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The ‘philosophical premises’ of uneven and combined development

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  11 December 2012


Recent debates over Leon Trotsky's idea of ‘uneven and combined development’ (U&CD) have focused on its potential in the field of International Relations, but they have not established the source of this potential. Does it derive from the philosophical premises of dialectics? The present article argues that the idea of U&CD in fact involves an innovation as fundamental for Marxist dialectics as for other branches of social theory. And it also argues that in formulating this innovation, Trotsky provided a general solution to some of the most basic problems in social and international thought. The argument is set out in three parts. The first part reconstructs Trotsky's own account of dialectical premises and their implications for social explanation. The second shows how the concept of U&CD departs from this, in ways that presuppose the tacit addition of a further ontological premise. Finally, part three analyses the locus classicus of the concept – the opening chapter of Trotsky's History of the Russian Revolution – showing how it is this additional premise which underpins the central achievement of the idea: its incorporation of ‘the international’ into a theory of history.

Copyright © British International Studies Association 2012 

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5 Wæver, ‘Still a Discipline’, p. 302. Wæver's judgment is often positively embraced by those importing ideas from outside. Thus David Campbell avers that ‘poststructuralism is not a model or theory of international relations’, but rather ‘a critical attitude … [deriving from] an awareness of … other branches of the social sciences and humanities’. Similarly, Nicholas Onuf suggests that ‘constructivism is not an IR theory but a meta-theory’; and ‘IR scholars have borrowed very deliberately from other disciplines in order to develop the central tenets of constructivism’. See Campbell, , ‘Poststructuralism’, in Dunne, Timet al. (eds), International Relations Theories. Discipline and Diversity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), p. 206Google Scholar; and Nicholas Onuf, cited in Ole Wæver, ‘Still a Discipline After All These Debates?’, International Relations Theories, p. 303.

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9 Bull, ‘Society and Anarchy’.

10 See, in particular, the forum in Cambridge Review of International Affairs: ‘Debating uneven and combined development: towards a Marxist theory of “the international”? 22:1 (2009), pp. 7–110.

11 Smith, Neil, ‘On the necessity of uneven development’, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 10:1 (1986), pp. 87104, p. 91, emphasis addedCrossRefGoogle Scholar. See also Uneven Development. Nature, Capital and the Production of Space, (3rd edn, London: Verso, 2010)Google Scholar; The Geography of Uneven Development’, in Dunn, Bill and Radice, Hugo (eds), 100 Years of Permanent Revolution. Results and Prospects (London: Pluto, 2006), pp. 180–95Google Scholar.

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16 The following paragraphs are based primarily two texts: Trotsky, Notebooks; and Trotsky, Leon, In Defense of Marxism. (Against the Petty-Bourgeois Opposition) (New York: Pioneer Publishers, 1942)Google Scholar.

17 Aristotle defines the syllogism as a ‘discourse in which, certain things being stated, something other than what is stated follows of necessity from their being so’ (Flew, Anthony, A Dictionary of Philosophy (London: Pan Books, 1979), p. 322Google Scholar). In its simplest form, it comprises three ‘terms’, of which the last is held to ‘follow from’ the conjunction of the prior two, as in: ‘All men are mortal. Socrates is a man. Therefore, Socrates is mortal.’

18 Trotsky, Defense, p. 49, emphasis added.

19 Trotsky, Notebooks, pp. 99–101.

20 Trotsky, Defense, p. 50. A cone bearing is an engineered machine part which connects other parts together, usually involving the use of ‘ball bearings’.

21 Trotsky, Defense, p. 50.

22 Trotsky, Leon, The Revolution Betrayed. What is the Soviet Union and Where is it Going? (New York: Pathfinder, 1972), p. 255Google Scholar.

23 Trotsky, Notebooks, p. 77.

24 Ibid., p. 111.

25 Ibid., p. 86.

26 Ibid., p. 50.

27 Ibid., p. 111.

28 Ibid., pp. 50–51.

29 Thatcher, Ian, ‘Trotsky's Dialectic’, Studies in Soviet Thought, 41:2 (1991), pp. 127–44, 142CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

30 Like the other non-realist approaches mentioned in the Introduction, advocacy of dialectics in IR has not sought to make a distinctive argument about the international in particular. For key examples, see: Alker, Hayward, and Biersteker, Thomas, ‘The Dialectics of World Order: Notes for a future archaeologist of international savoir faire’, International Studies Quarterly, 28:2 (1984), pp. 121–42CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Teschke, Benno and Heine, Christian, ‘Sleeping Beauty and the Dialectical Awakening: On the Potential of Dialectic for International Relations’, Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 25:2 (1996), pp. 399423Google Scholar; Millennium: Journal of International Studies, ‘Special Section: On Dialectic and International Theory’, 26:2 (1997), pp. 403–70Google Scholar; Brincat, Shannon, ‘Towards a Social-Relational Dialectic for World Politics’, European Journal of International Relations, 17 (2011), pp. 679703CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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33 Weber, Methodology, pp. 90, 94.

