Pankaj Mishra

Pankaj Mishra’s Bland Fanatics: Liberals, Race and Empire is published this summer.

From The Blog
17 May 2021

In recent weeks, as smoke from mass funeral pyres rose across India, Penguin Random House India cranked up the publicity machinery for their most famous ‘author’, Narendra Modi. The cruelty and callousness of powerful men have been at the centre of many spirited recent debates within publishing houses across Europe and America.

Neither Britain nor America seems capable of dealing with the critical challenges to collective security and welfare thrown up by the coronavirus. No less crushing is the exposure, as Rhodes finally falls, of the fact that the power and prestige of Anglo-America originated in grotesque atrocities and, as William James wrote in 1897, that ‘a land of freedom, boastfully so called, with human slavery enthroned at the heart of it’ was always ‘a thing of falsehood and horrible self-contradiction’. The moralising history of the modern world written by its early winners – the many Plato-to-Nato accounts of the global flowering of democracy, liberal capitalism and human rights – has long been in need of drastic revision. At the very least, it must incorporate the experiences of late-developing nations: their fraught and often tragic quests for meaningful sovereignty, their contemptuously thwarted ideas for an egalitarian world order, and the redemptive visions of social movements, from the Greens in Germany to Dalits in India.

Samuel Moyn wants to reinstate socialism – which was, after all, the ‘central language of justice’ globally before it was supplanted by human rights – as an ethical ideal and political objective. This may seem like a quixotic project.

He visibly struggles with the question ‘Why do white people like what I write?’ This is a fraught issue for the very few writers from formerly colonised countries or historically disadvantaged minorities in the West who are embraced by ‘legacy’ periodicals, and then tasked with representing their people – or country, religion, race, and even continent. Relations between the anointed ‘representative’ writer and those who are denied this privilege by white gatekeepers are notoriously prickly. Coates, a self-made writer, is particularly vulnerable to the charge that he is popular among white liberals since he assuages their guilt about racism.

What Is Great about Ourselves: Closing Time

Pankaj Mishra, 21 September 2017

‘Most of the white people I have ever known,’ James Baldwin once wrote, ‘impressed me as being in the grip of a weird nostalgia, dreaming of a vanished state of security and order.’ Today, longing for the ancien régime increasingly defines the Atlantic seaboard’s pundits as much as it does the fine people defending the honour of Robert E. Lee. It remains to be seen whether America, Britain, Europe and liberalism can be made great again. But it already seems clear that the racial supremacist in the White House and many of his opponents are engaged in the same endeavour: to extend closing time in their own gardens in the West.

The​ Soviet-subsidised mobile bookshops that enlivened my provincial childhood in the India of the late 1970s and early 1980s always had, in among the English translations of Marx, Lenin and various socialist realist novels, an edition of Alexander Herzen’s novel Who Is to Blame? The title was irresistible and its theme of stupor and futility in the provinces seemed both contemporary...

Bland Fanatics: Liberalism and Colonialism

Pankaj Mishra, 3 December 2015

Visiting​ Africa and Asia in the 1960s, Conor Cruise O’Brien discovered that many people in former colonies were ‘sickened by the word “liberalism”’. They saw it as an ‘ingratiating moral mask which a toughly acquisitive society wears before the world it robs’. O’Brien – ‘incurably liberal’ himself (at least in this early...

Mark Greif’s​ book is a bracingly ambitious attempt at a ‘philosophical history’ of the American mid-century, a chronological account of writers and their ideas. It begins in 1933 with an apparently widely perceived ‘crisis of man’ in American intellectual culture and is cut off, equally surgically, in 1973, with academic theory’s announcement of the...

After Suharto

Pankaj Mishra, 10 October 2013

I first visited Indonesia in 1995. For someone from India, as I was, to arrive in a country that was once part of the Hindu-Buddhist ecumene was to drift into a pleasurable dream where minor figures familiar from childhood readings of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata loomed over city squares. The Dutch, unlike the British in India, had inflicted few obviously self-aggrandising monuments on the country they exploited. Squatters now lived in the decaying colonial district of Kota in Jakarta where the Dutch had once created a replica of home.

Postcolonial Enchantment: Nadeem Aslam

Pankaj Mishra, 7 February 2013

In October 2001, media reports claimed that tens of thousands of Pakistanis had volunteered to help the victims of the American bombing of Afghanistan. Many of these men (and women), whose fate has remained largely obscure to us, crossed the porous Pakistan-Afghanistan border to fight the invading ‘infidels’; others stayed behind to help arriving refugees. The Blind Man’s...

Why weren’t they grateful? Mossadegh

Pankaj Mishra, 21 June 2012

In 1890, an itinerant Muslim activist called Jamal al-din al-Afghani was in Iran when its ruler granted a tobacco concession to a British businessman, effectively granting him a monopoly on its purchase, sale and export. Al-Afghani set up pressure groups in Tehran which sent anonymous letters to officials and distributed leaflets calling on Iranians to revolt. Helped by the recently introduced telegraph, the mass demonstrations of the Tobacco Protest, as it came to be called, were as carefully co-ordinated as they would be in Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution.

