Immanuel Wallerstein died at the age of 88 on 31 August. He was one of the last great exponents of the 1950s-60s theory of imperialism known as “dependency theory”, and continued to write until only a few years ago.
He was born in New York, the son of Polish Jews fleeing antisemitism, and worked almost all his life in US universities. He named Marx first among those to whom he “acknowledged a continuing intellectual debt”.
He described himself as one of a “gang of four” with Samir Amin, Giovanni Arrighi, and Andre Gunder Frank, all also now dead. Gunder Frank was the most prolific and combative writer of “dependency theory”.
In his preface to The Essential Wallerstein (2000), Wallerstein did not mention Paul Baran, whose Political Economy of Growth (1957) was, I think, the founding text of “dependency theory”. Like Frank’s, Wallerstein’s affinity to the nationalisms of poorer countries was more distanced from orthodox Stalinist politics than Baran’s.
His major works were historical: four volumes on The Modern World-System, published in 1974, 1980, 1989, and 2011, covering the period from the 16th century to 1914.
As main influences Wallerstein named Frantz Fanon, Fernand Braudel, and Ilya Prigogine. Fanon, a writer for the Algerian FLN independence movement, “represented... the insistence by those disenfranchised by the modern world system that they have a... claim... to intellectual valuation”.
From the historian Braudel he took a focus on the very long sweeps of history. The physical chemist Prigogine, said Wallerstein, “forced me to face the implications of a world in which certainties did not exist — but knowledge still did”.
“Dependency theory” shifted the axis of radical politics from class against class to what it called “periphery” against “core”. Many would-be Marxists took on “dependency theory” as a reworking of the theory of imperialism developed by Lenin and others in the early years of the 20th century, but in fact the questions it asked, the concepts it used, and the answers it gave were very different.
In a short summary of his ideas, Historical Capitalism, Wallerstein developed his theory into a picture of a “modern world system”, created in and around the 16th century, with its basic structure of “periphery” and “core” continuous since then.
For him, capitalism is that “world system”, not a mode of production which may or may not exist in this or that area. So capitalism, for Wallerstein, has never been historically progressive. It does not rest fundamentally on wage-labour, but on “semi-proletarian” labour. Its chief economic relation is unequal exchange, unequal because of power relations, not exploitation of labour through formally equal exchange.
He sympathised with working-class movements, but saw them and Third World nationalist movements as fundamentally the same sort of movement against the system of unequal exchange and of concentration of riches at the centre of power.
To him the classical Marxist view of capitalist development across the world seemed simplistic, unilinear, and “over-optimistic”.
The rapid development of capitalist industry in many ex-colonial countries in recent decades, and the evolution of regimes like Mugabe’s in Zimbabwe, has pushed “dependency theory” somewhat to the sidelines. It did not convince Wallerstein to change his historical overview.