Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Third World & After

by Ian Birchall, New Left Review

The Third World ascended like a sky-rocket—and fell like the proverbial stick. [1] Invented by Alfred Sauvy in 1952, in an article in L’Observateur entitled ‘Three Worlds, One Planet’, the termtiers monde became central to the discourse of the European left (including this journal) by the 1960s. While the long post-war boom seemed to have taken the fight out of the metropolitan working class, revolutions from China to Cuba, and national liberation struggles from Algeria to Vietnam, inspired a new generation. Hồ Chí Minh and Che Guevara became heroes, and the writings of Frantz Fanon and Régis Debray were eagerly studied. Yet by the end of the seventies the news from Pol Pot’s Cambodia had crushed the illusions of the sixties generation; the advances of globalization seemed to make the very notion of a ‘Third World’ obsolete. Today the term is considered outdated and derogatory.

Nowhere did Third Worldism take on such dramatic form as in France, which from 1946 to 1962 was in a nearly permanent state of colonial war, in Indochina and then in Algeria. After 1962 it took three decades before the full horrific truth could be faced; only in 1999 was it officially acknowledged that there had been a ‘war’ in Algeria. That France is still haunted by its colonial past is shown by such films as Alain Tasma’s Nuit noire (2005) and Rachid Bouchareb’s Hors-la-loi(2010), and novels like Jérôme Ferrari’s Where I Left My Soul (2010). Perhaps the most vivid depiction comes in Alexis Jenni’s 2011 Goncourt-winning novel L’art français de la guerre, which traces the odyssey of a single soldier from the Resistance, through Indochina and Algeria, to the violent banlieue of Lyon. There is a huge literature on the subject, but one of the most comprehensive and dispassionate treatments of the impact of Third Worldism on the French left intelligentsia has come from Germany, a nation that never suffered the trauma of decolonization. Christoph Kalter’s carefully researched study (with a bibliography of over nine hundred books and articles) Die Entdeckung der Dritten Welt offers a detailed account of how ideas of the Third World developed on the French left, in the process remaking it.

Kalter traces the theories and debates that inspired and challenged the left in France from the 1950s to the 1970s, in successive discussions of the emergence and fortunes of the category of ‘the Third World’; the respective orientations of the main forces on the French left in the last years of French colonialism and the rise of a ‘radical new left’; the role of ‘the politics of memory’ with its rhetoric of ‘fascism’ and ‘resistance’; the special role of the Maspero publishing house and in particular its journal, Partisans; and the formation of the United Socialist Party (PSU) and the associated centre for the study of the Third World, CEDETIM. A concluding chapter elicits the main problems that faced the left in this period, or that were posed by it, above all the range and character of revolution in the later twentieth century. Kalter has written a ‘history of ideas’, but a resolutely materialist one. Ideas about the Third World took shape inside the skulls of women and men who were trying to unite theory and practice, sometimes at considerable personal risk, as with those who ‘carried suitcases’ for the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN). While individuals like Sartre and Fanon are well known, their writings and actions only achieve full significance when placed in the context of hundreds of other lesser-known (now often forgotten) thinkers and activists. Kalter restores some of these individuals to the historical record.

It was a time of collective action. Individuals were involved in rallies, demonstrations, conferences, research centres; they joined the groupuscules of the far left or mainstream political parties. For ideas to circulate they had to be published; Kalter gives considerable attention to the mechanisms of publication. He looks in detail at the political and financial constraints on publishing, and notably at the difficulties faced by publishing houses and bookshops during the Algerian war, when they faced both state censorship and physical attacks from right-wing elements. At the same time, he links the history of the French left to the wider history of decolonization and of political and cultural globalization. In this way, Kalter has produced a genuinely materialist history, in which ideas are not lost or submerged in anecdotal details, but are given their true significance by being placed in historical and material context. His book bears comparison with the best works in the genre, for example Alan Wald’s The New York Intellectuals, and makes a welcome change from the approach of historians such as Tony Judt, who seem much more concerned to condemn the French left than to understand its complexities.

France’s reluctant, blood-stained retreat from an Empire second in size only to the British marked a whole historical period running from the mid-fifties to the election of Mitterrand in 1981. Kalter compares the significance of the ‘discovery’ of the Third World, the Entdeckung forced on Europe by the national-liberation struggles of the time, to the discovery of America five hundred years earlier: both forced Europe to reassess its place in the world. Decolonization had a major effect on the French left, and is one of the factors that explains the social explosion of 1968—some of the leading activists of 1968 had originally been radicalized by activity in solidarity with the Algerian liberation struggle. Kalter rejects the so-called ‘minimal-impact thesis’ argued by historian Charles-Robert Ageron, which claims that most French people were uninformed about and indifferent to the Third World. French perceptions of it developed in an international context. The American war in Vietnam was of great importance; the Tet offensive of 1968, which showed just how vulnerable the world’s greatest military power was, raised expectations; demonstrations in support of the Vietnamese fed directly into the 1968 student insurrection. So too did the widespread image of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, and the fact of the continuing Cold War. The Third World seemed to offer an alternative to both Western imperialism and the Second World of ‘actually existing socialism’.

