The Revenge of the East?

by Namit Arora

A review of Pankaj Mishras “From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia”.

RuinsempireA few hundred years ago, a powerful cultural force arose in Western Europe that would later spread out and overwhelm much of the world. Fueled by a new spirit of individualism, inquiry, and innovation, it furthered personal ambition, a materialistic outlook, and competitive self-interest. This cultural force produced—and was in turn amplified by—scientific progress, the nation-state, advances in military and maritime technology, an escalating hunger for profit and raw materials, and secular institutions in education, governance, and finance, such as the joint-stock corporation.

In the ensuing centuries, European adventurers would subject many older, tradition-bound, and self-absorbed civilizations in Asia to the ravages of this aggressive and disruptive cultural force—and incidentally, to its refinements. Indeed by 1900, a minority of white Europeans had colonized much of Asia, controlling not just its political and economic life but also its cultural life in shaping the natives’ idea of themselves. The road to this widely resented domination—which the colonizers justified at home with theories of racial and cultural hierarchies, the white man’s burden, and plain old lies—was paved with countless imperial intrigues, extortionate treaties and taxation, skirmishes, plundering, drug dealing, massacres, and crushed mutinies. As Joseph Conrad wrote in 1902, ‘The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.’

In his engaging new work, From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia, Pankaj Mishra chronicles ‘how some of the most intelligent and sensitive people in the East responded to the encroachments of the West (both physical and intellectual) on their societies.’ What did they see as the threats and the temptations of the West? What modes of resistance and internal reforms did they propose to meet this challenge? Mishra’s remarkable story, mostly untold in Western historiography, opens up important new vistas on the colonial West and the trajectories of Asians, whether in imperial Japan, nationalist and communist China, India, or Muslim countries from Turkey to Pakistan.


NapoleonEgyptMishra’s narrative opens with Napoleon's invasion of Egypt in 1798, described by Al-Jabarti, a cleric and scholar, as ‘the beginning of a series of great misfortunes.’ Al-Jabarti was nevertheless awed by the discipline and efficiency of the French and their innovations in democratic governance, raising a conscript army, and training it in modern weapons. A whole generation of Asian thinkers, writes Mishra, would soon realize that

… the remarkable strength of small European nation-states [with] organized human energy and action, coupled with technology, amount to a power that could radically manipulate social and political environments. Resentfully dismissive at first of Europe, these men would eventually chafe at their own slothful and uncreative dynastic rulers and weak governments; and they would arrive at a similar conviction: that their societies needed to attain sufficient strength to meet the challenge of the West.

But how was this to be achieved? Three sets of responses soon appeared all across Asia. The first was reactionary and emphasized renewed fidelity to one’s own superior traditions, whether of Islam, Confucianism, or Hinduism. The moderate response preferred reform and cultural synthesis and accepted that some Western ideas were necessary to supplement what were otherwise adequate traditions. Finally, the radical secularist response from folks like Mao and Atatürk advocated a revolutionary break from their traditional past ‘in order to compete in the jungle-like conditions of the modern world.’ All of these responses were tacit acknowledgement that the venerable civilizations of Asia were ‘poorly fitted for a new modern world the West was making and which they had to join or perish.’ Mishra adds:

This is why the European subordination of Asia was not merely economic and political and military. It was also intellectual and moral and spiritual: a completely different kind of conquest than had been witnessed before which left its victims resentful but also envious of their conquerors and, ultimately, eager to be initiated into the mysteries of their seemingly near-magical power.

A key intellectual in Mishra’s narrative is Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1838-97), a polyglot, cosmopolitan Persian who lived in Iran, India, Egypt, Afghanistan, Turkey, England, and France. He often told fellow Muslims ‘that the power of the westerners and their domination over you came through their learning and education, and your decline in those domains.’ He advocated secular education and science, railed against the ‘evils of fanaticism and political tyranny’ in Muslim lands, and praised republican and constitutional rule. He stressed a modern reading of the Qur’an and ‘rejected the Shia-Sunni schism in Islam, blaming it on selfish rulers who used wars to keep their populations ignorant.’

Al-AfghaniIn parallel, al-Afghani attacked European propaganda on their ‘progressive’ mission in Asia, dismissing history books written by the English, which were ‘marked by the hands of English self-love, with the pens of conceit and the pencils of deception, and inescapably they do not relate the truth and do not report reality.’ Mishra notes that al-Afghani was among the first to point out ‘that the British improved transport and communication in order to drain India’s wealth to England and facilitate trade for British merchants. Western-style schools, he argued, were meant merely to turn Indians into English-speaking cogs of the British administration.’ A tireless activist and journalist with a multinational readership, he also allied with reformist statesmen. In later life, he came to believe that ‘attacking religion risked undermining the moral basis of society … and weakened the bonds that held communities together’. Embittered by the duplicity and cynical exploitation by Europeans, he would instead turn to the rhetoric of nationalism and pan-Islamism to unite people against the colonizers. Mishra argues that al-Afghani’s rallying of Islam as a basis for anti-Western solidarity would, decades after his death, inspire a wide range of left and right wing politics in other contexts, culminating in his unlikely elevation as the founder of modern political Islam and the intellectual godfather of the Iranian revolution—as well as in a major terrorist attack on the very capital of Western modernity.

