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Socialist scholar Giovanni Arrighi was a man who lived the knowledge he was seeking and who built his life around it, writes his former student Salimah Valiani.

A good friend in New York City from Latin American circles, then a good friend from African solidarity circles based in Toronto, asked me to write something about Giovanni Arrighi, who died of cancer on June 18, 2009. Because of these two requests, and though I have not been in contact with him for years, I thought I should write something, as one of the few who knew Arrighi, among the many touched by his work. That two of my friends from completely different circles both asked me to write seems emblematic of Arrighi’s reach: An internationalist par excellence, open to considering the historic trials of a range of collectivities, however they define themselves.

I remain a student of Arrighi’s thought, but studied directly under him only in 1998, when I began a PhD at the State University of New York (SUNY) in Binghamton. Having read Arrighi’s work on labour force and capitalist development in Southern Africa, I headed for Binghamton in large part because he was there. The department of Sociology at SUNY-Binghamton was the centre for world systems studies in the 1980s and 1990s, though fading when I reached there. Giovanni Arrighi, along with Immanuel Wallerstein, Terence Hopkins, Dale Tomich, Caglar Keydar, others from the global North, and a host of intellectuals who came yearly to Binghamton from the global South, had built the graduate program, combining what may be called orthodox Marxist ideas with historical approaches to capitalism more familiar in Latin America, Africa, and Asia.

There was plenty of heated debate. How did the Atlantic slave trade fit into the development of world capitalism? What about formal colonialism, and countries of largely peasant-producers? Does national development have to emulate development in Western Europe in order to be called ‘capitalism’? One of the first things that stood out to me was that Arrighi had the rare ability to articulate plainly a differing opinion to his co-panelist, or colleague, while keeping warmth in his voice. I never saw him take offence or become defensive in intellectual discussion. This was a trait I would never forget and always learn from.

Having left his country of birth, Italy, for pre-independence Zimbabwe, in the early 1960s, Arrighi began exposing himself to completely new environments from early in life – a flexibility which would be reflected in much of his research and theorising. A young graduate of economics wanting to escape the feudal-like university system in Italy for paid academic work, he got a job in the satellite of a British university in Africa, not unlike the American university satellites now proliferating in the continent. After joining, with other academics, in some pro-independence, campus political activity, he was jailed for a week and sent away, in 1966. He then spent three years at the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, where scores of people and Mwalimu Julius Nyerere had recently made Tanganyika and Zanzibar (fused to form Tanzania) British-free. Unlike many progressive Europeans, Arrighi understood the historic importance of achieving independence from European colonisers, even if it wasn’t a socialist victory at the same time. With his exceptional clarity of mind, Arrighi, in this instance and many others, was able to make the distinction between the historically necessary and the historically possible. Similarly, in his work on China and the potential of its current transformation, unlike most Western progressives, Arrighi is not condemning of the Communist Party’s changing policy direction, leaving judgement open for the unfolding of history. This openness, and ultimately, hope, comes from Arrighi’s appreciation of the ancient history of collective resistance in China, of which the Maoist revolution is only a very recent example.

Returning to Italy in 1969, where he spent about ten years, Arrighi became well known among students for his radical critique of development theories. Countering dominant theories of development, which prescribed a capitalist route for post-colonial societies, and assumed the development history of Western European countries as the norm, Arrighi, along with Samir Amin, Andre Gunder Frank, and others showed how violence, coercion, and world scale inequality were instrumental in forming capitalist relations in colonies, precluding liberal democracy as an outcome.

Like Amin and Gunder Frank, Arrighi then went on to pose larger questions about development and capitalism – how is it that world wealth and power are concentrated in a handful of countries – a question still relevant today. His major work, The Long Twentieth Century (1994), was the answer he offered, having worked on the question for some 15 years, primarily in Binghamton. The dedication in the book is worth noting, as it demonstrates the intimate relation Arrighi had to his intellectual inquiries:

‘Between conceiving a book like this and actually writing it, there is a gulf that I would never have bridged were it not for the exceptional community of graduate students with whom I have been fortunate to work during my fifteen years at SUNY-Binghamton. Knowingly or unknowingly, the members of this community have provided me with most of the questions and many of the answers that constitute the substance of this work. Collectively, they are the giant on whose shoulders I have travelled. And to them the book is rightfully dedicated.’

Unlike most, who dedicate books to their partners or close family, Arrighi dedicated his book to his students of the period. Perhaps these were his close family and partner-to-be, but this underlines the point: Here was a man who lived the knowledge he was seeking, who built his life around it.

This type of commitment is reflected in all of Arrighi’s writing. Responsible to the extreme, his effort to read all inter-related works existing previous to his, in various disciplines, is evident in lengthy bibliographies and rich frameworks. Along the same lines, for the intellectual contributions which he found useful to combine in his own analysis, Arrighi always acknowledged the precise ideas attached to names – from Terence Hopkins, to Fernand Braudel, to Paul Sweezy, to Sugihara Kaoru.

Towards what we know now was the end of his life, Arrighi spoke of the need for a world based on mutual respect between humans, and a collective respect for nature. In a recent interview David Harvey asked if this could be called socialism. In classic Arrighi-honesty, Arrighi replied that socialism is a word which has been abused, which has become associated with the practice of state control gone sour. In the interview he assigned David Harvey to find a new expression for this vision. This is a task for us all to share, in honour of the memory of Giovanni.

* Salimah Valiani is a researcher in political economy and world economic development, an activist, and a writer
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