Recuperating Third-Worldism: How White Workers Continue to Benefit From Capitalism-Imperialism


From the most radical communists to the most centrist liberals, white supremacy is seen as a social construct and a mechanism with which elites pit the “universally” oppressed against one another. In this view, the struggle against racism is limited to challenging racist and xenophobic ideas and behaviors or, at best, challenging institutional racism, such as the ongoing racial disparities in employment opportunities, wage gaps, educational opportunities, followed by growing calls for diversity and representation. 

The more progressive of these groups understand white privilege in Western society today as a legacy of colonialism. Enslavement, colonialism, and imperialism played a role in providing Western society, white people in particular, with a head-start in all life and society areas. While there is sometimes an acknowledgement of overt forms of ongoing imperialist practices by the West in military invasions and political meddling, something is missing. Almost all analysis neglects to explain the present ways that the West, white people, and white workers, in particular, continue to benefit from the capitalist-imperialist system.

Theorizations of a privileged layer of the global working class have been around since Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, who viewed this phenomenon as the emergence of a “labor aristocracy”. This idea was then developed into what is broadly known as Third Worldism, mainly by Marxist academics and revolutionaries in the Global South and particularly in Latin America. However, it continues to be arbitrarily dismissed and ignored by opponents in the West. 

Unfortunately, with some exceptions, it has never been taken seriously by the Latin American diaspora, who are more influenced by liberalism or, at best, the more orthodox and Eurocentric Marxist traditions. Third Worldism, a serious Marxist theory based on a material analysis of the global economy, has been easily brushed off in the past thanks to its ties to a minority of ultra-left communists within the Western Third Worldist tradition. However, there is a strong case for its recuperation as the recentering of imperialism and all of its effects, even those that are hard to admit, will strengthen the case against capitalism rather than weaken it. 

Where are the concrete studies that prove the material base of white working-class racism?

The white working-class’s vast and concrete material benefits have been scientifically measured by a handful of (conveniently ignored) Marxist economists. One of the most recent and most noticeable is Zak Cope’s study in his book Divided World Divided Class, where he demonstrates that in 2012 alone, around $1.7 trillion of value was transferred from Global South nations through the unequal exchange in manufactures. Cope argues that this is just one of the mechanisms of capturing wealth from the South, which then privileges Western workers, especially white workers, in several ways; ridiculously cheap goods and redistribution of this captured wealth through higher wages. In other words, when one investigates the economic and financial mechanisms of imperialism beyond the overt military and political operations, we observe that the working class in the West enjoys a higher standard of living at the expense of their counterparts in the Global South – and not because of higher productivity or technological advancement. 

In his most recent book, The Wealth of Some Nations, Cope argues that rather than imperialism being the highest stage of capitalism, as Lenin theorized, it is its permanent stage. That is, imperialism allowed the development of capitalism and continues to maintain it. Concretely, for the topic at hand, Cope further argues that imperialism today does not just benefit the elites but Western society in general through the “embourgeoisement” of its working class, helping to explain their increasingly reactionary positions and views. In the chapter Comparing Value Transfers to Profits, Wages and Capital, Cope gives us precise numbers that demonstrate just one of the many ways imperialist wealth is injected into general society and not just an ambiguous “one percent.” Using the table below, Cope shows that “imperialism provides an indispensable cumulative boon to those countries receiving transferred value”, enabling “the capitalist class of the global North to afford high wages for its employees”, among other material benefits.  

Anthony Norfield is another Marxist economist who researches imperialist practices in the global financial sector and frequently shows its close relation to the global North’s working class. Norfield shows that Marx and Engel’s theory of a “labor aristocracy,” a privileged layer of the working class, continues to be relevant today. In his study of the British working class, he shows that they have a historical ‘social contract’ with the imperialist British state, which provides them with certain material benefits in exchange for loyalty and support. More concretely, he shows that 84 percent of the British population works in the service sector rather than productive industry. Further, the much-beloved National Health Service, which provides free healthcare for all at the point of service, using a Marxist analysis, cannot simply be seen as being paid for through taxation of workers in the UK. Norfield shows that not only was it initially funded through the “milking” of the colonies, but continues to do so “using Britain’s privileged position in the world economy to deliver benefits to the British populace.” The conclusion is self-evident and corroborates Cope’s research. Britain’s relatively well-off workers are maintained through an intricate web of imperialist mechanisms. 

John Smith’s Imperialism in the 21st Century, published in 2016, provides further evidence of particular ways wealth is extracted from Global South workers to prop up the wages and social welfare of Western workers. Breaking down the production and profit derived from a single t-shirt, he shows that just €0.95 is given to Bangladeshi manufacturers to share between them and their employees. Once in Europe, that same t-shirt will be sold for a minimum of €4.95 to be shared by the company, its employees and the state through taxation, which further benefits the working-class through public services expenditure. Smith criticizes Western Marxists for wrongly attributing wealth and development in the West to technological advances and superior productivity, correctly identifying imperialist unequal exchange as the main source of profit for Western companies, states and workers.

