Remarks on Chapter 1 of Trotsky’s ‘History of the Russian Revolution’

Justin Rosenberg

Presentation to the Sussex Working Group on U&CD, October 2010.

Well, if there exists a foundational text for the theory of uneven and combined development, this is it. There are of course many other local discussions of ‘unevenness’ and ‘combination’ in Trotsky’s writings. In fact, if you take those writings as a whole, you could almost say that U&CD runs through – or at least underneath – the entire body of his thought, and it’s what is most distinctive about it. Nonetheless, Chapter 1 of the History is the only sustained, organised exposition of the theory. And it’s only twelve and a half pages long.

That might seem a disappointment – is this all we have to work with? Yet it’s also the case that these twelve and a half pages compose an extraordinary document. Just about every reader of this text that I know of has been struck by its richness as a piece of writing. Unfortunately, that hasn’t produced a consensus about its intellectual standing, because they disagree about the meaning of this richness. Does it reflect the fact that, short as it is, this text is a classic of Western social science, introducing a fundamental innovation – what Michael Löwy called ‘a new understanding of human history’ (Löwy 1981, 87)? Or is the richness just a literary device which fools the reader into thinking that something profound is going on here, whereas in fact, if you bring the argument out into the open, it fails to meet the most basic requirements of social scientific reasoning. Is this text, in other words, a con?

In 1940, James Burnham, (who had written an enthusiastic review when the History first appeared (Burnham 1932)), wrote an open letter to Trotsky (called ‘Science and Style’, reprinted in Trotsky 1942). In this letter, he talks a lot about Trotsky’s way of writing: ‘your style’, he says, ‘your wonderful style… the contrasting epithets, the flowing rhythms, the verbal paradoxes which characterise your way of writing’. And then he goes on to say that he has realised ‘an important truth’ about Trotsky: ‘that you have a too literary conception of proof, of evidence; that you deceive yourself into treating persuasive rhetoric as logical demonstration, a brilliant metaphor as argument’ (188). And numerous reviewers of Trotsky’s History, ever since it was first published in the 1930s, have made the same judgment.

Now, for many years, I had it in mind to sit down with this particular chapter and try to get to the bottom of this question. Is it true, as Louis Gottschalk put it in 1938, that Trotsky’s arguments had ‘greater literary than scientific value’ (Gottschalk 1938, 349-50)? Did Trotsky, in the words of Robert Warth ten years later, ‘allow his literary brilliance to overpower his judgment as a scholar’ (Warth 1948, 41)? Are Trotsky’s attempts to draw out the corollaries of U&CD nothing more than what Bertram Wolfe described in 1961 as ‘the chanted formulae of this sorcerer’s apprentice’ (Wolfe 1961, 500)? And is the History as a whole, as Wolfe went on to say, just a ‘blinding flood of words’ which merely demonstrates ‘the splendid impudence of his eloquence’?

Eventually, I did get round to thinking about all this in some detail. I don’t want to pre-empt everyone else’s reactions by laying out my conclusions in any full way. But there are three points which emerged from my close reading which it might be useful to set out as a prompt for discussion. These points concern the intellectual structure of the chapter, the theoretical method of its argument, and the question of its relation to international politics.

1. Intellectual Structure

The first thing I discovered was that despite all the dazzle and brio of the writing, this text has a very tight intellectual structure. It breaks down into four parts.

The first part – the opening four paragraphs – locates the history of Russia within the wider unevenness of Eurasian development as a whole. This identifies the subject matter.

The second part – the next four paragraphs – formulates the theoretical idea which is going to be used to analyse this subject matter. It provides

  1. the general premises of the theory (unevenness, capitalism),
  2. the causal mechanisms (the whip of external necessity, the privilege of historic backwardness, the skipping and re-sequencing of ‘stages’, the penalty of priority etc.),
  3. and the law-like outcomes (combined development, amalgamation and re-programming of social forms, non-repetition/production of difference).

