For Immanuel Wallerstein (1930-2019)

It amazes me that people are surprised when underclasses rebel. The surprising thing is that they do not do it more often. The combination of the oppressiveness of poverty and racism and the lack of short-term, or even medium-term hope is surely a recipe for rebellion. What keeps rebellion down is fear of repression, which is why repression is usually swift. But the repression never makes the anger go away.

Immanuel Wallerstein (The Guardian 03/12/2005)

Whatever disagreements we may have with Immanuel Wallerstein’s marxist inspired social theory and politics, it would be the height of intellectual arrogance to simply dismiss Wallerstein’s intellectual labour for purely ideological reasons.

His “world-systems” approach to social-political analysis could often lead to closed readings of societies and events, ignoring the complexity of “capital accumulation” that he very typically placed at the centre of his own interpretations of social realities. But Wallertstein’s marxism was never blindly orthodox, as evidence over the length of his writings.

Immanuel Wallerstein died this last Saturday, August 31st. In tribute – and to share something of what we have learned from – we publish a series of pieces by and with Wallerstein: an interview published with Theory Talks (04/08/2008), the important essay on the “world revolution” of 1968 (Theory and Society 07/1989), articles on Occupy Wall Street (Verso 18/10/2011) and the Arab Spring (Al Jazeera 14/11/2011).

Theory Talk #13 – Immanuel Wallerstein on World-Systems, the Imminent End of Capitalism and Unifying Social Science


Theory Talks proudly presents a Talk with historical sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein. Wallerstein is duly known for his world-system theory, with which he offers a critical alternative to realist systemic approaches to International Relations. One could say that where Realists part from the system to analyze and predict history, world-system theory parts from history to analyze and predict the system. In this comprehensive Talk, Wallerstein – amongst others – explains why capitalism is worn out, why ’68 was more important then ’45 or ’89, and why we need to overcome artificial divorces between different arenas in social sciences and, more generally, between philosophy and science.

What is, according to you, the biggest challenge / principal debate in current IR? And what is your position or answer to this challenge / in this debate?

My analysis of the modern world-system argues that we are in a structural crisis, that the system is in fact unable to survive, and that the world is in a chaotic situation, which we will be in for twenty to forty years to come. This crisis has to do with the lack of sufficient surplus-value available and thus with the possible profit one can make. The system is bifurcating – referring to a situation in which there are two alternative ways of getting out of the present crisis in order to create a new, stable, world-system.

The most important current struggle is that between the two hypothetical alternative routes the world will actually choose. It’s very difficult to define very narrowly these two directions, but basically there will be people trying to create a new world-system which will replicate certain basic features of the existing system but not be a capitalist system. It would still be hierarchical and exploitative. The other direction would be to create an alternative system that is relatively democratic and relatively egalitarian. These are all very vague terms because one can’t define in advance the structural details of such a future world-system. But obviously one solution would be from my point of view a better world-system, and the other would be at least as bad as or perhaps worse than the world-system we presently have. So it’s a real political struggle.

Again, it’s intrinsically impossible to predict what the outcome will be; the only thing we can be sure of is that the present system won’t survive and that some outcome will occur. We shall create, in the famous phrase of Ilya Prigogine, order out of chaos. That’s my basic theoretical position.

How did you arrive at where you currently are in IR (people who inspired you, books, events, how did you conceive your ideas)?

The most important political event in my lifetime has been what I call the world revolution of 1968. For me, it was a fundamental transformative event. I was at Columbia University when the uprising there took place, but that’s only a biographical footnote to what happened politically and culturally.

I’ve tried many times to analyze what happened exactly at that time, and what were its consequences, I’m convinced that 1968 was more important than 1917 (the Russian Revolution), 1939-1945 (the Second World War) or 1989 (the collapse of the Communisms in east-central Europe and the Soviet Union), years people usually point out as the crucial events. These other events were simply less transformative than the world revolution of 1968.

If you would ask me for the persons who influenced me, I’d have to name Karl Marx, Fernand BraudelJoseph Schumpeter, Karl Polanyi, Ilya Prigogine, and Frantz Fanon.

What would a student need (dispositions, skills) to become a specialist in IR or understand the world in a global way?

I think it’s really not an easy task, but it’s not impossible either. Simply ‘getting a PhD’, as other contributors to your website may have answered, is not sufficient for me.

A deep plunging in historical knowledge of the modern world-system – which is at least the last five hundred years – is a condition sine qua non; knowledge of the epistemological questions that have plagued modern social science is important; and then some basic understanding of how the capitalist world-system has operated as a system (including as an interstate system) over several hundred years is fundamental.

Then there is a perhaps even more important issue, which has to do with reading classics. True enough, everything classical writers say has to be re-analyzed because it’s constrained by the world in which they lived and thought. But one of the real problems for the students is that they don’t usually actually read Adam Smith, Marx, or Freud. Rather they read books about them. When they say ‘Marx said X’, they actually mean, ‘this author said that Marx said X’. Such statements are not only statements via a filter but also three-quarters of the time simply wrong or at least distorted. These reporters of views of the classical authors often cite them out of context, or cite their views too meagerly, or sometimes simply misinterpret an original text. If you try hard enough, you can make Marx into an advocate of capitalism and Smith into a Marxist. So the important rule for students is that anyone interesting enough to study is worth reading in the original.

Then there is the linguistic problem. Students, especially in the United States, should master many more languages than they do now, because translating these people is a famous problem. Marx and Weber have been mistranslated many times, as have most other important figures in social science. One of the things I say to students is ‘learn the languages’, despite the cultural bias that exists in the West. If you really don’t want to or can’t, then at least read in translation the originals.

Is the world more equal now than it was 500 years ago?

No. People who argue that look at the top 20% of the world population in terms of real income, it is true that they’re doing a lot better than previous generations. But if you look, as I do, at the differences between the top 1%, the 19% below that and the remaining 80% at a world level, you get a different picture. Since, for example, 60% of the Swiss population belongs to the top 20%, it is true that Switzerland is a more egalitarian country than it was a hundred years ago.

But worldwide, it’s quite the opposite: the gap has grown enormously between the top 20% and the bottom 80%, and is continuing to grow.

It is also true that the gap between the top 1% and the next 19% was going down for a while. But one of the things neoliberalism did, and intended to do, was to restore the gap between the 1% and the 19% below it. That’s what electorates in the West (where most of this 19% live) are complaining about these days – that their real incomes are going down while this top 1% is getting filthy rich.

Aristotle has been said to have written that ‘law is mind without reason’. If law is already mind without reason, then what is the market, which does not even acknowledge law for its inherent values?

In the first place, I don’t agree, because law is always interpreted. Sure, once law is fixed and consecrated, it is supposedly unchangeable and insensitive to circumstances. But there’s always the human factor which consists of applying law to concrete situations. Law is always and must always be interpreted, and because of that it is malleable. And therefore controversial.

As for the market, one has to distinguish between the hypothetical market and the real market. The hypothetical market operates according to purely objective laws of supply and demand that put pressure on prices and thus behavior of rational and egoistic individuals. But in fact, this hypothetical market has never existed and most certainly does not exist in the capitalist world-system. Indeed those most opposed to the hypothetical market are the capitalists themselves because, if the hypothetical market would actually be in operation, they wouldn’t make a penny. The only way capitalists make serious money is if they have quasi-monopolies. To obtain quasi-monopolies, they need intervention by the state in multiple ways and capitalists are totally aware of this. Talk about this hypothetical market is, subsequently, ideological rhetoric. The market doesn’t actually work that way and any sane and wealthy capitalist will tell you that. Free market economists won’t tell you that, but no capitalist believes in the autonomy of the market.

The revolution of 1968 brought, as you argued, the intellectual idea of centrist liberalism to an end. Since then, however, liberal capitalism has become even more deeply anchored in the world. How would you reflect on the changes the world has gone through in big lines referring to that point of view?