If Sauvy’s term ‘Third World’ gained instant popularity, what it actually meant was rather less clear. It implied an analogy with the ‘Third Estate’ of the French Revolution, and hence, for the French republican tradition, acquired connotations of ‘a heroic struggle for liberty, equality and fraternity’. Growing awareness of Third World poverty called into question the myth of France’s ‘civilizing mission’ in its colonial territories. The idea acquired differing meanings in different contexts. On the one hand were the varying theories of economists and sociologists; on the other there were activists, from Catholics to Maoists, trying to integrate the idea into their political practice. For some there was the idea of the so-called ‘developing countries’—societies that were still steeped in poverty, but which, with hard work, could eventually catch up with their richer neighbours. Others held the view that ‘underdevelopment’ was a product of global capitalism, and that the underdeveloped countries would remain underdeveloped as long as global capitalism survived. Thus, much of the debate about the Third World consisted of trying to establish exactly what the term meant.

However, by the 1980s the concept was becoming increasingly problematic. Some of the more naive illusions about the Third World’s potential for spearheading world revolution had perished as a result of developments in China and Indochina. The Third World was becoming increasingly diversified, with Asian tigers leaping ahead while other zones stagnated. Today the image of the Third World is on the one hand poverty and need, on the other the danger of terrorism. At the same time, the notion of globalization was becoming ever more prominent; and for theorists of this phenomenon there was only one world—the Third World was neither the problem nor the solution. If Third Worldism had undermined a Eurocentric view of the planet, a concept of globalization was able to both integrate and replace its insights. As Kalter notes, the French left’s concern with the Third World contained much that was positive, but there had also been a sentimental, psychological aspect, rooted in feelings of guilt and even European self-hatred. As he puts it: ‘Together with the Third World as a place of utopia, the activists also buried the self-deceptions that had allowed them to overlook social inequalities, oppression and war in those non-European countries they had admired as an alternative model of society.’

Yet despite the problematic and contradictory nature of the concept, Third Worldism was undoubtedly a substantial force within the French left between 1944 and 1968. At Liberation, France had not one but two mass parties of the working class, the Socialists (SFIO) and the Communists (PCF). As far as the colonial question was concerned, the SFIO was tainted from the very outset. Its thinking was deeply influenced by the republican tradition and notably by the idea of laïcité, or secularism, which to the present day is exploited to legitimate Islamophobia. As Kalter rightly points out, French imperialism was a project not of the right but of the republican left. (Jules Ferry, pioneer of secular education in the Third Republic, was one of the Empire’s founding fathers.) It was under SFIO leader Mollet’s premiership that the Algerian war escalated, with the increasingly systematic use of torture and execution without trial. The PCF, founded in 1920, had a far superior tradition. The Communist International required its affiliates to support ‘every liberation movement in the colonies not only in words but in deeds’. Among early members of the PCF were Hồ Chí Minh (who edited the journal Le Paria) and Messali Hadj, pioneer of Algerian nationalism; the seeds of both the Indochinese and the Algerian wars were sown in Paris. Unfortunately, in the post-war period the PCF did not live up to its traditions: in 1956 the party’s deputies voted in support of the Mollet government’s ‘special powers’ for the Algerian situation.

Outside the two mass parties were a number of small groupings and journals trying to find a path independent of both social-democratic reformism and Stalinism. These included anarchists, Trotskyists, left Catholics and other currents such as the network around Sartre’s journal Les Temps modernes (and from 1963 onwards, Maoists as well). The later fifties then saw the emergence of a radical new left in France, in response to the triple crisis of Suez, Hungary and Algeria. This was a heterogeneous milieu, with no clearly defined unifying line or doctrine, grouped around a number of publications. But it attracted those opposed to the Algerian war, and support for Third World struggles was a common theme. It was this new left milieu that produced most of the writers and activists who made substantial contributions to the discovery of the Third World. At the same time, the events of 1968 recharged its impetus, and many of the newly radicalized students and lycéens undoubtedly found inspiration in Third World struggles, especially the Chinese Cultural Revolution, the Cuban Revolution and the war in Vietnam. (As Kalter notes, the events of May–June, culminating in a general strike involving ten million workers, revived the belief of many leftists in ‘the historical mission of the working class’, which had been denied in Third-Worldist rhetoric.)

