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From the Ruins of Empire. Pankaj Mishra. A Critical Review.

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Review: From the Ruins of Empire. The Revolt against the West and the Remaking of Asia. Pankaj Mishra. Allen Lane 2012.

Western colonial history is a popular section in bookshops. Attacks on Empire, and modern day Imperialism, are widespread on the left. But the history of  the non-Western intelligentsia’s tangled  and complex relation with the West  is no so well known.  Pankaj Mishra’s Ruins of Empire fills a gap for the wider reading public. Mishra appears on the left by beginning from the way the East was “subjugated by the people of the West that they had long considered upstarts, if not barbarians.” (Page 3)But he draws much wider conclusions, decidedly not left-wing,  from biographical accounts of how “intelligent and sensitive people” in the East responded to the ‘West’s’ impact on their societies.

Intellectuals, notably Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, the Chinese reformer Liang Qichao, and – to a lesser extent – Rabindranath Tagore, are brought to the fore. They were both ‘modernisers’, wanting to change, and defenders of their cultures against the West. Others appear, Indian nationalists like Subhas Chandra Bose and Japanese writers, like Tokutomio Soho. This has the great merit of making these important voices heard. It has the great disadvantage of pinning a great deal of speculation about the shaping of the modern world on the – often extremely general – ideas clustered around these figures. It could be said that Soho, who moved from Western liberalism to unabashed champion of Japanese self-interest, illustrates Mishra’s main claim: the primacy of the Asian Cause against the ‘West’.

1905 Russian Humiliation.

Mishra begins with a flourish. The 1905 defeat of the Russian navy by Japan in 1905 in the Tsushima Strait. The rout of the Tsarist fleet, he says, reverberated around the East. “For many other non-white people, Russia’s humiliations seemed to negate the West’s racial hierarchies, mocking the European presumption to ‘civilise’ the supposedly ‘backward’ countries.”(Page 3) Ghandi, and Mustafa Kemal, to cite but two, were “ecstatic” at the news.

Like the spark that lit the prairie the effects were far-reaching. For nationalists, from Egypt to China, passing by Bengal and Vietnam’s “scholar gentry”, Japan became the symbol of successful resistance to Western Empire building. It gave rise to “A hundred fantasies – of national freedom, racial dignity, or simple vengefulness.”(Ibid) Modernisation could, it seemed, take another guise than a European one.

Mishra side-steps the effect of the defeat on Tsarism, – the 1905 Russian Revolution – the precursor of 1917. This perhaps would have some impact on European imperialism (and the use of the word itself). Anti-colonialism in the later 20th century would be incomprehensible without assessing the role not just of Soviet – Stalinist- Communism as a “messianic doctrine” but a political force. Mishra largely jumps over this, referring – mentions of Mao aside – to the post-1989 era when Marxism-Leninism is “discredited”.

The Western colonial empires were “wholly unprecedented in creating global hierarchy of economic, physical and cultural power through their outright conquest or ‘informal’ empires, of free trade and unequal treaties.”(Page 42) By the mid-19th century they had pushed back the Ottoman Empire, invaded North Africa, made inroads in China, and The sense of European racial superiority – which Mishra demonstrates infected even Woodrow Wilson while pontificating on the rights of nations to self-determination – cast a long shadow.

Subjected peoples were ‘humiliated’. The basis of their civilisations was undermined. Muslims felt, Mishra says, felt that the “cosmic order” had been disrupted. A rival that made them seem outdated and incapable threatened the ancient bureaucratic and literary culture of China.

Ruins of Empire portrays those who tried to grapple with this. There are sketches of Tagore’s complex reflections on Bengali and Indian culture faced with the British Raj, There is Liang Qichao who looked to a new China, and became disillusioned with the West after visiting an unequal America.

But it is the Persian born, wandering intellectual, Al-Afghani (1838 – 1897), who grabs most attention. He argued “the Islamic world needed a Reformation, preferably with himself as the new Luther.”(Page 83) In a variety of forms he advocated a “strong Islamic centre that would beat back the encroaching West.”(Page 89) He fiercely defended the place of scientific and technical knowledge in this renewal.*

Politics of the ‘Anti-West’.

What kind of politics did these figures foreshadow? It is had to tie them – with the very partial exception of Al-Afghani – to any specific party or state. Liang Qichao was pushed aside by Sun Yat Sen, Tagore was a respected poet and writer, but no politician. His wary attitude towards nationalism and reluctance to be politically manipulated were notorious. Al-Afghani seems at different times to be a hard-line (proto) Islamist and an almost liberal modernist. One wonders how exactly their contribution to the ‘shaping of the modern world’ can be gauged.