Before 1968, the ideology of what I call ‘centrist liberalism’ had dominated the intellectual, economic and political world for a good hundred-odd years, and had marginalized both conservative and radical doctrines, turning them into avatars of centrist liberalism. Now what happened in the world revolution of 1968 is that this automatic assumption that the only plausible view of the world was centrist liberalism was shattered and we returned to a world in which there are at least three major ideological positions: true conservatism, true radicalism, and the third is centrist liberalism which of course is still there – but now as one of three options rather than being considered the only viable intellectual position.
Now when you talk about ‘liberal capitalism’ you are referring to what is often called ‘neoliberalism,’ which is not at all the centrist liberalism that had dominated the world before. It is rather a form of conservatism. It has been pursuing a standard attempt to reverse the three trends that are negative from the view of world capital: the rising cost of personnel, the rising cost of inputs, and the rising cost of taxes. And neoliberalism – which goes under many names, including globalization – is an effort to reverse these trends and to reduce these costs. In this, it has been partially successful, but as all these attempts have shown (and I say ‘all’, because in the last five hundred years there have been quite a few), you can never push the costs back as low as they were previously. It is true that the costs of personnel, inputs, and taxes went up from 1945 to 1970 and have gone down from 1970 to, say, 2000, but they never went back down to the 1945 level. They went up two points and went back just one point. Now that’s a standard pattern in history.

I think the day of neoliberalism is absolutely at an end; its effectiveness is quite over. And globalization as a term and as a concept will be forgotten ten years from now because it no longer has the impact it was meant to have, which is to persuade everyone to believe Mrs. Thatcher’s preaching: ‘There is no alternative’. This was always an absurd statement, since there always are alternatives. But a large number of countries succumbed to it anyway, at least for a while.

The rhetoric about neoliberalism as the only way has now become clearly empty. Look at Europe – just look at President Sarkozy of France, who is clearly a protectionist. You won’t be able to give me the name of one European country willing to give up the subsidies to its farmers, because this is both politically totally impossible at the domestic level and completely contrary to the neoliberal logic. Mandelson wants to reduce subsidies at the European level, but he hasn’t got the necessary political support, which Sarkozy made very clear to him.
One has to distinguish between talk and reality. The reality is that European countries are not only protectionist, but they are increasingly protectionist and will be very much more so in the next ten years, as will Japan, China, Russia, and the United States. Alternating between protectionism and the free flow of factors of production has been a cyclical process for the last 500 years, and every 25 years or so we move from one direction to another, and right now we are moving back into a protectionist era.

Your world-systems theory talks about a certain dialectic which reached a climax in the modern, capitalist, world-system. Is there an end to this dialectics or will it continue forever?

No, this can’t go on forever, because no system goes on forever. All systems are historical – that’s true for physical and chemical systems, biological systems, and a fortiori for social systems. They all have lives: they come into existence at a certain point, they survive according to certain rules, and then they move far from equilibrium and can’t survive anymore. Our system has moved far from equilibrium. So the processes, which one can describe, that maintained a moving equilibrium for five hundred years no longer function well, and that’s why were in this structural crisis.

So no, it won’t go on forever, it won’t even go on for more then forty or fifty years, and furthermore those years will be very unpleasant.

I’ve already described the three basic costs for capitalists: personnel, input, and taxes. They always have to pay all three, and would always like to keep them as low as possible. There are structural forces that have steadily increased the cost of these factors as a percentage of sales prices over five hundred years, until the current point where they’re so high that you can’t really accumulate capital to any significant degree anymore, which makes the game not worth the candle. This means capitalists are no longer going to be interested in capitalism because it doesn’t work for them anymore. They are therefore already looking around for serious alternatives in which they can maintain their privileged position in a different kind of system. After five hundred years of successful functioning, the fluctuations of this system are now so great and uncontrollable that no one can handle them anymore.

You argue that social scientists in the 21st century should focus on a unified understanding of the dynamics of history, and let go approaches that focus solely on economics or politics, and might even need a whole new vocabulary in order to do so. Can you give any clues as in how to approach this daunting task?

If I knew how to get rid of the separate vocabularies of politics, economics, and culture, I’d be much further ahead. Unfortunately, I’m socially constructed just like everyone else.

There are separate issues here which one shouldn’t confuse. The first is that social science divides the real world into three arenas – politics, economics, and socio-culture. This distinction was an invention of classical liberalism, subsequently imposed upon the world of knowledge, and now forms the basis of contemporary social science. It is, however, a very unfortunate mode of approaching social reality, because it divides the unique human experience into artificial spheres that each claim importance over the others, and underplaying the inseparable links of each with the other. The way out here is to arrive at a vocabulary that doesn’t always push us into these separate categories for politics, economics, and the socio-cultural – something difficult to achieve but obviously very necessary.

The bigger question is the so-called divorce between philosophy and science, which is equally profoundly embedded in all our cultural institutions, including institutions of knowledge such as the university, and which determine our understanding of the world. This division between the scientific mode and the humanistic/hermeneutic mode of analysis was invented as recently as the mid-eighteenth century! Before that, no one would dare to separate knowledge in general into two artificial categories. Aristotle certainly didn’t believe that: he was ready to write books on ethics, economics, science, and he didn’t think he was violating any rule of separation of fields of knowledge. Even Kant, whom we now consider to be a philosopher, in the late 18th century gave courses at the University of Konigsberg on international relations, poetry, astronomy and law. To Aristotle and Kant it didn’t occur that there is a need for distinct epistemologies depending on what you’re talking about.

We’ve been dominated by this artificial distinction for two hundred years now; this double epistemology has been seriously challenged only in the last thirty years, and the coming thirty or so years should be dedicated to overcoming once and for all this distinction between antagonistic, scornful, and warring epistemologies and returning to a single epistemology of knowledge.

Now the first issue fits within this bigger question: I’m simply insisting on the fact that we are experiencing everything in a singular mode, We live in a singular world, so the historical social system should be analyzed as a single arena – I don’t see where the state ends and the market starts, or where the market ends and civil society starts.

You’ve asserted in an earlier interview that ethnicity is a very important force in history and that it is, if anything, more present than before, but also that it’s highly arbitrary. The only constant is that there’s one so-called ‘ethnic’ group in a high stratum and another in a lower one. Can one from this statement deduce your objective, namely fighting difference, and fighting for equality?

If we talk about value-systems, I am fairly convinced that a more egalitarian world is a better one; I would like to see a more egalitarian world than the present one (which is highly inegalitarian). But then again, inequality has been a constant throughout known human history. Perhaps 100.000 years ago, when small groups roamed the earth, there was more equality, but the most important issue for us is that the modern world-system has become increasingly unequal. The social, economic, and political polarization of humankind is much greater than it was one, two, or three hundred years ago. I think it is possible that there could be improvement; I simply don’t say we inevitably will see it. History is on nobody’s side. There is no inevitable progress, but there is possible progress.

One of the most known concepts is that of the relation between core and periphery. In his magnum opus,Manuel Castells argues that globalization, a term you dislike, represents the fragmentation of Core and Periphery. Would you agree with that?

I don’t agree with Castells, because he’s misusing the terms core and periphery, which do not refer to countries. We use it that way as shorthand, to say things quickly, but it’s not exact. Core–periphery is a relationship of production: there are core-like processes and peripheral processes, and they both exist in all countries. But in the United States there are, of course, more core-like processes and in Paraguay most of the processes are peripheral. A key element here is monopolization versus competition: the more competitive a product is, the more peripheral it is, because the less money you can make on it. The more monopolized a product is, the more core-like it will be, because you can make more money on it. So if given kinds of production spread out to more countries, that’s because they have become less profitable within the original loci of production, not because these countries to which the processes spread are successfully ‘developing.’

This has always been true, and products have always shifted from being core-like to being peripheral, because monopolies are self-liquidating. After about twenty to fifty years, no product can maintain a monopoly; it’s too difficult to prevent others from trying to get in on a winning product. Products inevitably become peripheral. When they do, if former monopolists wish to make money in the world, they have to find a new product that they can monopolize for a while, and not think: everyone needs shoes, so I can always make money selling shoes. And that has been true over the past four centuries – so in that sense nothing has changed and Castells presents something intrinsic to the capitalist system as something new.

Last question. Before the millennium, you’ve argued that East Asia will be the new hegemonic power. At this point, the so-called BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India and China) are growing. Is the rise of these newly industrializing powers to be analyzed as a definitive movement in the 100/150 year hegemonic cycle, or will some other part of the world take over from the United States (as you’ve asserted, in about 50 years)?

