‘Millions of savages were launched into action by a few thousand babblers.’ So wrote Hippolyte Taine about the Jacobin assault on Bourbon France, which was allegedly prompted by the philosophers of the Enlightenment. Taine regarded ideas as a prime motive force in history, and he was not alone in seeing Voltaire, Diderot, Rousseau and their ilk as the true progenitors of the French Revolution. After all, Diderot’s Encyclopédie was a self-confessed machine de guerre. And its rationalist creed was deeply subversive to the status quo, so much so that it was described as the ‘Trojan horse of the ancien régime’. However, it is hard to be precise about the cause of such momentous events: high bread prices probably did more to provoke insurrectionary violence than high-minded notions about the rights of man. In this excellent study of the intellectual origins of a more recent cataclysm, the emergence of a new Asia from the ruins of European empire in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Pankaj Mishra is more cautious than Taine.
To be sure, Mishra does maintain that the anti-imperialist ideas of his key figures – Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1838–97) and Liang Qichao (1873–1929) – were ‘major forces for change’. Such thinkers began a process whereby Asian resentment about Western domination was transmuted into popular liberation movements, which duly gave rise