Immanuel Wallerstein: Ah, We were once both young and hopeful!


René Wadlow – TRANSCEND Media Service

Immanuel Wallerstein (28 Sep 1930 – 31 Aug 2019) the political sociologist best known for his writings on the “world system” and I were friends in the mid 1950s; perhaps not friends but at least both student activists in the World Federalist-World Citizen Movement, especially in their international dimensions.  We shared a common analysis of situations and were largely in agreement as to the short-term steps to be taken.  We did not influence each other, but rather shared a common approach coming from different directions. We shared an interest in Africa as the early 1960s brought independence and later there was a focus on what Manny (as he was known by his friends) called the “world system” and I “the world society.” After the late 1950s, we rarely saw each other, but exchanged offprints of our articles instead of Christmas cards at the start of the year.

We were roughly at the same stage in our university education.  Although Manny was four years older, he had spent 1951 to 1953 in the U.S. Army. So when we started working together in 1954, I was a student at Princeton and he was finishing an MA at Columbia in New York City.  He wrote his MA thesis on McCarthyism and the negative role that Senator Joseph McCarthy had played in American life, especially his negative role on intellectual freedom in U.S. academic life.  We agreed that McCarthyism was to be combated strongly and that university students could take a lead in keeping open discussions in university life.

Immanuel Wallerstein, credit: Mehr News Agency

Our main focus of common action was the international student movement.  Shortly after the end of the Second World War in 1945, the Soviet Union helped to organize a number of international student and youth movements and largely took control of them.  The student movement was called the International Union of Students (IUS) and the broader youth movement was called the World Federation of Democratic Youth.(WFDY).  For about three years, Western European and U.S. youth groups had tried to participate fully but were less well organized than the Soviet and Eastern European movements.  Thus, after 1948 and the Communist government coming to power in Prague, Western and U.S. students broke away and created rival international unions.  The Western students formed the International Student Conference with headquarter in Leiden, Netherlands, and the broader youth grouping was the World Assembly of Youth (WAY).  In 1954 when Manny and I started working together, I had been elected President of the Young Adult Council (YAC) of the National Social Welfare Assembly.  YAC was a coalition of U.S. youth groups and of youth-servicing organizations such as the YMCA.  YAC was the U.S. member of WAY.  Manny was elected Vice-President of WAY in 1955.  Thus, both of us became involved in the international student movement, providing an alternative view to the Communist line of the rival movements and yet not being a voice of the primitive anti-communist vision that McCarthy had symbolized but McCarthy’s approach was relatively wide-spread in U.S. government circles.

It was only in 1967 that information concerning the financing of WAY through YAC by the CIA became public knowledge.  I did not know it. The funds came through a New York-based foundation related to a large manufacturing firm that could have had the sort of money that we were sending to the WAY headquarters.   I knew the director of the foundation well, an intelligent man who often attended our council sessions. A few years later, he became the director of a well-known modern art museum in the south of France, probably without CIA money.  However, at the time, the Soviets considered modern art as subversive of “socialist realism in art” – painting of happy tractor drivers, so one never knows!

Through the international youth movements, both Manny and I became interested in the socio-political currents in the African colonies that were on the eve of independence.   WAY was the only international NGO that had the African colonies as full members. In WFDY the colonies were only associate members.  Manny wrote his PhD thesis contrasting the policies of Ghana and the Ivory Coast, an English and French colony of similar size and geographic location.

The leader of the Gabonese section of WAY became the first Minister of Education when Gabon became independent, and he asked me to work with him. I did so until he was pushed out of the government in 1963 and replaced by a personal enemy.  I left for Geneva to help set up a program to train African civil servants–a program loosely related to the University of Geneva.

Manny published a good number of articles on African political currents. I was helping to edit an academic journal on modern Africa Genève-Afrique and would send some articles to Manny for his evaluation prior to publication.

By the early 1970s, both Manny and I came to realize that the new African States were not going to change the world system in a positive direction. We had come full circle in our focus to where we had started in the world federalist-world citizen movement with a need to look at the world as a whole.

In 1976 Manny created the Fernand Braudel Center for the Study of Economics, Historical Systems and Civilizations at the University of New York at Binghamton, a center he directed until he retired in 1999.  Manny was a good organizer, and the Braudel Center became a “cottage industry” for books with a World System approach, not only I. Wallerstein. The Modern World System (New York: Academic Press, 1974) and a whole series of books using the same approach.  From our YAC days in the 1950s, André Schiffrin who had represented the International Socialist Youth Movement in YAC became a well-known New York publisher first at Pantheon and later at the firm he created The New Press.  Most of Manny’s more recent books were published at the New Press including in 2000 The Essential Wallerstein.  André died a couple of years ago, so I guess that there will never be “The Essential Wadlow” at The New Press.

Looking back at our parallel lives as activists and writers, there was probably a certain growth of “realism” as we saw movements from which we had expected more being weaker, more divided, and often manipulated from outside than we had first thought.  So comes to mind a line of Manny’s sometimes quoted

People resist exploitation.  They resist as actively as they can, and as passively as they must.”


René Wadlow is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment. He is President of the Association of World Citizens, an international peace organization with consultative status with ECOSOC, the United Nations organ facilitating international cooperation and problem-solving in economic and social issues, and editor of Transnational Perspectives.

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This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 9 Sep 2019.

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