A Review of “The Darker Nations”

Saswat Pattanayak 

Vijay Prashad, The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World, The New Press, New York, 2007. Hardcover, 384 pp. Amazon/NP 

The Darker Nations is a critical historiography of the Third World. Vijay Prashad’s deeply instructive as well as occasionally mordant looks at events and processes that made up the history of oppressed peoples in the 20th century comprise this brilliant work. It is a book profound for being peremptory, and absolutely necessary for being so relevant today that it is imperative for activists and researchers alike.

For one, the various assumptions that form a dominant paradigm of Eurocentrism need radical reproving. Yet that would merely amount to a criticism of the thesis itself. Prashad goes beyond that and proposes an alternative narration to the history – not just of the Third World, but also through its lenses, the peoples’ history of the world during the last century. Darker Nations in some ways could be appositely used to speak for aspirations of the oppressed everywhere. In this sense, the book is a celebration of collective hope, even as it traces the demise of a grand project based on it.

I

The thesis of the book circles around the Third World as a unique project on its own. Even as there have been far too many usages of “First” and “Second” Worlds in contrasts, the reader is never lostdarker nationsto the main point: that is, the Third World was not merely in response or reaction to the prevailing ‘cold war’ grand narration, but it was more importantly an independent culmination out of unique historical necessities to combat neocolonialism and to promote internationalist nationalism.

To that extent, the author has conducted painful researches and unearthed valuable and often less quoted documents. The book thus does justice to the Suez Canal nationalization controversy and credits Nasser for his motives beyond cold war considerations. It brings Nehru alive through his letter drafted for the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) that argued against nuclearism, appealing to both Kennedy and Khrushchev. The book researches Che Guevara’s UN speech that assumed a necessary political standpoint for all oppressed countries: “As Marxists, we maintain that peaceful co-existence does not include co-existence between exploiters and exploited, between oppressors and oppressed.”

What, then, was common to the Third World? For the nationalist leaders, the fact that they were all colonized. Prashad writes, “For them, the nation had to be constructed out of two elements: the history of their struggles against colonialism, and their program for the creation of justice….The Third World form of nationalism is thus better understood as an internationalist nationalism.” (p.12)

Prashad’s assessment of “neopatriarchy” and domestic capitalism in the third world is quite worthwhile. This book is clearly a critical document for collective introspection of the oppressed peoples than an empty glorification of a united umbrella. In this sense, it is a necessary and long awaited work, which while marking the sites of struggle does not lose sight of the continuing struggles.

The author has cleverly named the chapters after the various sites of significance. Clever, because the chapters (Paris, New Delhi, Bali etc.,) have less to do with specific descriptions of the cities of those times than they have to do with bringing these otherwise disparate places together in context – at times stretching the contexts well out of bounds of the chapter title; at times celebrating the specificity with a poem by Neruda. One would be tempted to verify the header of the page several times while going through the texts just to make sure that she is in the right page. Yet such deliberate discursions are wisely scheduled to make for chapters that elucidate points contextually, rendering Prashad into a master narrator.

Illustratively, the author makes clear the intent of the book at the end of “Paris” chapter and perhaps leading one to wonder how much of the chapter was actually devoted to Paris. Of course that’s the idea of a project, the professor would convince us: each section needs to have scope for a flow into the next without exhausting every specific reference. It’s a project after all. A process, not a few events.

The book covers all that it promises to: Brussels meeting of “League against Imperialism”, Afro-Asian gathering at Bandung, Women’s conference at Cairo, NAM at Belgrade and Tricontinental Conference at Havana.

Prashad unearths the role of international communists in formation of the Brussels conference – a landmark event patronized by Einstein and attended by 37 countries/colonies. He writes about Pan-Africanism, Pan-Americanism, and Pan-Asianism in the context of colonial dominations, along with deconstructing the Kuomintang massacres of communists that might have contributed to severance of the ties between the Comintern and several nationalist leaders.

