Perestroika and the Third World

Perestroika and the Third World

[Published in the Review of Radical Political Economics, Vol. 22, Nos. 2 & 3 (summer & Fall 1990): 252-275.]



The official Soviet view of the world economic order has in recent years undergone a tremendous shift, a shift from that of two mutually exclusive world markets–one “socialist,” the other capitalist–to that of world economic integration and interdependence. Accordingly, its view of Third World development, the so-called non-capitalist path of development, has likewise changed drastically: a change from that of extensive nationalizations, import-substitution, regional cooperation and exclusive ties with the Soviet Bloc countries to that of tripartite (East-West-South) industrial cooperation and comparative advantages of international division of labor. This study is an attempt to critically explore the relationship between these two global turnabouts: the signal change of the official Soviet view of the world economic order and of the East-West relations, on the one hand, and its view of the development path of the developing countries, on the other.



Postwar initiatives by the West in the developing countries were based on the idea that the path of development for these countries was very simple: encapsulate the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century industrial revolutions and the economic development of the West into a few short years; go for the “big-push” of selective industrialization and wait for the spread of its effects via the “trickle down” process.

The response of the Soviet Union to the sociopolitical questions posed by decolonization policies and nationalist development strategies was, by contrast, complete passivity and silence. Instead of analyzing decolonization policies and the concomitant development strategies in the context of the overall development of capital and its internationalization, Stalin dismissed these events as devious imperialist plots to maintain the cooperation and submission of nationalist leaders. It was this policy of “bureaucratic leftism,” as Lukacs put it, that imposed the straitjacket of “the imperialist camp” on all bourgeois nationalist leaders and on other sociopolitical currents in all those developing countries that were not explicit allies of the USSR. Incidental zigzags aside, this policy of dogmatic abstentionism remained unchanged until the end of Stalin’s reign.

The demise of Stalin prompted the reversal of his sectarian approach, which had been the official Soviet policy since the Sixth Comintern Congress in 1928. The  inadequacy of the rigid policy of “either communist camp or imperialist camp” in the face of rapid developments in the colonial and other less developed areas had long been felt. The 20th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party in 1956 denounced the “errors” of the previous analysis and stressed the need for an overhaul of the theses of the Sixth Comintern Congress on the liberation movements because “they showed traces of sectarianism” (see, for example, Clarkson, 1978:27; Pennar, 1973:5).

There then followed a review of the previous approach to liberation movements, initiation of a policy toward Third World countries, and the formulation of an alternative theory of development for these countries–the so-called theory of non- capitalist development, or the non-capitalist path to “socialism.” The non-capitalist path thus formulated was far from just a theory or a purely technical development model. It was, in a sense, the Kremlin’s view of socioeconomic developments in the Third World, and was therefore not independent from the actual policies pursued by the USSR, its views of the international economic situation, and its approach to East-West relations.

Thus, as long as Moscow perceived the international economic situation as being divided into two mutually exclusive and irreconcilable markets, the specialists of Third World countries prescribed for these countries policies of vigorous import-substitution, extensive nationalizations, comprehensive planning and the curtailment of the presence of Western capital, as these policies would help to expand the “socialist” market and to contract the capitalist one. This view of the world economic order and of the development course of the Third World prevailed in the Soviet Union from the mid-1950s to the late 1970s. But as the official Soviet view of the world economic order shifted in the late 1970s from that of two world markets to that of global economic integration and interdependence, so did the view of the experts of Third World development shift from autarky, regionalism, or exclusive ties with the Soviet Bloc countries to international economic cooperation, comparative advantage of an international division of labor, tripartite (East-West-South) industrial cooperation, and so on. These experts also modified their previous views of the role of foreign capital, import-substitution policies, the efficacy of the public sector, comprehensive planning and nationalization programs. [2]



The theory of “two world markets” was originally elaborated by Stalin in 1951. Stalin maintained that the emergence from WW II of the “powerful socialist camp” had disintegrated the “single, all-embracing world market” and divided it into two separate markets: one “socialist,” the other capitalist (1952: 26-27). Since Stalin avoided discussing the questions posed by decolonization policies and the national liberation movements, he left the place and the role of colonial and other less-developed countries unspecified in his scheme of “two world markets.”

Although Stalin’s heirs revised his sectarian policy toward the developing countries, they did not abandon his theory of “two world markets,” because it provided them with a convenient framework to justify their own policies toward these countries. Indeed they further elaborated this theory as successive national liberation movements of the 1960s and 1970s heightened the prospects for the expansion of the “socialist” market and the contraction of the capitalist one. They extended Stalin’s sectarian notion  of a “communist camp” to a vast and open-ended spectrum of an “anti-imperialist camp” in which there was no precise weighting attached to the relative importance of a country’s economic structure or balance of class forces as opposed to its foreign policy, or more exactly, its relationship with the Soviet Union (Clarkson, 1978: 27).

Together with the impressive growth rates of the Soviet economy in the late 1950s and early 1960s (partly due to Stakhanovist labor speed-ups, partly because of statistical falsifications and gross overratings) the social upheavals in the colonial and other Third World countries created such  optimism in Moscow that Khrushchev frequently spoke of “burying” capitalism in the foreseeable future by extending generous aid and trade relations to the developing world, thereby gradually replacing the capitalist markets. Accordingly, in the Soviet academic circles there were echoes that “The Soviet ruble will soon start to enter the world market, there progressively supplanting the dollar” (Valkenier, 1983: 5).

Thus there evolved a new formula for the internationalization of socialism: a gradual nibbling away at the capitalist markets and preserves, by the bourgeois nationalism of the Third World, which would eventually lead to the collapse of capitalist markets and the triumph of socialism! What was necessary was that the nationalist bourgeoisie of the developing countries play its projected part in this scenario: to break up relations with capitalist markets and establish ties with “socialist” ones, to carry out extensive nationalizations and build up a strong state sector, to implement central planning and comprehensive industrialization programs, etc. The thesis of “non- capitalist transition to socialism,” officially introduced to The Conference of Communist and Workers’ Parties convened in Moscow in 1960, was formulated to serve as a guideline to the fulfillment of these objectives.



