Immanuel Wallerstein’s Thousand Marxisms

Immanuel Wallerstein
David Broder

Immanuel Wallerstein saw his scholarship as a “political task” in the fight against the capitalist system. In this interview — published for the first time in English — he reflected on the historical impulses behind his work, in the age of the Vietnam War and the decline of Soviet socialism.

Still from Immanuel Wallerstein interview shoot with David Martinez; Yale University, April 20, 2015. (Brennan Cavanaugh / flickr)

Interview by
Nicolette Stame
Luca Meldolesi

August 31, 2019, saw the passing of Immanuel Wallerstein, best known for his analysis of capitalism as an integrated “world-system.” Throughout his career, Wallerstein looked beyond the national context to pinpoint the transnational relations through which capitalism has created worldwide divisions of labor and political hierarchies.

As well as being a leading intellectual figure, Wallerstein was a sharp critic of capitalism who saw his scholarly interventions as a “political task.” He sought to respond to the shortcomings of existing Marxist analysis in order to help dismantle capitalism itself. Yet his thought was itself grounded in his own historical context, and in the particular realities of a world marked by decolonization and the Cold War.

In 1981, Wallerstein gave an interview to the Italian communist newspaper il manifesto, in which he reflected on the development of his thinking and the political events surrounding it. In this interview, published in English for the first time, he explained how his thought responded to the sterility of the liberal social sciences inherited from the 1950s, the worldwide upheavals that marked 1968, and the need to reinvigorate Marxist thinking after the failure of the Stalinist model.

Nicolette Stame and Luca Meldolesi

How would you characterize the main changes in the American social sciences since the end of World War II?

Immanuel Wallerstein

In the period from World War II to the end of the 1960s, in which the United States was the world-system’s hegemonic power, the American social sciences were dominant both theoretically and in terms of the most important research institutes and “personalities.” The American social sciences’ influence extended from Europe to the Third World and even to the socialist countries (Talcott Parsons was much respected and often cited even in Soviet sociology, once it came out of its ultra-Stalinist phase). All this is easy to understand — indeed, in many ways it recalls the role the English social sciences enjoyed in the mid-nineteenth century.

If we want to talk about the “philosophy” of the social sciences, I think there is no substantial difference between the American social sciences of the 1950s and the English ones of the 1850s. Two aspects are crucial here. The first is their positivism, in the broad sense of the word. They started from the explicit presupposition that through the so-called scientific method — the one used in the physical and biological sciences — the social sciences, too, could arrive at generalizations on human society, and that any ignorance in this regard was temporary and could be overcome.

The second presupposition was less explicit. It held that at least as far as the modern world is concerned (but also, by analogy, past eras) the unit within which social action takes place is the state — a political entity. The state was considered fundamental, even if it could be described in many different ways.

Up till World War II, the social sciences referred exclusively to the experience of Europe and North America. Only in two contexts did they get to grips with the rest of the world. The first was anthropology, understood as the study of primitive peoples. (And here, too, the priority of the political unit was repeated, in the attempt to discover the essence of primitive society. But the problem that each of these societies was studied within the context of imperial or quasi-imperial domination was never discussed by anthropologists.) The other context was, naturally, the study of “oriental” culture, another way of exoticizing matters . . .

But after World War II, the reality of the world changed. There was the birth of the Third World as a political problem, the Bandung Conference, and decolonization. Suddenly, the social sciences had to take the empirical reality of the Third World into consideration . . .

Nicolette Stame and Luca Meldolesi

Before we get to that — do you think that here there was a continuity with the viewpoint of classical economics? That is, the perspective according to which the capitalist system is an endpoint toward which history develops, following a linear path from one stage to the next?

Immanuel Wallerstein

Certainly. The whole eighteenth century — and not only the nineteenth — had this concept of historical progress. And capitalism (or modernity, or whatever you want to call it) was naturally seen as the endpoint. In the English-speaking world, we speak of the Whig interpretation of history — that is, history seen as the individual’s struggle for human liberty, of which Great Britain was in a sense the culmination. This conception expressed itself in many forms, from Hegel onward.

But here, it’s important to note that together with this theory — which everyone accepted — of stages of progress, there also filtered through the conception (not logically essential to this theory) according to which this evolution reproduced itself in the same way within the confines of each state — that is, each state had to pass through the same stages.

