Dissertation Defense: Benjamin Feldman
Candidate Name: Benjamin Feldman
Advisor: Michael Kazin, Ph.D.
Title: “Liberation from the Affluent Society: The Political Thought of the Third World in Post-War America”
My project traces the full intellectual history of the Third World Turn: when theorists and activists in the United States began to look to liberation movements within the colonized and formerly colonized nations of the ‘Third World’ in search of models for political, social, and cultural transformation. My work presents the turn toward the Third World as an effort at weaving together distinct but related strains of anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, anti-racist and (at times) anti-misogynist thought that developed between the 1930s and 1970s. I argue that, understood as a critique of the limits of New Deal liberalism rather than just as an offshoot of New Left radicalism, Third Worldism must be placed at the center of the history of the post-war American Left.
Rooting the Third World Turn in the work of theorists active in the 1940s, including the economists Paul Sweezy and Paul Baran, the writer Harold Cruse, and the Detroit organizers James and Grace Lee Boggs, my work moves beyond simple binaries of violence vs. non-violence, revolution vs. reform, and utopianism vs. realism, while throwing the political development of groups like the Black Panthers, the Young Lords, the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, and the Third World Women’s Alliance into sharper relief. Following developments in Third World thought beyond the end of the New Left, my dissertation further reveals the lasting impact of the Third World Left on academia, and recovers long-marginalized lines of economic inquiry not always associated with Third Worldism, including investigations into non-material economic incentives, and the various campaigns for welfare and Wages for Housework led by Marxist feminists in the 1970s.
I argue that beyond solidarity, Third Worldism was a method of analysis through which Leftists sought to expand critical thought beyond the limits of political liberalism, economic liberalism, cultural liberalism, and racial liberalism. Armed with the conviction that American capitalism was sustained by cruelty, racism, and exploitation—but recognizing that no mass-revolutionary base existed in the United States—Third World Leftists studied revolutionary anti-colonial movements in order to try to break free from the ‘one-dimensionality’ of mid-century capitalism. Considering Third Worldism in this way heightens not only our understanding of a key moment in the history of the Left, but of the development of a series of critiques of the cultural, political, and economic contours of the ‘New Deal Order.’