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Immanuel Wallerstein, a Belated Farewell

Alas, I have not written about Immanuel Wallerstein right after his death, as I should have. The electoral campaign for Moscow City Duma demanded all my time and attention, so I limited myself to a short post on social media and promised to write an article later.

Now, after the election has come and gone, the time has come to deliver on my promise.

Of course, Wallerstein deserves not just a column, not even just an article, but a major biographical study. Everybody still remembers him as a living classic, a maître of historical sociology, but for a better understanding of his intellectual journey we should return to its very origins–to the 1960s, when a young American sociologist was trying to answer the question: what is not right with the development of the African countries?

From the beginning, many predicted a great future for Wallerstein. He secured a brilliant academic career starting as an instructor at his alma mater, Columbia University, in 1959, immediately after receiving his doctorate degree at the age of 29. Then, the young researcher surprised his colleagues and supporters: he concluded that the modernization theory which he was taught, and which he set off to develop further, is not correct. Worse than that, when student unrest started in New York in 1968, as it did throughout the world, he joined the rebels and became one of their ideologues.

Modernization theory, which was popular in the West in the 1950s, was bourgeois interpretation of the Soviet experience of industrial development during the 1930-40s. As a matter of fact, it reproduced an orthodox Marxist concept formulated by Karl Kautsky and G.V. Plekhanov. According to these views, all countries go through the same stages of development. It is impossible to skip a stage, but the experience of the more developed countries can be used to accelerate the process. If a country is currently in a feudal stage, a bourgeois revolution is needed to create the conditions for a welfare state, which, in turn, would allow a transition from capitalism to socialism.

In the modernization theory framework, transition to socialism was, naturally, not an issue, and thus a different terminology was used: the place of “capitalism” and “socialism” was taken by the “industrialized society.” Western countries served as a model of such society; however, an alternative – the Soviet model – was also acknowledged. One way or another, the developing world was prescribed a consecutive set of measures, institutions, and technologies, so that after passing several stages, they could join the “civilized world” and create a “normal” modern society. It is clear now why Soviet sociologists who preached Kautsky’s paradigm as a basic principle of Marxism-Leninism easily transitioned in the 1990s into a specific version of the modernization theory, according to which Russia should stop socialist experiments and return to the “main path of development” by joining the West, which was now not just the best kind of an industrial society, but the only possible one. The problem is that the unsoundness of this idea was demonstrated by Wallerstein and his followers in the beginning of the 1970s.

Strictly speaking, Kautsky’s concept was already overturned by the Russian revolution in 1917 which, according to his views, could not happen, or at least could not be socialist. Antonio Gramsci was the first to notice this. He called it the revolution against “Capital,” while Kautsky could never bring himself to accept this event which overturned his harmonious theory.

On the contrary, Soviet ideologues after Lenin’s death not only stayed loyal to Kautsky’s ideas despite their own historical experience, but also turned them into a dogma. This is not surprising: such a scheme is easy to teach and to accept.

Meanwhile, in the beginning of the 20th century, Rosa Luxemburg and Mikhail Pokrovskiy already showed that capitalism develops not as a sum of national economies which live and progress side by side, but rather as a unified system where “underdevelopment” (“backwardness”) of some and the “successful development” of the others are, as a matter of fact, interconnected, and cannot exist without one another. Moreover, the issue lies not only in the exploitation of colonies, but in the complex logic of the system, within which the center and the periphery develop spontaneously. Wallerstein went further, showing how the process of capital accumulation within such a system naturally creates a tendency to redistribute resources and benefits from the periphery to the center.

Having already published the first volume of his main work, “The Modern World-System,” Wallerstein demonstrated that capitalism first emerges as a global economic system, and only then are “national capitalisms” formed within it. As for the countries of the periphery, all sorts of manifestations of backwardness become not only a “brake for development,” but also a kind of competitive advantage, which the elites of these countries use in order to fit into the world system more effectively: slave labor allows the production of cheap goods, the absence of an independent court and universal corruption is a way to simplify investment processes, hired killers are cheaper than lawyers, etc.

