The Rise and Fall of Third Worldism – Part 1


PART ONE: “Two, Three, many Vietnams”: National Liberation and the Rise of the Third World (1945 – 1991)

Asia, Africa and Latin America in the Early Years of the Century

With the exception of Latin America, and several noteworthy cases in Africa and Asia, the pre-1945 history of what came to be known as the “Third World” is overwhelmed by the fact of imperialism. Native voices were silenced and native cultures nearly eradicated.

In Asia, Japan was the only country to industrialize, and thus the only country to emerge as a major player in world affairs. Although at first resistant to Western influences; by the middle of the 19th century Japan had embarked on a major modernization program. Building upon traditional values, Japan built an army and navy powerful enough to challenge Russia over Korea at the turn of the last century; and strong enough to join the British, French, Germans, and Americans in carving out a sphere of influence in China. A hybrid of feudal/warrior institutions and modern technology would characterize Japan throughout most of the 20th century. Some argue that this mixture would enable Japanese economic success.

China, the most populous nation on earth, with a culture going back some 5,000 years, was weak and felt herself victimized by the Great Powers. Unlike Japan, China had not modernized. Chinese institutions had frozen. The Manchu dynasty which had ruled China for some 300 years seemed more interested in maintaining itself in power than in bettering the lot of its people; the majority of whom lived in conditions of appalling poverty. Although there was a strong feeling against foreign domination, which periodically erupted into mass uprisings such as the Boxer Rebellion; China had been effectively divided up amongst the Great Powers, who controlled large areas known as ‘concessions’ where they enjoyed trade monopolies. The corrupt and infirm Manchu dynasty fell underneath its own weight in 1911. The collapse of Manchu rule created a power vacuum which was filled by ambitions local strongmen, the ‘warlords,’ who became a law unto themselves in China’s vast outlying regions and frustrated any attempt at national unification.

Only two nations in Africa escaped colonial rule: Liberia and Ethiopia. Liberia, created by American abolitionists in 1825 as place to which future freed slaves could be “repatriated,” existed as a small anomaly to the general imperialist trend. Ethiopia, the ancient kingdom of Abyssinia, continued as a feudal monarchy surrounded by European protectorates and outright colonies.

Latin America was the great exception. By 1821, most of the old Spanish and Portuguese colonies had become independent states. Most of the 19th Century, in Latin America was consumed by a fierce struggle between traditional elites who favored a continuation of the old colonial plantation system and modernizers who wished to institute capitalist economics and bring in contemporary technologies and ideas. This conflict was further complicated by the beginning of the 20th Century by the active involvement of the United States in the region. Going back to the Monroe Doctrine of 1825, the United States had seen Latin America as its “back yard”; and American investments and interests in Latin America grew exponentially.

In Central America and the Caribbean, the battle between Conservatives (traditionalists) and Liberals (modernizers) lasted, in some case up to the 1930s. The ever increasing US presence stunted indigenous development and encouraged the rise of military dictatorships which maintained a precarious balance between repressing domestic dissent and ensuring continued US support. In Cuba and Puerto Rico, Spanish colonial rule was replaced, in the first instance by an apparent independence masking the reality of outside control, and in the second case, by direct US annexation.

Different scenarios were played out north and south of Central America. To the north, Mexico, which had, shortly after independence, lost much of its territory to the United States in the Mexican-American War of 1842, developed a strong, albeit contradictory state. In 1911, the Mexican Revolution overthrew the 40-year military dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz and inaugurated a period of titanic political/economic/social struggle. Populist radical leaders such as Francisco Villa and Emiliano Zapata vied with conservatives such as Venustiano Carranza and Alvaro Obregon as ad hoc revolutionary armies fought against whom ever happened to constitute the government at the time and each other. Eventually, the radicals were either marginalized or destroyed, and power settled into the hands of a conservative, modernizing elite composed of political strongmen and their followers. This elite held power through the mechanism of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). The PRI oversaw the secularization and modernization of Mexican society. By 1945, Mexico was a contradictory mixture of large cities with modern industries, and a poor, backward countryside; a strong national sense of self, and control by a coterie of politicians and businessmen; an independent foreign policy, and a sharp awareness of the presence of the United States. In one way or another, this pattern would come to characterize not only Mexico, but much of Latin America.