This conception was not completely rejected even by oppositional theories. Let’s take Marxism as an example, as, to say the least, it was ambivalent in this regard. In its Stalinist version, in the 1920s and 1930s, the theory of stages succeeding one another within each state was written into dogma, indeed as a conscious political choice. Among other things, that was what drove the 1930s critique of the concept of the “Asiatic mode of production”: beyond its particular merits or flaws, it simply could not be adapted to a theory of stages, and so it was erased.

We could say that the Stalinist version of the theory of stages simply changed what state represented the model: the Soviet Union became the model state instead of Great Britain. But the idea that there was a model, and that each state must follow more or less parallel routes, was epistemologically the same, notwithstanding the political difference.

Nicolette Stame and Luca Meldolesi

Certainly, we have a big weight on our shoulders . . .

Immanuel Wallerstein

Indeed . . .

Nicolette Stame and Luca Meldolesi

But back to the modern social sciences.

Immanuel Wallerstein

. . . and how they addressed the political reality of the Third World. From 1945 there developed the concept of “area studies.” Groups of scholars sprung up who were experts in each area of the world: the Soviet Union, East Asia, South Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, and so on. In each group, there was a balance between scholars among the different disciplines. Young researchers were trained in an integrated manner, which combined an understanding of each discipline, as well as studying the languages of the areas in question.

All this had to be theorized in some way, also because at the outset the scholars interested in non-Western areas had to fight for respectability within the academy. They said, “the existing theories are ethnocentric because they only consider the European experience, while the experience of the areas that interest us is different. So . . . ” But here they ought to have added that “all areas are different.” Instead, they continued, “The only thing that needs doing is to review the existing theory, to make it more sophisticated and thus able to account for a more complex reality.”

The result was that they produced an updated version of the old stages theory, which they called “developmentalism.” They concerned themselves with economic development, political development, social development, and so on. The theory of stages, which had many versions (Walt Rostow’s was merely the most famous, indeed one not even formulated by someone with an interest in the Third World), dominated the academic world up till the end of the 1960s.

But when this theory entered into crisis, it was political questions — not reflection at the intellectual level — that gave it the push. There’s no doubt, in this regard. There was Vietnam and Black Power in the United States, with all they represented; there were the student protests, with their great impulse to denounce the existing order; there was the Cultural Revolution in China — and their equivalent everywhere else. Everything was moving. And suddenly it was understood that this theory was an “absurdity.” It could not describe what was happening, because it assumed that each situation could “reach” the next stage, even though this was not true. Indeed, it was possible that the “distance [between these situations] would increase rather than diminish.”

This broke the previous ideological hold of the exponents of the liberal establishment. This happened not only as an effect of Vietnam, Black Power, or the students, but also because these establishment figures lost their self-confidence. They began to realize not only that their ideas were being challenged in an intellectually serious way, but that they had been at an impasse for over a decade. That was something they hadn’t previously grasped. If we think of the most important works of the US social sciences, they were all written by the liberal establishment in the 1950s — their successors in the 1960s were terribly arid and repetitive. Now, they had to admit their own sterility. They were terrified by this idea, which also helped to weaken them.

So, the landscape opened up (and here I’m also talking about my personal experience). We went through a period somewhere between five and nine years long, characterized by the extremely intense and impassioned denunciation of the old ideas by students and young researchers. The way the establishment responded showed how worried it was. There were denunciations and counter-denunciations, until at a certain point the war in Vietnam came to an end, the student uprisings became exhausted, there was a good deal of co-optation, and it was understood that just denouncing things wouldn’t make any further progress.

But in the meantime, rather more calmly, a lot of concrete work started being done, and there was an attempt to “rebuild” in an atmosphere that was intellectually more open than what had gone before. Previously, anything that didn’t belong to the official ideas was considered illegitimate (Marxism was held to be, by definition, an ideology, which thus had nothing in common with the social sciences). Now, instead, we had a situation in which different opinions were being expressed all over the place. The American universities became pluralist. In each university, even if the majority remained in the hands of the establishment, at a certain point a left-wing group appeared, calling itself “radical” or Marxist or something else. (And, as we know, far-right groups also emerged, like the Friedmanites in economics, and their equivalents in other fields.)

