In this article, I would like to delineate some problems with the current form of Third Worldist discourse and propose an alternative conceptualization meant to put Third Worldism back on its original track – that of revolutionary anti-imperialist politics. Doing so requires a self-criticism on the part of Third Worldists, who have generally understood (or at least portrayed) their own tendency as a discourse about the “revolutionary potential” of First World workers. I will argue this is a counter-productive way of framing revolutionary politics and drags the discussion away from what is most important – a correct and realistic understanding of the revolutionary communist project.

The problem and its history

To put the problem clearly, Third Worldists have often explained Third Worldism as an appraisal of the revolutionary agency of First World people. As the argument goes, the imperialist parasitism of First World nations shrinks the size of their proletariat to the point where the labor aristocracy and the petit bourgeoisie form the majority of the population of First World countries. This line of argumentation, if not qualified, devolves quickly into a negative resolution to the posed problem: defining one’s central political position as a dismissal of the “revolutionary potential” of the First World population.

Firstly, this discourse leads to a separation between analysis and synthesis.

If Third Worldism is simply a specific analysis of imperialist class structures, it is an incoherent and incomplete political position as it lacks a synthesis; it breaks down the concepts, but doesn’t reconstruct them into a political program.

Secondly, this discourse is detached from the way Third Worldism has been historically posited outside of fringe traditions particular to the American left.

One of the first examples of this specific articulation of Third Worldism was the Maoist Internationalist Movement, which posited the following as one of their three main characteristics as a political organization: “MIM believes the North Amerikan white-working class is primarily a non-revolutionary worker-elite at this time; this, it is not the principal vehicle to advance Maoism in this country”[1]. The constellation of political groups upholding this form of Third Worldism during and after MIM’s existence have continued in this tradition.

An alternative historical conceptualization

Instead of understanding Third Worldism as a current of thought initiated by fringe left groups, I argue it would be better to understand it as a form of internationalism specific to the post-WW2 international geopolitical setup. The philosophical embryo of Third Worldism is to be found in the initial responses to the predicament of Western Marxism. While recognizing the failure of the Soviet communist project, the Western Marxist tradition found itself unable to answer the question of revolutionary agency, as the Western Marxist theorists were generally academics detached from the masses, but still trying to understand them and more specifically how they come to political radicalization. The attachment of the post-war First World population to the institutions of their imperialist states was too strong to permit mass revolutionary movements, so that the majority of politically active people aligned themselves with reformist politics.

In response to this impasse, the first anti-colonialist theorists began to engage with the Western Marxist tradition and to transcend it. I have in mind the Wretched of the Earth, which has been elsewhere called the manifesto of Third Worldism[2]. In accordance with the Biblical saying “the last shall be first and the first last”, Frantz Fanon argued the process of decolonization involves the break up of the colonial world, not the attempt to join it on the basis of equality. The latter is the starting premise of Third Worldism: the First and Third World must be overcome, the Third World shouldn’t aspire to equality with the First, but both must destroy the conditions of their own existence.

Outside of the realm of philosophy, the capitalist world-system after the second World War was in turmoil and, for the first time, with the Bandung Conference in 1955, the Third World became a loose network of players in the international arena. While Bandung wasn’t able to create any lasting alliance, it was able to create a political culture and a self-identification, on the part of Third World people, as “the Third World”. The communist movement more concretely impacted the Third World during the 60s, with the Chinese repudiation of Soviet imperialism and the Chinese political project of leadership over Third World nations. Mao’s China had a tremendous influence on the political culture of countless countries, with many movements and intellectuals championing the cause of the Third World. Communists in the Third World had begun to understand the national liberation struggles they took part in as frontlines of a global struggle against imperialism, of a struggle by the Third World oppressed nations against the First World oppressor nations.

In 1963, Dipa Nusantara Aidit from the Indonesian Communist Party, one of the largest at the time, had already posited that the storm center of the revolution was the Third World:

“On a world scale, Asia, Africa, and Latin America are the village of the world, while Europe and North America are the town of the world. If the world revolution is to be victorious, there is no other way than for the world proletariat to give prominence to the revolutions in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, that is to say, the revolutions in the village of the world. In order to win the world revolution the world proletariat must go to these three continents.”[3]

In a more elaborate form, a sort of political platform accompanying the manifesto by Fanon, Che Guevara had spoken about the Third World as a possible spark to ignite militant class struggle within the territories of the First World imperialist powers:

“Let us sum up our hopes for victory: total destruction of imperialism by eliminating its firmest bulwark: the oppression exercised by the United States of America. To carry out, as a tactical method, the peoples gradual liberation, one by one or in groups: driving the enemy into a difficult fight away from its own territory; dismantling all its sustenance bases, that is, its dependent territories. […] [In Vietnam], the imperialist soldiers endure the discomforts of those who, used to enjoying the U.S. standard of living, have to live in a hostile land with the insecurity of being unable to move without being aware of walking on enemy territory: death to those who dare take a step out of their fortified encampment. The permanent hostility of the entire population. All this has internal repercussion in the United States; propitiates the resurgence of an element which is being minimized in spite of its vigor by all imperialist forces: class struggle even within its own territory.”[4]

