What do people mean when they talk about the first or third world? There’s more to it than you’d think.
People often refer to third-world countries, but it’s not made clear why. We just use it as a synonym for “poor country”.
In this post I will explain where this terminology came from.
There are two different constructions that use these terms. The first is the three-world model, created by demographer Alfred Sauvy. This is a geopolitical conception of the world, where the first-world is the US as the capitalist superpower, and its allies. The second-world is the Soviet Union as the communist superpower, and its allies. The third were non-aligned countries, which for the most part was the Global South.
The second construction is the three worlds theory, created by Mao Zedong. His construction is that the US and USSR are the first world, because they’re the dominant world superpowers. The second-world is western Europe, Canada, Australia, Japan, etc – basically the countries that uphold and benefit from capitalism, but aren’t necessarily controlling an imperialist network. The third-world are the victims of imperialism and colonialism, with China being the largest example, followed by India, etc.
Both of these ideas use the same terminology, yet mean different things, and are usually, unknowingly, conflated anyway. For example, when people say first-world country, they usually mean a rich country. When they say third-world country, they usually mean a poor country.
However, both terminologies are outdated. The three-world model isn’t relevant anymore, because the communist bloc doesn’t exist anymore.
Similarly, the three worlds theory is outdated, but still applicable. Now, only the US is a first world country, and the USSR is not. But the second- and third-world remains mostly the same. The bigger reason that three worlds theory is outdated is because no group finds it a useful idea anymore.
The three worlds theory was developed by Mao later in life, after the Sino-Soviet split. It was a rhetorical gesture for China, bitter with the Soviets, to increase relations with the US without seeming revisionist – which is what they accused the Soviets of being. Interestingly enough, this is the same theory that caused the Sino-Albanian split, where Albania had previously sided with China over the Soviets.
Chairman Deng, who was more revisionist than anyone mentioned before him, embraced the three worlds theory. It was useful for him to position China as a third-party to the Soviets and the US. However, it’s not a pertinent idea to Chinese political discourse now.
The three worlds theory is completely abandoned by Maoists (specifically Marxist-Leninist-Maoists). Maoists are critical of the Soviet Union in the same way Mao was, but they’re more critical of Dengist revisionism. Maoists, though, are most critical of the US than any other, so the fact three worlds theory was used to cozy up to the US makes it rejected by Maoists.
Ultimately, neither of these ideas are useful anymore. But, they’re rhetorically used and manipulated. They’re empty signifiers that are vaguely filled with whatever ideology the speaker is gesturing towards. At the very least, it’s worth knowing where they come from.