Uneven and combined development

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Uneven and combined development (or unequal and combined development) is a Marxist concept[1] to describe the overall dynamics of human history. It was originally used by the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky around the turn of the 20th century, when he was analyzing the developmental possibilities that existed for the economy and civilization in the Russian empire, and the likely future of the Tsarist regime in Russia.[2] It was the basis of his political strategy of permanent revolution,[3] which implied a rejection of the idea that a human society inevitably developed through a uni-linear sequence of necessary "stages". Before Trotsky, Nikolay Chernyshevsky and Vasily Vorontsov proposed a similar idea.[4] The concept is still used today by Trotskyists and other Marxists concerned with world politics.[5]


Trotsky's concept was originally inspired by a series of articles by Alexander Helphand (better known as “Parvus”) on “War and Revolution” in the Russian journal Iskra in 1904.[6] At first, Trotsky intended this concept only to describe a characteristic evolutionary pattern in the worldwide expansion of the capitalist mode of production from the 16th century onwards, through the growth of a world economy which connected more and more peoples and territories together through trade, migration and investment.[7] His focus was also initially mainly on the history of the Russian empire, where the most advanced technological and scientific developments co-existed with extremely primitive and superstitious cultures. However, in the 1920s and 1930s, he increasingly generalised the concept of uneven and combined development to the whole of human history, and even to processes of evolutionary biology,[8] as well as the formation of the human personality - as a general dialectical category.

The concept played a certain role in the fierce theoretical debates during the political conflict between the supporters of Joseph Stalin and Trotsky's Left Opposition, a debate which ranged from the historical interpretation of the Russian revolution and economic strategies for the transition to socialism, to the correct understanding of principles of Marxism.

Explanation of the concept[edit]

A modern steamboat and primitive rafts in the Chilean port of Huasco in the 1850s illustrate the concept of uneven development.

Different countries, Trotsky observed,[9] developed and advanced to a large extent independently from each other, in ways which were quantitatively unequal (e.g. the local rate and scope of economic growth and population growth) and qualitatively different (e.g. nationally specific cultures and geographical features). In other words, countries had their own specific national history with national peculiarities.

But at the same time, all the different countries did not exist in complete isolation from each other; they were also interdependent parts of a world society, a larger totality, in which they all co-existed together, in which they shared many characteristics, and in which they influenced each other through processes of cultural diffusion, trade, political relations and various “spill-over effects” from one country to another.

This had, sociologically speaking, five main effects:

  • a more backward, older or more primitive country would adopt parts of the culture of a more advanced, or more modern society, and a more advanced culture could also adopt or merge with parts of a more primitive culture – with good or bad effects.
  • Cultural practices, institutions, traditions and ways of life belonging to both very old and very new epochs and phases of human history were all combined, juxtaposed and linked together in a rather unique way, within one country.
  • In turn, this meant that one could not really say that different societies all developed simply through the same sort of linear sequence of necessary developmental stages, but rather that they could adopt/utilize the results of developments reached elsewhere, without going through all the previous evolutionary stages which led up to those results. Some countries could thus "skip", "telescope" or "compress" developmental stages which other countries took hundreds of years to go through, or, very rapidly carry through a modernization process that took other countries centuries to achieve.
  • Different countries could both aid or advance the socio-economic progress of other countries through trade, subsidies and contributing resources, or block and brake other countries as competitors from making progress by preventing the use of capital, technology, trading routes, labour, land or other kinds of resources. In Trotsky's theory of imperialism, the domination of one country by another does not mean that the dominated country is prevented from development altogether, but rather that it develops mainly according to the requirements of the dominating country. For example, an export industry will develop around mining and farm products in the dominated country, but the rest of the economy is not developed, so that the country's economy becomes more unevenly developed than it was before, rather than achieving balanced development. Or, a school system is set up with foreign assistance, but the schools teach only the messages that the dominating country wants to hear.
  • The main tendencies and trends occurring at the level of world society as a whole, could be also found in each separate country, where they combined with unique local trends – but this was a locally specific “mix”, so that some world trends asserted themselves more strongly or faster, others weaker and slower in each specific country. Thus, a country could be very advanced in some areas of activity, but at the same time comparatively retarded in other areas. One effect was that the response to the same events of world significance could be quite different in different countries, because the local people attached different "weightings" to experiences and therefore drew different conclusions.

