We have seen that Immanuel Wallerstein has developed a comprehensive historical social scientific understanding of the modern world that represents a significant advance over the mainstream approaches in the academic disciplines in the social sciences and history (see “Who is Immanuel Wallerstein?” 7/30/2013). Wallerstein’s analysis, however, falls short of a full understanding of Third World insights, as can be seen with his analysis of the present structural crisis of the world system from 1970 to the present as well as his projections for the future (Wallerstein 1995, 1999). Thus the world-systems perspective can be understood as a progressive understanding of the world-system, rooted in the post-1968 progressive consciousness of the peoples of the North, but still limited by the horizons of the North. It nevertheless represents a useful point of departure for the development of an integral and universal historical social science, especially with respect to its description of the historical development of the world-system, a comprehensive description that is fully consistent with the Third World perspective.
I offer the following specific criticisms of Wallerstein’s work. First, Wallerstein does not make a sufficient distinction between Lenin and Leninism, on the one hand, and Stalin and the Soviet Union beginning with Stalin and later, on the other. He demonstrates little understanding of Leninism.
Secondly, Wallerstein does not have, in my view, a good understanding of the revolutionary Third World national liberation movements, and here I make three observations. (1) Although Wallerstein sometimes incorporates a distinction between moderate and radical Third World national liberation governments and movements, he for the most part ignores this distinction.
(2) Wallerstein misreads the tendency of the Third World movements to synthesize Western concepts, believing that their adoption of Wilson’s principle of self-determination and Roosevelt’s concept of economic development for the Third World implied an acceptance of Western values. Wallerstein does not appreciate the tendency of the Third World movement to adapt Western concepts to a colonial and neocolonial situation, placing them in the context of the Third World movement, which was forging in theory and practice an alternative political, intellectual and moral project. This Third World project was fundamentally opposed to the neo-colonial (but progressive) project of Wilson and Roosevelt.
(3) Wallerstein criticizes the revolutionary national liberation project for accepting the Enlightenment principle of gradually improving the human condition through the development and application of scientific knowledge. But are we to abandon science and knowledge? Wallerstein’s own solutions, which are vague, seem to draw upon the Enlightenment legacy and to fall back on the values of liberal ideology. Wallerstein notes correctly that it is not inevitable that we progress. But if we are to progress, must we not utilize knowledge? Wallerstein seems to not understand that the Third World movement, especially in its present manifestations, has appropriated Enlightenment concepts in a way that avoids overly positivistic and rationalist perceptions.
Thirdly, Wallerstein does not take seriously the important examples of Cuba and Vietnam. These long-surviving Third World socialist revolutions were forged through a synthesis of Marxism-Leninism with the concepts of petit bourgeois national liberation, in other words, through an adaption of Marxism-Leninism to colonial and neocolonial conditions. Wallerstein mentions Cuba and Vietnam only occasionally and sees them as expressions of the liberal project, which no longer has viability. He does not engage in serious reflection on the lessons to be learned from these cases.
In my view, these limitations in Wallerstein’s analysis are a consequence of the fact that he did not engage in a personal encounter with the Third World movements in a persistent manner during the course of his career. Although early in his career he encountered the African national liberation movement and he originally was an Africanist, and even though he took seriously Frantz Fanon and was influenced by his thinking, Wallerstein increasingly was influenced by French thinking as his career developed. The French influence was important from the beginning, especially the work of Braudel, which was integral to Wallerstein's formulation of the world-systems perspective, which could be understood as a synthesis of Third World and European (or at least African and French) perspectives. But as Wallerstein’s thought developed through the 1980s and 1990s, and as he turned to philosophical questions, he was increasingly influenced by French currents of thought, which stressed the uncertainty of knowledge and which were moving toward an abandonment of the Enlightenment project as part of a turn to a post-modern age. But post-modernism has little saliency, even among intellectuals, in the Third World.
In spite of these limitations, Immanuel Wallerstein is the most important European intellectual of the period from 1945 to the present, and we often will have reason to draw upon his analysis.
Hopkins, Terence K., and Immanuel Wallerstein. 1996. The Age of Transition: Trajectory of the World System, 1945-2025. New Jersey: Zed Books.
Wallerstein, Immanuel. 1974. The Modern World System, Vol. I. New York: Academic Press.
__________. 1979. The Capitalist World Economy. New York: Cambridge University Press.
__________. 1980. The Modern World System, Vol. II. New York: Academic Press.
__________. 1982. “Crisis as Transition” in Samir Amin, Giovanni Arrighi, Andre Gunder Frank and Immanuel Wallerstein, Dynamics of Global Crisis. New York: Monthly Review Press.
__________. 1989. The Modern World System, Vol. III. New York: Academic Press.
__________. 1990. "Antisystemic Movements: History and Dilemmas" in Samir Amin, Giovanni Arrighi, Andre Gunder Frank and Immanuel Wallerstein, Transforming the Revolution: Social Movements and the World-System. New York: Monthly Review Press.
__________. 1995. After Liberalism. New York: The New Press.
__________. 2000. “Long Waves as Capitalist Process” in Immanuel Wallerstein, The Essential Wallerstein (New York: The New Press), Pp. 207-19. [Originally published in Review VII:4 (Spring 1984), Pp. 559-75.]
__________. 2000. “The Three Instances of Hegemony in the History of the Capitalist World-Economy” in Immanuel Wallerstein, The Essential Wallerstein (New York: The New Press), Pp. 253-63. [Originally published in International Journal of Comparative Sociology XXIV:1-2 (January-April 1983), Pp. 100-8).
__________. 2003. The Decline of American Power: The U.S. in a Chaotic World. New York: The New Press.
__________. 2011. The Modern World System IV: Centralist Liberalism Triumphant, 1789-1914. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Key words: Third World, revolution, colonialism, neocolonialism, imperialism, democracy, national liberation, sovereignty, self-determination, socialism, Marxism, Leninism, Cuba, Latin America, Lonergan, cognitional theory, epistemology, philosophy, Wallerstein, world-system