The Project

O.A. Westad

  • The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World by Vijay Prashad
    New Press, 364 pp, £16.99, January 2007, ISBN 978 1 56584 785 9

‘Third World’ has always been a troublesome term. Coined in 1952 by the French economist Alfred Sauvy to describe the global tiers état, the unrepresented and downtrodden majority of the world’s peoples, it was taken up by revolutionaries in the 1960s as a watchword for change. Over the past two decades, as the last revolutionary era in world politics faded from view, it has become an outmoded, almost quaint term. These days, in America especially, it is often seen as somehow derogatory, having a whiff of ‘third class’ about it and therefore best avoided for fear of upsetting visitors from less fortunate nations. Those who pioneered the expression, such as Frantz Fanon, would no doubt have become even more attached to the principle of violence if they had known how their cherished project had been enfeebled by soi-disant radicals in the name of political correctness.

Fanon, who plays a prominent part in Vijay Prashad’s stimulating book, The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World, was a key figure in the movement that gave meaning and content to the concept of a Third World. A powerful thinker and talker but – unfortunately for posterity – a poor writer, the Martiniquan psychiatrist and spokesman for the Algerian Front de Libération Nationale attempted to find ways in which the peoples of the global South could recover their identities as they emerged from the colonial experience. For these, the ‘wretched of the earth’, the process of re-establishing an identity would have to be a revolutionary, internationalist enterprise, pursued with vigour and purpose. Destroying colonialism and building a nation of one’s own was a process that required more than straightforward political change: it needed, Fanon believed, a new world and a new man.

The Third World was therefore, as Prashad notes, never a place; it was a project to which millions contributed. In its original form, it bestowed hope for a new form of existence in which justice would prevail and all forms of exploitation would end. Designed by intellectuals, often as a result of their reading in the European utopian tradition, the Third World project motivated many leaders in the first postcolonial generation in Africa, Asia and South America. It promised not simply to overcome the vestiges of colonialism, but to transform the ‘darker nations’ into a dynamic and creative force in world history, outstripping the dying colonial world and taking up the torch of civilisation as it did so. In the opening speech at the Afro-Asian conference in Bandung in 1955, Sukarno, the Indonesian president, said:

For many generations our peoples have been the voiceless ones in the world. We have been the unregarded, the peoples for whom decisions were made by others whose interests were paramount, the peoples who lived in poverty and humiliation. Then our nations demanded . . . and achieved independence, and with that independence came responsibility. We have heavy responsibilities to ourselves, and to the world, and to the yet unborn generations. But we do not regret them . . . I hope that this conference will give guidance to mankind, will point out to mankind the way which it must take to attain safety and peace. I hope that it will give evidence that Asia and Africa have been reborn, no, that a New Asia and a New Africa have been born!

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