Third, on pages 6 to 12, (sixteen paragraphs, ending with ‘…the social structure of the nation’ on page 12), this theory is then applied to Russian history in order to explain its peculiarities. In fact, by my count, it is successively applied to ten different aspects of Russian society – including the state, the nobility, the clergy, urban development, industry, trade, political ideologies and so on. And in each case we see how the aspect in question diverged from its Western counterparts as a result of its interaction with them. This is the longest of the four sections, and it builds up a picture of the overall social structure of Russia, explaining how its empirical peculiarities were produced by the fact of what Trotsky calls its ‘belatedness’.

Finally, having focussed in on Russia in this way, the text opens out again in the last section (the last eight paragraphs, running from pages 12 to 15). Here it is suggested that the movement of Eurasian development as a whole has an interactive dimension across space and time. And this interactive dimension is used to explain the changing inner logic of social revolutions – from 17th century England, through 18th century France, and on to 20th century Russia. Here I think a key point is that we see that U&CD is not just a sideshow involving the fate of backward countries. Rather, it is a causal mechanism which operates at the core of the historical process itself – one of its laws of motion, if you like.

Now, critics of Trotsky’s style might well say that all this just illustrates the problem. Look at how, over the course of these four sections, the actual referent of U&CD keeps changing. It starts as a descriptive feature of the empirical world. It then becomes a concept designed to theorise the consequences of this feature of the world. Then it’s a causal mechanism supposedly producing the shape of Russian society in particular. And finally it re-appears as a general law of motion of the the historical process. Surely this is Trotsky playing fast and loose with the reader: how can it be all of these?

But I would say that this sequence actually corresponds quite closely to the normal procedures of social scientific exposition. You start with an empirical phenomenon requiring explanation. You formulate the method you’re going to use to explain the phenomenon. You then apply the method to produce a concrete historical explanation. And finally you draw wider conclusions from the result of this exercise. Not only does this conform to Marx’s account of the ‘method of political economy’ (Marx 1973, 100ff). It’s also how nearly every PhD student, Marxist or otherwise, is told to structure their thesis…!

2. Theoretical Method

But this of course does not capture what is intellectually distinctive and innovatory about the text. To specify that, we have to move on to the second point which emerged from my close reading. And this is a point about the method itself.

Take a look at the three paragraphs which follow the opening sentence of this text. Here we certainly are confronted with an undeniably artistic method of presentation. And we do have to ask whether the artistry is supporting a social scientific argument or substituting for it. These three paragraphs have the feel of the opening scenes of an epic film. First, we see the bleak, isolated landscape of Russian development. Then in the next paragraph the scene switches to the colourful throng of European development going on at the same time to the West. And then finally, the camera pans out to reveal the wider landscape within which these two contrasted worlds are connected to each other. It’s a dazzling cinematic effect – but is it any more than that?

I think it is. I think this sequence dramatises a kind of visual layering of three analytical registers. And by doing this, it assembles the different moments of a highly distinctive method of analysis. These three layers we could call ‘the specific’, ‘the comparative’ and ‘the interactive’. So, first we see what is historically specific to Russian development: its natural setting and the social consequences of this. Next we see how this differs comparatively from its European counterparts, a move which simultaneously indicates the wider unevenness within which Russian development is located. And finally we get the interactive consequences of this unevenness – how it impacts upon Russian development to produce its peculiarities.

Now, this trope – specific, comparative, interactive – is repeated over and over again in this text. It’s the basic methodological procedure of the argument. I’m sure that if you pushed Trotsky himself, he would have claimed that this was the operationalisation in historical sociology of dialectical logic. If you read his notebooks from around the time he wrote this chapter, you find a lot of meditation on the so-called ‘triadic equation’ of thesis-antithesis-synthesis (Trotsky 1998). And you could make a case – though Trotsky never did – that ‘development’ is the thesis, ‘unevenness’ is the antithesis, and ‘combination’ is the synthesis.

