The Third World ascended like a sky-rocket—and fell like the proverbial stick. Invented by Alfred Sauvy in 1952, in an article in L’Observateur entitled ‘Three Worlds, One Planet’, the term tiers monde became central to the discourse of the European left (including this journal) by the 1960s. While the long post-war boom seemed to have taken the fight out of the metropolitan working class, revolutions from China to Cuba, and national liberation struggles from Algeria to Vietnam, inspired a new generation. Hồ Chí Minh and Che Guevara became heroes, and the writings of Frantz Fanon and Régis Debray were eagerly studied. Yet by the end of the seventies the news from Pol Pot’s Cambodia had crushed the illusions of the sixties generation; the advances of globalization seemed to make the very notion of a ‘Third World’ obsolete. Today the term is considered outdated and derogatory.

Nowhere did Third Worldism take on such dramatic form as in France, which from 1946 to 1962 was in a nearly permanent state of colonial war, in Indochina and then in Algeria. After 1962 it took three decades before the full horrific truth could be faced; only in 1999 was it officially acknowledged that there had been a ‘war’ in Algeria. That France is still haunted by its colonial past is shown by such films as Alain Tasma’s Nuit noire (2005) and Rachid Bouchareb’s Hors-la-loi (2010), and novels like Jérôme Ferrari’s Where I Left My Soul (2010). Perhaps the most vivid depiction comes in Alexis Jenni’s 2011 Goncourt-winning novel L’art français de la guerre, which traces the odyssey of a single soldier from the Resistance, through Indochina and Algeria, to the violent banlieue of Lyon. There is a huge literature on the subject, but one of the most comprehensive and dispassionate treatments of the impact of Third Worldism on the French left intelligentsia has come from Germany, a nation that never suffered the trauma of decolonization. Christoph Kalter’s carefully researched study (with a bibliography of over nine hundred books and articles) Die Entdeckung der Dritten Welt offers a detailed account of how ideas of the Third World developed on the French left, in the process remaking it.

Kalter traces the theories and debates that inspired and challenged the left in France from the 1950s to the 1970s, in successive discussions of the emergence and fortunes of the category of ‘the Third World’; the respective orientations of the main forces on the French left in the last years of French colonialism and the rise of a ‘radical new left’; the role of ‘the politics of memory’ with its rhetoric of ‘fascism’ and ‘resistance’; the special role of the Maspero publishing house and in particular its journal, Partisans; and the formation of the United Socialist Party (psu) and the associated centre for the study of the Third World, cedetim. A concluding chapter elicits the main problems that faced the left in this period, or that were posed by it, above all the range and character of revolution in the later twentieth century. Kalter has written a ‘history of ideas’, but a resolutely materialist one. Ideas about the Third World took shape inside the skulls of women and men who were trying to unite theory and practice, sometimes at considerable personal risk, as with those who ‘carried suitcases’ for the Algerian National Liberation Front (fln). While individuals like Sartre and Fanon are well known, their writings and actions only achieve full significance when placed in the context of hundreds of other lesser-known (now often forgotten) thinkers and activists. Kalter restores some of these individuals to the historical record.

It was a time of collective action. Individuals were involved in rallies, demonstrations, conferences, research centres; they joined the groupuscules of the far left or mainstream political parties. For ideas to circulate they had to be published; Kalter gives considerable attention to the mechanisms of publication. He looks in detail at the political and financial constraints on publishing, and notably at the difficulties faced by publishing houses and bookshops during the Algerian war, when they faced both state censorship and physical attacks from right-wing elements. At the same time, he links the history of the French left to the wider history of decolonization and of political and cultural globalization. In this way, Kalter has produced a genuinely materialist history, in which ideas are not lost or submerged in anecdotal details, but are given their true significance by being placed in historical and material context. His book bears comparison with the best works in the genre, for example Alan Wald’s The New York Intellectuals, and makes a welcome change from the approach of historians such as Tony Judt, who seem much more concerned to condemn the French left than to understand its complexities.

France’s reluctant, blood-stained retreat from an Empire second in size only to the British marked a whole historical period running from the mid-fifties to the election of Mitterrand in 1981. Kalter compares the significance of the ‘discovery’ of the Third World, the Entdeckung forced on Europe by the national-liberation struggles of the time, to the discovery of America five hundred years earlier: both forced Europe to reassess its place in the world. Decolonization had a major effect on the French left, and is one of the factors that explains the social explosion of 1968—some of the leading activists of 1968 had originally been radicalized by activity in solidarity with the Algerian liberation struggle. Kalter rejects the so-called ‘minimal-impact thesis’ argued by historian Charles-Robert Ageron, which claims that most French people were uninformed about and indifferent to the Third World. French perceptions of it developed in an international context. The American war in Vietnam was of great importance; the Tet offensive of 1968, which showed just how vulnerable the world’s greatest military power was, raised expectations; demonstrations in support of the Vietnamese fed directly into the 1968 student insurrection. So too did the widespread image of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, and the fact of the continuing Cold War. The Third World seemed to offer an alternative to both Western imperialism and the Second World of ‘actually existing socialism’.

If Sauvy’s term ‘Third World’ gained instant popularity, what it actually meant was rather less clear. It implied an analogy with the ‘Third Estate’ of the French Revolution, and hence, for the French republican tradition, acquired connotations of ‘a heroic struggle for liberty, equality and fraternity’. Growing awareness of Third World poverty called into question the myth of France’s ‘civilizing mission’ in its colonial territories. The idea acquired differing meanings in different contexts. On the one hand were the varying theories of economists and sociologists; on the other there were activists, from Catholics to Maoists, trying to integrate the idea into their political practice. For some there was the idea of the so-called ‘developing countries’—societies that were still steeped in poverty, but which, with hard work, could eventually catch up with their richer neighbours. Others held the view that ‘underdevelopment’ was a product of global capitalism, and that the underdeveloped countries would remain underdeveloped as long as global capitalism survived. Thus, much of the debate about the Third World consisted of trying to establish exactly what the term meant.

However, by the 1980s the concept was becoming increasingly problematic. Some of the more naive illusions about the Third World’s potential for spearheading world revolution had perished as a result of developments in China and Indochina. The Third World was becoming increasingly diversified, with Asian tigers leaping ahead while other zones stagnated. Today the image of the Third World is on the one hand poverty and need, on the other the danger of terrorism. At the same time, the notion of globalization was becoming ever more prominent; and for theorists of this phenomenon there was only one world—the Third World was neither the problem nor the solution. If Third Worldism had undermined a Eurocentric view of the planet, a concept of globalization was able to both integrate and replace its insights. As Kalter notes, the French left’s concern with the Third World contained much that was positive, but there had also been a sentimental, psychological aspect, rooted in feelings of guilt and even European self-hatred. As he puts it: ‘Together with the Third World as a place of utopia, the activists also buried the self-deceptions that had allowed them to overlook social inequalities, oppression and war in those non-European countries they had admired as an alternative model of society.’