Becoming politically aware in the 1960s and 1970s, one heard and read a lot about the Third World. Not only did the national liberation struggles of the Third World inspire many in the New Left to take action, those struggles also informed us what form that action took. In fact, one of the terms used to describe various organizations–derogatorily or in praise–was “Third-Worldist.” For example, the Weather Underground was considered Third Worldist and the Revolutionary Union wasn’t. Those US leftist groups that were defined by their race and/or ethnicity went a step further and identified themselves as members of the Third World. This was not much of a leap, given the similarities between the exploitation of non-white members of the US population and seemed especially true in the case of the black population of the United States. Malcom X was one of the first leaders of the 1960s to express this view and the Black Panthers and others picked up the concept after Malcolm’s death. Not only did the idea of an internal black colony have a certain appeal, it made a certain amount of historical sense. In addition, it placed the black freedom struggle in the United States in an international perspective.
For those coming of political age after the fall of the Soviet Union, the concept of a Third World might seem antiquated. After all, as Vijay Prashad explains in his new book The Darker Nations, the concept derived from the so-called two-camp theory put forth by the United States after World War Two. This theory held that there were only two superpowers in the world–the United States and the Soviet Union. Every other nation would be best served by aligning themselves with one or the other of these camps. Naturally, both capitols would do their best to include as many nations as possible in their camps, since this served their needs for protection and expansion of markets and resources. This is not to say that there was not a difference between Washington’s need to expand its capitalist enterprise and Moscow’s desire to have some kind of socialist world, but to point out a fundamental understanding that runs through Prashad’s book: the Third World saw nonalignment to either capitol as most beneficial to its own goals of independence and local development so they formed a movement of non-aligned nations. These nations shared a viewpoint that countered the view that the first and second world were somehow better. At times, according to Prashad’s account, this was the only view they shared. Still, it was the view that united them.
Prashad divides his book into chapters titled after cities that represent milestones in the growth and demise of the Third World The titles are a shorthand travelogue of the third world’s history. Some represent formative meetings that were held in those cities. Others represent meetings and incidents that precipitated the project’s demise. Those meetings that took place early on in the non-aligned movement’s (NAM) formation between the likes of Egypt’s Nasser, India’s Nehru, and Yugoslavia’s Tito reminded me of today’s meeting’s between Venezuela’s Chavez and Ahmadinejad; or those between Chavez and Bolivia’s Morales. In other words, they were attempts to create a united front against the imperial power of the United States, despite the differences between those countries looking to form that front. As Prashad makes clear throughout his work, although the Third World nations insisted on independence from both the US and the Soviet camp, the predominant view among those nations was that US imperialism was the bigger threat to their independence. Time has proven them to be tragically correct.
Naturally, many of the nations considered part of the third world were birthed in national liberation struggles against their colonial masters–Britain, France, and the Netherlands, among others. While these movements provided real material leadership and support to the peoples they were determined to free from colonialism, they also provided inspiration to millions of others around the world. Unfortunately, it was their failure to make a transition from national liberation movement to democratic government that added to the difficulties these nations faced in the wake of victories that were usually accompanied by the enmity of Washington. When those national liberation struggles were military in nature, that transition became even more difficult, especially when considering the major transformation required when shifting from a hierarchical military structure to an inclusive democratic one.
The hopefulmess of the book’s first chapters is soured by the time the chapter named after New Delhi arrives near the book’s end. This chapter describes the end of the Third World project. Although the NAM summit described therein was a phenomenal event, with Fidel Castro leading the charge as the movement’s outgoing chairman, it was a hollow celebration. Many of the richer nations involved in the project’s headier days had already thrown in their lot with the US capitalists and their growing neoliberal project of capitalist globalization. The victories of the 1970s in Vietnam, Nicaragua, Grenada, Ethiopia, and the Portuguese colonies in Africa were either bittersweet memories or under direct attack from the United States and its forces. In the place of these victories and the hopes they had symbolized, the elites in many of the third world’s governments had begun a sell-off of their nations’ resources, labor and markets to the multinational corporations headquartered in the world’s north–especially in the US. The descriptions Prashad provides of these elite’s manipulations of ethnic and religious differences, their replacing of a nationalism informed by a third world united against imperialism with one defined by the religious/ethnic majority’s chauvinism is a tragic tale. If one wants an example of this process in a relatively brief and bloody illustration, they need only look at Iraq in 2007. All of the elements Prashad details in his book are there: national elites incorporated into the neoliberal economic model, IMF austerity measures encoded into law, national identity obscured by religious and ethnic differences, and all of this instigated and encouraged by Washington,, which wants control of the country’s resources and (some would argue) its soul.
Prashad’s book is part of The New Press People’s History Series. According to Howard Zinn’s preface, the goal of the series is to “shake up readers’ understanding of the past–just as common people have shaken up their always changeable worlds.” Prashad does a great job in The Darker Nations–the series premiere. He chronicles the rise and fall of the Third World Project, and describes the contradictory hopes of the project’s beginning and its implosion. His thesis that the project failed as much from Washington’s aggressive opposition as from Moscow and Beijing’s sometimes purposeful inattention and the movement’s own social and political contradictions is well made and concretely supported.
Ron Jacobs is the author of The Way the Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground. His novel Short Order Frame Up is forthcoming from Mainstay Press.