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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.”1 Now he has turned to a study of the historical development of that world system in the conviction that by recounting the past it is possible to influence the present.

It would be a great pity if anyone were put off reading either of these works by lack of sympathy with their authors’ aspirations. For Wallerstein has written a strikingly original book, organized around one central idea which every future historian of Europe will have to take into account, while Anderson has produced one of the most elegant, thoughtful, and sustained analyses to be found in Marxist historiography.

Of course both authors depend unashamedly on the writings of other historians, though relatively seldom on Marxist ones. As Anderson observes, “The great bulk of serious historical work in the twentieth century has been written by historians foreign to Marxism‌. Maximum awareness and respect for the scholarship of historians outside the boundaries of Marxism is not incompatible with rigorous pursuit of a Marxist historical enquiry: it is a condition of it.” What this eclecticism means in practice is that each author has to make his journey down the historical stream, leaping from one borrowed craft to another whenever it threatens to take him in an uncongenial direction.

But the two writers vary greatly in the confidence with which they make their way. Wallerstein, who has read widely in the economic history of the last thirty years, crowds his text with long quotations from secondary sources including some 2,600 words from Fernand Braudel alone. Even in their tiny print, his footnotes crawl halfway up most of his pages, making it impossible for the reader simultaneously to absorb both them and the author’s argument. Anderson’s handling of his sources is much firmer. Although disparaging his volumes as “rudimentary diagrams: no more” and “brief [!] sketches for another history,” he proceeds to pick his way through a historical literature in at least nine languages with astonishing confidence. He is never at a loss to identify “the best book” on any particular topic and, though professedly lacking “the scholarship and skills of the professional historian,” he does not hesitate to say when Arnaldo Momigliano is being “fanciful,” when Joseph Needham has got some aspect of Chinese history wrong, or when Eli Heckscher has missed “the essential point” about mercantilism.

The two works also differ in their literary merits. Wallerstein’s publisher claims for him “that rare, personal style that is always a mark of excellence.” But, although his argument is often trenchant, his prose is distinctly careless. Poor proofreading and inaccurate transcription mar a book which is already disfigured by faulty punctuation, unrelated participles, inconsistent tenses, and numerous instances of a plural verb being attached to a singular subject or vice versa. Anderson, by contrast, writes with fastidious clarity, although he cannot entirely break free of jargon: he insists on calling societies “social formations” so as to emphasize their heterogeneous and composite character; he likes to speak of developments as being “over-determined”; and he has a penchant for using rather pedantic Greek derivatives (“aporia,” “atony,” “autocephaly,” “heteronomy,” “synallagmatic,” etc.). But, despite their forbidding titles, his two volumes are a pleasure to read and frequently rise to real eloquence.

Anderson writes as a confessed historical materialist; that is to say he regards “modes of production” as decisive constituents of every “social formation” and sees in the class conflicts produced by their “contradictions” the main source of historical change. In his first volume he analyzes the slave societies of classical antiquity. He argues that the constant demand for manpower was the main impetus behind the expansion of imperial Rome and the ultimate cause of Roman collapse in the West once the limits of expansion had been reached. Feudalism arose as a new synthesis of the dissolving Roman system of slave production with the primitive communalism of the Germanic tribes. He examines the peculiarities of feudalism in the different Western European states, comparing them with Scandinavia (where the traditions of an independent peasantry still survived), with Eastern Europe (where the Slavs were largely unaffected by Roman forms), and with Byzantium (which “remained transfixed between slave and feudal modes of production, unable either to return to the one or advance to the other”).

In the second and larger volume he attempts a comparative survey of the development of the absolutist state in Europe. His main argument is that Western European absolutism was the form of government appropriate to the era of transition from feudalism to capitalism. But he rejects Engels’s view that the absolute monarch held the balance between nobility and bourgeoisie. Instead he maintains that “the Absolutist State was everywhere in Europe fundamentally a political apparatus of aristocratic rule: the social power of the nobility was the central spring of its existence.” In the West the absolute state was a compensation to the nobles for the disappearance of serfdom. In the East it was a device for the consolidation of serfdom. In either case the aristocracy came ultimately to recognize that their best interests lay in close cooperation with the absolute ruler. Anderson explores the distinctive features of national development in each of the different absolute states of Europe, following their history to the eve of the bourgeois or proletarian revolutions which overthrew them. He also offers a comparison with the patterns of development in Islam and Japan.

Summarized in this way, the argument sounds both crude and wearily familiar. In fact it is developed with subtlety, imagination, and a good deal of originality. Anderson’s Marxism is of a critical and idiosyncratic kind, devoid of any pious genuflections. Indeed he declares that Marx’s historical judgment was almost always inferior to that of Engels and that both men, being indifferent to music and the visual arts, were incapable of understanding the Renaissance or for that matter the history of the Christian Church. Worst of all they developed no typology capable of dealing with China, India, and other Asian societies. Marx’s theory of “the Asiatic mode of production” (to which Anderson devotes a ninety-page appendix) is shown up as being an inconsistent and ill-informed amalgam of traditional European lore about India. (Karl Wittfogel’s Oriental Despotism is consequently dismissed with uncharacteristic ill-temper as a “vulgar charivari.”)

