What's in a name?
by Eqbal Ahmad
TO my knowledge no other institution of higher learning in
the Untied States offers courses, or even a single course, on
imperialism or the Third World as part of its core curriculum.
Yet this topic can serve as a catchment from which one can draw
streams of knowledge about our past and increasingly shared future,
about culture no less than history, literature as well as politics,
economics and also psychology, and above all, about the varieties
of power and their powerful, pervasive impact on the human condition.
It is a subject which, given an informed and imaginative structuring,
would offer an essential sequel to what passes in most universities
as Introduction to Western Civilization. For, a course on the
Third World will be necessity be a comprehensive study of Western
civilization from the 16th century onwards. The Third World consists
of continents and peoples who are assigned names. The term The
Third World' is itself an assignment, so to speak, from the First
World. At the end of World War 11 the structure of world power
had changed. The war had catapulted the United States as a superpower,
established the Soviet Union as a potential rival, and brought
to near ruination the great colonial powers of Europe - Great
Britain, France, Holland, and Belgium - weakening their ability
to hold on to the colonies where people were demanding self-determination.
After the independence of India and Pakistan in 1947, other countries
of Asia and Africa decolonised rapidly though in some instances,
as those of Vietnam and Algeria, after savage and protracted warfare.
The world powers had to redefine their relations with these postcolonial
countries. The cold war added some urgency to this task as each
of the two power blocs sought to gain influence in the newly independent
This new reality demanded new nomenclature. It was not good
politics any more to describe Africa as the Dark Continent, or
Asia as an undifferentiated Orient. But old outlook dies hard.
So English and American scholars came up with the term Backward
Nations. The 'backward' reacted often loudly and occasionally
with wit razor sharp. "Mr. Gaandi, Mr. Gaandi", asked
the English journalist, ""what is your view of Western
civilization?" Mahatma Gandhi, whom Winston Churchill had
in 1945 called a "half- naked Indian fakir", replied
with a saintly smile" "Ah, it's a very good idea".
Backward nations were soon replaced with non-western nations
but this did not fly as Latin Americans laid claim to be Western
and did not want to be thrown in with Asians and Africans. Thence
came 'under- developed countries,' a term that responded to the
United States? recently articulated policy of promoting development
first via the Point Four Program then through the Agency of International
Development (AID). Underdeveloped was in currency for a while.
But it too was found lacking proper PR content. Thereupon a number
of American and British academics attempted to link empirical
realities to diplomatic convenience. They offered various appellation
- New Nations, Emerging Nations Transitional Societies and, from
a famous Latinist, Expectant Nations. Never the one to be left
behind in the race of academic functionaries. Professor Samuel
P. Huntington of Harvard produced a tome that introduced us to
changing societies, as in" Political Order in Changing Societies",
which had a life as short though not quiet as meteoric as his
latest invention - "The Clash of Civilizations", More
enduring was the Princeton- based modernization theorists' 'Developing
Countries'. This one was a PR coup of high order. It proved quite
pleasing to the rulers of the countries so named as it placed
their ill-governed states squarely on the path of progress. Two
problems intervened: first, the sixties' youthful radical scholars
insisted that most of these 'developing countries' were in fact
under developing in spite, rather because of generous US aid.
Additionally, the French whose interests in their overseas colonies
are not to be ignored, found 'les pays en vois de development'
far too great an encumbrance upon their proud linguistic heritage.
That's where Professor Pierre Jalee, a Frenchman of Marxist persuasion,
came in joining the past with the present, and dividing up one
world into three according to their links with the capitalist
market. The First World dominated the market by virtue of its
advanced economies, power, and colonial history. The Second World
consisted of countries which had separated from the market by
revolutionary means. The Third World, consisting mostly of the
First World's former colonial possessions, was under-developed,
produced raw materials and cheap labour, and remained dependent
on the First World powers which controlled the market to the detriment,
he so argued, of their dependencies.
The great virtue of this paradigm was that it reflected historical
and empirical realities, a fact welcomed by Third World liberals
and radicals alike. It was also a complex enough formulation for
the idea to be ignored and the terminology to be acceptable to
First World policy makers. Thus, the 'Third World' became the
most enduring of the names given to the ensemble of dependent
countries while the central argument of Pierre Jalee's "Pillage
de Tiers Monde" was all but forgotten.
