Uneven and Combined Development is a rich and many-sided idea. Its implications and applications have yet to be fully unfolded. Existing debates on the subject have revealed many intellectual gaps and unresolved ambiguities. This page provides a space where those interested in the idea can explore and debate these problems in an open-ended way. To read and contribute to a discussion thread, please follow the links (ordered from newest according to date) provided below.

5. U&CD and World Literature #2 (August 2, 2014)

Wendy Knepper’s (Brunel University) reflections on U&CD and World Literature debate.

4. U&CD and World Literature (May 21, 2014)

The debate following  ‘Cultures of Uneven and Combined Development’ conference that was held at the University of Warwick on June 15, 2014.

3. Origins of International Relations (November 9, 2011)

Phil Cunliffe (University of Kent) raises several important issues on U&CD. Justin Rosenberg (University of Sussex) responds to Cunliffe’s comments.

2. U&CD: not (yet) an IR theory…?  (October 23, 2010)

Daniel McCarthy (SOAS) challenges U&CD’s potential as an IR theory.

1. Why ‘Development’? Why IR? (May 17, 2010)

Michael Rustin (University of East London) raises questions on the concept of development and the discipline of IR. These are followed by a response from Justin Rosenberg (University of Sussex).

How to Contribute

If you would like to contribute to a current discussion please use the ‘Leave a Reply’ option at the end of the relevant post.


U&CD and World Literature #2

From Wendy Knepper, Brunel University

Dear Justin,

I really enjoyed the discussion of uneven and combined development and have been reflecting on the implications for literary and cultural studies.

Trotsky’s formulation of uneven and combined development (as outlined in History of the Russian Revolution) to some extent overlaps with the worlds-systems analysis through its emphasis on multi-scalar, differentiated, and transnational methods of analysis. The opening sentence reinforces a traditional Marxist view, which seems as if it might fit with Immanuel Wallerstein’s methods: “The fundamental and most stable feature of Russian history is the slow tempo of her development, with the economic backwardness, primitiveness of social forms, and low level of culture resulting from it” (3). Uneven development could be read in terms of the core, semi-periphery, and periphery account of world-systems analysis. This approach also seems to place emphasis on the determining influence of the base on the superstructure.

But Trotsky’s narrative account of development in Russia tells another kind of story. He begins with an analysis of topography and terrain, suggesting that Trotsky has anticipated recent ‘the spatial turn’ in the arts and social sciences. When framing the wider ‘problem’ of development in Russia, Trotsky’s takes an epic perspective, looking back to geophysical influences, nomadic traditions, cross-cultural influences, and the gradual transformation of development through the rise of capitalism. Trotsky addresses the incorporation of archaic, pre-capitalist cultures of development within the capitalist world system. In arguing for “the different stages of the journey, a combining of separate steps, an amalgam of archaic with more contemporary forms” (5), he seems closer to the work of Braudel and the Annales School tradition than Wallerstein. Moreover, Trotsky seeks to understand development through the longue durée, notably in terms of pre-capitalist development and global capitalist/imperial expansion. Trotsky acknowledges the persistence and/or re-animation of pre-capitalist cultural, political, religious, and other ideas as well as claims on the unfolding history of development.

Does Trotsky represent a bridge figure between the historical materialism of Braudel and the Marxist-derived materialism of Wallerstein? I think the answer is yes. Trostky’s method of analysis acknowledges the emergence of global capitalism as well as attends to the sometimes unexpected ways in which archaic, (seemingly) peripheral, folk, indigeneous, and pre-scientific bodies of knowledge and planetary visions might nonetheless live on and influence development. But more than this his work accounts for the unpredictable ways in which development unfolds. While this may seem to point to a kind of return of the repressed and irrational (perhaps, here thinking of the discussion of chapter four of the History of the Russian Revolution), it seems to me that this kind of thinking also fits with the quest for folk resistance (other forms of knowledge) as well as postcolonial and feminist/queer strategies of reclamation and resistance.

Responding to Neil Lazarus’s question concerning reading the literary text under the sign of U&CD, you have suggested that this entails at least four approaches:

1. Showing how the text reflects and explores the paradoxes, leaps, disjunctures and fusions of a particular instance/experience of combined development.

2. Showing how the text itself participates in the cultural production of this combined development by creating and/or enacting new hybrid forms of consciousness and subjectivity.