The “rebuilding” began. The different materials that were going around were brought together. Those of us who concerned ourselves with the Third World looked at certain questions more seriously than the experts in those areas had (and many of them hadn’t broken with the liberal establishment’s theory). For instance, that explains the historical development of an elaboration on capitalist domination and dependency — it emerged from what was in fact none too radical a point of view, that of Raúl Prebisch at the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America.

Here, two main tasks presented themselves. The first was to begin to look at the “world-system” in the twentieth century — and to look at it in a new way. Here, we have the elaboration of the concepts of center and periphery, the relationship between them, and everything to do with reference to them: the “world-system perspective.” The other task was to give account of the historical development of the modern world as an integrated whole.

Some of us began to occupy ourselves with what had happened in the Middle Ages, in the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries, and so on. This was an entirely different way of working from previous social scientists. True, some nineteenth-century social scientists concerned themselves with history, but they did so in a way that presumed that they could find examples, within different historical moments, of the same abstract concepts that they used in their synchronic analyses of the present. We, for our part, said: there is a single system, the capitalist system, which has developed historically; we should look at the sixteenth century as well as the twentieth century, at Europe (and the United States) as well as the Third World. And if we seek to analyze capitalism as a social system and to understand what the dynamic of its social forces has been, then we can apply this analysis to the emergence of specific phenomena.

Nicolette Stame and Luca Meldolesi

Does the “world-system perspective” have an intellectual past of its own?

Immanuel Wallerstein

Before our era — before the last ten to fifteen years — there existed three schools of thought that I would define as schools of resistance, however temporarily, to the dominant social sciences. The first was the Staatswissenschaft school, or the historical school of political economy, known under various names. In Germany, it is above all linked to the name of Gustav von Schmoller, but it also included many other thinkers (including Joseph Schumpeter). The second was the Annales school of historiography, which emerged in France in the first half of the twentieth century and reached maturity after World War II. And the third, obviously, is Marxism. But Marxism is a complex of ideas used by social movements; it is seriously discussed, but it lives outside of the academy.

Nicolette Stame and Luca Meldolesi

There’s something in common between these three schools?

Immanuel Wallerstein

I would say the main element in common between these three schools was the fact that they raised epistemological problems concerning the dominant social sciences, and above all rejected the logic of what nineteenth-century social science called the “great debate.” That is to say, the dispute between the “nomothetic” (those who thought that the object of the social sciences was to generalize across different historical periods) and the “ideographic” social sciences (those who thought that their object was to describe things in a particularizing way).

All three schools rejected both points of view as mistaken. Generalizations across different periods are absurd, because they can’t be made at such a level of specificity as would help us analyze the world. And particularizing descriptions are absurd, because it is impossible to describe reality without already having some concepts in mind.

All three schools instead held that it was necessary to find a middle route, and that to analyze empirical realities it was necessary to have structural concepts — but also that these latter must have limits in time and space and must refer to what I would call particular historical systems. For instance, all three looked at the material phenomena underlying the cultural and political superstructure; all three were in some sense driven to address historical data. Marxism especially affirmed, once again, that there exists no absolute “human nature,” and that the useful concept is not this one, but rather what goes on within different modes of production. The same idea, expressed differently, is also present within the other two schools.

However, none of these three schools managed to smash the hegemony of the dominant ideas. I think that owed to two reasons. The first is that they were divided among themselves. Marxism certainly did not collaborate with the other two, which were academic schools, but even these others were only weakly interlinked.

The second reason is that their critique did not sufficiently get to the bottom of things. It was an essentially epistemological critique — and what these schools did not understand is that this critique needed to be developed at a historiographical level, too. They ought to have rethought all modern history. Instead, they accepted certain things as true, but constructed somewhat different explanations of them. For instance, they took it for granted that there was an enormous historic rupture in the forces of production in England between the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, a world-transformative phenomenon named the Industrial Revolution; and that there was also an enormous political rupture, called the bourgeois revolution, such as had taken place in France. Their reasoning proceeded within the terms of these categories, which had in fact been elaborated by the dominant social sciences. I think it was this, above all, that reduced their effectiveness.

Nicolette Stame and Luca Meldolesi

What, then, is the way forward?

