Publication Third World

What political implications does the term “Third world” have? When did the term arise and how was it used? Is it outdated?





Pablo González Casanova, Frigga Haug,


July 2022

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Photo: Pixabay / gonzagas

The Historical-Critical Dictionary of Marxism (HCDM) is a comprehensive Marxist lexicon which, upon completion, will span 15 volumes and over 1,500 entries. Of the nine volumes published so far in the original German, two volumes have been published in Chinese since 2017. In 2019, the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung teamed up with the HCDM team to advance its "globalization" into English and Spanish, with the ultimate aim of recruiting a new generation of Marxist scholars from around the globe to the project and expanding its readership and reach. The below entry is one of a selection of these translations that are made available on our website.

For more information about the project and other translated entries, check out our HCDM dossier.

A: al-cālam al-thālith. - F: Tiers-monde. - G: Dritte Welt. - R: Tretij mir. - S: Tercer mundo. - C: di san shijie 第三世界

I. The catchphrase “TW” is subject to various definitions and utilisations. It is therefore rejected by many for ideological and scientific reasons. Sometimes, its use is expressly elaborated, at other times it is simply adopted for lack of a better term – or from mere habit and to facilitate communication in academic and political circles.

Coined after the Second World War, the term TW has since been proven to be polysemous and multidimensional. It carries a complex of intersecting meanings, each of which facilitates the allusion to the same vaguely-defined phenomenon. The first dimension of meaning arose in the political realm as a result of the Yalta Conference (1945) and agreements between the “Western”, “free” or “capitalist world” and the “socialist states” on delimiting their respective spheres of influence. The idea that in addition to those two blocs there was a third one struggling for independent and self-reliant development, came to the fore at the Bandung Conference of 1955, which was attended primarily by Asian and a few African countries. At this summit, it became evident that a third struggle had been added to the ones between the two blocs and between capitalism and socialism: for independence and against colonialism, or rather against the great powers interfering in the internal affairs of states or their territories. And there were more struggles: for equality between nations, and for peaceful coexistence. China’s presence in Bandung and the absence of both the Soviet Union as well as the Western great powers proved politically determinative for the conference, as did the participation of several countries with extremely poor populations and the absence of Australia and New Zealand. The fact that numerous Latin American and African countries remained absent revealed the limits of the grouping and, indirectly, those of the TW in general, which the conference had claimed to represent.

In the wake of the Bandung Conference, the term “non-alignment” emerged. The movement that corresponded to it advocated – in addition to long-standing principles – for the “coexistence of nations and states regardless of their size, economic power, differences in social and political systems, in race, religion, language, or historical and cultural heritage” (Gavrilovic 1970). Joining the Asian, African, and Latin American participants as the sole representative of Europe was Yugoslavia. Its entry showcased the movement’s independence from the great powers and from the struggle between “socialism”, and “capitalism” or “democracy”.

Differences between the various countries considered to be part of the TW were always substantial: some were characterised by extreme deprivation and underdevelopment, others by a highly differentiated social stratification with a significant proportion of middle- and high-income groups; the level of urbanisation varied significantly; a few were oil producers and/or highly industrialised, others had scarce energy resources and limited degrees of industrialisation; while a majority were dominated by agriculture and mining, some had already implemented an effective industrialisation policy and a local bourgeoisie had taken shape, which – supported by the states – defended their home markets with import-substitutional and protectionist policies against more developed world market competition in technology and forces of production. The discrepancies between the social and political systems were also great: many still maintained tributary production relations and various forms of unfree labour, while others were predominantly marked by wage labour, urbanisation, broad middle strata, and liberal professions. Policies of surplus accumulation and distribution propelled the development of state capitalism and an increasing proportion of the surplus remained within national borders. While the principal beneficiaries were the new magnates of the TW, they employed policies of surplus distribution to secure their position and stabilise their countries; the strategy earned them the support of large sectors of the organised working population, the urban population, and – occasionally – even of the peasantry and the rural population. To explain and legitimise these policies in these countries, nationalist, anti-imperialist, and socialist ideologies were used, while, in the international arena, those countries kept being committed to varying degrees of neutrality or alliance towards the major capitalist and socialist powers.

