Vijay Prashad’s The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World (alternatively subtitled A Biography of the Short-Lived Third World) charts the political and intellectual origins of a postcolonial, multinational movement in the postwar era. As the author opens his introduction – “The Third World was not a place. It was a project" (xv). Zooming in and out on myriad contexts, the book reads like a collection of loosely-connected microhistories retold through a macrohistorical lens. Prashad hones in on prominent thought leaders, events, and initiatives that he deems crucial to the rise and demise of the so-called Third World project. Through eighteen chapters titled for various epicenters of revolution (e.g., Cairo, Havana, Algiers, and New Delhi), The Darker Nations offers readers a biography – or, rather, biographies – of an overarching concept articulated by W. E. B. Du Bois in his 1900 closing address at the first Pan African Convention, “To the Nations of the World” – “There has been assembled a congress of men and women of African blood, to deliberate solemnly upon the present situation and outlook of the darker races of mankind … millions of black men in Africa, America and the Islands of the Sea, not to speak of the brown and yellow myriads elsewhere" (23).
"Wifredo Lam, The Jungle (La Jungla), 1943." The Museum of Modern Art. Accessed November 6, 2018. https://www.moma.org/collection/works/34666.
If we were to return to Du Bois’ original speech, ideas like the “the color line,” “differences of race – which show themselves chiefly in the color of the skin and the texture of the hair,” and cultural advancement according to European standards emerge. Though the former two are not dealt with in Darker Nations, the latter emerges as a common thread between contexts. For example, Prashad raises the issue of “modernization theory” and the notion of colonized people’s “backward,” “traditional” cultures as a hindrance to “progress" (65). Combating this myth seems to take two forms – laying claim to precolonial histories of robust civilization** or rapidly industrializing to “catch up” with western powers and hybridize. Indeed, Prashad recounts radical thinkers determining that “indigenous traditions could contribute to the solution, but … they were insufficient against the problems posed by imperialism" (82). Such a conclusion not only excludes the culture of indigenous peoples and indigenous peoples themselves, but implicitly elevates European culture and imperialism as a stronger, eclipsing force.
Despite highlighting the intellectual and political machinations that drove the Third World project, the role of culture – its subsummation, hybridization, and strategic appropriation – pervades Darker Nations. Prashad explores the notion of a “composite culture” and the sublimation of individual identities for the sake of “a national identity.” He discusses the inherent problem – “it is easy for the demographic majority in a society to ask for the suspension of identity, whose cultural features would anyway seep into the culture of the nation" (86). Implicitly, one is led to question the replication of the nation-state ethos as a western construct. Indeed, Prashad’s focus on these institutions and ideologies seems to destabilize what one might assume to be a “subaltern” or “bottom-up” history. However, at no point in the text itself does the author claim to perform an act of historiographic recovery. Even “agency” is only ever used to describe bureaucratic organizations.
The task of writing about disenfranchised subjects is often conflated with an intent to rescue, recover, or give voice to said subjects. Therein lies a crucial distinction between subjects and historical actors. In Prashad’s work, radical male intellectuals and politicians (e.g., Abdul-Rahman, Al-e Ahmad, Fanon, Mao, Nasser, Nehru, etc.) are cast as those who act, in tandem with entities such as the United Nations, national liberation fronts, conferences and organizations. Meanwhile, the subjects, the oppressed and downtrodden masses (indeed, the titular “people”) remain underrepresented. This conundrum demonstrates how “voicelessness” (the gaps and silences of the archives that misrepresent or erase everyday people’s stories) conjures narratives wherein individual leaders or public figures become historical actors while whole communities, crowds, or mobs are rendered monolithic, faceless subjects (“loyal followers”). In other words, can the motivations and experiences of groups ever be responsibly articulated with nuance without veering into “great man theory?”
Prashad would have done well to delineate “the Third World,” or perhaps more explicitly problematize its very geographic or ideological basis. With a title like Darker Nations, Prashad invites criticism for not dealing with race, color, or nation-state boundaries and their role in circumscribing the Third World project. Further, one is left wondering how such concepts intersect with the thrust of the author’s Marxist argument (e.g., are disenfranchised whites or indigenous communities part of the Third World community; are colonization, genocide, segregation, and the prison-industrial complex somehow interconnected; how do intra-racial and intra-class conflicts disrupt the monolith of the Third World project?). Ultimately, the necessity of historicizing the contexts of colonialism may be too hefty a charge and fall outside the purview of this interdisciplinary work. Still, “a people’s history” this book is not.
* Notable references to race and racism are made on pages 20, 45, and 274. The first relates “acts of barbarity” discussed at the 1927 League against Imperialism conference, including “Jim Crow racism in the United States,” though no analysis is offered on how that issue was conceived of in connection to “the tragedy of the Indian countryside … the growth of Italian fascism … the danger of Japanese intervention in Korea.” The second tells of the United Nations’ inquiry into racial attitudes and race as a social construct, in parallel to the 1955 Afro–Asian Bandung Conference’s proclamation that “racialism [was] a means of cultural suppression … prevents cultural cooperation … [and] suppresses the national cultures of the people.” (Lo and behold, issues of fitting such pluralism into discreet borders and a uniform “national” consciousness would emerge for the Third World project.) Finally, in the last chapter, Prashad refers to the use of “culture as a code for race.”
** Potentially and problematically defined using European “civilization” as a benchmark, and stigmatizing tribes or migratory cultures.