According to Trotsky, the unequal and combined development of different countries had an effect on the class structure of society.

  • For example, the Russian empire in 1917 was largely a peasant society composed of many different nationalities and governed by an absolutist state headed by the Czar; popular democracy did not exist.
  • A process of industrialization had begun in the main cities since Peter the Great (for example, the Putilov steel works established in Petrograd - where the February 1917 revolution began, with a strike - was the largest in the world at the time). But this urban industrialization process relied mainly on the investment of foreign capital from France, Britain and other countries, and was limited to some urban areas and regions.
  • The Russian bourgeoisie which developed under the tutelage of the Czarist state lacked much power, and was politically weak. The bourgeoisie was unable to establish political democracy. At the same time, a militant industrial working class developed in the main cities, concentrated in large factories and plants.
  • In this way, the archaic culture of primitive peasant production and a semi-feudal state combined with the culture of modern industrial society.

Trotsky believed that this would shape the unique character of the Russian revolution. Namely, the Russian bourgeoisie was politically too weak and too dependent on the Czarist state to challenge its autocratic rule, and therefore the revolution against Czarist rule would be spearheaded by the revolt of urban workers.

Thus, the political and modernizing tasks normally associated in Europe with the leadership of the rising bourgeoisie, such as fighting for popular democracy and civil rights against absolutism, land ownership reform, industrializing the country, and national self-determination for oppressed nationalities, would have to be carried out in the Russian empire under the leadership of working-class parties, in particular the Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party which had been outlawed (although there were several other socialist, nationalist and liberal parties).

In the chaos towards the end of the First World War, in which Russian soldiers fought against the imperial German army, this political assessment proved largely correct. The provisional government established by the February revolution in 1917 collapsed and the October revolution, in which the Russian Marxists played a dominant role, destroyed Czarist state power completely. Thereafter, the Russian bourgeoisie was largely expropriated; most businesses then fell under state ownership.

A new stage in Trotsky's understanding of uneven and combined development in world history was reached in his analyses of fascism and populism in Germany, France, Spain and Italy.[10] Trotsky makes it clear, the human progress is not a linear, continuously advancing process of bourgeois modernization - progress can also be reversed or undone, and ancient cults, superstitions or barbarous traditions can be revived, even although nobody previously thought that was possible.

Two quotations from Trotsky illustrating the concept[edit]

"Although compelled to follow after the advanced countries, a backward country does not take things in the same order. 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. Savages throw away their bows and arrows for rifles all at once, without travelling the road which lay between those two weapons in the past. The European colonists in America did not begin history all over again from the beginning. The fact that Germany and the United States have now economically outstripped England was made possible by the very backwardness of their capitalist development. On the other hand, the conservative anarchy in the British coal industry [...] is a paying-up for the past when England played too long the rôle of capitalist pathfinder. The development of historically backward nations leads necessarily to a peculiar combination of different stages in the historic process. Their development as a whole acquires a planless, complex, combined character. (...) The backward country [...] not infrequently debases the achievements borrowed from outside in the process of adapting them to its own more primitive culture. In this the very process of assimilation acquires a self-contradictory character. Thus the introduction of certain elements of Western technique and training, above all military and industrial, under Peter I, led to a strengthening of serfdom as the fundamental form of labour organisation. European armament and European loans — both indubitable products of a higher culture — led to a strengthening of czarism, which delayed in its turn the development of the country." - Leon Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution, trans. Max Eastman (London: Pluto Press, 1977), pp. 26-27.

