From the beginning of the emergence of Third World anti-colonial movements, there was a sector of the Third World national bourgeoisie that had an economic interest and/or ideological orientation to develop national independence in a form that preserved the economic structures established during the colonial period. Those members of the national bourgeoisie who owned enterprises dedicated to the exportation of raw materials or the importation of manufacturing goods had a vested economic interest in the preservation of the core-peripheral relation. In addition, significant numbers of the national bourgeoisie had been educated in Western institutions, facilitating the dissemination of ideas that justified the established world-system.
Thus, in reflecting on the Third World, we have to continually keep in mind a distinction between moderate and radical, or between accommodationist and revolutionary, leaders and intellectuals of the Third World project. During the transition to independence and the subsequent evolution of the neocolonial world-system, the global powers continually gave support to the accommodationists and attempted to undermine or assassinate the revolutionary leaders. Many Third World states emerged in which the government tried to maintain a balance, making concessions to revolutionary aspirations and popular demands, but trying to maintain friendly relations with the global powers. Some political leaders adopted the balancing act out of genuine concern for the people and the nation, but others became skilled at presenting themselves as defenders of the people as they protected the particular interests of the national bourgeoisie. In contrast, in those nations that developed a clearly revolutionary project, there emerged charismatic leaders with an exceptional capacity to explain the necessary transformations to the people, to delegitimate the moderates as representatives of colonial and neocolonial interests, and to lead the nation in the development of a radical national liberation project. Such charismatic leaders included Fidel, Ho, Nasser, Sukarno, Nu, Nkrumah and Nyerere, who in the eyes of the people became heroic figures in the formulation and defense of the Third World project.
During the period 1946 to 1979, the global powers were aggressive in attacking and undermining the radical Third World project, and they were determined and persistent in constructing obstacles to any transformation of neocolonial structures that would be detrimental to their interests. As a result, the Third World project was able to accomplish less improvements in the material conditions of the formerly colonized nations than had been hoped. The people became disappointed, and popular dissatisfaction tarnished the image of the Third World project and its revolutionary leaders, even as the most insightful understood that the cause was the uncompromising commitment of the wealthy and the powerful to the protection of their privileges.
At the same time, the world-system as a whole entered a long structural crisis during the 1970s, as a result of the fact that it had reached the geographical limits of the earth, and it could no longer expand by conquering and peripheralizing new lands and peoples. In response to the crisis, the global powers launched an accelerated ideological attack on the Third World project, particularly its insistence that the state must play a central role in the national development project. Intellectuals and academics were called to the attack on the state, arguing that a corrupt and overly bureaucratic state was to blame for persistent Third World underdevelopment. This implied not only an attack on the Third World revolutionaries, but also on the host of Third World states that had sought to balance the needs of their peoples with Western demands. State concessions to popular demands now had to be rolled back. Modest protections of national industries and national currencies, moderate regulation of capital flows, state ownership of key national industries, and inadequate social programs in defense of the people had to be eliminated. The “free market,” neoliberalism (resurrecting the classical liberalism of Adam Smith), and the “Washington Consensus” (for the apparent agreement among policies makers in the US capital) became the clarion call.
The global ideological turn of 1979-80, signaled by the elections of Ronald Reagan in the United States and Margaret Thatcher in the United Kingdom, provided the opportunity for moderate Third World leaders, economically and ideologically tied to the neocolonial powers and transnational corporations, to seize upon the weakened international position of the radical leaders and to derail the radical Third World project. At the 1983 Summit of the Non-Aligned Movement in New Delhi, moderate accommodationists gained the upper hand, led by Sinnathamby Rajaratnam, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Singapore. Rajaratnam maintained that the world had entered a “systemic crisis” in the 1970s, and as a result, each Third World nation needed to be motivated primarily by national interest. The best policy, he maintained, is the elimination of state-directed development, reducing the role of the state to the protection of the people from extreme inequalities by redistributing income, but “without deadening competitive spirit” (Prashad 2007:211-212).
Rajaratnam spoke on behalf of a Third World national industrial bourgeoisie that had been born after colonialism and the anti-colonial movements. The members of this class had benefitted from the protective measures of the national liberation state, but they now experienced the structures that had enabled them to flourish as shackles. They were a self-confident class that were emboldened to defend their particular interests rather than the interests of the people as a whole. They envisioned the development of new information technology in the Third World, through their expertise and entrepreneurship, thus taking advantage of opportunities provided by the technological development of the world-economy. They rejected the radical Third World project and adopted an anti-Soviet, pro-US stance (Prashad 1007:212).
Many of the accommodationists to neoliberalism had been socialized in international organizations, such as the IMF and the World Bank, or in transnational corporations. And they were especially well represented by the national bourgeoisies from the better-off Third World nations, such as the Asian Tigers (Prashad 2007:212, 215).
Standing against accommodation, Fidel powerfully defended the radical Third World project of national liberation. His speech, “The World Economic and Social Crisis,” was enthusiastically received by the delegates, and it was the only speech at the Summit to receive a standing ovation. Many delegates felt emotional attachments to the classic Third World agenda of national liberation, even as the world political and economic situation and the political situations in their own countries compelled them to adapt (Prashad 2007:210-11).
Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi, in her capacity as chair of the Non-Aligned Movement, steered a middle ground between the two positions, not wanting to concede too much to the revolutionary camp, but at the same time not wanting to adopt a pro-US line. Nevertheless, the New Delhi Summit marked a definite move toward neoliberal ideology (Prashad 2007:213).
However, as the world turned to neoliberalism, the Third World project of national liberation remained alive in the aspirations of many. Fidel remained “the moral embodiment of what the Third World was,” and his speech on the social and economic crisis of the world was published in a more complete version and distributed in various countries in different languages (Prashad 2007:210-13, 221).
The expanded and printed version of Fidel’s 1983 speech at the New Delhi Non-Aligned Movement was entitled: The Economic and Social Crisis of the World: Its repercussions for the underdeveloped countries, its dismal prospects, and the need to struggle if we are to survive. It is at once a comprehensive historical, economic and political analysis and a prophetic moral call, proclaimed on behalf of the colonized peoples of the world. We shall look at this remarkable document, largely ignored by academics of the North, in the following post.
Prashad, Vijay. 2007. The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World. New York: The New Press.
Key words: Non-Aligned Movement, Third World, Rajaratnam, Prashad