Interrogating Pankaj Mishra’s Weltanschauung

By Vijay Vikram

From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia, Pankaj Mishra, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 356 pages

Pankaj Mishra is a fascinating creature. He was born to a family of pauperized Brahmins in Jhansi, a small town in the north of India in 1969. By the age of 20, he had spent “three idle, bookish years at a provincial university in a decaying old provincial town.” Like many young men of a bookish disposition, he had little idea of what to do with himself. He harbored literary ambitions, but was uncertain how to fulfill them. Add to this an aversion to “the modern world of work and achievement … careers and jobs” and we find ourselves in the company of a distinctly brooding, melancholy character who would either beat the odds and rise to make a mark on the world of English literature or die in obscurity.

He succeeded. By 2012, Mishra had completed the journey from periphery to metropole in a most spectacular manner. Mishra writes for—and is written about in—the New York Times. He trades barbs with Harvard historian and enthusiastic Atlanticist Niall Ferguson in the London Review of Books, produces punchy polemics for the Guardian, and files long, nonfiction essays for The New York Review of Books from all over the world. He also adds much-needed color to the opinion pages of the Financial Times and Bloomberg, titillating his elite Western capitalist readership with his decidedly non-Western, non-capitalist Weltanschauung.

Mishra’s eloquence is not in doubt. But what is it about the zeitgeist that explains his rise to secular sainthood in the Anglo-American literary establishment? What is it that makes him the West’s Orientalist-in-chief?

The West, post-9/11, is a chastened and humbled beast. Its adventures in the Muslim world have ended in disaster and many of its nations face political and economic crises at home. The prevailing mood in the West is curiously reminiscent of the Weimarian pessimism of the interwar period in the early 20th century, where a population bred on the Whiggish certitudes of the Victorian era struggled to come to terms with its self-immolation in World War I. Thus, it almost welcomed the polemical pessimism of Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West (1918) and its cruder American cousin, Theodore Lothrop Stoddard’s The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy (1920).

Similarly, Americans in the 21st century—unthinkingly nourished for generations on the unalloyed virtues of universal suffrage, free-market capitalism, and the self-seeking sovereign individual—cheerfully followed their political leaders into the darkest recesses of the Muslim world. The project to immanentize the American eschaton in the Middle East may not have cost as many lives as the Western civil wars popularly known as World Wars I and II, but it has created a parallel sense of shock and civilizational flux. In this environment of renewed civilizational pessimism, the West is increasingly open to critical diagnoses of its imperial overreach, particularly from eloquent outsiders.

It is in this context that Pankaj Mishra has flourished. Although Mishra is not a Westerner, and certainly no Spengler, he has eagerly embraced the narrative of Occidental decline and Oriental vitality. Concluding a recent op-ed in the New York Times, he argued, “It is the world’s newly ascendant nations and awakened peoples that will increasingly shape events in the post-Western era. America’s retrenchment is inevitable. The only question is whether it will be as protracted and violent as Europe’s mid-20th century retreat from a newly assertive Asia and Africa.”

The objective of Mishra’s new book is to articulate and synthesize the response of Asian thinkers to Western imperialism. The primary figures in this attempted synthesis are Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1838-1897), an itinerant anti-colonial Muslim political activist of Persian extraction, and Liang Qichao (1873-1929), who according to Mishra was China’s first modern intellectual. Mishra makes it clear that this book is a work of intellectual biography, yet one expected to find, at the very least, the lineaments of a broader theory of non-Western political modernity—a way for non-Western polities to conduct themselves in a post-Western world.

Instead one is greeted with a compendium of what men of previous generations have said on the topic. This is clearly sufficient for some. Mark Mazower in the Financial Times writes, “From the Ruins of Empire retains the power to instruct and even to shock. It provides us with an exciting glimpse of the vast and still largely unexplored terrain of anti-colonial thought that shaped so much of the post-western world in which we now live.”

But only a glimpse. Mishra fails even at the comparatively modest task of surveying Indian, Islamic, and Confucian responses to the Western juggernaut, let alone weaving them into a web of common meaning and crafting a theory of non-Western political modernity from their sinews. Fired by the urge to reach a lay audience, Mishra leaves the educated reader scratching his head in incomprehension at the short shrift awarded to the thinkers of his choice. The author jumps from world-historical event to world-historical event, political thinker to political thinker, in a desperate attempt to impose order and teleology onto the chaos that characterized the East’s original responses to the blue-eyed, red-bearded men of Europe.

