An outstanding book that makes us see the past in a new light.
To defend empire by highlighting all it ‘achieved’ is like celebrating a powerful landlord for the extent of his crops and profits. Among other things, it leaves out the fact that other people’s sweat and blood went into these ‘achievements’. On the other hand, to simply torch the crops of the landlord is not just to destroy his wealth, at least momentarily, but also to wipe out the labour of those he exploited.
Much of the discourse on the European empires of our recent colonial past has tended to adopt one of these two positions. A common European tendency has been to excuse ‘empire’ in the name of its (dubious) ‘achievements’. The predominant anti-colonial Asian tendency, it often seems, has been to reject all attributed (often falsely) to Europe, including democracy and modernity.
There is an iota of truth in this simple opposition, but as Pankaj Mishra’s book demonstrates, it is not the full story. Mishra’s From the Ruins of Empire is outstanding for two reasons. First, it highlights that the anti-colonial struggle of a wide variety of Asian societies and intellectuals was a complex, thoughtful endeavour, and not just a reflex action to European colonisation. Second, it suggests why some of the struggles have since taken the forms that they have: from the Chinese Communist Party to the Muslim Brotherhood.
Mishra wears his scholarship lightly and weaves together the many strands of history into a gripping narrative. Starting with an account of battles and treaties that ‘subjugated’ Asia, and often humiliated entire Asian societies, in the 18th and 19th centuries, Mishra moves on to an overlapping engagement with some major Asian political thinkers of the 19th century. His main ‘protagonists’ are Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, perhaps the fountainhead of what is now called the Islamic revival, the Chinese Confucian-nationalist Liang Qichao, and Rabindranath Tagore. But a host of other Asian figures, big and small, poets, scholars, politicians, activists, thinkers, are also taken up in this fascinating book.
The insights afforded by this book are too many to be enumerated, but among the things that struck me was the intense mobility of the ‘subjects’ of empire. They were of course mobile as people. Al-Afghani moved across at least a dozen European and Asian countries, incessantly studying, lecturing, planning uprisings against colonial powers: if it has been noted that Ibn Batutah’s travels far exceeded those of Marco Polo, then it can also be said that Al-Afghani’s ‘revolutionary’ peregrinations far exceeded those of Karl Marx, who managed to get himself banished only within Europe. But many of the Asians Mishra invokes were just as peripatetic, and often in thought too.
More than that, Mishra highlights the mobility of thought between these anti-colonial Asian thinkers: one witnesses events sparking ideas across the continent, and vice versa. As he notes, for instance, of how the Japanese victory against the Russians in 1905 galvanised these diverse Asians: “Nehru belonged to a family of affluent, Anglophile Brahmins…Sun Yat-sen was the son of a poor farmer…Abdurreshid Ibrahim (1857-1944), the foremost pan-Islamic intellectual of his time who travelled to Japan in 1909 to establish contacts with Japanese politicians and activists, was born in western Siberia. Mustafa Kemal was from Salonica (now in Greece), born to parents of Albanian and Macedonian origin. His later associate, the Turkish novelist Halide Edip (1884-1964), who named her new-born son after the Japanese admiral Tôgô, was a secular-minded feminist. Burma’s nationalist icon U Ottama…was a Buddhist monk…”
A different Asia
One encounters an Asia far more willing to question itself and others than many European scholars have been willing to record. Even Al-Afghani, whom Islamists often revere today, comes across as a creative thinker, able to subject both Islam and Muslims to a degree of critical analysis that Islamists now only seem to reserve for the ‘West’. And yet, as the narrative proceeds, perhaps even without Mishra’s conscious intention, one senses a narrowing down of the world: a reduction of complexities to a simplistic choice between either celebrating the oppressive landlord’s crops or setting them on fire.
It is this narrowing down of the world that books like From the Ruins of Empire might yet rescue us from. Mishra performs a signal service to the future — by making us read the past in a fresh light. His book joins a select band of texts – some by Europeans, such as Sven Lindquist – which do not superficially re-write the history of ‘empire’ but instead carefully strive to finally complete its writing.