In the 1970s, when the ideas of Third Worldism had reached their apex, I became enamored of the work of two gifted writers: V. S. Naipaul and his brother, Shiva Naipaul. V. S., who died last year at 85, won the 2000 Nobel Prize for literature; his comparably talented brother, Shiva, 13 years younger, died at 40 from a sudden heart attack in 1985. Both were born in Port of Spain, Trinidad, and went on to study at Oxford and then make lives for themselves in England. They were the grandchildren of Hindu indentured servants brought from India to replace the slaves who had once worked the colony’s sugar plantations. Their father, Seepersad Naipaul, was a journalist and an aspiring novelist.
Intellectually and emotionally, the Naipaul brothers were caught up in the experience of the Indian diaspora in Africa and South America as a direct result of the circumstances of their birth, which gave them a different perspective on the so-called Third World from what was conventionally offered by Western devotees of dictators in Castro’s Cuba, Forbes Burnham’s Guyana, Ben Bella’s Algeria, or Nasser’s Egypt. American and European leftists looked to those charismatic leaders as charting an alternative path to independent development, apart from the West or the Soviet Union. Their thinking, unlike that of the Naipauls, did not hold up well.
Try as it did, the New Left proved unable to capitalize on American disarray in the wake of an era of tumult that included three major political assassinations, American troops mired in Vietnam, deadly urban riots, and the tumult of the 1968 Democratic Convention. The unrest extended well into the 1970s, culminating in the disgrace of Watergate. But as the New Left itself petered out, other left-wing phenomena moved center stage. In Europe, for example, elements in the then-powerful French and Italian Communist Parties attempted to create a Bolshevism that wasn’t sustained by bayonets. While Euro-Communism collapsed before the fall of the USSR, some of its trappings—such as bureaucratic centralism—wound up re-created in the European Union.
In the aftermath of decolonization, however, many intellectuals portrayed Western prosperity as an outgrowth of the immiseration of the global South. The Third World—not the imperialist West or the sclerotic Soviet Empire—would be the source of neo-Marxist redemption, leftists argued. An influential early book in this regard was 1944’s Capitalism and Slavery, by Eric Williams, the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago. Williams argued—erroneously, as subsequent research made clear—that the triumph of capitalism was enabled by the brutality of slavery. By the early 1960s, neo-Marxist economic arguments would be overshadowed by the publication of The Wretched of the Earth, by psychiatrist Frantz Fanon. A decorated veteran, Fanon fought for the Free French in World War II, after his native Martinique, a French colony in the Caribbean, fell under the control of the collaborationist Vichy regime. After the war, Fanon studied medicine in Lyon. Assigned to a psychiatric facility in Algeria, he found himself drawn to the Front de Libération Nationale, a guerrilla group fighting to free Algeria from French control. Fanon served, among other roles, as the provisional Algerian government’s ambassador to Ghana. He died of cancer in Maryland in 1961, just 36 years old, having been brought to the Bethesda Naval Hospital, reportedly by the CIA, following unsuccessful treatment in the Soviet Union. The Wretched of the Earth, his last work, would appear that year, with an introduction by the famed French litterateur and apologist for Soviet Communism, Jean-Paul Sartre.
Sartre rhapsodized about the raw energy of Fanon and the anticolonial peasants, whom he portrayed as the only hope for redeeming an enervated Europe no longer capable of carrying out the Marxist mission. “We were men at their expense,” claimed Sartre, who spent World War II in Parisian cafés, writing plays that passed the scrutiny of the German censors. But now, he declaimed, the peasant revolutionary “makes himself a man at our expense.” Redemption for this “fat, pale continent” could only emerge out of the cauldron of anticolonial contempt. “We made history,” Sartre wrote, “and now it is being made of us.”
Taking his cues from the non-resister Sartre, Fanon insisted that “violence alone, violence committed by the people”—organized and educated by leaders—“makes it possible for the masses to understand social truths and gives the key to them.” Fanon, in a trope revived in recent years, insisted that anyone without black blood had a “Hitler hidden in him.” These arguments were adopted by the Black Panthers, Caribbean revolutionaries, and the brutal “big men” of African dictatorships.
Many college students of the 1960s were exposed to this Third Worldism through film. Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers, a hymn to Arab-Muslim guerrilla warfare against French colonialism in the 1950s, was enormously influential, for instance. Also important was the Maoist Jean-Luc Godard’s La Chinoise, which consisted largely of alienated Parisian students ruminating on their alienation in sub-Dostoyevskian gasconades.