Prashad quotes W.E.B. DuBois in relation to Pan-Africanism within the Brussels context, although he omits Paul Robeson’s solidarity with the colored peoples at Bandung. It was in 1955 that Robeson sent his famous greetings to Bandung: “…peoples come from the shores of the Ganges and the Nile, the Yangtse and the Niger. Nations of the vast Pacific waters, greetings on this historic occasion. It is my profound conviction that the very fact of the convening of the Conference of Asian and African nations at Bandung, Indonesia, in itself will be recorded as an historic turning point in all world affairs.” Heralding it as a history-making conference, Robeson expressed, “Indeed the fact that the Asian and African nations, possessing similar yet different cultures, have come together to solve their common problems must stand as a shining example to the rest of the world.”

Prashad aptly summarizes what Bandung achieved: “a format for what would eventually become Afro-Asian and then Afro-Asian-Latin American group in the UN.” He also takes a stab at the inherent weaknesses of the member countries that lost moral grounds because of several reasons, from murdering communists to hoarding weapons, despite agreeing on some basic precepts of “cultural cooperation”.

“Principle Problem” of Raul Prebisch is explained in context to economic policies, in the crucial introduction to the role of UNCTAD, of which he was the founding general secretary. If Buenos Aires is visited for economics, Tehran is the metaphoric site of cultural struggles. Khrushchev’s betrayal of cultural workers in face of opposition to Shah regime is well articulated in a chapter that describes “roots of the Third World intellectual’s quandary was how to create a new self in the new nations”, thus reinforcing nationalism, democracy and rationalism.

Prashad’s political argument that the relationship between Third World and Second turned tumultuous after the demise of Stalin may draw some criticisms, but he amply demonstrates its foundations. He argues that the “new leadership led by Khrushchev and Bulganin adopted peaceful co-existence and pledged their support to the bourgeois nationalist regimes (often against the domestic Communists). The unclear situation suggested that the USSR seemed keener to push its own national interests than those of the national Communist parties to which it pledged verbal fealty” (p. 97).

Prashad makes a point that is vital to understanding of the Third World formation and crisis. In the Soviet Union, the Second World indeed “had an attitude toward the former colonies that in some ways mimicked that of the First World.” But this did not necessarily require pitiful stance at the Third World recipients. Prashad argues quoting Sauvy and Nkrumah that the Third World was not “prone, silent or unable to speak” before the powers. It was an independent political platform on its own, which according to Nehru stood for “political independence, nonviolent international relations, and the cultivation of the UN as the principle institution for planetary justice.”

So he asks, “What about the two-thirds who remained outside the East-West circles; what of those 2 billion people?” The narration of the author is instructive in a poetic sense. As obviously gigantic is the scope of such an inquisitiveness, he offers a plethora of factors/voices that could have been representing this Third World.

The book analyzes the various complexities of state politics in the Third World countries. It correctly mentions the several betrayals of communist workers in the hands of Moscow and Peking leaderships in the aftermath of Stalin and Mao. The book describes accurately the growing militarization of the developing nations. Prashad, while upholding the vision of the Third World, well encapsulates the elements of utopianism inherently present in some of the documents.

As an instance, the Arusha Declaration validated the twin principles of liberty and equality, individual rights and collective well-being. Prashad argues, “The main problem with the Arusha-TANU project, however, came not in its goals but in its implementation.” Though defying academic limitations, he does not give away credence to neoliberal economists/politicians like Rajaratnam of Singapore. Even as he describes the feud between Singapore on one extreme and Cuba on another, Prashad instructs us wisely about the pitfalls of economic liberalization. “The abandonment of economic sovereignty lost the national liberation regimes one of their two principal pillars of legitimacy. When IMF-led globalization became the modus operandi, the elites of the postcolonial world adopted a hidebound and ruthless xenophobia that masqueraded as patriotism”, Prashad writes.

