The Modern World-System IV: Centrist Liberalism Triumphant, 1789-1914

Immanuel Wallerstein
Berkeley: University of California Press
ISBN: 0520267613
A Review by J.R. McNeill

In a welcome development, the University of California Press has released the latest volume in Immanuel Wallerstein’s The Modern World-System. It has simultaneously re-published the first three volumes, which made their debut appearances in 1974, 1980 and 1989 with Academic Press. The first three volumes come with new prologues in which Wallerstein explains the origin of his project and reflects on the critiques that emerged over the years. He finds, in retrospect, that his views have remained essentially consistent since the early 1970s. The new prologues will be useful for scholars and students seeking quick orientation to Wallerstein’s thought.

Immanuel Wallerstein

Wallerstein is one of the titans of modern social science. He began his professional career in sociology as an analyst of decolonization in Africa and of what he came to call anti-systemic struggles taking place in Africa. From the middle 1950s until the early 1970s, this was his calling. He served as president of the African Studies Association. However, by 1971-72, he was pursuing an entirely different sort of scholarship: In search of the origins of the capitalist system, he turned to Europe in the “long” 16th century, beginning around 1450 in his chronology. The resulting book, volume I of The Modern World-System, met with considerable acclaim. It challenged established Weberian categories of analysis, took history seriously, and offered a more grounded and rigorous argument about the nature of what was then often called “underdevelopment.” Since that time Wallerstein’s outlook has attracted many admirers and critics. His influence and standing are such that institutions in 12 countries have awarded him honorary degrees and universities in eight countries have hosted him as visiting professor. His views have acquired a global reach and proved especially appealing to scholars in Latin America, southern Europe, and Africa. His ideas also interested audiences throughout the social sciences, although far fewer trained in economics and political science than in sociology, anthropology and history approve of them. In an age of academic specialization, virtually no one has been influential across disciplines.

This volume, unlike its predecessors, is mainly about ideology. It says rather little about the changing economic organization of the world-economy and next to nothing about Kondratieff cycles so prominent in the earlier volumes. By “world-economy” Wallerstein does not mean the global economy, but rather a capitalist subset thereof, born in Western Europe in the long 16th century, expanding in fits and starts ever after, doomed to ultimate collapse and destined to be followed by a socialist order. 

Rather, it is about the victory of one ideology, centrist liberalism, over its plausible rivals, socialism and conservatism. In his vocabulary, conservatism in the 19th century was an intellectual and political movement dedicated to turning back the clock to the Old Regime before the French Revolution; liberalism refers to a doctrine of rational and cautious reformism aimed at maximizing human happiness; and socialism is the ambition to accelerate social progress by fighting hard against those who resist it. Conservatism did not have much of a chance once the French Revolution had unleashed the principles of equality and the acceptability of social change. Socialism undermined itself through division and timidity. Liberalism won. An ideology, in his vocabulary, is a thinly disguised political program – or “metastrategy” as he once puts it – for dealing with “modernity.” Accordingly, there were no ideologies before the French Revolution. This means neither the Roman Empire nor the Incas had ideology; his choice of definition puts Wallerstein at odds with almost everyone who studies the world before the French Revolution.

Like its predecessors, this volume consists of long chapters with long, discursive footnotes, based on extensive reading in the published literature. Its prose is less than spellbinding, and occasionally too abstract for easy comprehension, but always organized. Each paragraph has a first sentence that leaves no doubt about what will be discussed next.

The argument of this volume, as summarized on page 277, is threefold: First, the French Revolution gave rise to an ideological struggle among liberalism, conservatism and socialism. Second, centrist liberalism won by 1875 or so by commandeering the state in Britain and France after 1815, by redefining citizenship into a doctrine of exclusion and by creating structures of knowledge, the social sciences, that reflected liberal ideology. 

The argument is pursued in five main chapters. The first treats liberalism as an ideology born of the French Revolution and defines it in detail. The second concerns the creation of states constructed on the basis of liberalism in Britain and France up to 1830. The third deals with challenges to the liberal order from the working class, mainly in Britain and France. The fourth takes up the theme of citizenship – who should have political rights and who should not – also in Britain and France. This chapter takes Wallerstein into territory that critics of his earlier volumes admonished him for neglecting: gender, race, and to a lesser extent ethnicity. The fifth and final substantive chapter considers the foundation of the social sciences and the discipline of history in the latter decades of the 19th century, mainly in Germany, Britain, France and the US. 