Well here we have to deal with different dynamics. First of all, there’s what I call a structural crisis affecting the whole capitalist mode of production. If, as I’ve indicated before, even capitalists are looking for alternatives to the system named after them because it is simply too difficult to make serious money out of production, then a new system should arise. The growth of the BRICs is interrelated with this structural crisis of the capitalist system because they are expanding the number of people who are sharing the global surplus-value. There simply isn’t enough surplus-value to go around, and give the top people significant income. The world simply can’t sustain a situation in which 30-40% of the world population is living at the income level of, say, Denmark – and that’s what the BRICs are pressing forward on. The fact that they succeed in itself will add to the crisis of capitalism, while it is of course good for them at this point. If we wouldn’t be in this crisis, East Asia might continue to increase in power as it is doing right now to form within about seventy-five years the new hegemonic power, succeeding to the United States. But the capitalist world-system is not going to last another seventy-five years.

Immanuel Wallerstein is Senior Research Scholar at Yale University, the former President of the International Sociological Association (1994-1998), and chair of the international Gulbenkian Commission on the Restructuring of the Social Sciences (1993-1995). He writes in three domains of world-systems analysis: the historical development of the modern world-system; the contemporary crisis of the capitalist world-economy; the structures of knowledge. Books in each of these domains include respectively The Modern World-System (3 vols.); Utopistics, or Historical Choices for the Twenty-first Century; and Unthinking Social Science: The Limits of Nineteenth-Century Paradigms.

Related links

  • Wallersteins’ Faculty Profile at Yale; read especially his auto-biographical essay on his intellectual position (bottom of page)
  • Check out this elaborate website on Wallerstein’s world-system theory here
  • Read Wallerstein’s monthly commentaries on world politics (and much more) here at the Fernand Braudel Center (besides English, in many other languages)
  • Read, listen or view this 1999-interview with Wallerstein on cultural globalization. Although the site is elaborate, some video links do not work.
  • View the video of the French conference Wallerstein gave in 2006 on Questions sur les États-Unis et le Monde : Les États-Unis face à leur déclin here
  • Read Wallerstein’s New Revolts Against the System (New Left Review, 2002) here (pdf)
  • Read chapter 1, World networks and the politics of the world-economy, of Wallerstein’s 1991 book The Politics of the World-Economy: The States, the Movements and the Civilizations here (pdf)

1968, Revolution in the world-system: Theses and queries

(Theory and Society, Vol. 18, No. 4 (Jul., 1989), pp. 431-449)

Immanuel Wallerstein

Thesis 1: 1968 was a revolution in and of the world-system

The revolution of 1968 was a revolution; it was a single revolution. It was marked by demonstrations, disorder, and violence in many parts of the world over a period of at least three years. Its origins, consequences, and lessons cannot be analyzed correctly by appealing to the particular circumstances of the local manifestations of this global phenomenon, however much the local factors conditioned the details of the political and social struggles in each locality.

As an event, 1968 has long since ended. However, it was one of the great, formative events in the history of our moder world-system, the kind we call watershed events. This means that the cultural-ideological realities of that world-system have been definitively changed by the event, itself the crystallization of certain long-existing structural trends within the operation of the system.


Thesis 2: The primary protest of 1968 was against U.S. hegemony in the world-system (and Soviet acquiescence in that hegemony)

In 1968, the world was still in the midst of what has come to be called in France the “thirty glorious” years – the period of incredible expansion of the capitalist world-economy following the end of the Second World War. Or rather, 1968 immediately followed the first significant evidence of the beginning of a long world-economic stagnation, that is, the serious difficulties of the U.S. dollar in 1967 (difficulties that have never since ceased).

The period 1945-1967 had been one of unquestioned hegemony of the United States in the world-system, whose bedrock was the incredible superiority in productive efficiency of the United States in all fields in the aftermath of the Second World War. The United States translated this economic advantage into a worldwide political and cultural domination by undertaking four main policy initiatives in the post-1945 period. It constructed around itself an “alliance system” with western Europe (and Japan) characterized as the leadership of the “Free World,” and invested in the economic reconstruction of these areas (the Marshall Plan, etc.). The United States sought thereby both to ensure the role of western Europe and Japan as major economic customers and to guarantee their internal political stability and international political clientship.

Secondly, the United States entered into a stylized Cold War relationship with the U.S.S.R. based on reserving to the U.S.S.R. a small but important zone of political domination (eastern Europe). This so-called Yalta arrangement enabled both countries to present their relationship as an unlimited ideological confrontation, with the important proviso that no changes in the East-West line were to occur and no actual military confrontations were to ensue, especially in Europe.

Thirdly, the United States sought to achieve a gradual, relatively bloodless decolonization of Asia and Africa, on the assumption that this could be arranged via so-called moderate leadership. This was made all the more urgent by the victory of the Chinese Communist Party in China, a victory (be it noted) that was achieved despite the counsels of the U.S.S.R. Moderation was defined as the absence of significant ideological links of this leadership with the U.S.S.R. and world Communism and, even more, the willingness of the decolonized states to participate in the existing set of international economic arrangements. This process of decolonization under the control of moderates was abetted by the occasional and judicious use of limited U.S. military force.

Fourthly, the U.S. leadership sought to create a united front at home by minimizing internal class conflict, through economic concessions to the skilled, unionized, working class on the one hand, and through enlisting U.S. labor in the worldwide anti-Communist crusade on the other hand. It also sought to dampen potential race conflict by eliminating blatant discrimination in the political arena (end of segregation in the armed forces, constitutional invalidation of segregation in all arenas, Voting Rights Act). The United States encouraged its principal allies to work in parallel ways toward maximizing internal unity.

The result of all these policy initiatives by the United States was a system of hegemonic control that operated quite smoothly in the 1950s. It made possible the continuing expansion of the world-economy, with significant income benefits for “middle” strata throughout the world. It made possible the construction of the United Nations network of international agencies, which at that time reflected the political will of the United States and ensured a comparatively stable world political arena. It contributed to the “decolonization” of large parts of what came to be called the Third World with surprising rapidity. And it ensured that, in the West, generally, the 1950s was a period of relative political quietude.

Nonetheless, by the 1960s, this pattern of successful “hegemony” had begun to fray, in part because of its very success. The economic reconstruction of the U.S.’s strong allies became so great that they began to reassert some economic (and even some political) autonomy. This was one, albeit not the only, meaning of Gaullism, for example. The death of Stalin marked the end of a “monolithic” Soviet bloc. It was followed, as we know, by a (still ongoing) process of destalinization and desatellization, the two major turning-points of which were the Report of Kruschchev to the XXth Party Congress in 1956 and the Sino-Soviet split in 1960. The smoothness of the decolonization of the Third World was disturbed by two long and draining anti-colonial wars in Algeria and Vietnam (to which should be associated the long Cuban struggle). Finally, the political “concessions” of the 1950s to “minority groups” in the United States (and elsewhere in the Western world) accentuated expectations that were not in fact being met, either in the political or the economic arenas, and hence in actual practice stimulated rather than constrained further political mobilization.

The 1960s began with the tandem of Kennedy and Kruschchev, who in effect promised to do things better. Between them, they succeeded in lifting the heavy ideological lids that had so successfully held down the world in the 1950s, without however bringing about any fundamental reforms of the existing system. When they were removed from power, and replaced by the tandem Johnson-Brezhnev, the hopes of the early 1960s disappeared. However, the renewed ideological pressures that the powers attempted to reapply were now being placed on what was a more disabused world public opinion. This was the pre-revolutionary tinderbox in which opposition to U.S. hegemony, in all its multiple expressions, would explode in 1968 – in the U.S., in France, in Czechoslovakia, in Mexico, and elsewhere.

Thesis 3: The secondary, but ultimately more passionate, protest of 1968 was against the “old left” antisystemic movements

The nineteenth century saw the birth of two major varieties of antisystemic movements – the social and the national movements. The former emphasized the oppression of the proletariat by the bourgeoisie. The second emphasized the oppression of underdog peoples (and “minorites”) by dominant groups. Both kinds of movements sought to achieve, in some broad sense, “equality.” In fact, both kinds of movements used the three terms of the French revolutionary slogan of “liberty, equality, and fraternity” virtually interchangeably. Both kinds of movements took concrete organizational form in one country after another, eventually almost everywhere, in the second half of the nineteenth and the first half of twentieth century.