Anderson is equally hostile to the attempt of modern Marxists to patch up the situation by rebaptizing Asian societies as “feudal.” Feudalism, he points out, had a juridical and political meaning as well as an economic one; the only non-European society to which the term can be usefully applied is that of Japan. Even there a fundamental difference existed, for Japanese feudalism could never have developed into capitalism without Western influence. Anderson thus rejects the teleological assumption that one mode of production must inexorably supersede the next. As he sees it, it was only the distinctive legacy of classical antiquity that gave Western European feudalism the capacity to generate a new capitalist order; hence the early starting point of his work.

Anderson’s book abounds in provocative insights. He has excellent things to say on the most diverse subjects: the contribution of the Roman law to capitalist ideas about property; the failure of Machiavelli to understand the importance of mercenary troops; the decisive impact of Swedish militarism on the state systems of Eastern Europe. Above all he should be read on the reasons for the divergent development of Eastern and Western Europe, which is one of his central themes. Of course the book has its irritating aspects. For all its subtlety, many readers will find it schematic, teleological, and ultimately too inflexible in its categories. Like other authors writing on the grand scale, Anderson tends to be more interesting on less familiar topics (medieval Scandinavia, say, or eighteenth-century Piedmont) than when handling the well-known history of absolutism in France and Spain, when he is sometimes rather trite. His treatment of England is badly vitiated by his assumption that absolutism collapsed forever in 1640, whereas the whole tendency of recent scholarship has been to emphasize that the efforts of Charles II and James II to restore monarchical power in the 1680s might easily have proved successful.

Because of the very general terms in which it is conceived, his over-all interpretation of European absolutism is unlikely to satisfy students who are closely acquainted with the complexities of development within individual countries. But the breath-taking range of conception and the architectural skill with which it has been executed make his work a formidable intellectual achievement.

Immanuel Wallerstein’s chronological range is more restricted but his theme has equally global implications. He rejects the nation or small community as a suitable subject for historical study on the grounds that the history of such small units is usually determined by circumstances external to them. One must therefore start with the “system,” that is to say the grouping whose internal development can be fully understood according to its own dynamics. Isolated subsistence economies apart, there have been only two types of “system” in human history: world empires, like Persia, Rome, and China; and world economies, lacking any single political overlord. In the past, potential world economies tended to disintegrate or to be converted into world empires. But in the sixteenth century, with European expansion into the New World and the failure of Habsburg and Valois attempts at universal hegemony, there arose a new world economy which has subsequently drawn an increasing portion of the globe into its tentacles.

The attributes of this world economy are sketched out by Wallerstein with great clarity. There is always a division of labor and reward. At the center are the “core-states,” the privileged heartland which receives a disproportionate share of the surplus. At the extremity are the “peripheral areas,” weak states in a colonial or neocolonial situation. In between are the “semiperipheral” areas, usually in the process of shifting from one status to the other. The core-states exchange their manufactures for essential commodities from the periphery. In the sixteenth century the development of the Western European core is made possible by the import of cereals from Eastern Europe and bullion from America.

The economic differentiation of the three sectors will in due course produce diverging class structures: free wage-labor at the core; sharecropping in the semiperiphery; slavery or serfdom on the periphery. The advance of the West thus involves the regression of Eastern Europe and Latin America. But it does not affect the “external areas” outside the system altogether; in the sixteenth century it does not touch Russia, for whom Western trade was unimportant; the Ottoman Empire, which sought a world empire of its own; or Asia, with whom the Portuguese traded but not in such a way as to affect the region’s structure. Over the course of time the boundaries of the system have shifted. So has the identity of the areas cast for each of the three roles. But the capitalist world economy, with its core-states intertwined in a state of enduring competition, continues to predominate.

This concept of a world economy is not new in itself, and it has underlain much of the economic history written by the Annales school in France in recent years. The conviction that the “backwardness” of the Third World is the direct consequence of Western capitalist development has also been shared by many radical developmental theorists, notably AndrĂŠ Gunder Frank, whose influence on Wallerstein is obvious. But Wallerstein develops this old theme in a new way. Following the Rumanian historian Henri Stahl, he asserts that the character of the advanced core determines that of the whole historical era. Once Western Europe has become capitalist it no longer makes sense to describe the peripheral areas with which it is involved as “feudal,” even if they are based on serfdom. Classes and groups must always be analyzed according to their relationship to the world system as a whole.

