Trotsky’s developed insight

March 12, 2014

Neil Davidson, author of How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions? among other books, explains the evolution of Leon Trotsky's theory of combined and uneven development, in an article written for the Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st Century website.

THE RADICAL novelty of what Trotsky meant by uneven and combined development is often underestimated. The most common mistake is to reduce it to, or confuse it with, the longstanding theory of uneven development. The most famous (and certainly the most often quoted) passage in Trotsky's The History of the Russian Revolution (1932) is an expression of this position: "The privilege of historic backwardness--and such a privilege exists--permits, or rather compels, the adoption of whatever is ready in advance of any specified date, skipping a whole series of intermediate stages."

But if all that Trotsky had proposed was a schema in which the "advantages of backwardness" allowed less developed nation-states to adopt the most modern available technologies, he would have remained within the established limits of unevenness and, indeed, would not have distinguished himself from Stalinist usage of the same concept. What is the distinction?

Uneven Development

Until the First World War, uneven development had been a largely descriptive concept, without specific political implications. In Imperialism: the Highest Stage of Capitalism (1916), Lenin wrote, "The uneven and spasmodic development of individual enterprises, individual branches of industry and individual countries is inevitable under the capitalist system." Essentially, he argued that by the beginning of the 20th century uneven development had acquired three main aspects.

Leon Trotsky in Mexico in 1939
Leon Trotsky in Mexico in 1939

The first was the process by which the advanced states had reached their leading positions within the structured inequality of the world system. During the late 19th century, the "skipping of stages" had been the experience of several states, notably Germany, Italy and Japan. The pressure of military and commercial competition between the actual or aspirant Great Powers forced those which were still absolutist states based on the feudal mode of production--or at least, those which were capable of doing so--to adopt the current stage of development achieved by their capitalist rivals. This was necessary if they were to have any chance, not only of successfully competing, but of surviving at the summit of the world order.

In very compressed timespans, they had been able to adopt the socio-economic achievements of Britain to the extent that they became recognizably the same kind of societies, without necessarily reproducing every characteristic of the Anglo-Saxon pioneer. Where backwardness remained, it tended to be in the nature of the political regimes led by monarchs or emperors supported by a landowning aristocracy.

By the outbreak of the First World War, membership of the dominant states was essentially fixed. What remained was the second aspect of uneven development: the ongoing rivalry between the great powers which involved them constantly trying to "catch up and overtake" each other in a contest for supremacy that would continue as long as capitalism itself.

This rivalry led in turn to a third aspect: the developed imperialist states collectively, but competitively, asserting their dominance over two other types of state, described by Lenin as "the colonies themselves" and "the diverse forms of dependent countries which, politically, are formally independent, but, in fact, are enmeshed in the net of financial and diplomatic dependence," like Argentina and Portugal.

Colonial expansion prevented some of the societies subject to colonialism from developing at all, and in the case of the most undeveloped, the people involved suffered near or complete extermination, and their lands were taken by settlers. More often, the peoples survived, but their social systems were immobilized by imperial powers interested in strategic advantage or plunder, or both.

Trotsky certainly took uneven development in these three senses as his starting point--as is suggested by the word order in the title of his own theory: "I would put uneven before combined, because the second grows out of the first and completes it." How then does the concept of uneven and combined development differ from uneven development as such?

The main difference is that it takes account of the internal effects of uneven development. To explain the link between the advanced nature of Russian industry on the one hand, and the militancy of Russian workers on the other, Trotsky had to transcend the theory of uneven development, a process he did not complete until the early 1930s. The inability of uneven development to fully encapsulate these phenomena is what appears to have made Trotsky search for a new concept with which to supplement it. It took a political crisis to provoke this conceptualization.

During the Chinese Revolution of 1925-27, the emergent Stalinist regime in Russia ordered the local Communist Party to subordinate its own organization and demands to those of the bourgeois nationalists in the Guomindang. The ultimately disastrous outcome for the Chinese working class movement was the catalyst for Trotsky to generalize the strategy of permanent revolution from Russia to sections of the colonial and semi-colonial world.

This was not done indiscriminately--since some were still untouched by capitalist development and had no working class of any size--but applied to those places where conditions similar to those in Russia prevailed. Due to a common set of circumstances, the working classes in these countries had far greater levels of both consciousness and organization than the proletariat in the more developed countries where Marxists had traditionally expected the socialist revolution to begin.

Trotsky claimed that "the prediction that historically backward Russia could arrive at the proletarian revolution sooner than advanced Britain rests almost entirely upon the law of uneven development." But uneven development was not the sole basis for this prediction, as we can see by contrasting actual Russian development with two possible alternatives.

One of these was the path of the advanced capitalist states. The pace of development was relatively faster in most of the countries that followed Holland and England, partly because of the urgency of acquiring the attributes of capitalist modernity, partly because the long period of experiment and evolution, characteristic of the two pioneers, could be dispensed with.