Both kinds of movements came to emphasize the importance of obtaining state power as the indispensable intermediate achievement on the road to their ultimate objectives. The social movement, however, had an important worldwide split in the early twentieth century concerning the road to state power (parliamentary versus insurrectionary strategies). By 1945, there existed three clear and separate networks of such movements on the world scene: the Third International Communist parties; the Second International social-democratic parties; the various nationalist (or national liberation) movements. The period 1945-1968 was a period of remarkable political achievement for these three networks of movements. Third International parties came to power, by one means or another, in a series of countries more or less contiguous to the U.S.S.R. (eastern Europe, China, North Korea). Second International parties (I use the term loosely, including in this category the Democratic Party in the United States as Roosevelt reshaped it) came to power (or at least achieved droit de cite, that is, the right of alternance) in the western world (western Europe, North America, Australasia). Nationalist or national liberation movements came to power in most formerly colonized areas in Asia, the Middle East, Africa, the Caribbean, and in somewhat different forms in long-independent Latin America.

The important point for the analysis of the revolution of 1968 was that the new movements that emerged then were led largely by young people who had grown up in a world where the traditional antisystemic movements in their countries were not in an early phase of mobiliza- tion but had already achieved their intermediate goal of state power. Hence these “old” movements could be judged not only on their promises but on their practices once in power. They were so judged, and to a considerable degree they were found wanting.

They were found wanting on two main grounds. First, they were found wanting in their efficacity in combatting the existing capitalist world-system and its current institutional incarnation, U.S. hegemony. Secondly, they were found wanting in the quality of life they had created in the “intermediate” state structures they presumably controlled. Thus it was that, in the words of one famous 1968 aphorism, they were no longer to be considered “part of the solution.” Rather, they had become “part of the problem.”

The anger of the U.S. SDS against “liberals,” of the soixante-huitards against the PCF (not to speak of the socialists), of the German SDS against the SPD was all the more passionate because of their sense of fundamental betrayal. This was the real implication of that other 1968 aphorism: “Never trust anyone over the age of 30.” It was less generational at the level of individuals than generational at the level of antisystemic organizations. I take it as no accident that the major outbreak in the Soviet bloc was in Czechoslovakia, a country with a particularly long and strong Third International tradition. The leaders of the Prague Spring fought their struggle in the name of “humanist Communism,” that is, against the betrayal that Stalinism represented. I take it also as no accident that the major outbreak in the Third World was in Mexico, the country that had the oldest national liberation movement continuously in power, or that particularly important outbreaks occurred in Dakar and in Calcutta, two cities with very long nationalist traditions.

Not only was the revolution of 1968 directed, even if only secondarily, against the “old lefts” throughout the world, but these “old lefts” responded, as we know, in coin. The “old lefts” were first of all astonished at finding themselves under attack from the left (who us, who have such impeccable credentials?), and then deeply enraged at the adventurism that the “new lefts” represented in their eyes. As the “old lefts” responded with increasing impatience and hostility to the spreading “anarchism” of the “new lefts,” the latter began to place greater and greater emphasis on the ideological centrality of their struggle with the “old lefts.” This took the form of the multivariate “maoisms” that developed in the early 1970s in all parts of the world, including of course in China itself.

Thesis 4: Counter-culture was part of revolutionary euphoria, but was not politically central to 1968

What we came to call in the late 1960s “counter-culture” was a very visible component of the various movements that participated in the revolution of 1968. We generally mean by counter-culture behavior in daily life (sexuality, drugs, dress) and in the arts that is unconventional, non-“bourgeois,” and Dionysiac. There was an enormous escalation in the quantity of such behavior directly associated with activism in the “movement.” The Woodstock festival in the United States represented a kind of symbolic highpoint of such movement-related counter-culture.

But of course, a counter-culture was not a particularly new phenomenon. There had been for two centuries a “Bohemia” associated with youth and the arts. The relaxation of puritanical sexual mores had been a steady linear development throughout the twentieth century world- wide. Furthermore, “revolutions” had often previously been the occasion of counter-cultural affirmation. Here, however, two models of previous revolutions should be noted. In those revolutions that had been planned, organized, and involved long military struggle, revolu- tionary puritanism usually became an important element of discipline (as in the history of the Chinese Communist Party). Where, however, revolutionary circumstances included a large measure of spontaneous activity (as was the case in the Russian Revolution of 1917 or the triumph of Castro in Cuba), the spontaneity involved a breakdown in social constraints and hence was associated, at least initially, with counter-culture (for example, “free love” in post-1917 Russia). The revolution of 1968 had of course a particularly strong component of unplanned spontaneity and therefore, as the thesis says, counter-culture became part of the revolutionary euphoria.

Nonetheless, as we all learned in the 1970s, it is very easy to dissociate counter-culture from political (revolutionary) activity. Indeed, it is easy to turn counter-cultural trends into very profitable consumption- oriented life-styles (the transition from yippies to yuppies). While, therefore, the counter-culture of the new left was salient to most of these forces themselves, as it was to their enemies, in the final analysis it was a minor element in the picture. It may be one of the consequences of 1968 that Dionysiac life styles spread further. It is not one of its legacies. It is to the political legacies that we must now turn.


Legacies of watershed-events are always complex phenomena. For one thing, they are always ambiguous. For another, they are always the object of a struggle by various heirs to claim the legacy, that is, the legitimacy of a tradition. Please note that there already exists a tradition of 1968. Traditions are rapidly created, and the “tradition” of the Revolution of 1968 was already functioning by the early 1970s. And in 1988 there are many celebrations, many books, and many attempts at recuperation as well. This should neither surprise us nor dismay us. World-historic events have lives of their own and they resist any kind of simple capture. 1968 is no different. Having thus warned you against myself, I shall nonetheless put before you what I think are the two principal legacies of 1968.

Thesis 5: Revolutionary movements representing “minority” or under- dog strata need no longer, and no longer do, take second place to revolu- tionary movements representing presumed “majority” groups

1968 was the ideological tomb of the concept of the “leading role” of the industrial proletariat. This leading role had long been challenged, but never before so massively and so efficaciously. For in 1968 it was being challenged on the grounds that the industrial proletariat was and would always structurally remain just one component among others of the world’s working class.

The historic attitude of both varieties of “old left” movements (the socialist and the nationalist) was that they represented the interests of the “primary” oppressed – either the “working class” of a given country or the “nation” whose national expression was unfulfilled. These move- ments took the view that the complaints of “other” groups who saw themselves as being treated unequally – the unfulfilled nationalities for socialist movements, the working class for nationalist movements, women for both kinds of movements, and any other group that could lay claim to social or political oppression – were at best secondary and at worst diversionary. The “old left” groups tended to argue that their own achievement of state power had to be the prime objective and the prior achievement, after which (they argued) the secondary oppres- sions would disappear of themselves or at least they could be resolved by appropriate political action in the “post-revolutionary” era.

Needless to say, not everyone agreed with such reasoning. And the socialist and nationalist movements of the world often quarreled fiercely with each other over precisely this issue of priority of struggle. But none of the “old left” movements ever ceded theoretical ground on this issue of strategic priorities in the struggle for equality, although many individual movements made tactical and temporary concessions on such issues in the interests of creating or reinforcing particular political alliances.

As long as the “old left” movements were in their pre-revolutionary, mobilizing phases, the argument about what would or would not happen after their achievement of state power remained hypothetical. But once they were in state power, the practical consequences could be assessed on the basis of some evidence. By 1968, many such assessments had been made, and the opponents of the multiple “other” inequalities could argue, with some plausibility, that the achievement of power by “old left” groups had not in fact ended these “other” inequalities, or at least had not sufficiently changed the multiple group hierarchies that had previously existed.

