The political currents that ran through Asia in the first half of the 20th century and the final portion of the 19th are well known (if not always well understood). Programmes for independence, revolution and reform, where they succeeded, have been elevated to founding lores; the men and women who led them have been inducted into history books. But the intellectual currents – the ballast underlying these thrusts – have been largely forgotten in this myth-making process. From the Ruins of Empire, Pankaj Mishra's survey of the early modern Asian responses to Western imperialism, arrives as a timely corrective, just as these countries undergo fresh – if different – convulsions.
The book is anchored on a clutch of lesser known men who by turns appear intelligent, idealistic, naive and insightful; classic intellectuals, in other words, who attempted to respond to the power of the West, to both its imperialism and its conception of modernity. The author turns to itinerant scholars and reformers such as Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and Liang Qichao, whose responses continue to shape and inform political debate across Asia and the Middle East. But, to Mishra's credit, this book is not a celebration of the East and Eastern thinkers in the way that some modern accounts of Western empires are – whether intentionally or not – tributes to marauding imperialists. (For that is what the latter were, regardless of their skill at laying railway tracks in far-off lands.)
Mishra's subjects set out to take on Western imperial power with little more than ideas, and in the process they enriched both their societies and the world at large. But, as the author admits in an essay at the end, "the course of history has bypassed many of their fondest hopes".
Today, it is undoubtedly true that "the spell of Western power" to which the early modern intellectuals of Asia sought to respond has been broken, and the "sense of humiliation that burdened several generations of Asians has greatly diminished". But, as Mishra bemoans, "this success conceals an immense intellectual failure ... no convincingly universalist response exists today to Western ideas of politics and economy, even though the latter seem increasingly febrile and dangerously unsuitable in large parts of the world."