Scroll down any YouTube comments section discussing my hometown, Detroit, and you are bound to come across unflattering references to the Third World. I mean aggressively racist shit, the kind that stiffens Stormfront posters into reflexive “Seig Heil” salutes in the security of their dingy basements. The racists in Dearborn Heights, Bloomfield, Warren, and other prime white-flight destinations, get real cute with their analogies too: Detroit is a “Third World shithole” that resembles the “African jungle,” and is ruled over by Idi-like despots like “King Kwame,” who control the haunted city streets with a combination of “racial victimhood,” gaudy personality cult, and murderous Mafioso cunning.

Expect no results from rational arguments that point to, for example, a well-documented history of managerial discrimination against Black workers, denying them the skills training and educational opportunities that helped white Detroiters transition from the plant at the height of deindustrialization. Or to the eroded tax base with the flight of skilled labor to the suburbs – the real cause of deteriorating schools, infrastructure and local economy; of the concomitant rise of underground markets and the prison industry. Or to the control of city services by, and the outflow of city revenue into the coffers of, OaKlan County – a process greased by backroom deals between Black “leaders” and demagogues like L. Brooks Patterson (may he rest in bubbling hot piss).

Never mind that Michigan politics was corrupt long before Macomb KKKounty learned to hiss the name of Coleman Young, and that things have gotten no better for the lifelong Detroiter under “White Mike” Duggan’s gentrification schemes (yuppies are loving it though, I’m sure... long as the rollers are close by). Never mind that blue-collar suburbs and rural towns are also sliding down the declivity of joblessness and desperation that decades of free trade have prepared for the US labor force.

Mired in the sludge of racist ideology, held there as though by an objective power, the everyday suburban fascist looks around, and sees that her “clean and safe” patch of Greenfield Road is nearly all white; she rifles through the pages of The Detroit News for proof of the dangers that await her past Dearborn’s city limits; and she is convinced that the explanation for Detroit’s ongoing crisis is heredity. Must be something about “the Blacks.”

Expanding all outside the bounds of her geographic and historical knowledge, she naturally draws a link between Detroit’s ongoing crisis, and the condition of the underdeveloped countries from which Black people were first stolen. As naturally as she casts the ballot in favor of the baboon billionaire Donald Trump, who’s also very fond of the “Third World hellhole” trope.  

In their own inverted way, though, these apprentice Eichmanns really have hit upon something true. Not only does the condition of Black Detroit (is this still redundant?) call into question its “Americanness”; there’s also a real, historical connection between the mundane horrors of Brightmoor and the Redzone, and the calculated misery of the Gambia. The oppression of Black Detroit, like that of all Black internal colonies, is of a qualitative (if not quantitative) kind with that of all Third World people.

But in fact, the idea of the Third World was not always identified only with poverty, corruption, and despair. It once even signaled humanity’s last hope.


The term “Third World” was originally coined during the Cold War by the French economist Alfred Sauvy, who wanted to describe a third option in postwar geopolitics, one growing out of the struggles of the oppressed peoples of Africa, Asia, and Latin America (Encyclopedia of the Developing Nations, 1542-43).

For a generation of French left-wing intellectuals, disenchanted with the French Communist Party’s remote-controlled leadership of class struggle, the anti-imperialist wars of the Tiers Monde (Third World) seemed to crash through the apparent stalemate of the capitalist and socialist camps. They meant an alternative to the cruel punchline of world history; to the replacement of world revolution by a nuclear contest between nation-states that threatened the globe with immediate holocaust, or else with the mediated death of exploited classes and peoples in service of US and Soviet foreign policy.

The Communist philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty gave up the proletarian ghost, retreated into rudderless liberalism in disgust at the PCF’s abandonment of the French workers by Stalinist diktat – a disillusionment traced through the chapters of his classic study Adventures of the Dialectic. But his former friend Jean-Paul Sartre was able to keep the faith. Though Soviet realpolitik had effectively killed revolution in postwar France, Sartre saw that in the anticolonial movements of the Third World, history was still marching – this time without orders from Moscow. As Sartre describes the postwar political crisis in his eulogy for Merleau-Ponty (in Situations):

“[I]n that moment of History, revolution in Europe was impossible. Neither Churchill, nor Roosevelt, nor finally even Stalin would have allowed it…. History became one for the entire world. And the result was this contradiction, undecipherable at the time: the class struggle was transformed, place by place, into a conflict between nations – thus becoming separate wars. Today, le Tiers Monde enlightens us. In 1945, we could neither understand, nor conceive of this metamorphosis. In short, we were blind.”
(164-165)

However, in the history of French letters, it was the Martiniquan psychiatrist, philosopher, and revolutionary Frantz Omar Fanon, who gave the characteristic and philosophically richest expression to the political idea that came to be known as Third Worldism.

Defining Third Worldism can be a tricky thing, for reasons that will soon be made clear. But for Fanon, who was influenced by Sartre’s dialectical critique of Soviet society as well as by anticolonial struggles, there are at least three distinct aspects of Third World revolt that confound European radicalism. It’s on their basis that we can start building toward a consistent Third World concept.

