An IMF report from 2011 suggested that by 2016, the United States would no longer be the largest economy in the world. This is, as the historian Ferdinand Braudel put it, the “sign of autumn” for Atlantic hegemony. Signals of decline are visible from Athens to Detroit, with fervent hopes placed on the Captains of Finance to stem the collapse by some mathematical wizardry. The spokesperson of this Atlantic financial class is the Harvard historian Niall Ferguson, whose book Civilisation: The West and the Rest (2011) bemoans “our own loss of faith in the civilisation we inherited from our ancestors.” This ethnocentric worry was shared by his late Harvard colleague Samuel Huntington, whose books celebrated the cultural superiority of “Anglo-Protestant society” and bemoaned its loss with the rise of the East (The Clash of Civilisations and the Remaking of World Order, 1996) and the entry of Latin Americans into the United States (Who Are We?, 2004). The demise of the West was put down to a crisis within the cultural world of Anglo-Protestantism. ‘How have we failed?’ seemed to be the refrain, and this failure was studied in cultural terms.
The writer Pankaj Mishra offered a stern rebuke to Ferguson in the London Review of Books (November 2011). Mishra compared Ferguson to the racist writer Lothrop Stoddard, whose The Rising Tide of Color (1920) worried that “the white man, like King Canute, seats himself upon the tidal sands and bids the waves be stayed. He will be lucky if he escapes merely with wet shoes.” Stoddard worried about the faltering confidence of white supremacy, which today seems vulgar. Ferguson’s register is not so obviously biological, but masks its racism through culture. He longs for the “‘thrifty asceticism’ of Protestants of yore”, and he shudders that “empire has become a dirty word.” The defence of imperialism and of cultural primacy defines Ferguson’s world, which is why Mishra accused Ferguson of “nostalgia for the intellectual certainties of the summer of 1914.” This critique so irritated Ferguson that he took legal action against the LRB.
In his review, Mishra points to Jamal-al-Din al-Afghani (1838-1897) – political activist and one of the champions of pan-Islamic unity – and Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902) to indicate voices of the 19th and 20th centuries who crafted powerful accounts to explain the defeat of their worlds by European imperialism. Such intellectuals were not misled by empire’s false promises or its mischievous stories of its own triumphs. In 1903, for instance, the Chinese intellectual Tang Tiaoding called such accounts “white people’s histories”, where the explanation of why Egypt or India fell under European sway was that the “people deserved to be conquered”. Nor were these thinkers deluded about the limitations in their own societies, about the need to articulate their futures in light of the advances of science and rationalism, and about the importance of putting their intellectual careers at the service of political movements to overthrow imperial dominion.
These were sophisticated thinkers, whose exertions have been lost through two processes: first, imperial nostalgia’s continued ability to restore its own shop-worn priorities to the forefront; second, the important push by historians of the colonised lands to recover and emphasise the history of the working people and peasantry, often through the exclusion of the intellectual histories that would have included intellectuals such as al-Afghani, the 19th century’s original peripatetic man of mystery.
Mishra does not underestimate the emotional difficulty that must often have stopped the pens of his interlocutors. By the time Napoleon conquered Egypt in 1798, ideas of science and rationalism had begun to be associated with European history, sweeping the decisive and continued contributions of the Arab world, China and India under the laboratory benches. Meanwhile, all that is embarrassing about human history – misogyny, hierarchy, ethnic conflict – had been exaggeratedly placed into the container of Eastern tradition. This context meant that if these intellectuals wished to advance a reform agenda, they would have to become ‘Westernisers’ and turn their backs on their societies. Mishra’s emphasis on al-Afghani’s complex relationship with Islam prefigured that of reformist Chinese scholar Kang Youwei’s negotiations with Confucianism, and Gandhi’s dance with Indian tradition. “They all faced the task of having to generate a new set of values,” Mishra reflects, “that ensured survival in the modern era while respecting time-honoured traditions – of appearing loyal to their nation while borrowing some of the secrets of the West’s progress.” One of my favourite lines from Gandhi comes from 1925, when he reflected on reform for the good of women, “If I can’t swim in tradition, I’ll sink in it.” This is similar to Kang’s own mantra, “Reform and be strengthened, guard the old and die.”