Mishra does make some interesting claims of his own in the chapter “Asia Remade” and in the epilogue. He is correct to highlight the world-historical nature of the rise of the West: “White men, conscious of their burden changed the world for ever … successfully exporting its ideas to the remotest corners of the world, the West also destroyed native self-confidence, causing a political, economic and social desolation that can perhaps never be relieved by modernity alone.”

Despite this, he also writes, “the dominance of the West already appears just another, surprisingly short-lived phase in the long history of empires and civilizations.” There is a paradox here. The formal dominance of the West may be at an end. However, the ideational Pandora’s box opened by the West refuses to shut. As the English philosopher John Gray observes,

Even in those non-Occidental cultures which have preserved themselves substantially intact, and which have modernized without Westernizing their social forms and structures, the impact of the revolutionary nihilism of Westernization has been to disrupt the traditional conceptions of the human relationship with the Earth, and to supplant them by humanist and Baconian instrumentalist understandings, in which nature is no more than an object of human purposes.

In adopting the secrets of the West to beat the West, the non-West has Westernized itself. The “rest” may rise to inflict humiliation on the West, but they can only do so with the ideational weaponry of the West. Isn’t the greatest victory of all that in which one has succeeded in colonizing the minds of one’s enemies, turning them into doppelgangers of oneself? The West continues to live on in the practices of the East. In that sense, it has ensured its immortality.

Mishra recognizes this contradiction. “Much of the ‘emerging’ world now stands to repeat, on an ominously larger scale, the West’s own tortured and often tragic experience of modern ‘development,’” he observes near the end of his book. The triumph of Western-style scientific instrumentalism threatens to condemn “the global environment to early destruction, and looks set to create reservoirs of nihilistic rage … among hundred of millions of have-nots—the bitter outcome of the universal triumph of Western modernity, which turns the revenge of the East into something darkly ambiguous, and all its victories truly Pyrrhic.”

These meaningful observations are the saving graces of Mishra’s book. However, there is one odd, barely noticeable claim that must be singled out for scrutiny. He writes:

We can see that the seemingly wholesale adoption of Western ideologies (Chinese communism, Japanese imperialism) did not work. Attempts at syntheses (India’s parliamentary democracy, Muslim Turkey’s secular state, China’s state capitalism) were more successful…

While I am in complete agreement with the general principle, I am unable to fathom Mishra’s inclusion of “India’s parliamentary democracy” as an example of “synthesis.” What is it about India’s Westminster form of government that is native to her political traditions? The Constitution of India reads like a document of the European Enlightenment. India may have achieved formal independence from British rule in 1947, but her intellectual subservience to Western political thought continues.

Westernization-from-above is certainly a plausible post-colonial project. (In fact, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk managed it with finer aplomb than most as he romanized the Turkish alphabet and erected a wall of separation between mosque and state.) However, to attempt such a thing while unleashing the energies of universal mass suffrage from below is to court political dissolution. In The Times of India, Mishra has mourned that at 65 years old India has lost her way. The truth is, she never had her way in the first place. “Secularism and socialism” were somebody else’s words, somebody else’s thinking. India had merely borrowed them to give herself a political voice in the age of Western dominance. The real tragedy is India’s complete inability to synthesize a native alternative to Western democratism.

What hope then for the non-West? Mishra is right to focus on China as the Occident’s most formidable challenge but he does not see the Chinese articulating a meaningful universalist response to Western ideas of politics and economy. John Gray, however, is more optimistic:

In those non-Occidental cultures which have remained substantially intact, there may nevertheless be a possibility of a recovery of their traditional conceptions, such that they might successfully integrate Western technology without thereby succumbing wholly to Western humanism and nihilism.

This is the fundamental challenge for the non-West, and the man who lives up to it is the man who invents non-Occidental political modernity. There are signs that the Chinese have begun thinking in this direction. Eric X. Li, the Shanghai venture capitalist and polemicist, has begun articulating a non-Western conception of political modernity and Yan Xuetong, professor of International Relations at Tsinghua University has begun probing native Confucian traditions of “humane authority” to temper Chinese materialism. Similarly, Mark Lilla, a Western academic, has highlighted Chinese scholarly interest in the political theology of Carl Schmitt and Leo Strauss.

There is great intellectual ferment in China, and Mishra’s meditation on non-Western thought would have been much improved had he focused on it. However, despite the disappointment of this book, there is no better model than Pankaj Mishra for young non-Westerners eager to carve a niche for themselves in the West’s intellectual establishment. For this reason—and because his literature is some of the finest to emerge from the Indo-English encounter—he will be worth watching; his next move should not be missed.

