Immanuel Wallerstein, Anti-Capitalist Intellectual, Dies at 88

Wallerstein was a renowned critic of capitalism whose work was aimed at fighting for justice and change.

1 September 2019

United States sociologist, economic-historian and world-system analyst Immanuel Wallerstein died Saturday at the age of 88.

The prominent intellectual who was a renowned critic of capitalism and whose ideas were aimed at fighting for justice and change wrote dozens of books, powerful papers, and important commentaries.

His shrewd World-Systems Analysis (completed in four-volume masterpiece: 1974, 1980, 1989 and 2011) had a wide influence on the way history, capitalism, colonialism, and social sciences are understood.

“World-system” refers to the inter-regional and transnational division of labor, which divides the world into core countries, semi-periphery countries, and the periphery countries. Core countries, mainly the global North and Australia, focus on higher skill, capital-intensive production, and the rest of the world focuses on low-skill, labor-intensive production, and extraction of raw materials

“World-systems analysis“, he once said, “is not a theory but a protest against neglected issues and deceptive epistemologies… It is an intellectual task that is and has to be a political task as well because the search for the truth 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 can neglect neither the intellectual nor the political challenges. And neither can we separate these from each other. We can only struggle uneasily with both challenges simultaneously, and push forward as best we can.”

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Wallerstein first became interested in international affairs as a teenager in New York City and was especially drawn to the anti-colonial movement in India at the time.

He later on attended Columbia University, where he received a Ph.D. degree in 1959, and subsequently taught until 1971 when he became a professor of sociology at McGill University.

In 1976, he served as distinguished professor of sociology at Binghamton University until his retirement in 1999, and as head of the Fernand Braudel Center for the Study of Economies, Historical Systems and Civilizations until 2005.

Wallerstein held several positions as visiting professor at universities worldwide, was awarded multiple honorary degrees, intermittently served as Directeur d’études associé at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris, and was president of the International Sociological Association between 1994 and 1998.

The sociologist wrote his final commentary on July 1, titled “This is the end; this is the beginning“, the piece left his readers with this thought:

“The world might go down further by-paths. Or it may not. 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. I still think that and therefore I think there is a 50-50 chance that we’ll make it to transformative change, but only 50-50.”

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