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.”

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).

‘From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia’ by Pankaj Mishra (FSG)

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.

Al-Afghani, he points out, was among the first “to reckon with the apparently fallen state of Muslims: the predecessor of India’s Muhammad Iqbal as well as Egypt’s Sayyid Qutb and Saudi Arabia’s Osama bin Laden.” (Iqbal inspired Pakistani nationalism, and Qutb was the leader of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood in the 1950s and ’60s. For Mishra, bin Laden was just another activist who responded to the legacy of oppression, albeit through violence.)

In China, the progressive Liang had his doubts about Western materialism, “the civilization that had so blithely thrown away the fruits of progress and rationalism and sunk into barbarism.” From there, as Mishra notes, it’s only a short step to the rhetoric of Mao. While Tagore’s legacy may speak for itself, Mishra shows how the famous polymath’s scorn for “the dichotomy between rural harmony and urban aggressiveness” that he observed in British-ruled India ultimately influenced Ghandi’s refusal to accept imperial occupation any longer.

Although Mishra recounts the undeniable intellectual influences of his three figures (and with compelling narratives of their lives to boot), he often oversimplifies those influences in the process. The mission here is to highlight commonalities in the struggle of former subject peoples to come to terms with an imposed and unwanted modernity, but in reality Mishra often blends China, India and the Arab world into “Asia,” thereby seeming to reinforce the same “West-Rest” duality he set out to reject.

After all, isn’t more than a nuance lost when “the Indian Mutiny, Anglo-Afghan Wars, Ottoman modernization, Turkish and Arab nationalism, the Russo-Japanese War, the Chinese Revolution, the First World War, the Paris Peace Conference, Japanese militarism, decolonization, postcolonial nationalsim, and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism” are considered in the same breath? Can one label be used to describe the histories and cultures of every region between the Aegean and the Paficic? Is Mishra’s “Asia” functionally different from what Ferguson calls “the Rest”?

These are questions that “From the Ruins of Empire” would have done well to address and suffers from having ignored. In any case, as a flawed but immensely readable historical essay, it’s a worthy adversary to the Ferguson polemic it attempts to combat. Fight fire with fire.

James McAuley is a Marshall scholar at the University of Oxford.


The Intellectuals Who

Remade Asia

By Pankaj Mishra

Farrar Straus Giroux. 356 pp. $27