Succinctly enough, Prashad encapsulates the present scenario: “The mecca of IMF-driven globalization is therefore in the ability to open one’s economy to stateless, soulless corporations while blaming the failure of well-being on religious, ethnic, sexual, and other minorities. That is the mecca of the post-Third World era.”

II

Prashad’s ending of the book with an obituary to Third World would have perhaps perplexed the writer he invokes in the beginning of his work: Franz Fanon. He even quotes the prophetic statements from The Wretched of the Earth: “The Third World today faces Europe like a colossal mass whose project should be to try to resolve the problems to which Europe has not been able to find the answers.”

Prashad’s persistent declaration in the book about demise of the Third World may bring back nostalgic chords, but would not undermine Fanon’s question. Have the problems that bore out of colonialism been resolved? The answer is no. Has Europe or the USA been able to find the answers yet? The answer is no.

In that case, is it not too early to declare the Third World a dead project? Moreover, is the author at times tending to air the lost leaders’ voices over the struggling peoples’?

No doubt, Prashad’s book is unique in its stress on women’s movements in the Third World – an aspect that’s comfortably overlooked when such taxonomies are applied to political texts. In his Cairo chapter, Prashad examines the role of women in Third World liberation struggles – from Rameshwari Nehru to Aisha Abdul-Rahman. This is significantly noteworthy, as women have joined the guerrilla wars as well as street protests in almost all of the Third World countries. And yet many progressive forces have difficulties in understanding gender relations, thereby resulting in mere “state feminisms”. However, was this chapter written because Cairo had women members on its podium necessitating a mention/discussion, or because a tribute to women activists is necessary to understand the Third World project? In either way, the book does not employ a lens of the women to understand the movement, although does a commendable job at understanding women struggles through the lens of the Third World. Considering that only this chapter has a portion devoted to a few women activists in context to Cairo, while the rest of the book mostly quotes the three “titans” or famous “fives” in explaining the history, I would say there are quite a few questions unanswered still.

The chief criticism against this work would primarily come from two quarters: One, from a strictly Third Wave (interesting how the growth of Third Wave coincides with the recognition of the Third World) feminist critique: independent struggles by women could have been much better encompassed within this book, given its scope. Prashad does a cursory mention of the alternative movement (considering that third-world women had a movement within, and against the larger movement) limiting it to a chapter and focusing on a couple of eminent speakers. Would the Third World have been different had the precepts for it not written by the “titans” and “giants”, but by women comrades who were voices of resentments against the hierarchies of nationalist and communist parties? Prashad does not dwell on this aspect.

Two, the criticism may become more scathing from the perspectives of militant activists. Third World, like Rome, was not built in a day. And certainly not through some leaders of few countries. Prashad is arguably right in crediting the giants and bringing forth the canons, but at the same time, these very leaders certainly rode the wave of success utilizing the larger unrest that was recognized by the anti-status-quo forces, often united through guerrilla wars, and almost going unnoticed after making vital impacts. Would the Third World have been different had the precepts for it not written by the giants, but by the larger oppressed peoples engaged in organized and otherwise struggles? We do not know for sure, but it would have been worthwhile to ponder over that a bit more than the book does.

The more crucial question then, is if such precepts were actually already written (or worked on with) by the peoples who did not find mentions in the historical documents that Prashad cites towards the book’s end spanning 60 pages. The focus of the book, although is in continuance of Prashadisque tradition of Afro-Asian unity, is slightly away from Africa. In fact, Mandela is mentioned just once in the book (that too as a pure travesty – citing a Ruth First memorial). The truth is Third World texts had been written in South Africa as well as in Nepal. However, such underground struggles went largely amiss from the work. Sure, the book by the author’s admission is inexhaustive and merely illustrative, but even a 300-page work could have inculcated some unknown peoples’ movements than chronicling lesser known leaders’ engagements.

