Against Third Worldism


Third Worldism[1] is, it seems, making a comeback. Never mind that the peasant wars which formed the mass base for the communist led national liberation movements of the last century all generated patterns of socialist construction which were ultimately just new forms of primitive industrial/capitalist accumulation, always on the back of the peasants because there was no one else in still industrializing societies who could generate the necessary surplus. Never mind that, in the late 1970s when it looked like these national liberation movements might actually be changing the global balance of power (even if they were never going to lead to authentic communism) it took nothing more than a decision by Capital to crush them and their sponsor, the Soviet Union.  Never mind that, at present, rural insurgencies are more likely to be Islamist than Communist led.

The reasons for this renaissance of Third Worldism (in the First World, mind you) are not entirely clear. Partly it is simply an expression of the hegemony of identity politics across the political spectrum. The Heideggerian virus has done its work well. At precisely the moment when the class contradictions of capitalism specifically as Marx[2] them are at long last coming to the fore, not just the Right but also the Left thinks exclusively in terms of conflicts between races or peoples or perhaps genders.  The trend has, perhaps, also gained some momentum from the perception, fueled by recent developments in the electoral sphere, that the European-origin working classes –whether in Europe or in the United States– anxious to defend their “privilege” from the threat of globalization, have turned sharply to the right.

Some Third Worldism –especially the economistic variety represented by Jason Unruhe  ( )— is simply and obviously wrong. Specifically, the idea that revolutionary potential is determined primarily or exclusively by the intensity of exploitation—represents a very simple minded misreading of what Eric Wolf rightly called “the peasant wars of the twentieth century (Wolf 1969).” If this sort of economistic Third Worldism was correct, then most of the planet would have been in state of permanent revolution since the advent of the Bronze Age.

But there are more subtle forms of Third Worldism which carry important truths, yet misunderstand their significance. I recently encountered an especially well developed expression of this sort of nuanced Third Worldism in a small collection of videos exploring the connections between Jewish Messianism, Maoist Third Worldism, and the Frankfurt  School of critical theory, posted under the pseudonym Chaya bat-Tzvi ( I find her perspective deeply disturbing, not least because it resembles rather closely the position I held in my youth —except that she adds an especially unfortunate and rather intimate flirtation with Martin Heidegger and a far more enthusiastic embrace of Mao. Since one of my earliest works, “Religion, Solidarity, and Class Struggle,” (Mansueto 1988) which reflects some aspects of this perspective, continues to be among my most cited, I feel obliged to engage Chaya bat-Tzvi, and to explain both where I think she errs and where I have been forced to correct my earlier position. This is especially important as, in the current situation, elements of her position threaten to both conciliate the ethnonationalist right and to divide the popular front against the Dark Enlightenment.


Let me begin, though, by saying the Chaya bat-Tzvi is by no means wrong about everything, nor was I globally wrong thirty years ago when I wrote. “Religion, Solidarity, and Class Struggle.”  She is correct that communism is a spiritual project. She is correct that communism cannot do without humanity’s older spiritual traditions. She is correct that advanced capitalism, far from spontaneously creating the conditions for communism, in fact undermines them, cultivating “one dimensional humans” as Marcuse put it, who work in order to consume, rather than workers who live in and for their participation in the creative power of Being as such –which is what communism requires. She is correct that history is not linear (though I also reject the claim, which she upholds, that it is, instead, cyclical). And she is correct that the peoples of the Third World have (sometimes) been revolutionary not because they are so exploited, but because they retain more of the memory of spiritual and communal traditions which can provide a basis in experience for understanding and embracing the communist project.

That is a lot to right about. Where, then, does she go wrong?

She will, I think, at least be pleased that I think her errors are fundamentally theological in character. Specifically, my difficulty is with her reading of the Kabbalah, if not, perhaps, with the Kabbalah itself. According to Lurianic Kabbalah (Silberman 1998) creation itself is the result of a kind of catastrophe. The overflowing creative power of God could not be contained in the finite vessels to which it gave birth, and they shattered, scattering divine sparks throughout what can only be regarded as a broken cosmos. The aim of Lurianic Kabbalah is the Tikkun Olam, mending the torn fabric of the universe and returning the scattered sparks of creative power to their divine source, a process which is accomplished through a combination of theurgic ritual and just action, which leads in turn to da’ath ‘elohim or knowledge of God.

