Immanuel Wallerstein on Theory & Sociology

Immanuel Wallerstein is a U.S sociologist and historical social scientist. He is most famous for his contributions to the field of analysis that would come to be called World-System Theory alongside Andre Gunder Frank, Terence Hopkins, Samir Amin, and Giovanni Arrighi. His though has been influenced by Marxism, Fernand Braudel, dependency theory and the world revolutionary upsurge of 1968. He is the author of the multi-volume The Modern World-System series of books, as well as World-Systems Analysis: An Introduction, Historical Capitalism and many others.

Like other Marxists Wallerstein accept the prediction that capitalism will be replaced by a socialism, as well as the emphasis on underlying economic factors and their dominance over ideological factors, the dichotomy between capital and labour, belief in the accumulation of capital, dialectics etc. However, unlike most Marxists Wallerstein breaks with the notion that development of the parasitic capitalist world economy was progressive universally, but rather was detrimental to most of the world’s population. As he said in his classic essay Historical Capitalism:

It is simply not true that capitalism as a historical system has represented progress over the various previous historical systems that it destroyed or transformed. Even as I write this, I feel the tremour that accompanies the sense of blasphemy. I fear the wrath of the gods, for I have been moulded in the same ideological forge as all my compeers and have worshipped at the same shrines.

Below I have posted video excerpts from an interview with Wallerstein as an introduction to his thought.

Posted on August 6, 2012, in Economics, Revolutionary Theory and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. Great quote. I look forward to checking these videos out. I’ve actually been reading up a lot about the World System theorists (mostly Wallerstein, Samir Amin, and Gunder Frank) recently.

    Doesn’t the Uhuru Movement draw ideological influence from this theory?

  2. I’ve been familiar with Amin’s thought for a while, but have only recently begun reading it seriously. I am having surgery later this month and when I am laid up afterwards I plan to begin reading Wallerstein’s multi-volume The Modern World-System, having already read World-Systems Analysis: An Introduction and Historical Capitalism.

    As for the influence of World-System Theory on African Internationalism (the analysis of the Uhuru Movement) I cannot say for certain. Chairman Omali is extremely well read and AI draws from Marx, Lenin, Mao and many other revolutionary theorists, and so it is quite possible, though I have never seen an explicit reference to Wallerstein or any other WST theorist.

    The roots of both AI and WST are in the same time period – late 60s and early 70s – and there are certainly points of similarity between the two, just as there is between AI and the work of J. Sakai (though the publication of Sakai’s most well known work comes about a decade after the initial birth of AI). In his out-of-print work Stolen Black Labor: The Political Economy of Domestic Colonialism Chairman Omali does make reference to the importance in the world revolutionary movement of something called “underdevelopment theory”, and where AI expands upon it. I have always taken this to be a reference to dependency theory, which is of course is one of the roots of WST, as well as maybe World Systems Theory itself.

  3. I’m not sure if you’ve ever read MIM’s critique of the Uhuru Movement in MIM Theory #8: The Anarchist Ideal and Communist Revolution but it mentions Wallerstein’s influence on Omali Yeshitela. It’s a pretty weak critique all-in-all but interesting nonetheless. They basically slag APSP off as a “national bourgeois” organization and basically stick to Maoist dogma. Here is the main passage that talks about Yeshitela and world-systems theory (pg.104):

    An example of how lightly the APSP takes the question of socialism is as follows:
    “What we have here is a capitalist world economy. It has never not been a capitalist world economy as long as it has existed, notwithstanding the revolutions in the Soviet Union in 1917 or in China in 1949, etc. What actually happened in 1917 was that some socialists too power in Russia, but there was no socialist revolution in Russia.
    “For those who find the palpitating nostalgic need to debate the damn question, the evidence is there. … If socialism existed in the Soviet Union, Gorbachev could not be doing the shit that he is doing right now. …
    “The basis for the overthrow of capitalism is not a contest between white workers and white bosses, who actually constitute the minority of the people in the world.”(9)

    Here as elsewhere, the APSP supports a popular view in scholarship that there is a single world-system of capitalism. Elsewhere, Yeshitea can be found supporting the work of underdevelopment theorists and Immanuel Wallerstein in particular.
    MIM disagrees with the world systems theorists on the question of socialism, because they think it has never existed and we at MIM are quite certain it did in China, Albania and Russia at one time. Ironically, Wallerstein and hence Yeshitela echo the Trotskyist position that it is impossible to build socialism in one country. Yeshitela does not believe socialism in the world depends on Europe, the way the Trotskyists do, but substituting the Third World for Europe still leaves Stalin, Mao and Hoxha as leaders of non-socialist societies.”

    That’s pretty much why I ask.