At the same time, a century of struggle had begun to make clear two sociological realities that had great bearing on this debate. The first was that, contrary to prior theorizing, the trend of capitalist development was not to transform almost all the world’s laboring strata into urban, male, adult, salaried factory workers, the ideal-type of the “proletarian” as traditionally conceived. The reality of capitalism was far more occupationally complex than that. This ideal-type “proletarian” had represented a minority of the world’s laboring strata in 1850, of course. But it had then been thought this was merely transitional. However, such ideal-type “proletarians” remained a minority in 1950. And it was now clear that this particular occupational profile would probably remain a minority in 2050. Hence, to organize a movement around this group was to give priority – permanent and illegitimate priority – to the claims of one variety over other varieties of the world’s laboring strata.

Analogously, it had become clear that “nationalities” were not just there in some form that could be objectively delineated. Nationalities were rather the product of a complex process of ongoing social creation, combining the achievement of consciousness (by themselves and by others) and socio-juridical labeling. It followed that for every nation there could and would be sub-nations in what threatened to be an unending cascade. It followed that each transformation of some “minority” into a “majority” created new “minorities.” There could be no cut-off of this process, and hence no “automatic” resolution of the issue by the achievement of state power.

If the “proletariat” and the “oppressed nations” were not destined to transform themselves into uncontested majorities, but would forever remain one kind of “minority” alongside other kinds of “minorities,” their claim to strategic priority in the antisystemic struggle would thereby be grievously undermined. 1968 accomplished precisely this undermining. Or rather, the revolution of 1968 crystallized the recognition of these realities in the worldwide political action of antisystemic movements.

After 1968, none of the “other” groups in struggle – neither women nor racial “minorities” nor sexual “minorities” nor the handicapped nor the “ecologists” (those who refused the acceptance, unquestioningly, of the imperatives of increased global production) – would ever again accept the legitimacy of “waiting” upon some other revolution. And since 1968, the “old left” movements have themselves become increasingly embarrassed about making, have indeed hesitated to continue to make, such demands for the “postponement” of claims until some presumed post-revolutionary epoch. It is easy enough to verify this change in atmosphere. A simple quantitative content analysis of the world’s left press, comparing say 1985 and 1955, would indicate a dramatic increase of the space accorded to these “other” concerns that had once been considered “secondary.”

Of course, there is more. The very language of our analyses has changed, has consciously and explicitly been changed. We worry about racism and sexism even in arenas once thought “harmless” (appellations, humor, etc.). And the structure of our organizational life has also changed. Whereas prior to 1968 it was generally considered a desideratum to unify all existing antisystemic movements into one movement, at least into one movement in each country, this form of unity is no longer an unquestioned desideratum. A multiplicity of organizations, each representing a different group or a different tonality, loosely linked in some kind of alliance, is now seen, at least by many, as a good in itself. What was a pis aller is now proclaimed as a “rainbow coalition” (a U.S. coinage that has spread).

The triumph of the Revolution of 1968 has been a triple triumph in terms of racism, sexism, and analogous evils. One result is that the legal situations (state policies) have changed. A second result is that the situations within the antisystemic movements have changed. A third result is that mentalities have changed. There is no need to be Polyannish about this. The groups who were oppressed may still complain, with great legitimacy, that the changes that have occurred are inadequate, that the realities of sexism and racism and other forms of oppressive inequality are still very much with us. Furthermore, it is no doubt true that there has been “backlash” in all arenas, on all these issues. But it is pointless also not to recognize that the Revolution of 1968 marked, for all these inequalities, a historic turning-point.

Even if the states (or some of them) regress radically, the antisystemic movements will never be able to do so (or, if they do, they will thereby lose their legitimacy). This does not mean that there is no longer a debate about priorities among antisystemic movements. It means that the debate has become a debate about fundamental strategy, and that the “old left” movements (or tendencies) are no longer refusing to enter into such a debate.

Thesis 6: The debate on the fundamental strategy of social transformation has been reopened among the antisystemic movements, and will be the key political debate of the coming twenty years

There exist today, in a broad sense, six varieties of antisystemic movements. (a) In the Western countries, there are “old left” movements in the form of the trade-unions and segments of the traditional left parties – labor and social-democratic parties, to which one might perhaps add the Communist parties, although except for Italy these are weak and growing weaker. (b) In the same Western countries, there is a wide variety of new social movements – of women, “minorities,” Greens, etc. (c) In the socialist bloc, there are the traditional Communist parties in power, among whom a strain of persistent antisystemic virus has never been extinguished, which gives rise to renewed (and “feverish”) activity from time to time. The Gorbachev phenomenon, insofar as it appeals to “Leninism” against “Stalinism,” can be taken as evidence of this. (d) In this same socialist bloc, a network is emerging of extra-party organizations, quite disparate in nature, which seem increasingly to be taking on some of the flavor of Western new social movements. They have, however, the distinctive feature of an emphasis on the themes of human rights and anti-bureaucracy. (e) In the Third World, there are segments of those traditional national liberation movements still in power (as, for example, in Algeria, Nicaragua, and Mozambique) or heirs to such movements no longer in power (although “heritages” such as Nasserism in the Arab world tend to fritter). Of course, in countries with unfullfilled revolutions (such as South Africa or El Salvador), the movements, still necessarily in their mobilizing phase of struggle, have the strength and the characteristics of their predecessors in other states, when they were in that phase. (f) And finally, in these same Third World countries, there are new movements that reject some of the “universalist” themes of previous movements (seen as “Western” themes) and put forward “indigenist” forms of protest, often in religious clothing.

It seems clear that all six varieties of movements are far from uniformly antisystemic. But all six varieties have some significant antisystemic heritage, some continuing antisystemic resonance, and some further antisystemic potential. Furthermore, of course, the six varieties of movements are not entirely limited geographically to the various zones as I have indicated. One can find some trans-zone diffusion, but the geographical segregation of varieties holds true, broadly speaking, for the moment.

There are, I believe, three principal observations to make about the relation of these six varieties of (potentially, partially, historically) antisystemic movements to each other. First, at the time of the Revolution of 1968, the six varieties tended to be quite hostile to each other. This was particularly true of the relation of the “old” to the “new” variety in each zone, as we have already noted. But it was generally true more widely. That is, any one of the six varieties tended to be critical of, even hostile toward, all five other varieties. This initial, multifaced mutual hostility has tended to diminish greatly in the subsequent two decades. Today, one might speak of the six varieties of movements showing a hesitant (and still suspicious) tolerance toward each other, which is of course far short of being politically allied with each other.

Secondly, the six varieties of movements have begun tentatively to debate with each other about the strategy of social transformation. One principal issue is, of course, the desirability of seeking state power, the issue that has fundamentally divided the three “old” from the three “new” varieties of movements. Another, and derived, issue concerns the structure of organizational life. These are, to be sure, issues that had been widely debated in the 1850-1880 period, and at that time more or less resolved. They have now been reopened, and are being discussed again, now however in the light of the “real-existing” experience of state power.

Thirdly, when and if this debate on global strategy will be resolved, even if the resolution takes the form of merging the six varieties of movements into one grand worldwide family, it does not follow that there will be a unified antisystemic strategy. It has long been the case, and will continue ever more to be so, that these movements have been strongly penetrated by persons, groups, and strata whose essential hope is not the achievement of an egalitarian, democratic world but the maintenance of an inegalitarian, undemocratic one, even if one necessarily different in structure from our existing capitalist world-economy (currently in its long structural crisis). That is to say, at the end of the debate among the movements, we shall most probably see a struggle within the possibly single family of movements between the proponents of an egalitarian, democratic world and their opponents.


What lessons are we to draw from the Revolution of 1968 and its aftermath? What lessons indeed are we to draw from more than a century of worldwide, organized antisystemic activity? Here I think the format of theses is not reasonable. I prefer to lay out the issues in the form of queries. These are queries, I hasten to add, that cannot find their answers in colloquia alone, or in the privacy of intellectual discussion. These are queries that can be answered fully only in the praxis of the multiple movements. But this praxis of course includes, as one part of it, the analyses and debates in public and in private, especially those conducted in a context of political commitment.

Query 1: Is it possible to achieve significant political change without taking state power?