Within the global framework of economics and geopolitics there is, according to the “two world camps” theory, on the one hand, the “anti- imperialist camp,” on the other, the “imperialist camp.” In between are the uncommitted nations at a crossroads. The latter group of nations have a “choice” between “only two” paths of development: either free enterprise, market capitalism—which would lead to “neo-colonial” or “dependent” capitalism–or “modern” state capitalism, which would lead to socialism (Solodovnikov and Bogoslovsky, 1975: 94-95). The thesis of “non-capitalist” is thus best understood as an economic, political and ideological package designed to persuade the “ruling circles” of the uncommitted nations to embark on the state-capitalist course of development, and thus join the “anti- imperialist camp.” In this way, these ruling circles could both protect their flanks from accusations associated with “dependent” capitalism–“reactionary,” “pro-imperialist,” etc.–and enjoy the benefits associated with state capitalism–“progressive,” “revolutionary,” “anti-imperialist,” and the like. More importantly, they could more easily stabilize their rule and consolidate their power in the shadow of state capitalism (and in the name of the masses) than under “dependent” capitalism.

The specialists of the “non-capitalist” thesis use the term “ruling circles” interchangeably with terms like “political regime,” “ruling powers,” “national bourgeoisie,” and the like without making clear the class composition or the character of these “circles.” But from the overall context of their writings it is clear that these experts use the term “ruling circles” in a flexible and open-ended sense. As such it could mean any of the existing Third World governments. For example, R. Ulyanovsky, one of the major proponents of this thesis points out that not only “the national democratic regimes” but also governments “in power in countries like India, Pakistan, Iran[3],Turkey, the Philippines, etc.” could potentially make a peaceful transition to socialism via economic reforms of “modern capitalism” (1980: 149-50).

For the first ten years after the inception of the theory of “non-capitalist” development–from the late 1950s to the late 1960s–the hopes and illusions (or perhaps delusions) of a peaceful non-capitalist transition to socialism ran high among the proponents of the theory. They hailed nationalization programs promulgated in India, Egypt, Guinea, Indonesia and Burma as non-capitalist steps toward “socialism.” Enticed by the prospects of the rapid development toward “socialism” of a number of developing countries, the Soviet leaders in this period disregarded any economic rationale in the aid-trade relations with these countries; politics and ideology were of primary consideration. Indeed, Khrushchev liked to boast that in promoting the economic liberation of the developing countries the Soviet Union eschewed the notion of “mutual advantages” and knowingly followed policies that were “disadvantageous to us” (Pravda, July 13, 1958: 4).

Proponents of the theory of “non-capitalist” development claimed that economic cooperation, political influence and the “power of example of triumphant socialism” (in conjunction with imperialist pressure) would help dispel the reservations of the nationalist leaders regarding socialism, and hence propel them in their pursuit of the “non-capitalist” path of development to socialism.

True, the possibility of obtaining technology, credit and other types of economic assistance from the USSR and its allies did indeed provide these leaders with the opportunity of charting national development strategies independent of direct influence from Western economic powers–indirect economic effects of the world capitalist system could not be eliminated, as they are not eliminated even for the Soviet bloc countries themselves. Moreover, the effect of the economic cooperation of the Soviet Bloc countries with the developing countries goes beyond the actual amount of economic assistance they receive; it has strengthened the bargaining position of their nationalist leaders in dealing with Western economic powers. As these powers compete with the Soviet Bloc countries to influence these leaders, they are forced to grant credit and other forms of economic assistance without attaching “strings” as to internal economic policy.

But to conclude from this that “the existence and the struggle of the two world socioeconomic systems” is “the objective prerequisite” for the development of the “national liberation revolution into socialist revolution” is a different argument. It is an argument which attempts to replace class antagonisms, or class alliances, by those of national, regional, or international blocs (Solodovnikov and Bogoslovsky, 1975: 87- 97).It is all well and good to point out the positive role that the USSR and its allies have played in the economic development and national independence of the developing countries. But it is important to point out at the same time that although the Soviet policy vis-a-vis the developing countries has weakened the imperialist pressure on these countries, it has also weakened autonomous movements of the popular masses as it has subordinated independent class organizations of the workers and peasants to the policy of a united national front from above, and hence to nationalist leaders. Viewed from this angle, the policy has played the role of a brake upon world communist movements. State capitalist and nationalist regimes of the Third World owe much of their prolonged rule and disguised character to this policy, because it provides them with the opportunity to maneuver between the “two world camps.”

In attempting to formulate a theory of development and a theory of social change that would dovetail with the theory of “two world markets,” the experts of “non-capitalist” development have thus distorted both theoretical issues and actual developments. These include the role and the impact of foreign capital on  Third World countries, the assessment and characterization of the socioeconomic structure of these countries, and the role and character of bourgeois-nationalism. These experts also distorted Marxian concepts of the State, socialism, the class struggle, exploitation and the laws of the development of capitalism. For years these specialists (like those of the Dependency school) insisted that international capital blocked the development of capitalism in the developing countries, that therefore the socioeconomic structures in these countries remained primarily feudal or semi-feudal, and that, as a result, there was “no clear-cut class differentiation” in these societies. From these vague generalizations and ad hoc assessments the dubious conclusion was derived that “national democratic leaders” of these countries, representing the interests of all the “undifferentiated” layers of society, would lead their countries toward socialism on an anti-feudal and anti- imperialist platform (Stanis et al., 1976: 34-35).

Once the theorists of “non-capitalist” development altered the Marxian vehicle of social change from the poor and working classes to the “ruling circles” of bourgeois nationalism, alteration of other Marxian categories followed accordingly. The socialism of these theorists is little more than State ownership of the means of production and a centrally-planned economy. It can thus be achieved not as an outcome dictated by the dynamics of the class struggle, but as a “choice,” as a series of planning policies implemented by the existing “ruling circles.”

Corresponding to this notion of socialism is the notion of the State which views State power not as a disguised representative of the ruling classes and an instrument of the class struggle, but as its regulator. According to these theorists, “The State will gradually mould the society, creating the conditions for a step by step transition to a society in which socialist production will predominate” (quoted by Slovo, 1974: 182).

Proponents of the “non-capitalist” theory have also altered the Marxian concept of exploitation. The notion of exploitation in this theory originates not in the process of production but in the process of trade and exchange, hence not between the class of producers and the class that owns the means of production but between nations of the “core” and nations of the “periphery.”

