The Third World in the 20th Century: Vijay Prashad Interview

Source: Political Affairs

ImageEditor’s Note: Vijay Prashad teaches as Trinity College in Connecticut. He is the author of many books, including The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World (New Press 2007), Keeping Up with the Dow Joneses (South End Press, 2003), Fat Cats and Running Dogs: The Enron Stage of Capitalism (Common Courage Press, 2003), and Everybody was Kung Fu Fighting, (Beacon Press, 2001).

PA: What is the personal origin of The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World?

VP: There are many origins for this book. One of them was that I grew up in a period when the Third World Movement was beginning to fall apart. That was in the 1970s, when my lingering interest, you might even call it my obsession, with the early years of the Third World Project began. I read as much as I could about Algeria when I was in India. I was very interested in the developments taking place in East Africa, and Vietnam, of course, was another interest. I was reading widely about all of this. So I have always been interested in the Third World Movement.

When I came to study in the US, particularly in graduate school, what surprised me was the dismissal of nationalism as a concept. This simple dismissal, an almost untutored dismissal: all nationalisms were bad. What struck me about this – this was in the late 1980s – was that this dismissal, both in popular and academic culture, was at some level symptomatic of not just theories in fashion, but it was symptomatic of a reality, which is that nation states were being put under a great deal of stress and strain, and that many of the national movements in Africa, Asia and Latin America had fallen apart. There was the famine in Africa and the drought, and it was then you had the emergence in Europe and the United States of a kind of "I want to save Africa" consciousness. In Britain you had Band Aid led by Bob Geldof – there the song was "Save the World." Of course, when this translated across the Atlantic and Quincy Jones picked it up, there was a certain amount of arrogance that became attached to it, so it became "We are the World." Both "Save the World" and "We are the World" were a response to the situation of nation states that were put in a position where they were unable to provide for their populations. Nationalism as a concept was then demeaned. I wanted to recover that project. I wanted to recover the days when there was something before us, when nations and international solidarity in the Third World meant something tangible and real. When it wasn’t just rhetorical, and it hadn’t yet been "structurally adjusted" by the forces of finance capital. That was my interest.

I wanted to return to that story, to say that if you look back, for instance, at Algeria from today, if the situation is so determined for you by the distortions in Algeria today, you won’t see the FLN (Front de Liberation Nationale) and what it was. That was my interest.

PA: Has anybody called you a nostalgic or a romantic?

VP: Of course, but, you know, it’s all very well to be called nostalgic or romantic. The question is, is it nostalgia to analyze the past, and to show its contradictions from within its own dynamic? Is that nostalgia? It depends on how you write about it. Certainly I have a tendency in this book to sound nostalgic at times, or at least use a more nostalgic register, but the text is analytic. It develops the contradictions that existed in Third World societies and their movements. So I don’t look back and say, "Ben Bella was such a great man!" Nostalgia quickly becomes sentimentality and then it devolves into Great Man theory. I don’t suffer from that, I don’t feel.

PA: You talk about the Third World as a "project." Could you talk about this term?

VP: This was a deliberate thing that I wanted to do, and it was not just simply semantic. Again, in the 1980s there was the beginning of a discussion. Just like in the American discourse about race, there is an anxiety among liberals as to what word to use. You know, should I use the word African American, should I use the word Latino or Hispanic American, as if, if you find the right word the conditions of racism disappear. That anxiety over naming was also there for the so-called less developed nations or under-developed nations. What do I call them? That was in the 1980s. All this anxiety over naming. What was not recognized was that these countries, 40-odd years ago, were not worried about what they were being called. What they had constructed was a new unity. But this unity wasn’t a unity of, say, hot countries with poverty. That was not how they understood their unity. They understood their unity, from at least the 1920s onwards, on the basis of anticolonialism and anti-imperialism. That is, some of the leading elements among them had articulated a theory of imperialism and anti-imperialism, and their solidarity was premised on the fact that they could not take on the powers-that-be and the system that dominated them, unless they worked together. So they created a program together. They created a project together. They didn’t see a unity based on drought, famine and failed states. That was not how they saw it from their eyes. If you see it from their eyes, it doesn’t matter what you call the project, it is more important that you see there is a project, and not just a set of places that are artificially united.

PA: Most of the history that you are recovering in your book takes place during the Cold War and you argue that the bipolarization of that period tended to exclude or marginalize the interests and needs of much of the Third World Project. Could you talk a little bit about that? What were the advantages and disadvantages for the Third World Project in the Cold War period?