"...the entire history of mankind is governed by the law of uneven development. Capitalism finds various sections of mankind at different stages of development, each with its profound internal contradictions. The extreme diversity in the levels attained, and the extraordinary unevenness in the rate of development of the different sections of mankind during the various epochs, serve as the starting point of capitalism. Capitalism gains mastery only gradually over the inherited unevenness, breaking and altering it, employing therein its own means and methods. In contrast to the economic systems which preceded it, capitalism inherently and constantly aims at economic expansion, at the penetration of new territories, the surmounting of economic differences, the conversion of self-sufficient provincial and national economies into a system of financial interrelationships. Thereby it brings about their rapprochement and equalizes the economic and cultural levels of the most progressive and the most backward countries. Without this main process, it would be impossible to conceive of the relative leveling out, first, of Europe with Great Britain, and then, of America with Europe; the industrialization of the colonies, the diminishing gap between India and Great Britain, and all the consequences arising from the enumerated processes upon which is based not only the program of the Communist International but also its very existence. By drawing the countries economically closer to one another and leveling out their stages of development, capitalism, however, operates by methods of its own, that is to say, by anarchistic methods which constantly undermine its own work, set one country against another, and one branch of industry against another, developing some parts of world economy while hampering and throwing back the development of others. Only the correlation of these two fundamental tendencies – both of which arise from the nature of capitalism – explains to us the living texture of the historical process. Imperialism, thanks to the universality, penetrability, and mobility and the break-neck speed of the formation of finance capital as the driving force of imperialism, lends vigor to both these tendencies. Imperialism links up incomparably more rapidly and more deeply the individual national and continental units into a single entity, bringing them into the closest and most vital dependence upon each other and rendering their economic methods, social forms, and levels of development more identical. At the same time, it attains this “goal” by such antagonistic methods, such tiger-leaps, and such raids upon backward countries and areas that the unification and leveling of world economy which it has effected, is upset by it even more violently and convulsively than in the preceding epochs." - Leon Trotsky, The Third International After Lenin, part 1, section 4 [5]

Rudolf Hilferding's theory[edit]

Around the time that Trotsky settled in Vienna as a journalist in exile, after escaping from Siberia a second time, the Austro-Marxist Rudolf Hilferding wrote his famous book Finance Capital (first published in 1910) in which Hilferding mentions an idea very similar to Trotsky's. The passage occurs in chapter 22 on "the export of capital and the struggle for economic territory". It has never been proved whether Hilferding was influenced in any way by what Trotsky had written, although it is known they corresponded with each other,[11] but Hilferding's own analysis of "the latest phase of capitalist development" certainly influenced a whole generation of socialist leaders.[12] Among other things, Hilferding states:

"The export of capital, especially since it has assumed the form of industrial and finance capital, has enormously accelerated the overthrow of all the old social relations, and the involvement of the whole world in capitalism. Capitalist development did not take place independently in each individual country, but instead capitalist relations of production and exploitation were imported along with capital from abroad, and indeed imported at the level already attained in the most advanced country. Just as a newly established industry today does not develop from handicraft beginnings and techniques into a modern giant concern, but is established from the outset as an advanced capitalist enterprise, so capitalism is now imported into a new country in its most advanced form and exerts its revolutionary effects far more strongly and in a much shorter time than was the case, for instance, in the capitalist development of Holland and England."[13]

Hilferding's insight was rarely noticed by English-speaking Marxists.[14] His book Finance Capital, which went out of print several times, was never translated into English until 1981 (i.e. 70 years later), and the Marxist–Leninist orthodoxy about world economics was based firmly on Lenin's 1916 pamphlet on imperialism. By the time that Hilferding became Finance Minister in Germany in 1923, the Marxist–Leninists regarded him as a reformist renegade, and his analyses were no longer trusted or taken seriously.[15]

Contemporary applications[edit]

Trotsky's concept is still being used today, especially in academic studies of International relations, Archaeology, Anthropology and Development economics, as well as in discussions of the Trotskyist movement.


