Defining Third Worldism

Third Worldism was an ideology that came out of and responded to decolonization, which coincided with the Cold War between the US and the USSR.  The authors Robert Malley and Mark T Berger each provide definitions of this concept but with slight variations.  In this brief paper, I will scrutinize both definitions closely in the hope of coming out with a clearer understanding of Third Worldism.  First up: Robert Malley.  According to Malley in The Call from Algeria, Third Worldism was “the belief in revolutionary aspirations of the Third World masses, in the inevitability of their fulfillment, and in the role of strong centralized states in this undertaking” (2).  For his part, Mark T Berger claims that Third Worldism assumed four things:

1) the ‘popular masses’ in the Third World had ‘revolutionary aspirations’; 2) the fulfillment of these aspirations was an inevitable working out of history that linked pre-colonial forms of egalitarianism to the realization of a future utopia; 3) the vehicle for the achievement of this transformation was a strong and centralized nation-state; and 4) in foreign policy terms these nation-states should form an alliance that would act collectively under the umbrella of various regional and international forms of political and economic cooperation, such as the non-alignment movement and the United Nations (“After the Third World?, 34, note 4).

At first glance, it might look as if the only difference between the two definitions is that Berger provides an additional point. But what would a closer examination reveal? After all, Berger admits that his definition of Third Worldism is similar to Malley’s, but “departs in key respects” (“After the Third World?”, 34, note 4).

Regarding the first point, both Malley and Berger claim that Third Worldism believed that the masses of the global south had revolutionary aspirations.  They also share views on the second point, though slightly diverging from each other. Both men maintain that Third Worldism assumed that the achievement of the Third World’s aspirations was the “working out of history.” For, although Malley does not articulate such an expression, he implies it in his use of the term “inevitability.”  Berger breaks away from Malley, however, by adding that, according to Third Worldism, the “working out of history” meant linking “pre-colonial forms of egalitarianism to the realization of a future utopia.”  Indeed, Malley uses deceptively similar concepts—assimilationism, traditionalism, and Marxism—in another section of his book[1], but he is a lot more ambivalent about Third Worldism’s approach to establishing a dialogue between the past and the future.

After slightly diverging from each other on the second point, Berger and Malley converge again on point three.  In their eyes, Third Worldism believed that the revolutionary ambitions of the Third World could only be achieved through the nation-state. The similarity ends there: Berger and Malley deviate from each other once again on the last point. On the one hand, Berger claims that Third Worldism assumed that an alliance between the states of the Third World should be established to promote cooperation within the global south.  On the other hand, Malley, by failing to provide a fourth point, implies that transnational organizations were not a central tenet of Third Worldism.  This is a crucial difference, though it is not a surprising one.   For one thing, the two scholars have a different focus: whereas Malley tends to focus on themes, Berger tends to focus on chronology.  It is even less surprising given that Berger, writing seven years after Malley, had the opportunity to build on Malley’s definition of Third Worldism.  However, notwithstanding the differences between the two definitions, and notwithstanding Berger’s claim that his definition of Third Worldism “departs in key respects” from Malley’s, I would argue that the two definitions are more alike than not.

[1] Refer to pp. 23-27 of The Call from Algeria for a discussion on assimilationism, traditionalism and Marxism.

Works Cited

Malley, Robert. The Call from Algeria: Third Worldism, Revolution, and the Turn to Islam. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.

Berger, Mark T. “After the Third World? History, Destiny, and the Fate of Third Worldism.” Third World Quarterly 25, no. 1 (2004): 9-39.


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