RECOGNIZE: The Ruins of Empire

A narcissistic history – one obsessed with western ideals, achievements, failures and challenges – can only retard a useful understanding of the world today...the central event of the modern era, for a majority of the world's population, is the intellectual and political awakening of Asia and its emergence, still incomplete, from the ruins of both Asian and European empires.

By Pankaj Mishra - The Guardian

The British empire, George Orwell wrote, was "despotism with theft as its final object". So what has made imperialism an intellectual fashion in our own time, reopening hoary disputes about whether it was good or bad? After five years as a colonial policeman in Burma, where he found himself shooting an elephant to affirm the white man's right to rule, Orwell was convinced that the imperial relationship was that of "slave and master". Was the master good or bad? "Let us simply say," Orwell wrote, "that this control is despotic and, to put it plainly, self-interested." And "if Burma derives some incidental benefit from the English, she must pay dearly for it."

Orwell's hard-won insights were commonplace truisms for millions of Asians and Africans struggling to end western control of their lands. Their descendants can only be bewildered by the righteous nostalgia for imperialism that has recently seized many prominent Anglo-American politicians and opinion-makers, who continue to see Asia through the narrow perspective of western interests, leaving unexamined and unimagined the collective experiences of Asian peoples.

Certainly, as Joseph Conrad wrote in 1902, "the conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much." Two years after Conrad published Heart of Darkness, Roger Casement, then a British diplomat, revealed in a report that half of the population of Belgian-ruled Congo – nearly 10 million people – had perished under a brutal regime where beheadings, rape and genital mutilation of African labourers had become the norm. Such overt violence and terror is only a small part of the story of European domination of Asia and Africa, which includes the slow-motion slaughter of tens of million in famines caused by unfettered experiments in free trade – and plain callousness (Indians, after all, would go on breeding "like rabbits", Winston Churchill argued when asked to send relief during the Bengal famine of 1943-44).

The unctuous belief that British imperialists, compared to their Belgian and French counterparts, were exponents of fair play has been dented most recently by revelations about mass murder and torture during the British suppression of the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya in the 1950s. Nevertheless, in one of the weirdest episodes of recent history, a Kipling-esque rhetoric about bringing free trade and humane governance to "lesser breeds outside the law" has resonated again in the Anglo-American public sphere. Even before 9/11, Tony Blair was ready to tend, with military means if necessary, to, as he put it, "the starving, the wretched, the dispossessed, the ignorant" around the world. His apparently more intellectual rival Gordon Brown urged his compatriots to be "proud" of their imperial past. Sensing a sharper rightward shift after 9/11, many pith-helmet-and-jodhpurs fetishists boisterously outed themselves, exhorting politicians to recreate a new western imperium through old-style military conquest and occupation of native lands.

Embracing such fantasies of "full-spectrum dominance", American and European policymakers failed to ask themselves a simple question: whether, as Jonathan Schell put it, "the people of the world, having overthrown the territorial empires, are ready to bend the knee to an American overlord in the 21st"? After two unwinnable wars and horribly botched nation-building efforts, and many unconscionable human losses (between 600,000 and one million in Iraq alone), the "neo-imperialists" offering seductive fantasies of the west's potency look as reliable as the peddlers of fake Viagra. Yet, armour-plated against actuality by think tanks, academic sinecures and TV gigs, they continue to find eager customers. Of course, as the historian Richard Drayton points out, the writing of British imperial history, has long been a "patriotic enterprise". Wishing to "celebrate" empire, Michael Gove plans to entrust the task of rewriting the history syllabus to Niall Ferguson, one of the "neo-imperialist" cheerleaders of the assault on Iraq, who now craves "creative destruction" in Iran and whose "skilful revision of history" the Guardian's Jeevan Vasagar asserted last month, "will reverberate for years to come".

Clearly, it would help if no Asian or African voices interrupt this intellectual and moral onanism. Astonishing as it may seem, there is next to nothing in the new revisionist histories of empire, or even the insidious accounts of India and China catching up with the west, about how writers, thinkers and activists in one Asian country after another attested to the ravages of western imperialism in Asia: the immiseration of peasants and artisans, the collapse of living standards and the devastation of local cultures. We learn even less about how these early Asian leaders diagnosed from their special perspective the political and economic ideals of Europe and America, and accordingly defined their own tasks of self-strengthening.

Asian intellectuals couldn't help but notice that Europe's much-vaunted liberal traditions didn't travel well to its colonies. Mohammed Abduh, the founder of Islamic modernism, summed up a widespread sentiment when, after successive disillusionments, he confessed in 1895 that: "We Egyptians believed once in English liberalism and English sympathy; but we believe no longer, for facts are stronger than words. Your liberalness we see plainly is only for yourselves, and your sympathy with us is that of the wolf for the lamb which he deigns to eat."

In 1900, British atrocities during the Boer war and the brutal western suppression of the Boxer rising in China had provoked the pacifist poet Rabindranath Tagore to compare, in one unusually violent image, such bards of imperialism as Kipling to mangy dogs. "Awakening fear, the poet-mobs howl round / A chant of quarrelling curs on the burning-ground." Writing in 1907, the Indian nationalist Aurobindo Ghose was even harsher on lachrymose claims about the white man's burden. As Ghose saw it, previous conquerors, including the English in Ireland, had been serenely convinced that might is always right. But in the 19th century, the age of democratic nationalism, imperialism had to pretend "to be a trustee of liberty … These Pharisaic pretensions were especially necessary to British imperialism because in England the puritanic middle class had risen to power and imparted to the English temperament a sanctimonious self-righteousness which refused to indulge in injustice and selfish spoliation except under a cloak of virtue, benevolence and unselfish altruism."

There is something to Ghose's tirade. Free-traders and freebooters may have found merely convenient the idea that Asia was full of unenlightened people, who had to be saved from themselves. But many European and American intellectuals brought to it a solemn sincerity. Even John Stuart Mill, the patron saint of modern liberalism, claimed that "despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, if the end be their improvement." By 1900, such views had hardened into propaganda, and a mania for imperial expansion, drummed up by the press and politicians, had become part of the political life of European societies.

Scrambling to catch up with Europe, even the United States embraced the classic imperialism of conquest and occupation, expelling Spain from its Caribbean backyard and flexing its muscles in east Asia. In 1903, Liang Qichao, China's foremost modern intellectual and a major early influence on Mao Zedong, was visiting America when Washington manipulated its way into control of Panama and its crucial canal. It reminded Liang of how the British had compromised Egypt's independence over the Suez canal. Liang feared that original meaning of the Monroe doctrine – "the Americas belong to the people of the Americas" – was being transformed into "the Americas belong to the people of the United States". "And who knows," Liang added in a book he wrote about his travels, "if this will not continue to change, day after day from now on, into 'the world belongs to the United States'".

"In the world," Liang concluded bleakly, "there is only power – there is no other force … Hence, if we wish to attain liberty, there is no other road: we can only seek first to be strong." A whole generation of Chinese leaders and intellectuals grew up sharing Liang's social Darwinist belief "in the present-day international struggles in which the whole citizenry participate (and compete) for their very lives and properties, people are united as if they have one mind". No less a "westerniser" than Deng Xiaoping would uphold the primary imperative of national self-strengthening even as he broke with Maoism in the late 1970s and supervised China's transition to a market economy: "Our country must develop," Deng declared, using words emblazoned on billboards across China and still guiding the Communist party's politburo. "If we do not develop then we will be bullied. Development is the only hard truth." READ MORE

Image: Cecil Rhodes and the British wishes of a British Africa from the Mediterranean to the Cape of Good Hope