The geographical scope of the book will disappoint many readers accustomed to Wallerstein’s long reach. About 90 percent of the discussion concerns Britain or France. The periphery, semi-periphery and external areas of previous volumes scarcely make an appearance. Imperialism hardly figures. The justification for this is that the triumph of centrist liberalism occurred first in Britain and France. So crucial parts of the capitalist core by 1914 such as the US, Germany and Japan are usually off stage – Japan is scarcely mentioned. Wallerstein regards the French Revolution as the defining event for the 19th century, one which put new issues on the table that politics and culture thereafter had to face. This viewpoint is more sustainable when one concentrates on France and Britain than if one follows the triumph of centrist liberalism in the 19th century to, say, Canada or Australia. As in Volume III, Wallerstein dismisses the Industrial Revolution as no revolution at all, merely another phase in the evolution of the world-economy. This apotheosis of the French Revolution and denial of the Industrial Revolution puts Wallerstein at odds with most recent interpretations of the 19th century world, a position in which he seems to delight. 

Many readers of the earlier volumes, myself included, often found them too confined to economic relations. Volume IV will not arouse the same criticism. It is about ideas, society and politics. It deploys the concept of “geoculture,” a term Wallerstein has used for two decades to mean the dominant ideology of the capitalist core. It explores the outlook of thinkers from the early and mid-19th century, figures once important to Marxist and marxisant debates, but now mostly forgotten. Readers who have not encountered de Maistre or the Guesdists will be at sea from time to time. Ideas and intellectual culture figured tangentially in the earlier volumes, but are front and center here.

Wallerstein read deeply into the historical literature on 19th-century ideas and social movements in Britain and France. But he apparently did most of the reading years ago: About 60 percent of his references are to works from the 1960s, 1970s or 1980s; he cites more work from the 1950s than from the 1990s; and scholarship from the 2000s accounts for about 1 percent of his references, and well under that for the first four chapters. It is admirable that he is so well versed in the scholarship of earlier generations, which too many authors now dismiss as not worth consulting. But Wallerstein has not come to grips at all with major works of recent years that offer influential visions of the 19th century, for example, C.A. Bayly’s The Birth of the Modern World, 1780-1914 (2004) and Ken Pomeranz, The Great Divergence (2000). Bayly offers powerful arguments about the nature and origins of modernity, ones that seem to me fully incompatible with Wallerstein’s. Bayly finds modernity’s origins in the full range of human interactions around the world, not in Britain and France exclusively, and not as reaction to the French Revolution primarily. Pomeranz’s book argues forcefully for the significance of industrialization in the late 18th and early 19th century as a world-changing development, emphasizing the eccentricity of the British experience. The French Revolution fades into the background. These are prominent books. Ignoring them altogether is a curious approach, especially given Wallerstein’s usual willingness to engage any and every author fearlessly. My guess, then, is that he did almost all his reading for Volume IV some years ago. That might or might not have affected his conclusions. If Wallerstein rejected Bayly’s or Pomeranz’s portrayals of the 19th century he could stick with his own version of it. If he found himself persuaded by parts of their arguments he would have had to adjust his own.

Chapter Five is for me the most interesting part of the book. As early as 1974, Wallerstein showed some interest in the “structures of knowledge,” the categories and vocabulary through which we understand the world of the present and the past. He has consistently chafed, and rightly so I think, at the isolationism of each academic social science discipline, at the dominion of Weberian schemas in most social science, and the ahistorical abstractions of almost all professional economics. Here he explores the origins and early development of history, economics, sociology and political science as tools for understanding late 19th-century Europe, and understanding it in ways congenial to late 19th-century liberalism. In each of these discussions he proceeds country by country, always featuring France and Britain, but with journeys to Germany and the US as needed. The treatment of political science concerns its institutionalization at Sciences Po in Paris, Columbia University in New York and the London School of Economics. The segments on history, sociology and economics, however, concern the prevailing ideas of the early giants in these fields. Then, in a section entitled “The Non-Western World,” Wallerstein discusses anthropology and Oriental studies, presenting them as part of a strategy to understand the world outside the core in order to control it. Despite its title, this section does not deal with structures of knowledge outside the Western world – for Wallerstein this is less important, perhaps because what thinkers in Japan or the Ottoman Empire were up to did not inform or consolidate the victory of centrist liberalism. The synopses of the emergence of these academic disciplines in Europe and the US are not original, I expect – rather drawing on the prior work of others – but taken together and put in the context of the politics and society of Western Europe circa 1870 to 1910, they make for a persuasive presentation of the origins of academic social science.

The book begins with a short summary of volumes I to III. It ends with a short summary of Volume IV. Harried scholars, and students preparing for exams, will be especially thankful for these sections. But reading the book in full will be worth their time. All readers will find something to disagree with, as readers long have with Wallerstein, but much to admire as well.

Volume IV of the series spans 1789 to the First World War and analyzes the period’s evolving politics and industrial systems along with competing responses of conservatism, socialism, radicalism and liberalism.
Copyright © 2011 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization