Niall Ferguson, in his impressive and exuberant book Civilization, published last year, sought to explain why Western civilisation triumphed in the centuries after the Renaissance with reference to six factors. He identified them as competition, science, property, medicine consumption and work, or a particular work ethic.
These historical tours d’horizon are never without their critics, and Ferguson’s confident account of what one had thought an undoubted historical phenomenon found a memorable one in the pages of the London Review of Books. The London-based writer Pankaj Mishra dismissed what he saw as a triumphalist tone, and refused to accept that those eastern civilisations which are now in the ascendant have learnt from the West. The idea that the Chinese are, in Mishra’s paraphrase, ‘a thrifty, shrewd people who, in colonising remote African lands and building up massive reserves of capital, seem to borrow from the grand narrative of the West’s own ascent’ was obviously wrong and unacceptable.
Mishra made, moreover, an interesting case for the West possibly not triumphing at all. He drew our attention to research which claimed that China was economically neck-and-neck with Europe until 1800; he compared Tipu Sultan in energy and military skill to Frederick the Great; he emphasised Muslim contributions to European science. In short, he suggested that Europe only really triumphed for about five minutes in the 19th century before non-western forces began to assert their influence once again.
The reader may have been forgiven for finding this account somewhat unconvincing. What the real narrative was, and where Chinese ideas of colony and capital might truly have emerged from, remained unexplained in the review.
Perhaps still more strikingly, Mishra was so confident of his case that he appeared to compare Ferguson to a notorious racist theorist of the early 20th century, Theodore Lothrop Stoddard, who wrote The Rising Tide of Color Against White World Supremacy — an accusation which would be absurd to anyone who knows anything of Fergusson, but which lawyers for the London Review of Books saw nothing actionable in. Amusingly, both men are not only published by Penguin Books, but share the same editor, the estimable Simon Winder.
Now Mishra has the opportunity to make his case in book-length form. Where does the triumph of China come from? Why has India, having struggled against difficulties, seem set at last on a path to dominance? Why has the Middle East failed in almost every case? Where, if not from western ideas of industry, competition, finance, medicine and science do the successful aspects of Asian culture emerge from?
Mishra’s initial answer is Japan. He places a lot of emphasis on the inspiration to self-determination afforded by the defeat of the Russian naval fleet by the Japanese in 1904-5. ‘Japan had shown that Asian countries could find their own path to modern civilisation and its special vigour.’
Other sources of intellectual excitement, in this account, include the 19th- century thinker Jamal al-din al-Afghani, who sought to unify Islam against imperialism. It was this sort of thinking which encouraged figures like the Mahdi in Sudan, and persuaded Wilhelm II to spread the ridiculous rumour that he had secretly converted to Islam. Al-Afghani was the original Greenmantle, and his followers trace a direct line through the founder of Islamism, Sayyid Qutb, to al-Qa’eda and other unsavoury groups.
Qutb gets soft treatment here — Mishra says merely that he ‘found little in the American model of politics and society to recommend back home’. That is one way of putting it. Mishra also downplays the loony ramblings of the sage himself, who said after returning from America that
the American girl is well acquainted with her body’s seductive capacity. She knows seductiveness lies in the round breasts, the full buttocks, and in the shapely thighs, sleek legs — and she shows all this and does not hide it.The American is primitive in his artistic taste, [including] the music that the Negroes invented to satisfy their primitive inclinations, as well as their desire to be noisy on the one hand and to excite bestial tendencies on the other.
There are plenty of other writers cited who obviously have no idea what they are talking about. The Japanese poet Yonejiro Noguchi, for instance, who wrote in 1944 that ‘America was the country of Whitman/England the country of Browning/But now they are dissolute countries fallen into the pit of wealth’ clearly knew nothing of Browning or Whitman’s time, and doesn’t deserve to be quoted without ridicule.
The same tendency in Mishra to give the benefit of the doubt is apparent when we come to China. The tens of millions who died under Mao Zedong are briefly acknowledged. But mostly we hear that he succeeded in ‘reviving and unifying China around a shared ethic’. (Unless you didn’t share it, in which case you were murdered.). He was ‘of modest means and great intellectual curiosity’. His comments are quoted without irony, including even: ‘The great union of the Chinese people will be achieved earlier than that of any other people. Our golden age, our age of glory and splendour, lies before us!’
An employee of the British empire murdered 400 people at Amritsar. That was totally unacceptable, as the government immediately saw, and prosecuted him. There is no doubt that terrible things were done in the empire’s name, and that those who sought independence for their nations were acting nobly and with the best of intentions. But I don’t think that you can deplore the massacre at Amritsar — without, incidentally, saying that the officer in charge was relieved of his command — while at the same time give the general impression that Mao was, at worst, a regrettable historical necessity.
Mishra betrays other less than even-handed examples of historical thinking. If it is a spontaneous uprising of national feeling to seek independence before 1945, it is ‘the imported ideological passions of the Cold War’ — in other words, still the West’s fault — that lead to ‘separatist movements [breaking] out in Kashmir, Aceh, East Pakistan, Tibet and Sri Lanka’. It takes some nerve to go on referring to Bangladesh, 40 years later, as a ‘separatist movement’ represented by ‘East Pakistan’. Bangladesh is nowhere else referred to in the book, perhaps because the brutal massacres which accompanied its independence struggle in 1971 can only realistically be ascribed, in the first instance, to Pakistani troops.
This is a controversial book, but unlike Ferguson’s Civilization, it can only be regarded as a polemic, and not as a historical argument. (I should say that I find Mishra’s style only intermittently readable.) It restricts itself to the Asian sources of resistance and revolt, which supplies some interesting material. Western sources of thought and debate enter just in passing, which seems to me to misrepresent many of the most prominent thinkers here, from Tagore to Muhammad Khatami: they did not only react to Western thought through rejection and contempt.
The rise and remaking of Asia is a fascinating subject, and one which is going to preoccupy us all for decades to come. Where it originates, what this exciting shift of civilisations means and what it consists of — these are questions which deserve to be answered even-handedly and without preconception.