This review was originally published as “Post-Colonial Prophet” in the 10th Anniversary Issue of The American Conservative and is posted here with permission of The American Conservative. Another review of the same book on this blog is here.


  • indiajones
    Posted at 17:49h, 11 November Reply

    The observation in the article ” India’s…subservience to Western political thought” would make any Indian uncomfortable and squirm. Maybe the writer would do better to research on not only the old colonial saw ” East is east and West is west, and never the twain shall meet ” which in a globalised world has become as redundant today, as another nonsensical line of thought about the conflict between the “West” and “Islam”, which again can lead nowhere, because one is geography, and another a matter of faith.

  • Vikram
    Posted at 18:15h, 11 November Reply

    Vijay, thank you for this interesting review and analysis of Pankaj Mishra. I am not very familiar with his work, but have read a few of his articles on the NYT and The Outlook. I found his ‘exchange’ with Patrick French particularly interesting [1].

    There are a few (perhaps predictable) points that I would like to contest in this write up. The first is the claim that there is nothing ‘native’ in India’s adoption of the parliamentary system.

    I would claim that there are atleast three critical features of modern democracy that were first introduced in India. The first is constitutionally enshrined social reparations (or affirmative action/reservations), which is having significant effects on economic, political and social mobility in India today [2,3].

    The second is state acceptance and promotion of multiculturalism. It is quite evident from basic national symbols like the national anthem, which is the first introduction to nationalism for the Indian child, that the Indian state accepts and celebrates its diversity. This was a quite radical departure from the Western model of a mono-cultural nation-state, and has been noted by many scholars and commentators, including Arend Lijphart [4], Yadav [5] and Kesavan [6].

    The third new introduction in the Indian system was a new definition of secularism, defined and implemented officially as dharm-nirpekshta (fair to all religions). This version of state secularism produces quite different results from the Western model of secularism as separation of church and state [7]. Of course, I may be wrong in claiming these are original Indian contributions to the idea of democracy, but so far, I havent found a democracy that had accepted and implemented these ideas before 1950.

    The second claim I would like to contest is the one about Chinese scholars offering a meaningful alternative to Western concepts of political modernity. I havent read the two authors you have posted, but have come across the writings of Zhang Weiwei [8]. And I found his views quite strange. If the Communist Party is so meritrocratic and competent, why does it not open itself to independent scrutiny within its borders ? And his analysis often just seems flawed. He first argues that Chinese leaders are promoted based on their economic performance in the provinces and a few paragraphs later points out the incompetency of George Bush. But George Bush performed quite well as Texas governor, and the economy of Texas is today one of the strongest in America. As per the Communist Party model, Rick Perry should be America’s president, not Obama. And even most Republicans did not agree with that idea.

    The third point is not in contrariety to anything you have said, but just an India-specific observation. I dont think that there is a desire of any kind among Indians to ‘defeat’ the West, ideologically or otherwise. I see virtually no feeling of antipathy towards America from the overwhelming majority of Indians. And this shows in the good diplomatic relations between the two countries, increasingly strong people to people contacts [9] and cultural exchanges [10]. The only people who may harbor such feelings toward the US in India are the far right (RSS, VHP etc) and far left (CPI, JNU/DU complex) groups, but they are a fringe (but vocal) minority in India.

    Sorry for this longish comment. Thank you again for the review.

    [2] Breaking the caste barrier. Intergenerational Mobility in India. Hnatkovska, Lahiri, Paul.
    [3] Castes and Labor Mobility. H, L, P.
    [4] Arend Lijphart — ‘Nation state’ or ‘state nation’? : India in comparative perspective. In Democracy & Diversity – K Bajpai
    [5] Yogendra Yadav. Lecture at IDRCCRDI.
    [6] Mukul Kesavan
    [7] Simon Robinson.,8599,1668481,00.html
    [8] Zhang Weiwei.
    [9] Can the American dream be reversed in India ?
    [10] Shankar Tucker, an American clarinetist blending Indian Classical and Western music.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 14:28h, 13 November

      Vikram: I wish Vijay had responded to your comment but since he hasn’t let me try and advance the discussion.

      First, I feel you are mixing up two things about India’s parliamentary system – native and innovative are not the same things. I believe Vijay is right to argue that the parliamentary system in India is neither indigenous nor did it emerge out any organic internally-driven process of change. You are also right to say that there are many new elements in that system.

