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The term “Third World” emerged during a period when the two “superpower” blocs (the United States and the Soviet Union, along with their respective allies) were engaged in a “cold war.”Large parts of the rest of the world, which had no interest in the essentially esoteric ideological issues of this “war” were manipulated into alignment with one or the other of the blocs (Flora Lewis, 1979).

The independence movement led to the emergence of a series of countries that did not belong to the Western bloc or the Soviet bloc. These countries had various features in common, including underdevelopment and rapid demographic growth, and they became known collectively as the ‘Third World’, an expression coined by French economist and demographer Alfred Sauvy in 1952.

In the 1950s, five newly independent Asian countries (India, Pakistan, Ceylon, Burma and Indonesia) took the initiative to rally the Third-World countries to form a united front against colonisation. On 17 April 1955, the first Afro–Asian Conference was held in Bandung in a bid by Third-World countries to consolidate their position on the international stage.

The idea of the Third World, which is usually traced to the late 1940s or early 1950s, was increasingly used to try and generate unity and support among an emergent group of nation-states whose governments were reluctant to take sides in the Cold War. These leaders and governments sought to displace the ‘East–West’ conflict with the ‘North–South’ conflict. The rise of Third Worldism in the 1950s and 1960s was closely connected to a range of national liberation projects and specific forms of regionalism in the erstwhile colonies of Asia and Africa, as well as the former mandates and new nation-states of the Middle East, and the ‘older’ nation-states of Latin America. Exponents of Third Worldism in this period linked it to national liberation and various forms of Pan-Asianism, Pan-Arabism, Pan-Africanism and Pan-Americanism. The weakening or demise of the first generation of Third Worldist regimes in the 1960s and 1970s coincided with or was followed by the emergence of a second generation of Third Worldist regimes that articulated a more radical, explicitly socialist, vision. A moderate form of Third Worldism also became significant at the United Nations in the 1970s: it was centred on the call for a New International Economic Order (nieo). By the 1980s, however, Third Worldism had entered into a period of dramatic decline. With the end of the Cold War, some movements, governments and commentators have sought to reorient and revitalise the idea of a Third World, while others have argued that it has lost its relevance. This introductory article provides a critical overview of the history of Third Worldism, while clarifying both its constraints and its appeal. As a world-historical movement, Third Worldism (in both its first and second generation modalities) emerged out of the activities and ideas of anti-colonial nationalists and their efforts to mesh highly romanticised interpretations of pre-colonial traditions and cultures with the utopianism embodied by Marxism and socialism specifically, and ‘Western’ visions of modernisation and development more generally. Apart from the problems associated with combining these different strands, Third Worldism also went into decline because of the contradictions inherent in the process of decolonisation and in the new international politico-economic order, in the context of the changing character, and eventual end, of the global political economy of the Cold War.

The Origin of the Third World


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