In the south, Brazil and Argentina were becoming industrial power houses – albeit conflicted ones. Brazil seemed to follow the pre-established Mexican pattern: large, sprawling urban areas surrounded by impoverished rural zones. Brazil’s industries were concentrated in the north and along the coast; the wealth of the interior was only sporadically exploited. Argentina, with its large immigrant population (mainly Italian and Eastern European) provided something of a contrast. Heavy industry had appeared at the dawn of the century; the immense volume of European immigrant coming to work in those industries. The immigrants brought with them European ideas and social relations; both of which conflicted with traditional values. By 1945 the dictatorship of Juan Peron which combined a fascist core with modernizing elements initiated a period of military rule which would, by and large, characterize Argentina until the 1980s.

Imperialism and Colonialism Revisited

The decisions of the Versailles Conference of 1919 dismantled the Turkish, German and Austro-Hungarian Empires, but kept the British and French Empires intact. Not only that, but the Portuguese continued to rule Angola and Mozambique in Africa; the Belgians continued to rule the Congo; and the Dutch continued to govern Indonesia. The Middle East was divided between British French spheres of influence and protectorates. Canada, Australia, and New Zealand did become independent commonwealths – and Ireland did fight her way to a disunited independence – but, by and large, imperialism remained intact after World War I.

It wouldn’t be until after World War II that powerful drives towards independence and de-colonization would shatter the old European empires and create the modern states of Asia and Africa. The Second World War, with its anti-fascist and democratic aspirations, would impel the peoples of the colonial world to demand the same.

National Independence Struggles

In some cases, indigenous forces had played a major role in the defeat of the Axis powers. In Vietnam and Indonesia, Ho Chi Minh and Sukarno (respectively) emerged from the war as venerated national leaders. After the war, the French attempted to restore their rule in South East Asia. This misguided attempt came to an end in 1954 when, at the battle of Dien Bien Phu, Vietnamese forces under the Communist leader Ho Chi Minh which had previously defeated the Japanese; now prevented the French from returning. When the Americans tried to supplant the French, they too came to grief. A similar situation unfolded in Indonesia when the Dutch tried to restore the pre-war order. A similar outcome resulted: Sukarno, who had led resistance to the Japanese, now oversaw the independence of Indonesia.

The British came out of World War II in no condition to hold their empire together. In India, the Congress Party, under the leadership of Mohandas Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Mohammed Ali Jinnah had been the focus of the independence movement there for decades. Their moment arrived in 1948 when the British pulled out and Indian independence was declared. But independence brought crisis. Perhaps with British encouragement, Jinnah led a faction which demanded that a separate Muslim state be created. In multi-religious, polyglot India, this demand led to massive disruption, forced resettlement of huge amounts of people, and a great amount of ethnic and sectarian bloodshed. In the end, India (Hindu) and Pakistan (Muslim) were created as two separate – and mutually hostile – states.

In Africa, decolonization quite often led to extended periods of instability. Independence leaders such as Jomo Kenyatta (Kenya), Julius Nyere (Tanzania), and Kwame Nkrumah (Ghana) strove to modernize their countries by following a socialist model of development. In the Congo, Patrice Lumumba failed to establish a fully independent state, at the cost of his life. In many parts of Africa, the pull out of the colonial powers created confusion, chaos, and ethnic strife. Often this was caused by old imperial states themselves, as they continued to try to exert influence in their former possessions by sponsoring ethnic and political rivalries. Portugal refused to divest itself of its colonies, with the result that it took nationalist guerrilla movements until the 1970s to establish the independent nations of Mozambique and Angola. In the former British colonies of Rhodesia and South Africa, the white settler population refused to yield to demands for civil equality for the native Africans. Fighting lasted until 1975 when Rhodesia became the majority-African governed Zimbabwe (under Robert Mugabe); and until 1989 when the racist apartheid system was destroyed in South Africa (under Nelson Mandela).

In the Middle East, the Algerian Revolution of 1956 forced the French out of that country. In Egypt, Gamel Abdel Nasser came to power with a promise to encourage “Arab unity” and “Arab Socialism.” Nasser’s ideas spread to Syria and Iraq, where a movement claiming to champion Arab Socialism, but in fact more reminiscent of Italian Fascism took hold, Baathism. In many cases, interference by Western powers led to the displacement of radical, modernizing regimes with repressive conservative governments. The neutralization of the Left and the bankruptcy of the Right led many to see radical Islam as a viable political alternative.