So must political development. Wallerstein’s most substantial point is his contention that it was the failure of Charles V’s attempt at world empire that made possible the rise of capitalism. For an imperial bureaucracy would have absorbed too many resources at a critical stage; and capitalists throve best within a multiplicity of political systems. Of course this point has been made before, by Max Weber and more recently by David Landes, who observes in The Unbound Prometheus^2 that Western private enterprise was so successful because it arose “in a context of multiple, competing polities” (his italics) by contrast “with the allencompassing empires of the Orient and of the Ancient World.”

Wallerstein, however, takes the argument further by attempting to relate the whole course of European political development to the dynamics of the world system. For he maintains that not only will the strongest states be found at the core and the weakest on the periphery, but the peculiarities of individual regimes will depend on their relationship to the whole system. The history of France, for example, can be explained with reference to the conflicting economic interests of her different regions, the maritime northwest (potentially a “core” area) being held back by the center and the “semiperipheral” south. To counter these centrifugal forces it was necessary to erect a strong monarchy and a one-religion state, thereby frustrating the aspirations of the bourgeoisie; whereas if France had comprised only the northwest, with Rouen as her capital, she could have responded to the pressures of the world economy in a quite different way and the result might have closely resembled the English pattern. The religious balance of Europe (Protestantism at the core, Catholicism on the periphery and semiperiphery) can also be seen as a response to the new division of labor: the stalemate of 1648 “was the natural fulfillment of the underlying thrusts of the world-economy.”

Even from this crude summary it will be obvious that Wallerstein, like many another man with a good idea, is using it to explain too much. No one would deny the importance to Western Europe of Eastern corn or American bullion (though the profit-inflation theory to which Wallerstein adheres is highly controversial). But the question is not whether they were important, but whether they were decisive; here the absence of supporting quantitative data makes it difficult to accept the total structural interdependence of the economic and political units of Wallerstein’s “system.” Many economic historians will go on thinking that the real origins of capitalism were internal to Western Europe itself; and many students of underdevelopment will persist in doubting whether the vagaries of Latin American development can all be attributed to Western exploitation.

Moreover, at a time when historians are turning increasingly to cultural considerations as an explanation of the uniqueness of European development, it is depressing to encounter in Wallerstein’s book such total insensitivity to the role of mental concepts. He completely discounts the importance of religion, values, and beliefs because he thinks they can be manipulated to serve any purpose. Here he differs from Anderson, who, with his sharper linguistic and cultural awareness, does at least allow the “superstructure” a considerable role in determining the course of events, particularly in the precapitalist era, when the modes of coercion were fundamentally noneconomic. But Wallerstein’s man is economic man and his mental equipment is apparently the mechanical product of his economic relationships.

For the time being it seems that both these complex and impressive works will have to bear that traditional pusillanimous label: “stimulating but to be read with caution.” Meanwhile it is worth noting how many signal discrepancies there are between their two competing interpretations. The major difference is that Wallerstein consistently maintains that the development of individual states can only be understood within the context of the entire world system, whereas Anderson proceeds largely by internal analysis. But they also differ on many other essential points. For Anderson the “general crisis” of the fourteenth century came about because the ecological balance tipped over when the feudal system reached the limits of its productive capacity; but Wallerstein prefers to emphasize chronic overexploitation of the peasantry by the upper classes.

Anderson finds the key to the subsequent economic recovery in the disintegration of serfdom under pressure from the towns; but Wallerstein suggests that recovery would have been impossible without the development of new resources in Eastern Europe and the New World. Wallerstein explains the disparities between Eastern and Western Europe in the same way: Eastern serfdom was the consequence of the grain trade with the West. But Anderson rejects this view as “inherently implausible.” For him the growth of serfdom in the East should be seen as preceding the grain trade and occurring in countries unaffected by it: if the West had any serious impact on the East at this time it was through military pressures, not economic ones.

As for the divergence between East and West, Anderson finds the fundamental reason in the remote past: “much of Eastern European history can be defined‌as the absence of classical Antiquity.” It is not surprising that the two authors should also disagree about the nature of absolutism, Wallerstein appearing more sympathetic to the traditional view that it rested on a balance between nobility and bourgeoisie, a doctrine which Anderson’s work is primarily designed to refute.

Discrepancies of this kind are not easily resolved. For, like the literature of psychoanalysis, Marxist historiography contains many propositions which are hard either to prove or to refute. So inevitably does much theorizing about the history of the world. For there has been only one world and who is to say which aspects of its development have been fundamental, which incidental? No one can handle counter-factual propositions on such a scale. Large-scale intellectual constructions of the kind devised by Anderson and Wallerstein do not easily lend themselves to empirical verification. The satisfaction they give lies in their internal consistency and in the stimulus they provide to the historical imagination. Judged from this point of view, both these authors have a great deal to offer.

  1. 1

    Immanuel Wallerstein, University in Turmoil: The Politics of Change (Atheneum, 1969), p. 145.

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