The “third world” seems a distant place under the rule of “neoliberal” capitalism. And yet the term once conveyed not denigration or humiliation, but revolution, the revolutions of colonised peoples against an arrogant and brutal colonial and neocolonial “first world”. The siren calls of third world revolution have perhaps fallen into oblivion today, but they once echoed in all of the capitals of europe’s metropoles and throughout the world. It was china, cuba, ghana, algeria and vietnam that inflamed the imagination of many; it was the names of Mao Tse Tung, Che Guevara, Kwame Nkrumah, Ben Bella and Ho Chi Minh that echoed in countless demonstrations and protests in support of anti-colonial, socialist revolution; protests that would in turn give animus to social movements in the first world.
On April 30, 1975, the government of south vietnam fell to the vietnamese National Liberation Front, or Viet Cong, bringing to a close thirty years of war against the armed forces of the united states and its puppet regime in Saigon. The scale of the military victory has perhaps been forgotten. But in 1975, what a largely united people managed was the defeat of the most powerful army in the world; indeed, its first defeat. Between 1964 and 1973, 3 million american soldiers would be sent to combat in vietnam. Almost 60,000 would never return, and some 150,000 would commit suicide once home in the years to follow, with an additional 300,000 suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and an equal number crippled and mutilated. The u.s. military would drop 7,800,000 tons of bombs on the country (extending the campaign in turn to laos and cambodia), twice the total of all the bombs dropped during the second world war, along with widespread use of napalm and chemical defoliants. And yet they failed. Vietnam would count a million dead.
This is not to celebrate blindly the heroic discourse of the vietnamese communist party, but rather to testify to the extraordinary courage and creativity of a resistant people. If the historical erasure of this defeat by successive u.s. governments is comprehensible, the political appropriation of the victory by the vietnamese regime, today set on a path of authoritarian state capitalism, is equally to be lamented.
The historic error, the immense tragedy, of the third world revolutions was their nationalism, their submission or collapse before single party state rule, their understanding of revolution as passing necessarily through the conquest of state power and the creation nationalist state blocks, their state driven developmentalist economic politics, which decades later, if any vestige of the revolutions survive, offer but a variant of global capitalism. The remarkable participation and organisation of peoples was thus swept away by centralising authorities that quickly replaced revolution with the violence of state building and capital accumulation. This should never serve though to warrant the forgetting of the promises of the movements that sadly engendered these states, nor the possibilities that they made reality for so many.
Walter Benjamin once wrote that in every revolutionary moment, the ghosts of past revolutions make themselves present. Let us then not condemn to oblivion the dreams of the “third world”.
For a history of vietenamese revolutionary resistance to colonialism before the u.s. intervention and Ho Chi Minh’s consolidation of power in north vietnam, see Ngo Van Xuyet’s In the crossfire, at libcom.org.
(All statistical information was taken from a special issue of the newspaper l’Humanité, 30/04/2015)