In reviewing the process of Latin American union and integration and its implications for the possible establishment of a more just and democratic world-system, we found that Immanuel Wallerstein maintained more than thirty years ago that the world-system has entered a terminal structural crisis, and it is in transition to something else, including possibly a socialist civilizational project (see “A change of epoch?” (3/18-2004). Wallerstein is the most important Northern intellectual of our time. He has moved beyond the conventional disciplinary boundaries in the social sciences and history and has formulated an analysis of the historical development and current dilemmas of the modern world-system. Our grasping of the basic insights of his work is necessary for our understanding of the political and moral choices that we today confront. I have in previous posts tried to formulate succinctly these important insights (see “Immanuel Wallerstein” 7/30/2014; “What is a world-system?” 8/1/2013; “The modern world-economy” 8/2/2013; “Unequal exchange” 8/5/2013; “The origin of the modern world-economy” 8/6/2013; “Modernization of the West” 8/7/2013; “Conquest, gold, and Western development” 8/8/2013; “Consolidation of the world-economy, 1640-1815” 8/19/2013; “New peripheralization, 1750-1850” 8/20/2013; “The world-economy becomes global, 1815-1914” 8/21/2013).
When I first read the initial volumes of The Modern World System (1974, 1980, 1989) in the 1980s, I interpreted Wallerstein’s analysis of the historical development of the modern world-system as a comprehensive description that incorporated the basic insights of Black Nationalism, placing them in a broader global and historical context. (Black Nationalism had formed the basic premises of my scholarship as a result of my study at the Center for Inner City Studies in Chicago in the early 1970s). In more recent years, reading Wallerstein’s collections of essays (1995, 1999, 2003, 2004, 2006), I discovered that Wallerstein and I have divergent interpretations of the political and epistemological implications of the Third World national liberation movements (see “Wallerstein: A Critique” 7/31/0213).
I take this difference to be rooted in the different trajectories of our work and in the different social experiences that our work provided. Wallerstein, as a young sociologist in the late 1950s and early 1960s, encountered African nationalism as it was transforming the political reality of Africa and the world. He discerned that African nationalists looked at the world from a perspective different from Europeans, from a perspective that was rooted in the “colonial situation.” He appropriated African nationalist insights, and he incorporated them in the formulation of “world-systems analysis,” in which he was influenced by the French historian Fernand Braudel, and through which, as he would later express, he expanded the time scope and space scope of the African independence movements. Beginning in the 1980s, Wallerstein was influenced by the Nobel Prize chemist Ilya Prigogine. Wallerstein appropriated Prigogine’s analysis of physical processes, arriving at the understanding that the world-system had entered “bifurcation” or structural crisis. In addition, Wallerstein drew upon both Braudel and Prigogine to address epistemological issues and to see the need to reunify knowledge, overcoming separation of the social sciences and history as well as the division between science and philosophy.
But my experience of encounter with Third World movements led me in a somewhat different direction. I saw the Third World movements as providing a foundation for a reconstruction of the political-economy of the world-system and a formulation of an alternative epistemological consensus that would be integral to a reconstructed world-system. That is, I viewed the Third World movements as not merely formulating important insights that should be incorporated in a European-based understanding of historical systems and knowledge, but as providing a foundation for a just and democratic world-system and for universal human understanding of the true and the right. My understanding and conviction deepened as I proceeded to encounter Third World movements beyond the first encounter with Black Nationalism: the popular movement in Honduras; the Cuban Revolution and the speeches and writings of its historic charismatic leader, Fidel Castro Ruz; and “socialism for the XXI century” in Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador, observing it from the sympathetic vantage point of Cuba. All of these manifestations of Third World national liberation movements possessed important common elements: an understanding of the importance of colonialism and neocolonialism in shaping the world-system; a faith in the capacity of social movements formed by the people to create a more just and democratic world; and a conviction that we can know the true and the right. In addition, these different Third World nationalisms appropriated Western insights and the insights of Marxism-Leninism, placing them in the context of a Third World perspective formulated from the colonial situation. Thus, I came to understand that the Third World movements of national liberation were developing from below an alternative world-system and an alternative epistemology. I came to believe that the neocolonized peoples of the world are showing us in the North the way, with respect to political action, understanding the world, and understanding of understanding itself.
From 1976 to 1978, stimulated by my previous encounter with Black Nationalism, I studied the Catholic philosopher Bernard Lonergan. I was investigating the question of the possibility of objective knowledge of the social world, given the fact, by then clear to me, that understandings are rooted in social position. Drawing upon Lonergan’s concepts of “the desire to know,” “personal encounter” and “horizon,” I arrived at the conclusion that we intellectuals of the North are able to arrive at a universal human understanding, if we encounter the social movements formed by the neocolonized peoples of the Third World. I continue to believe that this provides an important piece to the epistemological dilemmas of our time, particularly in that it provides a methodological guideline for intellectuals of the North in the context of a just and necessary transformation of the world-system from below.
It seems to me that Wallerstein has arrived at the point of understanding what we social scientists, who are organized principally as social scientists of the North, ought to do: we need to reunify knowledge, and to formulate epistemological assumptions and methodological rules that would be integral to a reunified historical social science; and we need to develop understandings that clarify the structural crisis and contradictions of the world-system, in order to made clear the historical choices that humanity today confronts. At the same time, it seems to me that Wallerstein has not seen that we social scientists of the North are not in a social position that would enable us to accomplish this task, trapped as we are in fragmented disciplines and academic bureaucratic structures and isolated as we are from the political and revolutionary discourses of the Third World. And he has not seen that that the fulfillment of this task is in fact occurring among social scientists, historians and intellectuals of the Third World, who are part of a social and political project that is developing an alternative more just and democratic world-system. The great advances in social scientific understanding, beginning with Marx, have been formulated for most part outside the structures of higher education in the nations of the North; they have been and are being formulated by charismatic leaders and intellectuals of the social movements of the Third World, whose insights have been marginalized by the structures of knowledge in the universities of the North. Wallerstein’s work is an exception to this general pattern, an exception made possible by his encounter with African nationalism.
I will address these issues in subsequent posts for the next two or three weeks. The posts will seek to provide a critical analysis of the work of Immanuel Wallerstein, whose “world-systems analysis” provides a starting point for the necessary reunification and reorganization of knowledge as well as an intellectual foundation for the necessary popular revolutionary transformation of the North. I will stand with Wallerstein in affirming that we can know the true and the right, or at least important components of it, and that grand narratives are necessary and unavoidable, but I will differ from the master in asserting that the alternative universal understanding of the true and the right is emerging from below, in places that we have been taught to least expect.
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.
__________. 2003. The Decline of American Power: The U.S. in a Chaotic World. New York: The New Press.
__________. 2004. The Uncertainties of Knowledge. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
__________. 2006. European Universalism: The Rhetoric of Power. 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, world-system, world-economy, development, underdevelopment, colonial, neocolonial, blog Third World perspective, Wallerstein, world-systems analysis