      Second, the fact that Texas is one of the strongest states in the US is not proof enough that it was made so by George Bush.

    • Vikram
      Posted at 15:10h, 13 November

      SA, thanks for responding. I do agree that the Parliamentary system in India is not ‘indigenous’, but if we take such a view then no democratic system in the world would be, apart from Britain’s.

      I dont see democracy as a rigid system invented in a specific place and transported elsewhere. Democracy is a concept embedded deeply in our human selves and in our social arrangements. What the last 400 years have seen is a formalization of this concept, and incremental advances in making it translate into a better system.

      As for the assertion that the Indian system was not the result of an ‘organically-driven process’, one can make arguments both ways. But given that the principals of liberty and democracy were already well established in the US and UK, I guess the Indian leaders didnt see the point in reinventing the wheel.

      As for Texas and Bush, my point was a bit different from what your comment seems to imply. But lets leave that topic, its peripheral to the main discussion.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 06:07h, 14 November

      Vikram: Indigenous does not refer to first occurrence only. In this context, it refers to a politico-economic-social process out of which a new form emerges. France did not just borrow the parliamentary system from Britain nor did Britain gift it to France. There is an entire history, of which the intellectual history is the best evidence, that chronicles the evolution of the new form from the legacy of the old. The point being made is that there was no such process in India. I am aware that you have read Sunil Khilnani’s Idea of India but you have forgotten its first chapter. It is not an issue of Indian leaders reinventing the wheel; it is of Indian people demanding a new wheel of a particular type.

      What is the basis for saying that “democracy is a concept embedded deeply in our human selves and in our social arrangements”? If so, why did it take thousands of years of human history to materialize? You are turning Dr. Ambedkar on his head:”Democracy in India is only a top-dressing on an Indian soil, which is essentially undemocratic” and “In our social and economic life, we shall, by reason of our social and economic structure, continue to deny the principle of one man one value.”

    • Vikram
      Posted at 23:45h, 17 November

      “It is not an issue of Indian leaders reinventing the wheel; it is of Indian people demanding a new wheel of a particular type.”

      SA, in the strictest sense of the term ‘Indian people’, you are of course right. But do you think that to the middle classes of British India (or in a social sense, the Hindu upper castes), any model of government in which they did not have a vote would have been acceptable ? I seriously doubt this. The establishment of *universal* suffrage by the Constituent Assembly was not the result of a mass movement, but suffrage for a largish chunk of the society was.

      As for the other statement, perhaps you are thinking of democracy in institutional terms, which is what I was trying to avoid. Democracy is also a set of social protocols, an expectation of equality. Obviously Indian society, or for that matter *any* society did not practice such a democracy. But that doesnt mean that there were no efforts to establish such an equality, for example the insistence on treating all Muslims as equal in Islam, the various movements against caste throughout the history of India. America really only became a complete democracy in the 1960s, but would you deny that the original founding fathers of the US had some democratic ideals in mind ?

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 14:51h, 19 November

      Vikram: Yes, it is quite true that the upper class of Indians (a miniscule part of Indian society not a largish chunk) wanted a say in governance. But this does not imply that the model of Westminster-style parliamentary rule had any relationship to Indian traditions or the aspirations of its people which is the point Vijay is making.

      The expectation of equality or efforts to establish equality do not necessarily translate into democracy and certainly not into a specific type of electoral model. Just to take your own example, the insistence on treating all Muslims as equal in Islam did not translate into democracy nor into representational governance. The champions of Islam in Saudi Arabia still have a monarchy.

      The American case is quite different from the Indian one. The American Founding Fathers were intellectually a part of the European Enlightenment and all their ideas were rooted in that tradition. The one who best illustrates the links between England, America and France is of course Thomas Paine.

  • Vikram
    Posted at 17:19h, 24 November Reply

    “But this does not imply that the model of Westminster-style parliamentary rule had any relationship to Indian traditions or the aspirations of its people which is the point Vijay is making.”

    SA, so what party and who represented the Indian traditions and the aspirations of its people ? If it wasnt the Congress party, and the leaders of the independence movement, then who was it, or who could it have been ?

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 16:22h, 26 November

      Vikram: No one. I think that is the point being made about the Indian situation.

      Recall Sunil Khilnani’s remark in The Idea of India about how unrepresentative Indian political parties were: “most people in India had no idea of what exactly they had been given. Like the British empire it supplanted, India’s constitutional democracy was established in a fit of absent-mindedness.”

