Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 2, 2019

Immanuel Wallerstein (1930-2019): an appreciation

Filed under: obituary — louisproyect @ 9:00 pm

Twenty-five years ago, the Marxist left discussed and debated their ideas on an antiquated Internet medium called listserv’s, which are automated mailing lists. About 10 years later the same people began to defend their ideas on blogs, a new technology, with the drawback that they tended to be unidirectional. Those making comments were subordinate to the blogger who had the right to block someone or even block comments altogether. The pendulum swung the other direction when social media kicked in. First there was Facebook that began in 2004 and then Twitter which began two years later. I generally try to avoid debates on social media since it lacks the elementary tool that listservs or blogs provide, namely a search mechanism. Trying to find someone’s comments in a thread from a month or two ago is an exercise in futility.

One of the listserv’s I subscribed to in the mid-90s was called the World Systems Network (WSN). Like PEN-L, another listserv I joined even earlier and that is now pretty much moribund, it was based at the University of Colorado. WSN lasted from 1995 to 2004, the year that Facebook was born. A coincidence? You can read the archives here.

I subscribed to WSN because it was a place for discussion of the origins of capitalism, a topic I had become deeply interested in after getting to know Jim Blaut who had shown up on the Marxism listserv that preceded Marxmail. Jim was on WSN as was Andre Gunder Frank. Neither was shy about making their views known. Neither was I, even though I wasn’t in their league.

Among the top-flight Marxist academics subbed to WSN was Immanuel Wallerstein who had the distinction of founding the World Systems methodology that the list was named after. Within a few months, Wallerstein sent me a note complimenting me for my posts there, which were part of an ongoing polemic against Robert Brenner who had wrote an attack on Paul Sweezy, Andre Gunder Frank and Wallerstein as “neo-Smithians” (that’s Adam, of course) in the 1977 New Left Review.

For Brenner, Wallerstein fails to make the Marxist grade because he has no way of explaining the emergence of “relative surplus value”, the term that Marx used to describe the replacement of human labor by machinery like in the industrial revolution. For Brenner and his acolytes, “absolute surplus value” does not constitute genuine capitalism because it relies on the extension of the work-day and political repression to produce surplus value.

In other words, it is the kind of class relation that existed in most of Latin American and Africa until the 20th century where plantations and mines owned by colonial powers relied on slavery, peonage and other “pre-capitalist” forms of exploitation. So, when, for example, King Leopold’s henchmen cut off the hands of men and women in the Belgian Congo who refused to tap rubber used to make automobile tires in Belgium, they were not really involved with capitalist production because they used a machete instead of a drill press. For me, all of this is capitalism. It is a world system, as Wallerstein maintained.

I am not exactly sure when the correspondence began but for about a year I exchanged emails with Immanuel Wallerstein who struck me as one the most generous, knowledgeable and down-to-earth people I had ever run into on the net with his kind of qualifications. Mostly, we discussed the Brenner thesis and why it irked the both of us, and Jim Blaut.

At one point, he invited me to write an analysis of the Brenner thesis for the journal he edited out of the U. of Binghamton. After turning it in, his assistant suggested some changes—something I decided was not worth my time and energy. It was only after my wife became a tenure-track professor and had to deal with multiple and exhausting changes to her articles that I understood how correct my decision was, especially with my hair-trigger temper.

For what it’s worth, here’s the article: http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/origins/testing_the_brenner_thesis.htm

Unfortunately, my refusal to work on the article undermined the friendship with Wallerstein and we stopped communicating. Years later, I did drop him a line about something he had written from time to time but nothing that suggested that we reconnect.

With his passing, I decided to have a look at the Wikipedia entry for him to help me write this post. I now understand why he made such an impact on me. He was not the typical academic. He had much more in common with the rough-and-tumble Jim Blaut than I realized at the time

On his website, Wallerstein wrote about his role in the SDS-led strike of 1968, when he was a sociology professor there.

After seven days or so, the Columbia administration decided to call the police. [Dean] David Truman came to the meeting of the AHFG [Ad Hoc Faculty Group] to tell us that they were going to do that. He simply reported this; he didn’t discuss it. Various professors made different personal decisions. There were many who decided to surround the entrance to the occupied buildings. Most of them surrounded Fayerweather, the building occupied by the graduate students. A smaller group, of which I was one, decided to surround Hamilton Hall.

As for 1968 as a whole, I have written on this many times and have no space here to repeat the argument. In one sentence, what happened was the ending of the geocultural dominance of centrist liberalism and the reopening of a three-way ideological struggle between the Global Left and the Global Right with centrist liberalism struggling to maintain some support as a real alternative.

Does that term centrist liberalism ring a bell? It should given Joe Biden’s pathetic candidacy.

In the Wiki, we learn about Wallerstein’s political influences that, of course, starts with Karl Marx. I was struck by his inclusion of Frantz Fanon who he described as “the expression of the insistence by those disenfranchised by the modern world‑system that they have a voice, a vision, and a claim not merely to justice but to intellectual valuation.” Like fellow Columbia professor Edward Said, Wallerstein identified strongly with the people of the global South who hardly figure in Political Marxism’s ambit.

