Wallerstein Expanded the South African Independent Left’s Horizons

(World-systems sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein was born in 1930 and died on August 31 last year. As part of the Hong Kong-based Global University for Sustainability’s tribute, several South Africans remembered his role here.)

In introducing The Essential Wallerstein in 2000, Immanuel Wallerstein wrote,

I credit my African studies with opening my eyes both to the burning political issues of the contemporary world and to the scholarly questions of how to analyze the history of the modern world-system. It was Africa that was responsible for challenging the more stultifying parts of my education.

I initially thought that the academic and political debates were merely over the empirical analysis of contemporary reality, but I soon became aware that the very tools of analysis were themselves to be questioned. 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 was the spirit Immanuel retained during visits to South Africa in 2006, 2009 and 2011, as the independent left here matured and found opportunities to draw him into academic and activist events, so as to back up our critiques of the country’s increasingly neoliberal government and notoriously super-exploitative capitalist class. (At least one earlier visit, in the late 1990s, had been sponsored by state officialdom and included a talk to the South African Communist Party – but no subsequent hostings.) During each trip, visiting the country’s three main cities and leading universities, he showed us how our local and global linkages of liberatory political projects were in need of strengthening, beyond the empirical and into broader ways of thinking and acting.

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(with University of Johannesburg students, 2011)

Four independent-left scholar-activists – Trevor Ngwane, Kate Alexander, Mary Galvin and Ashwin Desai – who knew him well can testify to this:

Comrade Immanuel Wallerstein’s writings opened my eyes and those of many comrades to the international nature of the capitalist and imperialist system of exploitation and oppression. He showed its historical development and the various mechanisms it uses to subject the world’s peoples and working classes to its totalising power. This insight was very important in the struggle for national liberation because it facilitated the building of revolutionary national movements against colonialism informed by anti-capitalist pro-socialist vision. Anti-imperialism became the hallmark of any liberation movement worth its salt.

Today Wallerstein’s lessons are as important as ever as humanity struggles to cope with the economic and ecological ravages of the global capitalist crisis. They point to the need for the world’s working classes and allied social forces to unite within and across national borders in order to match the international power of capital. We are struggling to eradicate all forms of exploitation and oppression. The only viable and lasting solution is to overthrow the capitalist world system and replace it with socialism on the road to communism.

On a personal note, I remember in 2011 he came to Soweto to visit the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee and we showed him how to reconnect the electricity [disconnected by state authorities] in one house. It was fun and the comrades really liked him and he enjoyed himself. He was in full support of our method of commoning the electricity.

– Trevor Ngwane, Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Johannesburg and 2020-21 President of the South African Sociological Association

So many happy memories of Immanuel, who visited us at the University of Johannesburg several times. He gave a talk to our senior students – ‘From doctoral research to World Systems Theory’ – which turned into a spellbinding intellectual autobiography that rooted his development in African experience, and made the students feel bigger, with a future beyond their dissertation.

On another occasion we took him to Soweto where he participated in removing a household water meter, so that a poor family could receive free water. He wasn’t bothered that this was illegal, and loved having his photograph taken with the activists. It was a little contribution to struggle.

Also he helped me when I was in trouble with my petty-minded dean, my immediate superior, who wanted to boot me out. He re-assured me, telling me about a similar experience – at Binghamton I suppose – where the President eventually rescued him. Fortunately my vice-chancellor was a fan of Immanuel, and chaired the lecture he gave. At the end of the lecture, the VC looks at me and nods. I knew I was OK. Immanuel had helped to save me.

It’s so sad that Immanuel died before we could give him an honorary degree. For many, he was an intellectual super star, perhaps the biggest figure in sociology for a period spanning many decades, but he was also kind and generous, seeking to develop a new generation of African intellectuals and, where could, support working-class people fighting injustice and poverty.

– Kate Alexander, Professor of Sociology and Director of the Centre for Social Change, University of Johannesburg

First and foremost, Immanuel was an intellectual, as evidenced by a library collection full of his prolific publications translated into many languages. His exceptionality was his commitment to making himself and his ideas available to activists to feed the class struggle.

From World Social Forums to conferences across the globe, his travel schedule was always full, well-managed by his intellectual partner and wife Beatrice. When he was in South Africa, I remember Immanuel giving lectures to academics and activists, joining in marches and spending his free time with comrades, reflecting on what the past teaches us about our present struggles and strategies.

We knew him as a generous, wise and kind elder, showing his amusement with a sly smile. When I visited him a couple months before his death, he was determined to achieve his aim of producing the 500th of his Commentaries. Indefatigable?

In his final broadcast he wrote: ‘Because of the structural crisis of the modern-world system, it is possible, possible but not absolutely certain, that a transformatory use of a 1968 complex will be achieved by someone or some group…  I have indicated in the past that I thought the crucial struggle was a class struggle, using class in a very broadly defined sense. What those who will be alive in the future can do is to struggle with themselves so this change may be a real one.’

– Mary Galvin, Associate Professor of Development Studies, University of Johannesburg

Immanuel’s collaborations with Etienne Balibar on race and nationalism were pathbreaking, with case studies of southern Africa including Angola and South Africa. Here, he challenged the idea of ‘two stages’ [i.e., first we should end apartheid, then later end capitalism]. He did so seriously, subjecting it to sympathetic critique, not agreeing with the formulation, thereby joining many of us who didn’t, including myself.

