Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

John Williams

Some Brief Comments on the Debate Over the Theory of Three Worlds

First Printed: Discussion Bulletin, #4, July 13, 1979.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
Copyright: This work is in the Public Domain under the Creative Commons Common Deed. You can freely copy, distribute and display this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit the Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line as your source, include the url to this work, and note any of the transcribers, editors & proofreaders above.

The following comments stem from a reading of some of the relevant literature and from the discussion at the M.I.S. meeting (M.I.S. – Movement for Independence and Socialism is a Melbourne based organization). I have steered away from the tendency to quote Marxist-Leninist authorities, not because their thoughts and analysis are not important, but because using their concepts and modes of analysis is much better done without ponderous and parrot like quotations, especially when it is so easy to quote out of context someone who wrote in a different era about different (though often similar) problems.

One, Two Many Theories

There appear to be a number of different theories involved in the debate, and it might be useful, at the risk of oversimplification, to partly restate them here.

1. Theory of Three Worlds – Chinese Version (adopted by the CPA(ML) and many other revisionist organisations)

This theory holds:

(a) That the world consists of the First World (the two superpowers), Second World (Industrially developed nations partly exploited by or dependent upon the superpowers, but themselves powerful enough to act in imperialist fashion and exploit those weaker than themselves ) and the Third World (industrially underdeveloped nations generally exploited by the other two worlds);

(b) That the contradiction between the superpowers, propelling us towards world war, is the fundamental contradiction today, thereby precipitating a major contradiction between the superpowers and the rest of the world;

(c) That the Soviet Union is the more dangerous of the two superpowers, is basically fascist and violently expansionist, hence being the principal aspect of this contradiction;

(d) That the situation today is analogous to that prevailing prior to World War II, with the Soviet Union being analogous to Nazi Germany;

(e) That the first priority for revolutionaries today is to work to build a united front with any persons, classes or countries aimed at stopping the Soviet Union, just as was allegedly done by communists to stop Nazi Germany in the 1930’s;

(f) That all Chinese foreign policy (and hence the policies of all sinophiles and other pseudo- revolutionaries) must be geared almost solely towards this aim (which partly explains the growing tendency for China to support, or not oppose, many governments which oppose revolutionary movements while withdrawing support from revolutionary movements themselves).

(g) that third world nations are almost automatically opposed to the superpowers, and hence are obvious and inevitable allies.

(h) That alliances with governments are an adequate form of alliance (implying, as do a number of other aspects, that the class differences within nations can be ignored for present purposes).

The strong implications of this “theory”, especially as expressed in Australia, are:

(a) Class struggle must take second place (at best) to the united front against the Soviet Union.
(b) An alliance with the US is not only desirable, but crucial to the containment of the Soviet Union.
(c) Hence revolutionaries must stop fighting the ruling class in all areas where to do so might impede the alliance and preparation for “defense” against the Soviet Union (e.g., wage demands, strikes, Omega or opposition to U.S imperialism).
(d) There is no real necessity for “revolutionary independence” within such a united front, e.g., it would be divisive and undesirable for the workers to be armed unless they were going into battle against the Soviet Union and its puppets.
(e) There is no possibility of the conflict between the superpowers providing possibilities for the working class in some countries (Australia, Czechoslovakia, South Africa, Rhodesia?) carrying out a socialist revolution, as was the case in the first world war.

2. Theory of Three Worlds – revolutionary version (as apparently tentatively adopted by a majority of R.E.M.)

(a) As for i(a) above,
(b) That the contradiction between the superpowers is one, but not the only, contradiction in the world today;
(c) That both superpowers must be attacked, that both are dangerous, but that the Soviet Union is the more dangerous (though not necessarily the stronger);
(d) That the situation is analogous to World War II and that building a broad alliance to oppose the Soviet Union is crucial, an alliance that may well (desirably) include the U.S.;
(e) That such a united front does not imply a capitulation of class struggle, and that revolutionaries must not only maintain their independence within such a united front but must strive for working class leadership of it (hence introducing class conflict into the united front).
(f) That such an alliance does not mean uncritical, subservient or unprincipled ties with other nations.
(g) That such an alliance does not require that revolutionary aid to oppressed people must stop, although this becomes a question of some difficulty in cases where governments are crucial to an alliance but threaten and are able to leave the alliance (e.g., if some major oil producing nation threatened to make an independent peace as a result of a member of the alliance providing arms to revolutionaries there).

