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Third World Aspirations

The Darker Nations: Biography of the Short-Lived Third World by Vijay Prashad;


Third World Aspirations

kamal mitra chenoy

his book is long overdue. Prashad gives an impressive overview of the development and fate of the third world. His work is not mainly confined to analysis of political events and texts, but also encompasses culture and the literary outpourings that reveal the aspirations of the former colonised people for a new and just world. Following the literary style of the biography he divides his chapters on the basis of various cities and areas, where events critical to the third world and to the later non-aligned movement (NAM) took place. The basic theme of the book is that the aspirations articulated by the third world leadership were, in a large number of cases, a mobilising tool of a multinational nation state to develop capitalism which was a far cry from the promised socialism or radical democracy. He copiously documents this contrasting public announcement with real policy. His analysis is not confined to ruling parties, but also deals with smaller parties like the communist Tudeh party in Iran.

Some Insights

In fact, this informative text is full of insights into the course of various revolutionary movements, the basis of reaction and the role of imperialism. Throughout this multilayered work Prashad analyses

Economic & Political Weekly

june 7, 2008

The Darker Nations: Biography of the Short-Lived Third World by Vijay Prashad; Left Word, New Delhi, 2007; (hb), pp 382, Rs 650.

the tensions between the decolonised people and their leadership which he notes “combine the promise of equality with the maintenance of social hierarchy”. He provides a detailed analysis of the domestication, outlawing or massacre of radical forces by the national bourgeoisie. A historic irony was the role of the Soviet Union in facilitating the domestication of these radical groups, or continuing good relations with regimes that suppressed the radical opposition. He also notes how the Chinese regimes linked up with reactionary regimes including the Pinochet regimes in Chile in the early 1970s. Prashad does well to remind us that Bandung is one of the milestones of the peace movement. The Bandung conference noted that the third world had a “duty toward humanity and civilisation to proclaim their support for disarmament”.

It was at the initiation of India and other third world countries that the Disarmament Sub-Committee of the United Nations had been formed. But he notes the vulnerability of this proposal given internal events in the third world. He cites the Pakistan-India arms race after their first war in 1947-48. Similarly, the aggressive policies of Israel and its allies led to militarisation in the rest of west Asia. China, a major party in Bandung went ahead with its nuclear weapons programme and test

ed in 1964. The 1961 NAM Conference was, Prashad argued, “the Third World’s Yalta”. This was the founding conference of what would become the NAM and also in this brief summit the term peaceful coexistence was formulated. Prashad thinks that NAM’s rhetoric exceeded its policies. While NAM produced all sorts of concepts, it chose to base international relations on morals rather than in terms of power politics or national interest. “This”, he finds “was the movements’ challenge and undoing”.

Basic Contradiction

However, as Prashad notes, repeatedly there was a basic contradiction between the NAM leadership’s aspirations and a sustained radical policy. The national bourgeoisie and other ruling classes were essentially committed to a building of a self-reliant capitalism. The real failure of the earlier NAM experiment was not that the leaders were unaware of power politics or national interest or that they did not want to base their policies on the same, but a basic contradiction between the ruling classes and the people. Further, as Prashad has noted, the US secretary of state Dulles dismissed non-alignment as “an immoral and short-sighted conception”. Prashad returns to this theme later in his assessment of the NAM summit in


Delhi in 1983 which he characterises as the obituary of the third world, which is a bit simplistic. The shadow that the Nellie massacre cast over the NAM meeting appears overstated and the accusation that the Congress communal politics was responsible for the massacre is plain wrong. Communal forces like the BJP aligned with extreme chauvinist sections of Assamese were the real guilty parties.

But the more important point brought out by Prashad is that the NAM itself became divided and one of its major supporters the Soviet Union was gravely weakened. The bourgeoisie was fully aware as Rajiv Gandhi put it “the stronger we are economically the more respect we shall get from the economically strong”.

This in a nutshell was the dilemma of NAM. Its members for the greater part were led by leaderships that wanted to build a strong capitalism. Despite their widespread respect Cuba and Fidel Castro and other allies were in a small minority. They could indeed and did contribute to NAM formulations, but they could not alter the domestic constellation of class forces. There were limitations in the theory of self-reliant capitalism itself. The greater the extent of capitalist development, the more the bourgeoisie would be integrated with international capital including finance capital. Thus in the decades of the 1980s, India witnessed a massive International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan with conditionalities and underwent a structural adjustment programme leading to a complete abandonment of the earlier Nehruvian economic strategy. Many other countries underwent the same fate.

Two Pillars of Legitimacy

Prashad theorises that “the two pillars of the third world nationalism are economic autarky and secular democracy”. This is imprecise. In fact, a failure of NAM was to build up what is now called south-south cooperation. Economic autarky was neither feasible nor desirable, but the basic formulation that the third world nationalism should be based on economic


self-reliance is absolutely valid. Thus Prashad notes that with the abandonment of economic sovereignty, NAM lost one of its two pillars of legitimacy.

Prashad’s book ends rather abruptly. One wishes he had gone into a somewhat more detailed analysis of the failures as well as the strengths of NAM and third world in its concluding chapter. The title of his captivating book The Darker Nations is not particularly felicitous. Why refer to the entire third world as “darker nations”, even if the intention is to rebut western imperialist racism? In any case the term is not quite accurate. For instance, the Chinese and the south-east Asians were no less fair than the Japanese who were the part of the first world, not to speak of the whites in Latin America. All this notwithstanding, this is a comprehensive, informative and rewarding book to read, and documents a critical part of our international politics and culture which is much misrepresented nowadays.


june 7, 2008

Economic & Political Weekly

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