VP: Obviously there were advantages in it, because it was principally a bipolar engagement between the East and the West. Thus, there was a space constructed for others to develop their own projects. For the Third World Project it was particularly beneficial to have the Soviet Union validate some of the broader ideological demands, for human rights, the right to housing, things like that, which the capitalist countries were generally not that invested in ideologically. The capitalist countries were not willing to enshrine this human rights agenda. For the Third World Project it was very important for this human rights agenda to be as broadly written as possible, in order for them to use the United Nations as a platform to advance it. So, of course, it was valuable to have that space. In the current era of what is called unipolarity (but which may actually end up being the dominance, not just of the United States, but of the Group of Seven countries), there is a kind of suffocation on the world stage. In the bipolar era there was an opening created.

There was also the problem during the Cold War for Communist parties in different nations of navigating a single line, of finding a singular approach to, say, the bourgeoisie, or whether the struggle should be class-against-class, etc. That single-line approach created considerable havoc in different societies at various times, in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. In those three decades there was a tendency for Moscow to produce "the line": This has got to be the line; that has to be the line. Sometimes what was forgotten was what Lenin said in 1917 – that insurrection is a kind of art. The lost opportunities in several countries in the 20th century are very significant and haven’t been come to terms with fully. Therefore, although it was an advantage to have a space opened up by the primary conflict between the Soviets and the United States, the result was was not necessarily all good.

PA: You seem to be critical of those times when Communist parties, broad-left alliances, and anti-imperialist movements in Third World countries adopted policies that seemed to be handed down to them by the Soviet Union or China, specifically the united-front concept. Could you elaborate on the problems you see looking back on the history of some of the Third World movements?

VP: The first thing one needs to say is that one cannot be too general about any of these things. I am not critical of the united front concept in general. However, in some specific instances it may have had deleterious effects. It is not a question of a general problem with either the united front or a national democratic revolution. These concepts themselves, in abstraction can be justified, but in certain specific instanceS there may have been some problems. For instance, there is a problem with the national democratic revolution concept when it means the demobilization of the people. For instance, sometimes when one says that there will be only one party, it has the effect of demobilizing the population. This was especially the case in Algeria. Not only were other parties asked to dissolve or, in fact, ordered to dissolve constitutionally, but the other institutions of the working class, trade unions, women’s organizations, etc. were marginalized, to the point where it meant that they could not really hold conferences, they couldn’t organize, they couldn’t gather, etc. Here is where I locate the problem in the concept of the national democratic revolution. In Algeria, just when the leadership, which had moved to a far-left position in some of its policies, began to get isolated from broad sections of society, when Ben Bella and his group decided look, you know we’re getting isolated – they began to reach out to the mass organizations, and it was too late. Then the army stepped in and wiped them out.

It’s this process of demobilization that I am interested in. In some instances, the national democratic revolution concept is a very isolating concept. It isolates not only the vanguard, but actually, in some cases, such as Algeria, it isolates the government from the people. The united front I have fewer problems with. The united front concept in general, and in the specific instances it has been applied, has had pretty good results. But again there are some specific issues, as in the suppression of the revolutionary upsurge in Iraq in 1958. In Iraq, it had become clear that the Left needed to seize power, and that if they didn’t seize power, the Right was going to move in. When it was the razor’s edge of choice, the message that came from Moscow was "sit on your hands because it is not time yet. Don’t show your hand." And so they were liquidated. Obviously I am writing about this in retrospect, but even in retrospect I think one has to understand that that may have been the wrong choice. This is especially true, in the case of Iraq, since the Politburo (of the Iraqi Communist Party), not its Central Committee, but certainly the majority of the Politburo, wanted to act. But then the delegates who had been sent to Moscow returned and said not to act. And the Iraqi Party heeded this because they respected Moscow. The problem was this: How can somebody thousands of miles away know what the immediate situation on the ground is? Therefore, the united front is useful in certain important contexts, but there are moments when the vanguard party of the working class has to act. In that sense I would say that I don’t have any problem with these two concepts in abstraction, but there are some problems with how they get applied in a specific historical context.

PA: To raise another example, you describe the case of the Communist Party of Indonesia, which had also adopted united front policy, but had become, even more then the Iraqi Communist Party, a major force in Indonesia, a force of millions. And though the Party forged a strong alliance with the ruling government party, it didn’t take the opportunity to come to power itself. How does that situation fit into what you are talking about here?