I suppose the answer to this depends first of all on how one defines “significant.” But the question is a real one nonetheless. If the Marxists won the political debate with the Anarchists in the nineteenth century, and the political nationalists won their parallel debate with the cultural nationalists, the explanation was the compelling force of one assertion that they made: Those with existing privilege will never cede it willingly, and will use their control of state violence to prevent significant change. It followed that ousting the privileged from state power was the prerequisite to significant change.

It seems quite clear that even today, in some countries (say, South Africa), there are governments representing privileged minorities that are resolutely unwilling to cede their privilege. In these countries it seems very implausible to suggest that any significant political change could occur in the absence of vigorous, and almost inevitably violent, political activity. South Africa is no doubt a quintessential instance of a state in which the majority of its citizens have never had droit de cite and have therefore never felt that the government was “theirs” in any sense whatsoever.

But today there is a large number of states in which the majority of the population believe that, in some sense, the government is “theirs.” Most “post-revolutionary” regimes by and large enjoy this fundamental sense of popular support. This is no doubt true of the U.S.S.R. and of China, and of Algeria. But if of Algeria, is it not also true of India? And is this not true of Sweden, where fifty years of Social-Democratic regimes have “integrated” the working class into political life? And what about France, or Germany? One could go on. Each national case has its specificity. But it is surely clear that there is a very large number of states in which popular support for the state is widespread, and where therefore a struggle for the primary accession to state power has little resonance. It is probably not very useful to suggest therefore that some of these state structures are “post-revolutionary,” implying that the others are “pre-revolutionary.” Most of them are in the same boat in terms of degree of popular support (and popular cynicism). To repeat, this is not true in states such as South Africa, where accession to state power by the majority still remains the primary political issue. But such states today are a minority.

Indeed, is not the prime issue in many states, and perhaps most especially in those that are self-consciously “post-revolutionary,” the question of achieving the control by the “civil society” over the state? Is this not the heart of the internal political debate not only in the “socialist countries” but also in Latin America, and southern Europe, and South- east Asia, and Black Africa? “More democracy is more socialism,” says Mr. Gorbachev. But if so, what is the function of an antisystemic movement in the U.S.S.R.?

Query 2: Are there forms of social power worth conquering other than “political” power?

Obviously, there are other forms of social power – economic power, cultural power (Gramsci’s “hegemony”), power over self (individual and “group” autonomy). And obviously, individuals, groups, and organizations constantly seek such kinds of power. But how does the effort to attain such power articulate with the political activity of antisystemic movements? In what sense will the achievement of more economic power, or more cultural power, or more power over self in fact contribute to a fundamental transformation of the world-system?

We are here before a question that has beset antisystemic movements since their outset. Is fundamental transformation the consequence of an accretion of improvements that, bit by bit and over time, create irreversible change? Or are such incremental achievements very largely a self-deception that in fact demobilize and hence preserve the realities of existing inequities? This is, of course, the “reformism-revolution” debate once again, which is larger than the constricted version of this debate symbolized by Eduard Bernstein versus Lenin.

That is to say, is there a meaningful strategy that can be constructed that involves the variegated pursuit of multiple forms of power? For this is what is suggested, at least implicitly, by a lot of the arguments of the new social movements that emerged in the wake of 1968.

Query 3: Should antisystemic movements take the form of organizations?

The creation of bureaucratic organizations as the instrument of social transformation was the great sociological invention of nineteenth-century political life. There was much debate about whether such organizations should be mass-based or cadre-based, legal or underground, one-issue or multi-issue, whether they should demand limited or total commitment of their members. But for over a century, there has been little doubt that organizations of some kind were indispensable.

The fact that Michels demonstrated a very long time ago that these organizations took on a life of their own that interfered quite directly with their ostensible raisons d’être did not seem to dampen very much the enthusiasm to create still more organizations. Even the spontaneous movements of 1968 became transformed into many such organizations. This no doubt had consequences that made many of the post-1968 generation very uncomfortable, as may be seen in the acerbic debates between Fundis and Realos in the German Green movement.

The tension between the political efficacity that organizations represent and the ideological and political dangers they incarnate is perhaps unresolvable. It is perhaps something with which we simply must live. It seems to me, however, that this is a question that has to be dealt with directly and debated thoroughly, lest we simply drift into two pointless factions of the “sectarians” and the “dropouts.” The numbers of individuals throughout the world who are “ex-activists” and who are now “unaffiliated” but who wish in some way to be politically active has, I believe, grown very sharply in the wake of the post-1968 letdown. I do not think we should think of this as the “depoliticization” of the disillusioned, though some of it is that. It is rather the fear that organizational activity is only seemingly efficacious. But if so, what can replace it, if anything?

Query 4: Is there any political basis on which antisystemic movements, West and East, North (both West & East) and South, can in reality join hands?

The fact that there are six varieties of antisystemic movements, an “old” and a “new” variety in each of the three different zones, seems to me no passing accident. It reflects a deep difference of political realities in the three zones. Do there exist any unifying political concerns that could give rise to a common worldwide strategy? Is there any evidence that, even if this wasn’t true in the period following 1945 it is beginning to be true in the 1980s, and might be even more true in the twenty-first century?

Here we need more than pieties and wishful thinking. There has never existed heretofore international (that is, interzonal) solidarity of any significance. And this fact has given rise to much bitterness. Three things seem to me important. One, the immediate day-to-day concerns of the populations of the three zones are today in many ways strikingly different. The movements that exist in these three zones reflect their differences. Secondly, many of the short-run objectives of movements in the three zones would, if achieved, have the effect of improving the situation for some persons in that zone at the expense of other persons in other zones. Thirdly, no desirable transformation of the capitalist world-economy is possible in the absence of trans-zonal political co-operation by antisystemic movements.

This trans-zonal cooperation would have to be both strategic and tactical. It might be easier (albeit still not easy) to establish the bases of tactical cooperation. But strategic? It is probable that strategic collaboration can only be on the basis of a profound radicalization of the objectives. For the great impediment to trans-zonal strategic collaboration is the incredible socioeconomic polarization of the existing world- system. But is there an objective (and not merely a voluntaristic) basis for such a radicalization?

Query 5: What does the slogan, “liberty, equality, fraternity” really mean?

The slogan of the French Revolution is familiar enough to us all. It seems to refer to three different phenomena, each located in the three realms into which we are accustomed to divide our social analyses: liberty in the political arena, equality in the economic arena, and fraternity in the socio-cultural arena. And we have become accustomed as well to debating their relative importance, particularly between liberty and equality.

The antinomy of liberty and equality seems to me absurd. I don’t really understand myself how one can be “free” if there is inequality, since those who have more always have options that are not available to those who have less, and therefore the latter are less free. And similarly I don’t really understand how there can be equality without liberty since, in the absence of liberty, some have more political power than others, and hence it follows that there is inequality. I am not suggesting a verbal game here but a rejection of the distinction. Liberty-equality is a single concept.

Can then fraternity be “folded into” this single concept of liberty-equality? I do not think so. I note first that fraternity, given our recent consciousness about sexist language, should now be banned as a term. Perhaps we can talk of comradeship. This brings us however to the heart of the issues raised by sexism and racism. What is their opposite? For a long time the lefts of the world preached one form or another of universalism, that is, of total “integration.” The consciousness of the Revolution of 1968 has led to the assertion by those who most directly suffered from racism and sexism of the political, cultural, and psychological merits of building their own, that is separate, organizational and cultural structures. At a world level, this is sometimes called the “civilizational project.”

It is correct to assert that the tensions between universalism and particularism are the product of the capitalist world-economy and are impossible to resolve within its framework. But that gives us insufficient guide for future goals or present tactics. It seems to me that the movements after 1968 have handled this issue the easy way, by swinging back and forth on a pendulum in their emphases. This leaves the issue intact as a permanent confusion and a permanent irritant. If we are to think of a trans-zonal strategy of transformation, it will have to include a fairly clear perspective on how to reconcile the thrust for homogeneity (implied in the very concept of a trans-zonal strategy) and the thrust for heterogeneity (implied in the concept of liberty-equality).

Query 6: Is there a meaningful way in which we can have plenty (or even enough) without productivism ?