The above analysis is not a rediscovery by academics recently either; over 20 years ago, Marxist economist Alan Freeman published a paper titled The Material Roots of Western Racism. He describes how Western Marxism has not only veered towards neglecting and brushing aside the material base of white supremacy but also actively working to mystify it. He argues that Western Marxists refuse to engage with a theory that exposes the material basis of racism because there is an inherent view that “their own working class can do no wrong.” Like Norfield’s analysis of Britain’s “social contract”, Freeman shows that white workers in the US have had similar relationships with their governments. Particularly for this side of the Atlantic, white workers are given the freedom to form “big trade unions and negotiate welfare concessions. In return, they offer to seek nothing else.” In other words, they offer to not struggle to end capitalism-imperialism but instead to enjoy a piece of its cake; hence one of their more radical and central demands is higher wages. This was perfectly illustrated when Joe Biden was recently criticized by left groups for bombing Syria only because it came before their $15ph demand. 

What are the arguments against? 

There are several ways that the analysis of a privileged white working class has been argued against and none really seriously deals with the scholarly work mentioned above. Rather, there is a focus on dismantling Third-Worldism by attributing it to ultra-leftists groups or, more recently, reducing it to liberal identity politics (i.e. race before class). One of the major errors when interacting with Third-Worldism is attributing it solely to one particular group when in reality, it is a theory that has been used broadly by revolutionary political leaders, academics, political parties, and grassroots activists. 

Ironically, the ultra-leftist groups brought forward by Western Marxists to argue against Third-Worldism are typically groups made up of mainly white Westerners, such as the now-defunct Weather Underground Organization (WUO). These white majority groups who, unlike the WUO who went as far as going on bombing sprees inside the US, do not organize seriously outside of online chats, also have a Eurocentric and idealist view of what struggle is supposed to look like in the Global South – going as far as imposing these on those they purport to defend. These, however, must be separated from other Western Third-Worldist groups, such as the Revolutionary Anti-Imperialist Movement (RAIM), who are now defunct as an activist organization but continue to promote anti-imperialist activism and solidarity with socialist and socialist-leaning movements in the Global South through their website

Another common way of arguing against Third-Worldism is focusing on the subjective experiences of white workers. For example, rather than dealing with data that proves a workers’ divide in wealth according to region due to an imperialist capture of wealth, we are rebutted with, say, the individual experience of an exploited barista in Starbucks. Acknowledging that Western workers take a cut of imperialist wealth does not mean that we deny that there is still relative exploitation, or that, to take just one example, working-class people in Flint, including white people, still do not have clean drinking water. None of those authentic oppressive experiences inflicted on white workers, however, nullify Third Worldism. 

Something that comes up too is the differences in material wealth between different communities within Western society. It is important to add that not all Western or white workers enjoy the same levels of privilege. There are communities, such as Black and immigrant communities, and some sections of Western white workers, who are closer in terms of material wealth to Global South workers than to the privileged (mostly) white workers in the country they reside in. In Third Worldism, these communities are known as ‘internally colonized’ subjects which, from a materialist analysis, are most likely to develop class consciousness and fight the capitalist-imperialist structure at its roots, rather than focus on demands for higher wages as the labour aristocracy does. 

Furthermore, to provide a concrete example of this, the Black Panther Party, the most influential revolutionary communist party in the West’s history, was made up of internally colonized people who held a Third World ideological line. The Panthers’ ideological formation and stance can be traced to the Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM), Black Marxists of the Third Worldist tradition. Their influential manifesto World Black Revolution begins with the words; “All over Africa, Asia, South, Afro and Central America a revolution is haunting and sweeping” and ends with the call for “Brothers and sisters of the Black Underclass in all countries, UNITE!” By putting Marx’s “all workers of the world unite” on its head, they demonstrated a sharp materialist understanding of the world and conditions around them and that Western generalizations of global working class conditions must be challenged. In Huey P. Newton’s Letter to the Liberation Front Of South Vietnam, he succinctly lays out the Panther’s Third Worldism: “The Black Panther Party views the United States as the “city” of the world, while we view the nations of Africa, Asia and Latin America as the “countryside” of the world. The developing countries are like the Sierra Maestra in Cuba and the United States is like Havana. We note that in Cuba the people’s army set up bases in the Sierra Maestra and choked off Havana because it was dependent upon the raw materials of the countryside. After they won all the battles in this countryside the last and final act was for the people to march upon Havana.” Western Marxists, however, drown out these important theoretical contributions because they do not conform to the idea of a universal workers’ struggle.

Finally, one of the most used criticisms is that Third Worldism promotes nihilism among white workers. That is, that because they are privileged workers in the world economy, they do not have a part to play in the socialist movement or that their relatively better material conditions mean they are dissuaded from revolutionary change. While the latter is objectively true, those who consider themselves Marxist or communist and who may become aware of the global division of wealth should not be dissuaded from taking an active stance against capitalism. Rather, by internationalizing Western workers’ demands, not just in lip-service but in an active struggle, and convincing them that they must unite with the Global South’s frontline struggles, the defeat of capitalism becomes an even more realistic goal for everyone. 