The reactions against the West, nationalism, and Eastern modernisation – in short the introduction of a full-blown capitalist system in these immense parts of the world – form a vastly complicated history. Mishra, as an essayist, and, biographer, is not obliged to over more than aspects of this. Nor does he disuss what Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit call in  Occidentalism (2004) critics of the West in Europe itself and the impact these had on Asia. What he does it to look through one angle: the rise of ‘anti-Western’ types of modernisation.

After the Great War, when nationalists and anti-colonialists began to have an impact on Asia, Mishra notes the eclipse of liberal democratic thought. Japan, he considers, continued to be a pole of attraction. It was modern, with successful industry and a rising living standards. It was also very authentic – pure – and Japanese, or at least as the majority of the governing class considered it to be. It had admirers across Asia. The authoritarian ‘pan-Asian’ movements became, in their Japanese form, at least according to the Japanese Soho, a racial struggle. As war began he stated, “We must shows to the races of East Asia that the order, tranquillity, peace, happiness and contentment of East Asia can be gained only by eradicating the vile precedent of the encroachment and extortion of the Anglo-Saxons in East Asia.”(Page 247)

The unattractive history of Japanese militarism – which throve on the crushing of the country’s democratic ‘Western’ and indigenous intelligentsia and popular movements – is given favourable treatment. Mishra offers a version of history in which Japan’s invasions and punitive expeditions during the Second World War had some justification. There was, “Revenge for decades of racial humiliation motivated many Japanese un the battlefield.”(Page 247) The never-colonised Japan backed nationalists against the Europeans by running their conquered territories with some help from them.

The initial co-operation between nationalists, in Burma and elsewhere, and Japan illustrates the ‘Co-Prosperity’ Japanese Empire’ was an important movement n the fight for independence in Asia. One would be more satisfied if the influence of the ideas of national independence were explored in more details, The Indian Congress Party, to cite but one case, had support, even founders, amongst the British intelligentsia.

To take a couple of significant cases. Can one say that the Vietnamese, Laos or Chinese Communist Parties took on Marxist language purely to express national demands? The class struggles, the land reforms, the nationalisations, the political upheavals and horrors of these countries – not to mention Cambodia – have their own national histories. But Communism, with its impact across Asia, right to Indonesia and the Philippines, and India as well, which was and is always a global movement, fits askew from Mishra’s simple thrust: the ‘humiliation’ by the West and the ‘revenge’ of the East.

Islamism as the Anti-West.

The rise of Islamism is treated in terms of revenge for ‘humiliation. It has deep roots, perhaps in the human condition and the source of faith itself. Al-Afghani is praised for stating, “a totally secular society – the dream of nineteenth century rationalism – was doomed to remain a fantasy in the West as well as in the Muslim world.”(Page 102) Islam, it turned out, could spearhead an Anti-Western revolt, or at least in the late 1970s. “It is largely due to the Islamic revolution that today the basic principles of the first Muslim Westernised elites – that development entails the rejection of Islamic values in favour of Western ones – lie discredited from Tunisia to Xinjianh, and that Islam continues to serve as a focal point of resistance to authorities regimes in the Muslim world.”(Page 277)

Yet Mishra is less than favourable to the ‘authoritarian’ Islamic political regimes created in the wake of the Iranian Revolution. Instead he looks to Turkey, “Turkey’s success confirms the validity of an ‘Islamic’ solution to the problem of adapting to Western modernisation, and the geopolitical implications of this unique achievement are immense.”(Page 285) This takes some beating. In what sense can the post-Atatürk regimes, the foundation no doubt of whatever success Turkey enjoys, be awarded to ‘Islam’? How exactly? Does the Qur’an run a state? Do the AK MPs’ prayers bolster economic growth? What of its failures? Do the suras inspire the crack down on the free press?

Mishra has written a lucid and stimulating book. We are better off knowing more about Al-Afghani and other figures. But can one understand the world through the principle that the “aggrieved natives always wanted to beat the West at its own game”? (Page 294) The underlying ‘dialectic’ in From the Ruins of Empire rarely rises above these, and other, hackyned thoughts. There is the struggle of ‘Asians’ against the ‘whites’ the ‘Europeans’ the ‘West’. Perhaps we all look the same to him.

