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Origins of the Modern World System: A Missing Link

  • Aristide R. Zolberg (a1)


The paper situates the recent attempt by Immanuel Wallerstein to provide a theoretical account of the emergence of the modern world system in the broader context of contemporary social scientific controversies, exposes the major flaws in the work, and suggests elements of an alternative framework that provides a sounder foundation for the construction of macroanalytic theories of social change. The inadequacies of Waller-stein's theory are revealed on the basis of internal evidence: he treats force as an unaccountable “error factor” which often determinatively shaped relationships among European states as well as between them and the larger world; and he does not account satisfactorily for the structure and the boundaries of the system, nor for the position specific countries came to occupy within it, nor for regime variation among them. The concurrent formation of several states must be considered an irreducible particularity of medieval European social organization. Interactive effects among them shaped the course of each during the early modern period and simultaneously contributed to the emergence of a system of states with its own dynamic. Since these political processes contributed as much to the formation of the modern world system as the economic processes emphasized by Wallerstein, theories of the system's origins and subsequent development must be founded on the notion of co-determination.



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** Readers should be warned that the paper edition omits all footnote references, which constitute perhaps half of the original text. Many of them contain extensive developments of the author's arguments as well as citations in support of them. Their importance is demonstrated by the numerous references to them in the present review.

1 Bloch, , The Historian's Craft (New York: Vintage Books, 1964), 29–31.

2 See in particular: Skocpol, Theda, “Wallerstein's World Capitalist System: A Theoretical and Historical Critique,” American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 82 (March 1977), 1075–90; Gourevitch, Peter, “The International System and Regime Formation: A Critical Review of Anderson and Wallerstein,” Comparative Politics, X (April 1978), 419–38; Modelski, George, “The Long Cycle of Global Politics and the Nation-State,” Comparative Studies in Society and History, XX (April 1978), 214–35; and McNeill, William, in his oral contribution to a round-table discussion chaired by Immanuel Wallerstein at the Conference of Europeanists, Washington, D.C., March 1979.

3 Wallerstein has provided an overview of the larger project of which this is the first volume: see “The Rise and Future Demise of the World Capitalist System: Concept for Comparative Analysis,” Comparative Studies in Society and History, XVI (September 1974), 387–415.

4 Although the concept “civilization” is the keystone of Arnold Toynbee's idealistic theory of history, it is also used as a unit of analysis with a cultural referent by the self-admitted “materialist” Fernand Braudel, who includes “civilizations” along with the economic systems, states, and societies as appropriate objects for “social history”—a history “with slow but perceptible rhythms” that is distinguishable from the history of man's relationship to the environment (longue durée) and from l'histoire événementielle, conceived “on the scale not of man, but of individual men.” See Braudel, , The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II (New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1976), 2021, 824–25. McNeill, William refers to the larger whole constituted by interacting Eurasian civilizations as “ecumene”; see his The Rise of the West: A History of the Human Community (New York: American Library, 1963), throughout.

5 See, for example, Strayer, Joseph R., On the Medieval Origins of the Modern State (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1970), and Guénée, Bernard, L'Occident aux XIVe et XVe siècles. Les Etats (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1971).

6 Wallerstein's overall position is ambiguous: he attributes the outcome even more explicitly to the will of capitalists in the passage beginning “The various advantages merchants had …” (p. 127), but qualifies this on p. 160.

7 See also the quotation from Tawney (p. 184), and the reference to H. Hauser (p. 185).

8 Elton, , Reformation Europe 1517–1559 (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1963), 119.

9 Dehio, , The Precarious Balance: Four Centuries of the European Power Struggle (New York: Vintage Books, 1962), 42.

10 Ibid., 38.

11 Ibid., 40.

12 The complexities of the international configuration at this time are skillfully woven into a coherent account by Elliott, J. H. in Europe Divided, 1559–1598 (London: Collins, “The Fontana History of Europe,” 1968). See also the pathbreaking study of the military aspect of the Netherlands situation in Parker, Geoffrey, The Army of Flanders and the Spanish Road, 1567–1659 (London: Cambridge University Press, 1972), and the same author's superb account of the uprising and its outcome in a context, global, The Dutch Revolt (Hammondsworth: Penguin Books, 1979).

13 Fox, See, History in Geographic Perspective: The Other France (New York: Norton, 1971). Fox's work is generally relevant to the issues discussed in this essay.

14 Wallerstein acknowledges, for example, that the United Provinces consisted of a “loose confederation without the administrative apparatus of most other states,” but then cites J. W. Smit to the effect that the Republic “functioned much better and permitted the achievement of a higher degree of economic integration than any of the monarchies of Europe” because the bourgeoisie “had carried through the exact degree of reform it needed to promote economic expansion and yet feel free from overcentralization” (Wallerstein, 209). In the work cited, however, Smit introduces the passage with a quote from Braudel to the effect that “around 1600 the middle-sized state was the most viable.” His general argument is compatible with the hypothesis that this was the case precisely because such a state did not have to be “strong” in the appropriately historical sense of that term, i.e., on the scale of centralization and the size of bureaucratic apparatus found in Europe at that time. The Smit quotations are from his contribution to Forster, Robert and Greene, Jack P., eds., Pre-conditions of Revolutions in Early Modern Europe (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1970), 52. The case of the Netherlands, which I cannot pursue in detail here, pinpoints the problem of ascertaining the flow of causation between regime form and capitalist entrepreneurship. As Douglass C. North and Robert Paul Thomas put it in The Rise of the Western World. A New Economic History, “It was in this area that a fortunate conjunction occurred between the interests of the state and the interests of the progressive sector of society” (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973), 132.

