The last thing Pankaj Mishra wants is to write a run-of-the-mill history of the 20th century. This much is made abundantly clear when he opens his book with the events of 27-28 May 1905 in the TsushimaStrait. Over these two days, Mishra tells us, “the contemporary world first began to assume its decisive shape.”
That this date is not familiar to the average reader in South Asia or the West is precisely the point. The Eurocentric histories rehearsed in the West and the nationalist narratives enshrined in postcolonial nations may be dramatically different in their specifics, but they are both equally inadequate in meeting the central problem confronting the world today. That problem is that while Asia may have thrown off the yoke of European colonialism, it also bought into Western ideals, embracing nationalism, the nation-state, and consumerism. Rather than offering intellectual alternatives to the clearly dysfunctional Western model, newly emancipated peoples joined in, reproducing problems like ethnic violence that the West had already faced and exacerbating the depletion of the earth’s resources, which cannot possibly meet the demands of the whole world.
With this predicament in view, Mishra embarks on an ambitious history of Asia’s intellectual response to European colonialism and Western modernity. The significance of the Battle of Tsushima, which took place between Russia and Japan in May 1905, was that it marked the beginning of a process of intellectual decolonisation. A small war in a century that was to see much greater carnage, the Battle of Tsushima was path-breaking because it was the first time in many a generation’s memory that a non-European power had defeated a European power. The demonstration of European vulnerability galvanised a generation of Asian intellectuals to search for alternatives to the European system of political control, which they had considered unalterable until then.
Two of these intellectuals, Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and Liang Qichao, are the centerpieces of Mishra’s book. Al-Afghani (1838-1897), who is remembered as “the man who first raised the voice of awareness in the dormant East,” was a Muslim reformer, an anti-colonial activist, and a cosmopolitan intellectual. Over the span of his life, al-Afghani doggedly worked towards mounting a unified response to the political encroachment of Western empires, attempting to recruit various embattled Muslim rulers to his cause. He simultaneously advocated for religious rationalisation and the acceptance of science and philosophy. Liang (1873-1929) was part of the coterie that spearheaded the Hundred Days’ Reform in China in 1898. The abrupt termination of this officially backed reform effort saw him join a growing legion of Chinese exiles from where he continued his lifelong career as a reformist intellectual.
While al-Afghani and Liang’s lives followed distinct trajectories in disparate parts of the world, by placing them together, Mishra brings out remarkable convergences. Through their thought and action, these peripatetic figures were working out alternate solidarities to the nationalisms that were beginning to emerge across Asia. Al-Afghani not only stressed Muslim unity but also exhorted cooperation with non-Muslims in anti-colonial efforts. On his visit to India, he found that much to his dismay Indian Muslims were heeding the counsel of British loyalist Sir Syed Ahmad Khan. Al-Afghani was withering in his criticism of Sir Syed and argued passionately that Indian Muslims break ranks with him to join anti-colonial Hindus. Similarly, Liang was wary of the race-based Hun nationalism being evolved by Sun Yat-Sen, advocating, instead, for a more inclusive approach that would bring all the various ethnic groups within China together.
Both intellectuals were also engaged in the vibrant and cosmopolitan milieus of Istanbul and Tokyo where it was possible to conceive of connections that transcended the national. These gestures towards broader Asian solidarities capture Mishra’s imagination. The Battle of Tsushima becomes emblematic as the people of the entire Asian continent rejoice the Japanese victory. Indian villagers named their newborns after Japanese admirals, Arab port workers celebrated at Suez, while a young Nehru along with numerous Arab, Turkish, Persian, Vietnamese, and Indonesian nationalists felt a thrill of excitement at the news.
These early moments, when Asian commonalities became apparent, culminated in the pan-Asianism of Okakura Kakuzo, Shumei Okawa, Rabindranath Tagore, and Maulvi Barakatullah. The cautions against aggressive nationalisms delivered by the likes of Tagore and the pan-Asian unity imagined by these figures before World War II have largely been forgotten today. Mishra not only recovers these alternatives but also traces the reasons for the triumph of nationalism after World War II. He analyses the interaction between thought and circumstance, which led the ideas of al-Afghani and Liang to be reinterpreted by future generations of intellectuals and activists, including Muhammad Iqbal and Mao Zedong, leading to their enshrinement in various nation states.
Mishra’s account is compelling and timely. The biographies of al-Afghani and Liang serve as valuable antidotes to entrenched notions about the journey of political and intellectual decolonisation. However, his narrative begins to lose focus in the latter half of the book, where he attempts to bridge the gap between these turn-of-the-century intellectuals and the contemporary world. As he shifts gears from intellectual biography to political history, he gets bogged down in a morass of details that had previously been made manageable by his concentration on these two figures.
More problematically, Mishra is torn between the impulse to celebrate Asia’s emancipation from colonialism and his more sober purpose of sounding the alarm about the failures and shortcomings of postcolonial nation states. Unfortunately, in the second half of the book, his emphasis falls on the former. By the time Mishra is done gloating about Asian countries “outward-looking, confident and optimistic” appearance and the West’s retreat into “parochial neuroses,” the book has reached its end. The hasty, albeit passionate, cautionary against these new nation states in the brief epilogue not only jars with the previous affirmations but also falls well short of a thoroughly critical appraisal.
Rather than hark back to the multiple possibilities opened up by the biographies of al-Afghani and Liang, Mishra chooses to end in hand-wringing despair about the lack of alternatives to Western universalism and the Pyrrhic victory of the East. A potentially powerful narrative that could have called for a renewed examination of Asian pasts and futures is tragically concluded in confusion. While Mishra’s book is a missed opportunity, it is nonetheless worth reading for those possessed with a similarly inchoate sense that all is not right in the postcolonial world.
From the Ruins of Empire:
The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia
By Pankaj Mishra
Allen Lane, UK