From the Ruins of Empire

By Pankaj Mishra

Reviewing Niall Ferguson’s Civilization I began by pointing out how he was involved in a long tradition of explaining “the rise of the West” to the West. If anything, the subject has been receiving even more attention lately, both in terms of macro-historical theory (from Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel to Acemoglu’s and Robinson’s Why Nations Fail) and more subject-specific analyses (typically directed at the rise of China and the stagnation if not reverse development of Islamic states).

Pankaj Mishra takes a slightly different tack, presenting the story of Western imperialism and the reaction against it as seen from an Asian point of view.

No, there isn’t a single “Asian point of view.” The intellectuals whose lives and writings Mishra mainly draws on, however, were a cosmopolitan group whose evolving responses to the West were representative of basic patterns found from Turkey to Indonesia. The three intellectual biographies that form the core of the book are of Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (a Persian Islamist), Liang Qichao (a Chinese nationalist), and Rabindranath Tagore (an Indian anti-Modernist). More important than the contributions of any of these, however, was a historic moment: May 1905. This was when “the contemporary world first began to assume its decisive shape,” with the Battle of the Tsushima striking “the opening chords of the recessional of the West.”

The reason Tsushima (where the Japanese sank the Russian navy) was so important was not because it showed that the white man could be beaten, but that he could be beaten at his own game. Islamism, Confucianism, and Eastern mysticism were, in the final analysis, of far less importance in shaping the contemporary world than European -ism imports like industrialism, materialism, liberalism, social Darwinism, and (especially) nationalism. This was the “ambiguous revenge” and Pyrrhic victory of the East: to compete (and win) against the West, but only by playing by Western rules. The lesson of centuries of oppression and humiliation was to become more like the oppressors. The richness of the ideas and imagination of al-Afghani, Qichao, and Tagore

continues to be a resource for societies faced with the crisis of modernity. Still, it should be admitted: the course of history has bypassed many of their fondest hopes. In fact, it was European principles of nationalism and civic patriotism that almost all native elites embraced in order to beat (or at least draw level with) the West in what seemed a Darwininan struggle for the future.

This suggests that Tsushima was less of a watershed than Mishra claims. The contemporary world is still overwhelmingly one made in the West’s image and along the lines they laid down. The West’s success, however,

conceals an immense intellectual failure, one that has profound ramifications for the world today and the near future.
It is simply this: no convincingly universalist response exists today to Western ideas of politics and economy, even though these seem increasingly febrile and dangerously unsuitable in large part of the world. Gandhi, their most rigorous critic, is a forgotten figure within India today. Marxism-Leninism lies discredited and, though China’s rulers increasingly make gestures towards Confucian notions of harmony, China’s own legacy of ethical politics and socio-economic theory remains largely unexplored. And even if it is exportable to other Muslim countries, Turkey’s Islamic modernity doesn’t point to any alternative socio-economic order.

One may breathe a sigh of relief that some of these ideas have met their appointed end in the dustbin of history, but the larger point, that there is no viable alternative to Western ideas of politics and economy at a time when these ideas are coming to seem bankrupt, remains. And it does mark an intellectual (not to mention moral) failure.

The Ruins of Empire is well worth reading, primarily for its introduction to a number of writers who should be better known in the West. It’s important to have more than one perspective on the West’s imperial adventures in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries because the lesson that empire is not pretty is one we should always keep in mind. The effects of empire, and indeed in some cases the institutions themselves, are still with us. If the contemporary world is a mess it’s largely because of the responses made to intolerable conditions. Today we are all living in the ruins of empire, including our own.

Review first published online October 29, 2012.