  4. Posoh Eastwind

    I’ve never read that critique of AI from MIM, but I have read others from MIM (Prisons) (the only real organizational successor to MIM, as MTW/M3W is more of an ideological successor) that were equally as weak. Again though, I cannot speak to the connections between AI and WST as it is beyond my knowledge (despite what some people might say about me, I in no way consider myself an expert on AI, even though I am a member of the Uhuru Movement).

    Honestly though, they do not entirely mischarecterize our position on so-called “actually existing socialism”, though (of course) they only get it half-right and skew all of it through their dogma-tinted lenses. As I say in my own “So You Say You Are a Yeshitelaist, But What Does That Make You? Anarchist? Marxist? Leninist? Maoist? Trotskyist?” essay:

    [W]e Yeshitelaists do not accept the great revolutions of the past century as really representing the coming into existence of actually existing socialism. This is because we do not believe that the economic conditions for the coming into existance of socialism existed at the time. Rather we see them as instances in which the social and political conditions were ripe for the coming to power of socialists through revolution. However, regardless of how much the revolutionaries of Russia, China, Cuba and other countries might have tried to build new revolutionary societies around socialist principles, we believe that actually existing socialism cannot come into existence until the pedestal of colonialism and imperialism on which all world capitalism sits is kicked out from underneath. This destruction of the imperialist-colonialist pedestal is the economic condition for the coming into existence of socialism.

    MIM of course disagrees with this because (as you quite rightly point out) they stick with their Maoist dogma. It’s of course also no surprise that MIM would characterize our position as being akin to Trotsky’s. I’ve this before from MIM, as well as also other Maoists, Marxist-Leninists and other who cannot escape beyond the 72-year dead conflict between Stalin and Trotsky. As I say in the same article regarding the slur of Trotskyism (because that is how MIM and other mean it):

    The idea of so-called “socialism in one country” is of course near and dear to the hearts of Marxist-Leninists, Maoists, Hoxhists and others who uphold Stalin. For those communists who see communist history through the lens of the false Trotsky-Stalin dichotomy, opposition to Stalin’s proposal of “socialism in one country” is often immedietely linked to Trotsky’s theory of “permanent revolution.” However, we do not hold to a version of that theory either.

  5. Also, I noticed this line in the MIM “critique”:

    “Yeshitela can be found supporting the work of underdevelopment theorists and Immanuel Wallerstein in particular.”

    The fact that they also refer to Wallerstein and Co. as “underdevelopment theorists” seems to support my long held assumption that Chairman Omali is indeed referring to dependency theory and world-system theory in the work I mentioned above. However, I still can’t say whether Wallerstein, Amin or any other WST theorists had any direct influence on the development of AI.

  6. I stand corrected on one thing:

    In re-reading Stolen Black Labor this evening (our discussion made me want to re-read parts of it) I did come across a single quote from Wallerstein. However Wallerstein was only one among many, many thinkers and authors referenced, so it is hard to deduce anything more.

  7. These are good videos and an interesting convo.

    As a quick aside, Immanuel Wallerstein’s text, ‘World-Systems Analysis, An Introduction,’ will be something we will be studying during the upcoming first semester at People’s Liberation University.

    (Besides what they lifted from Sakai) MIM’s historical analysis should always be taken with a grain of salt. They were better at economic theory and number crunching… Incidentally, one of the major differences between MIM and post-MIM Third Worldist groups is that typically the latter has a much more favorable view of Lin Biao whereas MIM clung to the 71-76 dogma…

    In regards to ‘socialism,’ perhaps it is better to think of it as not so much a set of social relations fitting into the slogan “from each according to their ability, to each according to their work,” but rather as a conscious shifting or movement of society, a transitional phase localized, towards communistic liberation. This view is more amorphous because it requires us to delineate the point in which various revolutions ‘ran out of steam’ as a liberation movements domestically and internationally, which will likely be based on a series of subjective value judgments. It implies that Russia, China, Cuba, etc, were all socialist for a period, insofar as it was part of a shifting dynamic against US-led capitalist imperialism, and that at a certain point (or points) they essentially gave up, were corrupted, or became so stargetically weak that it is no longer appropriate to describe them as socialist in some hard sense. It also raises the question of what is the correct term for countries like Venezuela, Zimbabwe, etc.

    Insofar as Trotskyism is concerned, I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, even most western ‘Trotskyists’ won’t have any prior realization of the distinction I’m about to make, so in a manner it becomes a mute point. On the other, I think Trotskyism represented an archetypal deviation- he is like the O.G. of First Worldism. Archetypal Trotskyism says this: revolutions may break out in ‘backwards’ Third World countries but they ultimately need to be rescued through a proletarian revolutions in ‘advanced capitalist countries.’ Maoism/Third Worldism says the opposite: that proletarian revolution in imperialist countries only becomes a viable possibility under conditions of advanced revolutionary struggles in the periphery and changes to the core/periphery dynamic. While it sounds arcane, this is why MIM described groups like RCP-U$A as crypto-Trotskyists.

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