On “The Darker Nations” – An Interview with Vijay Prashad

The importance of Vijay Prashad’s book, The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World, lies in its ability to trace the trajectory of the “Third World Project” – its genesis, growth and crisis – amidst the cacophonous range of local political economic structures and their varied articulation with global capitalism and the metropolitan world. The book shows us that beyond the simplistic orientalist image of the Global South as just being on the receiving end and reactive, there has existed definite protagonism with all its contradictions grounded in the peoples’ struggle against domination, oppression and exploitation. The following discussion with the author of The Darker Nations is an attempt to retrieve some of the salient insights in this formidable work.

Radical Notes (RN): First of all, hearty congratulations to you from Radical Notes for having authored a masterly work on the history of peoples (and their interactions) less traveled to, and much less talked about. But how necessary do you think is it to write a history of peoples still alive? Considering that the developing world is still at a developing phase, will writing a history amount to writing off of some reverberating presence of the old elements?

Vijay Prashad: Thanks for asking me to do this. I appreciate it.

The book is a history of the Third World project. It is this project’s development that I trace from the 1920s to the 1980s. ADarker Nations wide range of initiatives came together in a relatively coherent platform of demands that was pushed at various United Nations and international forums. That project was assassinated in the 1980s by a combination of the exhaustion of the way the various regimes operated in their societies, by the debt crisis (itself a product of a newly confident financial capitalism), the collapse of the Soviet Union, etc. The people who live in the societies that once adopted the Third World project of course live on, and certainly they are making history. But not on the same platform as they once were.

RN: You have pointed out the dangerous redundancy of “East-West” paradigm. By that stretch, how valid do you feel were the “First-Second-Third” worldist categorizations?

Prashad: Like all such categorizations, the division has its merits and demerits. It usefully captures at least one surface level division: between the states of the advanced industrial world who had once been major colonial powers and, after World War II, had retooled the methods to maintain primacy (the First World – and its military arm, NATO); the states of the formally non-capitalist bloc, mostly the vast Russian confederation and Eastern Europe, who had adopted Communism and attempted to create a path out of the strong undertow of capitalism (the Second World); and the states which had been either recently colonized or which had a longer history of non-colonial imperial domination (Latin America and China), that had a variety of political lines but yet were united in the breech through the Third World project. I develop the three lines at Bandung, for instance, where one can see the divisions. But these are to be expected. What is so interesting is the congruence of views, between, say, Manila and Accra.

RN: You say, the Third World was a project, more than being a place, and so you offer a historical appraisal of the making of this project. Can you please tell our readers, why would the project gain prominence over the places? If a project is meant to have common goals, how common were the goals sketched for the Third World? Would it be less apt to suggest that the Third World was (or/and is) perhaps comprising those wretched places of earth ravaged by colonialism to have a grounded commonality in their origin, than to have evolved as an organized project through their enlightened leaderships?

Prashad: In the 1980s, the “third world” was seen as failed states and famine, poverty and hopelessness. The places seemed to have come “third” if not last in the great race for progress. That was the broad tenor of the discourse on the post-colonial period. I found this tendentious. It meant that these places were fated to failure, and therefore to charity. The condescension erased the history of struggle and defeat. I am interested, partly, in looking at the richer history of the epoch, to uncover the struggles and their ideologies.

The anti-colonial struggles that produced the new nations schooled the vast mass of the population about the roots and resources of imperialism. The Third World project, therefore, comes not so much from the intellectuals alone, for if it did it would not have had so much popular support. It came from the wisdom of these movements, which was articulated by the intellectuals and what you call the “enlightened leaderships.”

The Third World, in my analysis, is not so much a commonality of condition as it is a unity of purpose by the regimes that, at least in the two decades after the 1950s, came with significant popular legitimacy. And, for a time, it posed a challenge to the post-World War II dispensation, particularly with its agenda for disarmament, for a more just economic order (use of subsidies and tariffs, and commodity cartels), and for a world without racism. This was something.

RN: We understand by analyzing the schemes and plans of the third world leadership and their internal relations you have over-grounded a much-neglected aspect of the history of international relations – the intra-third world relationship. How much do you think this is representative of the threads that the majority of peoples found among each other even before the nationalist leaders awakened themselves to an “internationalist nationalism”? If we count the peoples more than the leaders while describing the project, don’t you think that even though the project is dead, the conditions for the project still exist?

Prashad: The conditions for some kind of project certainly do exist in our times. I believe that the contours of the Third World project need to be totally rethought. For instance, the Third World project did not fully grapple with the problem posed by an energetic and “free” finance capital, whose own relations to the state changed in the 1960s and 1970s. Castro, at the 1983 NAM meeting, raised this problem, but it was generally discounted. He proposed, for instance, that there be a Third World debt servicing payments strike. This would have been a very powerful way to at least reveal the power of finance capital, and its stranglehold on sustainable development. It was not to be, as I recount. So, the conditions of exploitation continue, but these are also sharpened and transformed. We need to account for the new conditions, for the new struggles against them, and for the possibility of an inter-national, global platform capable of dealing with an aggressive U. S. military, with the Chinese and Indian economies humming, and with the creation of the “planet of slums,” etc. This was my interest in editing (with Teo Ballve) a book on Latin America, Dispatches from Latin America: On the Frontlines Against Neoliberalism (which was published in the US by South End Press and in India by Leftword). I am now trying to assemble such a book on Africa and on African struggles: one wonders what will happen to the African left forces if the South African Communist Party widens the gap with the African National Congress (there is a wonderful debate ongoing in the pages of the SACP’s Bua Komanisi and in Umsebenzi… worth following).

