When Asia and Africa Envisioned a New World Order

The 1955 Bandung Conference Created a ‘Unifying Myth of Decolonization’ and a Renewed Ethos of Self-Determination

When Asia and Africa Envisioned a New World Order | Zocalo Public Square • Arizona State University • Smithsonian

Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser, Ethiopian delegate Yilma Deressa, the Gold Coast’s Kojo Botsio, and Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru (from left to right) attended the Bandung Conference, which embodied a spirit that served as “a unifying myth of decolonization,” argues historian Christopher J. Lee. Public Domain.

“No race holds the monopoly of beauty, of intelligence, of strength / and there is a place for all at the rendezvous of victory,” wrote the Martinican poet Aimé Césaire in Notebook of a Return to the Native Land, first published in 1939 and later translated from the French by Trinidadian intellectual C.L.R. James.

Many writers have quoted these lines from Césaire, but more striking is the fact that 16 years later, such a rendezvous did occur. In 1955, 29 countries from Africa and Asia met in Bandung, Indonesia, for the historic Asian-African Conference—a diplomatic summit of the emerging postcolonial world. The sense of common purpose and solidarity at the meeting, which became known as the “Bandung Spirit,” served as a unifying myth of decolonization. For decades, Bandung epitomized a political, cultural, and historic front against the past legacies, present dangers, and future threats of imperialism in Asia and Africa. Though real-world conflicts would erode this spirit over time, Bandung and its ethos of self-determination persisted as a global symbol and attitude in the popular imagination.

Co-sponsored by Indonesia, India, Burma (present-day Myanmar), Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka), and Pakistan, the 29 invited diplomatic delegations met from April 18 to 24 to address the pressing issues facing their continents during the early Cold War period. A number of well-known leaders attended, including Jawaharlal Nehru of India, Zhou Enlai of China, Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, and Sukarno of host country Indonesia. The remaining delegations represented countries from Japan and Jordan to Egypt and Ethiopia, as well as Sudan and the Gold Coast (Ghana), which would soon be independent in 1956 and 1957, respectively.

Bandung as a unifying myth of decolonization offered a tantalizing vision of transnational solidarities that could sidestep preexisting cultural differences and political conflicts. It attempted a remaking of the world on terms favorable to those who had been colonized for centuries across the Global South.

As a consequence of this wide range of geographic representation, the Bandung meeting initiated a new period of postcolonial diplomacy and Third World internationalism, which comprised an alternative “third way” beyond the U.S.-led capitalist democracies of the First World and the Soviet-led communist states of the Second World. Refusing the pressures and demands of this new great power rivalry, Asian and African countries sought to define their own destinies after global decolonization.

The Color Curtain: A Report on the Bandung Conference, published in 1956 by the African American novelist Richard Wright, remains the most influential account of the meeting, capturing the details of the event as well as its historic importance. The diplomatic summit struck Wright with a sense of astonishment from the moment he learned it would take place, revealing his underlying Western-centric worldview as well as his desire to connect with the wider world experiencing decolonization. Wright had already visited a part of this world as depicted in his preceding book on the British Gold Coast, entitled Black Power: A Record of Reactions in a Land of Pathos (1954). His trip to Bandung subsequently expanded his sense of decolonization and its global meanings.

The Color Curtain still retains a certain interpretive power today due to Wright’s prominence as a Black intellectual and how the conference’s themes touched upon deeper issues that Wright had grappled with for decades, including the roles of race and racial identity in the modern world, the function of class politics, and, not least, the possibilities of freedom at individual, community, and global levels. The moment of global self-determination at Bandung intersected with Wright’s own long-standing attempts at individual self-determination.

As the title of Wright’s book underscored, the group of emergent nation-states assembled at Bandung ultimately highlighted a “Color Curtain” in world affairs. Wright’s phrasing echoed both the better-known Iron Curtain, which separated Western liberal democracies from the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc, and a famous remark by W. E. B. Du Bois. In 1903’s The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois declared, “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line, – the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea.” Wright’s account therefore situated the Bandung Conference against a dominant U.S. foreign policy framework, which retained certain imperial-like qualities, as well as within a genealogy of Black American thought.

Yet the importance of Bandung was not, of course, limited to an American worldview. Sukarno’s opening address captured the moment of opportunity, both diplomatic and symbolic, for postcolonial Asia and Africa, in which he asked:

What can we do? We can do much! We can inject the voice of reason into world affairs. We can mobilise all the spiritual, all the moral, all the political strength of Asia and Africa on the side of peace. Yes, we! We, the peoples of Asia and Africa, 1,400,000,000 strong, far more than half the human population of the world, we can mobilise what I have called the Moral Violence of Nations in favour of peace.

“The Moral Violence of Nations” implied an ethical, rather than military, approach to achieving world peace. This vivid phrase set the tone for how Asian and African countries could participate in the evolving global order: as a force for solidarity and intercontinental accord, rather than conflict. Sukarno’s words consequently presaged what became the Bandung Spirit—a feeling of global political possibility when Asian and African countries collected their interests together.

Yet the Bandung Conference remained a one-time event, despite an attempt to hold a “Second Bandung” outside of Algiers in 1965. By then, the energies of decolonization had begun to dissipate in different ways. Antagonisms between Bandung attendees, such as India and China, eventually rendered moribund the potential of future diplomatic collaborations along the same lines as those in 1955. Still, the symbolism of the Asian-African Conference continued to inform intercontinental solidarity and anticolonial internationalism until the end of the Cold War. The conjoining of political stance and geographic space through the idea of Afro-Asianism generated new geopolitical alignments and aspirational projects, including the 1961 founding of the Non-Aligned Movement, a new grouping of developing nations, which Nehru largely spearheaded against China’s competitive influence. The impact of Bandung was also on display at the 1966 Tricontinental Conference in Havana, Cuba, which inaugurated Latin America’s commitment to Third Worldism under the leadership of Fidel Castro.

Bandung as a unifying myth of decolonization offered a tantalizing vision of transnational solidarities that could sidestep preexisting cultural differences and political conflicts. It attempted a remaking of the world on terms favorable to those who had been colonized for centuries across the Global South. Yet, like most political myths, there were real-world limits that compromised its idealism. Césaire’s imagined rendezvous was both attained and incompletely realized. The work of economic, cultural, and political decolonization remains. The Bandung Conference today conjures these ghosts of unfulfilled futures, serving as a reminder of the lost political prospects and forgotten historical itineraries of the past that continue to haunt our present dreams of decolonization—and our realities.

Christopher J. Lee is a professor of African history, world history, and African literature at the Africa Institute, Sharjah, UAE. He’s published seven books, including Making a World after Empire: The Bandung Moment and Its Political Afterlives.

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