James McAuley: Review of Pankaj Mishra's "From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia"

James McAuley is a Marshall scholar at the University of Oxford.

Last fall, the essayist and novelist Pankaj Mishra published a devastating review of Niall Ferguson’s “Civilization: The West and the Rest” in the London Review of Books, taking to task the best-selling Harvard historian’s latest love letter to the legacy of imperial conquest. For Mishra, the rhyming binary of Ferguson’s title was too close to the racist rhetoric employed to explain Western supremacy in the early 20th centry. Mishra went so far as to accuse Ferguson of racism, comparing him to Lothrop Stoddard, the infamous American historian who in the 1920s advocated nothing less than outright separation between white and colored peoples — between, as it were, “the West and the Rest.”

In the weeks that followed, Ferguson threatened to sue for libel, and the London Review became the primary battleground in one of recent memory’s most highly publicized intellectual bloodbaths. By now, the petty, personal dimension of this exchange has thankfully subsided. Nevertheless, a substantive conversation has ultimately managed to emerge from the scorched earth of the Mishra-Ferguson showdown, largely through Mishra’s latest book, “From the Ruins of Empire.”

On its face, the book is an extended rejoinder to the worldview Mishra so vehemently attacked in his review of “Civilization” — a view that, no matter how cosmopolitan its outlook or how humane its sensibility, still assumed the West to be both cradle and crossroads of world history. “For most people in Europe and America,” he writes, “the history of the twentieth century is still largely defined by the two world wars and the long nuclear stand-off with Soviet Communism.” However, he adds, “it is now clearer that the central event of the last century for the majority of the world’s population was the intellectual and political awakening of Asia and its emergence from the ruins of both Asian and European empires.”...

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