Worse is to come. Like John Gray, another doomsayer, Mishra ends on a portentous note. The ‘revenge of the East” which now takes the form of the purist of endless economic growth is a “fantasy”. The global environment is set for “early destruction”. It “looks set to create reveries of a nihilistic rage and disappointment among hundred of millions of have-nots – the bitter outcome of the universal triumph of Western modernity, which turns the revenge of the East into something darkly ambiguous, and all its victories truly Pyrrhic.”(Page 309 – 10)

You have to ask: were these last sentences even worth reading?

* Mishra claims that Al-Afghani challenged the French Orientalist Ernest Renan on Islam. Renan famously believed that Islam has stifled scientific and philosophical freedom – exemplified in his extensive study of the reception and prohibition of the medieval Aristotelian Arab Averroes’s teaching. The Persian pan-Islamist defended, initial Islamic openness to science. Yet while Frenchman undoubtedly had many prejudices about ‘Semitic’ languages and Islamic culture in particular it is much less sure if anybody, Al-Afghani included, could prove him wholly wrong. Islamic authorities did persecute Averroes in Spain, and a much wider intolerance of philosophical heterodoxy was a long-standing feature of many societies based around Islam.

Thus as Al-Afghani himself noted, the issue therefore turns on a more general question of how religions relate to philosophy and science.

“Je plaide ici auprès de M. Renan, non la cause de la religion musulmane, mais celle de plusieurs centaines de millions d’hommes qui seraient ainsi condamnés à vivre dans la barbarie et l’ignorance ».

« Personne n’ignore, que le peuple arabe, alors qu’il était dans l’état de barbarie, s’est lancé dans la voie des progrès intellectuels et scientifiques avec une vitesse qui n’a été égalée que par la rapidité de ses conquêtes car, dans l’espace d’un siècle, il a acquis et s’est assimilé presque toutes les sciences grecques et persanes qui s’étaient développées lentement pendant des siècles sur le sol natal, comme il étendit sa domination de la presqu’île arabique jusqu’aux montagnes de l’Himalaya et au somment de Pyrénées. On peut dire que dans toute cette période les sciences firent des progrès étonnants chez les arabes et dans tous les pays soumis à leur domination. Rome et Byzance étaient alors les sièges des sciences théologiques et philosophiques ainsi que le centre lumineux et comme le foyer ardent de toutes les connaissances humaines. »

« Toutefois il est permis de se demander comment la civilisation arabe, après avoir jeté un si vif éclat dans le monde, s’est éteinte tout à coup ; comment ce flambeau ne s’est pas rallumé depuis, et pourquoi le monde arabe reste toujours enseveli dans de profondes ténèbres. »

« Les religions, de quelque nom qu’on les désigne, se ressemblent toutes. Aucune entente ni aucune réconciliation ne sont possibles entre ses religions et la philosophie. La religion impose à l’homme sa foi et sa croyance, tandis que la philosophie l’en affranchit totalement ou en partie. Comment veut-on dès lors qu’elles s’entendent entre elles ? Lorsque la religion chrétienne, sous les formes les plus modestes et les plus séduisantes, est entrée à Athènes et à Alexandrie qui étaient, comme chacun sait, les deux principaux foyers de la science et de la philosophie, son premier soin été, après s’être établie solidement dans ces deux villes, de mettre de côté et la science proprement dite et la philosophie, en cherchant à les étouffer l’une et l’autre sous les broussailles des discussions théologiques, pour expliquer les inexplicables mystères de la trinité, de l’incarnation et de la Transsubstantiation. Il en sera toujours ainsi. Toutes les fois que la religion aura le dessus, elle éliminera la philosophie ; et le contraire arrive quand c’est la philosophie qui règne en souveraine maîtresse. Tant que l’humanité existera, la lutte ne cessera pas entre le dogme et le libre examen, entre la religion et la philosophie, lutte acharnée et dans laquelle, je le crains, le triomphe ne sera pas pour la libre pensée, parce que, aussi, la science, si belle qu’elle soit, ne satisfait pas complètement l’humanité qui a soif d’idéal et qui aime à planter dans des régions obscures et lointaines que les philosophes et les savants ne peuvent ni apercevoir ni explorer. »


The point Renan asked, whether Islam when it is involved with politics, to the point where a form dominates a state, can develop ways that leave other faiths – and importantly non- and anti-faiths – with an unfettered influence over political life, remains a live political issue.

