12 July 2012, Review by David Goodall
Imperialismís Muddled legacy
From the Ruins of Empire: the revolt against the West and the remaking of Asia
Allen Lane, £20
Tablet bookshop price £18 Tel 01420 592974
Why was Western imperialism initially so successful, why was it increasingly resented by its subject peoples, and why and how did they come finally to develop or recover their own nationhood to the point at which some of them – China and India, for example – now look like overtaking the West economically, while elsewhere an apparently resurgent Islam threatens and challenges it culturally? In this ambitious survey of the decline and fall of Western colonial empires and the rise of their successors, Pankaj Mishra looks at the lives and writings of some of the earliest and most influential opponents of Western political, commercial and cultural hegemony, at the humiliations felt by the colonised (while noting with satisfaction those subsequently suffered by their European colonisers) and (most interestingly) at the difficulties and consequences of reconciling indigenous cultures to the requirements of “modernity”.
Starting with Japan’s defeat of Russia in 1905, which revived oriental self-respect by demonstrating that Western power was not invincible, Mishra examines the development of anti-Western movements in Egypt, Iran, Turkey, India and China through the lives and writings of thinkers and revolutionaries who inspired and fostered them. Special attention is given to two of them, whose names are hardly remembered in the West today: Jamal al-Din al-Afghani in the Middle East and India and Liang Qui Chao in China.
Mishra’s thesis is that European imperialism was deeply resented, virtually ab initio, by those on the receiving end, even while European technical and “organisational” skills were respected and envied; and that this resentment found expression during the nineteenth century in uprisings against colonial rule like the Indian Mutiny and in the writings and activities of anti-Western thinkers and agitators (many of them Islamic), who were the forerunners and inspirers of the twentieth century’s revolutionaries and freedom fighters. Then in the course of the twentieth century, as Western empires have crumbled, the former subject peoples have asserted, or reasserted, their independence by assimilating Western ideas of social/political organisation (notably the nation state) and by submitting to the inescapable imperatives of “modernity”. As a result, they “stand to repeat … the West’s own tortured and often tragic experience of modern ‘development’” while “the pursuit of economic growth at all costs has created a gaudy elite, but … also widened already alarming social and economic disparities”.
Mishra sees Western imperialism, and British imperialism in particular, as intrinsically arrogant, brutal and predatory; and a thread of unremitting polemic against British imperialism runs through the book, putting a question mark against the author’s objectivity. Only the revolutionaries and critics of imperial rule are quoted in extenso, the views of its admirers and beneficiaries, if mentioned at all, being dismissed as the “warblings” of sycophants.
That most urbane of British diplomats, the late Sir Alan Campbell, once recalled that being a member of the British Delegation to the United Nations during the period when decolonisation was at its height, “required me to listen to what seemed a lifetime of verbal abuse of my country – some of it, I must say, very eloquently expressed”. Something of the same feeling came over me halfway through the book, prompting the thought that British imperialism, after all, was a more complex and many-sided phenomenon than Mishra’s easy generalisations about brutality and exploitation imply. Some of those resentful of alien rule had previously been less than altruistic conquerors themselves (or, like the Japanese, quickly became colonialists on their own account), while the behaviour of Mao’s post-colonial China – in Tibet, and indeed towards its own people – suggests that there are worse regimes to live under than a paternalist and a relatively benign colonial one.
From the Ruins of Empire is not exactly the “highly entertaining account” promised in the blurb; but if one can discount the anti-colonial polemic it is a highly readable and illuminating exploration of the way in which Asian, and Muslim countries in particular, have resented Western dominance and reacted against it with varying degrees of success. Mishra’s analysis of Muslim reactions is particularly topical, demonstrating that al-Qaeda, for example, is not a unique phenomenon and that Islam – or Islamism – is far from being a coherent, monolithic force. At its root, Muslim (and Hindu) hostility to alien domination stems in part from an understandable feeling of humiliation at being ruled or dominated by foreigners (something the US and the UK seem to be blithely ignoring in Afghanistan) and partly from a fear and dislike of Western hedonism, secularism and materialism. To this, the three main Eastern responses identified by Mishra are: to retreat into their own religious and cultural traditions, presenting as hostile a face as possible to creeping Westernisation; to adopt Western techniques of governance and industrialisation, trying at the same time to hold on to their own spiritual and cultural inheritance; and to adopt the radical revolution and secularisation pursued by Mao and, less ruthlessly, by Ataturk. With the exception of China, Asian countries have tended to moved uneasily between all three.
Mishra’s conclusion is predictably gloomy. Overt imperialism may have crumbled, but globalisation is facilitating the growth of commercial imperialism. Westernisation, in the form of “modernity”, is triumphing, bringing with it Western technology, Western consumerism and (although Mishra seems to have little interest in spiritual values) Western secularism. As a result, he foresees bloody conflicts over the “precious resources and commodities that modernising as well as already modern economies need”; while the pursuit of endless economic growth is based on “an absurd and dangerous fantasy” which “condemns the global environment to early destruction, and looks set to create reservoirs of nihilistic rage and disappointment among hundreds of millions of have-nots – the bitter outcome of the universal triumph of Western modernity”.
He may be right: but just as he oversimplifies the malign nature of the imperial endeavour, so I suspect that he underestimates humanity’s ability to muddle through.
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