The Most Important Thing Happening
“I had a gut feeling in the 1950s,” Immanuel Wallerstein writes fifty years
later, “that the most important thing happening in the twentieth century
was the struggle to overcome the control by the West of the rest of the
In the 1950s Wallerstein (born in 1930) was in his twenties. The gut feel-
ings thinkers have in their twenties tend to be self-formative. In deciding
what is “the most important thing happening” in your century, you also
decide, if you are ambitious enough, what the largest thing will be in your
intellectual life, which is to say what you need to figure out, or whom you
want to be as a thinker. In Wallerstein’s case, what gave him that gut feel-
ing turned out to be large enough to guide him through a half-century and
more of extraordinary intellectual achievement. In this sense, among others,
it seems appropriate to say that large is beautiful.
As moments of self-orientation about the most important thing hap-
pening, gut feelings organize what will be visible to us, impatiently sort-
ing out what doesn’t matter all that much from what really does. In recent
years Wallerstein has turned his attention to academic disciplines and the
ordering of knowledge—again, a large view of large subjects, and subjects to
which the chapters gathered here will return. But the single most consistent
thread running through his lengthy career is that visceral perception of the
1950s. What has mattered to him most often has been evidence that could be
brought to bear on “the control by the West of the rest of the world,” on the
unequal distribution of resources and life chances that has resulted from it,
on how global inequality can be understood and eventually, hopefully, un-
done. Anything else has mattered less. It is the brilliant single-mindedness
of his concern with this very large issue that is the main source of his intel-
lectual influence and the main reason for this existence of this volume.
This is not always how others have taken Wallerstein, nor is it how he
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