Over the last decade or so, the idea of uneven and combined development has emerged as a thriving new research program within the discipline of International Relations. It is deployed as the intellectual basis for unifying international and social theory. The main[citation needed] base of this new research program is the department of International Relations at Sussex University, UK, where a Working Group meets regularly.


The field of Geography has also produced influential scholarship on the idea of uneven development. Geography started to lean left politically before the 1970s[16] resulting in a particular interest in questions of inequality and Uneven Development (UD). UD has since become somewhat of a homegrown theory in Geography as geographers have worked to explain what causes inequality within different scales of space, locally, nationally and internationally. Key scholars in this field include Doreen Massey, Neil Smith and David Harvey.

Uneven development results from the “spatially and temporally uneven processes and outcomes that are characteristic, and functional to capitalism”.[17]

  • Much of neoclassical economic theory holds that features of unevenness, such as income inequality, equalizes as a result of capital diffusion throughout the open market.
  • Proponents argue that investment liberalization allows foreign capital to invest in capital-poor countries, yielding the highest rates of return, and that global integration promotes competitive advantage.
  • Neoclassical theory contends that newly globalized, liberalized and capitalized developing countries have the added advantage over developed countries in that they are able to draw on existing markets, capital flow regimes and technologies.[18]

This has the effect of placing all countries on an even playing field. The result is a global economy in equilibrium, or in other words, convergence. As such, in the neoclassical view, uneven development is merely an interim stage of economic development that can be erased by the free market.[19]

Marxist geographers, on the other hand, assert that uneven development is persistently produced and reproduced by capital diffusion, and therefore, is an inherent and permanent feature of capitalism.[20] Unlike the neoliberal contention of the erasure of disparities towards convergence, Marxists maintain that capital accumulation depends on differential economic climates for its regeneration. Harvey states that accumulation “is the engine which powers growth under the capitalist mode of production. The capitalist system is therefore highly dynamic and inevitably expansionary…”[21] The dynamism of capitalism is due to its persistent search for competitive advantage and consequently, its movement away from oversaturated economies towards new spaces from which it can extract greater profit. For instance, developed economies are characterized by high land rents and wages, and unionized labour, translating into high costs of production and lower gains. By contrast, developing economies have abundant pliable labour, and low rents and wages.[22] As such, it is favourable for capital investments to move into the latter economy from the former in the interest of gaining greater rates of return. Kiely argues that capital diffusion throughout the global market remains a highly uneven process marked by reversals of comparative advantage and by cycles of investment and disinvestment, having the effect of elevating some spaces while simultaneously marginalizing others.[23]

Differential economic environments have material effects on the ground. Processes of capital accumulation through space and time create new geographic landscapes shaped by crisis, deindustrialization and capital flight on the one hand, and influxes of capital and industrialization on the other. Capitalism not only reshuffles core-periphery relations, but rather, as Neil claims, it also penetrates all geographic scales.[24] At the urban scale, differential rent gaps trigger investment and disinvestment in particular neighborhoods driving gentrification.[25][26] On the global scale, integrated economies provoke time-space compression enabling enhanced communication and capital mobility. Neil argues that the subsequent erosion of the nation scale as the primary agent created a pivotal link between the global and urban scales. Since the 1990s, the increasingly integrated global economy has given greater importance to the role of the city. Indeed, world city building has become the geographical force of capitalism. New spaces of accumulation in Asia, Latin America and Africa are gaining competitive advantage as new centres of command and control and of surplus capital.[27]

Other elements of neoliberal thought such as reducing the ‘left arm’ of the state including welfare and support for the poor create even bigger inequalities between residents of the same areas, also resulting in uneven development.

Tom Nairn[edit]

Marxist historian Tom Nairn has argued that uneven development can also lead to peripheral nationalism, for example in Scotland.[28] Peripheral regions tend to promote nationalist movements when regional inequalities overlap with ethnic differences, or when membership of a larger state no longer presents advantages. In underdeveloped regions, nationalist movements mobilise the population against the persistence of ethnic economic inequality.