Now there are aspects of this theology which, I must confess, seem to me to be problematic, quite apart from Chaya bat-Tzvi’s interpretation. First, the idea that contingent Being emanates from God, rather than being drawn into existence by Her attractive power, tends to promote an understanding of our end or purpose as a return to an “original innocence” rather than as a growth towards our divine goal. Second, at least some interpretations of the Kabbalah imply a univocal metaphysics which regards the divine presence, which is infinite, as incompatible with any finite being. To be sure, unlike Christian and some Muslim doctrines of univocity, there is no implication that we must blindly submit to the univocal divine will. On the contrary, the Jewish God graciously withdraws from creation to allow us to exist. But the human project of theosis is, from this vantage point, damned from the beginning. Only in fully accepting our finitude and living out our limited lives in a world which God, for however good a reason, has abandoned, can we realize what purpose we have. And that purpose, it seems is the result of an accident, a failure of sorts, even if a logically necessary one, in the creative process.

There are, to be sure, ways around this problem. While I prefer an emergentist cosmology in which the universe is drawn into Being by the attractive power of God, it is possible to see the overflowing of divine creative power, even with the brokenness that results, as leading to something deeper and richer and more complex than would ever have existed otherwise. And there are, in fact, powerful tendencies within Judaism which point in this direction, e.g. the rabbinic reading of the story of the “fall” in Genesis as an account of humanity leaving behind its childhood and embracing a mature spirituality of conscious responsibility for the world. Think of the Japanese art of Kitsugi which creates beauty by repairing broken pottery in a way that does not conceal but rather highlights the history of brokenness.

But this not the direction Chaya bat-Tzvi takes with her tradition. She is quite explicit in reading the Tikkun Olam as a return to original innocence. And this ultimately sets the stage for the way in which she (mis)understands revolution and the struggle for justice. We do not have to embrace technological Utopianism to reject its very undialectical opposite: blowing humanity quite literally back to the Stone Age. There are other alternatives.

All of which brings us to her mistakes in social analysis, in her understanding of the communist project, and in her political strategy. Chaya bat-Tzvi, following Heidegger, argues that technology is not neutral, but rather that it is inherently imperialistic, dependent on the exploitation of the planet of and the peoples of the Third World who “mine” that planet. The question, of course, is which technology? Industrial technology, which breaks down existing forms of organization, physical, biological, and social, to release energy and do work is, I agree, deeply problematic and threatens the integrity of the ecosystem and the social fabric —and would do so even if we found a way to extract the resources it requires without exploiting human labor. But there are other technologies, what I have elsewhere (Mansueto 2010, 2016) called hortic or neoalchemical, which tap into the latent potential of matter for complex organization, and catalyze its development. Such technologies offer us the possibility not just of a human future on this planet, but ultimately of finding a way to do more without exploiting either the planet or its inhabitants.

The continued progress of industrial technology, especially coupled with the now almost universal commodification of labor power, continues to erode what little remains of the precapitalist spiritual and communitarian traditions on which Chaya bat-Tzvi would stake the future of humanity. And it turns out that peasants around the planet are more willing to abandon their villages for the hope of a better future in the city than we would ever have imagined. And those who remain increasingly expect to share in at least many aspects of global consumer culture. The era of peasant wars, which Eric Wolf correctly argued were behind the great revolutions of the last century, may well be over. Even if it is not, since the neoliberal “coup” of 1978 there has been effective resolve on the part of Capital to resist them, and to develop the weapons necessary to do so. While rural insurgencies remain impossible or nearly impossible to definitively defeat, they are also no longer capable of victory simply by “surrounding the cities with the countryside.” The danger they posed to Capital was real, but Capital responded and won.

The “peasant wars of the twentieth century,” meanwhile, uniformly led to practices of socialist construction which centered on primitive accumulation on the back of the very peasantry which had made the revolution possible. Where peasant leaders (Zapata) or communist intellectuals (Bukharin) resisted such tendencies, they were rapidly eliminated. And where more recent indigenista and peasant movements, such as the neo-Zapatistas, have renounced the struggle for state power precisely in order to avoid such a trajectory, they have found themselves political marginalized and nearly irrelevant.