Ironically enough, before proceeding to Havana chapter, Prashad mentions “From the early 1960s to the late 1970s, the rhetorical denunciation of imperialism reached its apogee even as the Third World began to lose its voice”. This is a dangerous statement to make if one considers that indeed from the 1970s onwards, the peoples voice in the Third World had immensely proliferated. No doubt the leaders – those giants who we find exalted throughout the work – had fallen to deaths or arrests, but the period thereafter also signaled the end of dominant and diplomatic voices, and somewhere alongside highlighted the obscure and powerful ones.

People who spoke truth to power were the people on the streets that challenged the nationalist parties which came to power in the pretext of newfound freedom from the foreign rulers. The growth of domestic capitalist classes in comfortable alliance with these nationalist parties were indication enough that the new powers were no less different from the old ones, except in their make-up and “patriotism”. In fact, these illusive weapons of nationalism and patriotism helped strengthen exploitative capitalism on basis of trusts of the “own” people. Such betrayals of faiths, notwithstanding goodwill of the famous leaders, were also being fought against on a daily basis in the Third World. Beyond the conferences and meetings and gatherings of Third World leaders under different names, there were large-scale protests of poverty and unemployment. Beyond the famous rhetoric of anti-nuclearism (while proliferating conventional weapons domestically) and socialist development (while harassing voices of dissent at home), people had on their own formed two classes in the society. The haves went to the ruling elites that apparently “voiced” the Third World for few years, and the have-nots remained with the unknown millions of peoples whose only commonality was their resentment against the power-grabbers. Be it Nehru or Indira in India, Sukarno or Suharto in Indonesia, the popular imagination went beyond such leaders that treaded the careful path all the while claiming to be representing the Third World.

Third World was neither the name of a place nor merely a documented project. And certainly it did not die. Considering that its origin was a necessity in itself, a necessity borne of conditions of colonialism, about which Sartre (another contextually grand omission from the book except for one mention – his writings on neocolonialism were far more instructive) writes in the preface to Albert Memmi’s ‘The Colonizer and the Colonized’: “Colonialism denies human rights to people it has subjugated by violence, and whom it keeps in poverty and ignorance by force, therefore, as Marx would say, in a state of ‘sub-humanity’.” This sub-humanity does not see its history changing with the midnight bells of colonialist departures. It takes quite a while for the real freedom to be conquested for even after the colonialists are gone. This is why South Africa’s period of struggle just began after Mandela came to power. South Africa’s Third World status will not die anytime soon.

So the assumption that “the Third World began to lose its voice” may have been made a little too early. Keeping in line of the eloquent narration of events as Prashad has done (for example, referring to revived “armed struggle not only as a tactic of anticolonialism but significantly as a strategy in itself”), the book perhaps wished away the Third World before examining its overbearing presence today. Do we have a Second World? I have no answer to that. But if the name Third World was admittedly accepted by the oppressed people of several continents basing on their historical heritage, then the phrase is as relevant today as it was before. Perhaps some countries would want not a place in it. Earlier, China was a question. Today, Singapore is. All the same, for the rest of the countries, nothing much has changed, except that the capitalist exploitation has intensified and expanded manifold, the national regimes have lost faith and people are more politically conscious.

If the Third World was imagined out of former colonies and if the colonial problem was chiefly an economic one, then the Third World has become even all the more relevant today. Simplistic as it may sound, there is a greater need for Afro-Asian-Latin solidarity today in the world than ever before. And Prashad, a remarkably profound scholar who gave to us treasures of arguments through his previous works about the need for alliances of the oppressed, would be among the firsts to acknowledge the necessity of such unity.

III

However, apart from remaining in want of more comprehensive analysis of women’s movements and of peoples’ liberation movements (both-dually oppressed by former colonizers as well as the nationalist rulers,and more importantly conflicted between the both – male and female comrades), the book also offers cursory looks at the external roles played by the First World in maintaining indirect subjugation of the Third.

