Looking Back on the World Revolution

Starting a bi-monthly books column, Owen Hatherley looks at a stack of new memoirs and collections on revolutionary ‘Third Worldism’, from 1920s China to 1980s Burkina Faso.

A portrait of Thomas Sankara, the revolutionary leader of Burkina Faso, November 1986. (Photo by Alain Nogues / Sygma / Getty Images.)

Soon after the end of the First World War, a group of young Chinese radicals took a boat to Paris, to look for revolution and enlightenment. Disappointed, they found priests, poverty, and commerce instead. As one of their number, Emi Xiao — who had renamed himself after Emile Zola — travelled further east, he encountered what he was looking for, and fell in love with the Russian Revolution — and, as time went on, with several actual Russians. According to the historian Elizabeth McGuire, the spread of Communist ideas, and the anti-colonial revolutions that they aided and abetted, can be read as a romance. Red at Heart: How Chinese Communists Fell In Love with the Russian Revolution, is a pillow book of world revolution, following the actual affairs between Soviets and Chinese from the first years after 1917 until the 1960s, and the tragic personal consequences of the ‘divorce’. That romance went both ways, and formed a major part of what used to be called Third Worldism, where people from either side of the divide between empire and colony tried to build a united socialist world. This movement has often been dismissed as naïve or apologetic, but a stack of new books contest that comfortable view.

Elaine Mokhtefi’s Algiers, Third World Capital charts this romance from the other side. As a young American socialist, she travelled to France and then to Algeria as an interpreter, fixer, and organiser for the Algerian government that had emerged after a bitter anti-colonial war. A committed pole of anti-imperial and socialist attraction for Africa, Asia, and the Americas, Algiers was a refuge for liberation movements, from the Palestinians to the Black Panthers. Due to her fluency in French and English, Mokhtefi became close to Eldridge Cleaver, at that point in a dispute with Huey P. Newton back in the US over the Party’s direction. What makes Mokhtefi’s book so moving is her steadfast fidelity to the radical ideas these movements advocated, and her unromantic honesty about their collapse under the weight of repression and egomania.

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