The Naipaul brothers viewed the ideological terrain of anticolonialism and Third Worldism with an astringent eye. Trinidad, with its mixed Indian, white, black, and Chinese populations, was itself an education in cultural plurality. Seepersad Naipaul had as a teacher, and later rival, the Marxist C. L. R. James, who denounced colonial overlordship, while insisting on the value of Western civilization; V. S. would later describe James as “the master of all topics.” By way of their father and James, who embraced Western tradition, the brothers brought Enlightenment values to their mordant descriptions of the goings-on in the newly liberated nations of the Caribbean and Africa.
Like James, both brothers wanted to be part of the larger Western world beyond Trinidad, and all three settled in England. Still, the brothers had no use for the “self-selecting blindness” of London’s bien pensants; nor did they identify as conventionally English. “Every writer,” V. S. remarked, “is, in the long run, on his own; but it helps, in the most practical way, to have a tradition. The English language was mine; the [English] tradition was not.”
Amid a torrent of positive press for Tanzania, Guyana, and Libya, Shiva Naipaul asked: “What do terms like ‘liberation,’ ‘revolution,’ ‘socialism,’ actually mean to the people—i.e., the masses—who experience them?” In his blistering 1978 travelogue about East Africa, North of South, he tried to respond. The answers, he explained, were “too uncomfortable for the self-selecting blindness of a West” devoted to political correctness, first and foremost. Shiva Naipaul portrayed a region corrupted by fantasies of wealth but backed by nothing of substance. He encounters a “businessman” dressed in a suit and carrying a briefcase filled with magazines, pantomiming the image of success. Refusing to sentimentalize Africa or make excuses for its dysfunction, Naipaul explained that “at the height of the slave trade, African rulers seemed literally to have gone mad. To get hold of the guns and tobacco and brandy they craved, some chiefs betrayed and enslaved their own people.”
Walking through the basement of the Strand, the famed Manhattan used bookstore, in the late 1970s, searching for Walter Laqueur’s collection of essays on revolutionary guerrillas, I came across V. S. Naipaul’s concussive 1975 novel Guerrillas. Set in a fictional country that seems a hybrid of Trinidad and Jamaica, the novel is loosely based on the life of Michael X, a 1950s London pimp turned glamorous spokesman for Black Power and guerrilla warfare. Michael X, who became a pet cause for John Lennon, tried to nurture a Black Power movement in the infertile soil of Eric Williams’s Trinidad, and was hanged after committing a series of gruesome murders. Jimmy Ahmed, the Michael X character in Guerrillas, becomes entangled with a conflicted South African liberal named Roche and his radical-chic girlfriend Jane, who is drawn to Jimmy. “Naipaul is the real thing,” wrote Hilton Kramer in Commentary, noting the book’s literary qualities, “a novelist who creates a world, who conjures up compelling characters and commands our assent in their complex fate.”
As taken as I was by Shiva’s North of South and V. S.’s Guerrillas, my next three Naipaul books put me on even firmer ground. A Bend in the River, perhaps V. S. Naipaul’s finest novel, opens with the now-famous but fearsome line: “The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.” V. S. was first inspired to write the book by the people he met while briefly in Kisangani, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo—a country under the control of a brutal “Big Man,” Mobutu Sese Seko. The novel describes the frustrated journey of Salim, a Muslim from a merchant family on the east coast of Africa, who, like Naipaul, struggles with a sense of homelessness. “Our way of life,” Salim tells himself about the Indian settlement in Africa, “was antiquated and almost at an end.” It was no match, he thinks, for the rage of the black Africans freed from colonial bondage but still struggling to achieve revenge for their former humiliations. Salim moves deep inland to seek his own income and identity, but he fails at both—his life is increasingly shaped by the unpredictable emanations of the Big Man, the president-for-life who rules by rhetoric, guile, sorcery, and a generous helping of terror. There is a new dispensation, explains Naipaul: “black men assuming the lies of white men.” Everything is unsettled, dependent on the whim of the Big Man.
The book inspired my mentor, Irving Howe, who wrote that “for sheer abundance of talent, there can hardly be a writer alive who surpasses V. S. Naipaul.” But it also drew bitter criticism from the likes of Edward Said, the chief Western apologist for Saddam Hussein and author of Orientalism, a widely read book on Western malevolence. Naipaul followed A Bend in the River with Among the Believers, a 1983 collection of nonfiction accounts of Islam in non-Arab countries. The theme that united the four treatments—of Iran, Malaysia, Pakistan, and Indonesia—is that of Islam as an imperial religion. According to the strictest Islamists, everything prior to the revelation of the Quran was falsehood; thus, the pre-Islamic past, including local culture and history, should be obliterated. Years later, after 9/11, Naipaul returned to this theme, and was lambasted in the press for saying that Islam “has had a calamitous effect on converted peoples. To be converted you have to destroy your past, destroy your history. . . . [T]his abolition of the self demanded by Muslims was worse than the similar colonial abolition of identity.”