At the beginning of the 1960s, a crisis of the model of accumulation and of the popular nationalist project became evident. Since then, the critique of the “nationalism” prevalent in non-aligned states has also turned against the TW concept altogether.

It has always been an integral element of the TW concept to attempt a grouping of colonial peoples, i.e. those who had lived through a history of colonialism and now endured novel forms of colonialism and dependency. Predictably, the great powers’ scientists and ideologues, who considered colonialism a phenomenon of the past and denied that dependence played a role in underdevelopment, consistently shunned and rejected the term. From the outset, theoreticians of the socialist bloc, primarily led by the Soviet Union, viewed the concept as unscientific and politically unacceptable. For them, “TW” was purely an ideological coinage: it contradicted “scientific materialism”. They criticised the term as an attempt to stake out a position equidistant to imperialism and socialism. Politically, it was denounced as a “capitulation to imperialism and the monopolies”, as contradicting the essential struggle of the “socialist countries”, with which the “peoples of the whole world” were to align to resist the “regressive and warlike tendencies of imperialism”. These authors came to an apodictic conclusion: “There is no TW” (Breve Diccionario, 1970). (“TW” was not included in the GDR’s philosophical, sociological, and historical reference works; it was also absent in LS and KWM, both published in the Federal Republic of Germany). They ignored the fact that it was precisely the bipolar system, of which they were part, that had put an end to colonialism and, in doing so, referred the postcolonial territories to a common position regardless of their differences: “In this way the antagonism of the two ‘worlds’ - of imperialist capitalism and developing socialism – releases a ‘Third World’.” (Haug 1979, 8 et sq. [202])

Criticism of the term TW also stemmed from the thinking of the New Left, which developed in the 1960s following the Cuban Revolution. The crises of popularist governments, from which populist regimes and the increasing influence of transnational corporations had emerged, engendered two typical phenomena and two corresponding criticisms. Firstly, centres of domination and accumulation sprang up in the TW itself, which led to the category of “sub-imperialism” being considered in the cases of South Africa, Israel, Iran, Brazil, and India (Petras 1981, 39 et sqq.); secondly, the growing entanglement of the national and transnational bourgeoisies was paralleled by processes of increased military integration and furthered linkage of “bureaucratic-authoritarian” governments and armies across the TW. These ties and alliances rendered independence ever more illusory. Furthermore, even in member states of the socialist bloc, the contradiction between social/public and private/personal accumulation intensified – as did the dogmatic and meaningless manifestations of Marxism-Leninism, in which rituals took up all the space for reason, analysis, and judgement. Some leftist authors denied not only the existence of a TW but even that of “two worlds”. Among them, A.G. Frank (1991) was particularly insistent on the holistic thesis that there was only one world (system) and that this had been so practically since the beginning of human history.

Initiating perestroika, Mikhail Gorbachev abandoned – irreversibly, as it turned out when the Soviet Union collapsed against his will – all analyses based on accumulation, class standpoint, and anti-imperialism; instead he championed the notion of an all-encompassing struggle for humanity’s common survival in dignity, to which national and class interests were to be subordinated. In striving for universal well-being, the antagonistic cooperation of the old blocs was required: the exterminist arms race was to be stopped, the resources freed up under the slogan “disarmament for development” were to be mobilised on behalf of the TW and to achieve an ecological turnaround in industrial policy (Gorbachev 1988 and 1989; cf. Haug 1989, 49–102). After conceding the end of the world revolutionary cycle and the failure of the national liberation movements, even Fidel Castro (1989) acknowledged: “If a socialist country wants to build capitalism, we have to respect its right to [do so]”. The majority of academics in the Soviet Union went even further, core categories such as “class struggle” were sweepingly declared obsolete – as were Marxist-Leninist forms of science and practice per se, and even Marxism, which they themselves had once neutralised by turning it into an object of formal worship; now they carried it to its grave officially, and “the market” became their new object of veneration.