The creation, by UN mandate, of the state of Israel in 1948 exacerbated the crises endemic to the area. The flow of immigrants to the new Jewish state led to the displacement of much of the native Palestinian population. The new Israel developed into a thoroughly militarized state, eventually going to war with the surrounding Arab states in 1967 and 1973.

The movement for de-colonization was strongly affected by the Cold War. Many independence movements had adopted one or another variety of socialism as its ideology, and many post-independence regimes sought Soviet aid. Other, more conservative post-independence governments became allies of the United States. Some changed sides. Thus, movements such as the National Liberation Front of Vietnam, Frelimo in Mozambique, and the MPLA in Angola saw themselves as Marxist; Israel, South Africa, and Saudi Arabia were in the US camp; while governments in Algeria, Egypt, and the Congo (Zaire) switched from Soviet to American sponsorship. The proxy conflict between the US and USSR was played out in the post-colonial world. Soon, two other forces, China and Cuba, would enter the fray.

The Chinese Revolution

China has seen a century of revolution – and some would say that it’s far from over. Revolution overthrew the decrepit Manchu dynasty in 1911. The newly created Chinese Republic, under the leadership of Dr. Sun Yat-sen and his Nationalist Party (Kuomintang), wanted to create a united, modern, and democratic China. The first step in achieving this would be the cancellation of foreign concessions and the bringing to heel of the regional warlords. It was ‘simple’ enough to ask the British, French, etc. to leave; the second part of that equation was more difficult to achieve. The warlords were ensconced in remote areas, unseating them would require a trained, professional army. In order to raise an officer class capable of leading such an army, the Whampoa military academy was established in 1920. The Whampoa academy attracted many young, patriotic Chinese of all political persuasions. Many of China’s future leaders would come out of the Whampoa Academy. At the head of the academy, as director, was Sun yat-Sen’s protégé, Chiang Kai-Shek. By the end of the 1920s, the “Northern Expedition,” as the anti-warlord campaign was termed, was largely successful. By that time, however, a new conflict had developed.

The new China was alone in the world. The former imperial powers, who had just been asked to leave, weren’t about to render any aid. Desperate for support, China turned to another nation just then going through a revolution of their own, the Soviet Union. The Soviets agreed to provide political and military aid to China, but at a price: that the Kuomintang bring into the government, as partners, the newly-created Communist Party of China. Sun Yat-Sen agreed, and the Communists were essential to victory in the Northern Expedition. However, Sun Yat-Sen’s lieutenant Chiang Kai-shek vehemently disagreed with any cooperation with the Communists. After Sun’s death in 1925, he was succeeded by Chiang who jettisoned any pretense of democracy, making himself military dictator. Chiang also wanted to get rid of the Communists at the first available opportunity.

In November of 1927, Chiang struck. Nationalist troops unexpectedly turned on their Communist fellows. In all of China’s major cities, Communists and their sympathizers were massacred in the streets. Overnight, the Chinese Communist Party was almost exterminated. In a state of confusion and disarray, the surviving Communists, made their way to the southern province of Jianxi where, a local Communist leader, an ex-librarian named Mao Tse-tung, had managed to hold the party together.

Organizing Communist guerrilla forces into a Red Army, Mao managed to hold off the Nationalists long enough to force an escape out of Jianxi. Known as the “Long March,” the Communists embarked on a 6,000 mile trek over rivers, mountains, and deserts, fighting Nationalists troops all the way. Finally, the Communists found sanctuary in the area of Yenan in China’s northern mountains. This, then, became their base. The Long March solidified Mao as the unquestioned leader of the Communist Party. From Yenan, Mao’s Communists engaged Chiang’s Nationalists in guerrilla warfare, and extended the Communist-controlled zone.