At the same time, we have significant evidence that the erosion of communitarian traditions, even in the cities and even in the so-called First World, is never complete. Parishes and congregations and synagogues, masjids and mandirs, sí and wats, miao and guan around the planet continue to be viable centers for not only spiritual but also for political resistance to Capital, as the persistence of congregation based organizing in the United States attests. And the old division between First World and Third World, center and periphery is no longer so clear. Incomes in much of Asia, Africa, and Latin America are rising as they stagnate or fall, especially for the working classes, in Europe, North America, and Japan. And even if capitalism does not create the socialist conditions for communism, in the form of a unified, class conscious working class, it does create contradictions which only communism can solve. Specifically, technological progress is rendering human labor power obsolete, threatening the whole structure of capitalism, which depends on a mass consumer class as well as a proletariat. Even certain elements in Capital, not willing to adopt full blown posthumanist annihilationism, are talking about a guaranteed basic income.

What of the communist project itself? Communism is not just a means of resolving the contradictions created by capitalism. It is an expression of deeply rooted human aspirations. And these aspirations are not just for survival. Nor are they for a return to original innocence. Fundamentally it is a question of creativity. This means, immediately, the autonomy of human creativity from scarcity and thus the burden of working simply to reproduce, rather than to create, as well as the freedom of human creativity from commodification and thus from subordination to market forces. But ultimately our creative drive is, as we have argued elsewhere (Mansueto 2016), fundamentally a drive towards theosis. We are the desire to be God. Marx (Marx 1844/1978) was quite clear on this: his “communism is” not just “the solution to the riddle of history” but also the “resolution of the contraction between Being and essence.”  Understood in the context of the broader history the dialectical tradition, for which God is the power of Being as such, for whom Being and Essence are identical, this means nothing less than full theosis. Marx was, as Bogdanov and Gorky and Lunacharsky argued, fundamentally a godbuilder (Rowley 1987).

There are, to be sure, serious questions which can be raised about this project, and especially about Marx’s specific strategy for its realization. There are, first of all, grave problems with technological efforts to transcend scarcity, problems which have nothing to do with the ecological damage caused by or the human exploitation involved in supporting industrial technology.  Intelligent machines which do our work for us are, in effect, slaves –a problem which Aristotle already recognized in his “defense” of slavery

For if every instrument could accomplish its own work, obeying or anticipating the will of others, like the statues of Daedalus, or the tripods of Hephaestus, which, says the poet,  “of their own accord entered the assembly of the Gods; ” if, in like manner, the shuttle would weave and the plectrum touch the lyre without a hand to guide them, chief workmen would not want servants, nor masters slaves. (Aristotle Politics 1.4).

Furthermore, is it even possible for a rational animal capable of the concept of the infinite to transcend scarcity? Won’t we –shouldn’t we—always aspire to more? Once all are fed and clothed and housed and transported, healed and educated, won’t there still be contradictions between those who want build cathedrals and those who want to build starships? Is such tension really a bad thing? I don’t think so. But it remains necessary to decide the optimum allocation of resources, and someone or everyone will be somewhat disappointed.

If, on the other hand, we take the Maoist and Third Worldist approach of shared poverty, and try to decommodify labor by transcending selfishness through political and ideological struggle, we create even more serious problems. A party compact and cohesive enough to be politically effective against Capital –much less to authentically make humanity the master of its own destiny, and thus transcend contingency– also undermines individual rational autonomy, creating contradictions within socialism which no party has yet been able to resolve. And the Cultural Revolution did not so much leverage Chinese spiritual traditions to create the spiritual conditions for communism as almost utterly destroy Chinese Civilization, leaving the country quite literally de-moral-ized[3].

It is, finally, by no means clear how the decommodification of labor, with or without technology that allows us to transcend scarcity, actually elevates humanity to the status of Being as such.  A great liberation, yes, and one worth fighting for. But it is not theosis. And we don’t yet know even how to get there –much less to the theosis which is our authentic vocation.

The Frankfurt School on which Chaya bat-Tzvi relies so heavily was profoundly aware of most, if not all, of these problems, and it is why, the relative success of popular front strategies as a road to power for the Communist Party notwithstanding, they were quite pessimistic about humanity’s prospects even after the defeat of fascism.

This brings, us finally, to Chaya bat-Tzvi’s strategic perspective. This is, to be fair, a less developed aspect of her analysis. But she does say that we need to “create the conditions for revolution) in both the Third World and the First, and mentions the name of Louis August Blanqui, known for his focus on the role of a small revolutionary elite in “overthrowing” capitalism and imposing a new social order from above, without any real mass base.  This amounts to a caricature in advance of Leninism which, whatever its other limitations, always understood that conscious leadership is exercised in relationship to a mass base (indeed, in relationship to a complex alliance between diverse constituencies).