What remains after the end of the “Second World” and the “TW”, it seems, is only the “First World”, which has been developing since the 16th century, when it began to dominate the world. For a while, the socialist countries – led by the Soviet Union and those adopting nationalist, socialist, communist or populist positions to achieve national development on the heels of the Second World War – enforced rules of domestic and world accumulation that differed from the natural tendencies and patterns of the market economy. Although the “social democracies” of the great powers had once endeavoured to make similar adjustments, only the communist and nationalist movements and the new revolutionary movements of the 1960s succeeded in putting a decisive emphasis on the development of the forces of production in their respective countries; as well as on the redistribution of the surplus, so that a greater share of it was allocated to such sectors as intellectual and manual labour; on regaining and safeguarding national territories and wealth that the great powers had previously seized; and on the maintenance of world peace and peaceful coexistence. But as they were caught up in massive contradictions, which furthered manifestations of corruption, enrichment, authoritarianism, intellectual and ideological debasement, and led to domestic and foreign militarisation, their end also discredited TW as a concept.

At the beginning of the 1990s, there was a noticeable return to thinking in the categories of “central” and “peripheral capitalism”, as shaped by Paul Baran and pioneered by Raúl Prebisch at the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (CEPAL). Within a Marxist framework, Samir Amin, in particular, devised the concept of peripheral capitalism. It encompassed the former colonial countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, and was later broadened to include the states of the former Soviet Union and the bloc of its Central and Eastern European allies. Regarding China, Vietnam, and Cuba, they seem to have trouble resisting the globalising dynamics of capitalism, which – in the 1980s – led to an increase in world poverty: the number of poor people grew from two thirds to three quarters of humanity.

The term TW continues to be used in the post-”Cold War” period, albeit with less ideologically-rigid delimitation and greater vagueness. Simultaneously, some people prefer to speak of “countries of the Global South” and “North-South relations” to address, be it indirectly, some of the problems that the category TW had put a spotlight on before.

Bibliography: S.Amin, Le développement inégal, Paris 1973; P.Baran, The Political Economy of Growth, New York 1957; M.Bedjaoui, Towards a New International Economic Order, New York-London 1979; D.Boris, “Gibt es noch die Dritte Welt?”, id., W.Gerns, H.Jung (eds.), Keiner redet vom Sozialismus. Aber wir, Cologne 1992, 52–67; Breve Diccionario Político, Buenos Aires 1970 (based on Abridged Political Dictionary by I.V.Lionjin and M.E.Struve, Moscow 1969); F.Castro, “ Discurso pronunciado en el acto conmemorativo del XXXVI Aniversario del Asalto al Cuartel Moncada en Camaguey, el 26 de Julio de 1989”, Granma, vol. 25, 1989, no. 177, 3–5; T.T.Evers, Bürgerliche Herrschaft in der Dritten Welt, Cologne 1977; A.G.Frank, “ A Plea for World System History”, Journal of World History, vol. 2, 1991, no. 1, 1–28; M.Gavrilovic, “The vitality of non-alignment”, Review of International Affairs, vol. 21, 1970, no. 482; P.González Casanova, Imperialismo y liberación en america latina. Una introducción a la historia contemporánea, Mexico-Madrid 1978; M.Gorbachev, “Speech at the United Nations on 7 December 1988”, Pravda, 8 December 1988 (excerpts in: New York Times, 8 December 1988, 16); id., To build up the intellectual potential of perestroika, Speech at the CPSU Central Committee Meeting with workers in the sciences and culture, 6 January 1989, Moscow 1989; W.F.Haug, “Marxism, Third World and the Question of Eurocentrism”, Socialism in the World, vol. 3, 1979, no. 15, Belgrade, 5–17; id., Gorbatschow – Versuch über den Zusammenhang seiner Gedanken, Hamburg 1989; J.F.Petras et al., Class, State and Power in the Third World, London 1981; E.Schöck-Quinteros, L.Quinteros-Yáñez, “‘Dritte Welt’”, EE, vol. 1, 595–628; D.Senghaas, Peripherer Kapitalismus, Frankfurt/M 1974; P.Strotmann, “Der Zusammenbruch der kapitalistischen Entwicklungsmodelle in der Dritten Welt”, Argument 51, vol. 11, 1969, 32-49.

