From the Ruins of Empire — a review

Books On Asia asked reviewers to pick their top books for 2020. I submitted my four along with the other contributors and gave a short comment. Below is a more fleshed out review. For more reviews, check out booksonasia.net


Pankaj Mishra delivers a sweeping account of the intellectual history of anti-colonial thought in the early years of Western colonialism. He builds this narrative through mini-biographies of two lesser-known intellectuals: Jamāl al-Dīn al-Afghānī and Liang Qichao. These early thinkers diagnosed the challenge of Western imperialism faced by Asia. The evolution of their thought is influenced by historical milestones such as the Indian Rebellion of 1857, a failed uprising to gain independence from the West, and the 1905 Battle of Tsushima, where an Asian nation defeated a Western military power for the first time. Japan’s victory was a turning point for optimism in the oppressed Asian psyche, celebrated by anti-colonialists like Gandhi, Ataturk, and Tagore. Here was an Asian country beating the West at its own game.

This part of the nineteenth century was a cosmopolitan moment for Asia. The subjects of Mishra’s work were inveterate travellers, moving throughout the Islamic, Indian and East Asian worlds. This is in contrast to Western political intellectuals at the time who philosophized about Asia almost exclusively from the comfort of their comfy overstuffed chairs. From the Ruins of Empire follows both Asian intellectuals on their travels where they meet with and influence one another as well as a new generation of activists like Sun Yat Sen. The author also traces how their thinking on Pan-Asianism transforms, from initially advocating for Asian nations to modernize by mimicking the West and adopting its scientific and industrial advancements, to their horror at the First World War, which turned them away from so-called “Western progress.” This frames the ultimate dilemma facing Asia in the book: to be more like the West (which is what Tsushima teaches) or to progress with Eastern alternatives which are more suited to the multi-ethnic, multi-religious reality of Asia—modernization sans Westernization.

Despite the successful anti-colonial movements in the post-World War II era, the story Mishra tells is ultimately a tragic one. Asian nations may have won out over political colonialism, but lost against intellectual colonialism. India and China are very adeptly wielding the power of centralized nation-states, effectively replacing the role previously occupied by Western imperial overseers. The “South to South” dialogues by the intellectual network described by Mishra did go on to inspire later revolutionaries. Mishra makes these connections, showing for example how the ideas of al-Afghānī have been twisted into the narrative of political Islam. 

This book originally came out in 2012 amidst the Arab Spring and Colour Revolutions. That time also saw a surge of revisionist histories of empire by writers like Niall Ferguson which helped to justify the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. From the Ruins of Empire demonstrates how people can be motivated by humiliation, and in it you can see the seeds of Mishra’s later book Age of Anger (2017) centering on the politics of ressentiment, so prevalent in our era.

Reading From the Ruins in Empire in 2020 I was amazed at some of the nearly 200-year-old critiques of the West. You could copy-and-paste them directly into today’s media. Mishra has done a brilliant job excavating these perspectives and tying them together with his usual smooth writing skill. The authour offers no specific solutions, but reading about such intellectual journeys outside the standard one of Western progress with everywhere else trying to catch up, is fascinating. This was probably the most thought-provoking book I read this year. With the waning of liberalism and democracy described by Luce and others, it feels like we are at another turning point. Discussions of what happens next are occurring worldwide, but what does the fall of liberal internationalism mean for Asia? What are the indigenous intellectual legacies that might fill the void? From the Ruins of Empire shows that there can be imagination outside the box of Western political thought, alternatives rooted in history, that are possibly more viable than completely new and alien systems.

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