Pankaj Mishra’s From the Ruins of Empire is the history of native journalists, academics, writers, and revolutionaries who sought to forge new national and religious identities during the twilight of European imperialism. As the world enters the 21st century, pundits and laymen alike stand as witnesses to the social, economic, and political upheavals that are reshaping Asia. Taking the continent as a whole, one is struck by the persistent idiosyncrasies that distinguish regions from one another: East Asia is home to the successful “Asian Tigers” of the late 20th century as well as the rising economic leviathan, China.; South and Central Asia have plodded along their developmental trajectories, improving the living standards of their citizens but failing to capture the dynamism that has characterized East Asian economic growth; the Middle East lingers in the Western imagination as a region of perpetual cultural stasis –though this perception has certainly been challenged by the recent events of the Arab Spring. Despite these deep regional idiosyncrasies, the peoples of Asia share a common past of political and economic subjugation to western powers during the 19th and early 20th centuries.The book follows the trials and tribulations of men such as Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, Liang Qichao, Rabindranath Tagore, and others who contributed to the intellectual ferment that arose within European-occupied Asia. Though impressive as a historical survey of imperialism and its discontents, the most engaging feature of Mishra’s writing is the interplay between grandiose ideas and the contingent historical forces that kept those ideas from fruition. It would be fair to say that the book is as much about the tragedy and triumph of ideas as it is about the thinkers who unleashed and propagated them.
Many of the paradigms championed by these figures have long outlived their original disseminators. Each of the intellectual stalwarts featured in the book hail from different regions subject to varying degrees of western encroachment. Al-Afghani’s story follows the clash of conservative Islamic forces with secular intellectuals who sought to attenuate (or eliminate) traditional interpretations of the Koran and introduce the “western secrets” of democracy, economic development, and scientific rationalism. Despairing at the inability or unwillingness of Muslim states to adapt these elements of Western society, Al-Afghani bitterly remarked that, “God changes not what is in a people, until they change what is in themselves.” With equal resignation, Chinese writer Li Qichao bore witness to the tragic failures of the Qing Dynasty to preserve its sovereignty in the face of western infringement, failures that culminated in the Chinese Revolution of 1911. Mishra observes that, “By destroying the old, the revolution created a new political and intellectual space in which young Chinese, radicalized by the brutal disappointments of 1911, now became visible.” While some of Li’s compatriots sought to emulate Japan’s westernization process, others held firm to the belief that single-minded devotion to Confucian mores would allow China to weather the storms of Western incursion. Ultimately, the inadequacy of traditional practices and the gross illegitimacy of bourgeoisie western ideas left the door open for the radical precepts of communism and Islamic fundamentalism to take root among the dejected literati. In such a fashion, the continent-wide clash of idealism and cold calculations of material power left in its wake many of the radical paradigms that westerners associate with parts of contemporary Asia.
From our contemporary vantage point, it is difficult to conceptualize the ideological diversity that existed before the post-WWII period. In the Muslim world, radical Islam once contended with a host of ideological positions ranging from democratic populism to social Darwinism, and everything in between. Even the triumph of nationalist sentiments as a banner for anti-colonial movements was not an ineluctable outcome, and only won the ideational field once pan-Asian and pan-Islamic identities were deemed infeasible. One of the more dramatic meta-narratives within the book is the rise and decline of western liberalism as an ideational basis for Asian revival. At the peak of Wilsonian internationalism –and the rhetoric of self-determination—independence-seeking representatives from subjugated societies such as Korea, Vietnam, and India converged on the Versailles peace accords in 1919, only to be turned away and discredited as naïve by compatriots for their faith in the purported ideals of the west. Abandoned by the great power liberal democracies, anti-colonial intellectuals embraced the radical agenda of the Soviet Union and international communism. The incipient Bolshevik regime in Russia realized that it could advance its own geopolitical agenda in areas alienated by Western commitments to empire. When renouncing its claims to Chinese territory, the new Soviet regime stated that:
If the Chinese nation desires to be free like the Russian people, and to escape the destiny prescribed for it at Versailles […] it should understand that its only allies and brothers in the struggle for liberty are the Russian worker and peasant, and the Red Army of Russia.
While the Versailles narrative is only a fraction of the overall account, it illustrates well the common motifs of commitment, naiveté, and betrayal that characterize the book as a whole.
From the Ruins of Empire presents a compelling historical narrative that effectively conveys the ideological variation among anti-colonial intellectuals. A basic knowledge of 19th and 20th century political and social trends is helpful, though not necessary given resources such as Wikipedia and other internet outlets. Despite the esoteric subject-matter, readers without a strong interest in history for its own sake will find that the milieu of ideological upheaval and threatened identities resonates with contemporary reactions to the “globalization” phenomenon. Indeed, the India-born Pankaj Mishra invites the reader not just to ruminate on the course of anti-colonial and nationalist movements, but to speculate on the future of Asia in light of these past aspirations.