The full-scale Japanese invasion of China brought a temporary truce between the Communists and Nationalists, as they agreed to join forces against the foreign occupiers. Overall, as American advisers during World War II pointed out, the Communists were the more effective fighters against the Japanese. Chiang seemed to be more afraid of the Chinese Communists than he was of the invading Japanese; and American aid sent to Chiang often ended up in the pockets of Nationalist politicians. The end of the war and the defeat of Japan signaled a resumption of hostilities between the Nationalists and Communists. After an intense four-year civil war, Communist forces gained the upper hand. Chiang’s Nationalists were forced to flee the mainland; establishing themselves, as the republic of China, on the island of Taiwan – where they have remained to this very day. On October 10, 1949, from Beijing, Mao proclaimed the creation of the new, communist, Peoples Republic of China.

Communist China became a new and powerful ally of the Soviet Union during the Cold War. In fact, Chinese troops entered the Korean War against the United States. Domestically, the Communists embarked on numerous developmental and modernization campaigns. Campaigns to eliminate infectious disease and illiteracy, as well as campaigns to ensure the equality of women were, in great part, successful. Attempts to industrialize China’s economy were less so. The best known of these, the “Great Leap Forward” (1959), which tried to jump start China’s development through mass participation in the form of things such as encouraging the building of backyard blast furnaces to produce steel, was a failure.

Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization of the Soviet Union and his policy of Peaceful Coexistence with the West met with disapproval in Beijing. Mao felt that the new Soviet leaders were abandoning revolutionary principles and bowing to the US. Tensions within the Communist camp came to the breaking point in 1961 when, at a meeting of Communist parties in Moscow, the Chinese and Albanian delegations denounced the Soviets and their supporters and walked out. The Sino-Soviet split divided the world Communist movement and led to the creation of new, more militant Communist groups dedicated to the Chinese position. China felt itself to be the new center of the world revolutionary movement and, as such, supported and encouraged revolutionary parties and guerrilla groups in the Third World. The Cold War was developing into a three-cornered fight.

Within the Communist Party of China itself, Mao feared that elements similar to those represented by Khrushchev in the USSR would derail his revolutionary vision. Starting in 1964, Mao moved to isolate “conservative” and “pragmatic” elements in the Party. His attempt at a mass mobilization to reinvigorate revolutionary enthusiasm resulted in the upheaval known as the “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.” The Cultural Revolution consumed China in chaos as radical and moderate forces, through the medium of youth organizations known as “Red Guards,” jostled each other for power and influence. Reaching a crescendo in 1966 – 1967, the Cultural Revolution involved pitched armed battles between rival Red Guard units. Mao called a halt to the anarchy in 1969, castigating some of the excesses of the more extreme radicals. However, tension and conflict between the more radical and the more pragmatic members of Mao’s inner circle remained.

The same year, 1969, that Mao rolled back the Cultural Revolution saw an intensification of the Sino-Soviet crisis as the Chinese and Soviets came to blows over a border dispute. This event seems to have convinced Mao that the Soviet Union was a greater threat to China than the United States. China offered the United States an opportunity to begin a normalization of relations; an opportunity the American President Richard Nixon took advantage of. In 1972, Nixon traveled to China, met with Mao and Chinese Premier Chou En-lai, and the thaw in the Chinese- American Cold War began.

Chou En-lai’s, a protector of the moderates in Mao’s circle, death in 1976, followed by Mao’s own passing later that year renewed the conflict between radicals and moderates within ruling Party circles. After a brief and intense power struggle, the radicals were defeated. Deng Xiaoping, who had been exiled as a “capitalist roader” during the Cultural Revolution emerged as China’s new leader. Deng’s policies not only reversed the Cultural Revolution, but effectively dismantle communism itself. Throughout the 1980s, China more and more embraced a pro-market orientation, encouraging foreign investment and development of key industries. By the 1990s, China had emerged as a major economic force, exporting goods across the globe. Although the People’s Republic of China is still ruled by the Communist Party, it has, in fact, become a modern capitalist power.

The Cuban Revolution

Although conducted on a much smaller scale than the Chinese Revolution, the Cuban Revolution of 1959 would send even stronger shock waves throughout the Third World. On New Year’s Eve of 1959, guerrilla forces led by Fidel Castro overthrew the long-standing government of dictator Fulgencio Batista. Batista had been supported by the United States since 1933; and, under his leadership, the island had become a haven for US interests which virtually managed the Cuban economy.