The search for the conquest of nature and the Saint-Simonian moral emphasis on productive labor have long been ideological pillars not only of the capitalist world-economy but also of its antisystemic movements. To be sure, many have worried about excessive growth, and waste, and resource depletion. But, as with other such rejections of dominant values, how far can we, should we, draw the implications of the critiques?

Once again, it is easy to say that jobs versus ecology is a dilemma produced by the current system and inherent in it. But once again, this tells us little about long-term objectives or short-term tactics. And once again, this is an issue that has profoundly divided the antisystemic movements within zones, and even more across the zones.

Concluding note

One of the principal implicit complaints of the Revolution of 1968 was that the enormous social effort of antisystemic movements over the prior one hundred years had yielded so little global benefit. In effect, the revolutionaries were saying, we are not really farther along than our grandparents were, in terms of transforming the world.

The criticism was a harsh one, no doubt a salutary one, but also an unfair one. The conditions of the world-systemic revolution of 1968 were entirely different from those of the world-systemic revolution of 1848. From 1848 to 1968, it is hard to see, retrospectively, how the antisystemic movements could have acted other than they did. Their strategy was probably the only one realistically available to them, and their failures may have been inscribed in the structural constraints within which they necessarily worked. Their efforts and their devotion were prodigious. And the dangers they averted, the reforms they imposed probably offset the misdeeds they committed and the degree to which their mode of struggle reinforced the very system against which they were struggling.

What is important, however, is not to be a Monday morning quarterback of the world’s antisystemic movements. The real importance of the Revolution of 1968 is less its critique of the past than the questions it raised about the future. Even if the past strategy of the “old left” movements had been the best possible strategy for the time, the question still remained whether it was a useful strategy as of 1968. Here the case of the new movements was a far stronger one.

The new movements however have not offered a fully coherent alternative strategy. A coherent alternative strategy is still today to be worked out. It will possibly take ten to twenty more years to do so. This is not a cause for discouragement; it is rather the occasion for hard collective intellectual and political work.

Editorial note

Immanuel Wallerstein’s paper was the keynote address at “1968 in Global Retrospective: A Conference on the 20th Anniversary of 1968,” organized by The Humanities Institute of Brooklyn College of the City University of New York and held at the college on October 20-21, 1988. Wallerstein’s paper was criticized by an international group of invited speakers who represented both intellectual commitment to the activism of 1968 and a diversity of views. They included Roslyn Baxandall, K. D. Wolff, David Caute, James Turner, Marianne Debouzy, Roxane Witke, Sebastiano Maffetone, Michele Wallace, Irena Lasota, Milan Nikolic, Mitu Hirshman, Todd Gitlin, Jim Miller, and J. Hoberman. A notable, last-minute cancellation – for urgent reasons – was Daniel Cohn-Bendit. Divided into sessions on “World Hegemony, State, Culture, and Old Left Movements,” “The Key Role of ‘Minority’ Revolutions,” “Representations of 1968,” and “Towards the Future Global Perspective,” the conference was cosponsored by The German Marshall Fund of the United States, Goethe House, the Cultural Services of the French Embassy, the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the New York Council for the Humanities.

Sharon Zukin

Brooklyn College

Occupy Wall Street is the most important political happening in America since 1968

The Occupy Wall Street movement – for now it is a movement – is the most important political happening in the United States since the uprisings in 1968, whose direct descendant or continuation it is.

Why it started in the United States when it did – and not three days, three months, three years earlier or later – we’ll never know for sure. The conditions were there: acutely increasing economic pain not only for the truly poverty-stricken but for an ever-growing segment of the working poor (otherwise known as the “middle class”); incredible exaggeration (exploitation, greed) of the wealthiest 1% of the U.S. population (“Wall Street”); the example of angry upsurges around the world (the “Arab spring,” the Spanish indignados, the Chilean students, the Wisconsin trade unions, and a long list of others). It doesn’t really matter what the spark was that ignited the fire. It started.

In Stage one – the first few days – the movement was a handful of audacious, mostly young, persons who were trying to demonstrate. The press ignored them totally. Then some stupid police captains thought that a bit of brutality would end the demonstrations. They were caught on film and the film went viral on YouTube.

That brought us to Stage two – publicity. The press could no longer ignore the demonstrators entirely. So the press tried condescension. What did these foolish, ignorant youth (and a few elderly women) know about the economy? Did they have any positive program? Were they “disciplined”? The demonstrations, we were told, would soon fizzle. What the press and the powers that be didn’t count on (they never seem to learn) is that the theme of the protest resonated widely and quickly caught on. In city after city, similar “occupations” began. Unemployed 50-year-olds started to join in. So did celebrities. So did trade-unions, including none less than the president of the AFL-CIO. The press outside the United States now began to follow the events. Asked what they wanted, the demonstrators replied “justice.” This began to seem like a meaningful answer to more and more people.

This brought us to Stage three – legitimacy. Academics of a certain repute began to suggest that the attack on “Wall Street” had some justification. All of a sudden, the main voice of centrist respectability, The New York Times, ran an editorial on October 8 in which they said that the protestors did indeed have “a clear message and specific policy prescriptions” and that the movement was “more than a youth uprising.” The Times went on: “Extreme inequality is the hallmark of a dysfunctional economy, dominated by a financial sector that is driven as much by speculation, gouging and government backing as by productive investment.” Strong language for the Times. And then the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee started circulating a petition asking party supporters to declare “I stand with the Occupy Wall Street protests.”

The movement had become respectable. And with respectability came danger – Stage four. A major protest movement that has caught on usually faces two major threats. One is the organization of a significant right-wing counterdemonstration in the streets. Eric Cantor, the hardline (and quite astute) Republican congressional leader, has already called for that in effect. These counterdemonstrations can be quite ferocious. The Occupy Wall Street movement needs to be prepared for this and think through how it intends to handle or contain it.

But the second and bigger threat comes from the very success of the movement. As it attracts more support, it increases the diversity of views among the active protestors. The problem here is, as it always is, how to avoid the Scylla of being a tight cult that would lose because it is too narrowly based, and the Charybdis of no longer having a political coherence because it is too broad. There is no simple formula of how to manage avoiding going to either extreme. It is difficult.

As to the future, it could be that the movement goes from strength to strength. It might be able to do two things: force short-term restructuring of what the government will actually do to minimize the pain that people are obviously feeling acutely; and bring about long-term transformation of how large segments of the American population think about the realities of the structural crisis of capitalism and the major geopolitical transformations that are occurring because we are now living in a multipolar world.

Even if the Occupy Wall Street movement were to begin to peter out because of exhaustion or repression, it has already succeeded and will leave a lasting legacy, just as the uprisings of 1968 did. The United States will have changed, and in a positive direction. As the saying goes, “Rome wasn’t built in a day.” A new and better world-system, a new and better United States, is a task that requires repeated effort by repeated generations. But another world is indeed possible (albeit not inevitable). And we can make a difference. Occupy Wall Street is making a difference, a big difference.

The contradictions of the Arab Spring

The spirit of 1968 flows through Arab Spring and Occupy movement – as its counter-current attempts to suppress uprising.

The turmoil in Arab countries that is called the Arab Spring is conventionally said to have been sparked by the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi in a small village of Tunisia on December 17, 2010. The massive sympathy this act aroused led, in a relatively short time, to the destitution of Tunisia’s president and then to that of Egypt’s president. In very quick order thereafter, the turmoil spread to virtually every Arab state and is still continuing.

Most of the analyses we read in the media or on the internet neglect the fundamental contradiction of this phenomenon – that the so-called Arab Spring is composed of two quite different currents, going in radically different directions. One current is the heir of the world-revolution of 1968. The “1968 current” might better be called the “second Arab revolt”.

Its objective is to achieve the global autonomy of the Arab world that the “first Arab revolt” had sought to achieve. The first revolt failed primarily because of successful Franco-British measures to contain it, co-opt it, and repress it.
The second current is the attempt by all important geopolitical actors to control the first current, each acting to divert collective activity in the Arab world in ways that would redound to the relative advantage of each of these actors separately. The actors here regard the “1968 current” as highly dangerous to their interests. They have done everything possible to turn attention and energy away from the objectives of the “1968 current”, in what I think of as the great distraction.