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37 Kratochwil, Friedrich, ‘Awakening or Somnambulation?Millennium – Journal of International Studies (June 1997), p. 440Google Scholar.

38 The notion of a necessary correspondence between the structures of thought and reality is intensely controversial. Max Eastman (Trotsky's translator) characterised it as simple fallacy: a step backwards from formal logic into primitive animism. (See Pomper in Trotsky, Notebooks, pp. 41–2.)

39 Generally speaking, those who have discussed this neglect explain it by reference to the historical context of the emergence of the modern social sciences: namely the nineteenth-century construction of modern centralising states in Europe, and the ideological premium placed on discourses of order and unity at a time when capitalist industrialisation had dissolved the bonds of pre-modern community. See especially Wolf, Europe, p. 9ff, and Tilly, Big Structures, p. 7ff.

40 As Trotsky himself put it: ‘[t]he fundamental “cell” of dialectical thinking is the syllogism. But it [too] undergoes transmutation, changes, like the basic cells in various tissues of an organism change.’ (Trotsky, Notebooks, p. 111).

41 Trotsky, Leon, 1905 (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971), p. 53Google Scholar.

42 Trotsky, Leon, The history of the Russian revolution, volume 1: the Overthrow of Tsarism (New York: Pathfinder, 1980)Google Scholar. In the pages below, bracketed numbers refer to pages in this text unless otherwise indicated.

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44 For a characterisation of classical social theory largely in terms of these two analytical principles, see Mills, C. Wright, The Sociological Imagination (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1959)Google Scholar.

45 Ashman, Samantha, ‘Capitalism, uneven and combined development and the transhistoric’, Cambridge Review of International Affairs, 22:1 (2009), pp. 2946CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Davidson, Neil, ‘Putting the nation back into “the international”’, Cambridge Review of International Affairs, 22:1 (2009), pp. 928CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Neil Smith – see fn. 12 above.

46 After all, Trotsky himself presents Russian development as having been shaped by both a ‘whip of external necessity’ and a ‘privilege of historic backwardness’ long before the emergence of capitalist society in the West.

47 An intellectual conundrum for Marxist writers at the time was the question of how and why capitalist industrialisation could have proceeded as far as it had in Russia without, however, producing a capitalist ruling class. By contrast with its Western counterparts, where absolutist states had been overthrown by ‘bourgeois revolutions’ much earlier in the national developmental process, Russia's ‘bourgeois revolution’ appeared ‘belated’ indeed.

48 Trotsky is referring to the fact that the Russian lands were never territorially absorbed into Graeco-Roman civilisation, and hence could not directly access the latter's achievements as part of their own inner heritage. While literally true, this claim ignores the foundational role of interaction with Byzantium in early Russian state-formation. Byzantium was not only the direct politico-cultural continuation of Rome, but also a remarkable fusion of European and non-European cultural forms. In this sense, Trotsky's narrative itself needs to be rescued from its own incipient Eurocentrism. I am grateful to the Editors and to an anonymous reviewer for pointing this out.

49 More accurately: this splaying of differentiation across an inter-societal axis which, in turn, blocked its endogenous consolidation inside Russia.

50 Trotsky, Notebooks, p. 111.

51 See Jarvis, A., ‘Societies, States and Geopolitics: Challenges from Historical Sociology’, Review of International Studies, 19:3 (1989), pp. 281–93CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Mann, Michael, ‘Review of Rosenberg's The Empire of Civil Society’, British Journal of Sociology, 46:3 (1995), pp. 554–5CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Hobden, Stephen and Hobson, John (eds), Historical Sociology of International Relations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002)Google Scholar; Lawson, George, ‘The promise of historical sociology in international relations’, International studies review, 8:3 (2006), pp. 397423CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

52 I am grateful to an anonymous reviewer and the Editors for this point.

53 Shaffer, Lynda, ‘A Concrete Panoply of Intercultural Exchange: Asia in World History’, in Embree, A. and Gluck, C (eds), Asia in Western and World History (Armonk: M. E. Sharpe, 1997), pp. 810–66Google Scholar; McNeill, J. R. and McNeill, W. H., The Human Web. A Bird's Eye View of World History (New York and London: Norton, 2003)Google Scholar; Marks, R., The origins of the modern world: fate and fortune in the rise of the West (rev. and updated edn, Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007)Google Scholar.

54 I am grateful to the Editors and an anonymous reviewer for emphasising this very important point.

55 Matin, ‘Redeeming Universalism’. See also Vasilaki, Rosa, ‘Provincialising IR? Deadlocks and Prospects in Post-Western IR Theory’, Millennium – Journal of International Studies, published online 11 July 2012, DOI 10.1177/0305829812451720Google Scholar.

56 Burnham, ‘Science and Style’, p. 104; Knei-Paz, Social and Political Thought, pp. 487–8; Thatcher, ‘Trotsky's Dialectic’, p. 142.