As the relationship between exploitation and production is thus obfuscated, so is the relationship between imperialism and capitalism, or, more precisely, the relationship between imperialism and the internationalization of capital. The imperialism of the “non-capitalist” thesis is either a general ideological category with no scientific explanation or, as B. Beckman puts it, “something reduced to what some specific actors, foreign firms, or the United States government are doing” (1981: 8). Proponents of this thesis make no effort to establish the relationship between imperialism and the dynamics of capitalism on a world scale; they do not even acknowledge the existence of any such inherent relationship. These theorists have reversed or abandoned the Marxian concepts that the process of capitalist development is essentially a process of self-expanding value, that foreign markets are in essence the extension of home markets, and that the penetration of capital from the “heart” to the “extremities” of the bourgeois organism is bound to create a world in the image of the bourgeoisie at the “heart” of this organism, to borrow some of Marx’s terms.

The political conclusion is clear: imperialist exploitation mechanically welds together all classes in a united national front from without. Imperialist pressure will also trivialize, or even remove altogether, class conflicts within the national front. Due to the “major contradiction” between the “national bloc” and imperialism, contradictions within the national bloc “should not be pushed to the forefront at this stage. As for the future, it may well be that these contradictions will go without having reached a critical point. This will depend on both sides [the Left and the national bourgeoisie], on concrete united front tactics and a principled yet flexible line on the part of the communists” (Ulyanovsky, 1971: 126-27).

The political and ideological framework thus established, then, guided the economic agenda for the developing countries: as foreign capital and economic relations with the advanced capitalist countries and market forces caused backwardness, their curtailment meant “economic liberation” and “progress.” On the other hand, state capitalist measures and the role of state capitalism were considered crucial not only for rapid economic development, but also as transitional steps toward socialism through nationalizations, central planning, and extensive economic ties with the Soviet Union and its allies.


IV. A NEW WORLD OUTLOOK: From the “Two World Markets” Theory to World Economic Integration

In recent years,  a new assessment has developed in the official Soviet view of (and approach to) the international economic situation. The new world outlook views the global economy not as two mutually exclusive and irreconcilable markets or systems, but as an integrated and interdependent world market in which the international division of labor and the concomitant comparative advantage of international trade can be beneficial to all participants. The following extract from a recent Soviet Foreign Ministry document epitomizes the new perspective: “It is all the more strange to talk about irreconcilable interests of states with different social systems now….It follows that the Soviet workers’ solidarity with their class brothers in the West far from justifies the thesis of global class confrontation” (as quoted in The New York Times, January 7, 1989, p. 27).

Assessments and statements along these lines abound in the Soviet Union these days, especially among the liberal wing of the bureaucracy. The new thinking is best delineated by Gorbachev himself in his much celebrated book Perestroika. Some of the major points of the book that underlie the new thinking include: rejection of economic and cultural isolation in favor of integration; rejection of class warfare in favor of class collaboration; rejection of conflicts and struggles based on class interests in favor of those based on “universal human interests” such as democracy, justice, ecological concerns, universal peace, and the like.

The Soviet Union has in recent years made concrete overtures to Western banks, corporations, and economic organizations to win their confidence regarding its plans to break out of regionalism and relative economic isolation. For example, it recently settled Czarist debts to Britain to erase barriers to Eurobond markets and sought observer status in the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), which writes world trade rules. It also announced a decision to liberalize its foreign- trade rules. The plan to eliminate the state monopoly of foreign trade began in 1986 on a limited scale. The extension of the plan since then became clear in recent months when the Soviet foreign trade authorities announced on April 1, 1989 that “enterprises could deal directly with foreign customers and suppliers for the first time. Previously the enterprises had to go through foreign trade organizations attached to the Ministry of Foreign Trade, which has been disbanded.” (The New York Times, May 15, 1989).

As part of the plan to attract foreign capital, the Soviet Union also now permits foreign capitalists to establish joint business ventures in the U.S.S.R. The plan, originally appearing in the 27 January 1987 issue of Pravda, allowed “foreign investors for the first time to hold as much as 49% equity and a management role in Soviet industrial facilities.” It has since been amended in an effort to clear up difficulties and uncertainties in the legislation in order to entice more foreign investors to do business in the Soviet Union. New liberalizing measures have recently been considered that would “allow foreign partners to own up to 80% of a joint venture, and to staff them with more of their own people, including at the top level….Also Moscow may no longer require that a venture’s chairman and director be Soviet citizens” (The Wall Street Journal, April 6, 1987: 25 & October 13, 1989: 13).

Gorbachev and his co-thinkers have been working very hard to rationalize these drastic revisions. Their efforts to portray the thinking of the liberal wing of the bureaucracy as noble ideological and theoretical revelations that would enrich Marxism-Leninism is part of this undertaking. Gorbachev’s perceptions of “universalization” of human interests and “globalization” of political solutions are philosophical bases for the new “ideology.” Here is how Gorbachev put it in his report to the 27th Party congress:


“The course of history, of social progress, requires ever more insistently that there should be constructive and creative interaction between states and peoples on the scale of the entire world. Not only does it so require, but it also creates the requisite political, social, and material premises for it….Such interaction is essential in order to prevent nuclear catastrophe, in order that civilization can survive. It is essential in order that worldwide problems that are growing more acute should also be resolved jointly in the interests of all concerned.”


The idea recurs frequently in his book Perestroika:


“And we have not only read anew the reality of a multi-colored and multi-dimensional world. We have assessed not only the difference in the interests of individual states. We have seen the main issue–the growing tendency towards interdependence of the states of the world community. Such are the dialectics of present-day development” (1987: 137).


In order to propagate and publicize the new thinking, a whole array of new publications and periodicals have appeared in recent years. One such recently-emerged periodical is the widely circulated Politicheskoe Samoobrazovanie (or “political self-education”). It published in its third issue of 1987 an article which was titled “The Creative Character of Marxist -Leninist Theory of Revolution.” In it the author, I. Plimok, states:


“Something else which is new, from the point of view of principles, is the thesis concerning the global unity of the world at its present stage of development. Marx thought of associated humanity only from the communist perspective. But the ‘globalization’ of forms of struggle at the end of the twentieth century, as well as the appearance of global problems, has led collective Marxist thought to the conclusion that although the world that is being gradually constituted is a contradictory world, it is, from many points of view, globally united and mutually interdependent” (as cited by Mandel, 1989: 125).


