What Was the Third World Revolution?

What Was the Third World Revolution?

I begin with a passage from a 1954 essay of Irving Howe’s, reprinted in the recent Fifty Years of Dissent volume, called, premonitorily enough, “The Problem of U.S. Power”:

The central fact [he writes] is that we continue to live in a revolutionary age. The revolutionary impulse has been contaminated, corrupted, debased, demoralized; it has been appropriated by the enemies of socialism. All true. But the energy behind that revolutionary impulse remains. Now it bursts out in one part of the world, now in another. It cannot be suppressed entirely. Everywhere except in the United States, millions of human beings, certainly the majority of those with any degree of political articulateness, live for some kind of social change. The workers of Europe are consciously anti-capitalist, the populations of Asia and South America [and he might have added, the Middle East and Africa] anti-imperialist. These are the dominant energies of our time and whoever gains control of them, whether in legitimate or distorted forms, will triumph.

Between 1945 and 1965, about fifty-four, depending on how you count, new, independent states, with borders, capitals, armies, leaders, policies, and names appeared in the world. Between 1965 and the end of the century, depending again a bit on how, and whom, you count, fifty-seven more appeared. All the major colonial empires-British; Dutch; French; Spanish; Portuguese; American; German; Australian; and, via the Pacific war, the Japanese; via the collapse of communism, the Russian-dissolved, most relatively peacefully, a few-India, Algeria, the Belgian Congo, the East Indies, Kenya, Indo-China-amid spastic outbursts of generalized violence. An international system, with sixty or so officially recognized players (forty-two countries were members of the League of Nations at its start; another sixteen joined later, and one has to add the United States and a couple of other recalcitrants) was succeeded by one with, by the most recent UN membership count, a hundred and ninety-one. The world resegmented, refounded, and reformatted in the space of a few decades. It was, clearly, some sort of revolution. But what sort-what it was that was turned around, and in which directions-was, and still is, imperfectly understood.

Indeed, its thrust and import, what it signifies for our common future, seems less clear today than it did at its outset, when the infinite grandeur of beginnings that attends all mold-breaking political transformations in the modern age clothed it in a dense symbology of selfhood, progress, solidarity, and liberation. In the Bandung Days of the late 1950s and early 1960s, the charismatic hero-leaders-Nehru, Sukarno, Nasser, Nkrumah, Ben Bella, Kenyatta, Ho, Azikwe, Lumumba, Nyerere, ...