Jumbo History

The Modern World-System: Capitalist Agriculture and the Origins of the European World-Economy in the Sixteenth Century

by Immanuel Wallerstein
Academic Press, 410 pp., $16.50

As historical scholarship has grown more professional so have its boundaries contracted. Few academic historians today feel impelled to embark on one of those monumental surveys of human civilization so beloved by their Victorian predecessors. The great tradition of comparative historical sociology running from Montesquieu to Max Weber seems now to be extinct. Skeptical of large-scale aspirations, most academics prefer to stick to their own minute specialties in the hope, sometimes justified but usually not, that out of the microscopic study of very small problems great truths will arise. The composition of large-scale works of historical interpretation is therefore left to autodidacts, unintimidated by academic demarcation lines, and visionaries, convinced that by reinterpreting the past they can shape a new future.

A striking illustration of this tendency is provided by the near-simultaneous appearance of two long works, written in complete independence of each other, yet bearing many obvious points of similarity, above all the intensely ambitious scale on which they are conceived. Each author offers an interpretation of a large chunk of the world’s history, based on the discriminating use of modern scholarship and the application of critical and analytic powers of a very high order. Immanuel Wallerstein’s book is the first of four volumes designed to trace the workings of the world economy from the fifteenth century to the present day. Perry Anderson offers an analysis of the course of European development (but with much on Islam, Japan, and elsewhere); starting in classical antiquity, he has already covered nearly 900 pages, with two more volumes still to come.

It is no accident that neither author is a professional historian. (Wallerstein is a Columbia University sociologist and an authority on modern Africa; Anderson is not an academic at all.) Neither is it accidental that they have both written within a recognizable Marxist tradition. Selection requires an organizing principle and it is not clear what other organizing principle for handling history on this scale is currently available. Moreover Marxism, by teaching that the problems of the present can only be resolved by the study of the past, is almost the only modern social philosophy that provides the incentive for this kind of endeavor.

Writing eleven years ago in New Left Review, of which he is the editor, Perry Anderson attempted to trace the “Origins of the Present Crisis” (a crisis more apparent now than then) to the historical evolution of England since the seventeenth century. Now the quest has taken him back to Greece and Rome. Immanuel Wallerstein is committed to “a more egalitarian world and a more libertarian one.” His preoccupation is with the inequality of development between the West and the Third World. A few years ago he wrote that fundamental change in Western society could only be achieved by “a substantial change in the world system, in its division of labor and allocation of rewards.” Now he has turned to a study of the historical development of that world system in the conviction that by …

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