This and numerous similar statements are clear expressions of Gorbachev and his co-thinkers’ desperate need for an ideological identity. As Ernest Mandel points out: “The ‘mutual dependence’ of Kremlin ‘socialism’ and American capitalism has been elevated to the level of a thesis of ‘Marxism’: poor Marx would turn in his grave. This is obviously an attempt to rationalize, on the ideological level, the relation of mutual dependence between the American grain surplus and the Soviet Union’s grain shortage” (Ibid.).



The shift away from the theory of two mutually exclusive world markets to universal economic integration has been accompanied by a similar shift in the approach to socioeconomic developments of Third World countries. That is, Soviet experts of the developing nations (who inform, advise and shape the official approach to the Third World) now encourage these nations to participate in the international division of labor and tripartite (East-West-South) industrialization and business projects. This is diametrically opposed to the previous view, which encouraged these countries to avoid relations with the advanced capitalist countries and to opt, instead, for import substitution policies, regionalism, and exclusive ties with the Soviet Bloc countries.

To be sure, these revisions started before Gorbachev’s accession to power; they have only been intensified under his rule. The new approach has found its reflection in almost all issues of socioeconomic developments in the Third World. To begin with, the very meaning and purpose of development has come under revision. Whereas economic development was earlier equated with independence from imperialism and with national liberation, it is now measured in economic terms: production, industrialization, and growth, which should bring social and political stability.


The previous view of the role of the state sector as the universal panacea fostering the shortest road both to economic development and socialism has also come under scrutiny in recent years. Proponents of perestroika do not now hesitate to forcefully question the efficacy of the state sector and to point out the advantages of market forces. Economists and ideologues of this persuasion point to South Korea and Taiwan as examples of emulation for the development of Third World economies. There is no more reference in the writings of these economists to the so-called non-capitalist path of development, extensive nationalizations, or comprehensive planning. Instead, a slow, stable, and “normal” pace of development within the prevailing socioeconomic structures is now recommended for the developing economies.


1. The Role of Foreign Capital

The role of foreign capital has come under a similar reassessment. Pragmatic technocrats argue that positive effects of Western capital–transfer of technology and expertise, the erosion of ossified social relations, the initiation of faster growth in some sectors of the economy, and inclusion in the world market–should be acknowledged and discussed. For example, Andrey V. Kozyrev, a proponent of Perestroika and deputy chief of the International Organizations Administration in the Soviet Foreign Ministry, recently suggested in an article in The New York Times that “the majority of developing countries…suffer not so much from capitalism but from a lack of it” (January 7, 1989: 27).

It is true that many Third World countries suffer from a lack of capital. But this does not mean that they suffer from a lack of capitalism. There are many other Third World countries that are not short of capital and economic resources, especially oil and other minerals and raw materials. Yet they suffer from poverty and backwardness because of capitalism. It is all good and well that Gorbachev and his co-thinkers are shattering the dogmatic attitude of their predecessors and conservative opponents toward foreign capital, and are acknowledging its positive and progressive effects. But it is equally important to point out: (a) its negative effects, and (b) the question of control and management. No amount of capital, foreign or domestic, can cure the ills of a depressed economy if it is mismanaged by a bureaucratic caste or a state capitalist elite, separate from producers and consumers.

A number of the proponents of the new thinking have begun to investigate the contribution of foreign capital to local development plans, to capital formation, and to implementation of social reforms. In response to conservative ideologues who insist on the dependency, neo-colonial, and retarding effects of foreign capital, Evgenii Primakov, Director of the Oriental Studies Institute, developed as early as 1978 the idea of two types of dependence: one, the classic, “one-sided,” and exploitative dependency, the other, the mutual or “many-sided” dependency  characteristic of the new international economic situation. That is, due to present world economic integration, dependency affects all countries (Primakov, 1978; as cited in Valkenier, 1983: 93-94).

From this view of universal mutual dependence proponents of the new line then derive their theory of trilateral (East-West-South) specialization and international division of labor. These proponents claim that by specializing in and producing what is most advantageous to them relative to developed countries, the developing countries will be able to acquire both the necessary funds and skills to establish first, labor-intensive light industries, then, intermediate technologies, and eventually, heavy industries (Zevin, 1981: 295-301).

Although slightly differently worded, this has always been the rationale for the international division of labor and specialization, the cornerstone of the Ricardian theory of comparative costs/advantage of international trade, which is largely identified with perpetuating the patterns of absolute advantage (or disadvantage) of international trade, hence of mono-culture or single-crop in the less-developed areas. Whether it will produce the intended objectives this time remains to be seen.


2. The Relevance of Marxism

The relevance of the Marxian analysis of historical developments to the developing countries has also come under reassessment. In contrast to the previous period in which Soviet Third World experts frequently referred to Marx and Engels’ correspondence with Russian Populists regarding the likelihood of a non-capitalist development to socialism, these experts now refer to their popular formula that there is a sequential relationship between economic development and social change. Some of these specialists have stopped giving any ritualistic lip service to the Marxist methodology altogether and have rejected it as inappropriate for the study of these societies: “Is there any sense to searching for regularities in the socioeconomic development common to all [developing countries], given their mosaic-like, deeply contradictory reality [and]…the endless variety in their present-day development?” (Shmelev, 1985:115; as quoted in Valkenier, 1987: 663).

The reassessment began as early as the mid-1970s. This was when the Soviet Third World experts and Party ideologues were trying to find out why none of the cases of “non-capitalist” development–Egypt, Guinea, Indonesia, Burma, Mali, and few other cases–led to socialism, as they had projected. However, the failure of these cases was explained at that time largely by exogenous, non-systemic factors such as “penetration of bourgeois elements into higher posts,” “counter-revolutionary plots,” and the like. That is, these failures were considered as aberrations to the universal laws of development toward socialism, and the relevance of the Marxian analysis to these developments remained therefore unquestioned.