Lin Biao, in “Long Live the Victory of People’s War”, had also spoken about the theory of the global countryside, with which Che Guevara agreed as he specified in his critical notes on political economy:

“Taking the entire globe, if North America and Western Europe can be called “the cities of the world”, then Asia, Africa and Latin America constitute “the rural areas of the world”. Since World War II, the proletarian revolutionary movement has for various reasons been temporarily held back in the North American and West European capitalist countries, while the people’s revolutionary movement in Asia, Africa and Latin America has been growing vigorously. In a sense, the contemporary world revolution also presents a picture of the encirclement of cities by the rural areas. In the final analysis, the whole cause of world revolution hinges on the revolutionary struggles of the Asian, African and Latin American peoples who make up the overwhelming majority of the world’s population. The socialist countries should regard it as their internationalist duty to support the people’s revolutionary struggles in Asia, Africa and Latin America.”[5]

The fil rouge of the Third Worldist arguments coming from the Third World was simple: it’s not a question of “reaching” First World status, but one of breaking up the First World, and overcoming the division of the planet in worlds. Overcoming the First and Third World, however, means to be partisans for the latter, as it is only the oppressed that can resolve a contradiction of oppression. In the same way the proletariat can only abolish all classes, including itself, by exercising its dictatorship over the bourgeoisie, the oppression of nations can only be transcended through the affirmation of the Third World’s oppressed.

In the First World, many revolutionaries had taken up the slogans and politics put forth by Third World communists. Among others, the Weather Underground delineated a central concept of Third Worldism in their document “You Don’t Need A Weatherman To Know Which Way The Wind Blows”: “Any attempt to put forth a strategy which, despite internationalist rhetoric, assumes a purely internal development to the class struggle in this country, is incorrect. The Vietnamese (and the Uruguayans and the Rhodesians) and the blacks and Third World peoples in this country will continue to set the terms for class struggle in America.”[6] In the same document, they called for the internationalization of the resources of the US as an imperialist power, key to the transition to a classless society. In the same way, the Red Army Faction justified its ultraleftist politics on the basis of duty to help the anti-imperialist struggle and “bring the war home”. To quote: “The urban guerilla means intervening in a revolutionary way here, in spite of the weakness of the revolutionary forces in the Federal Republic and West Berlin!”[7]. As a last example, the Communist Working Circle in Denmark provided Third World revolutionaries with material support throughout the 60s and 70s, such as clothes to MPLA soldiers in Angola and sending millions of dollars stolen from Danish banks and stolen weapons to the PFLP[8].

To explicate, the Third Worldist trend doesn’t have its origins in so-called MIM-Thought, a result of inquiries in the political economy of imperialist countries by the Maoist Internationalist Movement, but rather in the national liberation struggles of the 60s and 70s. Even the political economy peculiar to Third Worldist discourse has its origins in the works of economists like Samir Amin and Arghiri Emmanuel, who undertook their critiques of political economy years before MIM was formed.

With this historical clarification in mind, we can talk about the more general theoretical aspects of Third Worldism.

Propositions of Third Worldist political economy

As our readers may be aware, the Third Worldist trend has so far mostly concerned itself with a critique of the political economy of imperialism, which has formed the basis for our interpretation of the events and structures of capitalism. To summarize our arguments:

  1. The world-economy is a world system of advanced and malformed capitalist relations of production interconnected through capitalist relations of exchange appearing as a world market; the process of capital accumulation in Third World countries is subjected to the reproduction of First World oligopoly capital so that globally we see a continued disparity between oppressor and oppressed nation-states.
  2. In the Third World, this translates into economies characterized by industries geared towards the interests of foreign capitals, speculative activity in land and real estate, the growth of usury, lumpen-bourgeois and petit bourgeois service enterprises, and so on. The Third World is confined to the production of products required by the First World economies, it retains semi-capitalist relations in their rural areas, and it is characterized by low wages. Third World economies are dominated by foreign imperialist capital, its attendant free trade structures, and unequal exchange.
  3. In the First World, this translates into imperialist economies and the so-called “post-industrial society”, characterized by affluence, the almost complete absence of non-capitalist relations of production, an influx of value from the Third World, and the prevalence of merchant and circulatory capital versus productive capital. The First World retains several monopolies which permit it to dominate the Third World: 1. a monopoly on technology; 2. a monopoly on worldwide finance; 3. a monopoly on the planet’s natural resources; 4. a monopoly on information and media; 5. a monopoly on weapons of mass destruction. These monopolies mean, for the Third World, a drain on available capital, deteriorating terms of trade, loss of surplus value which is transferred to the First World.
  4. The influx of value from the Third to the First World also requires this value to be realized. The main economic “device” of realization is the working class of the First World itself. If we consider GDP to be a rough measure of value realized in a country, then it follows more than half of the value realized within the US is realized by the working class, in whatever form. This influx of wealth from Third to First World permits the affluence of the latter and forms a material basis for the trends of growth of the labor aristocracy and the petty bourgeoisie. In economic terms, the working class is more and more detached from the production of surplus value and increasingly involved in the process of circulation and unhired reproductive work.