15 The passage reads: “World economies … are divided into core-states and peripheral areas. I do not say peripheral states because one characteristic of a peripheral area is that the indigenous state is weak. …”

16 B. F. Porshnev, “Les rapports politiques de l'Europe occidentale et de l'Europe orientale à l'époque de la guerre de trente ans,” in International Committee of Sciences, Historical, XIe Congrès International des Sciences Historiques. Rapports. IV. Histoire Moderne (Uppsala: Almqvist & Wiksell, 1960), 150–51.

17 For details on Russia's alliances, see ibid., pp. 138, 161–62.

18 It is possible that decimating disease was the determinative element in the military and political collapse of Amerindian resistance. See McNeill, William H., Plagues and Peoples (Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Books, 1976), 176–91.

19 For the Americas, see Parry, J. H., The Establishment of the European Hegemony, 1415–1715 (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1966), especially the discussion of the activities of France and England which he likens to “the tactical countermoves of the chess-board” (p. 107); and Davies, K. G., The North Atlantic World in the Seventeenth Century (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1974), esp. pp. 2531 and 34–45.

20 On p. 349 Wallerstein indicates that the semi-peripheral areas are “in between the core and the periphery” on various dimensions, including “strength of the state machinery”; he maintains (without accounting for their decline) that some “had been core-areas of earlier versions of a given world-economy,” whereas others “had been peripheral areas that were later promoted, so to speak, as a result of the changing geopolitics of an expanding world-economy.” My point here is simply that an “or” should be inserted after “geopolitics.”

21 The sharp contrast Wallerstein draws between “empire” and the European-dominated entities under consideration may stem from his implicit image of “empire” as a continental formation, which is also suggested by his citation of Eisenstadt's definition (p. 15). This misconception is unfortunate, as the empires of western Eurasia were often in large part maritime.

22 Such interpretations are largely independent of variations in theoretical outlook. See, for example, Moore, Barrington, The Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy (Boston: Beacon Press, 1966); the contributions to Tilly, Charles, ed., The Formation of National States in Western Europe (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975); the contributions to Grew, Raymond, ed., Crises of Political Development in Europe and North America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979); Bendix, Reinhard, Kings or People: Power and the Mandate to Rule (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978); and Badie, Bertrand and Birnbaum, Pierre, Sociologie de l'Etat (Paris: Grasset, 1979). Whatever their other strengths or weaknesses, all of these works illustrate the inadequacies of a “comparative” framework that does not take into consideration interaction among the units. I became aware of the problem in the course of preparing my own contribution to Grew's volume a decade ago. Others have begun to deal with it as well. See, for example: Skocpol, Theda, States and Social Revolutions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), and Anderson, Perry, Lineages of the Absolutist State (London: New Left Books, 1974). Anderson allows the international political system into his framework through the Althusserian back door of “over-determination”; see in particular his n. 37, p. 37, which refers to the Soviet historian Porshnev cited in fn. 16 of the present essay, who in turn invokes Lenin as an authority for conceptualizing the “international system of states” as a relatively independent factor. Charles Tilly has also become aware of the importance of international politico-strategic interactions (see the work cited above, pp. 45–46 and 73–76).

23 The “heterogeneity” of the West is a major theme in McNeill (fn. 4), as well as in Moore (fn. 22), esp. p. 415. Anderson (fn. 22) similarly emphasizes “detotalizartion of sovereignty” as one of its fundamental features (pp. 23, 405, 409, 412, 423–24).

24 Hintze, , “The Formation of States and Constitutional Development: A Study in History and Politics,” in Gilbert, Felix, ed., The Historical Essays of Otto Hintze (New York: Oxford University Press, 1975), 159. I am grateful to John Boyer for guiding me through the lineages of the relevant Prussian historiography, and particularly for introducing me to Ranke. For the “primacy of external politics,” see particularly Iggers, Georg G. and Moltke, Konrad von, eds., Leopold von Ranke: The Theory and Practice of History (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1973), I–liii, 70–73, and 116–19.

25 Hintze (fn. 24), 160.

26 Koenigsberger, , “Monarchies and Parliaments in Early Modern Europe: Dominium Regale or Dominium Politicum et Regale,” Theory and Society, V (March 1978), 214. On the substantive side, concerning the developments in seventeenth-century England, for example, he asserts that “Great Britain was part of the European state system and subject to foreign intervention, in spite of the Channel and North Sea,” and that therefore “none of these events can be understood in a purely English context” (p. 211).

27 Ibid., 215.

28 With respect to the system's genesis, however, we are fortunate to have two authors whose seminal works are points of departure: Ludwig Dehio, the neo-Rankean cited in fn. 9; and Mattingly, Garret, Renaissance Diplomacy (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1964). The issues raised by Wallerstein's work may have already stimulated renewed interest. among students of international politics, as suggested by George Modelski's “The Long Cycle of Global Politics and the Nation-State” (fn. 2). But why cycles? None of these works, however, addresses itself to the theoretical interfacing between domestic and international politics, and between politics and other social structural processes.

29 Hirschman, , “The Search for Paradigms as a Hindrance to Understanding,” World Politics, XXII (April 1970), 335.

* An earlier version of this paper was presented at a panel of the Conference Group on the Political Economy of Advanced Industrial Societies held in conjunction with the Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association, Washington, D.C., September 1979. I am especially grateful to Martin Shefter for his invitation, as well as to Ira Katznelson, Adam Przeworski, Peter Gourevitch, and Ron Rogowski for their comments and criticisms of earlier drafts.


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