This has now changed. Leading Soviet experts of the developing countries no longer explain these failures by external factors. Instead, they lay the blame on indigenous, systemic factors: “unripe objective and subjective conditions” for socialist transformations. A common argument in favor of this line of reasoning is the “rigidity” of traditions and the uniqueness of social formations in most Third World countries: the role of religion, of nationalism, of “Eastern” culture, of “Asiatic” mode of production, and so on. All these characteristics of “immobilism of the East,” the argument maintains, stand in sharp contrast to “Western dynamism and civilization,” the thrust of revolutionary Marxism (by the “East” Soviet experts usually mean the less-developed countries of Asia and Africa).[4]

A close look into the writings of the Soviet Third World experts reveals that the Iranian revolution of the 1979 played a major role in this drastic change of outlook. Whereas the disappointment with the Egyptian “non-capitalist development to socialism” had cast some doubt over the “Marxist-Leninist” approach to the developing countries in the early 1970s, the disappointment with the Iranian revolution clinched the burial of that approach in the early 1980s. The “failure” of the Iranian revolution to proceed along a “non-capitalist” path of development toward socialism, as had been projected/hoped by the Soviet Third World experts, prompted the Oriental Institute to sponsor a study group of high-caliber specialists to investigate the reasons for that “failure.” The study led to the publication of a book which has played a pioneering role in the reversal of the Soviet approach to Third World developments. The analysis focuses on the role of traditions like religion and nationalism in the developing countries and concludes that these and similar cultural values are of a more lasting character than had previously been realized or acknowledged, that these traditions constitute almost insurmountable barriers to change in socioeconomic models, and that therefore the Soviet theoreticians and ideologues should forsake the idea of a common destiny for societies with variegated and unique economic structures and social fabrics (Reisner and Simoniya, eds., 1984; as cited by Valkenier, 1987: 661-63).

Gorbachev provided the formal blessing for this doctrine in his address to the 27th Party Congress in February 1986, when he pointed out that the Soviet Union accepted that each country determines its own development model and its own future.

Gorbachev and his co-thinkers are not unmindful of the fact that their rejection of the relevance of Marxist analysis to socioeconomic transformations of the less-developed areas is in direct conflict with the theory and experience of the October revolution which erupted not in an advanced capitalist country but in the less-developed capitalist country of the Imperial Russia, and which radically transformed the social formation of that old system. How do they explain this? Well, necessity is the mother of invention. The Gorbachev supporters and advisors have invented a new theory of modes of production and social formation. According to this theory, there are three different modes of capitalist production, each with its own unique preconditions for socialist revolution: the “classic” West European model, the Russian model, and the Eastern or Third World model. In the case of the last mode, the new theory maintains, preconditions for socialist revolution are most formidable. It is then concluded that because of the markedly different sociocultural conditions, this model will not follow/repeat the paths traversed by either of the other two models [5] (Valkenier, 1987: 661-65).

The Soviet bureaucracy’s approach to Marxism has always been a self-serving approach. The bureaucracy, starting with Stalin, has always used Marxism as an ideological tool for the justification of the official policy. If it is considered useful to the interests of the Soviet Union, as perceived by the bureaucracy, it is then relevant; otherwise it is not. Thus it was relevant under the “two world systems” doctrine as it was useful to that doctrine. But it is no longer relevant because it is not useful to the “world integration” and “universal values” doctrine of Gorbachev and his cohorts.

It is one thing to question the validity of the Marxian analysis of and projections for historical developments on its own grounds. It is quite another to question this validity on the grounds that many Third World revolutions have failed to lead to socialism. Aside from their inherent or indigenous potentials to transform their societies to socialism, none of these revolutions have been immune from the paralyzing effects of foreign intervention. To the crippling effects of imperialist intervention must be added the retarding impact of the Kremlin’s “two world camps” doctrine which put a brake on the revolutionary developments in many parts of the world through the local communist parties and through the policy of a united national front from above, which secured the leadership of the “national” bourgeoisie in these revolutions, thereby assuring their defeat.

How any of these revolutionary situations would have evolved in the absence of foreign intervention is difficult to tell. But to claim that the actual history of these revolutions is evidence that socialism cannot be realized in these countries is far from warranted. “If history is a giant social laboratory,” as Stephen Shalom put it, “it is one in which some of the rats are running around smashing the test tubes containing results they don’t like” (1989: 39).

True, socialist transformations in small countries susceptible to foreign intervention are highly unlikely in the absence of socialist transformations in advanced economies, a view taken for granted on the Left until Stalin’s view of “the possibility of socialism in one country.” Thus the capitalist ideologues, and now also the pragmatic ideologues of the Soviet Bloc countries, may be correct when they say that socialism cannot be realized in many less-developed countries. But this unrealizability is more of a factual character than a theoretical one. That is, the impossibility of achieving a socialist society in a less-developed country is less because of the difficulties of economic underdevelopment than it is because those who try to achieve such a society will be smashed from the outside.


3. Attitude toward Social Upheavals in the Third World

Underdevelopment of Third World nations is no longer seen as favorable grounds to mobilize these nations against imperialism, but menaces to world peace and stability. The disaffected millions on the verge of starvation have no “defined social orientation” and are motivated by a “hatred for material and technical culture.” The contemporary implications of underdevelopment transform it into a dangerous element “of a deeply reactionary” character that threatens world civilization (as cited by Valkenier, 1983: 88).

This is quite a change of heart, so to speak. Terms like “hatred for material and technical culture,” “deeply reactionary,” “non-defined social orientations,” and similar expressions that are used by proponents of perestroika to justify their program of withdrawing support from Third World revolutions come very close to the notorious characterization of the Russian revolution by Robert Lansing, Woodrow Wilson’s Secretary of State. The Secretary warned that the spread of Bolshevik “disease” would leave the “ignorant and incapable mass of humanity dominant on the earth.” The Bolsheviks, he warned, were appealing “to the ignorant and mentally deficient, who by their numbers are urged to become master,…a very real danger in view of the process of social unrest throughout the world” (Chomsky, 1989: 20).

Recently, supporters of perestroika have also begun a vehement criticism of the pre-Gorbachev approach to radical sociopolitical developments in the Third World. For example, a recent foreign policy document, carrying the imprimatur of top officials, stated:

“At times a primitive system was used to identify belligerence with anti-imperialism, and to identify the ultra-progressive phraseology of some individuals and movements in the developing countries with their socioeconomic practices, which were distant not only from socialist transformations but also from democratic transformations as such, in both the economic and political spheres” (as quoted in The New York Times, January 7, 1989).