Let me conclude with a recommendation to visit Wallerstein’s website (https://www.iwallerstein.com/) that includes free access to a number of his scholarly articles. You will find a page titled “Intellectual Itinerary” that concludes with this statement, not that different from what Jim Blaut believed in himself.

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.



  1. Did Wallerstein really believe that Kondratieff Waves are a Thing?

    Comment by David Stevens — September 3, 2019 @ 2:27 am

  2. Yes.

    Comment by louisproyect — September 3, 2019 @ 12:13 pm

  3. There’s that “stein” again. Lol!

    So many of THEM, and Bergs, and skys, in “the left”, “academia”, banks and petit- bourgeois professions.

    So few, to the point of maybe none, in the factories, mines, trains, ships and docks.

    Why oh why would that be?

    Comment by TT Boyd — September 4, 2019 @ 7:12 am

  4. A serious scholar, an original thinker, and a generous activist intellectual. I’ll miss him.

    Comment by Balaton Fleet Commander — September 4, 2019 @ 9:32 am

  5. TT, how did a dirty fascist like you ever come to the conclusion that writing a Jew-baiting comment like this under the cloak of anonymity would help American go Nazi? At least, Hitler had the guts to street-fight. You, by contrast, are probably a frustrated, sex-starved, pimply 18-year old who lives in a sad little fantasy-world. You should use your Obamacare to get some psychotherapy before you take your own life or that of some utter strangers.

    Comment by louisproyect — September 4, 2019 @ 11:55 am

  6. In a global left that is increasingly turning away from class analysis and turning to geo-political calculations that consider the nation-state as a key analytical unit, where we have already seen many examples of the depth of their mistaken calculations, Wallerstein was a great point of light and clarity that brought together a vast knowledge of history, Marxian analysis and focus on global institutions of capitalism.

    He made (and his work will remain) a great contribution to our understanding of social dynamics of human societies, especially in light of the current disarray in the systems and institutions that held world capitalism together from after WWII through the end of the 20th century.

    He will be greatly missed. RIP!

    Comment by Reza — September 4, 2019 @ 6:40 pm

  7. I don’t know Wallerstein’s work except through these pages, but I have to say that in principle a whole-world view, if not a World Systems view, is the only outlook that makes any sense for the left these days.

    This is particularly accentuated, IMO, by the accelerating environmental crisis, which has put paid to the notion of “development” as preached by the World Bank–the fiction that every nation that does not deserve to live in a “shithole” must be capable of “developing” in the mad, wasteful manner of the U.S.

    The fact that at least two quite independent lines of inquiry converge on this is to my mind utterly persuasive.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — September 4, 2019 @ 8:04 pm

  8. Wallerstein’s breadth of historical knowledge is one key contribution he has made. But he has also provided us with a very valuable analytical framework when looking at the world capitalist system.

    For him, there are three axes of analysis that need to be addressed in order to understand what’s happening in our political-economic life. The three axes are:

    1) The ‘horizontal’ axis (if you will), which focuses on North-North and South-South relations. This could explain the inter-imperialist rivalries or cooperation pacts (North-North), as well as institutions such as the Non-Aligned Movement (South-South), which also is connected to the second axis, which is:

    2) The ‘vertical’ axis, or the North-South relations. We’re very familiar with that axis: colonialism, imperialism.

    3) The class (or, as he calls it, the ideological) axis. We are very familiar with that as Marxists. For Wallerstein, the class dynamic influences both other axes, as it, for example, sheds light on the dynamics of the ‘horizontal’ axis. For example, the current trend toward nationalistic policies by some Northern powers are in response to their ruling classes’ inability to address their populations needs, as capital accumulation at the top is at historic highs and incredible wealth is produced, while, for example, in the US, millions of families suffer from food insecurity.

    Most of the post-Soviet era left seems to be focused (at best) on the first two axes, while ignoring the third, which leads to their faulty analyses, at times even leading them to side with brutal dictators and butchers who slaughter ‘their own’ populations at will, acting like the entire society is their private property.

    Wallerstein is dead; Long live Wallerstein’s contributions!

    Comment by Reza — September 4, 2019 @ 8:54 pm

  9. May he rest in peace with the saints in light. Pray for us, Immanuel, that we may be worthy of the tasks set before us.

    Comment by Kurt Hill — September 5, 2019 @ 5:27 pm

  10. I will miss him dearly, despite some differences with him. I used his WSA framework to write my master’s thesis (and sent it to him afterwards). I am sorry that we won’t get any more MWS volumes out of him (he claimed in the intro to Vol. IV that he planned to produce several more). In any event, sounds like you had a genuine influence on him, Louis. Sorry your article was never published in their journal.

    Comment by dermokrat — September 16, 2019 @ 5:37 am

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