Prashad rightly critiques the predominant views held by leftists about the role of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). He argues that such a minimalist assumption renders people of the Third World insignificant and often passive audience in the larger world stage. Whereas he is absolutely correct in this critique – largely identified by the radical feminist movements worldwide – there is no harm in going through the roles of the CIA that have been well documented in a work that does chronicle interactions of the Third World “leaders” with the First World instigators. Many conflicting situations have been initiated and fuelled through CIA interventions in the Third World politics and that should have found a deserved mention. For instance, a critique of the Nixon administration vis-à-vis the Third World (including the recently released notes with Kissinger) is found lacking.

One need not subscribe to conspiracy theories to gain insights about how the First World allies in the “neocolonial” period have acted towards the Third World: less through coercion, and more through lucrative measures such as economic aids, western education and religion. Prashad misses out on the role of the Catholic Church that was the first body to significantly recognize the Third World as an entity worth pondering over. The large money, the pool of debts that would crumble the economic backbone of the Third World came from the consent of the Vatican during the early 1960s.

Prashad mentions religion quite casually, when he describes how “Mother Teresa would soon get more positive airtime as the white savior of the dark hordes than would the self-directed projects of the Third World nationalist governments.” Immediately following this, he goes on to make references to military invasions and embargoes.

Here the book could have made a crucial connection between the recognition of the Third World by the First World through the Catholic Church decisions. Mother Teresa’s airtimes were neither incidental nor were to be seen only through a liberal critique. The missing piece is that Vatican Council II which was the 21st ecumenical(general) council of the Roman Catholic Church was crucial to recognition of the Third World in an official manner.

In fact this council brought the most far-reaching reforms within the Catholic Church in 1000 years. This most significant reform movement in the world’s leading religion was brought forth during its four sessions in Rome during 1962-1965 (the first Council after its suspension in 1870). The idea was to aim for aggiornamento(renewal and updating of Catholic life and teaching). Such a vital step was taken by the Vatican as a result of emergence of the Third World. This council altered the nature of the church from being a European-centered institution to become a worldwide one so as to acknowledge the Third World countries, where it counted most of its followers. Mother Teresa and her likes were thus byproducts of this acceptance of the third force in the world.

Prashad says that Nehru, Sukarno and Nasser among other leaders did not use Third World to describe their domains, but does not corroborate their reasons, if any. For the framework of this book, the constant usages of “First World”, “Second World” and “Third World” is imperative, but considering that Prashad is eager to lash out against the “camp mentality” or “East-West” conflicts, he does avoid a critical exposition of the limitations that such three “Worlds” may bring for the readers.

One way to understand why the three “worlds” were not sufficient explanations (although necessary at many junctures) is to detail how the three worlds could not be thus compartmentalized either in degree or by their types. More importantly, the countries thus categorized under such headings definitely had uniquely different histories (colonial and otherwise), treated differently by their respective partners in their perceived specific worlds. On the one hand, Singapore had a different colonial experience than India. On the other, China’s Security Council membership put it on a unique platform, and there is no comparing between Soviet Union and Hungary. What is vital to this discussion is also the fact that there was not a yardstick that was used to specify categories either for the First, the Second or the Third. As much as the Third World was a movement against colonialism, such a usage of categories would still render it as a site affected by Eurocentric worldviews.

Prashad says Nehru et al., instead of calling themselves to be part of the Third World, “spoke of themselves” as the NAM, G-77 or the colonized continents. Although accurate, here the author’s own argument that kickstarts the book will be subject to questioning. Prashad says in the first line of the book, “The Third World was not a place. It was a project”. And yet he compares the project with some conferences and places (continents) to bring home the point that the leaders evaded “Third World”. Certainly there were other reasons why all Third World titans did not prefer the phrase (if at all). And that, we are still unsure of.