Be that as it may, I would express the ultimate significance of this cumulative layering in a slightly different way. While all three steps of this analytical method are necessary to it, it’s the last one, the interactive effects arising from unevenness, which makes the method finally distinctive. I would say that this last step does not just press beyond the limits of comparative analysis in some general way. Rather, it brings into view a field of specifically international causes. But it doesn’t do this, as Theda Skocpol did, by adding in a separate domain of geopolitics. Instead, the sequence of the layering reveals these international phenomena as arising from the inner unevenness of social development. This, I believe, is the breakthrough which no other social theory has achieved. It’s what overcomes the ‘domestic analogy problem’ and dissolves the reifications of Realism.

3. International Politics

So, what’s not to like here? Well, this brings me to my third point. Because I do believe that there’s something missing.  What’s missing – to put it very crudely – is a theory of foreign policy. That might sound like a false problem – one generated artificially by an the demands of an IR discipline which shouldn’t be a separate discipline in the first place. But let me explain what I mean by it.

There’s very little in here about the foreign policy of the Russian state. We do learn elsewhere that arms sales and loans to Russia ‘enabled Tsarism to intervene in all the political relations of Europe’ (Trotsky 1971, 26). And it’s true that in the first half of the 19th century Russia used this coercive resource to suppress liberal revolution in Spain and Hungary and to veto concessions to liberal forces by the King of Prussia. And that all seems in line with its domestic struggle against liberalism.

But, hold on a minute: by 1894 autocratic Czarism had entered a military alliance with – of all countries! – republican France. And of course in the First World War, it ended up allied to liberal Britain (which had been its main imperial rival up to 1907). And it fought against the more autocratic powers of Germany and Austria-Hungary who, on the face of it, were far more compatible allies socio-politically.

Of all this, Trotsky makes no mention at all – yet it’s crucial for us. Because if U&CD cannot be used to explain these paradoxical shifts in international politics, then it’s not actually functioning as an international theory.

Now, I think it can explain them. But Trotsky doesn’t show how, and it clearly can’t be done by mapping the internal complexion of a state’s combined development onto its foreign policy (which in any case would just bring us back to a domestic analogy form of reasoning).

So I’m saying that the theory’s unfinished. This doesn’t detract from the other two points I’ve been making. This chapter has an analytical structure, not just an artistic one. And there is a definite theory of some kind here. But from the point of view of IR, Trotsky didn’t finish the job. That task has been left to us.

And before we can begin tackling it, maybe we should use this text today to sort out three  preliminary things which are essential for the task: what we think the basic theory here is; what kindof a theory it is; and, if it works, exactly how it works as an analytical method.


Burnham, J. (1932), ‘Review of Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution’, The Symposium, July
1932, pp.370-380.
Gottschalk, L. (1938) ‘Leon Trotsky and the Natural History of Revolutions’, The American Journal of
Sociology, Vol.44, No.3, November 1938, pp.339-354.
Lowy, M. (1981) The Politics of Combined and Uneven Development. The Theory of Permanent
Revolution. London, Verso.
Marx, K. (1973) Grundrisse. Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy, translated by M. Nicolaus. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.
Trotsky, L. (1942) In Defense of Marxism (Against the Petty-Bourgeois Opposition). Introduced by Joseph Hansen and William F. Warde. New York: Pioneer Publishers.
Trotsky, L. (1961) The History of the Russian Revolution (1932), New York: Pathfinder.
Trotsky, L. (1973) 1905 [sic], Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Trotsky, Leon (1998) Trotsky’s Notebooks, 1933–1935. Writings on Lenin, Dialectics and
Evolutionism, edited by Philip Pomper. New York: Columbia University Press.
Warth, R. (1948) ‘Leon Trotsky: Writer and Historian’, The Journal of Modern History, Vol.20, No.1, (March 1948) pp.27-41.
Wolfe, B. (1961) ‘Leon Trotsky as Historian’, Slavic Review Vol.20, No.3, (Oct. 1961), pp.495-502.

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