Four observations are in order. One, the cold war's end and
virtual dissolution of the 'socialist bloc' has left a big hold
in Pierre Jalee's paradigm. For all practical purposes the second
world' has disappeared. All its constituent countries have entered
the 'market', mostly from positions of such weakness that they
resemble the Third World countries. Only a few of these - primarily
the expected members of the enlarged NATO alliance - are to be
admitted into the exclusive First World club. The world is truly
bipolar now as it is divided between the two categories of rich
and poor countries. The latter are divided among themselves, as
the poor often are, between the abject and the hopeful. It is
safe to predict then that the rich shall fear and demonise - as
they have done through the ages - those among the poor who appear
defiant, or show signs of seeking autonomy and an independent
will. The international environment has naturally begun to ring
with phrases like 'the rogue states', 'clash of civilizations',
and the 'Chinese threat'. We ought to keep a critical stance toward
these, lest we fall prey to the psychosis of yet another era of
Second, who gives name to whom is a question of power, be
it benevolent or harsh. Parents give names to children, owners
to their pets, and lords to their estates. Masters gave names
to their slaves so authoritatively that their original African
names were forever forgotten. Power, we must never forget, is
more or less unequally distributed in nearly all spheres of life
-internationally, nationally, and often in the family. The greater
the inequality - whether racial or sexual, between classes or
nations - the higher it stands as an obstacle to peace and human
liberation. Viewed thus, the Third World is a metaphor for unequal
exchange. To reduce this inequality, and eliminate it where possible,
is an enlightened, educated project. The 'expectation' then is
that the educated person would discern its patterns, within and
without, and work at obviating it. After all, as Karl Marx put
it, the function of knowledge should be to comprehend reality
in order to change it.
Third, this brief narrative of how the term came about alerts
us to problems of the relationship between knowledge and power.
This age-old question has far greater urgency today because the
nature of power has changed and is changing greatly, and intellectuals
play an exponentially larger role in society. Hence the pressure
on, and temptations for, intellectuals to conform to the exegesis
of power have vastly augmented. The problem is compounded by the
fact that during the last two centuries the tradition has deepened
of the intellectuals' collaboration with the state and corporation.
In the ancient and mediaeval ages some intellectuals and artists
received the patronage of rulers and their courts.
In so far as association with them added lustre to regimes
and often rendered them memorable, they served legitimizing and
historical purposes. But only rarely did they play the role of
intellectual functionaries, putting their knowledge in the service
of power in the operative, strategic sense of the word. Only in
the modem, capitalist age of Western expansion did mankind experience
large-scale and strategically significant collaboration between
the intellectuals and mostly imperial states.
A large body of recent scholarship has shown the ways in which
such an alliance distorted both the functioning of the state and
society's perspectives. During the two world wars, which were
technologically modem and total wars involving European societies,
this alliance gained ideological sanction. During the cold war,
it was so institutionalized that nearly all the big names in my
profession became identified with the United States government,
a fact that eventually alienated me from the university environment.
Far too many academics have had a hand in overthrowing elected
governments, ordering secret bombings, the killings of millions
of innocent people, and sanctioning the torture of prisoners.
Far too many journalists abandoned the fundamental tenets of independent
journalism. This is not to say that there is always a conflict
between the interests of power and those of the public, the truth,
or the law. But often there is.
As educated persons we all have to choose we want to be like
Henry Kissinger or Noam Chomsky, Father Daniel Berrigar or Cardinal
Cook, I.F. Stone or Abe Rosentha. The choice will confront you,
perhaps all your life, and will always be yours to make. I should
merely underline that higher education is intended to serve two
primary purposes: it imparts skills' therefore, enhances one's
opportunities for social mobility and economic well-being; and
it is expected to refine one's mind and elevate pne's morals.
Since all competent education provide the skills. I tend to associate
good education with latter.
Four, while inequalities of class and sex had existed throughout
history, its patterns became more complex and global in the modern
than in any other era in human history. Never before had the world
been so divided by sharply differentiated modes of production
which range from the primitively manual to the mechanically automated.
Never had there emerged such wide gaps in the knowledge that people
possessed across continents. And there had never existed so great
an inequality of exchange, therefore, of the human condition.
Paradoxically, this development occurred in the age of enlightenment,
rationalism, and democracy, of unparalleled progress in science,
technology, and the discovery of consciousness and the human mind.
The paradox inevitably enters into our lives, as it did the
lives of heroic, historic figures. The sixties' radicals used
to recall bitterly that Thomas Jefferson, undoubtedly one of the
greatest liberal thinkers of the modern age, was a slave owner.
But we often failed to reflect on the culture and economy that
shaped men and women of Jefferson's era in such a fashion that
they could practice slavery and also dedicate themselves to the
exciting proposition that 'all men are created equal'. Theirs
was a generation that found it difficult to develop organic linkages
between the abstract principle and individual lives. How can we
explain that difficulty in the age of what Karl Polanyi has called
the great transformation? There are several answers to this question
of which one is central: The patterns of extreme inequalities
on a global scale and of great gaps between ideals and praxis
were products of modern imperialism, a world system driven by
capitalism and a constantly advancing technology which augured
the industrial revolution in the eighteenth century, and continues
to compel the process of globalization in our time.