RN: When we look for a “peoples’ history”, we are primarily seeking the history of the oppressed – within the ambit of the history of that region. In fact, the peoples’ history is posited against the rulers’ history, especially when the ruling class interests vary from the peoples’. How much do you think the documents or conferences that you have analyzed in the book provide insight into and how much they obscure this history?

Prashad: A people’s history is not just the history of the oppressed, but it is history told from the standpoint of the “people.” The early people’s histories, including those of Geijer on the Swedes and Palacky on the Czech, as well as Morton on the English, were mainly attempts to bring other social classes into histories reserved for the elites (when Pushkin proposed to write a history of a peasant leader, the Tsar noted pointedly, “such a man has no history”). I am not of the view that there are special classes in the world who should be the subject of history, and that their views are somehow more authentic than that of others (such as the working class or the peasantry – there are also reactionary forces within these social classes). The subject of my narrative is the Third World project, and it therefore demands an engagement with the lives and labors of all social classes, in contradiction, in interaction. What makes it a people’s history is that it is written with an ear to the struggles for a type of egalitarian and libertarian justice, which means that the grievances and imaginations of the oppressed are central to the narrative.

RN: Talking of women, the Third World is special. Not just as the most oppressed half of the population, women have also been the most celebrated political figures. In the ‘Cairo’ chapter you dealt with some of the prominent women political figures in the Third World. What do you think about the roles and positions of women within various alternative political movements in the Third World – as comrades and as oppressed?

Prashad: From my point of view, the basic thesis of the national liberation women’s rights platform is this: that their societies are torn by sexist traditions; that their states are plagued by misogynist laws; but that their social and political histories demonstrate that women within these societies can challenge national liberation and the Third World project to extend itself in a positive direction. They rejected “humanitarian interventionism” at the same time as they called for an internationalist critique of sexist injustice. The women in these movements had no illusions that their were problems within their political parties and formations, that they needed to fight on many fronts – against allies and enemies. That is the basic point of “Cairo.” The UN dynamic that led to Beijing (1995) draws from this lineage.

RN: Talking about the character of struggles in the Third World, the history is replete with struggles against dual oppressions: one against direct/indirect colonialism itself, and two, against the remnants and local agencies entrenched within the worldwide intensification of capitalist accumulation. Why should the Third World get credit for only the former struggle in which its leaders were glorified, and not the latter – in which its peoples were shunned? What do you think about post-colonial militant movements aimed at destabilizing those very powers that defined the Third World institutionally, but have not quite succeeded to reclaim power yet? How much have they contributed in the making, or rather, unmaking of the Third World project?

Prashad: Certainly these are important struggles. I emphasize them at various points in the narrative, for instance in the sections on Indonesia and Iraq. The social movements that are alive today were incubated in this period, but they don’t begin to flower until the 1980s. The water wars and what not are a product of the collapse of the Third World project, as I hope to show in the next volume of this study: The Poorer Nations: A People’s history of the Global South (should be done in about five or six years).

RN: You evoke hopes for a successor to the Third World. What can possibly prevent any attempts to assassinate this? If measured by the institutionalization of the Third World, the project was perhaps doomed from the beginning, since the political elites could not have done without the help of the bourgeois class – who in turn would have worked hard to undermine the further struggles. However, if measured by peoples’ agitations against colonial powers, domestic capitalists and the current neo-liberalism, then the hope may well be still alive. In your opinion then, at this juncture of world history, what should be the weapons of strength for the people world over to combat neo-liberalism? With the apparent aspirations in the form of the United Nations (UN) or the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) getting redundant, and any dependency on institutional projects producing no radical shift, what paths are open for the oppressed of the world?

Prashad: There are no guarantees. But, on the other hand, one of the lessons from this history is to ensure that the leadership not insulate itself from the people, that the people be the arbiters of the direction of social change, and that their delegates widen the responsibility as much as possible. That’s a fairly simple lesson, but also one that is easier to articulate than to put into practice; particularly when the regime is under attack from imperialism and from the old social classes. The constraints often paralyze the ability to broaden the democratic nature of the movement.

I don’t want to second-guess the form that the new internationalism will take. Chavez has begun to push for the creation of institutions of the South, and to revive NAM. He has become a pole for this refoundation (at the African Union meeting in June 2006 he was greeted as a savior, which might be more than we need right now!). There is also the World Social Forum, which is useful, but as yet unable to drive a wedge into the world system – it neither has the power of the nation-state nor of the international organizations at the inter-state level. This is a serious structural limitation for the articulation of a plausible short-term program. Farooq Tariq, the head of Pakistan’s Labour Party, has recently likened the WSF to “a peacock dancing in the jungle,” by which he means that the WSF is beautiful but its beauty is being showcased away from the masses of people, insulated from their eyes. All this needs to be remedied.

The grievances and hopes are many, and I hope that The Darker Nations will be part of a conversation that seeks to find a new project that might solve the problems of our world that the G-7 can only exacerbate and not even ameliorate.

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