Several factors contributed to French Third Worldism. One was what has been called the ‘politics of memory’. A whole generation had been marked by the experience of the German Occupation from 1940 to 1944. Many of those who took an active part in opposing the colonial wars in Indochina and Algeria had themselves been involved in the anti-Nazi Resistance, or had vivid family memories. The left-wing publisher François Maspero’s older brother was shot by the Germans, his father died in Buchenwald and his mother survived Ravensbrück. So a small minority of activists came to the bitter realization that France’s occupation of its colonies was directly comparable to what the German occupiers had done to France. There was a grim symbolism in the fact that on 8 May 1945, the day of the Allied victory in Europe, events in Sétif led to a massacre of at least 15,000 Algerians. One small leftist paper—Ohé Partisans—described Sétif as an Algerian Oradour-sur-Glane (the French village where Nazis murdered over 600 people in 1944). Over the following years such comparisons were to become commonplace. In 1950 the Martiniquan poet Aimé Césaire published his Discourse on Colonialism, arguing that Nazism was not an aberration but the logical consequence of Western civilization. Even before the Algerian war broke out, journalist Claude Bourdet (a survivor of German concentration camps) pointedly inquired whether there was a Gestapo in Algeria. At the time of the siege of Điện Biên Phủ in 1954, which put an end to the French war in Indochina, the Vietnamese (on the advice of a French soldier who had gone over) played the famous Resistance song Le Chant des partisansover loudspeakers to the besieged French forces.

The rhetoric of resistance thus became an important component of French Third Worldism. It enabled opponents of the colonial wars to discredit the state by comparisons with Nazism. It ensured that the new left would call for victory in Vietnam (rather than the ‘peace’ called for by the PCF). And in the long term the argument was carried. In 1991 a poll showed that 85 per cent of French people between the ages of seventeen and thirty (i.e. with no memory of the war period) believed that ‘the Algerians fighting for their independence are comparable to the French Resistance fighters of the Second World War’. No wonder the French right attempted to compel history teachers to stress the ‘positive values’ of colonialism. The sense of continuity between the Resistance and active support for the Algerian liberation struggle was very real; Francis Jeanson, who organized the best-known solidarity network, had himself been a member of the Resistance. Yet as Kalter points out, the left was often guilty of oversimplification. Much of what was done in Algeria (and indeed on the streets of Paris at the time of the massacre of demonstrating Algerians in October 1961) was indeed comparable to the worst Nazi atrocities. But was it legitimate to move from there to characterizing French imperialism as ‘fascist’? Indeed, the comparison between fascism and imperialism was usually a matter of polemical rhetoric rather than serious theoretical analysis—and, as Kalter points out, the left in general was contrastingly uncritical with respect to the methods used by liberation movements.

In 1958 the Fourth Republic collapsed, and Charles de Gaulle came to power, imprinting his authoritarian style on the institutions of the new Fifth Republic. But he was in no way a fascist, and those on the left who saw him as one fundamentally misunderstood the situation. As for the right-wing settlers and army officers who fought a lastditch murderous struggle to keep Algeria French, they may have been fascistminded, but they had no chance of success, however much destruction they were able to wreak. De Gaulle represented the interests of French capital, which had decided to evacuate Algeria. Paradoxically the right also adopted the rhetoric of anti-fascism, describing Algerian nationalists as the new Nazis. As Kalter points out, this was already being argued at the time of the Muslim rising at Sétif. The myth of ‘Islamofascism’ can be traced back to 1945.
The rhetoric of fascism again emerged in 1968. But, as Kalter shows, in going so far as to compare themselves to Jewish victims of the Holocaust or Vietnamese victims of US bombing, students revealed an element of self-deception that seems to have been an integral part of Third Worldist politics. The ‘politics of memory’ is still very much with us. Kalter cites a 2005 statement by the Indigènes de la République (an anti-racist organization latterly constituted as a party) in which they declare themselves ‘the heirs of those French people who resisted Nazi barbarism and of all those who took the side of the oppressed’.