This is not only wrong, it is dangerous.  Revolutionary elites of the sort envisioned by Blanqui and actually created by Lenin and his followers all derive from the humanistic intelligentsia. This is because the humanistic intelligentsia, privileged in other respects, feels most directly the deepest contradictions of capitalism, which constrain us by way of the commodification of labor power even if we are exploited lightly or not at all. The humanistic intelligentsia is the revolutionary vanguard of which Marx spoke, which alone understands the “conditions, line of march, and ultimate general result” of this historical process (Marx1848/1978).  But humanistic intellectuals are also first group targeted (closely followed by the peasantry) as socialist societies become the matrix for the formation of a new ruling class, whether we understand this, with Amin as statist or with Mao as capitalist. This suggests that even in alliance with the peasantry and working class the ability of the humanistic intelligentsia to build power has been limited. How will it do better on its own? Perhaps we need instead to ask why the aims of the humanistic intelligentsia have failed to capture the imagination of the other social classes they have proposed to lead. Perhaps the workers and peasants, even if they are not fully clear on why the decommodification of labor power is important, recognize that it is not the “solution to the riddle of history,” much less the resolution of the contradiction between Being and essence.” The resolution of that contradiction is a spiritual and not a political aim. It is precisely the cultivation of messianic expectations among the people, facilitated by confusion between the spiritual and the civilizational aims of communism that has allowed a section of the intelligentsia to constitute itself as a new ruling class and then liquidate the broader movement which brought it to power.


I would like to discuss briefly, in closing, the ways in which my current position reflects a change from the views expressed in “Religion, Solidarity, and Class Struggle (Mansueto 1988),” a paper which shares considerable common ground with the tendency Chaya bat-Tzvi represents. Some of these changes, to be sure, have nothing to do with Third Worlsim. Focused as I was on the already receding revolutionary tide in Latin America, at the time I wrote “Religion, Solidarity, and Class Struggle” I tended to emphasize the revolutionary potential of Christianity as against its deeply rooted tendency towards anti-semitism and it vulnerability to a univocal metaphysics, analysis of which have deepened and broadened my perspective since then. While I still believe that my claim that “atheism is a form of bourgeois ideology” has significant merit (because, from a Durkheimian perspective, the idea of God is a reflex of social structure, and atheism thus reflects a rejection of social solidarity) I am more conscious now of the many meanings of atheism (atheism of the intellect, driven by authentic doubt, as opposed to atheism of the will, driving by a desire to be free to exploit; nihilistic atheism which denies ultimate meaning versus Buddhist and para-Buddhist atheisms, which find meaning by the via negative or apophatic way, in the interdependent origination of all things).

But it is my more nuanced understanding of “the peasant wars of the twentieth century” which is most significant to this discussion. In 1988 I still largely accepted Samir Amin’s arguments regarding the articulation of the relationship between class and nation, and thus saw the Third World national liberation movements as the cutting edge of the struggle for socialism (though I still argued for the existence of a strategic reserve for this movement among the working classes of the imperial centers, sustained more by their spiritual and communitarian traditions than by their economic situation).

I continue to believe that precapitalist spiritual and communitarian traditions are an important reservoir or wisdom and solidarity for humanity, and will contribute significantly to charting the next steps in the human civilizational project. But the “socialist revolutions” which “succeeded” –largely on the basis of the support of peasants motivated by the spiritual and communitarian traditions– were not really about a transition to communism. For the peasants they were about defending a traditional way of life threatened by the penetration of capitalist relations into the countryside. And for the leaders (at least those who survived), they were ultimately about primitive accumulation, industrialization and national development.

Furthermore, the “socialist consciousness” possible on the basis of peasant traditions turns out to have had significant limitations. Specifically, there was little or nothing in these traditions to support the aspiration either for rational autonomy. Liberal rights are never enough, and liberal theory does a very bad job of grounding these rights. But without liberal rights neither democracy nor communism are possible. It is not surprising that to the extent that actually existing socialisms succeeded in creating the social conditions under which such aspirations could emerge, they have found expression in support for “capitalist restorations” which seemed to offer more freedom than actually existing socialisms, and not just for elites.

We jettison either the traditional spiritual/communitarian or the liberal roots of the communist project at our peril.