In the case of Scotland in the 18th century or Prussia in the 19th century, this led to enormous tensions, which resolved themselves in moments of class struggle, foreshadowing the process of permanent revolution. But because these societies did make the transition to the ranks of the advanced societies, either as the center (Prussia/Germany) or a component part of another national formation (Scotland/Britain), these moments passed with the tensions that caused them.

The other alternative was the path of the colonies or semi-colonies. Colonial rule could even throw societies backward, as in the case of British-occupied Iraq. Ruling through the Hashemite monarchy after 1920, the regime deliberately rejected any attempts at modernization, except in the oil industry. Instead, it reinforced disintegrating tribal loyalties and semi-feudal types of land tenure over the peasantry.

Tsarist Russia neither emulated the process of "catch up and overtake" among the advanced countries, nor suffered that of "blocked development" within the backward ones, but instead experienced a collision between the two.

Combined Development

It was in relation to developments in China that Trotsky finally moved beyond uneven development. He continued to employ the term between 1928 and 1930, most importantly in the articles collected in The Third International after Lenin, and in Permanent Revolution and its various prefaces. In these texts, his main emphasis is still distinguishing his use of uneven development from that of Stalin, for whom countries developed at different tempos and must therefore advance through a series of stages--including that of socialism--at their own individual pace.

Trotsky highlighted, instead, the "unity" of the world economy and the "interdependence" of the imperial powers and the colonial and semi-colonial world. Unevenness in this sense means simultaneously that individual countries could leap over the capitalist stage of development, as Russia had done and as China might have done, but would still be unable to complete the transition to socialism while the world economy as a whole remained dominated by the capitalist mode of production.

The international system was both a spur at one moment and a block at another. Yet these important insights still did not address the question of how the first part of this process, the revolutionary moment, was possible. Trotsky needed a new concept, incorporating uneven development, but deepening its content.

It was in the first volume of The History of the Russian Revolution that he first outlines this new concept:

From the universal law of unevenness thus derives another law which, for want of a better name, we may call the law of combined development--by which we mean a drawing together of the different stages of the journey, a combining of separate steps, an amalgam of archaic with more contemporary forms.

The precise forms which combination took obviously varied depending on whether the country involved was a formal colony controlled by a single imperial power, like India, or one nominally independent, but actually subdivided between several warlords and imperial powers, like China. Clearly there were differences. Unlike Tsarist Russia, neither Imperial nor Republican China was in a position to stimulate capitalist industrial growth. Where similarities did exist, was in the role of foreign capital and imported technology together with the limited geographical implantation of capitalist industry. Nevertheless it was possible to generalize in relation to these effects.

Historical backwardness does not imply a simple reproduction of the development of advanced countries, England or France, with a delay of one, two, or three centuries. It engenders an entirely new "combined" social formation in which the latest conquests of capitalist technique and structure root themselves into relations of feudal or pre-feudal barbarism, transforming and subjecting them and creating peculiar relations of classes.

Uneven and combined development affects the totality of a national society, not merely the economy. Trotsky was not saying that forms characteristic of different stages of development simply coexist alongside each other in striking or dramatic contrasts, although that could be true. Nor was he just emphasizing the existence of transitional modes of production, although he recognized that these could exist.

A process that permeates every aspect of society, ideology as much as economy, must involve more than this. The "articulation" of capitalist and pre-capitalist modes had, after all, been progressing slowly in the Russian countryside since the abolition of serfdom in 1861, and had led to many complex transitional forms, as Lenin documented. None by themselves led to the type of situation Trotsky was seeking to explain:

At the same time that peasant land-cultivation as a whole remained, right up to the revolution, at the level of the 17th century, Russian industry in its technique and capitalist structure stood at the level of the advanced countries, and in certain respects even outstripped them.

The detonation of the process requires sudden, intensive industrialization and urbanization, regardless of whether the pre-existing agrarian economy was based on feudal or capitalist relations. Here too the Chinese experience was important. Trotsky was quite insistent--perhaps over-insistent--on which mode dominated the Chinese social formation.

He rejected the Communist International's claims that feudalism predominated in the Chinese economic base and political superstructure: "Of course, matters would be quite hopeless if feudal survivals did really dominate in Chinese economic life," he wrote in 1929. "But fortunately, survivals in general cannot dominate."

Instead he emphasized the extent of market relations and influence of different forms of mercantile and banking capital. Rural social relations "stem in part from the days of feudalism; and in part they constitute a new formation", but within this formation: "it is capitalist relations that dominate and not "feudal" (more correctly, serf and, generally, pre-capitalist) relations. Only thanks to this dominant role of capitalist relations can we speak seriously of the prospects of proletarian hegemony in a national revolution."

Whatever the extent of Trotsky's exaggerations here, it is important, not least in relation to modern China, that uneven and combined development can take place where the capitalist mode was already dominant. The archaic and the modern, the settled and disruptive, overlap, fuse and merge in all aspects of the social formations concerned, from the organization of arms production to the structure of religious observance, in entirely new and unstable ways, generating socially explosive situations in which revolution became what Georg Lukács termed "actual."