Helena Norberg-Hodge's view on the origin of uneven development[edit]

Helena Norberg-Hodge is an economist who spent time in Ladakh for more than 30 years, and argues that uneven development and crises occur to human beings because of past economic activities. To solve the problem, the fundamental economic approach needs change from globalizing to localizing. Localization can contribute to reduce co2 emission, solve the economic problem (uneven development), and restore biodiversity as well as cultural diversity. Localizing is one of the ways to create secure jobs in the global population.

Helena based her argument on her experience of witnessing on the changes in Ladakh before and after subsidizing the region to enhance economic activities, and develop the region. The subsidies enable the products from thousands miles away to be sold cheaper than the local products, which destroys the local market. This situation rapidly lead to unemployment and religious conflict. She raised questions about spending on infrastructure, such as roads, to stimulate the economy, and reduce costs, to achieve greater social wellbeing.

The globalized economy enables people to control other places from a far distance, without knowing the situation in the region. Large investments on subsidizing the transportation system make products from thousands of miles away cheaper than local product. Due to the collapse of the local market that follows, the people in the region loose their job, while the investors make a lot of profit and promote uneven development.[29]


  1. ^ Sam Ashman, "Combined and uneven development", pp. 60-65 in Ben Fine Alfredo & Saad Filho (eds.), The Elgar Companion to Marxist Economics. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar, 2012.
  2. ^ Richard B. Day and Daniel Gaido (eds.), Witnesses to Permanent Revolution: The Documentary Record. Chicago: Haymarket, 2011.
  3. ^ Leon Trotsky, The Permanent Revolution [1]
  4. ^ Day & Gaido, op. cit., p. 27.
  5. ^ Bill Dunn and Hugo Radice (eds.) 100 Years of Permanent Revolution. Results and Prospects. London: Pluto Press, 2006.
  6. ^ Michael Lowy, The politics of Uneven and Combined Development. London: Verso, 1981. (republished by Haymarket Books in 2010).
  7. ^ Leon Trotsky, Results and Prospects. [2]
  8. ^ "Talk of uneven development becomes dominant in Trotskii's writings from 1927 onwards. From this date, whenever the law is mentioned, the claim consistently made for it is that 'the entire history of mankind is governed by the law of uneven development'." - Ian D. Thatcher, "Uneven and combined development", Revolutionary Russia, Vol. 4 No. 2, 1991, p. 237.
  9. ^ Leon Trotsky, "Peculiarities of Russia's development", chapter 1 in History of the Russian Revolution, Vol. 1 [3]
  10. ^ Leon Trotsky, The struggle against fascism in Germany, introduced by Ernest Mandel. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1975. Leon Trotsky, The Spanish Revolution 1931-1939. New York: Pathfinder Press, 1975. Leon Trotsky, On France. New York: Pathfinder, 1979. Leon Trotsky, Fascism: What It Is and How to Fight It. New York: Pathfinder 1969.
  11. ^ Rudolf Hilferding Papers, International Institute of Social History, Amsterdam.[4]
  12. ^ F. Peter Wagner, Rudolf Hilferding: theory and politics of democratic socialism. Atlantic Highlands, N.J. : Humanities Press, 1996.
  13. ^ Rudolf Hilferding, Finance Capital. A Study of the Latest Phase of Capitalist Development. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981, pp. 322-23.
  14. ^ Marcel van der Linden, "The 'Law' of Uneven and Combined Development: Some Underdeveloped Thoughts". Historical Materialism, Volume 15, Number 1, 2007, pp. 145-165.
  15. ^ William Smaldone, Rudolf Hilferding: The Tragedy of a German Social Democrat. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1998.
  16. ^ Smith, Neil. Preface to the second edition of, Uneven Development: Nature, Capital and the Production of Space, xi-xiii. Georgia:University of Georgia Press. 2008.
  17. ^ Gregory, Derek, Ron Pratt, and Geraldine Pratt. Dictionary of Human Geography. 5th Edition. Hoboken: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009. Online.
  18. ^ Harris, Donald. “Uneven Development.” The New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics. Second Edition. Eds. Steven N. Durlauf and Lawrence E. Blume. Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.
  19. ^ Gregory, Derek, Ron Pratt, and Geraldine Pratt. Dictionary of Human Geography. 5th Edition. Hoboken: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009. Online.
  20. ^ Gregory, Derek, Ron Pratt, and Geraldine Pratt. Dictionary of Human Geography. 5th Edition. Hoboken: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009. Online.
  21. ^ Harvey, David. “The Geography of Capitalist Accumulation: A Reconstruction of the Maxian Theory.” Antipode. 7.2 (1975): 9-21.
  22. ^ Gregory, Derek, Ron Pratt, and Geraldine Pratt. Dictionary of Human Geography. 5th Edition. Hoboken: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009. Online.
  23. ^ Kiely, Ray. “Spatial Hierarchy and/or Contemporary Geopolitics: What Can and Can’t Uneven and Combined Development Explain?” Cambridge Review of International Affairs. 25.2 (2012): 231-248.
  24. ^ Smith, Neil. “The Restructuring of Spatial Scale and the New Global Geography of Uneven Development.” Jinbun Chiri. 28 (2000): 51-66.
  25. ^ Smith, Neil. “The Restructuring of Spatial Scale and the New Global Geography of Uneven Development.” Jinbun Chiri. 28 (2000): 51-66.
  26. ^ Gregory, Derek, Ron Pratt, and Geraldine Pratt. Dictionary of Human Geography. 5th Edition. Hoboken: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009. Online.
  27. ^ Smith, Neil. “The Restructuring of Spatial Scale and the New Global Geography of Uneven Development.” Jinbun Chiri. 28 (2000): 51-66.
  28. ^ Paul James and Tom Nairn (eds.), Global Matrix: Nationalism, Globalism and State-terrorism. London: Pluto, 2005.
  29. ^ Keiner M., The Future of Sustainability. Springer, 2006