It is all to the credit of the new policy that exposes the previous policy of support for Third World revolutions as being motivated by self-interest (i.e., by the perceived exigencies of the “two world camps” competition). However, the credit that the new policy thus earns becomes minimal, if not altogether wiped out, by the fact that this policy of “hands-off” Third World revolutions is equally motivated by self-interest (i.e., by the perceived exigencies of world economic integration and cooperation). The Soviet bureaucracy’s attitude toward the nationalist leaders of the Third World has always been a utilitarian one. Thus, under the “two world markets” doctrine these leaders were called “revolutionary democrats,” or even “socialists,” as it was hoped that these gratuitous labels served the purposes of that doctrine. But under the new doctrine of “world economic cooperation and interdependence,” it is said that the social upheavals headed by these leaders are motivated by a “hatred for material and technical culture.”

The Gorbachev team’s criticism of the previous approach and their policy of disengaging the U.S.S.R. from “problems” of small radical states is not due to any new theoretical revelations or a concern for socialist internationalism. It is rather prompted by their concern to gain the confidence and cooperation of world capitalists and their governments in order to acquire their capital, technology, and managerial know-how. Gorbachev and his co-thinkers do not make any bones about this. This is how Gorbachev put it in his address to a February 1987 forum on peace and disarmament in Moscow:

“Before my people, before you, and before the whole world, I state with full responsibility that our international policy is more than ever determined by domestic policy, by our interest in concentrating on constructive endeavors to improve our country….This is why we need lasting peace, predictability, and constructiveness in international relations.”

Some of the indications of what all these revisions mean for Third World revolutions are evidenced by the Soviet policy under Gorbachev toward countries such as Cuba, Nicaragua, Vietnam, South Africa, and the Philippines. The eruption of the massive social upheaval against the regime of Ferdinand Marcos was a first test for Gorbachev’s foreign policy. His policy of “world stability” meant that he shared the U.S. view that the removal of Marcos would release an uncontrollable revolutionary situation in this strategically important part of the world, and that therefore the dictator should be supported (as long as tenable) in order to prevent this “danger.” Thus, when in February 1986, Marcos held fraudulent elections and declared himself the winner–something that even the United States had difficulty in swallowing–the Soviet Union congratulated him for “winning” the elections. The message of congratulations was delivered on February 19 to Marcos by Soviet Ambassador Vadmin I. Shabalin.

Another example of the consequences of Gorbachev’s policy of cooperation with Washington is demonstrated by the case of Nicaragua. The Soviet Union has in the last few years drastically cut its aid to and trade with Nicaragua. As a result of the initial cut  in the supply of oil by 40 percent, the Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega announced on 6 June 1987, that the government was cutting oil consumption by five percent and raising the price of gasoline by 177 percent. Because of the need to raise the price of fuel, Ortega said, it was necessary to raise the price of 54 basic consumer goods (Facts on File, June 15-22, 1987; Benjamin, 1987: 14).  This example is indicative of how Gorbachev’s eagerness to earn the confidence and cooperation of the West is further aggravating the crippling effects of the U.S. economic boycott on the Nicaraguan economy, thereby making it more vulnerable to the continued imperialist attacks and pressures.

The consequences of the Gorbachev foreign policy for other small radical states such as Cuba, Vietnam, and Mozambique are similar to those for Nicaragua. As the Soviet Union is curtailing its economic ties with these countries, it is also advising their leaders for moderation and reconsideration of the positive role of market mechanism. Proponents of the new outlook no longer hesitate “to warn the African National Congress (ANC) against a program of extensive nationalization of private property, suggesting, instead, that the ANC extend guarantees to the middle class” (Strushenko’s speech to the 2nd Soviet-African Conference in Moscow; as cited by Valkenier, 1987: 659).



What are the implications of all these revisions for revolutionary movements around the world, especially for those of the Third World?

The consequences of the reorientation of the Soviet foreign policy under Gorbachev are far from either positive or negative; they carry both benefits and losses. We do not wish to derive an algebraic sum from these pluses and minuses here. Instead, we would like to present pictures of both sides.

To begin with, the view that Gorbachev’s policy of withdrawing support from revolutionary movements and radical states in the Third World is a “sell-out” of world socialist revolution is unwarranted. As pointed out earlier, the Soviet support for these movements and states has always been out of self-interest, not a commitment to further world socialist revolution. The sell-out of socialist internationalism began not under Gorbachev, as his conservative opponents in the Soviet bureaucracy and their cohorts outside the U.S.S.R. argue, but under Stalin–indeed, as soon as Stalin usurped the leadership of the Soviet state in 1924, following Lenin’s death that year.

At that time, the European communist and/or socialist parties, as well as working class organizations in general, were more radical and much stronger than they are today. Also, the Bolsheviks, the young Soviet state, and the Comintern (Communist International) were very prestigious and popular at that time, with a lot of influence among European communist parties and the working class at large. By contrast, the European capitalist class was weak, vulnerable, and in retreat. It had been shaken by the First World War, by the victorious Russian revolution, and by the constant challenges of the powerful working class, inspired by the example of the Bolshevik revolution.

Under these circumstances, discussions and debates, especially within the Comintern, over the spread of socialism to Europe did not sound as abstract and remote as they do today; they were indeed very real. The question of the tasks and perspectives of the Comintern and/or the U.S.S.R. regarding socialist internationalism was posed in the following way: whether the Soviet Union should encourage and actually support Comintern parties and other revolutionary forces in Europe in an effort to spread socialism–even if this meant confronting European governments and thus risking the Soviet revolution–or to avoid such a revolutionary course and opt, instead, for compromise and coexistence. Although the latter course meant abandoning world revolution, its proponents hoped it would safeguard the gains and the future of the Russian  revolution. The Bolshevik leadership split over this question along two major lines: one held by Stalin, and the other by the Left Opposition, headed by Trotsky.

Trotsky and his co-thinkers supported the revolutionary line, arguing that the defense of the Soviet revolution must be subordinated to the support of the world revolution because without the spread of revolution to advanced capitalist countries the Soviet revolution could not lead to socialism. This is a Marxian theory that was shared up to this point by all Marxists. At this point, however, Stalin developed a new doctrine, the doctrine of the possibility of building socialism in a single country. Trotsky described Stalin’s new doctrine in the following words:

“The new doctrine proclaims that socialism can be built on the basis of a national state if only there is no intervention (original emphasis). From this there can and must follow (notwithstanding all pompous declarations in the draft program) a collaboration policy towards the foreign bourgeoisie with the object of averting intervention, as this will guarantee the construction of socialism, that is to say, will solve the main historical question. The task of the parties in the Comintern assumes, therefore, an auxiliary character; their mission is to protect the U.S.S.R. from intervention and not to fight for the conquest of power. It is, of course, not a question of subjective intention but of the objective logic of political thought” (1970: 61).