Having established the intellectual agendas of this resurgent world, Mishra explores three historical directions:
(1) The emergence of a new confidence as a consequence of Japan’s defeat of Russia in 1905. “We regarded the Russian defeat by Japan as the defeat of the West by the East,” said Chinese revolutionary Sun Yat-Sen. An Asian power had defeated a European one; it could be done. But this was not simply an Asian story. When the Ethiopians sent the Italians home in the 1896, a similar frisson went across the African world. The Spanish-speaking world, too, had its goad: resistance to Spanish rule, from the Philippines to Cuba, and Washington’s attempt to supplant Madrid’s writ, played its own magical role in the consciousness of the people of Latin America. Mishra’s book opens with Japan’s defeat of Russia, and it shapes the narrative throughout.
(2) The process by which the West continued to discredit itself, notably after a brief window for rehabilitation around the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. If the US, via Woodrow Wilson, had been able to live up to the ideas embodied in the Fourteen Points, then the West might have had a chance. The Indian nationalist Lala Lajpat Rai (1865-1928) echoed the views of many when he turned from Wilson to Russia. The fall of the Tsar, he wrote, “has given birth to a new order of society aglow with the spirit of a new and elevated kind of internationalism.” Mishra recalls that during the Paris Conference “discussions about the Pacific – an important area of rivalry between Japan and the Western powers – descended into racist jokes about cannibalism from Australian Prime Minister Billy Hughes and references to ‘niggers’ from Lloyd George.” Japanese statesman Makino Nobuaki (1861-1949) tried to push the idea of racial equality onto the agenda, but Lord Balfour (famous for his Declaration on Palestine) was confounded by the thought that “a man of Central Africa was created equal to a European.” Wilson scuttled the clause for racial equality, a fact, Mishra comments, “remembered for decades by Japanese nationalists.”
(3) Confidence in these intellectuals’ abilities opened up a more assertive nationalism, which served the vision of a more egalitarian world in some quarters – as with Gandhi or Mao – and of a reconstructed racial imperialism in others – as with Japanese scholar Kakuzo Okakura (1862-1913). Mishra sets this debate elegantly, describing Rabindranath Tagore’s journey to China and Japan. Tagore’s enthusiasm for the rise of Japan in 1905 was dampened by his visit there in 1924. The “schoolboys of the East,” Tagore wrote in one of his last essays, are going to undo the gains of the past century by nurturing the “noxious plant of national egoism.” Such egoism – manifest not only in the Japanese revanchism of the 1940s but also in the rise of variants of political Islam and political Hinduism – is not the only heir to the intellectual liveliness that Mishra tracks. There is no straight and exclusive line that runs from al-Afghani to Egyptian author and Muslim Brotherhood emir Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966) to Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi. The inheritance is equally shared with Gandhian nationalism and Maoist communism, movements that differed on many issues but were united by a genuine antipathy to European supremacy. That same inheritance was the ideological basis of the 1955 Afro-Asian Conference at Bandung, Indonesia and of the Third World project, of which Nehru was an ardent champion.
From Bengal, Mishra could have gone to Indonesia, where the letters of Indonesian national heroine Kartini trace the emergence of an anti-colonial and feminist consciousness. In 1900, reflecting on forced marriage, Kartini calls out, “Come, women, young girls, stand up, let us join hands and let us work together to bring change to these unbearable conditions,” of colonial suppression and of domestic tyranny. At the First Indonesian Women’s Congress of 1928, the theme of marriage reform sat easily beside that of anti-colonial nationalism. Mishra’s book would have been strengthened had it taken in hand this strong seam of feminist critique that emerged parallel to the writings of al-Afghani and Tagore.
The publication of From the Ruins of Empire comes alongside the revitalisation of Asia and North Africa, the economic booms in China and India, and the Arab Spring. Mishra is brief on these events, not wanting, perhaps, to tie his own narrative too closely to present dynamics. This is a very good approach, because the intellectual ferment of the past does not necessarily have a link to the present. Mishra’s book invites Anglophone readers to a conversation about the current shifts, but with an eye not only to the intellectual concerns of Paris, London and New York, but also to those current at intellectual addresses that we do not normally consider – the Hawza ‘ilmiyya in Najaf or Beijing Da Xue, for instance. New debates are essential, buoyed by new concerns and new concepts, and there is a need for a new intellectual confidence, working through current conditions and older traditions to find the ideological and institutional alternatives to neoliberalism and Western supremacy. Chinese literary magazine Dushu and the recently launched Arab journal Bidayat are examples of where such new thinking is taking place. From the Ruins of Empire has given them a pre-history.
~ Vijay Prashad’s latest book is Arab Spring, Libyan Winter (LeftWord, 2012).