But in this triangle of class, race and nation, we had a magical idea during the 1980s, of what class politics could do. I think we underestimated how powerful the ideas of race and nation are, and how much they trespassed into the ANC. The limitations of national liberation are obvious, but Wallerstein brought to bear his experiences and was much more sober in reading into South Africa’s trajectory the Trojan Horse of nationalism, as much as one would the Trojan Horse of the Stalinism that has been so prevalent in communist politics here.

One of the most haunting comments he made to me related to two of our institutions of the scholarly left: the Centre for Civil Society at University of KwaZulu-Natal and Centre for Social Change at the University of Johannesburg. He told us when we were under pressure at these two sites, that in his own experience in the U.S. and Latin America, these kinds of places are cherished institutions but you can lose them, and if you do, you can never get them back.

– Ashwin Desai, Professor of Sociology, University of Johannesburg

What Ashwin partly refers to, at the Centre for Civil Society (CCS) in South Africa’s third city, the port of Durban – a praxis-oriented research/teaching institute which I directed from 2004-16 – was not only Immanuel’s regular lecturing. Also, his endorsement of CCS in mid-2008 was instrumental in fending off the centre’s threatened closure, in the course of a political attack from a rightwing University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) administration. CCS was UKZN’s “single most prestigious activity”, Immanuel wrote, and “the jewel in its crown. Those of us who try to follow what is going on in South Africa have come to rely upon CCS as the best single source of wide information. Closing it down would not only damage severely UKZN’s reputation but would set back research worldwide on contemporary South Africa.”

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(with UKZN students, 2011)

Immanuel would deliver profound talks, sometimes in intimate seminar mode on the South Durban beachfront with post-grad students. On another occasion, in mid-2011, he spoke about the North African uprising and U.S. imperialism to an audience of several hundred activists, proletarians and the urban poor, along with the smattering of progressive petit-bourgeois intellectuals you find at places like UKZN (whose role in ruling-class reproduction survived the democratic transition).

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(with Samir Amin, 2006; Dennis Brutus 2009; Dani Nabudere, 2009)

In 2006 he was at CCS to debate Samir Amin on the World Social Forum, where his optimism was contagious. He was especially important to a 2009 conference on ‘the commons’ which he keynoted alongside the late Ugandan Marxist Dani Nabudere, local revolutionary poet-activist Dennis Brutus (in his last public appearance) and U.S. ecologist Hazel Henderson. There, the basis for South Africa’s contributions to eco-socialist-feminist theory became better grounded in our grassroots comrades’ successful efforts to decommodify AIDS medicines (raising life expectancy rapidly from 52 to 65 today); to eventually gain free university education; and to ensure many townships gained energy and water supplies even if they could not afford increasingly-corporatised municipal systems (hence the illegal service-reconnection tactics that Trevor refers to above, and that delighted Immanuel when he learned 86% of Sowetans were not paying for electricity).

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(with Soweto community activists, 2006)

Immanuel’s prestige in these academic events was quickly shaken off when he traveled through low-income townships, visited Mahatma Gandhi’s ashram (from the period during a 1894-1913 on-and-off Durban residence) and ventured into South Africa’s many recreational sites. Immanuel created space to rejuvenate with friends. In 2009 he visited Bushmen rock paintings in the Drakensburg Mountains with Mary and her children, helping to carry baby Kati up steep hills and teaching Cameron chess. Mary remembers a scare when no one had brought snacks and his wife Beatrice worried about his blood sugar (he was diabetic). Keeping his schedule manageable and encouraging him at each step in the itinerary to add rest and recreation, she possessed compassionate power. And her intellectual partnership was also abundantly evident. Moreover, Beatrice’s care for maintaining South African friendships was always the most magnanimous of any visitor I can recall.

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(in Durban at Gandhi’s ashram and at the birthday party of a one-year old, the author’s daughter, 2009)

Eddie Webster, the longest-serving radical sociologist in South Africa, has great memories of Immanuel’s visit: “On one of his visits to Wits University I took him down the ERPM gold mine in Boksburg, east of Joburg. He was fascinated especially when I explained how the rockfalls turned men into paraplegics. It was memorable for us both.”

The last time I spent time with Immanuel was in 2017 when Nancy Fraser gathered a network together, not far from his Paris apartment, to contemplate a ‘triple-movement’ (post-Polanyian) strategy, in part to combat the capitalists’ ‘lean-in feminism’, market-centric ‘ecological modernisation’ and the kind of South African-style Black Economic Empowerment in which parasitical firms assimilated the likes of our current president, Cyril Ramaphosa. Immanuel was, as ever, wry and engaged. And in all my subsequent communications, he replied rapidly when asked for the latest advice he had, on combining analysis and praxis aimed at both world-scale top-down structure, and bottom-up struggle.

Not that there weren’t open-ended debates and disputes, such as whether the semi-periphery represented a ‘sub-imperial’ layer, one that worried other great global theorists including Ruy Mauro Marini in the 1960s-70s and David Harvey in the early 2000s. The old question of whether world-systems was supplemental – or in opposition to – the theory of uneven development regular confounded us. But in establishing a strategic approach to these big-picture problems, which we continue to face in South Africa, no one I know embraced scale-politics better, with more seriousness and historical reach, and with such a long-range, compassionate future viewpoint, than Immanuel.

Patrick Bond is professor of sociology at the University of Johannesburg in South Africa. He can be reached at: pbond@mail.ngo.za