Tuesday, 25 May 2021

A World To Win: Tim Harper's new history of global revolution

Editor's note: Our poetry column takes a break this month! Still an history undergraduate at heart, I simply couldn't pass up the opportunity to review this new border-crossing book on the anti-imperialist heroes of Underground Asia (just published by Harvard University Press and Penguin UK). 

(Photo by Theophilus Kwek)
Gazing from the dust-jacket of Underground Asia historian Tim Harper’s new and magisterial account of anticolonial radicalism in the first quarter of the 20th Century – is an enigmatic young man, wrapped up against the European cold, whose strong, even handsome features have not yet gained the global recognition of his later years. Barely twenty years old, and known variously as ‘Seaman Ba’, ‘Ly Thuy’, ‘Nguyen Ai Quoc’ or his birth name ‘Nguyen Tat Thanh’, Harper places him early on in the narrative “perhaps on the pont Alexandre III in Paris […] cigarette at the corner of his mouth, an umbrella on his arm, quite the dandy”. Over the next six hundred pages or so, Harper draws back the clock-and-dagger curtain of imperial intrigue to reveal how Thanh (and others like him) came to join a gathering chorus of revolution, emerging on the world stage as ‘Ho Chi Minh’. But crucially, it is here that we encounter him, with the weight of national liberation still in the distant future, free for the moment to traverse the boundaries of la belle époque; a student abroad on the banks of the Seine. 

Underground Asia examines a period “when local nationalisms were still nascent, and when the political future of the colonial world seemed uniquely open”. Out of the ferment of commerce and conquest arose individuals who, coming of age in “a world connected and transformed”, minted new allegiances around a dream of a more equal and borderless world. They made their home in what Harper calls the “village abroad”, an international network of cosmopolitan solidarities in universities, port cities, and metropolitan nodes where Thanh and his circle crossed paths with such like-minded figures as Tan Malaka, M.N. Roy, and the young Deng Xiaoping. Though the life-histories of these men form the book’s core, Harper is quick to acknowledge the “ubiquity and tenacity” of the era’s women revolutionaries, who despite their “relative invisibility” in surviving colonial records, are at critical moments the true movers and shakers of his narrative. He also pays compelling tribute to the invisible hands of global revolution, such as the dock workers and cabin boys who helped ‘Seaman Ba’ leave home in 1911 and facilitated ‘Ly Thuy’s’ return via Hong Kong almost two decades later. 

We now know, of course, that though these revolutionaries would each shape the post-colonial world in indelible ways, the moment of cosmopolitan dreaming was eventually lost – to the violence of imperial policing, to the anxious diktat of an ascendant Comintern, and to a new generation of rebels who held, by conviction or compromise, to the “dismal nationalisms” of later mass movements. By the end of the period the revolution had faded to a “waiting game”, and it is testament to Harper’s humane and meticulous treatment of this cast of fallible characters that we experience so keenly the pangs of their disenchantment. Most tragic among the disappointments is Tan Malaka’s final imprisonment and summary execution at the hands of an Indonesian republic he had prophesised years earlier; other strands of the tale, like Zhou Enlai’s and Deng Xiaoping’s, lay a trail for the world-historical events to come. Meanwhile, Harper excels in capturing the fusion of geography, ideology and youthful élan that led the revolutionaries to formulate the enduring ideals of their time (and ours); or how indeed, in his memorable words, “the universal revealed itself to [them] in a continuum of port cities”. 

Harper’s sympathetic and highly sophisticated storytelling allows us to trace the contingent turns of this intellectual history through what can appear, otherwise, as an overwhelming – and motley – mass of historical detail. If the number of letters read by the French postal censor in a given fortnight in 1920, for instance, might seem too fine-grained a footnote for the grand narrative of global revolution, we ought to remember that every wrinkle of colonial policy factored into the daily calculations of a community in exile whose many aliases and alibis are only just coming to light. On occasion, however, and particularly in the first half of the book, Harper’s efforts to join the dots of this “connected wave of revolution” risk pre-empting the story somewhat. In his telling, a global web of radical connections, at least in the sense of a self-consciously cosmopolitan network that, even if not formally coordinated, shared similar values and a common vocabulary, only became more apparent as the revolutionaries converged in Europe and Russia after World War I. Prior to this, the sporadic flashpoints of rebellion (among others: bomb attacks in India, shootings in Hong Kong) certainly augured a gathering wave of discontent, but given how admittedly “fragile” the connections were, it is debatable if they arose collectively “out of the resources of the country of the lost” as Harper suggests. 

It’s hard not to reflect on the revolutionary lives so vividly recorded in Underground Asia without imagining how they would map onto our own. A century on, rail and shipping routes no longer hold the same novelty as they did for Harper’s protagonists, but new conveniences – afforded by the global commons of the internet and, at least before COVID-19, the commodification of budget travel – have enabled a new kind of the “everyday internationalism” they once experienced. So, too, it might seem that our interconnections are once again putting global solidarities within reach: especially when today’s spectres of xenophobia, inequality and climate change denialism are no more territorially-bound than colonialism ever was. Harper’s analysis of the forces that thwarted the dreams of earlier cosmopolitans should give us pause, or at least help us identify and resist the dismal nationalisms of this era. In the same vein, Harper’s project of fleshing out these “lonely” figures on the margins of a changing continent should not grieve us for possibilities lost, but attune us to those still to be won. The important work of recovering these “small voices of history”, as fellow historian Khairudin Aljunied puts it, reconnects us with the “ideas and visions […] that were shunned and unaccepted in their day and age, but have become the framework for thought and action in our time”. 

Don’t (just) take my word for it! Underground Asia has also been reviewed in the New Yorker, The Wire, and Wall Street Journal


Theophilus Kwek has published five volumes of poetry, and has been shortlisted twice for the Singapore Literature Prize. He is also an editor and researcher with interests in Southeast Asian history and migration/citizenship issues. He serves as Poetry Editor of the Asian Books Blog.