Such views were anathema on the cultural left, even in 2001. A generation earlier, my hip friends, like others in cosmopolitan circles, had embraced Michel Foucault’s support for the Iranian revolution. Foucault, who had succeeded Sartre as the leading luminary in the Parisian intellectual firmament, was at the height of his fabulist powers and would soon become a force on American campuses. In 1975, he had published Discipline and Punish, an attack on the Enlightenment, which he deemed an instrument of controlling repression. Though his book didn’t have an empirical leg to stand on, it was an intriguing narrative that has fueled the fantasies of graduate students and conceptual artists ever since.
Profoundly ignorant of Islam, Foucault, a homosexual, found in the “saintly” Khomeini’s “spiritual politics”—which included extreme hatred of gays—an endless source of transgressive innovation. Iran, he argued, had broken free of the West’s coercive insistence on evidence as the basis for argument and had instituted a “new regime of truth.” Foucault wasn’t alone in his enthusiasm, so foreign to the Naipauls’ sober view of the Islamic movement. In England, the weekly New Statesman, a few quibbles aside, exulted in the mullahs’ victory. In America, crusading journalist I. F. Stone spoke of “a victory to thrill a democrat’s heart.”
For my part, I couldn’t overlook the rancid anti-Semitism of the sinister new regime in Iran, and Naipaul’s chapters on Iran in Among the Believers would reinforce my views. Even with Khomeini still in power, Westernized Iranians from cosmopolitan north Tehran who drank martinis and disco-danced insisted that the ayatollah was a temporary phase. But in Iran, Naipaul visited the bazaars, where men burned with resentment against the shah’s apostasies. He found an Iran where religious fervor served as a cheap drug for the fevered masses. “Islam was the only thing that made humans human,” a student told him. The rule of the mullahs would not be temporary.
The reaction to V. S. Naipaul’s criticism of the Iranian revolution was mild, compared with the angry arguments set off by Shiva’s nonfiction account of the Jonestown massacre, published in the United States as The Journey to Nowhere. Most accounts of Jonestown focus on the outsize personality of Jim Jones, who led his flock from San Francisco to a gruesome death in the Guyanese interior. But in the mid-1970s, Jones was widely acclaimed in San Francisco as a “miracle worker” who had “triumphed on the battlefield of human salvation.” He had turned mostly African-American cast-offs and misfits from other churches into a well-organized political machine. Jones’s voter-turnout operation helped elect George Moscone mayor in 1975. Moscone, in turn, appointed Jones chair of the city’s housing authority. Jones’s installation ceremony was attended by the state’s two most powerful politicians—Governor Jerry Brown and Assembly Speaker Willie Brown.
With a disabused sensibility akin to his brother’s, Shiva saw the ideological insanity that linked the left-wing politics of the Bay Area—home of, among other cults, the Black Panthers and the Symbionese Liberation Army—with Guyana, helmed by Black Power–proponent Comrade-Leader Forbes Burnham. Guyana, with a population of roughly 700,000, lies on the mainland of South America but is considered culturally, like Trinidad, to be part of the Anglophone Caribbean. Composed mostly of descendants of African slaves and East Indian coolie labor, Guyana, following its independence from England in 1966, looked to be a shining success for Third Worldism. Burnham welcomed Jim Jones as a fellow socialist, and his soldiers stood by as Jones’s followers murdered U.S. congressman Leo Ryan at a jungle airstrip—and as more than 900 people lost their lives when ordered by Jones to commit “revolutionary suicide.”
By the mid-1980s, as once-vaunted triumphs in Mozambique and Cuba turned to tragedy, it was increasingly difficult to romanticize the revolutionary struggles of the Third World—but devoted Third Worldists were adept at ignoring tyranny when it showed up in the wrong places. The upshot, explained President Reagan’s UN Ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick, in her famous 1984 speech about the “San Francisco Democrats,” was to ignore oppression in places like Iran or Nicaragua, while “blaming America First.”
In the early 1990s, the collapse of the Soviet Union pushed the Third World off the stage for good—the Western Left seemed no longer interested in questions about the poorer world’s economic development or political evolution. Instead, leftists in the West became ever more fixated on calling out the failures and oppressions of their own societies—even as these societies tore down barriers of legal discrimination and achieved levels of social tolerance for once-outcast groups never before imagined in human history. In anatomizing the Left’s romance for distant oppressors and contempt for bourgeois democracy, the Naipaul brothers were among the great truth-tellers of our time.
Top Photo: Western intellectuals celebrated the Iranian revolution, seeing it as emancipatory. (KEYSTONE PICTURES USA/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO)