The Darker Nations

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Vijay Prashad, The New Press, £16.99

Vijay Prashad's comprehensive and engaging book The Darker Nations: A People's History of the Third World adopts as its central theme Frantz Fanon's idea of the Third World as a political project. By charting its historical and political trajectory, Prashad illustrates how this project may be summarised in the following five words: "growth and hope - then disillusionment".

Prashad does a particularly good job of locating debates inside the Third World project within the context of national and international events. Early nationalist leaders such as Gamal Abdul Nasser, Jawaharlal Nehru and Fidel Castro espoused a unified agenda of state-led development, nuclear disarmament and the creation of a Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) at a series of conferences in the 1950s and 1960s. Differences surfaced later over the role of armed struggle and the relationship of the state to the working class and political parties, following victorious national liberation struggles in Algeria and Vietnam.

The contemporary relevance of the role of armed insurgency in defeating colonial and imperialist forces is clear. Furthermore, Prashad's book represents a welcome antidote to apologists for empire like historian Niall Ferguson and proponents of racism who view Third World countries as unsuited to democracy, such as Samuel Huntington. The discussion of whether the United Nations can be, or ever was, a force for justice will resonate with present day anti-imperialists.

The shortcomings of nationalism are addressed in a series of chapters which detail how the goal of creating a secular, modern state was implemented in a top-down authoritarian manner in Julius Nyerere's Tanzania, Nasser's Egypt and Sukarno's Indonesia, among others.

Prashad is rightly critical of "socialism from above" and the tendency of nationalist elites to form cross-class alliances with old social classes for fear of organised workers and indigenous Communist parties.

I found the chapters where Prashad outlines the dual shift in economic and political ideology within the leadership of NAM the most interesting sections of the book. Following the debt crisis of the 1970s and the emergence of pro-free market leaders, a number of Third World regimes adopted International Monetary Fund (IMF) led policies of structural adjustment and austerity. As Prashad notes, even the IMF's economists admitted these measures did not benefit Third World countries. Spiralling debt, unemployment and inequality led to social unrest from Jamaica to Egypt and Peru.

Adjacent to the adoption of neoliberal economic policies was a shift towards cultural nationalism which stressed race, tribe and religion. The appearance of chauvinistic forms of nationalism (India's far right BJP party) and puritanical versions of Islam (Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia) are prime examples of this. Such forces found no contradiction in stressing their patriotism while selling off state assets to transnational corporations and accepting US economic and military aid.

The Darker Nations covers an impressive array of debates and is well researched. It will be especially useful to those studying nationalism or the Third World, or who want an alternative perspective on the Cold War period. My criticism would be that, although his sympathies obviously lie with the masses, the vast majority of the book is devoted to discussion of nationalist elites. Prashad does end his work, though, with the belief that current social movements for land rights, women's rights, democratic institutions and a redistribution of wealth represent a possible successor to the original Third World project.