Castro’s victory signaled major reform, including land redistribution, literacy and public health campaigns, and the nationalization of major utilities and industries. These latter reforms incurred the ire of American corporations which lost their investments in Cuba. The United States’ severing of diplomatic relations followed by the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion and an economic embargo against Cuba caused the Castro government to fully enter the Soviet orbit. However, the relationship between Cuba and the Soviet Union was far from smooth. Having come to power in through a guerrilla movement in a peasant society, Cuba had much in common with China. Both China and the USSR courted Cuba to support them in their struggle with each other. Cuba was, for a time, caught between the feuding Communist powers. Instead, Cuba developed a unique image and presented itself as a model for Third World nations to follow. This pleased neither China nor the Soviet Union. Adding to the conflict with the Soviets was Cuba’s support for armed guerrilla movements, especially in Latin America, which threatened Soviet attempts at a rapprochement with the US.

In the wake of the Cuban Revolution guerrilla and national liberation movements emerged, aiming at spreading the Cuban example in Latin America. Castro’s right-hand-man, the Argentine born Ernesto “Che” Guevara, was central to this endeavor. Guevara personally led Cuban-trained guerrillas in Africa; and, in an attempt to foment revolution in South America, died while organizing a guerrilla force in Bolivia, becoming a revolutionary icon in the process. Although most of the guerrilla organizations spawned in the 1960s failed, they had the unexpected consequence of producing a severe reaction in the form of repressive military regimes devoted to their destruction. Thus, in Brazil, Peru, Bolivia, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Argentina, extremely violent military dictatorships characterized those nations in the 1970s. In Chile, the election and subsequent overthrow of a Socialist president, Salvador Allende, produced a similar phenomenon. Cuban advisers trained guerrillas in other parts of the world, as well, namely Angola and South Africa.

Cuban attempts at developing an independent, diversified, modern economy met with failure. By the 1970s, Cuba had abandoned overtly encouraging armed struggle and integrated itself into the Soviet system. This would continue until the collapse of the Soviet Union itself in 1991.

In the 1950s, Indian Prime Minister Nehru stated that the modern world was divided into “Three Worlds.” The “First World” consisted of the United States and the advanced capitalist countries of Western Europe; the “Second World” was the Soviet Union and its Communist Bloc allies; the “Third World” was the poor, underdeveloped nations of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Fought over by both the First and Second Worlds, Nehru urged the Third World to develop an independent stance, find its own voice, and put forward its own demands and aspirations. Thus, the “Non-Aligned Movement” came into being.

Led by India’s Nehru, Yugoslavia’s Tito, and Egypt’s Nasser, Non-Alignment did not mean neutrality. India leaned to the West, Cuba (who later joined the Non-Aligned Movement), leaned towards the Soviets; instead, Non-Alignment meant that the Third World countries recognized that they shared a commonality of interests. Indeed, many of the Non-Aligned nations were bitter rivals; India and Pakistan readily come to mind. However, despite sometimes serious differences, the Non-Aligned nations managed to bring questions of development and industrialization, debt and poverty, national independence and self-determination to the world’s attention.

Although the Non-Aligned movement seems to have greatly dissipated with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the appearance of a unipolar world dominated by the United States, non-alignment did shift world politics from the East vs. West emphasis of the Cold War to the North vs. South conflict that persists to this very day.


PART TWO: “The coming of the new international:” Third Worldist Theory in the 1950s – 1970s.

Categories: Albania, Algeria, Angola, Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, China, Colonialism, Congo, Cuba, Democratic People's Republic of Korea, Economic Exploitation, Economics, Egypt, El Salvador, Ethiopia, Former Eastern Bloc, France, Ghana, Guatemala, History, Imperialism, Imperialist War, India, Indonesia, International, Iraq, Israel, Japan, Kenya, Liberia, Mexico, Mozambique, Netherlands, Pakistan, Palestine, Peru, Portugal, Puerto Rico, Republic of Korea, Revolutionary History, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Science, Second World War, South Africa, Soviet Union (USSR), Syria, Taiwan, Tanzania, Theory, U.S. Military, United Kingdom, United States History, Vietnam, Workers Struggle, World History, Yugoslavia, Zaire, Zimbabwe, Zionism

2 replies

  1. This is the best article I’ve read on TRP.

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