When ‘Third World’ was a byword for revolution

The Darker Nations by Vijay Prashad looks back to a time when people saw more in the South than poverty and corruption.

Philip Cunliffe

Topics Politics

The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World, Vijay Prashad, New Press, 2007.

Vijay Prashad has performed an invaluable service by writing this refreshingly combative political history of the Third World. Today, the Third World is a byword for poverty, corruption and human rights abuses. But as Prashad points out, its original meaning was that of a potent political challenge to international hierarchies. Coined by Albert Sauvy in 1952, the term was designed to invoke the ‘third estate’ of pre-revolutionary France – that part of the population that belonged to neither the clergy nor the nobility, and was to form the social base for the 1789 Revolution: the bourgeoisie, petty bourgeoisie, workers, and peasants. In the Cold War, the term Third World set apart the majority of humanity that lived under imperialism from the capitalist First World and the Soviet Second World.

Too often the Cold War is seen as a straightforward stand-off between the USA and the USSR, with the Third World as a simple chessboard on which the superpowers moved their pawns around in proxy wars. But as Prashad’s book shows, the peoples of the Third World made their own history, too, in a protracted planetary revolt against capitalist empires and racial supremacy. Prashad draws attention to the extraordinary nature of this feat with the 1966 Tricontinental Conference in Havana: ‘Who would have thought that by mid-twentieth century the darker nations would gather in Cuba, once the playground of the plutocracy, to celebrate…their will to win? What an audacious thought: that those who had been fated to labor without want, now wanted to labor in their own image!’

As the title of the Tricontinental Conference indicates, the Third World was immensely diverse, encompassing a variety of different regimes and societies across Latin America, Africa and Asia. Prashad makes a valiant effort at keeping this distracting variety under narrative control by organising his book around the cities in which Third World revolutionaries and leaders gathered to debate and organise, from the 1928 gathering of the League against Imperialism in Brussels, to the 1983 conference of the Non-Aligned Movement in New Delhi, via Bandung, Cairo, Algiers, and so on. But this is not just diplomatic history: the site of each conference is used to discuss the politics of the country in question, alongside its social and economic development, and often its artists and intellectuals as well. So the chapter on the Brussels conference discusses the barbarism of Belgian imperialism in Congo (which halved the Congolese population between 1885 and 1908), and the chapter on the New Delhi conference discusses Indira Ghandi’s authoritarian rule and liberal market reforms in 1970s India.

It is almost inevitable that such an ambitious and sweeping narrative will be found wanting on many fronts. For example, Prashad underestimates the balefully conservative role played by the USSR in restraining many key Third World struggles. He also eulogises the United Nations, even though the darker nations’ dependence on the international organisation as a political platform was a symptom of the Third World’s weakness and integration into the Pax Americana more than its vitality and autonomy. But the more fundamental problem is that by arguing from the viewpoint of the Third World, Prashad also makes the mistake of entirely locating the failure of the Third World within itself.

Thus Prashad faults the revolutionary movements that destroyed colonialism by organising and rallying the masses, only to systematically demobilise these populations and exclude them from power, as postcolonial governments ossified after independence. So in discussing Algeria’s eviction of the French in 1962, he notes: ‘The Algerian peasantry was mobilized into the war, and suspended its various clan and ethnic divides in the service of the revolution. When it was demobilized, the opportunity for on-the-job political education needed for the creation of a new society lapsed…the peasantry went back to their villages.…’ Doubtless the suppression of popular rule from the 1965 military coup onwards must take the blame for many of Algeria’s woes since independence. But there is also a more fundamental and obvious explanation: the simple fact that the peasants were peasants in the first place.

In other words, the problem was not, as Prashad suggests, that post-colonial regimes failed to devise sufficiently ingenious institutions of government that could reliably sustain a fever-pitch intensity of mass political engagement past independence. Rather it was that the economic basis for such sustained popular mobilisation was lacking. Where independence movements tried to institutionalise sheer revolutionary enthusiasm as a basis of rule, the result was not democratic awakening but destructive turmoil, which ended by entrenching conservative and bureaucratic rule more firmly than ever: witness Mao’s Cultural Revolution in China. The irony today is that while the political project of the Third World is finished, Chinese industrialisation is creating the social basis for placing the Chinese people back at the centre of world history – whether China will come up with the politics to match its potential is still an open question.

As Lenin foresaw, the historic role of the Third World was to snap the ‘weakest links’ in the chains of imperialism. Thus, the ultimate success of the Third World was always contingent on whether the strongest links in the chain – the advanced economies – would also be broken. Or, as Trotsky put it, the road to Paris and London winds through Calcutta. It was the global nature of imperialism itself, and not the United Nations, that gave the political project of the Third World its universal character.

Ultimately then, the failure of the Third World is the failure of revolutionary struggles in the West. Sheer force of will cannot politically compensate for the absence of social development. Indeed, Prashad admits as much when he examines the make-up of the post-independence Algerian state: ‘A census from April 1963 showed that French nationals and Algerians of the French colonial period held 43 per cent of the planning and decision-making posts, whereas they held 77 per cent of managerial posts.’ In such conditions, it was predictable that the involution of national liberation movements would, as Frantz Fanon predicted, ask ‘people to fall back into the past, and to become drunk on the remembrance of the epoch which led up to independence’.

Fortunately Prashad does not fall into the trap identified by Fanon. He notes, for example, how as early as the 1980s, ‘genuflection’ to the anti-apartheid movement and the Palestinians became a reflex gesture of token radicalism, to allow the pursuit of reactionary agendas and avoid hard political arguments on other issues. And unlike the enthusiasts of ‘global civil society’ and the non-governmental organisations that claim to speak on behalf of the wretched of the Earth today, Prashad has no illusions about the limited nature of contemporary politics in the Third World: ‘People across the three continents continue to dream of something better, and many of them are organized into social movements or political parties. Their aspirations have a local voice. Beyond that, their hopes and dreams are unintelligible.’

For all its faults, Prashad’s book restores a heroic period of twentieth-century political history to its proper place, while firmly recognising that it is over. Prashad nonetheless looks forward to the day when the people of the developing world will once again fight to take control of their own future – and when they do, ‘the Third World will have found its successor’.

Philip Cunliffe is co-editor of Politics Without Sovereignty: A Critique of Contemporary International Relations (UCL Press, 2007). Read more about the book here; buy the book from Amazon here.

Previously on spiked

Philip Cunliffe discussed ethical imperialism and reviewed Dave Chandler’s Empire in Denial. James Heartfield read a miserabilist history of the twentieth century. Or read more at spiked issue Books & Essays.

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Topics Politics


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