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!

Bandung was the high-point of hope for the Third World. It brought together delegates from 29 states, representing more than half the world’s population. Intent on destroying the Cold War system, it seemed to be a harbinger of peace and ‘development’. Notwithstanding the verbosity and vagueness of most of the speeches, the meeting had significance simply in terms of the magnitude of what was happening. The African-American writer Richard Wright reported:

I’d no sooner climbed into the press gallery and looked down upon the vast assembly of delegates, many of them clad in their exotic national costumes, than I could sense an important junction of history in the making. In the early and difficult days of the Russian Revolution, Lenin had dreamed of a gathering like this, a conglomeration of the world’s underdogs, coming to the aid of the hard-pressed Soviets . . . [But] from a strictly Stalinist point of view, such a gathering as this was unthinkable, for it was evident that the Communists had no control here . . . Every religion under the sun, almost every race on earth, every shade of political opinion, and one and a half thousand million people from 12,606,938 square miles of the earth’s surface were represented here.

Prashad’s book shows clearly why the Third World movement was a danger to the emerging US global hegemony. While the Soviet Union could be contained, the diffuse ideology of Bandung was much more difficult to counter. The model of development that many postcolonial countries had chosen was collectivist, often inspired by socialism, and therefore challengeed the political model that the United States proposed. Worse still for America and the West, social scientists identified any number of Third World countries that would prove receptive to Soviet influence; the economic historian Walt Rostow and others argued that once muddle-headed Third World radicals and nationalists had failed to bring about change in their societies, the hard-line Communists would move in. Most US interventions in the Third World during the Cold War (Iran, Guatemala, Indonesia, Lebanon, Cuba, Congo, Nicaragua) came about because of the fear that Third World radicalism could damage US strategic and economic interests, and subvert Washington’s ideological vision of what the world ought to look like.

Prashad shows how many of the projects inspired by Third World ideas contributed to welfare in education, healthcare and the empowerment of hitherto disenfranchised groups, first and foremost women and young people. He is particularly good on the ways in which the Third World concept gave rise to a genuine sense of internationalism, symbolised by such figures as Fanon and his fellow radical Martiniquan intellectual Aimé Césaire – and indeed the Argentinian Communist Che Guevara. Much of the Third Worldist engagement in what was happening elsewhere was an inquisitive solidarity that sprang from shared colonial experience: a sense, as the Barbadian writer George Lamming put it, of being part of something bigger called an empire, in which all people of colour had the same problems and the same fate. On this, Césaire is particularly persuasive; in his Discours sur le colonialisme (which he could publish only after his disenchantment with Communism began), the former assimilationist deputy had become an anti-European rejectionist. ‘They talk to me about progress, about “achievements”, diseases cured, improved standards of living,’ he wrote. ‘I am talking about societies drained of their essence, cultures trampled underfoot, institutions undermined, lands confiscated, religions smashed, magnificent artistic creations destroyed, extraordinary possibilities wiped out.’ The answer, in Césaire’s view, was a united Third World resistance.

The Third World movement was short-lived. It lasted little more than ten years, from the Bandung Conference in April 1955 to Fidel Castro’s Tricontinental Conference in Havana in January 1966. In many parts of the world the project started to break down almost as soon as the colonial regimes had gone and new states had been established. Opposition from the United States and Western Europe played a significant part; time and again economic pressure was applied to undermine radical states in the Third World. But there were domestic and internal causes too. One of the most salient was the inability of many radical Third World regimes to come to terms with ethnic identity and religious fervour. The form of modernity (often socialist) that most of them swore by left no room for what they saw as ‘colonial’ or ‘feudal’ concepts: the nation was what they defined it to be and all forms of particularism would have to be submerged in this new and modern totality. Like the ‘new man’, the ‘new nation’ suited the leaders better than it did the people. Nobody was more surprised than the radicals when precolonial identities reasserted themselves.

The main reason national projects so often fell victim to older allegiances was the inability of new regimes, in the first postcolonial generation, to deliver the material benefits they had promised. It is true, as Prashad says, that constant enmity on the part of the West explains some of these shortcomings, yet the real burden of failure lies with Third World leaders. Popular enthusiasm and a willingness to make sacrifices after independence had been genuine; but this meant that the fall from grace, largely a result of greed and mismanagement, was all the harder to take. In some cases – such as Algeria, Fanon’s adoptive country – loss of legitimacy led to civil war; in others, such as Somalia, it led to the collapse of the state.