Pablo González Casanova (WFH, NB)

→ decolonisation, delinking, dependency theory, developing countries, exterminism, Fourth World, imperialism, metropolis, national liberation, neocolonialism, non-alignment, North-South conflict, perestroika, peripheral capitalism, popular national [politics], populism, poverty/wealth, system competition, transnational corporations, tributary mode of production, tricontinent, world market

→ Abkopplung, Armut/Reichtum, Blockfreiheit, Dependenztheorie, Entkolonialisierung, Entwicklungsländer, Exterminismus, Imperialismus, Metropolen, nationale Befreiung, Neokolonialismus, Nord-Süd-Konflikt, Perestrojka, peripherer Kapitalismus, popular-nationale Politik, Populismus, Systemkonkurrenz, transnationale Konzerne, tributäre Produktionsweise, Trikontinent, Vierte Welt, Weltmarkt

II. Towards the end of the 1970s, the “Bielefeld approach” (primarily Maria Mies, Veronika Bennholdt-Thomsen, and Claudia von Werlhof) attempted to establish a ‘parallelism’ between the exploitation/oppression of the TW and that of women in the First World from the perspective of global theory. The analysis departs from their experiences in the TW, which led them to intervene in the ongoing discussion about modes of production (Cordova, Amin, Rey, Terray, Mandel, Meillassoux et al.), characterised as heterogeneous, intertwined, and non-simultaneously determined.

This multilayered designation of production modes is understood by Werlhof as a general rule, not as an exception. With her thesis of the simultaneity of capitalist and non-capitalist domains as a structural principle, she builds on Rosa Luxemburg’s theory of accumulation, which states, for example: “Non-capitalist organisations provide a fertile soil for capitalism; more strictly: capital feeds on the ruins of such organisations, and although this non-capitalist milieu is indispensable for accumulation, the latter proceeds at the cost of this medium nevertheless, by eating it up. Historically, the accumulation of capital is a kind of metabolism between capitalist economy and those pre-capitalist methods of production without which it cannot go on and which, in this light, it corrodes and assimilates. Thus capital cannot accumulate without the aid of non-capitalist organisations, nor, on the other hand, can it tolerate their continued existence side by side with itself. Only the continuous and progressive disintegration of non-capitalist organisations makes accumulation of capital possible.” (2003, 397 [GW 5, 363 et sq.]) For Luxemburg, these analyses are part of the theory of imperialism; Werlhof, on the other hand, describes the process – similar to Quentin Meillassoux – as “continuing original accumulation” (1988, 15 [1978, 21]): “Typically, this not ‘extra’-economic (in the superstructural sense) and not non-capitalist form of violence is to be found wherever original accumulation continues: in the family, and violence against women in general; in the reproduction sphere as a whole, and outside the family, as well as in the TW.” (19 [25])

After private households in the industrialised countries are thus delineated as a mode of production within capitalism, global trends and gender relations are parallelised: “This process could be traced straight to the last micro-relationship between a man and a woman, irrespective of whether inside or outside the household.” (15 [21]) In substance, these activities, carried out in non-capitalist form, could be characterised as the production of unpaid consumer goods for direct consumption; correspondingly, Mies proposes the concept of subsistence production, the subjects of which, according to her analysis, are housewives and small farmers – that is, everyone who is concerned with the production and reproduction of immediate human life and essential food items. “The ‘colonies’ are therefore the external world’s ‘housewives’ – and the housewives over here are the internal colony of capital and of men.” (1983, 117) Werlhof further specifies: “The situation of TW rural and urban subsistence producers, the ‘marginal mass’, most closely resembles that of women. It is not women who have a colonial status, but the colonies that have a woman’s status. In other words, the relationship between the First and the Third World corresponds to the relationship between man and woman.” (1988, 25 [1978, 30])

This theoretical approach runs into two problems. As it assumes that capital accumulates on non-capitalist bases and destroys them at the same time, consequently, not only the means of production in the TW would eventually be destroyed, but also private households in countries of First Worlds. Conversely, the women theorists from Bielefeld conclude that in capitalism there is an interest to preserve the non-simultaneous production modes to ensure continued accumulation. Unlike Luxemburg, who foresaw either barbarism or a revolutionary transition to another society, Werlhof et al. diagnosed a virtually totalitarian deliberate perpetuation of women’s oppression in the interest of capital. From this perspective, it becomes difficult to on the one hand make sense of the actual disintegration of privately-operated family production, and on the other hand to understand that women are also confined to private households as a means to limiting structural crises of growing unemployment with less social unrest.

