Thoughts on Pankaj Mishra’s ‘From the Ruins of Empire’

This book had attained a mythical status for me far before I had ever read it. Possessing a rather hyperactive mind, endlessly going from one project to another (and exercising complete laziness in actually achieving most of them), my Masters friend Onur introduced this book to me after a brief time discussing Japanese imperialism, saying that “there’s actually a book explaining how the Japanese-Russian war of 1905 completely changed the world.” Such an idea was pure catnip – it combined the theoretical promise of decolonised critical theory, actual historical grounding and also a focus on Japan (again, I was studying Japanese imperialism) – but in my usual distraction I never thought to simply order the book and read it.

Life went on, but the lingering need to buy this book continued, especially after seeing this decent Crash Course World History recap of the book. I actually encountered some years later a copy of another book of Mishra’s, Temptations of the West, which as part travel-writing part historical essay was an edifying glimpse into communal politics and the promise and failures of India’s independent state. Worthy reading, but by no means essential.

Temptations JPG

I begin with this lengthy introduction because I think that this is one of those books which crystallises barely-visible strands of social history into the powerful rope of critical historiography and social theory. From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia is truly necessary reading for anybody attempting to understand the impacts of Western imperialism, Asian perceptions of the West or simply the cultural roots of modern Asian politics full stop. To his enormous credit, Pankaj Mishra has woven together a book which is somehow comprehensive and yet focused, sweeping in scope and yet specific in nature.

It seems like one of those cases where the book is so easy to read because the subject seems so immediately apparent. Beginning with the Japanese victory over the Russian navy in 1905, Mishra goes through a litany of prominent Asian intellectuals and activists, who upon the news of Japanese victory at the Battle of Tsushima, spontaneously and viscerally celebrated, as if welcoming the World Spirit’s unexpected tilt towards Asian liberation. Most amusing is the anecdote where Tagore led his students on an impromptu victory march around a rural Bengali school. It seemed suddenly possible to a new age of Asian intellectuals that Western power could be fought.

After all, Mishra is writing a book about intellectuals first and history second. He is clear in stating that he is not writing a comprehensive history of Asian responses to Western imperialism. Instead, he takes the standpoint of an early 21st century writer, acknowledging the effective rise of Asia and attempting to delineate how it was that former colonies and weakened states were able to effectively turn the tables on their Western rivals. How was it that Western power – so absolute, so crushing in both power and ideology – was actually rooted out by the mid-20th century, and relatively equalised by its end?

EmpireBy focusing on the trials, tribulations and fleeting theorisations of a wide cast of Asian intellectuals, predominantly Arabs, Chinese and Indians, Mishra reveals to the reader how Asian success in the 20th and 21st centuries is the result of genuine deliberation, not historical quirk or mere over-extension of Western power. His main protagonists, the nationality-less Jamal al-Din al-Aghani, Chinese Liang Qichao and to a lesser extent Bengali Rabindranath Tagore, were at the forefront the rapidly changing circumstances of life in Western modernity, attempting to diagnose the source of Western power – technology, nationalism, capitalism – while also analysing their own societies’ weaknesses – fractured political classes, a lack of social solidarity internally and also between Asian nations.

Partly chosen for their diverse engagement with imperial politics and partly for their symptomatically scattershot theorising as a result – al-Aghani and Qichao are ruthlessly opportunistic and self-contradictory – these figures interweave with history’s ‘bigger’ names of Ataturk, Mao, Gandhi and Ho Chi Minh. This not only reminds us that the successes of the latter were built upon great intellectual edifices, but that their success is the result of historical ambiguity that lies at the heart of any political movement.

The core thinkers each witnessed how every fire they lit would soon come to burn them, as if each Phoenix risen was destined to once more fade into ash. This was particularly the case with regard to most thinkers’ main hope, and the surprising reoccurring character in the book, Imperial Japan. Japan’s role in the book warrants its own blog post, but as Tagore defined it, effectively reached the pinnacle of human civilisation at that moment of history at the cost of their own identity and spirituality. A highly effective anti-imperialist nation, they grew to impose their own brutality in the pursuit of their own greatness, masquerading as Asian liberation. And yet, one of the most chilling moments in the book is Mishra’s description of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as ‘punishment’ for their daring to transgress against Western norms. Far from hyperbolic or over-emotional, this is perhaps the fairest description of the anger and resentment felt by American and European powers against the Japanese, who had run roughshod over all the carefully-constructed imperial pretensions of these Western powers. Sure ‘Asia for the Asians’ never made much sense at the receiving end of a Japanese machine gun, but it was a lot more promising than the White Man’s Burden.

The lessons of Mishra’s book are ones which – oddly enough – I had written about even before having read the book. Being aware of these notions, high on the energy behind self-determination in apocalyptic situations, I applied these concepts to our present ecological crisis in probably my best written work, in which I argued that we have to cast aside our nostalgic yearnings for the crumbling world and embrace theory and philosophy which takes us into this new historical void. These are points on which Mishra is actually more pessimistic – perhaps fairly so – indicating that Eastern victory over the West is still not only partial but also quite likely to be a Pyrrhic victory. Torn by inequality, neo-colonialism and the kinds of power politics which defined the heyday of Japanese imperialism, Mishra questions what goal has really been achieved. If Asians have finally wrested control of their own fate, it remains up to them to be able to articulate one which is worth fighting for.

It’s powerful and sobering, yet also somewhat ignores the potentiality which lies at the heart of these immanent contradictions. All revolutions – Bolshevik, Iranian, French, the multiple Indian and Chinese uprisings, even the American revolution – are born out of this potential between what is and what might be, between the past’s failures, the present’s impossibility and the future’s possibilities. Even in dark moments like ours, histories uncertainties have a way of vindicating – no matter how cruelly and subversively – the sense that things can be different. Buy or borrow this book and learn how previous generations achieved just that.

Expect a future blog featuring some ruminations on Japanese imperialism, partially informed by Mishra’s book as well as my recent trip to Japan.

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