Last fall, the essayist and novelist Pankaj Mishra published a devastating review of Niall Ferguson’s “Civilization: The West and the Rest” in the London Review of Books, taking to task the best-selling Harvard historian’s latest love letter to the legacy of imperial conquest. For Mishra, the rhyming binary of Ferguson’s title was too close to the racist rhetoric employed to explain Western supremacy in the early 20th centry. Mishra went so far as to accuse Ferguson of racism, comparing him to Lothrop Stoddard, the infamous American historian who in the 1920s advocated nothing less than outright separation between white and colored peoples — between, as it were, “the West and the Rest.”
In the weeks that followed, Ferguson threatened to sue for libel, and the London Review became the primary battleground in one of recent memory’s most highly publicized intellectual bloodbaths. By now, the petty, personal dimension of this exchange has thankfully subsided. Nevertheless, a substantive conversation has ultimately managed to emerge from the scorched earth of the Mishra-Ferguson showdown, largely through Mishra’s latest book, “From the Ruins of Empire.”
(FSG) - ‘From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia’ by Pankaj Mishra
On its face, the book is an extended rejoinder to the worldview Mishra so vehemently attacked in his review of “Civilization” — a view that, no matter how cosmopolitan its outlook or how humane its sensibility, still assumed the West to be both cradle and crossroads of world history. “For most people in Europe and America,” he writes, “the history of the twentieth century is still largely defined by the two world wars and the long nuclear stand-off with Soviet Communism.” However, he adds, “it is now clearer that the central event of the last century for the majority of the world’s population was the intellectual and political awakening of Asia and its emergence from the ruins of both Asian and European empires.”
“From the Ruins of Empire” attempts to illustrate this “awakening” by highlighting the voices of three profoundly influential Asian intellectuals, whose critiques of Western modernization in the Arab world, China and India during the imperial age helped shape the discourses that have helped make these regions what they are today.
The first of these figures is Jamal-al-Din al-Afghani (1838-1897), an itinerant activist in the 19th-century Arab world who was a staunch advocate of pan-Islam as well as an early proponent of Islamic modernism. The second is Liang Qichao (1873-1929), a Chinese scholar and journalist who became a passionately progressive social reformer after the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty rendered his early faith in constitutional monarchy irrelevant. Mishra’s third — and most famous — figure is none other than Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), the first non-European winner of the Nobel Prize for literature and a fierce critic of the nation-state and its imposition on India (a view that informs Mishra’s own argument).
By placing these three characters in dialogue with one another across time and place, Mishra desperately tries to show that “the Rest” was far more than an amalgam of autocracy, poverty and backwardness. To that end, he is at his best when he connects the formulations of al-Afghani, Liang and Tagore to the events they influenced or the people who read — and misread — them.