Third World story

Published : Nov 07, 2008 00:00 IST

The book alerts us to the intimate details of both the aspirations that set the Third World idea going and the cupidities that brought it to ground.

VIJAY PRASHADS new book, The Darker Nations, is history enumerated not just by a scholar but by an anguished participant in the destiny of the worlds oppressed who scrutinises the collapse of a promising world-idea in order to understand better how new ways may be found to resurrect a humanist order.

As Prashad surveys vast spans of history-in-the-making and history-in-decline, he never fails to pick out the telling detail the buried particular that illuminates and encapsulates the benighted narrative of the project that was the Third World or, later, the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). All of that a tribute to the quality and extent of his immersion in an endeavour that takes in nothing less than the story of the world from about the time of the League of Nations and its contemporary alterity, the League Against Imperialism (Brussels, 1927), to our times.

It would be foolhardy to recount the factual substratum and universe on which Prashad bases his overarching scrutiny of that story. I may suggest, however, the controlling axes of analysis that informs Prashads assessment of the materials on hand. And, simple as these might seem, Prashads sustained brilliance in deploying those axes to illuminate vast movements in the histories he examines is breathtaking:

The initial idealisms of anti-colonial vanguards who led national liberation struggles and then the multiple causes of their complicit decline and failure;

The role of what Albert Sauvy, the French Resistance fighter who wrote for France Observateur, called the Second World, namely, the Soviet bloc of countries that came into existence subsequent to the October Revolution and the Second World War; and

The Capitalist West that put its faith in market fundamentalism.

As to the first of these, Prashad demonstrates in theatre after theatre (Indonesia, India, Iraq, Iran, Brazil, Bolivia, Venezuela, Yugoslavia, Tanzania, and so on) how the reluctance and failure of the national-liberation leaderships to take on the hegemony of old social classes and castes led, gradually, to their alienation from the masses who had in the first place made the liberationary struggles possible and successful. The alternative modernity that had then propelled the project of the Third World as an initial oppositional idea can be seen, from Prashads enumerations, to have failed to transcend capitalist models of development even as it sought to tinker with notions of socialised nation-building.

Not surprisingly, in all these theatres with the singular exception of Cuba the success of the liberation movements led, sooner rather than later, to the targeting of the communist parties that had provided the cutting edge to those movements, as communists came to be liquidated, politically and physically, as the chief threats to the new power structures that had come to be established. A tragic aspect of such a fallout is examined by Prashad as he assesses the role of the Comintern and, after its dissolution, of the Soviet state. Almost invariably, the Soviets came to align themselves with the bourgeois or bourgeois/landlord leaderships of national liberation struggles and political organisations in the Third World rather than contributing to strengthening communist parties or leaderships within them.

A time arrived when, instead of operating as a coherent radical force in world events, Third World countries began to strike opportunist equations now with the Second World, now with the First World as class interests dictated. And NAM came to have but two agendas that everybody agreed on, namely, universal disarmament and the central role of the United Nations.

As NAM entered the decade of the 1970s, the radical leaderships of the anti-colonial Third World began to lose the hold they had enjoyed over their own peoples.

Thus began the era of multiple disaffections and insurgencies, often centred around localised identity-related demands, as working class organisations saw a continual weakening in their role as a possible new vanguard.

Most disastrously, these changes in the profile and content of Third World progressivisms came to displace a radical and secular nationalism based on the concrete aspirations of the masses for democracy and equity by nationalisms driven by considerations of race and religion. An occurrence that gelled nicely into the cultural and political preferences of a market-driven First World that now saw the opportunity to exploit such nationalisms to sunder the unity of mass movements and the possibility of any challenge to the supremacy of the capitalist way of life.

And the example of Cuba is justly used by Prashad to underscore these failures. Remaining democratically and visibly aligned with the masses in the matter of both formulation and implementation of policy, the Cuban leadership continued to be successful in bringing concrete redress to citizens across the board with respect to their social needs and aspirations and in defeating repeated attempts by American-led imperialism to liquidate the Cuban revolution. Everywhere else, the disjunction between Third World leaderships and the struggling masses became a precondition of their cooption and of the betrayal of the Third World project.

Just two caveats: Would Prashad agree that The Darker Nations perhaps insufficiently addresses the question of the career of the communist parties in the Third World, chiefly of their own failures and culpabilities? And would he agree that such a question is still with us?

Secondly, how promising might be the thrust of Prashads concluding paragraph:

The limitations of the IMF [International Monetary Fund]-driven globalisation and revanchist traditionalism provoke mass movements across the planet. The battle for land rights and water rights, for cultural dignity and economic parity, for womens rights and indigenous rights, for the construction of democratic institutions and responsive states these are legion in every country, on every continent. It is from these many creative initiatives that a genuine agenda for the future will arise. When it does, the Third World will have found its successor.

Without in the least deriding the potential of these many movements, can we argue that the often disparate and mutually conflictual order of these movements rather than following the localisms of a post-modernist paradigm of things may be trusted to fill the need for an international proletariat that takes on the capitalist social order from a sentient awareness of class histories?

This is a question that acquires some poignancy at a moment in the history of capitalism when the god-like bulwarks of free-market capitalism come tumbling down and when the American state finds that the only recourse it has is to have the public sector take over the private one. (That Prashads book precedes these cataclysmic happenings must, of course, be considered here.)

Is it possible that the many socialist regimes that now dot the landscape of Latin America can, inspired both by the Cuban example and by the collapse of Wall Street, conjointly furnish a new road to an alternative world that skirts both capitalism and Soviet-style statism? And does the current collapse of free-market finance capitalism furnish encouragement to communist parties within individual countries to revive their own convictions, to democratise their organisations and decision-making practices, and to mobilise the immiserated masses with a new fervour?

Let me conclude by saying that Prashads The Darker Nations in the first place helps us to formulate these questions even as it crucially alerts us to the intimate details of both the aspirations that set the Third World idea going and the cupidities that brought it to ground. Additionally, as a new bipolar, perhaps even a multipolar, world begins to reshape after the Georgia event, it would seem the time has arrived for peoples democratic revolutions across the world to come together into a fresh concatenation of hegemony with a clear grounding in the history of class societies.

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