For Third Worldist ideas to spread they required material embodiment, above all in the printed word, and Kalter draws particular attention to the role of the publisher François Maspero. Maspero owned a small Left Bank bookshop, La Joie de Lire, which in the 1960s was no peaceful haven for bibliophiles: in 1961 it sheltered Algerians from attack by a murderous Paris police force, and in 1968 it was tear-gassed for sheltering students from those same police. Maspero also ran a publishing house that became a mouthpiece for the Third World in France. His publication in 1961 of Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, with Sartre’s celebrated preface, was a historic landmark. In the course of the Algerian war no fewer than thirteen Maspero titles were banned. If the new left formed a view of the Third World, it was from reading such authors as Mao, Guevara, Debray, Fanon and many others, and often it would be in volumes published by Maspero or in the journal which Maspero launched in 1961, Partisans.
Alongside Sartre’s Les Temps modernesPartisans was one of the most influential journals of the sixties, helping to develop the world-view of many of the activists who played a leading role in 1968. It covered many areas of radical thought, from psychoanalysis to theatre, but it was born of the struggles against the Algerian war and gave particular attention to the Third World. It published both French writers analysing the experience of Third World movements and writers hitherto unknown in France who gave a voice to the parts of the world now commonly designated by that term. Its inspirations, in addition to the Algerian struggle, were the (somewhat romanticized) Cuban Revolution and the Vietnamese fight for independence, and it gave particular attention to guerrilla movements in Latin America. Combining, as Kalter notes, the political and the theoretical, the polemical and the emotional, the pragmatic and the utopian, Partisans was a vital voice—but it was also an unsteady one. Often the journal seemed to veer between a voluntaristic optimism and a pessimism bred of earlier illusions. In 1969 it entitled an issue ‘The Vietnamese people on the eve of victory’. But the war dragged on and disillusion set in rapidly. The struggle had not created ‘two, three, many Vietnams’, as Guevara had urged; it had not spread revolution from the periphery to Europe. Imperialism had learnt how to integrate and neutralize resistance. Partisans ceased to appear in 1972; not long after, Maspero’s bookshop was sold, and the publishing house changed hands in 1983.

The anti-imperialist left required not only publications but political organization. In 1960 the pressures of the Algerian war led to the creation of a new party of the left—the United Socialist Party (PSU). This brought together those who had left the SFIO because they could not stomach Mollet’s Algerian policy, activists from the hitherto loosely organized ‘new left’ (including left Catholics) and a few former Communist dissidents. Opposition to the Algerian war provided the main organizing focus. The PSU often employed revolutionary rhetoric, and former Trotskyists like Pierre Naville and Yvan Craipeau played a significant role in the organization. At the same time, however, it functioned as part of the political mainstream, contesting elections and attracting career politicians, notably former Prime Minister Pierre Mendès-France (though the organization had the good sense to refuse an application from François Mitterrand). It played a significant and creditable role on the left throughout the sixties, notably in 1968, but went into decline in the seventies when many of its members (including future Prime Minister Michel Rocard) left to join Mitterrand’s new Socialist Party.

The PSU had been quick to develop contacts with liberation movements around the world, notably in Africa, Palestine and the Portuguese colonies. The principal manifestation of this was the founding, in 1967, of the CEDETIM (Centre Socialiste d’Études et de Documentation sur le Tiers Monde), which was formally independent of the PSU, but in practice very closely linked. TheCEDETIM aimed to unite theory and practice and to avoid the Third-Worldist romanticism that would lead to so much disillusion in the 1970s. It argued for ‘cooperation’ rather than aid, and maintained that the development of the Third World would harm world capitalism and thus advance the cause of socialism in the West. It set up small groups in various Third World countries, including Sihanouk’s Cambodia, with limited success, and produced a publication calledLibération Afrique (now refounded as an online forum). CEDETIM also took a particular interest in immigrant workers, whom one of its leading activists, Elisabeth Courdurier, described as ‘our Third World which has arrived chez nous’. It supported migrant workers’ struggles, and the PSU, wisely, argued for workers’ unity and against separate unions for immigrant workers, even if it was unable to resolve the conflicting claims of universalism and particularism that now arose—persisting in France and elsewhere into the present day.

French Third Worldism belonged to a specific historical moment that came between the end of the colonial empires and the beginning of globalization, with increased travel and a worldwide media. The Third Worldists both reflected and, in their ideas and activities, contributed to this transition, leaving a legacy that remains today. They raised a number of crucial questions for the left. Had the locus of revolution shifted from the First to the Third World, or would struggles in the non-metropolitan zones provide an inspiration and a challenge that might revive working-class struggle in the West? Did the working class remain the central agency of socialist revolution, or would it be replaced by the Third World peasantry? How had imperialism changed and what were the new mechanisms by which the Third World continued to be exploited? There were no easy answers. As Kalter shows, the legacy of Third Worldism was contradictory.
The Third World was indeed a discovery; it demolished the racist myth of Europe’s ‘civilizing mission’, and made the French left rethink its global perspective. Those sections of the French left that remain implicated in Islamophobia could do much worse than revisit the internationalist thought of the 1960s and 1970s. Yet the Third World was also a disappointment. The reasons why hopes were not fulfilled are complex, but the romanticism of the left was an important factor. Third Worldism had psychological as well as political roots; the illusions indulged in go a long way towards explaining subsequent disenchantment. For some militants, struggles in the Third World offered what the late Tony Cliff used to refer to as ‘vicarious pleasure’.

