U&CD: not (yet) an IR theory…?

Daniel McCarthy
Centre for Diplomacy and International Studies
School of Oriental and African Studies
Email: dm33@soas.ac.uk

As pointed out in the ‘Remarks on the Opening Chapter of Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution’, Trotsky’s opening chapter, (the fullest statement he made of U&CD), makes no attempt to explain the foreign policy behaviour of the Czarist state. And this is despite the fact that ‘the whip of external necessity’, along with international relations more generally, plays such a central role in Trotsky’s argument. I think this absence is significant  not only for the particular case here, (Czarist Russia); it also points to a more general challenge to U&CD and its applicability to international relations. I will try to draw this out here.

I understand how U&CD can explain the existence of political multiplicity. And I understand how this phenomenon of political multiplicity (‘the international’) impacts upon the development of societal forms. But I still do not understand how U&CD tells us about what form the relations between societies will take, or even that they will take any particular form at all – hence my concern (during the Working Group discussion) about focusing too heavily on the ‘whip’ of competition, rather than on other, no less prevalent, cooperative elements of international society. In short, does U&CD explain inter-societal relations – the policies that states/societies are inclined to pursue, the geopolitics of international society – as opposed to the international aspect of societal development?

Of course, for the Realist school too, typified by the work of Waltz and Mearsheimer, it is impossible to explain why particular states act in particular ways. That is, while providing a general explanation for state behaviour, Realism cannot necessarily explain specific state actions. But they are at least able to suggest that anarchy will impose a systemic rationality on states to maximize their power.

I am not sure that Trotsky’s U&CD can provide an equivalent explanatory formula without making a host of further assumptions about how states will behave. And these further assumptions  derive not from the premises of U&CD, but rather from particular understandings of capitalist development and classical theories of imperialism functioning within Trotsky’s concept, which other scholars, (Ellen Meiksins Wood or William I. Robinson, for example), might contest. Thus the application of U&CD could look very different, even while still operating within an historical materialist framework.  And this points to an even bigger problem.

If the ‘whip of external necessity’ applies transhistorically, then the internal constitution of states is irrelevant to their external conduct. In this sense, U&CD wins the battle to explain anarchy sociologically, while losing the war of developing a historical sociology of international relations. We end up with a better understanding of the emergence of the international system at the cost of understanding how it functions beyond familiar Realist schemas. On the other hand, if the ‘whip’ is the product of historically specific structural features, does this suggest that U&CD does not or will not always function, and if so what further clarifications are needed to make the theory applicable in these other cases?

In essence, I wonder if U&CD can explain inter-societal cooperation and well as competition, and if so when and why this cooperation will arise. If the ‘whip’ is removed, do we still have a ‘theory’ of uneven and combined development? I think that we probably do, but that its object of study cannot be extended to relations between states without a prior series of assumptions about how and why particular forms of state pursue particular policies in specific manners; while Trotsky’s U&CD may explain the international sociology of development, it does not (yet) explain the international relations of international relations.

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