As Stalin crushed the Opposition and introduced this doctrine into the Comintern, socialist internationalism became an empty slogan for the Kremlin bureaucrats, a lip service to Marxism and a bargaining chip in dealing with Western powers. Thereafter, the Soviet support to revolutionary movements around the world was used to control these movements, not to further world socialist revolution. Where the Kremlin actually controlled Left movements–often through local communist parties–it used them as foreign policy levers in its geopolitical dealings with both Western powers and local governments. Not accidently, all these revolutions suffered the same fate: bloody defeat. In country after country–from China in 1925-27 to Chile in the early 1970s–the Stalinist parties (guided by the Kremlin) betrayed the workers and peasants’ movements and aspirations. Where the Kremlin could not control a revolution, it tried to derail it–as in Spain during the civil war in 1936.

There have been instances where revolutionary forces have received support from the Soviet Union but have occasionally managed not to follow the Kremlin’s directives, and have thus succeeded in bringing about revolutionary transformations of their societies despite Moscow’s trepidations. Cuba and Vietnam were two such cases. Evidence shows that while in the mid-1970s the collapse of the old regime in South Vietnam was imminent and the North Vietnamese were on their way to Saigon, the Soviet Union (along with the United States and other mediators) was pressing for a negotiated settlement in Paris. This was a replay of the policy toward the Cuban revolutionaries in the mid-1950s, known as the July 26th Movement. There too the Soviet leadership (through the pro-Moscow Cuban communist party) advised the leaders of the Movement in favor of compromise and collaboration with the Batista regime up to the last moments of its collapse. Once beyond the point of no return, the Kremlin turned around and hailed the victorious revolutionaries–at the same time also congratulating itself for their support!

But isn’t it the case that despite the self-regarding character of the Soviet support for countries like Cuba, Vietnam, Angola, and Nicaragua, it has nevertheless been crucial for their survival? Didn’t the Soviet support also played an important role in anti-colonial and nation-building efforts of many former colonies and other developing countries? Didn’t also the possibility of acquiring technology, credit, and other types of economic assistance from the U.S.S.R. provide many developing countries with the opportunity of self-assertion vis-a-vis economic pressures from the West?

The answer to all these questions is in the affirmative. There is no gainsaying the positive side of the Soviet role in socioeconomic developments of the Third World, as was pointed out earlier in this study. The point is, rather, to understand the dual character of that role. The question we will try to answer in the remaining part of this study is this: how will the positive/constructive effects of that dual role (as enumerated in the preceding paragraph) be affected by the Gorbachev’s withdrawing of Soviet support for the developing countries? We will try to answer this question on several grounds.


1. Economic Impact.

The Soviet technology, aid to and trade with India, Egypt, and a number of other developing countries played a significant part in the economic development of these countries in the 1950s and 1960s. During this period, the U.S.S.R. possessed both economic capacity and political will to extend substantial economic assistance to its allies in the Third World. As pointed out earlier, Soviet aid to and trade with these countries during this period was largely motivated by political considerations rather than by business-like calculations of costs and benefits. Although after the late 1960s and early 1970s such business-like calculations began to enter the Soviet-Third World Agreements, those agreements continued to be more favorable to the developing countries than alternative agreements with the West. Again, as pointed out earlier, the impact of economic cooperation of the Soviet Union with the developing countries was much more than the actual amount of economic assistance these countries received; it strengthened their bargaining position vis-a-vis Western economic powers. As these powers competed with the Soviet Union, especially for political and ideological reasons, they were forced to grant credit and other forms of economic assistance without attaching strings to internal economic policy.

Under Gorbachev all this has changed. But the vacuum thus created does not represent as big a loss as it might appear. Due to the emergence of many new economic powers during the last two decades or so, the developing nations now have more options in their external economic relations and international trade than they did in the immediate post-Word War II period. At that time (i.e., in the 1950s and 1960s), the U.S. and U.S.S.R. were the only major economic powers in the world. This made the Soviet aid to and trade with the newly emerging and belatedly developing nations crucial in their efforts to resist the U.S. economic pressures. But now these nations have the opportunity to take advantage of the competition between many capitalist economic powers and chart national development strategies independent of direct influence of these powers.


2. Impact on Non-Marxist Radical Regimes

Radical state capitalist and/or “intermediate” regimes–often headed by nationalist leaders like Nasser, Sukarno, Nkrumeh, Sekou Toure’, and Saddam Hossein– benefited the most from the Soviet Union’s “two-world camps” theory and practice of the pre-Gorbachev era. These regimes quickly understood the importance of state capitalist solutions and extensive nationalization programs to the consolidation of their economic and political power vis-a-vis the imperialist pressure and its local allies, the so-called compradore bourgeoisie and feudal nobility. Thus, while in need of popular support domestically, and of Soviet support externally, they employed all kinds of ultra-progressive and socialist slogans, and embarked on broad nationalizations of land and major means of production. Once firmly in control of political and economic power, they reneged on their promises to the popular masses and began programs of privatization, and reverted to where they belonged ideologically: the capitalist camp.

Gorbachev’s foreign policy revisions have taken the wind out of the sails of these regimes by narrowing their margin of maneuvering between the two “camps.”  This is no loss to the workers, peasants, and other popular masses who were often cheated by their nationalist leaders and populist regimes.


3. Impact on Marxist Regimes and Future Revolutions

The impact of Gorbachev’s foreign policy reforms on Left-wing governments in Cuba, Vietnam, Nicaragua, Angola and their like, as well as on Left revolutionary movements in general, is mixed. In the short-run, the Soviet disengagement will subject these governments and revolutionary movements to more U.S. pressure. Some of them might consequently experience counter-revolutionary reversals–whether partial or total is difficult to say in advance.