The case for the re-appropriation of Third-Worldism

As Latin Americans in the diaspora, we have to understand this theory using a historical lens rather than allowing it to be arbitrarily dismissed without a serious engagement with the literature. While the scholars used above are all white Marxist economists (not enough space to talk about the effects of poverty on academic production), we also have our own theorists who are considered by many to be the pioneers of Third Worldism. 

José Carlos Mariátegui, Latin America first Marxist thinker, is famous for stating that “we do not wish that Socialism in America be a tracing and a copy. It must be a heroic creation. We must, with our own reality, in our own language, bring Indoamerican socialism to life.” This quote alone is enough to unsettle the Western Marxist who pushes “universality” among workers. Although celebrated today among academics, he was denounced as “dangerous” by the Comintern following his three papers, including The Problem of Race in Latin America, at the first conference of Latin American communists in 1929. Like the denouncement of Third Worldist theory today, it turns out that when we think for ourselves and take into account the objective material conditions that affect us, we are “dangerous” or, even worse “, revisionists.” 

Importantly, for the question at hand, though Mariategui did not elaborate on the particular theory of a labour aristocracy, he did write extensively on imperialism, especially in regards to general US and European development at the expense of the colonized world. His theories on imperialism and development would influence Latin American revolutionaries and academics for decades after his death, but especially notable is the dependency theory school of the 1950s and 1960s. One of the pioneers of the dependency school’s Marxist wing, the Brazilian Ruy Mauro Marini, began his seminal book Underdevelopment and Revolution with the apt phrase; “the history of Latin America’s underdevelopment is the history of the development of the global capitalist system.” As the scholars in the first section argue, Marini made it clear many decades ago that Latin America was not underdeveloped because of lower worker productivity or technological advancement when compared to the West, but because its workers are super-exploited by imperialism. The wealth created through this process, according to Marini, allowed imperialist countries to develop economically at the expense of Latin American workers. 

It was Marini’s Marxist dependency school that inspired Walter Rodney to write his seminal book How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, where he follows their theoretical thread with his now-famous quote, “Many parts of the world that are naturally rich are actually poor and parts that are not so well off in wealth of soil and sun-soil are enjoying the highest standards of living. When the capitalists from the developed parts of the world try to explain this paradox, they often make it sound as though there is something “God-given” about the situation. One bourgeois economist, in a book on development, accepted that the comparative statistics of the world today show a gap that is much larger than it was before. By his own admission, the gap between the developed and underdeveloped countries has increased by at least 15 to 20 times over the last 150 years. However, the bourgeois economist in question does not give a historical explanation, nor does he consider that there is a relationship of exploitation which allowed capitalist parasites to grow fat and impoverished the dependencies. Instead, he puts forward a biblical explanation!”

One of the great theoreticians of the Third Worldist tradition, often appropriated and presented out of context in Western academia, is Frantz Fanon. Again, coming to the same conclusion as the other great thinkers of this tradition, Fanon was able to explain the unequal development of the world with his thesis: “Europe is literally the creation of the Third World.” More of a revolutionary anti-colonialist thinker and fighter than a Marxist economist, he did not elaborate on the theory of a labour aristocracy but this was implied. 

None of these revolutionary Marxists in the Global South, in fact, felt the need to extend themselves on a particular analysis of the white working class and their material privilege in the global economic order. Not because it is a wrong line to take, as Western communists rebut, but because there is no need for them to single them out. As the above quotes show, they understood capitalism-imperialism as a system that privileged Western/Northern society as a whole, raising their living standards; in other words, the material well-being of the entire population. As a diaspora, however, we must be the ones to take a clear position on this matter. We live, work, and organise in the Western world where the white workers and their organisations lead by default. Their antiquated one glove fits all attitude means that rather than adapting to our own conditions and reality, as Mariategui proposed, we become submissively loyal to narrow demands that benefit a minority of the world’s workers, upholding and losing sight of the fight against capitalism-imperialism. 

There is a long tradition of Third-Worldists: Marxists who expose the centrality of imperialism and its role in generating the wealth and standards of living of the Western world and the capitalist core. This rich tradition which is strong in the Global South is weaker in the North. Not because it misreads Marxism or concrete reality, as we have shown, but because a strong Marxist anti-imperialist movement led by the non-white diaspora threatens the material interests of Western Marxists who are content demanding more spoils than ending the very system they claim to stand against. From the theoretical seeds of the labour aristocracy developed by Marx, Engels and Lenin, to the elaborate development of those seeds by Black Marxists and the Latin American Marxist dependency theorists, who informed the revolutionary ideals of political leaders like Ernesto Guevara, Fidel Castro, Walter Rodney, among many others. In the end, there are sure to be Marxists, Western and white Marxists in particular, who will not agree with Third Worldism as a theory. That is fine. What we must demand, however, is that it is treated with the respect and seriousness that any other rich theoretical tradition enjoys.

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