History is, by and large, written by the victor. It is a tale of kings and queens, of their loves and conquests. Sahir Ludhianvi, in his celebrated poem ‘Taj Mahal’, offers a corrective when he asks his beloved not to meet him at the Taj Mahal, as it conceals the stories of the workers whose blood, sweat and tears built it: ‘My beloved, they too must have loved passionately / They, whose craft has gifted this monument its beautiful visage / Their loved ones lie in unmarked graves / Dark, forgotten, unvisited.’
Indeed, what of the workers? What of the people, ‘dark, forgotten, unvisited’? What of their love? Where are their monuments? Where are their stories? Where are their historians? Should we not pay attention to these too? These were some of the thoughts sparked off recently after reading The Darker Nations, which takes the cue from Sahir, and offers us a people’s history of the Third World. First published in 2007, Prashad’s book is being published in Pakistan later this year.
What is a people’s history? To quote its most famous exponent, the late Howard Zinn, who died earlier this year, a people’s history would be a history that takes the ‘lives and viewpoints of the common people as its point of departure’, a history of how people shape their lives and surroundings. Zinn also suggests that it should offer ‘new accounts of the struggles of common people to make their own history’.
While this is fairly straightforward, ‘Third World’ is an altogether trickier concept. For Prashad (also a Himal contributing editor), the Third World is a ‘project’ – one rooted in the anti-colonial struggles of Latin America, Africa and Asia, which lasted from the end of World War II to its demise in the 1980s. It is a project that articulated a vision of justice for these colonised continents as they were cast into the bipolar world of the Cold War. As the author explains, ‘The Third World project included a demand for the redistribution of the world’s resources, a more dignified rate of return for the labour power of their people, and a shared acknowledgement of the heritage of science, technology, and culture.’
The project amassed a rich vocabulary of solutions and demands, and from this created institutions to fight for their actualisation. The Darker Nations is a history of how people from the Third World, enriched by the pedagogy of resistance to colonialism, came together to fight anew for a fairer world, a history of the institutions they created to actualise their hopes and dreams. Prominent among these would be the Non-Alignment Movement (NAM), UNESCO and the Group of 77 at the UN. Prashad argues that the Third World project ‘enabled the powerless to hold a dialogue with the powerful, and to try to hold them accountable.’ Given this twin nature of the project itself, Prashad’s book is both a history of ideas and a history of the institutions that embodied these ideas.
Feminist and anti-racist
Of the important figures in the Third World project, which included leaders, writers and poets, none epitomised it better than the Martinique-born psychiatrist Franz Fanon. After fighting on the French side against the Nazis in the World War II, Fanon was bitterly disappointed to find that the European colonial project and its corollary, racism, remained firmly in place. His first book, Black Skin, White Mask (1952) analyses both the logic of colonial racism and its barbaric effects for both the victims and perpetrators. In 1956, he handed in his resignation to the French authorities and joined the Front de Liberation Nationale (FLN), henceforth to fight against French rule in Algeria. Among other duties, Fanon was the FLN’s ambassador to Africa, and editor and writer for the FLN newspaper, El Moudjahid. One of his articles for this paper, titled ‘First truths on the colonial problem’, published in 1961, encapsulates the vision of the Third World project:
The position taken by a few newly independent countries, which are determined to remain outside the policy of the coalitions, has introduced a new dimension into the balance of forces in the world. Adopting the so-called policy of positive neutralism, of non-dependence, of non-commitment, of the third force, the underdeveloped countries that are awakening from a long slumber of slavery and of oppression, have considered it their duty to remain outside of any warlike involvement, in order to devote themselves to the urgent economic tasks, to staving off hunger, to the improvement of man’s lot … The Orientals, the Arabs and the Negros, today, want to present their plans, want to affirm their values, want to define their relations with the world. In The Darker Nations, we learn of these plans, values and relations that guided Fanon. The first section, titled ‘Quest’, outlines the emergence of this third force, focusing on historical gatherings of figures of the Third World, beginning with the 1928 League against Imperialism and ending at the landmark and still understudied 1966 Tricontinental Conference in liberated Havana.
The 1957 Afro-Asian People’s Solidarity Conference and 1961 Afro-Asian Women’s Conference set the feminist agenda of the Third World project. In a speech at the conference, Aisha Abdul-Rahman, an Egyptian journalist, poet and feminist, captured the mood among attendees when she argued that the national liberation struggle was a prerequisite to the ‘renaissance of the Eastern woman’, and that within the confines of imperialism, ‘women remained the victim of ignorance, isolation and slavery.’ She went on to argue that for national liberation to be truly successful, the structural differences between women and men must be overcome. Women, Prashad notes, played a key role in guerrilla wars in Algeria, Cuba, Guinea, Indonesia, Kenya, Korea, Oman, Venezuela and Vietnam.