Kalter tells a fascinating story. But it is not the whole account. While he gives a balanced assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of the French Third Worldists, he omits some of those who came closest to achieving the clarity required. In the first place, Les Temps modernes, the journal founded by Sartre and Merleau-Ponty in 1945, deserves systematic analysis rather than passing references. Paige Arthur’s Unfinished Projects (2010) has given us the first full treatment in English of Sartre’s writings on decolonization, and Kalter’s book in some respects provides a complement to it, by giving the context in which Sartre and his circle were writing. Les Temps modernes opposed the war in Indochina from the beginning, at a time whenPCF ministers were still in government. In 1953 it published Daniel Guérin’s powerful article ‘Pitié pour le Maghreb’, which foresaw the bloody conflict to come in Algeria. Two years later, rejecting the official fiction that the country was an integral part of France, the journal described it as a ‘colony’ subject to ‘the most obvious exploitation’, and came close to urging soldiers to fraternize with the enemy. It campaigned consistently against the war, being seized by the authorities in Algeria no fewer than four times in 1957.

Sartre himself played a significant role in encouraging opposition to the Algerian war, notably through his preface to Henri Alleg’s account of torture at the hands of French paratroops and by signing the 1960 Manifesto of 121, which supported those taking direct action in support of the Algerian liberation struggle. He worked closely with other currents, contributing prefaces to two Maspero books. Other members of the Temps modernes team were heavily involved: as early as 1952, Henri Moscat and Marcel Péju wrote a pioneering article on North African workers in France; and Francis Jeanson, managing editor of the journal from 1951 to 1956, organized the best-known support network for the FLN.

Kalter also says little about some of the most percipient analyses of the struggle against imperialism. Guérin, an intransigent anti-imperialist over six decades, gets a few passing mentions, but does not merit inclusion in the index. Guérin had developed links with the movement for independence in Indochina back in the 1930s, but in 1946 he personally challenged Hồ Chí Minh over the killing of Trotskyist Tạ Thu Thâu by Vietnamese Communists in 1945. Likewise, he campaigned tirelessly for Algerian independence from the beginning of the war, but was highly critical of the fratricidal struggle waged by the FLN against its rival, the Mouvement National Algérien, which had substantial support among Algerian workers in mainland France.

In 1947 Les Temps modernes carried an article by the young philosopher Claude Lefort on the war in Indochina, in which he deployed a combination of existentialism and Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution to attack the mechanical version of Marxism that saw history as a series of predetermined stages. He made a sharp criticism of the Indochinese Communists for abandoning the revolutionary opportunities available in the post-war period—and drew a vigorous reply from the Vietnamese philosopher Trần Ðức Thảo, who defended the policies of the Việt Minh. Lefort went on to help form the Socialisme ou Barbarie group, a breakaway from French Trotskyism, which was always minute in size, but made some of the most innovatory analyses of modern capitalism in the 1950s. Another member of the group was Jean-François Lyotard—now remembered chiefly as a post-modernist philosopher. Lyotard wrote a series of articles for the group’s journal, Socialisme ou barbarie, in which he analysed the nature of the FLN, which he saw as providing the peasant masses with a leadership originating in the petty bourgeoisie. The nature of the war meant that the organization was effectively becoming a new, bureaucratic class: as early as 1957 he argued (in an analysis that has been commended by the historian and one-time leading FLN activist Mohammed Harbi) that ‘the FLN is now already preparing itself for the role of being the managing stratum in Algerian society’. At the same time, nevertheless, Lyotard belonged to the minority in Socialisme ou Barbarie who argued in favour of concrete support for the FLN. He was actively involved in the Henri Curiel support network, something his organization was unaware of at the time. Such a combination of practical solidarity and lucid analysis was rare on the French far left. The discovery of the Third World in a period of bitter struggles for national liberation required both commitment and lucidity, a pairing summed up in the old slogan ‘unconditional but not uncritical support’. Alongside some of those whose activity has been chronicled by Kalter, Guérin, Lefort and Lyotard also deserve their place in the story.

[1] Christoph Kalter, Die Entdeckung der Dritten Welt, Campus Verlag: Frankfurt am Main 2011, €45, paperback 566 pp, 978 3 593 39480 0