The other problem concerns the assumed equivalence of global imperialist practices and micro-relationships. The concretism requires more concrete deliberation. And while the general diagnosis of female oppression undoubtedly hits the mark, it is not particularly plausible to imagine – for example – German petty-bourgeois women, who live, on average, under fairly prosperous conditions, as being exploited in a similar way to the populations of the TW. Thus, the virtue of taking an overall context into consideration turns into the vice of considering its every aspect to be sufficiently specified. Initially, the attempt to re-examine the oppression of women from the perspective of global theory and, in doing so, develop a theory of patriarchal capitalism was highly controversial; however, since the mid-1980s, at a time in which comprehensive theory formation was virtually relinquished, it all but vanished from the debate.

In view of the increasing globalisation of transnational bank capital, particularly in the form of World Bank and World Monetary Fund policies, the 1990s saw renewed efforts to parallelise oppression/exploitation of women in the First World and development policies in the Third World. This dynamic furnished a ‘material basis’ for the endeavours of women in the First World and TW to work together, unlike just in the one-sided aid mode, and achieve a theoretical understanding of the various forms of their oppression and possible commonalities as a prerequisite for such political cooperation: developmental (aid) policy, financed by the World Bank, not only shatters traditional means of production but also tends to put the female body under its control. A commonality between the TW and women in the First World is seen in the fact that both function as de facto ‘natural resources’ to be exploited. Evidence of this can be seen in the reorganisation of the reproductive sector (understood as the realm of species reproduction) and the international division of labour. Thus, common/cooperative politics is grounded in the struggle for the right to a “good life” and female life in general, the dimensions of which are to be determined and won independently, questioning previously-accepted ideas of wealth (cf. e.g Dietrich 1994).

Bibliography: V.Bennholdt-Thomsen, “Subsistence Production and Extended Reproduction”, K.Young, C.Wolkowitz, R.McCullagh (eds.), Of Marriage and the Market, London 1981; ead., M.Mies, C.v.Werlhof (eds.), Women: The Last Colony, London-New Jersey 1988; G.Dietrich, “Defence of Production of Life Vis-à-Vis Onslaught of World Bank Politics on Urban Women’s Organizations in the Informal Sector” (unpubl. contribution, 13th World Congress of Sociology, Bielefeld 1994); M.Mies, “Social Origins of the Sexual Divisions of Labour”, Women: The Last Colony, 1988, 67–95 (in German: “Gesellschaftliche Ursprünge der geschlechtlichen Arbeitsteilung”, Beiträge zur feministischen Theorie und Praxis, vol. 3, 1980, no. 3); ead., “Subsistenzproduktion, Hausfrauisierung, Kolonisierung”, Beiträge zur feministischen Theorie und Praxis, vol. 6., 1983, no. 9/10; C.v.Werlhof, “Women’s Work: The Blind Spot in the Critique of Political Economy”, Women: The Last Colony, 1988, 13–26 (in German: “Der blinde Fleck in der Kritik der politischen Ökonomie”, Beiträge zur feministischen Theorie und Praxis, vol. 1, 1978, no. 1).

Frigga Haug

Translated by Hauke Neddermann

→ accumulation, domestic labour debate, family work/housework/domestic labour, housewifiseation (of labour), imperialism, international division of labour, mode of production, pre-capitalist modes of production, reproduction, subsistence production, transnational corporations, wealth, women’s movement

→ Akkumulation, Frauenbewegung, Hausarbeit/Familienarbeit, Hausarbeitsdebatte, Hausfrauisierung, Imperialismus, internationale Arbeitsteilung, Produktionsweise, Reichtum, Reproduktion, Subsistenzproduktion, transnationale Konzerne, vorkapitalistische Produktionsweisen

Originally published as Dritte Welt in: Historisch-kritisches Wörterbuch des Marxismus, vol. 2/I: Bank bis Dummheit in der Musik, edited by Wolfgang Fritz Haug, Argument-Verlag, Hamburg 1995, col. 834-843.