In the long-run, however, a vacuum of Soviet disengagement might be filled with countervailing/compensating forces of an entirely different kind and quality. To begin with, this will strengthen the anti-intervention forces and peace movements in the United States and other major capitalist countries as it will deprive the interventionist ruling circles of these countries from the pretext of a Soviet threat. The increasing unpopularity of the U.S. support for the contras, both in Nicaragua and in Afghanistan, is an indication of such developments. This explains the reluctance of the U.S. foreign policy makers to reciprocate Gorbachev’s foreign policy initiatives. Indeed, major segments of the U.S. ruling class are truly panicked at the prospect of losing the Soviet Union as an adversary that served to rally U.S. citizens around the flag to maintain the status quo domestically, and to justify interventions abroad.

The grotesque Stalinist model of socialism in the U.S.S.R. and other Soviet Bloc countries has for decades served as an automatic discreditor of genuine socialism, hence of the demands of the working class and its allies for social and economic reforms. The debunking of this model of socialism will also deprive the ruling classes in the West of a powerful propaganda instrument to blunt the demands for social change, and hence maintain the status quo. Although these ruling classes are currently celebrating shameful revelations of Stalinism and the concomitant economic paralysis of the Soviet Bloc countries as the end of socialism, history will prove that this celebration is ephemeral.

Political openness inside the Soviet Union and a reduction of tensions internationally–both prompted by Gorbachev’s need to gain confidence and, therefore, capital in the West–will also be beneficial to the working class and its allies in the Soviet Bloc countries. Just as the atmosphere of “two-camp” antagonism and the Cold war era helped the ruling class win the support of the working class in the West, so did it help the ruling bureaucracy in the East maintain its control over the working class there. The strongest justification for the one-party absolute rule in the Soviet Bloc countries has been the threat of capitalism, real but often exaggerated. Gorbachev’s efforts to puncture a hole in the Cold war mentality internationally, and loosen the tight party control at home could lead to an atmosphere of working class activism in the Soviet Bloc countries, with the potential of challenging and maybe even overthrowing the bureaucracy.[6]

In the Third World too the Soviet retreat will open up new revolutionary horizons and political opportunities for the Left, the working class, and other forces favoring social change. While the Soviet support for these forces tempered the imperialist pressure, it also robbed them from establishing their independent class organizations and exercising independent class actions. In the future these forces will have to rely on their own resources and develop their own methods of class struggle independent of the Kremlin. Perhaps the gains from this independence of theoretical/ideological outlook and political action could even outweigh the loss of the half-hearted, self-serving, and ultimately damning support of the Stalin, Khrushchev, and Brezhnev era.

This does not mean that we welcome Gorbachev’s hands-off policy toward revolutionary movements on its own ground, i.e., in an absolute sense. But that we think the loss to these movements as a result of this policy of abstention and default will be less than the damage resulted from the self-regarding and deceptive support of the previous policy. The Kremlin’s claims under Stalin, Khrushchev, and Brezhnev that the U.S.S.R. was the bastion of socialism and that Moscow was at the forefront of socialist internationalism, coupled with its support and control of revolutionary movements and forces in various parts of the world, created a sort of division of labor in which the Kremlin bureaucrats did the thinking and issued “revolutionary” prescriptions while “sister parties” the worldover  did the following. This allowed the Kremlin to put a brake on any independent revolutionary movement that did not follow its directives–as it indeed did so in many occasions,  as was pointed out earlier. It also meant the loss and derailment of the entire Marxian tradition of critical thinking and class struggle.

Gorbachev’s disclaimer of the world revolutionary leadership means that the revolutionary forces worldover are facing an entirely new situation that requires new thinking, new methods of class struggle, and new alliances. It also means new opportunities: contrary to capitalist ideologues who are celebrating the weakening of the role of the Kremlin in world revolutionary movements as an end to socialism, we see in the debunking of the Kremlin as the monopolistic factory of “revolutionary” ideas, new horizons and new chances for socialist ideas and developments. In the absence of a monopoly or centralized claim over socialism and revolutionary leadership, socialist ideas can grow faster and become richer. There is also hope and reason to believe that in the face of imperialist pressure and in the absence of the Soviet support, the Left, the working class, the peasantry and their allies in the Third World and other parts of the world might in the future turn to their class counterparts in the industrialized world for help and support, both in the East and West. Therein lies a tremendous potential for optimism: proliferation of entirely new global alliances, alliances not based on nationalism, regionalism, Third Worldism, or the East and West, but on class interests and class solidarity.



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[1]. I have used extensive extracts from my book (Soviet Non-Capitalist Development. NY: Praeger Publishers, 1989) in the first third of this article.

[2]. Our view of the writings of the Soviet Third Word Experts here is selective: it is a review of only those views that inform, influence, guide or justify the official policies and strategies for the developing countries. This is the case for both the period before Gorbachev and the period since his accession to power.

[3]. Iran was added to the list of these countries in the Persian translation of Ulyanovsky’s book by the Tudeh (mass) Party of Iran (1980, p. 196).

[4]. For a detailed and systematic review of these discussions see Valkenier, 1987.

[5]. One cannot help but wonder how these theorists would explain the social transformations that took place in other less developed countries like China, Cuba, Veitnam and Nicaragua. Following the train of their logic, one can expect an explanation along these lines: the pre-revolutionary socio-economic system in each of these countries represented a markedly different mode of production, which means other developing nations with their own unique economic systems cannot repeat revolutionary experiences similar to those took place in these countries!

[6].  This is one of the two major eventual outcomes of the social and economic developments in the Soviet Bloc countries. The other major likelihood is a restoration of capitalism in these countries. Either outcome would be despite Gorbachev’s ideological will and political capacity. As a good centerist, he is walking a tight rope. While wary of restoration of capitalism, he is double vigilant against workers’ challenge to the rule of the bureaucracy. His efforts to give voice to the grievances of the workers–as was evidenced, e.g., in the recent coal miners’ strikes–are by no means due to a genuine support of workers’ independence from the bureaucracy. Those efforts are prompted rather by a policy of coopting/preempting initiatives from below, thereby maintaining control over the development of events through reforms and initiatives from above. If successful, the policy would also help defeat Gorbachev’s conservative opponents in the bureaucracy by winning the support and loyalty of the working class. This means that if the working class activism and initiatives snowball “out of control,” Gorbachev would not hesitate to take actions similar to those taken by Deng Xioping leadership in China in order to “restore order.”