Mao’s Three Worlds versus the West’s Three World Model
In 1974, China’s future leader Deng Xiaoping addressed the General Assembly of the United Nations in his then position as Chinese’s Vice Premier. It was here that Deng preceded to explain Mao Zedong’s Three Worlds Theory to his global audience. Delivered during the height of the Sino-Soviet schism, the speech took aim both at the so-called revisionist policies of the post-Stalin USSR, orthodox Marxism and western imperialism.
The essence of Mao’s Three Worlds Theory stems from a rejection of the ‘Three-World Model’ associated with Alfred Sauvy. Incidentally, it was Sauvy’s model that became the standard way in which the US identified the status of nations throughout the world during much of the 20th century. According to the western model, the United States and its allies with similar economic systems formed the core of the first world (US, capitalist Europe, Canada, Australia, Apartheid South Africa, Japan and Australia). The Second World according to this same model included the USSR and its formal allies as well as China and its socialist allies. Finally, the third world included much of the developing and non-aligned world in post-colonial Asia, Africa and Latin America.
Mao rejected the western theory and famously “demoted” China to the status of third world in spite of being a rapidly developing and politically advanced socialist society. While the term ‘third world’ had often been used a pejorative, Mao saw the term as a positive and empowering label in an age of anti-imperialist struggle.
With that in mind, Mao formulated his own Three World’s Theory in which the first world included both the US and USSR who from different ideological positions, China had come to see as part of a duel system of “imperial” hegemony that in retrospect can be called the age of geopolitical bipolarity – aka the Cold War. The less important second world was comprised of the strong allies of both the US and USSR including both eastern and western Europe and US style economies in places like Canada, Australia and for Mao also post-war capitalist Japan.
The third world was everybody else – the developing world, the post-colonial world, the Non-aligned world and practically speaking most of Asia, Africa and Latin America.
Mao’s theory was rejected by the USSR as an insult to the post-Stalinist Marxist-Leninism of the world’s largest socialist nation. It was also rejected by orthodox Stalinists who themselves rejected Khrushchev’s revisionism. Thus, Mao’s Three Worlds Theory was one of the factors which contributed to Communist Albania’s severing of ties with Beijing as Enver Hoxha came to reject Mao’s emphasis on the developing world over the strictly socialist world as much as he rejected Khrushchev’s rejection of Stalinism.
From Three Worlds to Multipolar World
While Mao’s theory undoubtedly led to ideological schisms between Soviet and Chinese thinkers, today in an age where China and Russia are once again incredibly close partners, Mao’s theory is actually more relevant today than it was in 1974.
In the 21st century, the retrospectively simplistic ideological/economic divides of the Cold War are becoming increasingly absurd as erstwhile Cold War opponents are now close partners. This does not only apply to China and Russia but to The Philippines and China, Vietnam and the United States (perhaps the most odd re-making of a post-Cold War partnership), Pakistan and Russia, Turkey and Russia, India and the United States, Russia and “Israel” to name a few.
But in the overall struggles of nations to develop internally, to gain new trading and investment partners, to cultivate new security partners and to become more political self-sufficient, there is a clear schism between the US and its closest partners in Europe and the white Anglosphere on one side and just about everyone else on the other side. This “other side” is inclusive of countries in the development who have close ties with the US. This is the case because countries like Vietnam and India share the same goals of accelerated development and political independence as do countries like The Philippines, Syria, Zimbabwe, Angloa, Venezuela, Cuba, Lebanon, Laos and Pakistan. The fact that India and Vietnam have pivoted towards the world’s largest neo-imperial power in order to achieve these goals is perhaps counter-intuitively, a vindication rather than a rejection of the value of the Three Worlds Theory in the 21st century.
The multipolar age is in reality, the Three Worlds Age. This is an age where the rapidly developing countries in Asia(including the Middle East), Africa and Latin America (+ The Caribbean) are all seeking the same goals and all have the same obstacles. The main obstacle is of course the fact that when seeking partnerships in development with the United States, this comes at the price of genuine political and economic independence. In rejecting partnerships with the US, these obstacles become all the more amplified.
By contrast, partnerships with China in the One Belt–One Road format and beyond, do not limit individual developing nations to any one socio-economic or political model. This is one of the reasons that Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has pivoted away from the subservient partnership with the US that defined most of his predecessors. Instead, Duterte is embracing warm relations with China in order to reject what Duterte calls “the colonial mentality”. Duterte has managed to do this while alluding any traditional labels of “left and right”.
Duterte has managed to evade such labels for the very reason that they no longer apply in the 21st century. Mao’s Three Worlds Theory indicates that “socialist versus capitalist” and “right versus left” were no longer advisable nor accurate through which to categorise nations. He saw these labels as a means of dividing peoples in the developing world that ought to be united in a common struggle – something that in less revolutionary terms could be referred to as common interests. While this earned him criticism from orthodox Stalinists at the time, in the 21st century when ideological considerations are increasingly giving way to pragmatic ones, the theory authored by a renowned Communist has implications that reach far beyond countries that would define their governments as de-facto Maoist.
As is the case with any theory, there is always a gap between the theory being proffered and the theory being embraced by those who stand to gain from it. India’s Sinophobic policies and its embrace of the US in a pathetically lopsided relationship is a prime contemporary example of a nation cutting itself off from opportunity by refusing to embrace its status as a post-colonial developing nation and team up with other members of this “third world” as Mao defined it, for the sake of building what Chinese President Xi Jinping calls “a moderately prosperous society”.
While India is an example of a country that refuses to embrace a theory whose pragmatic manifestations could elevate the condition of its people, in the wider world, more and more Asian, African and Latin American nations are coming to embrace their status as developing and as such are naturally gravitating towards China as the country whose system of partnerships can best guarantee the dignity, prosperity and independence of the 21st century third world.
Thus, while neo-liberals have distanced themselves from the use of the phrase “third world”, it should again be embraced according to its Maoist definition but with the realisation that modern Russia and its allies should now be included in a progressing third world that by the middle of the 21st century will likely outpace much of the declining first world and its friends in the second world which especially in respect of issues like the JCPOA is now caught between the first and third.