VP: In Indonesia, the Indonesian Communist Party had substantially come to power, in that Sukharno had, by at least the early 1960s adopted in principal much of the program of the Indonesian Communist Party, and the Party had achieved power in a substantial sense, even though the party itself was not actually holding the reins of government. What happened in Indonesia was a major departure from anything that had been seen before, which is that the military was unleashed. The Australians, the Americans, and others gave it full support, and the military operated to liquidate the Left. So what we see 8 years later in Chile had already happened in Indonesia – the military was sent out of the barracks to liquidate the entire Left, which had come to power. In that sense, Allende’s Chile was similar to Sukharno’s Indonesia, the left had substantially come to power. It wasn’t a question of the Left acting or not acting. It was an extraordinary means of purging the Left. How can one say in Chile that the Left could have done anything different?

In a seminar held shortly after the events in Chile, one of the leading communist intellectuals in India gave a seminar in which he talked about the simple point that the Chile example should not invalidate the question of using the ballot box as a means to come to power for the Left in today’s world, but what it should teach all communists around the world is the need to a) either arm the people or b) split the military. The Chile and Indonesia examples are not parallel to what occurred in Iraq in the late 1950s. Iraq was about not acting. Chile and Indonesia are examples that teach us about the need either to split the military or arm the population. This lesson is otherwise known through Cuba, where the military was split and the population was armed. We see an interesting thing happening in Venezuela today, where they are arming the population. Now arming the population in the context of the US sounds absurd. This is an armed population in its own way, but it’s not armed politically. So I would not mix the Indonesian with the Iraqi example. Indonesia is much more like the example of Chile, where the strength of the Left had become very important and thus very dangerous for the guardians of the imperial order, so they then colluded with the military to execute all of them.

PA: Since you’ve raised the example of Venezuela, let’s talk about the post-Cold War period. Today we are seeing the reemergence of alliances between social movements and more traditional left forms of organizing, political parties, trade unions, democratic mass movements, etc. Are these really just a modern version of the kinds of alliances we saw in the Third World project?

VP: Just to back up a little, one of the mechanisms that led to what I consider the assassination of the Third World Project was the emergence of finance capital at a different level, what Andrew Glyn calls in his new book "unleashed capital." When capital was unleashed in the late 1960s and 1970s, when finance began to absolutely dominate the ways in which industrial capital and other forms of capital operate, there was a real wiping out of many of the gains of the Third World project. So anything that comes now will not be a resurrection of that project, if it does not deal with this special context. In other words, it would be entirely nostalgic if we took the Bandung Declaration and its program and said let’s resurrect it – that’s nostalgia. The question to ask is, how should the new project be structured, whatever it might be called. For instance Hugo Chavez, for instance, went to the African Union meeting and he was a hero. He goes to India and he’s a hero! Even the most dictatorial leaders in the Third World now look up to him. Even the leader of Equatorial Guinea, a great pal of Condoleezza Rice, made a flattering statement about him. The point is that his appeal extends even to the centers of subordination in countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, that is culturally significant. However, a project cannot be created unless the project is fully in line with the current context, which is the dominance of financialization. And that is yet to be seen. What has occurred in Venezuela, Bolivia, etc. is a very important development for the history of the three continents, but as of now it has not articulated a program of how to put a leash on capital, to undermine capital or overthrow capital. That remains to be seen. Capital right now is playing a game, as we are all well aware, of the race to the bottom. It’s if you don’t let me open a factory here with no regulations, I will go across the border. That is enabled by a whole host of technological developments, containerization, satellite communications, etc. So how do we put a leash on capital? What will be the arrangement to capital? What will be the arrangement for working through capital? These things are not worked out. Venezuela is now in a very good position, with the price of oil being high, and it is therefore able to provide considerable aid. It is able to provide oil at very cheap rates to various countries. These are advantages. But they are what I would consider conjunctural advantages. They are advantages of the moment. They are not necessarily the advantages of the future, things which will lead to the future. That is to be seen. What will a global Bolivarian agenda look like. That has not been provided yet.

PA: What is your next project?

VP: The Darker Nations runs from 1928 to 1983. At the Delhi Meeting of the Nonaligned Movement in 1983, I would say that the market people had won and structural adjustment had prevailed over many of the world’s countries. I am now writing a second volume, called The Poorer Nations: A People’s History of the Global South, which will pick up the story from the 1980s to the present. I am interested in the South Commission’s formation in 1985 led by Julius Nyerere. I’m also interested in the invasion of Panama, which set the stage for the New World Order – the aerial bombardment, the use of special forces, etc. And I am interested in the rise of China, which will be a very important piece of this project as well. So I am now at work on volume 2.


The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World is available from The New Press