The Development of an Intellectual Position

My intellectual biography is one long quest for an adequate explanation of contemporary reality, so that I and others might act upon it. The quest was both intellectual and political, and I have always felt it could not be one without being at the same time the other – for me or for anyone.

I suppose I started this quest when I was in high school, which was in New York City during the Second World War. My family was very politically conscious, and world affairs were always being discussed in our home. The fight against Nazism and fascism was our primary concern, and long before Pearl Harbor. We were also very conscious of the great split in the world left, that between the Second and Third Internationals. Even in the muted atmosphere of the unity brought about by wartime, the issues that divided the two Internationals were salient, and they were reflected for me at a local level by the political differences in New York State between the Liberal Party and the American Labor Party. When I entered Columbia College in 1947, the most vibrant political organization on campus during my freshman year was the American Veterans Committee (AVC). And although I was too young to have been a veteran, I would attend the public meetings of the AVC, and saw that it was torn apart (and destroyed) by this same split.

My own reaction to the debates (and the harangues), and all the reading that I did as a result, was one that has been shared by only a very small group worldwide. 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.

Politically, this created many dilemmas for me, with which I have had to wrestle ever since. Intellectually, this turned me to a question which I have developed in my writings over the years, the nature of what I came to call the antisystemic movements and how their activities were structured by systemic constraints from which they were never able fully to release themselves. In short, I began to historicize the movements, not only the better to understand how they came to do the things they did but also in order the better to formulate the political options that were truly available in the present.

The early postwar years of 1945‑50 were heady days when all seemed possible. They ended for me (and for many others) with the war in Korea. Suddenly, the presence of anti‑Communism was overwhelming and McCarthyism began to flourish in the United States. I served in the U.S. Army from 1951‑53, and when I returned to Columbia, I decided to write my M.A. thesis on McCarthyism as a phenomenon of U.S. political culture. I drew on Wright Mills’s distinction in New Men of Labor between sophisticated conservatives and the practical right, in order to make the case that McCarthyism was a program of the practical right, a program that was only marginally concerned with Communists but one rather that was directed primarily against the sophisticated conservatives. It was a well‑received essay, widely cited at the time. It confirmed my sense that I should consider myself, in the language of the 1950s, a “political sociologist.”

I decided nonetheless not to make U.S. politics my prime arena of intellectual concern. I had, even since my high school years, a keen interest in the non‑European world. I followed events in modern India in particular, and had read much of Gandhi and Nehru. In 1951, I was involved in an international youth congress, and there met many delegates from Africa, most of whom were older than I and already held important positions in their countries’ political arenas. In 1952, another youth congress was held in Dakar, Senegal. Suddenly, at this early point, I found myself amidst the turmoil of what would soon be the independence movements (in this case of French West Africa).

I decided to make Africa the focus of my intellectual concerns, and of my solidarity efforts. Because I commanded French, and because I had these early contacts, I became one of the few scholars who studied Africa across the European linguistic barriers. In 1955, I obtained a Ford Foundation African Fellowship, to study about Africa and to write a dissertation that would compare the Gold Coast (Ghana) and the Ivory Coast in terms of the role voluntary associations played in the rise of the nationalist movements in the two countries. I had now become an Africa scholar, an intellectual role I would continue to play for two decades. I wrote many books and articles on African themes and issues, and in 1973 became president of the (U.S.) African Studies Association. Over a twenty‑year period, I managed to travel all over Africa, to perhaps three‑quarters of the separate states.

If my intellectual quest led me early on away from the familiar grounds of my own country to that of contemporary Africa, which was still a colonized continent when I first visited it and began to study it, it was because I had the gut feeling in the 1950s that the most important thing that was happening in the twentieth‑century world was the struggle to overcome the control by the Western world of the rest of the world. Today we call this a concern with North‑South relations, or with core‑periphery relations, or with Eurocentrism.

It has to be said that, in the 1950s and indeed for a long time thereafter, my assessment of what was most important was not shared by most people, for whom what some called the Cold War between democracy and totalitarianism and others called the struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat (both of these terms being rather narrowly defined) was (and indeed for many, remains) the central defining issue of our time. My quest was therefore not only an upward battle against a wide consensus in the political and scholarly world but against the internalized concepts deriving from this dominant view within my own mind. I have since moved away from Africa as the empirical locus of my work, but I credit my African studies with opening my eyes both to the burning political issues of the contemporary world and to the scholarly issues of how to analyze the history of the modern world‑system. It was Africa that was responsible for undoing the more stultifying parts of my educational heritage.

In the course of my quest, I initially thought that the debate was merely about the empirical analysis of contemporary reality, but I soon became aware that it was a question too of the very tools of analysis. The ones I had been taught seemed to me to circumscribe our empirical analyses and distort our interpretations. Slowly, over some twenty years, my views evolved, until by the 1970s I began to say that I was trying to look at the world from a perspective that I called “world‑systems analysis.” This involved two major intellectual decisions. The first was that the choice of the “unit of analysis” was crucial. I became increasingly aware that all of modern social science presumes that the state boundaries constitute the boundaries of “societies.” I came to be convinced that this was a very misleading assumption. Instead, I came to argue that the only plausible unit of analysis was a “world‑system,” or more generally, an “historical social system.