None of this is to suggest that we cannot and should not try to approach communism as closely as we can, both through (hortic) technological progress which may change the discussion around scarcity in important ways and by drawing on spiritual disciplines, old and new, to help cultivate virtue and promote humanity’s growth towards the theosis it desires. But this is a very longue dureé project. And we do not advance it by talk about “ending history” through some sort of unspecified Blanquist provocation dressed up as messianic expectation. We cannot simply create the conditions for revolution in either the First or the Third Worlds. Those conditions mature over time, and when the “revolution” comes it may well not look very revolutionary at all.

For now, our task is to resist the Dark Enlightenment and the accellerationist/traditionalist coalition it is building, something that requires a broad popular front between partisans of all authentically humanistic traditions, liberal, democratic, and communist, as well as those who follow the various axial ways[4], while we continue to work patiently, hidden, ripening Being and preparing for the time when something like an authentic communism becomes possible. This is not social democracy or centrism. It is the authentically communist position —the stance of a maturing communism which knows that its time has not yet come, but will. It is the position which Benjamin would have taken had he seen fascism’s farcical reprise. And it is what the Tzadikim who Chaya bat-Tzvi so rightly reveres have been doing for millennia.



Amin, Samir. 1979/1980. Class and Nation, Historically and in the Current Crisis. New York: Monthly  Review.

Aristotle. c. 350 BCE/1946.   Politics, trans. Ernest Barker. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Jaspers, Karl. 1953. The Origin and Goal of History. New Haven: Yale University Press

Mansueto, Anthony. 1988       “Religion, Solidarity, and Class Struggle,” in Social Compass XXXV:2

———. 2010. The Death of Secular Messianisms. Eugene, OR: Cascade

———. 2016. The Ways of Wisdom. Eugene, OR: Cascade

Marx, Karl.

———. 1844/1978. Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts. New York: Norton.

———. 1848/1978.    The Communist Manifesto, in Marx-Engels Reader. New York: Norton.

Rowley, David. 1987. Millenarian Bolshevism. New York: Garland

Silberman, Neil Asher.  1998. Heavenly Powers. New York: Grosset-Putnam

Wolf, Eric. 1969. Peasant Wars of the Twentieth Century. New York: Harper



[1] By “Third Worldism,” in this context, we mean the doctrine that the principal or even exclusive mass base for socialist revolution is to be located in the oppressed peoples of Asia, Africa, and Latin America, and not in the working classes generally. It includes, but is not limited to, Mao’s Three Worlds Theory, according to which the Soviet Union represented not a socialist sphere evolving, however, imperfectly, towards communism, but rather a rising imperialist power and the “principal enemy of the peoples of the earth.” In practice, though, after China’s turn towards the United States in the 1970s, most Third World liberation movements had Soviet rather than Chinese sponsorship and advocates of the Three Worlds Theory joined disillusioned Trotskyists as strategic reserves the US counterinsurgency apparatus. The most intelligent and rigorous statement of the Third Worldist position remains Samir Amin’s Class and Nation, Historically and in the Present Period (Amin 1978/1980).

[2]  Marx understood class not in terms of privilege (which is really a status claim), or even in terms of exploitation, but rather in terms of position in the relations of production. Under capitalism this means that class is determined not by income or even by whether or not one “contributes” or consumes surplus value, but by whether or not one is forced to sell one’s labor power in order to survive and thus whether or not one suffers the alienation of labor associated with the wage relation. It is precisely class contradictions understood in this sense which are now come to the fore, as technological progress makes human labor obsolete and the value of labor power to falls towards zero, both because the declining value of labor power threatens a catastrophic crisis of underconsumption, and because the possibility of liberating humanity from noncreative labor is, for the first time, quite possibly on the horizon.

[3] It is worth commenting briefly in this context on Chaya bat-Tvzi’s claim that Mao was a Taoist sage. Are there Taoist elements in Mao Zedong Thought?  Of course there are. Mao was Chinese. But there are also powerful Legalist elements (power grows from the barrel of gun). His vision of a vastly simplified society focused on meeting the most basic material needs of the people, without investment in ritual and high culture, was distinctly Mohist. While Mao attacked Confucius, he expected members of the party to show a deference to their “leadership” which was deeply rooted in Confucian culture and employed Confucian categories quite explicitly in analyzing the principal relationships of human society. And the overall character of the movement he led was more nearly in the Xiantiando (the way of the former heaven) tradition than in the vein of any of China’s axial traditions.

[4] The reference here is to the traditions deriving from the Axial Age, the period of religious problematization, rationalization, and democratization between 800 and 200 BCE which saw the birth of Judaism and Hellenism, Upanishadic Hinduism and Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism (Jaspers 1953).


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