The past didn’t go anywhere

What do I mean by a “1968 current”? There were two essential features to the world-revolution of 1968 that remain relevant to the world situation today. First, the revolutionaries of 1968 were protesting against the inherently undemocratic behaviour of those in authority. This was a revolt against such use (or misuse) of authority at all levels: the level of the world-system as a whole; the level of the national and local governments; the level of the multiple non-governmental institutions in which people take part or to which they are subordinated (from workplaces to educational structures to political parties and trade-unions).

In language that was developed later on, the 1968-revolutionaries were against vertical decision-making and in favour of horizontal decision-making – participatory and therefore popular. By and large, although there were exceptions, the “1968 current” was deeply influenced by the concept of non-violent resistance, whether in the version of satyagraha developed by Mahatma Gandhi or that pursued by Martin Luther King and his collaborators, or indeed older versions such as that of Henry David Thoreau.
In the “Arab Spring” we could see this current strongly at work in Tunisia and Egypt. It was the rapid public embrace of this current that terrified those in power – the rulers of every Arab state without exception, the governments of the “outside” states who were an active presence in the geopolitics of the Arab world, even the governments of very distant states.

The spread of an anti-authoritarian logic, and especially its success anywhere, menaced all of them. The governments of the world joined forces to destroy the “1968 current”.

A growing world movement

So far, they have not been able to do it. Indeed, on the contrary, the current is gaining force around the world – from Hong Kong to Athens to Madrid to Santiago to Johannesburg to New York. This is not solely the result of the Arab Spring, since the seeds and even the revolts elsewhere predated December 2010. But the fact that it has occurred so dramatically in the Arab world, once thought relatively unresponsive to such a current, has added considerable momentum to the growing world movement.

How have the governments responded to the threat? There are really only three ways to respond to such a threat – repression, concessions and diversion. All three responses have been used, and up to a certain point, their use has achieved some success.

Of course, the internal political realities of each state are different, and that is why the dosage of repression, concessions and diversion has varied from state to state.

However, the decisive characteristic is, in my view, the second feature of the world-revolution of 1968. The world-revolution of 1968 included in a very major way a revolution of the “forgotten peoples” – those who had been left out of the concerns of the major organised forces of all political stripes. The forgotten peoples had been told that their concerns, their complaints, their demands were secondary and had to be postponed until some other primary concerns were resolved.
Who were these forgotten peoples? They were first of all women, half the world’s population. They were secondly those who were defined in a given state as “minorities” – a concept that is not really numerical but rather social (and has usually been defined in terms of race or religion or language or some combination thereof).

In addition to women and the social “minorities”, there exists a long list of other groups who also proclaimed their insistence on not being forgotten: Those with “other” sexual preferences, those who were disabled, those who were the “indigenous” populations in a zone that had been subject to in-migration by powerful outsiders in the last 500 years, those who were deeply concerned with threats to the environment, those who were pacifists. The list has continued to grow, as more and more “groups” became conscious of their status as “forgotten peoples”.
As one analyses Arab state after Arab state, one realises quite quickly that the list of forgotten peoples and their relation to the regime in power varies considerably. Hence, the degree to which “concessions” can limit revolt varies. The degree to which “repression” is easy or difficult for the regime varies. But make no mistake about it, all regimes want, above all, to stay in power.

One way to stay in power is for some of those who are in power to join the uprising, casting overboard a personage who happens to be the president or ruler in favour of the pseudo-neutral armed forces. This is exactly what happened in Egypt. It is that about which those who are today reoccupying Tahrir Square in Egypt are complaining as they seek to reinvigorate the “1968 current”.

The problem for the major geopolitical actors is that they are not sure how best to “distract” attention and advance their own interests amidst the turmoil. Let us look at what the various actors have been trying to do and the degree to which they have been successful. We will then be able better to assess the prospects of the “1968 current” today and in the relatively near future.

Ex-colonial redemption

We should start the story with France and Great Britain – the fading ex-colonial powers. They were both badly caught with their pants down in Tunisia and Egypt. Their leaders had, as individuals, been personally profiting from the two dictatorships. They not merely supported them against the uprising, but actively counselled them on how to repress.

Finally, and very late, they realised how big a political error this had been. They had to find a way to redeem themselves. They found it in Libya.

Muammar Gaddafi had also, just like the French and the British, fully supported Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak. Indeed he went the furthest, deploring their resignations. He was obviously deeply frightened by what was happening in the two neighbouring countries. To be sure, there was not much of a true “1968 current” in Libya. But there were plenty of discontented groups. And when these groups began their revolt, he blustered about how hard he would repress them.
France and Great Britain saw their opportunity here.

Despite the degree to which these two countries (and others) had engaged in profitable business in Libya for at least a decade, they suddenly discovered that Gaddafi was a terrible dictator, which no doubt he was. They set out to redeem themselves by open military support for the Libyan rebels.

Today, Bernard-Henri Lévy is boasting of the way in which he created a direct link between President Sarkozy of France and the structure of the Libyan rebels on the basis of active intervention to promote human rights.

But France and Great Britain, however determined, were unable to unseat Gaddafi without help. They needed the United States. Obama was obviously reluctant at first. But, under internal US pressure (“to promote human rights”), he threw in US military and political assistance to what was now called a NATO effort. He did this on the basis that, in the end, he could argue that not a single US life was lost – only Libyan lives.

Just as Gaddafi was unnerved by the ousting of Mubarak, so were the Saudis. They saw Western acquiescence (and subsequently approval) of his departure as a highly dangerous precedent. They decided to pursue their own independent line – the defence of the status quo.

They defended it first of all at home, secondly in the Gulf Coordination Council (and in particular in Bahrain), then in the other monarchies (Jordan and Morocco), then in all Arab states. And in the two neighbouring countries in which there was most turmoil – Yemen and Syria – they began to pursue a mediation in which everything would change so that nothing would change.

A current not easily contained
The new Egyptian regime, under attack at home from the “1968 current” and always sensitive to the fact that Egypt’s primacy in the Arab world had diminished seriously, began to revise its geopolitical stance, first of all vis-à-vis Israel.

The regime wanted to take its distance from Israel, without, however, jeopardising its ability to obtain financial assistance from the United States. They became an active advocate of reunification of the split Palestinian political world, hoping that this reunification would not only force significant concessions from the Israelis but hamper the development of the “1968 current” among the Palestinians.

Two neighbouring countries – Turkey and Iran – sought to profit from the Arab unrest by strengthening their own legitimacy as actors in the Middle East arena. This was not easy for either of them, especially since each had to worry about the degree to which the “1968 current” would menace them internally – the Kurds in Turkey, the multiple factions in the complicated Iranian internal politics.

And Israel? Israel has been assaulted all around by the prospect of “delegitimisation” – in the Western world (even in Germany, even in the United States), in Egypt and Jordan, in Turkey, in Russia and China. And all the while it has had to face a “1968 current” that has emerged among the Jewish population within Israel.
And, as all this geopolitical juggling has been going on, the Arab Spring has become simply one part of what is now very clearly a worldwide unrest occurring everywhere: Oxi in Greece, indignados in Spain, students in Chile, the Occupy movements that have now spread to 800 cities in North America and elsewhere, strikes in China and demonstrations in Hong Kong, multiple happenings across Africa.

The “1968 current” is expanding – despite repression, despite concessions, despite co-option.

And geopolitically, across the Arab world, the success of the various players has been limited, and in some cases counterproductive. Tahrir Square has become a symbol across the world. Yes, many Islamist movements have been able to express themselves openly in Arab states where they could not do so earlier. But so have the secular left forces. The trade unions are rediscovering their historic role.

Those who believe that Arab unrest, that world unrest, is a passing moment will discover in the next major bubble burst (which we can anticipate quite soon) that the “1968 current” will no longer be so easily contained.

Immanuel Wallerstein’s written work is far too extensive for us to attempt a summary here. The three volume Modern World-System remains his central theoretical work. The website has two important essays/collections of essay co-authored by Wallerstein: Race, Nation, Class and Anti-systemic movements. His essay, “New Revolts Against the System” (2002) is available at the New Left Review. A number of essays can also be consulted at the Monthly Review website. For further general information about Wallerstein’s life and work, click here for his personal website.

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