I read Pankaj Mishra’s “From the ruins of empire” in two days. This, I think, says enough about the quality of writing and the compelling interest of the subject (at least for me). The book deals with the intellectual responses of the humiliated Asia to European imperialism, and more generally to modernity. The theme is well known, but the main intellectual protagonists are, at least in the West, less well known. Mishra chooses to follow the lives and intellectual itineraries of three emblematic personalities, each reflecting the response to the Western challenge among Muslims, in China and in India. The trio are Jamal al-Afghani, Liang Qichao (of whom I knew nothing) and Rabindranath Tagore. The latter is discussed the least, al-Afghani the most, and perhaps in the most interesting fashion.
The book covers roughly the period from the Napoleonic wars (the chapter on al-Afghani opens with Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt) until the Paris Peace conference although at the end of the book World War II and even non-alignment are briefly discussed. The period corresponds (and that is in part why I was interested in the book) with the years when the income gap between the West and the Rest was at its zenith, and the between-country inequality was higher than ever. In simple terms it means that the gap in income, and more importantly in military power, between Europe and Asia was never as great as during the hundred year period following the Napoleonic wars. In my forthcoming book, I deal with this period under the evocative title “From Karl Marx to Frantz Fanon and back to Marx?”, reflecting the evolution of global inequality from the situation where most of inequality was due to (within-national) class differences to the period, covered in Mishra’s book, where most of inequality was due to differences in mean country incomes. (And if we wish to go into future, to a period when hypothetically most of inequality may again be due to “class” differences; hence “back to Marx” in the title).
I will not discuss here the rather obvious aspects of Mishra’s book that have been discussed before. I would prefer to focus on book’s (implicit) economic lessons. But before I do so, let me just mention two different points. First, the singular importance of Japan that may not be always appreciated and that Mishra underlines. Japan was crucial for the growth of Asian self-awareness at three key junctures. It was the first Asian country that military defeated a European power (Russia in 1905), its pan-Asian ideology, which led to unimaginable violence (as in the Nanking massacre), has however, by destroying European colonial regimes, paved unwittingly the way for decolonization, and Japan showed the way to economic development, later copied by Korea and China.
Secondly, I would like to register one disagreement with Mishra. It concerns his uncritical acceptance of some idyllic–seeming agricultural civilizations that predated colonialism and which were destroyed by it. I do not think that one needs to have huge knowledge of history to question how brutal warlords, extortionary landlords, wife burning and caste system, oppression and slaughters of religious and ethnic minorities, are compatible with that idyllic picture. Europe overwhelmed old Asian civilizations not only because it was more powerful militarily but because it profited from all internal splits in Asian countries (divide et impera), which clearly would not have existed had not the prior feudal and exploitative regimes been really bad.
But let’s go back to the economic lessons: what have we learned from two centuries of attempted catch-up with the West? Mishra’s three heroes (al-Afghani, Liang and Tagore) have different views, although none of them could be said to have had one view consistently throughout his life since with changing circumstances and their own intellectual tribulations, their views evolved. al-Afghani and Liang were also political exiles which, as Mishra points out, is always a difficult position, exacting from the exile not only a response to the vicissitudes of politics in his own country but the need to please the potentates in the country which provides him with a temporary and alas, ever-revocable haven.
I think one can consider three types of responses to the challenge posed by the West. (1) Rejection of modernism and return to a mythical harmonious past; (2) a “hard-edged” politically and ideologically “regimented” response which calls for a complete break with the past (rejection of Islam, Confucianism or caste system) exemplified by nationalist or Communist regimes, and (3) comprador bourgeois modernization that attempts to create a local middle class.
The “hard-edged” response, as shown by the examples of Japan, China and Turkey, was by far the most successful. Despite Mishra’s reluctance to endorse it, a wholesale rejection of Buddhism and the Shogunate in Japan (the Meiji restoration), of Confucianism in China (the May Fourth movement), and of Islam in Turkey (Ataturk’s reforms) was the way (perhaps the only way) to break the lethargy of economically stationary societies, to create strong and modern state institutions, and to proceed with industrialization which was indispensable for military power and thus for the reversal of humiliations inflicted by Western colonialism. It could be indeed argued that the Meiji reforms, Communist revolution in China, and Ataturk’s reforms in Turkey might have moved the pendulum too strongly in the other direction through root-and-branch rejection of millennial traditions, and that what we observe today in the three countries (return to traditionalism in Japan, to some Confucianism in China, and to Islam-light in Turkey) shows that the radical modernizing revolutions were not a success. But that is a wrong conclusion. Moving the pendulum too far in the secular and modernistic direction was necessary to break with the past. But once “normal” politics return, country will have become, thanks to the "hard-edged" approach, richer, people more self-confident, and injury of humiliation not as burning. It is then to be expected that a compromise solution, where some positive aspects of pre-modernist ideology are incorporated into the industrialized system, emerges.
Reflections on Mishra’s book can thus be used to inform our views about the current “backtracking” in Turkey and China. Both countries are fundamentally different today from what they were one hundred years ago (thanks precisely to the radical modernizations) and some elements of Islamism and Confucian ethics that are being reintroduced might even play a positive role (e.g., the emphasis on Confucian public mindedness in China).
But if the argument that root-and-branch rejection of the past is necessary to develop economically is true, it leaves us with the big question mark regarding the success of predominantly Islamic Arab countries. Ataturk’s revolution was unique in the Islamic world of the Middle East. Nasser and Baathist parties in Syria and Iraq came closest to it, and were the best hope for the development of the Middle East. But Baath has failed (for numerous reasons) and political support for the redefinition of Islam, or more exactly for its containment to the private sphere, is thoroughly lacking in Arab countries making radical modernization difficult even to imagine. The hold of Islam is so strong that every modernization attempt has to tip-toe around it, to try to find justifications in the texts written 1400 years ago, to address scholastic points, to argue what was meant in this or other interpretation of the Quran so that a straightforward and clear policy is permanently compromised by doctrinal disputes. Thus if the lessons implicit in Mishra’s book are correctly drawn it has to leave us with a more pessimistic than ever view of how to reconcile economic development and modern state with the feeling of self-confidence and observance of Islam in the Middle East.