Book review: From the Ruins of Empire – Pankaj Mishra

How can a people respond to the loss of their independence to another people who are military superior? Should they blindly copy their oppressors? Should they wholly reject everything the oppressors stand for, and instead redevelop the purity of their own culture? Or should they adopt crucial elements of the oppressor’s culture and economy, while retaining important elements of their own? And if so, what should be copied, and what has to go? Western imperialism forced people all over Asia to formulate an answer to these questions.

The book is very humble in a way. The author does not try to claim that the thinkers and activists in the book were all that mattered in how decolonization and subsequent state-building played out. This is no account of how decolonization occurred exactly, in all colonies at the time. Rather, the responses to Western colonialism that were perceived by the native elites all fell on the spectrum of fundamentalist oikophilia to revolutionary westernization. That is, some thought that to overcome Western colonialism, the colonized society had to go back to its fundaments, to regain a lost Golden Age. Others thought that the only way to survive the Western onslaught was to rapidly Westernize their society. The main characters in the book were important in how they influenced others in learning to value more of their own culture, despite Western military dominance.

The book takes us to several countries, mainly Japan, India, China, Egypt, Iran and the Ottoman Empire/Turkey. It also shows the cross-cultural links that existed between the anti-imperialist struggles in these different countries. It is fascinating to see how successes and failures to resist the West were taken up through these transnational circuits of travelling thinkers and activists. From Tokyo to Paris and from Moscow to New York, Asians met each other and learnt from each other.

The book introduced me to many thinkers and activists I had never heard of. The main characters in the book are the Persian Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, the Chinese Liang Qichao and the Indian Rabindranath Tagore. These thinkers deeply influenced subsequent generations. Sayid Qutb, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, the Saudi wahabbis and Ayatollah Khomeini all were aware of the writings of al-Afghani, because he was the first to write about pan-Islamism as a tool against Western imperialism. Mao Zedong had read Liang Qichao’s work, and it helped him to conceptualise his revolution in China. India’s Gandhi and Nehru and Pakistan’s Jinnah had read Tagore’s work, and were influenced by his calls against nationalism and in favour of traditional systems of morality.

All these characters were well-traveled and well read in both the literature of their own culture as it had existed up to the encroachment by the West, as well as western philosophy. Some started out as strong traditionalists, others less so. Yet, at some point, they all accepted that radical changes were necessary within their societies in order to survive. All of them were at some point disappointed by what Western philosophy said was right, and how Western nation states behaved in reality. Their skepticism of this hipocrisy, and what they perceived as the moral vacuousness of capitalism often led them to reject Western society as the ideal example to follow. Rather, they saw Eastern religion and culture as filled with morality, something that Western societies lacked. At most those elements of Western society that had to be copied in order to survive should be adopted. But nothing more.

Several aspects of Western society made them reject Western superiority. The extreme inequality and racism of Western societies and the carnage of the First World War. Especially the difference between President Wilson’s rhetoric of equality between nations and support for independence around the Versailles conference in 1919, and his actual behaviour at the conference – most colonies were not allowed to be present – seems to have ruined the USA’s reputation. After this, not only Europe had lost its moral status in the eyes of many Asians, but also the USA.

It is not always clear what the moral vacuousness and materialism of the West should be replaced with, nor do I think that Westerners have not made these criticisms of their own societies too. However, it appears true that whenever capitalism is completely unchecked, it will do massive damage and lead to massive inequality and destruction. And capitalism as an ideology contains no ideas on how communities should govern and sustain themselves and how to sustain the civil society and natural resources that are necessary to do so. This is something that many Asian countries in practice have also suffered from, as they introduced capitalism to their countries. However, this is not a uniquely Western thing.

So, what would these thinkers have said about the problems humanity faces in the 21st century? How should morality play a role in a society according to the main thinkers introduced by the book? Is having a social democracy sufficient, as long as it prevents climate change and reduces inequality? Or do we also need social liberties, being allowed to be who we want to be to some degree? Or is that exactly what the three thinkers criticised? Is it about a deep-felt sense of public spiritedness amongst government functionaries and the wider public, rather than direct government intervention in private affairs? There is no one answer to these questions, because while these thinkers stressed common elements as they formulated their thoughts in response to the Western onslaught, they were also all unique, coming from wildly different societies. This makes it hard to really take away something from this book in a very direct sense.

But what we can learn from these thinkers, is that in the face of immense challenges, we need to learn as much as possible about the world around us, and compare our various experiences in the face of these challenges. Only that way can we start formulating ideas for how to solve our problems. And indeed, eventually, the Middle East, India, and China regained their full-fledged sovereignty because they adopted certain ideas from the West while retaining other elements of their society that they deemed too important to let go of. Finally, the book brings across the sense of humiliation felt by people in all these countries for how their peoples were treated by Western countries. If only for that, this book is worth reading.

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