LiangAnother charismatic moderate in Mishra’s narrative is Liang Qichao (1873-1929), ‘China's first, iconic modern intellectual. His lucid and prolific writings, touching on all major concerns in his own time and anticipating many in the future, inspired several generations of thinkers including the much younger Mao Zedong.’ Well before Lenin, Liang explained how ‘by tying imperialism to individual economic interests, Western countries had given it a popular base among their own populations.’ He saw that the inertial Qing dynasty was unable to defend against the West’s many humiliations of China, exemplified by the Opium Wars, extortionate trade treaties, the quelling of the Boxer Rising, the brutal plunder of Beijing, and the burning of the summer palace. The old dynasty had to go. China had to learn to expand politically and economically, or perish. But the Confucian old guard wasn’t going to simply roll over. How was China to modernize and overhaul its state apparatus while preserving its cultural values? How was it to acquire a sense of nationhood and civic solidarity? Traveling in America, Liang was disenchanted with American democracy. Mishra presents a riveting account of his intellectual journey and of many others in light of China’s tumultuous encounter with the West.

TagoreMany Indians also appear in Mishra’s historical essay, including Gandhi, Tagore, Nehru, Vivekananda, Aurobindo Ghose, and Bankim Chatterjee. In their various ways they vigorously critiqued both the West and their own societies. Supremacist Western takes on native customs and the wholesale reinterpretation of ‘Hinduism’ by orientalist scholars incited defensive religious chauvinism and neo-Hindu movements. Tagore took the high road and even criticized the Japanese when—after defeating the Russians at the Battle of Tsushima in 1905 and filling hearts with pride across all of Asia—Japan began competing in the same imperial game, ending in the blight of WWII. Though a secular rationalist remarkably open to other cultures, he saw no reason that ‘building up of a nation on the European pattern is the only type of civilization and the only goal of man’. According to Mishra, he told an American audience that the nation-state ‘is a machinery of commerce and politics turn[ing] out neatly compressed bales of humanity’. Curiously, while his concerns about the values and trajectory of the Western model found receptive audiences in America, he got ‘fierce opposition’ from intellectuals in 1920s China, who craved the Industrial gravy train of the West. They saw Tagore as a dreamy romantic harping on about the spiritual wisdom of the East. A newly minted Chinese communist poet summed it up: ‘Thank you, Mr. Tagore, but we have already had too many Confuciuses and Menciuses in China.’

Gandhi, too, ‘keenly registered the moral and psychological effects of this worldwide destruction of old ways and lives’, en route a world in which economic prosperity was sadly the primary goal of politics, even as he saw ‘the many benefits of Western modernity, such as civil liberties, the liberation of women and the rule of law.’ Meanwhile, many Hindu nationalists ‘saw salvation in the wholesale imitation of Western-style state and society’. Ashis Nandy, in his penetrating study of the psychology of colonialism on both sides, The Intimate Enemy (1983), reports that Vivekananda even went as far as saying that ‘the salvation of the Hindus lay in three Bs: Beef, biceps, and Bhagavad Gita.’ Similar to China, India too would soon ignore the cautionary words of both Tagore and Gandhi in chasing the secrets of Western power. And so while these two intellectuals gave voice to many significant viewpoints, it’s not clear that they ‘remade’ their part of Asia to any great extent. After all, their social, political, and economic visions were almost entirely ignored by later generations.

The mental colonization of the newly educated Indians—aka ‘Macaulay's children’—would be easier and deeper than elsewhere in Asia, since nearly all Indians, out of touch with their philosophical and literary heritage in Sanskrit, came to it via English translations and Western scholarship. They internalized the concepts, categories, and judgments of the colonizers, and—in what is a basic idea in the psychology of colonialism—aspired to be like their masters. This colonized elite later slipped into British shoes with a similar superior attitude towards the unwashed Indian masses. Such post-colonial elites, Fanon wrote, ‘simultaneously resisted the insidious agenda of colonialism and paved the way for the emergence of the current struggles.’ Disappointingly, Mishra says nothing about BR Ambedkar, a towering intellectual who, unlike Gandhi, was drawn to both Western modernity and Buddhism, and who has more substantially ‘remade’ modern India. Nevertheless, Mishra’s canvas is wide and his material well researched. The cosmopolitan individuals he has chosen were, like himself, shaped by and questioned Western modernity. They were also in frequent dialog with other Asians. Mishra sensitively recounts their conflicts and struggles in order to illustrate new contours of the Asian experience in colonial times.


