Alternate Modernity in Asia

Alternate Modernity in Asia

From the Ruins of Empire:
The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia

by Pankaj Mishra
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012, 356 pp.

Pankaj Mishra asks good questions. As he has ascended from posh-poor Brahmin in provincial India, to New York Review of Books contributor, to London-based Bloomberg columnist, he has posed his trenchant questions to ever wider audiences. In his 2006 travelogue, Temptations of the West: How to be Modern in India, Pakistan, Tibet, and Beyond, Mishra catalogued local answers to the eponymous question. In his recent journalism, he appears to take special pleasure in impertinently interrogating the unexamined prejudices of the Economist-toting classes (for example, Should contemporary China’s economic system really be considered “Western-style capitalism?” Do the pronouncements of Niall Ferguson actually make any sense?) Now, with his magnum-est opus yet, the Eastern-pandit-turned-Western-pundit chronicles his intellectual forebears, the Asian cosmopolitans who first dreamed of a more equal world emerging, as his title puts it, From the Ruins of Empire.

Eschewing better-known practitioner-intellectuals such as Mohandas Gandhi and Mao Zedong, Mishra strives to give a trio of earlier thinkers their due: Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, a Persian-born pan-Islamist; Liang Qichao, a Chinese thinker who tried to square Confucian traditions with modernity; and Rabindranath Tagore, the Bengali poet-philosopher and Nobel laureate who relished his role in the West as explainer-cum-defender of the East, a kind of Asian “race man.” What the three have most in common is their globe-trotting biographies. Al-Afghani blossomed as an expatriate intellectual in British India and Egypt; Liang’s visit to California during the time of the Chinese Exclusion Act proved formative to his outlook; Tagore’s world tours as a literary celebrity (fittingly, he was hosted in China by Liang) gave him his global perspective on European imperialism. Viewing the humiliations that had befallen their respective homelands in comparative perspective—were not the French army’s drunken orgies in Cairo’s al-Azhar Mosque of a piece with the British military’s sacking of Beijing’s Summer Palace?—each thinker struggled to forge a path back to self-respect for his respective peoples.

As Mishra rightly notes, this “first generation of Asian intellectuals . . . became some of the most eloquent—and earliest—critics of modernity,” preceding by decades the West’s “Lost Generation,” which reevaluated modern notions of progress only after the carnage of the First World War. What led these Asian thinkers to their precocious conclusions was that the West’s own analysis of its dominance—that it was melanin-related—was preposterous on its face to these non-white men. This drove the trio to a deeper analysis of the political...

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