The Third World project was born in the post-World War II era in the context of the Cold War. The colonized and formerly colonized peoples envisioned a Third World, an alternative to both the modern capitalism of the West and the form of socialism in Eastern Europe under the leadership of the Soviet Union. The Third World project sought to break the economic structures established by European colonialism and to develop an alternative just and democratic world-system based on economic cooperation and solidarity among peoples (see “What is the Third World?” 7/16/2013; “What is the Third World Revolution?” 7/17/2013; “What is the Third World perspective?” 7/18/2013; “Third World anti-neocolonial movement” 7/19/2013).
The key to understanding social structures and social dynamics is appreciation of the vantage point forged from below. Therefore, intellectuals in a social position of relative privilege, in order to move beyond the assumptions rooted on one’s culturally-based horizon, must encounter the social movements emerging from below, taking seriously their understandings and permitting their insights to stimulate questions that will lead to an understanding that transcends the limited possibilities imposed by one’s own cultural horizon (“What is personal encounter?” 7/25/2013; “What is cross-horizon encounter?” 7/26/2013). Such a process of cross-horizon encounter was central to the advanced understanding formulated by Marx, who encountered in Paris in the 1840s the movement formed by workers, artisans, and intellectuals. Marx’s encounter with the workers’ movement, in conjunction with his intense study of British political economy and his previous study of German philosophy, enabled him to formulate an analysis of capitalism and human history from the vantage point of the worker (“Marx illustrates cross-horizon encounter” 1/7/14; McKelvey 1991).
Marx could not have formulated his analysis prior to the emergence of the workers’ movement. He himself appreciated the relation of understanding to technological development and the emergence of social movements. In his critique of the science of political economy, he maintained that David Ricardo, because he was writing after the emergence of large-scale industry, was able to discern the tendency of capitalism to reduce the percentage of the population involved in productive labor; however, writing before the emergence of the proletarian movement, Ricardo was not able to discern the importance of the reduction of labor time for the development of a more just and humane society (Marx 1969a, 1969b, 1972; McKelvey 1991:57-72).
Just as capitalism must be analyzed from the vantage point of the worker, the modern world-system must be analyzed from below, that is, from the vantage point of the colonized. As Marx himself without question would appreciate, Marx was limited in his capacity to understand the structure and dynamics of the world-system from the vantage point of the colonized, because he wrote before the emergence of the anti-colonial and anti-neocolonial movements of the Third World. The anti-colonial movements had begun in Latin America in Marx’s time, but the Third World anti-colonial movement did not attain maturity until the twentieth century, and in addition, Marx was geographically isolated from Latin American political and intellectual developments. He was aware of the importance of the conquest of America in the development of modern capitalism, but writing before the full implementation of the European colonial project of world domination and before the emergence of anti-colonial movements in Asia and Africa, he could not consistently maintain an anti-colonial perspective in his analysis or develop an anti-colonial frame of analysis. As a result of his time and place, he could not possibly have sought to formulate a synthesis of an analysis rooted in the vantage point of the worker with an anti-colonial perspective, as would be possible for Third World movement leaders and intellectuals during the twentieth century.
Just as Marx sought to analyze social dynamics from the vantage point of the social movement emerging from below, we should do the same in our time. In seeking to understand the structures and dynamics of the world-system today, we have to take seriously the insights of the anti-colonial, anti-neocolonial and anti-imperialists movements of the Third World, which reached political and intellectual maturity in the period 1946 to 1979, and which have reemerged since 1994. Leaders and intellectuals of the Third World project have formulated a frame of analysis that is rooted in the perspective of the colonized. The most advanced among them have formulated a synthesis of the Third World national liberation perspective and Marxism-Leninism, developing an understanding beyond the parameters established by Marx and further developed by Lenin.
Yet there is a tendency in the nations of the North, including the Left, to not listen to the leaders and intellectuals of the Third World and to criticize the Third World project from the vantage point of assumptions and ideas rooted in the European side of the colonial divide. In this series of posts on the Third World project, I seek to point to a correction of the Eurocentric under-appreciation of its significance.
In addition to clarifying the theoretical formulations and political practice of the Third World project, these posts maintain that, after suffering setbacks and distortions during the period 1980 to 1995, the Third World project has reasserted itself as an actor on the world stage, and indeed, it is in the process of formulating, in theory and practice, the best hope for humanity. And while the Left in the North underappreciates the importance of the Third World, the global powers do not: they discern that the Third World project is a threat to the established world order, and their policies are dedicated to its destruction.
I turn in the next post to a review of the formulation of the Third World project during the period 1948 to 1979.
Marx, Karl. 1969a. Theories of Surplus Value, Vol. I. London: Lawrence & Wishart.
__________. 1969b. Theories of Surplus Value, Vol. II. London: Lawrence & Wishart.
__________. 1972. Theories of Surplus Value, Vol. III. London: Lawrence and Wishart.
McKelvey, Charles. 1991. Beyond Ethnocentrism: A Reconstruction of Marx’s Concept of Science. New York: Greenwood Press.