The term 'third world' is now out of fashion, but Prashad's argument in this book is that the third world is not simply about geography. It was a political project in which the majority of the world came together 'to agree on the broad outlines of a project for the creation of justice on earth.'
The Darker Nations is a history of this project from the struggles for colonial freedom to the heady days of the formation of the non-aligned movement. It details how Nehru, Nasser, Nkrumah, Sukarno, Tito and others challenged the rush to nuclear war by the superpowers, used the UN to fight for global justice and created their own 'national liberation states' in which they tried to break out of dependency on western markets.
This is no rose-tinted view of the project, though, and while certainly a leftist history, it isn't really a 'people's history'. Indeed, as Prashad argues, a key weakness in most third world states was their failure to resolve class tensions, using welfare and redistribution to paper over the cracks of deeply unequal production systems.
Through an obsession with growth, social transformation could be ignored. Through a narrative that stressed the first world as the primary enemy, third-world elites were protected from criticism. Even radical projects, such as Julius Nyrere's attempts to create 'village socialism' in Tanzania, were necessarily done in a hurried, top-down way, without a genuine attempt to mobilise people, leaving the state ultimately dependent on foreign aid and agribusiness when the socialist villages failed.
For all its flaws, the third world project was at the centre of the hope for progressive change in the 1950s and 1960s. Its end came partly at the hands of an astronomical debt burden and IMF structural adjustment policies. As the class that had benefited from the state-sponsored development of the third world came to see their interests more closely aligned with US 'free markets' than their own people, the multi-religious, multi-class national consciousness that had built these states broke down.
In the face of this victory for globalisation, Prashad reminds us that the third world project now needs a successor.
The Darker Nations: A People's History of the Third World is published by The New Press, 2008, and can be purchased here.