History is not a text, not a narrative, master or

otherwise. [Yet] as an absent cause, it is inaccessible

to us except in textual form, [and] our approach to

it and to the Real itself necessarily passes through

its prior textualization.

Fredric Jameson

Sometime during the mid 1970s, at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, a major debate erupted around modernization theory that crystallized a decade of social and intellectual change. Two speakers were featured, Alex Inkeles and Immanuel Wallerstein. Inkeles reported that his studies of ‘modern man’ had demonstrated that personality shifts toward autonomy and achievement were crucial and predictable results of social modernization, which revolved most centrally around the industrialization of society.footnote1 The response to Inkeles was appreciative from many of the senior members of the audience, sceptical from the younger. Wallerstein responded to Inkeles in a manner that pleased the younger generation more. ‘We do not live in a modernizing world but in a capitalist world,’ he proclaimed, asserting that ‘what makes this world tick is not the need for achievement but the need for profit’. When Wallerstein went on to lay out ‘an agenda of intellectual work for those who are seeking to understand the world systemic transition from capitalism to socialism in which we are living’, he literally brought the younger members of the audience to their feet.footnote2

Fifteen years later, the lead article in the American Sociological Review was entitled ‘A Theory of Market Transition: From Redistribution to Markets in State Socialism’. The transition referred to in this article was rather different from the one Wallerstein had in mind. Written by Victor Nee, once inclined to Maoism and now a rational-choice theorist specializing in China’s burgeoning market economy, the article suggested that the only hope for organized socialism was capitalism. In fact, Nee portrayed socialism exactly as Marx had depicted capitalism, and provoked remarkably similar expectations. State socialism, he wrote, was an archaic, outdated mode of production, one whose internal contradictions were leading to capitalism. Employing the class-conflict analytic of Marx to the productive system that Marx believed would end such conflict for all time, Nee argued that it is state socialism, not capitalism, that ‘appropriates surplus directly from the immediate producers and creates and structures social inequality through the processes of its reallocation’. Such expropriation of surplus—exploitation—can be overcome only if workers are given the opportunity to own and sell their own labour power. Only with markets, Nee insisted, could workers develop the power to ‘withhold their product’ and protect their ‘labour power’. This movement from one mode of production to another would shift power to the formerly oppressed class. ‘The transition from redistribution to markets,’ he concluded, ‘involves a transfer of power favouring direct producers’.footnote3

In the juxtaposition between these formulations of modernity, socialism, and capitalism there lies a story. They describe not only competing theoretical positions but deep shifts in historical sensibility. We must understand both together, I believe, if either contemporary history or contemporary theory is to be understood at all.

Social scientists and historians have long talked about ‘the transition’. A historical phrase, a social struggle, a moral transformation for better or for worse, the term referred, of course, to the movement from feudalism to capitalism. For Marxists, the transition initiated the unequal and contradictory system that produced its antithesis, socialism and equality. For liberals, the transition represented an equally momentous transformation of traditional society but created a set of historical alternatives—democracy, capitalism, contracts and civil society—that did not have amoral or social counterfactual like socialism ready to hand.

In the last five years, for the first time in the history of social science, ‘the transition’ has come to mean something that neither of these earlier treatments could have foreseen. It is the transition from communism to capitalism, a phrase that seems oxymoronic even to our chastened ears. The sense of world-historical transformation remains, but the straight line of history seems to be running in reverse.

In this recent period we have witnessed perhaps the most dramatic set of spatially and temporally contiguous social transformations in the history of the world. The more contemporary meaning of transition may not entirely eclipse the earlier one, yet there is no doubt that it has already diminished its significance and will arouse significantly more intellectual interest for a long time to come.