Book review: Pankaj Mishra’s Reckoning With Liberalism’s Bloody Past

One of the unfortunate temptations of the Trump era has been the rush to find radical breaks with the past where, in truth, the lines of continuity are strong. The themes of Trump’s speech were already well circulated among the Anglo-American elite, whether in the work of the political scientist Samuel Huntington or in the pages of the British political magazine The Spectator. “Invocations of the free world and talk of Western values came into vogue during the Cold War, and were meant to assert Western democracy’s superiority over Communism,” the left-wing Indian critic Pankaj Mishra wrote for at the time. “They were never very convincing even back then: The free world often supported brutal dictatorships, quickly discarding its values when it felt the need.” 

Bland Fanatics: Liberals, Race, and Empire; by Pankaj Mishra

Reviewed by Kanishk Tharoor

The president only did what so many previous European and American leaders have done, draping themselves in the mantle of culture to inveigh against an amorphous other. Appeals to Western values “invoke grand moral and political communities,” Mishra wrote. “But these imagined communities appear cohesive only so long as they can clearly identify an antagonist.”

Much of Mishra’s career has been spent rewriting that imagined “antagonist” into the history of liberalism. In Bland Fanatics, his latest collection of essays, Mishra notes that “racial exclusion has long been central to liberal universalism.” The 16 essays in the collection touch on numerous subjects—including modern reckonings with slavery and race in the United States, the life and legacy of the nineteenth-century Russian intellectual Alexander Herzen, the meaning of World War I, and the fascist mysticism of the popular Canadian psychology professor Jordan Peterson—but together advance Mishra’s rereading of the history of the twentieth century. The world looks rather different if you see the central event of the past 100 years not as the contest between Western liberalism and its antonyms, but rather, as Mishra does, the tumultuous process of decolonization, which reshaped the lives of most people on the planet...

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