The author writes: “The phrase ‘East-West conflict’ distorts the history of the Cold War because it makes it seem as if the First and Second Worlds confronted each other in a condition of equality.” He contends that the USSR was socially and economically way behind due to its unique recent history. “The dominant classes in the First World used the shortages and repression in the USSR as an instructive tool to wield over the heads of their own working class, and so on both economic and political grounds the First World bore advantages over the Second.” Whereas this could be one truth, it does underscore the fact that more countries on the earth joined the Second World than they could be declared as the First World also because of the lacunae starkly evident in the First World. Whereas massive racism was predominant in the First World, economic depression and political censorships in the capitalist countries also contributed to popularity of the Second World.

A connection between the third world “project” and the United Nations (UN) is well established in the book. What perhaps amiss is a discussion on manners in which either of them might have contributed to the downfall of the other. Prashad says, “Today there is no such vehicle for local dreams”. The larger question then would be if the United Nations played a role in obliterating its dependant. On the other hand, a stark reality in the post-Iraq scene is the redundancy of a forum such as the United Nations today that effectively has no role either in shaping a collective conscience or implementing a pro-people agenda. Least of all, the UN has failed to safeguard the sovereign nations from external aggressions. It has failed to overcome the elitism of its Security Council, almost unquestionably letting the powerful countries to run their own little League of Nations inside the UN. Amidst such cynicism that the UN has contributed to, what responsibilities must the Third World project shoulder.

Amidst several responsibilities, the Third World still has to its credit a Non-Aligned News Agencies Pool (NANAP), a fact that is missing a mention in the book. Over 40 news agencies in non-aligned countries of Africa, Asia, Latin America and Europe have pooled their resources for the exchange of news reports and information to defy the vertical information flow of corporate media. The “Pool” was adopted at the Fourth Summit Conference of Non-Aligned Countries, held in Algiers in 1973. During that period, the New World Information and Communication Order was also proposed to democratize the knowledge domain of the world. No doubt, UNESCO was criticized by the American and European intellectuals, but the MacBride Commission succeeded in recognizing the divergent voices of the Third World in order to challenge the media hegemony world over. Responsibilities of the Third World still include an informed opposition to militarization, providing alternative channels to western corporate media, campaigning for need-based distribution of world resources, and most of all, representing the popular voices of dissent, opposition and celebrations. One wonders if the struggles to attain the above has waned any bit, if looked from the peoples’ perspectives. And in this context, the Third World still holds hopes, possibilities and victory. One is perhaps disappointed if the Third World is perceived to be voicing only a limited elite constituency – often opposed to the peoples’ dissents.

IV

Hence, finally, the book questions not the constitution of the Third World itself. If it was brought around through its various leaderships under certain historical period, what expectations should we have of this “project”? Were such leaders to be expected to play the truly internationalist roles, and to what avail? In the preliminary draft thesis on the National and the Colonial Questions, for the Second Congress of the Communist International, Lenin wrote: “Petty-bourgeois nationalism proclaims as internationalism the mere recognition of the equality of nations and nothing more. Quite apart from the fact that this recognition is purely verbal, petty-bourgeois nationalism preserves national self-interest intact, whereas proletarian internationalism demands, first, that the interests of the proletarian struggle in any one country should be subordinated to the interests of that struggle on a world-wide scale, and, second, that a nation which is achieving victory over the bourgeoisie should be able and willing to make the greatest national sacrifices for the overthrow of international capital.” Between the elite internationalism founded on peaceful co-existence and peoples’ internationalism based upon rejection of the international capitalist order, did the Third World got somewhere hijacked or we refuse to acknowledge its existence because we already defined its proponents?

Needless to state, the criticisms above demand for more literature for inclusion into the book, than specifically target the author’s works. Such a case arises only because the book is an extraordinarily brilliant effort that is bound to encourage readers to plunge more into the relevance of the subject. All of that credit goes to the humanely written, accessibly crafted work that shuns academic elitism and genuinely attempts at a peoples’ history of the oppressed world.

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