This is how he put it – in extremely provocative terms that are clearly racist (evoking the, ‘l’esprit sémitique’)”

« L’islamisme (à l’époque, sens général de « religion musulmane ») ne peut exister que comme religion officielle ; quand on le réduira à l’état de religion libre et individuelle, il périra. L’islamisme n’est pas seulement une religion d’État, comme l’a été le catholicisme en France, sous Louis XIV, comme il l’est encore en Espagne, c’est la religion excluant l’État (…) Là est la guerre éternelle, la guerre qui ne cessera que quand le dernier fils d’Ismaël sera mort de misère ou aura été relégué par la terreur au fond du désert. L’islam est la plus complète négation de l’Europe ; l’islam est le fanatisme, comme l’Espagne du temps de Philippe II et l’Italie du temps de Pie V l’ont à peine connu ; L’islam est le dédain de la science, la suppression de la société civile ; c’est l’épouvantable simplicité de l’esprit sémitique, rétrécissant le cerveau humain, le fermant à toute idée délicate, à tout sentiment fin, à toute recherche rationnelle, pour le mettre en face d’une éternelle tautologie : Dieu est Dieu (…) »


10 Responses

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  1. Load of old tut. Mishra is latter day Darcus Howe peddling the same spurious ideas of an anti western unity. The Malays and Phillipinos soon learned about the liberating elements of the Japs and turned to the west for real liberation.



    December 14, 2012 at 7:55 pm

  2. Japanese society is incredibly racist, it leaves us (the Brits) standing form discriminaton against non-indiginous citizens. If you are not Japanese, or only half-Japanese, you are systemmatically discriminated against in schools and other spheres of public life. No-one talks about the Ainu either, they were the original occupants of Japan, small, dusky skinned people like Malays. They are confined to the coldest most inhospitable Northern parts of Japan and are equivalent to the Native Americans or Aborigines. Anyway, what does he mean by ‘modernisation’? He seems to have a chip on his shoulder. Quite absurb, there are lots of workingclass people in this country who have had to put up with all sorts of insults over the generations, and yet it didn’t stop them constructing trade unions and political parties. This maundering is really getting on my nerves. It’s so petty bourgois.

    Sue R

    December 14, 2012 at 9:49 pm

  3. Ainu are quite large, actually. There are ony a few true-blooded Ainu left.

    One can bang on about Japanese racism, but plenty of ‘halfu-s’ are celebrated in showbiz., the talented Marie Ozawa among them. Sue R is both right and wrong.

    However, almost all normal Japanese regard chappati-munchers with amused and patronising contempt.

    Bingo Little

    December 14, 2012 at 10:35 pm

  4. Had a chance to do some more thinking about this and the more I do I see that Mishra is peddling some kind of end of politics garbage trying to establish a niche for himself on the academic lecture circuit.

    The fact that I saw him described as a fitting successor to Edward Said speaks volumes. Said was firmly in the anti west camp blaming everything that had happened to the middle east on the imperialist powers.

    There is of course no connection with any of the movements and thinkers that he tries to weld into some popular front against ” western imperialism”. As has been pointed out the Japanese militarists wanted western technology but wiped out their own nascent democratic movement preferring instead a return to a medieval concept of a warrior society. The country still refuses to recognise the atrocities in China and the ones perpetrated on other subject peoples were hardly less sever.

    The largest country that became independent after the second world war, India, adopted a western style parliamentary system which has persisted to this day. China is a capitalist country without the trappings of democracy as are the other communist states to its south who merely grafted Marxism onto their liberation movements and like their big neighbour to the north are probably wondering what the wars were for.

    The best book on Islam is ” The crisis of Islam” by Bernard Lewis which shows how for several centuries Islam as it was constituted held back progress in the Islamic world. The Chinese also couldn’t develop the many inventions they discovered and it was left to Europe to develop all of the things that others invented.

    Western technology and styles of government and society dominate the world because they are superior to others and also ones which oppressed people aspire to. Niall Ferguson is very good on this.


    December 15, 2012 at 9:43 am

  5. Yes Said is sore point.

    You pass over a lot of his writing relying on his authority on the acuuracy of his summaries of people’s views.

    But I have actually read much of the French material he cites to prove the case about Orientialism, like Chateaubriand, Nerval, Lamartine and Flaubert’s pieces on his voyage to the Orient (see: http://www.mmediene.fr/recits-voyage/lorientdegustaveflaubert1821-1880/ – something I imagine not everybody has done.

