Review Of "The Darker Nations"
By Saswat Pattanayak
20 March, 2007
Vijay Prashad, The Darker
Nations: A People's History of the Third World, The New Press, New York,
2007. Hardcover, 384 pp. Amazon/NP
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.
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 lost to 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 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.
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
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.
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
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