Implications for the Class Struggle

These new combined formations gave rise to conflicts unknown in earlier historical periods. On the one hand: "The [backward] nation...not infrequently debases the achievements borrowed from outside in the process of adapting them to its own more primitive culture." From 1861, Tsarism established factories using manufacturing technology characteristic of monopoly capitalism in order to produce arms with which to defend a feudal absolutist state. On the other hand, by doing so they bring into being a class more skilled, more politically conscious than that faced by any previous absolutist or early capitalist states.

All subsequent non-Marxist theories of "the advantages of backwardness" assumed that technological transfers had a limited, or at least delayed, impact on other aspects of social life. Against this Trotsky argued that these transfers could in fact quicken the pace of change more generally, so that they attained higher levels of development than in their established rivals.

As an example of this, he drew attention to the greater implantation of Marxist theory among the working classes of Russia and, later, China than in that of Britain. Thus, for Trotsky, the most important consequence of uneven and combined development was the enhanced capacity it gave the working classes for political and industrial organization, theoretical understanding and revolutionary activity:

When the productive forces of the metropolis, of a country of classical capitalism...find ingress into more backward countries, like Germany in the first half of the 19th century, and Russia at the merging of the 19th and 20th centuries, and in the present day in Asia; when the economic factors burst in a revolutionary manner, breaking up the old order; when development is no longer gradual and "organic" but assumes the form of terrible convulsions and drastic changes of former conceptions, then it becomes easier for critical thought to find revolutionary expression, provided that the necessary theoretical prerequisites exist in the given country.

But uneven and combined development can also work, as it were, in reverse: "debased adaptation" is not only a feature of backward societies. Here too the opening of the age of imperialism is decisive. Between 1870 and 1914, for example, imperial Britain, Germany and Japan all consciously emphasized the role of their monarch-emperors.

In each case, the pre-existing symbolism of the crown was used to represent national unity against two main challenges: external imperial rivalry and internal class divisions. Trotsky saw this as a much more general phenomenon, necessarily caused by the need to maintain bourgeois hegemony over the exploited and oppressed in an era of revolution and which reached its peak in the U.S.: "It is considered unquestionable that technology and science undermine superstition. But the class character of society sets substantial limits here too. Take America. There, church sermons are broadcast by radio, which means that the radio is serving as a means of spreading prejudices."

The theory of uneven and combined development explained what occurs when the process of "overleaping" takes place in the colonial or neo-colonial world, where it is impossible to fully "catch up" with, let alone "overtake" the developed West, so "overleaping" occurs instead in a fragmentary or partial way. But the resulting combined forms, because of their inbuilt social instability, paradoxically made revolutionary outbreaks more likely than in the developed world, with its greater levels of stability and reformist traditions.

In other words, the presence of uneven and combined development made it possible for a strategy of permanent revolution to be pursued with greater likelihood of success; its absence made it, not inevitable, but less likely that such a strategy would be pursued in the first place, thus leading to the process of "deflection" highlighted by Tony Cliff in his 1963 article.

Uneven and Combined Development Today

Permanent revolution, and consequently deflected permanent revolution may now be historical concepts, but uneven and combined development is not. This has important implications for the possibility of socialist revolution beginning in the Global South.

The relentless expansion of neoliberal globalization, and the consequent devastating effects of industrialization and urbanization into areas they had previously bypassed, often under conditions of intense state repression, means that the same responses are being reproduced places as distinct as China and Dubai. But these are only the most extreme examples of a general trend that is the most characteristic of the current phase of capitalist development. Two points need to be made in relation to the process.

One is that it is not limited to the Global South, but to the relatively undeveloped parts of the First and former Second Worlds. Take, for example, the Italian Mezzogiorno, where Italian unification was followed by a pronounced process of deindustrialization, which led to a steady drain of capital to the North, with a long-term reservoir of cheap labor-power, cheap agricultural products and a docile clientele in the South.

Here the process of uneven and combined development led to similarly high levels of militancy to that seen in countries characterized by more general backwardness. The key episode was the revolt of the Italian immigrants against their living conditions and low pay during the "industrial miracle" of the late '50s and early '60s, culminating in 1969. What is interesting about the Italian example, however, is that the process has continued, in different forms until the present day.

The other is that, in the Global South proper at least, the process is still unable completely to transform those societies. The state "containers" within which the process of uneven and combined development unfolds, including China, will never achieve the type of total transformation characteristic of the states that formed the original core of the capitalist world system, at least in any foreseeable timescale. Uneven and combined development is therefore likely to be an ongoing process, which will only be resolved by either revolution or disintegration.

But in the meantime, China, and other states like India and Brazil where growth has been less dramatic, remain both inherently unstable in their internal social relations and expansive in their external search for markets, raw materials and investment opportunities. As we have recently seen in the Arab Spring, it is in this inherent instability that provides one of the preconditions for revolution.

First published at Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st Century.

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