Additional References[edit]

  • Bill Dunn et al., 100 years of permanent revolution. London: Pluto Press, 2006.
  • John Elster, "The theory of combined and uneven development: a critique". In: John Roemer (ed.), Analytical Marxism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986, pp. 54-63.
  • Julian H. Steward, Theory of Culture Change: The Methodology of Multilinear Evolution. University of Illinois Press, 1990.
  • Ernst Bloch and Mark Ritter, "Nonsynchronism and the Obligation to Its Dialectics". New German Critique, No. 11 (Spring, 1977), pp. 22-38.[6]
  • Mário Costa de Paiva Guimarães Júnior and Tiago Camarinha Lopes, "Trotsky’s Law of Uneven and Combined Development in Marini’s Dialectics of Dependency". Paper presented to the IIPPE Fourth Annual Conference, July 9-11 2013, The Hague, Netherlands.[7]
  • Samantha Ashman, "Capitalism, Uneven and Combined Development and the Transhistoric", Cambridge Review of International Affairs, Vol. 22, No. 1, 2009, pp. 29-46, reprinted in A. Anievas (ed.) Marxism and World Politics: Contesting Global Capitalism and the States System Today (London: Routledge, 2010) pp. 183-196.
  • Jamie C Allinson, Alexander Anievas, "The uses and misuses of uneven and combined development: an anatomy of a concept". Cambridge Review of International Affairs, Volume 22 Issue 1, 2009, pp. 47-67
  • Patrick Karl O'Brien, "Global Economic History as the Accumulation of Capital Through a Process of Combined and Uneven Development: An Appreciation and Critique of Ernest Mandel". Historical Materialism, Volume 15, Issue 1, 2007, pp. 75-108.

See also[edit]