The second intellectual decision was that the so‑called Methodenstreit that undergirded and divided all of modern social science – that between idiographic humanism and nomothetic science – was a totally false debate. Instead of choosing sides, which all and sundry encouraged me to do, indeed insisted that I do, I became convinced instinctively, and later in more reasoned ways, that all analysis had to be simultaneously historic and systemic, if it were to grapple seriously with the description and explanation of the real world.

The two basic premises of my work then are the world‑system as a unit of analysis, and the insistence that all social science must be simultaneously historic and systemic. Neither premise was popular or greeted with enthusiasm, when I argued them. It was the first premise that became my scholarly trademark, and has had the greatest impact. Once I presented the case for the world‑system as a unit of analysis, most notably in Volume I of The Modern World‑System and secondly in the essay “The Rise and Future Demise of the World Capitalist System: Concepts for Comparative Analysis,” both of which were published in 1974, many people responded favorably. Some were completely convinced, and others merely said that the argument had to be taken seriously. Those who disputed it most vigorously often did not argue against it on empirical grounds (that it was not factually correct) but more frequently on epistemological grounds (that it was not a so‑called falsifiable proposition).

I thus discovered that it would not be enough to argue that the description of the real world had to be different than the ones previously presented. I discovered that the crucial battle was over how we could know which description of the real world was in fact true, or truer or more plausible or more useful than another. I had to fight the epistemological issues in order that I and others be permitted to proceed with our analyses of social processes as integrated, complex wholes. I increasingly turned my attention to these epistemological issues, never losing sight of how these epistemological arguments implied different visions of social reality.

I found all of this intellectually fruitful. I discovered that, using these two premises, I could reinterpret many old debates, and collect new and important kinds of data, that did indeed, in my view, illuminate contemporary reality. In particular, this revised way of looking at social reality clarified the historical choices that had been made in constructing our existing world‑system as well as those that we shall have to make in the near future about constructing its successor world‑system (or systems). World‑systems analysis allowed me to range widely in terms of concrete issues, but always in such a way that the pieces might be fit together at the end of the exercise. It is not that world‑systems analysis enabled me to “discover the truth.” It is rather that it enabled me to make what I considered to be plausible interpretations of social reality in ways that I believe are more useful for all of us in making political and moral decisions. It is also that it enabled me to distinguish between what are long‑lasting structures and those momentary expressions of reality that we so regularly reify into fashionable theories about what is novel, as for example, the enormous recent production concerning so‑called “globalization.”

I concentrated my energy on the description of the historical functioning and development of the modern world‑system, which I insisted was a capitalist world‑economy. I sought to describe its institutional pillars, its historical origin, and the reasons why I thought it had entered into a period of systemic crisis and therefore of chaotic transition to some new order. I sought to produce analytic descriptions of the major institutional structures of this capitalist world‑economy – the Kondratieff cycles, the commodity chains, the income‑pooling households, the interstate system and its hegemonic cycles, and the geoculture – as well as a detailed critique of why both national development and developmentalism as an explanatory model (modernization theory) are illusions.

The word system often evokes images of equilibrium assumptions and of consensus theories. This is the furthest thing from my mind. Indeed the most interesting thing about systems is how they all have deep cleavages, which they seek to limit by institutionalizing them. Georg Simmel, Lewis Coser, and Max Gluckman all argued this a long time ago. But it is equally true that systems never succeed in eliminating their internal conflicts, or even of keeping them from taking violent forms. This understanding remains the major legacy we have from the corpus of Karl Marx.

But, as we have come collectively to know quite clearly in the last few decades, there exists more than one cleavage in any historical system. I therefore began to spend energy trying to analyze which were the major cleavages in the modern world‑system, how they differed the ones from the others, how they related to each other, and how each cleavage limited the effects of each other. I have made an effort to piece apart what I think of as the five major cleavages of our modern world: race, nation, class, ethnicity, and gender.

Finally, I turn to the question that ultimately concerns us all most: what to do. I think of this as “resistance, hope, and deception.” These three words describe for me the story of what I call the antisystemic movements of the modern world‑system. I try to relate the story of these movements to the larger geopolitical scheme, as well as to the political concepts we have evolved to describe both the realities and the aspirations we have about these realities.

Before I made my way towards the elaboration of the position I came to call world‑systems analysis, I struggled with what might be meant by ethnicity. I tried to make sense of the exciting and influential writings of Frantz Fanon. I tried to draw conclusions from 1968 about the right political stance for “radical intellectuals in a liberal society.” I tried to fit my early concern with Africa into my later turn to the study of the modern world‑system as a whole. And in the introduction to The Modern World‑System, I made a first effort to confront the issues of the structures of knowledge.