3. Theory of Two Worlds – Albanian View

This holds:

(a) That the world is basically divided into two worlds or camps the socialist world and the capitalist/imperialist world;
(b) That “third world countries” are generally run by reactionary classes and that alliances with such classes is a betrayal of the oppressed but revolutionary or potentially revolutionary masses in those nations;
(c) That class struggle is paramount, that class contradictions are the major contradictions, and that alliances should be class alliances based on common class interest;
(e) That the way to prevent the threatening superpower war is to support revolutionary movements in all parts of the world against their internal reactionary forces, somewhat analogous to the first world war.

The Albanian view is critical of the theory of the three worlds on the grounds that this theory:

(i) ignores class analysis and class struggle or at best subordinates this to the anti-Soviet struggle, thereby effectively wiping it off the agenda;
(ii) ignores revolution and the dictatorship of the proletariat;
(iii) implies support for the most reactionary and oppressive regimes and betrayal of the oppressed by not analysing the class nature of the regime and by making opposition to the Soviet Union more important than the advancement of class struggles against reactionary regimes;
(iv) implies that capitalist governments or capitalist alliances (such as the European Common Market or NATO) can be relied on to fight the Soviet Union. They cannot and it is anti-Marxist-Leninist to suggest that revolutionaries join such alliances;
(v) That 1(b), 1(d), 1(f) and 1(h) are factually incorrect, at least in part and as used in the “theory of the three worlds”.
(the above list of the Albanian view criticisms of the theory of 3 worlds is not complete but covers most of the major ones in one form or other)

N.B. As was pointed out by one speaker at the M.I.S. discussion we have not yet seen an adequate response by those who hold to the theory of the two worlds to the “revolutionary theory of 3 worlds” mentioned in 2 above. The major criticism appears to be directed at 1 above, and as such it has provided an important critique of what is indeed a revisionist and potentially disastrous “theory” (dogma). However, most if not all these criticisms do not apply so clearly to 2 above.

Contradictions are Not Absolute

I would like to make the following tentative comments about the debate so far:

1. There appears to be a tendency to look for THE contradiction as though this is the magic wand with which to create correct revolutionary practice – such is the path to dogma & sectarianism.

In the Australian situation, for example, it is rather facile to say that the major contradiction is between various classes and U.S. Imperialism, including especially the national bourgeoisie and U.S. imperialism. It is at least as important to analyse another contradiction in Australian society, namely between capital and labour, including between the national bourgeoisie and the working class. Which contradiction is the more important will depend on a number of economic political and even cultural factors.

No dogmatic assertion about “the primary contradiction” is going to alter these facts.

2. There is confusion about what a “theory” is meant to do. It Is not a political platform and is not, in itself, a complete analysis of the problem (at least not in the context we are considering). A theory can be used in various ways and when buttressed by various other “theories”, hypothesis, or assumptions, can lead to different conclusions. Some of these conclusions may be wrong even if the theory from which they appear to be drawn is correct.

It can be very confusing when people arrive at quite different policies and conclusions while appearing to base themselves on the same theory. But this confusion cannot be cleared up if what is being debated is really a set of assumptions that accompany the theory but which have not been articulated.

In the M.I.S. debate it appeared that the assumptions and assertions of the Chinese view (rather than the theory of the 3 worlds as outlined in 1(a) above) were under attack. It was obvious quite early on that the revolutionary view of the theory of the 3 worlds contained quite a different set of assumptions and analysis of related questions, yet these were not really tackled.

3. The purpose of the theory of 3 worlds or the theory of 2 worlds is to give us a framework for analysis, a way of orientating ourselves in our understanding of the present state of the world. Because it is not a manifest or a complete statement of a situation, and so long as dogmatic assertions about “THE contradiction” don’t mislead us, there is no inherent reason why the division of the world into 3 parts is not compatible with its division into 2 parts, or the combination of the two and a division into 4 or 5 parts.

The particular theory or model we use is determined by the extent to which we believe it will help clarify or explain certain observations and facts and thereby, give us a clearer guide to action.

The first task in the debate therefore is to see if we agree about the facts (and it would seem that to a large extent we do), and the second task is to determine which facts are crucial to our problem and our analysis. It is this second task which seems to have been largely ignored, leading to two different theories, explaining different sets of facts, being falsely set in opposition to each other.

4. In view of the above, it is incorrect to criticise the “theory of the 3 worlds” for “(leaving) out the role of proletarian revolution, and (having) nothing to say about the theory and tactics of the dictatorship of the proletariat”. With regard to the revolutionary view of the 3 worlds this criticism is patently false. A number of implications and policies about proletarian revolution, class struggle etc., are contained in this theory. With regard to the revisionist view, although the criticism is accurate it is misdirected, it assumes that their acceptance of the theory of the 3 worlds results in their abandonment of proletarian revolution and class struggle. On the contrary, it is their abandonment of proletarian revolution and class struggle that has resulted in their particular use of the theory of the 3 worlds.