The toughest opposition the postcolonial elites encountered was from social, cultural and religious groups who opposed the new state project from the beginning or just happened to be in its way. Some of these were aristocrats and owners of land or industry. But the bulk of resistance came from peasants who were simply defending their way of life. The violence unleashed by Third World states – of the right and left – against peasants who refused to move to state farms, strategic hamlets or ujamaa villages was frightful and the number of victims is still unknown. Being opposed to ‘progress’, whether it was the grands projets of the colonisers or the collectivist fantasies of the new elites, was dangerous and usually deadly. In this respect the similarity between the colonial administrations and the successor states is clear: both attempted to impose utopian policies in the face of indigenous systems. It is more difficult than Prashad admits to separate the ideas, projects and individuals linked to the colonial era from those of the era that followed. Césaire, after all, spent the years after World War Two in the National Assembly, trying to incorporate the colonies into France as départements and to ensure that their inhabitants became Frenchmen with full rights. Many new dams, railways and roads were built in the same way as they had been in the past, with reliance on conscript labour, even if the slogans had changed to ‘Support the Party’ or ‘Strive towards Socialism’.

Prashad believes that the Third World was ‘assassinated’, by a cabal headed by the IMF and local ‘ruling cliques’, but it seems to me to be more a case of assisted suicide. The failure to develop efficient methods of political and economic co-operation between states in the southern hemisphere led by the early 1970s to global and utopian economic demands, symbolised by the call for a new economic world order. Meanwhile, many Third World countries fell deeper and deeper into the clutches of the international financial institutions, incurring public debts that few of them were able to overcome. Then came the devastating East Asian example, as country after country (including the People’s Republic of China) gave up planning in favour of the market and achieved extraordinary economic success as a result. By the early 1980s the Third World was dead as a political project and barely clinging to life as an ideology.

Ironically, many of the movements that emerged in the South – and claimed the allegiance of its angry young men – had come to hate Third Worldism for being too Western, too attached to European forms of development. For the Islamists, the idea of the Third World stood in the way of the core religious identity that they wanted to foster; they claimed that the call for internationalism was meaningful only within the world community of believers, the ummah. A Pakistani Islamist and former Marxist once told me why he despised his former identity so much: he had been led astray, he said, by those in his country who believed that a secular form of justice could exist. Both Third World radical leaders, by virtue of their corruption and incompetence, and the West, by virtue of its implacable enmity towards the Third World project, had proved that to be untrue. Pakistan did not need a higher form of European development; it needed Islam.

Given that they had so many enemies, it is scarcely surprising that so few Third World regimes tolerated opposition within a democratic system. Still, the vote was – ironically enough – almost certainly the only means by which some of their achievements might have been rescued. While Prashad seems to believe that it was Third World Communists who most often understood the postcolonial conjuncture, my money would be on the democrats and pluralists, those few who argued – mostly in vain – that robust electoral systems and independent judiciaries would preserve the gains that independence had brought. Almost unnoticed at the time, Nelson Mandela got it about right in his statement at the Rivonia Trial in 1964 when he put representative democracy alongside social justice as the solution for South Africa.

Prashad could have spent more time on the broader causes of the breakdown of the Third World project and on checking his facts. The First World (however you want to construe it) did not blockade Berlin in 1948. The USSR did not discourage China from sending troops to Korea in 1950. And his opinion that China was ‘a principled ally of the Third World’ would, I think, surprise quite a few of his heroes who were on the receiving end of the PRC’s Cold War machinations, such as the South African and Chilean resistances. Nor is there much about what lessons the failure of the Third World project might hold for today’s anti-systemic movements and the new radical states in Latin America, Venezuela and Bolivia. One, I have come to believe, is that the ability to provide for people’s welfare is more dependent on economic and financial management at home than on rearranging trade conditions abroad. Another is that short-term economic results can be translated into lasting prosperity only if there is a reasonable degree of political pluralism, embedded in a constitution. Western-style democracy for all is not the issue here. The point is to accept that growth can coexist with justice only if there are institutions which are ready to defend and encourage both.

The Third World does not deserve a memorial of the romantic kind that Prashad finds so tempting. Already there have been too many Western-based Third Worldists who forgive mistakes made in Africa that they would never countenance in developed countries. What is needed is a hard-nosed understanding of the Third World idea in order to avoid repeating its mistakes. It is possible, even likely, that the next decade will see more opposition to the neoliberal global wave than at any time since the 1970s, which makes it all the more important that we get the historical autopsy right.