Train-1895Lest one is lulled by the selective memory of the West, Mishra, in words that barely contain his quiet outrage, revisits a host of calamities of Western imperialism as experienced by Asians. Anti-imperial Europeans have certainly documented them but from their own perspectives; many cultural memories and psychological states are not readily accessible to them. Apologists for imperialism still abound, many in the closet and even on the left. Some, like the rebarbative Niall Ferguson, clamor for its return. They will counter that Mishra isn’t telling us the whole truth, that Western imperialism was also good, that it was in fact more good than bad. Clearly the two sides don’t even mean the same thing by ‘good’ and ‘bad’. Every empire, wrote Edward Said, tells itself that ‘its mission is not to plunder and control but to educate and liberate.’ The apologists tend to overlook the strong pull that self-respect and dignity have on people, who willingly even die fighting for it. Colonialism, for all the benefits it brought to the natives despite itself, was above all a gross violator of self-respect and human dignity. This is why the colonizers, so unloved, were so unceremoniously booted out of Asia soon after the natives understood and embraced the secrets of Western power. In some parts of Asia, memories of humiliation would even lead to an instinctive cheer for the collapsing twin towers in 2001.

Many early Asian intellectuals, writes Mishra, ‘judged Western-style politics and economics to be inherently violent and destructive forces. They knew that borrowing technical knowledge through a modern system of education from Europe wasn’t enough; these borrowings brought with them a whole new way of life’ which threatened ‘the old moral order’ and not much to replace it with. The notion that culture X, with a very different history than culture Y, can be forced top-down to produce the best outcomes of culture Y is neither smart, nor in accord with historical change or human nature. ‘Out of the crooked timber of humanity’, wrote Kant, ‘no straight thing was ever made.’ Advocates of top-down change frequently discount this serious problem, that such change is often assimilated with great difficulty, or not at all, or creates new malignant forms.

Echoing a long-held view, Mishra writes that by aggressively exporting ‘its ideas to the remotest corners of the world, the West also destroyed native self-confidence, causing a political, economic, and social desolation that can perhaps never be relieved by modernity alone.’ Recurrent across his non-fiction is the image of masses of young men uprooted by top-down modernization, men who aspire more than their fathers but with fewer skills and traditional support structures of religion and community, morally adrift in societies with rising disparity, shrinking resources, and populist politics, a world changing too fast with collapsing safety nets, ‘exposing their raw nerves to extremist politics’ and demagogues. Globalization does not lead to integration or openness but ‘reinforces tribalist affiliations, sharpens old antipathies, and incites new ones while unleashing a cacophony of competing claims’. While pundits glibly expound on the rise of Asia—and ‘no alternative intellectual universalism has successfully challenged the prestige and authority of Western modernity’—billions more are now yoked to a wholly unsustainable model of economic growth and consumption, raising the stakes for all humanity. In his melancholic epilogue, an even darker gloom and Romantic disenchantment with modernity descends on Mishra. He ends the book with these ominous words:

[The hope] that billions of consumers in India and China will one day enjoy the lifestyles of Europeans and Americans — is as absurd and dangerous a fantasy as anything dreamt up by al-Qaeda. It condemns the global environment to early destruction, and looks set to create reservoirs of nihilistic rage and disappointment among hundreds 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.


Bri_india02Perhaps the world would have been a better place without the West’s colonial misadventures. Perhaps then the Asians would have approached Western modernity on their own terms—and more gracefully assimilated it. Perhaps. But then there is Thucydides, the great historian of the Peloponnesian War, who began to see that some large events could not have gone any other way, in light of the human material and the often blind and contending cultural instincts of people. If Western colonialism was one such event, what then about Western modernity itself, as the motive force behind that event? Would the world have been better off without Western modernity too—and by extension, all that which created it: individualism, competitive self-interest, science?

Mishra’s intellectual affinities suggest that he would answer ‘yes’, seeing modernity as a package that is not amenable to selective borrowing, and whose toxicity cannot be contained once it inflates the ego and unleashes its energies in the minds of men. There is much food for thought (and room for debate) in this view. However, it is anybody’s guess what an alternative history might have been. Could it not have been much worse? Responses here will have to stay in the realm of polemics. VS Naipaul, another contemporary observer of Asian societies (who often criticized the Arab-Islamic imperialism of over a millennium ago but missed nearly every opportunity to criticize Western imperialism), might counter that modernity is akin to the gift of fire. Along with the power to ‘burn us down’, it has also given to humans a certain kind of awakened spirit and enlarged consciousness, which is what we then use to lament it. We may feel nostalgic for a fondly imagined pre-modern era but we don’t have the option of going back now—only the burden of knowing the dangers of this gift and taming it to serve us better. At times Mishra seems overly sentimental about pre-colonial Asia and its ‘traditionally self-sufficient peasants’ but few will consider his prognosis implausible. He could also have defined ‘Western modernity’ more clearly since not everyone imagines the same set of ideas when that term is critiqued, and Mishra does critique it in a variety of contexts, from secular rationality to any system of industrialization to liberal democracy.

With uncommon empathy, Mishra has excavated a range of ideas, existential debates, and spiritual struggles set in motion by Asia’s rude collision with the West, leading to outcomes no one could have predicted but which, after his account, seem more comprehensible. Above all, Mishra sheds new light on an important part of our collective journey, the inner and outer turmoil we inhabited, the price we paid, and what we did to each other along the way. We might yet learn from it and redeem ourselves in some measure.

More writing by Namit Arora?