The point is that, the theory of the 3 worlds does not need to mention the “theory and tactics of the dictatorship of the proletariat” in specific terms – that is not the object of such a theory. But any revolutionary platform must mention such things and must therefore go well beyond the theory of the three worlds. Marx’s theory of surplus value does not mention or even directly imply a theory of imperialism. Does this make the theory any less correct? No, because it serves a specific purpose within the total framework of Marxist-Leninist analysis, and is not meant to do any more than that.

5. There is a tendency within the “Albanian view” to make real efforts to show the similarities between the 1st and 2nd world in their capitalist and imperialist tendencies, while ignoring the differences between them (e.g.. the Brazilian CP. statement is a good example of this). Marxist Leninist analysis must examine both similarities and differences. Of course all capitalist countries are exploitive, oppressive and potentially imperialistic – but that doesn’t mean that the differences and contradictions between the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia, or the U.S. and Canada, are unimportant. The very nature of capitalism ensures contradictions between each capitalist nation and every other. But the existence of the proletariat, of independence movements and revolutionary movements, and of a socialist alternative, creates other, fundamental, contradictions. These various contradictions similarly ensure the creation of alliances between capitalist countries. Some of these alliances serve all its members, some of them serve the powerful members more than the weaker (thus in turn weakening the alliance), and some are more in the nature of enforced treaties than real alliances.

The various differences and contradictions must not be hidden but must be brought forward and analysed to see if and how they may be exploited to further the revolutionary movement.

6. There is a tendency today to “go soft on the U.S.” – a tendency excusable for the Czechoslovakians, Angolans and many other Africans, but hardly excusable for Australians, New Zealanders or Canadians. This tendency is especially marked amongst those promoting the theory of the 3 worlds, though in some instances perhaps more so in rhetoric and writings than in their practice.

It is my view that both superpowers are dangerous, both are capable of letting their conflicting interests lead to a world war, and both are capable of initiating such a war. The, analogy with the second world war, and the view that the Soviet Union is analogous with Nazi Germany in that it is virtually the sole source of aggression, thus requiring a strong alliance for its containment, does not ring very true. An alliance for the containment of the U.S. is equally necessary, especially if the Soviet Union was to suffer some form of setback. Any alliance established with either superpower will be used by that superpower to further conflict with the other superpower (hence such an alliance e.g., China and the U.S.A. may itself become the source of war rather than a force for containment or peace).

7. The use of analogies, with the firsts or second world war are useful only up to a point. They can help to remind us of various possibilities, of mistakes made, and, of the different types of situations, which can occur and which demand different types of responses. But such analogies cannot replace an analysis of today’s situation. They can merely assist such an analysis. It may well be the case that neither the 1st World War nor the 2nd World War provide any real guidelines for an impending 3rd World War.


It is perhaps useful to outline some of the questions that require far more analysis (we should avoid seeing this as a debate over the simple “theory of the 3 worlds”, and arguments should be directed not at showing “how many worlds”. there are, but at clarifying the list of assumption that accompany such theories and which comprise the overall policy).

(a) Is the Soviet Union the more dangerous superpower? And if so, does this justify the extension which sees it as the major/sole source of aggression leading to World War 3?
(b) Is the analogy with either World War 1 or World War 2 accurate/useful?
(c) What sort of alliance is required to prevent World War 3, or at least minimise setbacks for the revolutionary movement? Various possibilities arise:
– a broad anti-Soviet alliance (as proposed by the majority of the proponents of the theory of the three worlds, and by China and the U.S.)
– a broad anti-U.S. alliance (as proposed by various revisionist e.g., S.P.A., spartacist, and the Narodny Bank)
– a class “alliance” of revolutionary movements aimed at promoting revolution in their own respective countries (as proposed by most of those expousing the theory of the 2 worlds)
– an alliance of peoples and countries in opposition to both superpowers based on a pact to defend any member attacked by any superpower.
– an alliance in which neither superpower is permitted to participate unless itself attacked by the other superpower. (NATO without the U.S. would be such an alliance – but would it be powerful enough to halt the Warsaw countries?)
(d) How would revolutionaries work (and survive) in such an alliance? What sort of priorities would we have to impose on ourselves within such an alliance? How flexible and independent could we be?
(e) Can we really be so definite (dogmatic?) as to say that the exploitation of “the contradiction between U.S. imperialism and Soviet social imperialism can never become the main component part of the foreign policy of socialist countries, nor can it .... become an aim in itself” (as stated by Communist Party of Ceylon)?