Nonfiction Review: “From the Ruins of Empire” by Pankaj Mishra

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“Take up the white man’s burden \ Send forth the best ye breed \ Go bind your sons to exile \ To serve your captives’ need”

When Rudyard Kipling wrote those words in 1899, European imperialism in Africa and Asia had reached its apex. It had been growing since a century before, when Napoleon invaded Egypt in an attempt to gain an advantage over Britain in the Middle East. Philosophers, journalists, writers and other men of words saw the dangers of European imperialism, and worked to push them back using their pens. Pankaj Mishra’s new book “From the Ruins of Empire” is about how these thinkers pushed back Western power and how they developed concepts of Eastern identity.

The book has already been compared to Edward Said’s “Orientalism,” which criticized similar men from Europe, who studied the East for the benefit of their home empires. Both books start their history of imperialism with Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt, but from there, the similarities are few. Mishra doesn’t focus the book on writers who fundamentally misunderstood Western civilization, nor does he find ulterior motives in their work. He instead looks at philosophers who understood Western values and explicitly worked to release Asians from European’s hold by creating their own identity.

Mishra, an Indian essayist and novelist, frequently writes about the relationship between East and West. His books have usually been about his native country. In this book, India is only one of the many places the intellectuals he writes about come from. In fact, most of the people he writes about come from elsewhere.

He briefly looks at the works of famous political figures who spearheaded many of the liberation movements in Asia like Sun Yat-Sen, M. K. Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore, Sun Yat-Sen, Mao Zedong and Ho Chi Minh. He also looks briefly at those who inspired the post-Empire radicals who rebelled against native governments who were supported by the West like Sayyid Qutb and the Ayatollah Khomeini. But his main focus is the writers who inspired the politicians to act, who created the philosophy they turned into action.

Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, a Persian-born philosopher, is one of the two central figures of the book. He encouraged pan-Islamic unity against Western Imperialism, but was not particularly religious himself. He believed that Muslims in the Middle East should band together against Western Imperialists, but believed Islam was too traditional and needed to adapt Western ideas like deductive reason and science.

Liang Qichao of China abhorred the exploitation of China by Europe in the late nineteenth century. He believed a democracy could release it from chaos, but after touring the US, he came to believe that democracy couldn’t work for China. He decried the exploitation of the poor in the US and believed democracy was a game rigged to help the rich.

In an evocative preface, Mishra makes the case that the Battle of Tsushima, where Japan destroyed most of the Russian fleet during their 1905 war, was a turning point in world history. Many young Asians saw in that battle a decisive victory of East over West.

Many of the events that Mishra writes about are well known in former colonies but little known in the US, which was a latecomer to becoming an empire and even today prefers to think it wasn’t and never has been one.

Asians slowly discover that many thinking men of the West expounded lofty ideas of freedom, peace and justice, but were absolutely supportive of exploiting “less civilized” people in the name of advancing them. John Stuart Mill, G. W. F. Hegel, Karl Marx were all-supportive of empires, even if their disciples were not.

At the Paris Peace Conference, many Asian colonies believed President Woodrow Wilson would listen as they made a plea for independence and freedom. Wilson’s “Fourteen Points” had been widely circulated and read throughout the colonies, and its talk of democracy and self-determination was seen as a plea to dismantle empires. But Wilson was a staunch believer in “the white man’s burden,” and their pleas fell on deaf ears.

Mishra’s history goes up to the present day and presents current Asian politics in a deep historical light. He criticizes the Iraq War and the language supporting it as a “mission to spread democracy in the Arab world,” as fantasy, and ignorant of how Arabs view such behavior by the West in light of their recent history. Mishra has written many essays critiquing this naïve notion of empire as a civilizing force, and the last few chapters are made even more persuasive by the historical depth of the previous chapters.

The book is at once a grand narrative of nations rising, people awakening, empires falling and monarchies. But it is primarily told through the words of public intellectuals who saw the world as it was, and advocated for a world they wished to be. Edward Said was a similar man, as is Mishra, though he disowns the term “public intellectual.”

European Imperialism failed for many reasons, and finally ended a century after Kipling wrote “The White Man’s Burden,” when Portugal handed Macau back to China in 1999. Mishra ends the book detailing China’s current state, which is greatly improved from the chaos of the 1930s, or before when Europeans divided it up. He ends the book with a question posed by Kipling: “What will happen when China really wakes up?” (Robert O’Connor)

“From the Ruins of Empire”
By Pankaj Mishra
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 368 pages, $27

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