of middle-class culture even though newspapers did not employ a language of class that would attest to the presence of a bourgeoisie. Meanwhile, in China, there were millions of people between the title-bearing landowning elite and the illiterate peasantry during the age of empire, but according to Sabine Dabringhaus and Jürgen Osterhammel there was no gradual transition “from burghers to bourgeoisie” (322). Insofar as there was a growing middle class, it lacked a shared class identity, not least because there was never a strictly defined upper class from which a middle class could distance itself through its lifestyle or cultural choices.

            Religion clearly played an important role in the formation and identity of the global middle class(es). The “Muslim Bourgeoisie” was particularly complicated. In a superb essay on the late-Ottoman Empire, Adam Mestyan suggests that there was both a “bourgeois-aristocracy” and a stratum of urban professionals but that both shared a commitment to charitable societies that arranged events in urban spaces such as theaters, clubs, coffeehouse, salons, and public gardens. This was different from the more traditional Muslim practice of zakat, or individual alms giving. Mestyan points out that the Ottoman bourgeoisie, like all imperial bourgeoisies, also had a “diasporic dimension” that included merchant businessmen around the Mediterranean, students in European capitals, and a “fragmented yet networked society” of ex-pats as far away as the Americas (208). There was also a Christian and a Jewish bourgeoisie, although there is no discussion of how they were similar to or different from their Muslim counterparts.

            As for Muslims in interwar Germany, David Motadel’s illuminating chapter on the “Worlds of a Muslim Bourgeoisie” uses a photograph of an Eid al-Adha celebration in which most men sport European-style brimmed hats but others wear a turban or fez to demonstrate that the clothing of Berlin Muslims was an expression of a “hybrid culture that combined elements of Islamic tradition with modern bourgeois fashion” (230-1). Religious piety and bourgeois sensibilities also merged in the Moslemische Review, in which writers endeavored to show that bourgeois values such as education, scholarship, diligence, hard work, cleanliness, and modesty were already present in Islam.

            And yet, for all its global reach, the bourgeoisie took on local specificity. In fact, one of the many strengths of this book is its attention both to broader themes and local structures. In Japan, for example, as Janet Hunter asserts in “Modern Business and the Rise of the Japanese Middle Classes,” the middle class was perceived “neither as a political force nor as an economic engine of growth but as a social foundation for national strength” (174). A related point is the relationship between regional bourgeoisies and their Western European counterparts. David S. Parker shows that in Argentina, with its predominantly non-industrial export economy, “intellectuals [such as Juan Bautista Alberdi] compared their own upper and middle classes to the imagined European bourgeoisie and found them wanting” (279). They lamented the lack of entrepreneurial drive and overdependence on state patronage that characterized their country’s elites who rarely self-identified as bourgeois. Instead, the would-be bourgeoises thought of themselves as gente decente, respectable people. Parker writes that middle-class South Americans, by virtue of their education, networks, habits, material culture, values, aspirations, and fears were “undoubtedly bourgeois,” but “fervently believe[d] that their nations were stuck in a pre-bourgeois age” (293).

            Finally, there are the interrelationships of race and class, metropole and colony, which Chris Dejung explores in terms of middle-class philanthropic thought. “Time and again,” he writes, “missionaries compared colonial ‘savages’ to the underclass of the European slums” (257), even as middle-class social reformers in Europe used stereotypes about colonial Africa to try to “civilize” European slums. Dejung writes: “Civilizing missions at home abroad were often described as two fronts, however geographically separated, of the same war against savagery” (259). Richard Drayton treats this issue more forcefully in his concluding chapter, repeatedly emphasizing the primacy of “European hegemony.” Just because the vectors of middle-classness operated in multiple directions does not mean that they were equal, he insists, and the relationship between race and class was complicated as “the bourgeoisie, in and out of Europe, emerged in the interstices of relations of domination” (358).

            There is much here to commend, not least the book’s emphasis on “connective rather than comparative history” (343). Still, there are lacunae, or perhaps just openings for future research. Although the first section is about the middle classes and the state, there is very little here or elsewhere about politics. And, in terms of religion, what about groups other than Muslims? Nonetheless, this is a very important book that makes abundantly clear that the emergence of the middle class and bourgeois culture in the nineteenth century was by no means exclusive to Europe or even necessarily emanated from Europe. It seems unlikely that this collection will see much classroom use, except perhaps at the graduate level, but any future discussion of the topic, and any framing of modern world history, will need to take account of its insights.

Jeffrey Auerbach is Professor of History at California State University Northridge. He is the author of Imperial Boredom: Monotony and the British Empire (Oxford, 2018) and The Great Exhibition of 1851 (Yale, 1999). He is currently writing about the British Mandate in Palestine. He can be reached at


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