Immanuel Wallerstein

I’ll limit myself to this: if we refuse to consider the state as the unit of social action, then we have to take materialism seriously, in the sense of starting out from the economy in order to see where the economy exists and what it is. The economy is a single social division of labor, an integrated production process.

From this perspective, in the modern world, empirically, there has always existed a system that extends beyond any state-system, what I call the “world-economy”(not the world’s economy — and it is worth emphasizing the difference, because this latter refers not to the specific world of the capitalist system but rather to the world in general).

But if we take as our unit of analysis a single world-system, then the first conclusion is that we cannot work with the concepts elaborated by the comparative method [between states]. We cannot use the method we would use to compare one unit to 136 other identical units, because these latter do not exist: there is not a world no. 2 to compare to world no. 1.

The consequence is that the whole problem of development has to be reformulated as the development of the whole unit. This brings considerable changes: for instance, instead of nations, classes, social strata, and domestic units existing per se, perhaps in some sense being linked among themselves, they are now conceived as structures that have developed in the course of the historical development of the capitalist world-economy. These continually change and have to be explained on the basis of the capitalist process, rather than the other way around.

Nicolette Stame and Luca Meldolesi

With what consequences?

Immanuel Wallerstein

This means a totally different perspective from the previously dominant one and it requires a great commitment. Suddenly, we discover that the work of 150 years of social sciences needs redoing: it changes all historiography, it changes our conceptual apparatus, and we can no longer take it for granted that what has been said on classes, on social strata, or on nationalism makes sense . . . Among other things, something little attention has been paid to so far is the fact that even the empirical data change. One of the problems we face is the question of quantitative data. The very word “statistics” comes from the word “state” — and not by accident. Statistics as a discipline and concept was invented at the end of the seventeenth century: it referred to public functionaries who sought to bring together a mass of quantitative data in order to help sovereigns (whatever the basis of their sovereignty) to make decisions.

Nicolette Stame and Luca Meldolesi

One last question — what influence has Mao’s Marxism had on the development of your ideas?

Immanuel Wallerstein

In the new movement of thinking in the US universities, Mao Zedong’s thought was very influential, up to a certain point. It had a very important role in the critique of the USSR. The end of the 1960s was a period in which the establishment came under criticism, and for many people the establishment also included the USSR. This was the so-called period of détente between the United States and the USSR, and it was certainly noticed that in the rest of the world the USSR was not supporting what I call “anti-systemic movements.”

Thus, the Chinese critique of the USSR became part of American radical thought. This was very useful. For it allowed people — even those who called themselves Maoists — to look critically at so-called orthodox Marxism, too. That is, it allowed them to feel intellectually free to look at what was going on.

But I think that the most important idea within Mao Zedong’s critical thought is the concept — a sharp critique of Stalin’s, but never before posed in these terms — of the continuation of the class struggle within the countries that call themselves socialist. This is obviously illustrated by the Cultural Revolution. Paradoxically, even the defeat of Mao had a salutary effect. For many had simply substituted orthodox, Soviet-type Marxism with an uncritical acceptance of everything the Chinese said. But once this, too, broke up, people were truly forced to count on their own strength.

Today, Marxist ideas (or Marxist terminology — put it that way) are continuing to spread in the United States and — I believe — around the world. I still think that the progress of Marxist terminology is comparable to the progress of Christian terminology in the second and third centuries; we are moving toward a world in which everyone will use Marxist terminology. It’ll take another fifty or one hundred years, but we’ll get there. And I think that this will create a very favorable situation.

On the one hand, if you use a certain terminology, you are compelled to accept certain presuppositions implicit within it, and in this case, these are presuppositions which I don’t mind at all. But on the other hand, it is also true that when a terminology becomes universal, each person is intellectually free to think within it, internally.

I think that we are approaching the moment of a definitive political rupture in the single Marxism (as reflected in a single world Marxist movement) and the birth of a thousand Marxisms. That means we can truly begin to work in the same way that Marx did, in a critical, meditated, political way. Everything that for too long hasn’t been done.

Republished from il manifesto.

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Immanuel Wallerstein (1930–2019) was a sociologist and economic historian whose work focused on world-systems theory.

Nicoletta Stame is a professor in social policy at Rome’s La Sapienza University.

Luca Meldolesi is a professor in economics at Naples University.

David Broder is Jacobin’s Europe editor and a historian of French and Italian communism.

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