First, according to Fanon, theorizing Third World liberation calls for a decisive break with key dogmas of classical Marxism, like the organic solidarity between the workers of the imperialist countries and the colonized peoples, and the leading role of the proletariat in modern revolutions, as opposed to the peasantry or the lumpenproletariat. In recently translated political writings collected in Alienation and Freedom, Fanon is unequivocal on this first point, believing the French proletariat and its parties hopelessly corrupted by the material and cultural exploitation of their nation's colonies:

“The necessary response to colonialism’s tactical cleverness is a strategic solidarity amongst the territories occupied by French forces. Today we can measure the illusoriness of the famous doctrine according to which organic solidarity exists between the proletariat of colonialist countries and that of colonized peoples. In actual fact, the theory of anticolonialism is being formulated today and all the theses previously put forward have proven entirely false. In their struggle, colonized peoples must essentially count on their colonized brothers.”
(565)

This passage dates from Fanon’s time as an editor for the FLN’s liberation paper, El Moudjahid. By the last year of his life, when composing his greatest work, The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon had controversially called into questioned even the revolutionary potential of the colonized proletariat (Zeilig, Frantz Fanon: The Militant Philosopher of the Third World, 200).

Whether or not one agrees with Fanon’s analysis – that the urban proletariat was privileged vis-a-vis the African peasantry and the lumpen, and therefore had no class interest in a thoroughgoing social revolution – it’s clear from his writings that he rejects Marx’s idea, expressed in the “Cooperation” chapter of Capital, that the urban worker’s collective labor process uniquely primed them for revolutionary consciousness. Fanon’s experience within the Algerian Revolution; his observation of the trends in anticolonial movements more generally; and his unique point of entry into socialist thought as a Black colonial subject, scarred by racism, deeply influenced by non-Marxist psychology and existentialism – all this prepared him to adapt what truths there are in Marxism to the real needs of the Third World, and not the other way round.

This helps explain the second point about Fanon’s Third Worldism: its attention to traditionally neglected aspects of revolutionary movements, particularly its study of the cultural and psycho-affective sources of revolt of the colonized, and the colonizer's largely reactionary character across class lines. Already in his Black Skin, White Masks (1952), Fanon was able to think through colonialism in both its economic and its superstructural dimensions (though his treatment of colonial economics across his works is always allusive at best). But in A Dying Colonialism, Toward the African Revolution, and Wretched of the Earth, Fanon gives compelling and increasingly sophisticated accounts of the psychological, emotional, and cultural sources of anti-colonial revolt and of fascist reaction, realities that challenge the classic Marxist-Leninist pattern of explanation for social change.

Lastly, the anticolonial fighter in The Wretched of the Earth finds herself in a life-and-death struggle with a European master who’s not open to reasonable discourse; who is unable to see the humanity of the slave, and whose dominant role thus does not dissolve within the logic of mutual recognition (as in Hegel’s master-slave dialectic). This unique situation calls for a violent break with the colonizer’s world, as no higher synthesis is possible between these opposing terms; one “species” must replace the other; the colonizer must leave town, and the pillars of his decadent culture must be broken down.

This has to happen, so that the starved and brutalized world majority, the colonial masses who can't depend on either the Western-capitalist or the Soviet-“socialist” blocs for their development toward real independence (41), can start History over; can for the first time illustrate a human world on a blank slate. A tabula rasa holding endless possibilities for those who have reclaimed their humanity from the enemy’s ashes, from right under hopeless Europe's sentinel stare. As Fanon put it in the conclusion to his most famous work:

“The Third World must start over a new history of man which takes account of not only the occasional prodigious theses maintained by Europe but also its crimes, the most heinous of which have been committed at the very heart of man, the pathological dismembering of his functions and the erosion of his unity, and in the context of the community, the fracture, the stratification and the bloody tensions fed by class, and finally, on the immense scale of humanity, the racial hatred, slavery, exploitation and, above all, the bloodless genocide whereby one and a half billion men have been written off…. If we want to respond to the expectations of our peoples, we must look elsewhere besides Europe.”
(Wretched, 238-39)

I don’t want to outline the full body of Fanon’s theoretical contribution, and I can’t do justice here to its internal problems and its limitations in light of the last century’s real development. That’s all a task for another time. The point of all this is that there is a distinct Third World standpoint, one that clarifies the failure of European modernity as a whole. Not only does Fanon analyze decolonization in a manner that challenges Marxist orthodoxy. (Of course, Fanon’s own status as a “Marxist” is another debate entirely). But he also presents a vision of the Third World as humanity’s vanguard, as a project for the redemption of history itself – a more audacious, a more radical project than that described by the progress in Western thought from Hobbes and Machiavelli to Marx and Lenin.

The problem for Third Worldism in 2019, though, is that many of the key revolutionaries and thinkers of the Third World were to varying degrees beholden to flawed assumptions of First and Second World liberalism and radicalism, assumptions that today can only generate a neurotic, backward-looking practice in the face of changing reality.

The Last Shall Be First” is a series of articles that wants to elucidate this insight by examining the virtues and vices of the last century’s decolonial theory and practice. It looks at these through several shapes of struggle: the writings of Mariategui on the roots of communism in Indian communalism and the conditions for socialism’s emergence in Latin America; the humanist political economy of Che Guevara, his support for the system then-emerging in the PRC, against the waxing law of value in the Soviet economy; the contradictions of theory and practice in classical Nkrumahism; the struggles of Black Communist women – Claudia Jones, Queen Mother Moore, and Shirley Graham – within the limits of the CPUSA to bring class analysis to bear on Black nationalism and Pan-Africanism; what I will call the involuntary Third Worldism of Samir Amin; and the twists and turns of Du Bois’s political commitments in the middle and end of his career, in light of his own proto-Third Worldism.

I hope not just to give evidence that a distinct Third World standpoint exists over the campist horizon of First World socialism. This project will have meant nothing if it doesn't, in its own small way, contribute something real to decolonization struggles for the earth's condemned, from Grand River Ave to below the Rio Grande.