Watch this man: Niall Ferguson’s Burden

Pankaj Mishra, 3 November 2011

‘Civilisation’s going to pieces,’ Tom Buchanan, the Yale-educated millionaire, abruptly informs Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby. ‘I’ve gotten to be a terrible pessimist about things. Have you read The Rise of the Colored Empires by this man Goddard? … The idea is if we don’t look out the white race will be – will be utterly submerged.’

‘America created the 20th century,’ Gertrude Stein wrote in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, ‘and since all the other countries are now either living or commencing to be living a 20th-century life, America having begun the creation of the 20th century in the sixties of the 19th century is now the oldest country in the world.’ She meant, quite reasonably, that America was the oldest country in the world because it was the first to be modern. By 1933, Stein had already witnessed the industrialisation of America and the new technologies of standardisation and control unleashed by Fordism and Taylorism. Had she lived longer into the 20th century, one can only imagine what she would have made of the many organisation men, hidden persuaders and lonely crowds still to come, or of the other ideological prisons created by the national security state and the Cold War.

Rise of the Rest: After America

Pankaj Mishra, 6 November 2008

In 1946, George Kennan, then the deputy head of the US mission in Moscow, sent a 5300-word telegram to Washington, hoping to alert his superiors to the threat of Soviet expansionism. Kennan had complained repeatedly and fruitlessly about what he saw as America’s indulgent attitude towards the Soviet Union, but for a crucial moment in 1946 his idea that the US should strike an alliance with Western Europe in order to contain Soviet Communism found listeners in Washington. The so-called Long Telegram, subsequently turned into an article in Foreign Affairs, became the basis of the Truman Doctrine, which proclaimed America’s willingness to fight the spread of Communism, militarily as well as economically.

Ordained as a Nation: Exporting Democracy

Pankaj Mishra, 21 February 2008

Early in The Wilsonian Moment, Erez Manela tells a story about Ho Chi Minh that I often heard in student Communist circles in India. Ho was an indigent worker in Paris when Woodrow Wilson arrived in the city in 1919 with a plan to make the world ‘safe for democracy’. Inspired by Wilson’s advocacy of national self-determination, Ho sought an audience with the US president, hoping to persuade him to use his new influence to restore Vietnamese rule in French Indo-China. He carefully quoted from the US Declaration of Independence in his petition. In Manela’s more poignant version, he also rented a morning suit. Needless to say, Ho got nowhere near Wilson or any other Western leader; he found a sympathetic audience only among French Communists.

Getting Rich: in Shanghai

Pankaj Mishra, 30 November 2006

The ruins of Shanghai come as a surprise in a city so defiantly modern. Demolished low-rise houses lie in downtown streets next to luxury condominiums with names such as ‘Rich Gate’, the wreckage reflected in the glass façades of tall office buildings. In Dongjiadu, Shanghai’s oldest quarter, bulldozers were expected within the fortnight, the old women squatting silently in the cramped alleys helpless before them. But you can’t get too sentimental about Shanghai, a place built, like Bombay, in the 19th century on the back of the opium trade.

We sat in a rooftop café in Thamel, Kathmandu’s tourist centre, a few hundred feet from the royal palace. March, the businessman said, was a good season for tourists in Nepal. ‘But look,’ he continued, pointing to the alleys below us, where the bookshops, trekking agencies, cybercafés, bakeries, malls and restaurants were empty. In recent years, the tourist industry has been damaged by news in the international press about the Maoist guerrillas, who model themselves on the Shining Path in Peru, and whose ‘people’s war’ has claimed more than 11,000 lives since 1996. Even fewer tourists have ventured to Nepal since 1 February this year, when King Gyanendra, citing the threat presented by the Maoists, grounded all flights, cut off phone and internet lines, arrested opposition politicians and imposed censorship on the media.

Diary: India’s New Class

Pankaj Mishra, 19 June 1997

As I write, India is about to have its third prime minister in less than eleven months, but such apparent instability seems to concern New Delhi’s chattering classes only in so far as they worry about what the rest of the world might think. Evidently, or so the popular belief goes, in this 50th year of independence, the world’s eyes are trained on India. Accordingly, we must do nothing that shows the country in ‘a bad light’. The suggestion that if the world does spare a glance at India, it may notice some not very attractive features, is deeply resented. But then the self-esteem of the metropolitan bourgeoisie is a fragile thing. ‘Don’t talk to me about poverty and all that, please,’ the bright young trainee at the Indian Express admonishes me. ‘Every country has that. After all, India has survived as a democracy. Isn’t that great? Even Time magazine said so.’


Watch this man

3 November 2011

Pankaj Mishra writes: Niall Ferguson’s strenuous attempts to distinguish himself from Stoddard – which make him flag his differences with, of all people, George Wallace – are misplaced. Hardly anyone is a racist in the Stoddardian sense today, even if they raise the alarm against Muslim ‘colonisers’ of a ‘senescent’ Europe, or fret about feckless white Americans...

Hindi or Hinglish

6 November 2008

Sanjay Subrahmanyam doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence in his literary taxonomies when he presents Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things as an instance of ‘magical realism’ and makes Lee Siegel, an estimable American scholar, appear to be an Indian novelist (LRB, 6 November). Breezily positing ‘two broad categories’ of Indian writers in English, he ignores a host...

In​ The Passions and the Interests, published in 1977, Albert Hirschman revisited the 18th-century argument that the pursuit of worldly self-interest might be the most effective way of...

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