A Welcome Attack on Churchill and WilsonTags Book ReviewsWar and Foreign PolicyWorld History
Bland Fanatics: Liberals, Race, and Empire
by Pankaj Mishra
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020
Pankaj Mishra dislikes the free market, and he blames it for the imperial conquests of the nineteenth century and after. But much of his book can be read as an extended commentary on some remarks by the great champion of the free market Ludwig von Mises.
In Liberalism (1927), Mises says:
The considerations and objectives that have guided the colonial policy of the European powers since the age of the great discoveries stand in the sharpest contrast to all the principles of liberalism. The basic idea of colonial policy was to take advantage of the military superiority of the white race over the members of other races. The Europeans set out, equipped with all the weapons and contrivances that their civilization placed at their disposal, to subjugate weaker peoples, to rob them of their property, and to enslave them….No chapter of history is steeped further in blood than the history of colonialism. Blood was shed uselessly and senselessly. Flourishing lands were laid waste; whole peoples destroyed and exterminated. All this can in no way be extenuated or justified. The dominion of Europeans in Africa and in important parts of Asia is absolute. It stands in the sharpest contrast to all the principles of liberalism and democracy, and there can be no doubt that we must strive for its abolition.
Mishra does not cite Mises, but he acknowledges that Richard Cobden, the great classical liberal defender of free trade, opposes imperialism: “India for Cobden was a ‘country we do not know how to govern’ and Indians were justified in rebelling against an inept despotism” (p. 192). Nevertheless, he continues to blame capitalism for imperialism, adopting a standard Marxist line.
You might expect at this point a denunciation of Mishra for his mistakes, but I do not propose to proceed in this way. He is a writer of considerable insight, and he repays careful study. Educated in both India and England, he has read very widely in both Eastern and Western sources, and among the latter he treats not only Marx with respect, but also George Santayana and Reinhold Niebuhr. Indeed, it is Niebuhr who provides him with the “bland fanatics” of his title. For Niebuhr, “Among the lesser culprits of history…are the blind fanatics of western civilization who regard the highly contingent achievements of our culture as the final form and norm of human existence” (qtd. on p. 1).
What seems to me the great strength of the book is its demonstration that the atrocities of imperial conquest and rule prefigured the horrors of the European wars of the twentieth century and later wars of conquest as well. Mishra writes,
Europe’s long peace [before World War I] is revealed as a time of unlimited wars in Asia, Africa, and the Americas. These colonies emerge as the crucible where the sinister tactics of Europe’s brutal twentieth-century wars—racial extermination, forced population transfers, contempt for civilian lives—were first forged. (p. 52)
Many ascribe near-exclusive blame to Germany not only for these colonial atrocities but also for the crimes of the world wars, but Mishra avoids this trap. In one particularly revealing passage, he notes that in 1920,
a year after condemning Germany for its crimes against Africans, the British devised aerial bombing as a routine policy in their new Iraqi possession…“The Arab and Kurd now know what real bombing means,” a 1924 report by a Royal Air Force officer put it. “They now know that within 45 minutes a full sized village…can be practically wiped out and a third of its inhabitants killed or injured.” This officer was Arthur “Bomber” Harris, who in the Second World War unleashed the firestorms of Hamburg and Dresden. (p. 54)
Mishra also shows a healthy skepticism toward Winston Churchill. He says that
Mountbatten was actually less pig-headed than Winston Churchill…a fanatical imperialist, [who] worked harder than any British politician to thwart Indian independence and, as prime minister from 1940 to 1945, did much to compromise it…he refused to help Indians cope with famine in 1943 on the grounds that they “breed like rabbits.” (p. 184)
Our author wields a mean pen. The man described above as less pigheaded than Churchill was the last British viceroy of India, Louis Mountbatten. Mishra says he was
accurately described by the right-wing historian Andrew Roberts as a “mendacious, intellectually limited hustler”…Mountbatten, derided as “Master of Disaster” in British naval circles, was a member of a small group of upper- and middle-class British men from which the imperial masters of Asia and Africa were recruited. Abysmally equipped for their immense responsibilities, they were nevertheless allowed by Britain’s brute imperial power to blunder through the world. (pp. 181–82)
If Mishra is no admirer of Churchill, Woodrow Wilson fares no better. Far from being an idealist who wanted to bring peace to the world, Wilson aimed to ensure Anglo-Saxon world hegemony. “In 1917…Woodrow Wilson told his secretary of state that ‘white civilisation and its domination over the world rested largely on our ability to keep this country intact’’’ (p. 17). When Wilson, in part influenced by his inveterate Anglophilia, changed his mind and secured American entry into the war to preserve that domination, Randolph Bourne was his most trenchant critic. It is a great strength of Bland Fanatics that Mishra is fully alive to Bourne’s importance. “As Randolph Bourne, a young critic whose opposition to American intervention made him an outcast among liberal intellectuals, pointed out as early as August 1917, the United States lost whatever leverage it had had as an impartial mediator when it declared war on Germany” (p. 75). To his amazement, his onetime colleagues such as John Dewey turned to become supporters of “‘war in the interests of democracy’. ‘This was almost the sum of their philosophy,’ Bourne wrote of his old friends. ‘The primitive idea to which they regressed became almost insensibly translated into a craving for action’” (p. 83).
Murray Rothbard and Ralph Raico would have welcomed Mishra’s disdain for Churchill and Wilson, and those of us similarly inclined should overlook the book's manifold fallacies in economics in order to benefit from its many valid insights. Mishra, in his understandable eagerness to smite the British imperialists who have done so much to injure his country, is at times overcome by his polemical exuberance. Thus he cites favorably “Swami Vivekananda, India’s most famous nineteenth-century thinker” (p. 21) for his condemnation of Western civilization as unclean and materialistic, and also praises the “Indian writer Aurobindo Ghose” for predicting that “‘vaunting, aggressive, dominant Europe…was already under ‘a sentence of death’, awaiting annihilation’” (p. 57). But in a later chapter, “The Lure of Fascist Mysticism,” Vivekananda becomes an “intellectual entrepreneur” and “vendor of Asian spirituality” (p. 124, plurals changed to singulars) and Aurobindo is characterized as one who “assembled [Jordan] Peterson-style collages of part-occultist, part-psychological and part-biological notions” (p. 124). Though Mishra sometimes varies his tone toward a writer to suit the point he wishes to make, the main theme of his book is clear and forthright, and I recommend it highly.