Friday, September 27, 2013

Review: The Darker Nations

[Vijay Prashad. The Darker Nations: A People's History of the Third World. New York: The New Press, 2007.]

A conventional overview of world history from the early 20th century to the 1970s would likely talk of World Wars, Cold Wars, and proxy wars. It would, to be blunt, centre the bloody dramas of mostly-white people, with the rest of the global population -- the majority -- rendered as bit players.

Certainly all of those kinds of wars get some attention in The Darker Nations, but the centre is shifted -- the focus is on the nations of what came to be called the "Third World." The use of that term, incidentally, is not quite what a lay reader may expect, and those reading the book's subtitle with the lay definition in mind might picture an even vaster scope for the book than it already has. Prashad's more precise and historically accurate usage insists, in the opening words of the "Introduction," that "The Third World was not a place. It was a project" (xv). Specifically, it was an effort by the decolonizing and newly decolonized nations to work together to push for a new global order that rejected empire and sought some measure of justice on a global scale. As a political project, it had a beginning and it also had an end, in its defeat by the ascendance of what later came to be known as neoliberalism.

Though a somewhat narrower mission than the unwary reader might expect, covering perhaps five decades and most of the world is still a massive undertaking for one modest-sized book. It is not, therefore, a detailed history of movements and struggles so much as a political history and an intellectual history that focuses more on nations' engagement as part of the broader Third World than the details of any one independence struggle, though it gives overviews of many local/national trajectories too. It is cleverly put together, in a way that effectively combines a chronological, geographical, and thematic ordering, and that really does capture key rhythms of history that by rights should be central to what those of us in the First World learn about those years. But, of course, the scale of it all means that each time, place, or theme could be treated in far more detail, controversies of fact or interpretation could be explored much more thoroughly, and the ways in which the world is made by ordinary people and our everyday and collective struggles could be made much more visible.

Even given that, though, I regularly ran into moments that sent shivers down my spine, where a glimpse of the struggle and sacrifice of millions would bubble up in a dry summary sentence or two. Even just the photo on page four, showing Jawaharlal Nehru, Kwame Nkrumah, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Sukarno, and Josip Broz Tito gathered together at a 1961 meeting is breathtaking if you take a moment to consider the titanic struggle against empire required to make it possible for them to be who they were, and to be meeting as they were meeting.

Given that this is a book written with specific, bounded intent that it largely realizes, I will restrict myself to a single expression of desire for more. The book does an effective job of giving due respect to the hope, the power, and the momentous character of the Third World project and of decolonization (outside of the white settler states) in general, but also refuses to underplay the Third World project's engrained contradictions and weaknesses and the defeats of the idealistic vision that originally informed it. There is probably much to argue about whether it strikes the right balance, but it gives plentiful voice to both. But it seems to me that it could productively have included more analysis linking the destructive consequences that almost universally accompanied the institutionalization of national liberation movements into national liberation states, and the recapture of the Third World project by neoliberalism, to contemporary debates about power, the state form, and movement strategy. I say this even under the assumption that Prashad's take would likely be more unambiguously marxist and less skeptical of the state form than, if not my final conclusions, at least the gut reactions from which I start -- I'd imagine I would learn a great deal if he were to do such analysis.

Anyway, though this book leaves lots and lots for the interested reader to explore in other sources, it is still an important corrective for those of us who have learned the relatively recent global history that has produced us in the white supremacist and still-colonial context of the First World, and I think it should be read broadly within our movements.

[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

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