Remembering Immanuel Wallerstein: Pioneering World Systems Theorist & Anti-Capitalist

A former student of the legendary sociologist looks back on his mentor’s legacy.

Steven Sherman Sep 10, 2019

On August 31, sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein died at the age of 88. I studied with Wallerstein at Binghamton University in the 1990s. Writings are beginning to appear, taking stock of his achievement. Most notably, Wallerstein recast the study of capitalism, insisting that the proper unit of analysis was a “world system” which emerged around 1500 and has now expanded to encompass the globe. 

He also insisted that the disciplinary boundaries organized in the nineteenth century incorporated the racist and Eurocentric ideology of the system and therefore needed to be rethought (or “unthought”). 

I’ve read several pieces that explain these theories reasonably well. But an important aspect of his life, and related aspects of his thought have been marginalized. More than most of his prominent academic peers, Wallerstein did not simply seek to understand the world, but rather, as Karl Marx urged, to change it. He thus took on three roles beyond those of teaching and publishing characteristic of a professor: he sought to intervene in the disciplinary order institutionally, he participated in the international left, and, in his last couple of decades, he posted commentaries every two weeks on developments around the world. 

He described his own early political development this way: “The Social-Democrats convinced me that almost everything they said about the communists was correct — the evils of Stalinism and terror, the unprincipled swervings of the world party line, the langue de bois. But at the same time, the communists convinced me that almost everything they said about the Social-Democrats was correct — the chronic cave-ins to Western nationalisms, the incredible weakness of their opposition to capitalist polarization, the lack of serious militancy concerning racial injustice.” 

Already by the early 1950s, he was gaining some prominence as a leader in the National Student Association, where he advocated both support for anti-colonial struggles around the world and anti-communism. After a stint in the U.S. military during the Korean War, he produced a master’s thesis on McCarthyism. He went on to study in Africa, following his conviction that the developing decolonization movement and the related polarization between Europe and its former colonies was the most important global story of the day — not the Cold War that preoccupied most Western liberals at the time. 

It was in Africa that Wallerstein decided the nation-state focused approach to political theory, which simply saw decolonizing nations as lagging behind the wealthier, more “developed” Western European states, was profoundly flawed. A paradigm shift was required. This eventually led to Wallerstein’s world-systems analysis. 

In 1968, the theorist was working as a professor at Columbia University when the famous protests erupted. He participated in the Ad Hoc Faculty Group, often portrayed as an ineffectual liberal group with too much faith in dialogue as a way of resolving the standoff between students and rebel faculty and the administration. But while many of his peers among the professoriate drifted right in light of the protests, portraying the students as crypto-fascists who failed to respect the norms of civility that must govern the university, Wallerstein was deeply moved by the protests, which further spurred his thinking leftward. 

When Wallerstein and his colleague Terry Hopkins eventually settled at SUNY-Binghamton in 1976, the pair built up a department focused on world-systems analysis. 1968 became a key reference point in their ideas about “anti-systemic movements,” a framework they developed to complement the analysis of the world system itself. (A legend among Binghamton students when I attended classes there had it that Hopkins was the one who slipped the keys to Lowe Library to the student protesters who occupied it in ’68.) 

For Wallerstein, the protests of 1968 were, as much as anything, protests against what the old left — in its communist, social democratic, and nationalist variants — had become. It is no secret that the sixties were a turning point, leading to renewed focus among left-wing activists and intellectuals on matters that had been marginalized by a narrow focus on capitalism. Although I’ve heard the opposite claimed, Wallerstein was basically supportive of this turn and labored to incorporate issues of race, gender, and environmentalism into his world-system framework. 

But he also argued that the old left had largely collapsed into the liberal center. Even its communist variants were managing states in ways fundamentally unthreatening to the system. 

Wallerstein could at times sound like an anarchist when he highlighted that 1968 had reopened the temporality question. Do we organize ourselves for a long haul in which progress slowly arrives — the dominant left position once the Second International got going, and basically also the position of the Third International — or do we try to make utopia in the present? He saw 1968 as the arrival of an awareness that the basic left plan of forming a party, attaining state power, whether through election or insurrection, and then transforming society had failed. 

Notwithstanding this anarchistic sympathy, Wallerstein often sought disciplinary leadership positions to further his goals of remaking the social sciences. He served as president of the International Sociology Association and president of the African Studies Association. He founded the Fernand Braudel Research Center and the American Sociological Association’s Political Economy of the World Systems wing. He also launched more than one failed bid to become ASA’s president.

Since Wallerstein had long argued that the communist states were not effective resistance to the capitalist world system, the collapse of the Soviet Empire between 1989 and 1991 was not cause for despair in his eyes. Instead, Wallerstein argued that Marxist-Leninism as a form of organizing movements was dead. But Marxism would live on as a resource for critique. And Leninism, in the sense of efforts to centralize power so the state could better command the national economy would also persist, detached from utopian aspirations. 

Another observation of Wallerstein’s took on increased significance. Not only was the capitalist world system global in scope and centuries-old, but it had also reached its terminus and would soon be replaced by something else, perhaps, but not necessarily, more egalitarian. If someone systematically reads Wallerstein, they will find a number of processes identified as having pushed the system to its breaking point. His basic argument, that a system based on expansion hits its limits as it comes to incorporate the entire globe, remained consistent and was that much more significant in the era of “the end of history” when the ostensible alternative to capitalism had collapsed. 

Wallerstein with Subcomandante Marcos of the Zapatistas. Photographer unknown.

Wallerstein found sources of hope in the Zapatista movement when they burst onto the scene in 1994. The Zapatistas had fully absorbed the lessons of 1968, producing autonomously run villages rather than seeking state power. And they used the new technology of the internet to build a global support network that undermined the Mexican government’s capacity to crush them. 

Wallerstein’s support for the Zapatistas and his global perspective made him a natural fit with the World Social Forum, from its first meeting in Porto Alegre, Brazil in 2001. Here, at last, was the context for a genuinely global left, one which crossed all sorts of regional and national boundaries and also was not particularly focused on state power. Although the energy produced by the first few World Social Forums dissipated, as of 2016 Wallerstein was still insisting on its importance. “If we were to hold no more WSF meetings, it might liberate some money, energy, and time for other activities. But these ‘other activities’ might never occur, as pessimism leads to withdrawal from activism.”

That quote is from his internet commentaries on current events, another focus of activity. Begun in 1998, he reliably posted one every two weeks, only announcing their end with the 500th in the series, posted on July 1 of this year. Along with celebrating moments of hope such as Occupy Wall Street and Bernie Sanders, geopolitics was a frequent focus of the commentaries. 

For decades, Wallerstein held the conviction that the geopolitical order will re-sort itself, with Europe aligning with Russia (in fact, he argued that the Cold War was largely waged to prevent this from happening) and the US becoming a junior partner to China. It isn’t clear this is happening, but he closely watched for evidence, particularly of the former. Although he often insisted that geopolitical alignments were trivial compared to the larger question of the shift from one system to another, his keen observations of states trying to create some autonomy for themselves from the United States suggested that on some level, he felt otherwise. His message was that the U.S. needed to adjust to a reduced status in the world, but he didn’t seem particularly optimistic about this happening. 

Wallerstein’s legacy is far more wide-ranging than his formulations about the modern world system, including the four volumes of world-system history he produced. He is as important an example as we have of a politically engaged scholar and the full range of his practice should be returned to as we struggle to find our way in this great transition.

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