As I have continued to read, to observe, to analyze, and to write, I have come to recognize what have been the recurring and underlying themes of my intellectual venture, what are to me the most difficult questions to elucidate. There are four that stand out. The first is clearly the weight one wants to give to the universal strivings we all allow ourselves to invent as opposed to the claims of particular valuations on which we all insist. It is always easy to consider one’s own views to be expressions of the universal and the views of others as so many expressions of multiple particulars. But if self‑centered universalism is Scylla, Charybdis is self‑centered difference, the claim that every social expression, every scholarly argument, every perception of the world is equally valid/useful/virtuous, and that there are neither intellectual nor moral distinctions worth making. Both shoals involve the destruction of the possibility of collectively analyzing, appreciating, and approaching a maximally rational, maximally democratic world.

The second continuing issue is the relationship between the reality of the real world and our perception of the reality of the real world. Hardly a new question, but one that has been central to debates of recent decades. My own position is once again quite clear in my own mind. There exists a real world which is the object of our scholarly observations. Else, why would anyone bother about writing about it? In any case, we all live in this real world every day and are thoroughly aware that we have to take it into account in everything we do. If we fail to do this, we are called “psychotic,” which means that we are unable to cope very well with the challenges that are constantly presented to us. On the other hand, it is equally clear to me that we only perceive this real world as though through a pair of glasses, and that the way these glasses are cut largely determines what we think we see. To say that reality is socially constructed seems to me self‑evident, provided we remember that the construction is truly social – that is, collective and not individual. But to insist at one and the same time that there exists a real world and that we can only view it through the social spectacles we are wearing creates a continuing dilemma for the serious scholar. It requires constant reflection on how our glasses have distorted our vision, and how we can improve the quality of the refraction. But each reflection on ourselves is itself subject to the same contradiction. It is this dilemma that has pushed me toward making epistemological issues central to my analyses.

The third recurring theme, again not a new one, has been the relationship of intellectual analysis to political action, the ancient question of theory and praxis. I have already said that I personally see no conflict. Quite the contrary! But once again, I think of them as shoals to avoid. On the one side lies the false claim of disinterestedness that is the slogan so widely mouthed as the presumed indicator of scientificity. And on the other hand there is submission by the scholar to some political authority, authority of the state or of the parties, on the grounds of political loyalty. It seems to me that it is the duty of the scholar to be politically and intellectually subversive of received truths, but that the only way this subversion can be socially useful is if it reflects a serious attempt to engage with and understand the real world as best we can.

The final theme is how to bring into a single analysis the fact that the world has continuing structures and that it is constantly changing. This is of course a second continuing epistemological question, and one to which I have given much attention from the beginning. It is a hard one about which to convince others that there is some kind of solution. Most of us tend to make our statements either in the form of truths that hold more or less forever or in the form of descriptions of unique situations. But no situation can be described as unique, since the words with which we describe it are categories which presume features common to some larger group, hence to some continuing structure that appears to be stable. And at the same time no truths hold forever because the world is of course inevitably and eternally changing. We have indeed to work with temporarily useful structures/categories that bear within them the processes by which they get transformed into other structures/categories.

I believe that I have been fairly consistent in my views over the time I have been writing. Still, I have to acknowledge that there were three turning‑points in my political and intellectual development. The first, as I have already indicated, was my struggle with the issues that have plagued the left for most of its organizational history – the struggle between the Second and Third Internationals. The second was my encounter with Africa and with national liberation movements, which enabled me to put the debates of the Internationals into their proper context, as essentially debates primarily within the pan‑European world, debates that ignored the fundamental ongoing polarization of the capitalist world‑economy. And the third was the world revolution of 1968, which I experienced directly at Columbia University, and which helped expunge from my thinking both the lingering illusions of liberalism and the rosy view of the antisystemic movements. It sobered me up.

Of course I hope that, over all that time, I learned something useful and therefore inevitably my views evolved in some important respects. I did not do this unaided. I acknowledge a continuing intellectual debt to Marx, Freud, Schumpeter, and Karl Polanyi. Among persons I have personally known and read very extensively, the three that have had the most impact in modifying my line of argument (as opposed to deepening a parallel line of argument) have been Frantz Fanon, Fernand Braudel, and Ilya Prigogine. And of course their influence occurred in that chronological order. Fanon represented for me the sharp culmination of the insistence by the persons left out in the modern world‑system that they have a voice, a vision, and a claim not merely to justice but to intellectual valuation. Braudel made me conscious, as no one else did, of the central importance of the social construction of time and space, and its impact on our analyses. And Prigogine forced me to face all the implications of a world in which certainties did not exist but knowledge still did.

I have argued that world‑systems analysis is not a theory but a protest against neglected issues and deceptive epistemologies. It is a call for intellectual change, indeed for “unthinking” the premises of nineteenth‑century social science, as I say in the title of one of my books. It is an intellectual task that is and has to be a political task as well, because – I insist – the search for the true and the search for the good is but a single quest. If we are to move forward to a world that is substantively rational, in Max Weber’s usage of this term, we cannot neglect either the intellectual or the political challenge. And we cannot segment them into two hermetically‑sealed containers. We can only struggle uneasily with pushing forward simultaneously to coming closer to each of them.

Immanuel Wallerstein

[This text is a very slightly adapted version of the introductory essay to The Essential Wallerstein, New Press, 2000.]