    I found them considerably less prejudiced than Said claims, though they were keen to show the faults in what they took to be ‘Islamic’ societies – slavery, the seclusion of women, the way non-Muslims were often second class citizens and so on.

    But the main point is that here, and elsewhere in his rambling book, is that he hangs an awful lot on what writers, that only a small minority of the European public read, said, or, coming to the 20th century and onwards, say, about the ‘Orient’.

    I find the whole opposition between the Asia and the West, like the Orient and the Occident, pretty risible today when cultures are as much merging as repelling each other.

    It is equally true that ‘Western’ is not a technology, as far as I am aware.

    Or are we to say that printing is a ‘Chinese’ technology?

    That writing is ‘Summarian’ technology…

    The views of some Chinese intellectuals on such things were cited in le Monde a little while ago during the Chinese Communist Party’s Congress.

    A number said they were sick and tired of hearing about journalists and commentators talking about ‘Asian’ values and the rest.

    Andrew Coates

    December 15, 2012 at 11:58 am

  6. One thing I cannot forgive Mishra for is his dismissal of the Armenian Gencoide, which he claims was simply a mass “deportation”.

    Andrew Coates

    December 15, 2012 at 12:00 pm

  7. I believe there has been talk recently that Western imperialism halted the indiginous development of the colonised societies and stopped them from developing. Well, the former colonies have had time to return to their native development. I agree that there are no doubt stringent treaties and aid conditions that may stop them from competing on a level playing field with the West, but it’s up to them to organise a political movement to change this. To be honest, what these Islamic regimes (and African ones) need to do is deal with corruption, that’s the reason they don’t develop.

    I just read an article by Evan Davis on the BBC website about Liberia. He says that it is impossible for Liberia to develop because it is a vicious circle. It needs electricity to build factories but it can’t do that without skilled workers but….blah, blah, blah. Considering all the aid that has poured into Africa since decolonization, you would have thought they’d have sussed it out by now. What these countries need are political leaders who are honest and committed to the country and its people, not leaders who are just in it to feather their own nest.

    Sue R

    December 15, 2012 at 3:45 pm

  8. Andrew.

    It.s not who invented or discovered something but who realised the potential and developed it. I cannot recommend too highly ” Empire of the Word” by Nicholas Ostler for discussion of this theme. He muses on the complete disappearance of languages such as Sogdian, Punic, Aramaic and others which at the time dominated, and sometimes for several centuries, their spheres of influence and then went leaving perhaps just a few scraps of evidence for their existence.

    He also points out how when Queen Elizabeth the First signed the charter of the East India Company in 1600 a year before her death English was a minority European language spoken in parts of some offshore islands. Five centuries later it dominates the world as a result of the technology that it was able to harness most of which it didn’t invent.

    The square rigged ship that could tack without lowering its latteen rigged or junk rigged sail, the transom hung rudder on the same ship which found its way around the world by the astrolabe and compass showed how Europeans could take a series of ideas and develop and use them to the Nth degree. The Chinese invented gunpowder, look what Europe did with it.

    To a great extent, much of the denigration of the West by the left and the Saids and Mishras is jealousy mixed with frustration at what the non European world could have achieved and didn’t. It’s a bit like the child at school who always accuses someone of stealing their idea!

    I agree with Sue R about the state of Africa particularly south of the Sahara. When Ghana, then the Gold Coast, gained independence in 1958 it had a massive balance of payment surplus. Eight years later when the army seized power and overthrew Nkrumah it was bankrupt. In one year in the nineties every single penny sent in aid to Nigeria was stolen.

    The issue of slavery is one that Africa and the left will never deal with. When the first Europeans in the shape of the Portuguese first sailed down the coast of West Africa in the middle of the fifteenth century they found kingdoms and economies founded on slavery which was eventually suppressed by the Royal Navy after Parliament made it illegal in British colonies.

    Well worth looking at a Guardian editorial on line today on multicultural Britain and the responses. Talk about being out of touch. There is a big discussion to be had on this subject.


    December 17, 2012 at 7:40 am

  9. Letter in The Gruaniad this morning from Salman Rushdie taking Mishra apart. Nice one Sal!


    December 17, 2012 at 9:40 am

  10. I really like Nicholas Ostler’s Empires of the Word and have a copy.

    Have you read his book on Latin, Ad Infinitum: A Biography of Latin?

    And this, which I have not read yet: The Last Lingua Franca: English until the Return to Babel.

    Andrew Coates

    December 17, 2012 at 1:13 pm

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