      And Pratap Bhanu Mehta in his book The Burden of Democracy: “The significance of India’s democratic experiment was itself disguised by the historical process through which it came about… It was not the object of ideological passion, it was not born of a deep sense of conviction widely shared, but it was simply the contingent outcome of the conflicts amongst India’s different elites, or an unintended by-product of the British having produced too many lawyers adept in the idioms of modern politics.”

    • Vikram
      Posted at 00:50h, 28 November

      SA, I am afraid that still doesnt answer my question. What according to you, were the aspirations of the Indian people at the time of independence ? What did the hundreds of thousands of Indians who went to jail during the independence movement want ?

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 03:20h, 28 November

      Vikram: I feel the question has been adequately answered by Sunil Khilnani and Pratap Mehta in the statements quoted in an earlier comment. If you think there were some very obvious aspirations of the Indian people, it would help for you to spell them out.

      Can we have a better fix on the number of the hundreds of thousands of Indians who went to jail during the independence movement? It would also be of interest to get a geographical distribution. Those who did presumably wanted independence (some went in for unrelated demands like Khilafat) but that does not equate to a mass movement for any particular form of governance which is the point of the article.

    • Vikram
      Posted at 15:33h, 04 December

      SA, one quite widely held aspiration was that of land reform, Granville Austin mentions this in his chapter on land rights in his book on the Indian Constitution. And like I said earlier, the educated middle classes (small in number but influential) would probably have not accepted a non-democratic government.

      Regarding mass movements for a particular form of governance, I think such movements are extremely rare. And a cursory glance at this list of most ethnically diverse countries, tells us that they are almost unknown in very diverse countries.

      I would be interested in hearing your thoughts about Indira Gandhi’s defeat in the 1977 election.

      A good person to answer the question about the number of people arrested might be Ram Guha. He is known to respond to all emails sent to him, hopefully he will respond to mine.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 11:49h, 05 December

      Vikram: Aspirations for land reforms or Indira Gandhi’s defeat in 1977 are not germane to this discussion. Even in the age of Empire, people must have had some aspirations and there were revolts against individual rulers. The point being reiterated is the one that Dr. Ambedkar articulated at the very beginning – that a system based on democracy was being grafted onto a foundation that was essentially undemocratic and for which both Sunil Khilnani and Pratap Mehta have argued there was no demand at the mass level. The questions being explored relate to the implication, if any, of this graft as well as the extent to which the graft has been accepted by the body in spirit and not just in form.

      As for the educated middle class, it is a hypothesis that it would not have accepted a non-democratic government. The educated middle class, it is argued, is the most entranced with authoritarian governance. Read this about the fascination with Hitler in India:

  • Vikram
    Posted at 17:29h, 24 November Reply

    Lets look at things from a different point of view.

    Modern Japan was formed after a humiliating defeat in World War 2 and American imposed democracy ? Is modern Japan not in tune with the aspirations of its people ?

    Modern Indonesia, in parallel to modern India was given its current political form by the Dutch colonial administration. Like English in India, Bahasa Indonesia is not the native language of the overwhelming majority of the people. The country was a dictatorship for a long time, but yet became a democracy recently. Is this not in tune with the aspirations of the Indonesian people ?

    Modern China came about by a peasant revolution led by an authoritarian leader who then implemented a Leninist state. Is the claim then that this setup was and is more in tune with Chinese traditions and the aspirations of its people ? Just because China has a bigger GDP today than it had ten years ago ?

    Where can I find an example of the kind of system that you are mentioning ?

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 06:15h, 27 November

      Vikram: You are misinformed about Japan which was ‘modern’ well before WW2, the process beginning with the Meiji Revolution in the mid 1860s. There were elections, a Constitution, and popular struggles for universal suffrage before the turn of the century. Japan was a modern industrial power by 1900 and was one of the six permanent members of the Council of the League of Nations.

      The transition from feudal to representative forms of government is a universal phenomenon – even countries that do not desire to be democratic have to pretend to be democratic. The issue is not that the change has occurred in various places but of the process that has led to the change. When there is a mass struggle or a revolution associated with the change, the sentiments of the population become associated with it. The point that is being stressed in this discussion is that the transition in India involved neither – the British got exhausted after WW2 and decided to leave before the Indians actually wanted them to. A very contrary example of how colonial powers left would be Vietnam.

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