The two conferences also argued for freedom of choice in marriage, medical support and paid holiday during pregnancy. Further, they urged that pregnancy not be made a reason for discrimination of any form, as well as the abolition of polygamy, and economic equality; collectively, this was summed up by the motto, ‘Equal pay for equal work’. They recommended that women be allowed to join trade unions as equal members and that contractual work be abolished – given that it mostly affects women and leaves them without social-security benefits. Further, for unwaged women workers they recommended that the state try to reduce indirect taxation on goods, and so lighten the burden on household finances; and that the state should provide them with income support for their housework. Today, the fact that Third World women – bar a few exceptions – are not offered these amenities suggests that the Third World project remains unrealised. Furthermore, women’s role in national independence struggles is often ignored, and thus remains in needs of excavation and acknowledgment. This is one of the unfinished tasks that those striving to write people’s history must tackle.
But the Third World project, as Prashad points out, was not without its limitations and ugly betrayals. The second part of The Darker Nations examines the internal failures, while the third and final section, titled ‘Assassinations’, looks at the external factors that pulled the Third World project to failure. By the late 1970s, many Third World countries had abandoned democratic traditions; and single-party authoritarian regimes, often formed on sectarian bases, became the norm. Military coups, often supported by former colonial powers or the US, ravaged country after country in all three liberated continents – take merely the examples of Chile, Pakistan and Nigeria. Women’s liberation gave way to machismo and, in some parts, to religious bigotry.
These problems had been anticipated by Fanon. In his last work, The Wretched of the Earth, written in the heat of the knowledge that he had but a few months to live due to leukaemia, he was at pains to urge the Third World to keep to the path of liberation. Noting the changing mood of Third World leaders, he points out, ‘as soon as independence is declared, far from embodying in concrete the needs of the people … the leader will reveal his inner purpose: to become the general president of that company of profiteers impatience for their returns.’ Fanon’s words ring true today across many of the countries of the Third World.
If we are to avoid the rule of profiteers, Fanon argues we need – and this is the core of the Third World project – radical participatory democracy. ‘The living expression of the nation,’ he writes, is the moving consciousness of the whole of the people; it is the coherent, enlightened actions of men and women … otherwise there is anarchy, repression and the resurgence of tribal parties and federalism … the national government, if it wants to be national, ought to govern by the people and for the people, for the outcasts and by the outcasts. But Fanon’s warnings were not heeded, and by the 1980s the Third World project was a wreck. As Prashad points out, this was due to the internal failures of leadership and vision in the Third World, and the former colonial masters’ interference, led now by the US.
Three notable attempts were made to assassinate Fanon. In 1959, while on a mission on the Algerian-Moroccan border, his jeep hit a landmine planted by the French. To recover from the injuries he went to Rome, where a car in which he was meant to be travelling was sabotaged, but blew up before he entered. While in hospital in Rome, after a newspaper mentioned that an Algerian revolutionary was recuperating there, gunmen burst into a room in which Fanon had been staying but had asked to change. Where Fanon was twice lucky, others were not: Patrice Lumumba, Salvador Allende, Mossasdegh and Che Guevera, among others, were killed.
The historian William Blum, in his book Rogue State (2000), notes that from 1945 to the end of the 20th century the US attempted to overthrow more than 40 foreign governments. The Third World project, which aspired to a larger regional and global role for the peoples of the Third World, was systematically ‘assassinated’. In the wake of Third World nationalist governments came military dictators – for not only the leaders but the people too had to be put in place. Death squads operated in Chile and Brazil, and flogging and imprisonment were dealt out in Pakistan, Nigeria and Ghana to those who subscribed to democratic ideals.
With Third World leaders out of the way the Third World project faltered. Former colonial masters found and placed leaders of, to quote Prashad, ‘Profiteers Inc’ at the head of Third World countries. And that is where we find ourselves today. Tin-pot dictators, monarchies, technocrats, a watered-down version of elite democracy and neo-liberal free-market economics leave the popular will frustrated and make continental unity elusive – a unity that is desperately needed if the ‘darker nations’ are to negotiate with the US and other rich countries on issues such as climate change, military operations, international law and the economic imbalance between the Third World and the developed world.
It was political, cultural and economic inequality that gave rise to the Third World project. These conditions, in modified form, persist today. Thus, the seeds for the revival of the Third World project persist – and already, in Latin America, a new bloc is charting out a fresh course. As we look to re-build the underdeveloped world, we must understand our past failures, and for that we must understand the history outlined by The Darker Nations. The history of the Third World project is the history of millions of people; it is the history of their collective wills, struggles, creations and desires. It is also a history of their failures and the cold-blooded murder of their ideals and aspirations. Above all, it is a history we must excavate and understand – for it is from such an understanding that we in the Third World can chart a new course.
~ Qalander Bux Memon is a lecturer and editor of Naked Punch Review. He lives in Lahore.
~ Ali Mohsin is the editor of Bol Asia, a politics-and-arts publication based in Lahore.