It follows, then, that the majority of the working classes of the First World, with the exception of internal colonies (which are understood as a Third World within the First World), aren’t suffering the level and kind of exploitation Marx predicted for the proletariat. This isn’t true for the Third World, where the proletariat is suffering “poverty at the level of subsistence wage, and a class-separation so sharp and clear as to amount almost to a distinction of caste”[9].

A common and important misconception

This analysis, while in my opinion correct, has led to a very important mistake when left without qualification: understanding this analysis as a dismissal of the “revolutionary potential” of First World people. Corollaries to this understanding are typically inaction through belief of no revolutionary potential, quasi-academic races to the bottom at who can find the smallest proletariat, and fetishizations of Third World revolutionary potential. If there is no potential, why engage in organizing? To deal with these problems, it is important to deal with their root: Third Worldism as a discourse of revolutionary potential. Like many other mistakes, this one too has to be transcended.

From political economy to the communist project

Marx’s analysis of capitalism had led him to posit three main things: 1. capitalism will be overcome through social revolution; 2. capitalism’s class structure and technological complexity granted the preconditions for communist society; 3. for communism to succeed, the remnants of capitalism must be handled properly and new relations of communist production must be nurtured. Where Third Worldism becomes relevant is when dealing with how to handle the remnants of capitalism properly; how to go from class society to classless society. Third Worldists posit that the liberation of nations is the transit point to the transition to stateless society and the merger of nations; nations can’t merge on the basis of unequal relations.

In essence, given the monopolies First World imperialist powers have, the Third Worldist program is one of their dismantlement and of equalization of nations by means of global disarmament, equitable access to resources, transfers of technology and means of production, reparations, abolition of financial monopoly, and liquidation of presently existing world organizations such as the WTO and the World Bank. Third Worldism is then, in a sense, a program of alter-globalization, proposing a global communist order and positing the only transitional method is one of settling of accounts between oppressor and oppressed nations.

Samir Amin has called this process “delinking”. It stressed that the main characteristic of actually existing capitalism is worldwide unequal development and polarization, with the Third World adjusting its socioeconomic structure to the demands of the First World. Today, 23% of the world’s population lives in the global North, while 77% lives in the global South; they respectively enjoy 85% and 15% of the world’s income[10]. For the global South, the Third World is essentially an organizing concept, expressing the causal relationship between imperialist powers and the path of economic maldevelopment they forced on the Third World, which itself is the precondition for a common agenda for changing the structure of the world-economy.

Antinomies in First Worldist communism

The Third Worldist argument isn’t, however, unfamiliar to the mainstream Marxist-Leninist movement. In fact, plenty of Marxist-Leninists have in the past understood the neo-colonial relationship between the Soviet Union and countries in its sphere. Let us take the example of the Cuban economy, transformed into a neo-colony specialized in the production of sugar: in 1990, sugar represented 82% of Cuba’s exports (mostly to the Soviet Union), took up a third of the country’s industrial means of production, and represented one sixth of the total population’s workers and their families[11].

Are these the types of economic relations that will lead to a transition to classless society? We don’t think so. It is then confusing how anti-revisionist communists, even after understanding very well the neo-colonial dependency the Soviet Union was aiming for, don’t understand the process of revolution must take a different form in First and Third World countries, as the labor question among the two socioeconomic and geopolitical realities is distinct. In the First World, the plan is the abolition of the monopolies imperialist powers have on a world scale and the internalization of the resources of oppressor nations. In the Third World, it is the reconstruction of the economy towards self-reliance. Without this equalization, communism is impossible.

In conclusion

Third Worldism should not be understood as a discourse about revolutionary potential, but rather as a clarification of the communist program that includes the overcoming of First and Third World as distinct realities. Discourses about revolutionary potential, in their class essentialism, in their lack of synthesis, and in their origins in fringe left groups, don’t do much good. When the political objective is set, what becomes important is strategy and tactics meant to win over as many people as possible to the communist project.

Klaas V.

[1] Quoting from MIM Theory #1
[2] Andrew Nash, “Third Worldism“, from the African Sociological Review 7(1)
[3] Antonio Moreno, “Aidat and the Theory of the Global Countryside
[4] Che Guevara, “Message to the Tricontinental
[5] Lin Biao, “Long Live the Victory of People’s War
[6] Weather Underground, “You Don’t Need a Weatherman to Know Which Way the Wind Blows
[7] Red Army Faction, “The Urban Guerrilla Concept
[9] James M. Blaut, “The Ghetto as an Internal Neo-Colony”
[10] Vicky Randall, “Using and Abusing the Concept of the Third World”
[11] Rudi Mambisa, “Burn Down the Cane Fields, Notes on the Political Economy of Cuba, Part II

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Africa, Asia, Colonialism, History, Imperialism, National Liberation, Neo-Colonialism, Revolution, Revolutionary Foreign Policy, Theory


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