The Last Shall Be First, Part One: Third World Concept Revisited

"Defining Third Worldism can be difficult, for reasons that made clear. But for Fanon..., there are at least three aspects of decolonization that confound European radicals. It is on their basis that we can start building toward a coherent Third World concept."

The Last Shall Be First, Part One: Third World Concept Revisited

Scroll down any YouTube comments section discussing my hometown, Detroit, and you are bound to meet with foul references to the Third World. And I mean aggressively racist shit, the kind that snaps Stormfront posters into “Seig Heil” salutes in the safety of 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,” ruled over by Idi-like despots such as “King Kwame,” who control the haunted streets through a mixture of “racial victimhood,” gaudy personality cult, and murderous, Mafioso cunning.

Expect no results from rational arguments that point, for example, to the well-documented history of managerial discrimination against Black workers, denying them the training and educational opportunities that helped white workers transition from the plant, ahead of the storm-clouds of free trade. 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 the drug trade and the prison industry. Or to the control of city services by, and the outflow of city revenue into the coffers of, residents of Oakland 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 County learned to hiss the name of Coleman Young, and that shit has gotten no better for Detroiters under “White Mike” Duggan’s gentrification schemes. (Incoming yuppies are loving it though, as long as the rollers are nearby.) Never mind that blue-collar suburbs and rural towns are also sliding down the declivity of joblessness and desperation that decades of NAFTA have prepared for the work 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 is nearly all-white. She rifles through the pages of The Detroit News for proof of what dangers await her past Dearborn’s limits. And she is convinced all over that the explanation for Detroit’s ongoing crisis is heredity. Must be something about “the Blacks.”

Expanding over the bounds of her education, she draws a natural link between Detroit’s condition, and the condition of the continent from which Black people were first stolen. As naturally as she casts the ballot in favor of the billionaire baboon Trump, who also likes a good “Third World hellhole” trope.  

In her own inverted way, though, this apprentice Eichmann really has hit upon something true. Not just that the condition of Detroit calls its Americanness into question. But that there’s also a real historical connection between the mundane violence of Brightmoor and the Redzone, and the calculated misery of the Gambia and Cape Town. The oppression of 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 only identified 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 independence movements 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, grown impatient 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 right through the apparent stalemate of capitalist and socialist camps. They meant an alternative to the cruel punchline of world history, to the replacement of world revolution by a nuclear standoff, behind which crowd the shades of several holocausts. Or the more mediated death-by-steel-quota of oppressed peoples and workers of the world: the pawns in a meaningless game for technocrats without Geist.

The Communist philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty was one of many who finally gave up the proletarian ghost. Disgusted at the PCF's abandonment of French workers to Stalinist diktat, Merleau-Ponty ditched Marxism for a rudderless and lonely liberalism, inspired by Webera path of disenchantment followed through the pages of his classic study, Adventures of the Dialectic.

Yet his former friend Jean-Paul Sartre had kept the faith: modern life was not yet painting its grey in grey. Though Soviet realpolitik had effectively killed the revolution in postwar France, Sartre saw that history was still marching in the Third World revolutions – now, without orders from Moscow.

As Sartre describes the postwar 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.”

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

Defining Third Worldism can be difficult, for reasons that will soon be made clear. But for Fanon, who was influenced by Sartre’s critique of Soviet orthodoxy as well as by colonial revolts, there are at least three aspects of decolonization that confound European radicals. It is on their basis that we can start building toward a coherent Third World concept.

For Fanon, the theory of Third World liberation calls for decisively breaking 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 lumpenproletariat). In recently translated political writings collected in Alienation and Freedom, Fanon is unequivocal on the first point, believing the French proletariat and its parties to be hopelessly corrupted by the material and cultural robbery in their overseas 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.”

This passage dates from Fanon’s time as 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 controversially had questioned the revolutionary potential of even the colonized proletariat (Zeilig, Frantz Fanon: The Militant Philosopher of the Third World, 200).

One might disagree with Fanon’s analysis – that the urban proletariat was privileged vis-a-vis the African peasantry and the lumpen, and that it therefore had no class interest in a thoroughgoing social revolution. But it’s clear from his writings that he rejects the idea, expressed in the “Cooperation” chapter of Capital, that the industrial worker’s labor process uniquely primes them for militant class 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 that 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: his attention to formerly neglected features of national and social revolution, especially his study of the cultural and psycho-affective sources of colonial revolt, and of the colonizer's cross-class reaction. Already in Black Skin, White Masks (1952), Fanon was considering both the economic and superstructural dimensions of colonialism. (Though admittedly, the treatment of colonial economics in his works is always at best allusive.) 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, accounts that stretch the old Marxist-Leninist theories of social change improbably thin.

Lastly, the anticolonial fighter in The Wretched of the Earth finds herself in a life-and-death contest 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 does not thus dissolve in the logic of mutual recognition (as in Hegel’s master-slave dialectic). This unique situation calls for a violent and total break with the colonizer’s world, as no higher synthesis is possible between these opposing terms. One “species” really must replace the other, no fetishes from the long prehistory can stand; 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 rely on either the Western-capitalist or the Soviet-“socialist” blocs for their real development toward independence, can start History again (41), can for the first time illustrate the human world as on a blank slate. A tabula rasa holding endless possibilities for those who have reclaimed their humanity from right under Europe's sentinel stare.

As Fanon put it in the conclusion of 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)

Obviously I can't do justice to all of Fanon’s contributions in one essay. Nor to its internal problems and its limitations in the light of later developments. All that’s a task for another time. The point here is that for Fanon there is a distinct Third World standpoint, one that records the remarkable failure of European modernity as a whole. Fanon analyzes decolonization in a way that stretches Marxist orthodoxy to its limits. (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 is described by the progress in Western thought from Machiavelli and Hobbes to Marx and Lenin.

The problem for Third Worldism today, though, is that many of the key revolutionaries and theorists of the Third World were themselves beholden, in varying degrees, to the unchallenged assumptions of First and Second World liberalism and radicalism, assumptions that can now only shape a neurotic, backward-looking practice in the face of changed reality.

The Last Shall Be First” is a series of articles that wants to elucidate this insight through the tragedy and comedy of the last century’s decolonization. It takes up and examines several shapes of struggle: in Mariategui's writings on indigenous communalism and the conditions for socialism’s emergence in Latin America; in the humanist political economy of Che Guevara, and its role in his support for the Chinese economic model, over a Soviet system increasingly ruled by the waxing law of value; in painful contradictions of classic Nkrumahism, the last century's most advanced expression of Pan-Africanism; in the efforts of two Black Communist women – Claudia Jones and Queen Mother Moore – to synthesize Black nationalism and feminism with the class struggle, under the CPUSA's stifling political constraints; in what can be called the involuntary Third Worldism Samir Amin's economic and sociological essays; and in the several turns throughout his life of Du Bois’s political strategies, seen through the lens of his proto-Third Worldism.

I hope not only to give evidence that a distinct Third World standpoint exists beyond the campist horizon of First World socialism. This project will mean nothing if it doesn't also, in its own small way, contribute something to the real fight of the earth's condemned, from Grand River to below the Rio Grande.