Leaving Africa, the British and French colonizers left behind almost the full range of democratic institutions in most countries – parties, courts, and parliaments, but almost nowhere has it been possible to maintain this democratic order in the conditions of independence. Unlike those who attributed the events to the cultural or racial backwardness of the “natives,” Wallerstein realized that these were systemic limitations. By and large, the full spectrum of all democratic freedoms, rights, and institutions is only necessary in the countries of the core. For the periphery, these rights and freedoms are redundant regarding the interests of capitalist accumulation. Furthermore, even if they are available, they limit bourgeois development rather than stimulate it. They are not generated by the capitalist order but rather are imposed on the ruling class by social resistance or by the balance of the internal societal forces.

The political conclusions that stem from the world-systems theory may seem pessimistic at first glance: it is, at the very minimum, difficult to break the system and build a new society in one single country. The Soviet revolutionary burst, despite its grandiose achievements, ended with the restoration of capitalism. In the 1990s, Wallerstein established the fact that all three alternatives to the bourgeois order that arose in the 20th century – the communist movement, social democracy, and the national liberation movements of the countries of the periphery – all were equally defeated.

This, however, does not mean that the capitalist world system is invincible. On the contrary, no matter what condition its adversaries are in, it faces internal contradictions that inevitably undermine its stability and ultimately doom it to a collapse once its historical potential is exhausted.

The logic of universal global engagement has not only a dark side but also a bright side. Any revolution in the capitalist world already reflects not only the level of development of the productive forces in a single country, but to a certain extent, in the entire world-system and in the global bourgeois economy. Any national revolution is a factor in changing the nature of not only a single territory’s development, but also of the entire system. In this regard, modern capitalism is a product of the Russian Revolution and Soviet industrialization, Chinese communist experiments, and anti-colonial uprisings in the Third World not less, but perhaps even more than of the processes occurring in Western industrial countries.

As early as the late 1990s, Wallerstein forecast the impending decay and demise of the capitalist world-system, which he predicted to happen in the next half a century. What new world-system will replace it, the researcher stated, depends on many circumstances. It hasn’t developed yet and we can’t say in advance what it will be like. We can’t even say in advance that it will be better. The only thing we know for sure is that it will be different.

The last time I had the opportunity to talk to Wallerstein one-on-one was during the social forum in Porto Alegre, where we happened to encounter each other near a table with a book display. We drank coffee and talked about the future – is there a chance for a revival of the left movement in the coming years? What would it be like?

At that time, Wallerstein was finishing the fourth volume of his fundamental work. After three previous volumes, which have become classics, the continuation was met with respect and interest by colleagues, but without much enthusiasm – all the main ideas of the work were already formulated in the previous sections.

The last, fifth volume dedicated to the era of anti-bourgeois revolutions remained unwritten. There is some symbolism in this – many great texts of the social and political sciences, including Karl Marx’s “Capital” and Lenin’s “State and Revolution” remained unfinished. Research and transformation of society has no predetermined limit, much less a predictable result. History should not only be studied, but also created.

The question of how the crisis of the capitalist world system will turn out for humanity and my country and what will replace it is not purely theoretical. The answer to this question is up to us, those who live and act in our crucial era.

Translated by Natasha Minkovsky

 

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Boris Kagarlitsky PhD is a historian and sociologist who lives in Moscow. He is a prolific author of books on the history and current politics of the Soviet Union and Russia and of books on the rise of globalized capitalism. Fourteen of his books have been translated into English. The most recent book in English is ‘From Empires to Imperialism: The State and the Rise of Bourgeois Civilisation’ (Routledge, 2014). Kagarlitsky is chief editor of the Russian-language online journal Rabkor.ru (The Worker). He is the director of the Institute for Globalization and Social Movements, located in Moscow.

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