3. Showing how the text furthers the interactive development of a given literary form (e.g. the novel, the sonnet, the epic etc.), taking it on from elsewhere and pushing it in new directions by combining it with unfamiliar materials or purposes drawn from its own (different) spatio-temporal location.

4. Using uneven and combined development to show how the content and practice of this text is intelligibly part of a wider historical sociology of modern world development (recalling The German Ideology’s insistence that ideas have no independent history of their own, but adding U&CDs unique ability to make sense of apparently baffling and paradoxical phenomena).

It seems to me that such an approach solves some of the issues posed in recent discussions about the relationship between postcolonial studies and globalization by calling for a more flexible analysis of development as a non-linear process, which may entail unexpected responses to various scales of development through time. The oppressive and potentially resistant or revolutionary tendencies of postcolonial aesthetics might be understood in new ways through acts of historical reclamation, cognitive mapping (Jameson), and creative combinations. But it seems that Trotsky’s own methods of analysis implicitly acknowledge the need for “thick descriptions,” which suggests perhaps the need to go beyond a narrowly framed (or vulgar) Marxist approach. Here then we find a way into recent discussions concerning the work of transnational literacies and planetary thinking, examining how transhuman or posthuman perspectives may influence the history of development.

In terms of postcolonial studies, U&CD is especially relevant for an author such as Wilson Harris who has constantly tried to envision the uneven and combined dynamics of New World history in expanded spatio-temporal terms. Equally, it might apply to more relational approaches such as Dany Laferrière’s imagined mappings of alternative temporal (Martinique in the 1930s and Haiti today) and spatial readings of Haiti (Haiti and Japan). Equally, Andrea Levy’s Small Island decentres the national reading of Windrush migration as a transformative event in British culture by examining the uneven and combined histories of the Caribbean, Britain, the USA, and India through the events leading up to World War II, the event itself, and its aftermaths. Recent works by Amitav Ghosh, Hari Kunzru, Vikram Chandra, Jhumpa Lahiri, Dave Eggers, and Kamila Shamsie seek to understand histories of development in ways that go beyond empire or even competing imperialisms. In terms of historical/magic realism, the possibilities for imagining history anew, and creative mappings of the world beyond the paradigms of empire/globalization, U&CD seems especially useful. Theoretically, the work of Walter Mignolo and Homi Bhabha might also seem to work with such approaches.

 Moreover, the seeming tensions between historical realism and literary experimentation might be reconciled through an understanding of texts as registrations and contestations of uneven and combined development. Literary texts may produce moments of dissensus (in Rancière’ sense of the term) through strategies that address, reanimate or remap uneven and combined development in material and imaginative terms. This kind of approach could contribute to new ways of understanding transnational literacies, the pressures and opportunities of literary production in the global marketplace, alternative ways of envisioning cosmopolitanism, and new understandings of biopolitics (particularly in transnational/multicultural contexts).

 New modernist studies might benefit from U&CD, especially as the question of modernity has been raised anew through globalization. For instance, we might look anew at representations of the Spanish Civil War, which becomes a way of negotiating uneven and combined development as a trans/national event. How does the related literature produce a new map of relations among various competing claims for sovereignty, resistance, and transnational solidarities? Or how might U&CD be applied to a reading of Conrad, someone who has already been read through a Marxist lens, notably by Benita Parry and Fredric Jameson? How does literature map transnational zones, real and imagined, through U&CD? How might planetary modernism (the registration of multiple spatial and temporal dimensions beyond the rational ordering of the global) be understood as a manifestation of U&CD?

How might we reframe our understanding of world literature through U&CD, particularly in terms of the third and fourth points raised above? This seems to me to be one of the most promising areas for further research, particularly in an era when we see the combination of popular, vernacular, local/global, and other forms in narrative discourses. How do authors implicitly or explicitly contribute to a global understanding of uneven and combined development? How do we read across comparable histories or transitions of development? How do we understand the ways in which the rationale of the market combines with other dynamics to shape the aesthetics and politics of the text? Might we read slipstream aesthetics through U&CD? If literary forms, language, and culture emerges through U&CD, how might such forms be mobilised to reflect critically on contemporary horizons? How might we as literary critics uncover and explain the sometimes idiosyncratic or affective literary/cultural historical maps of transcultural/transnational influence through U&CD? Finally, we might consider how U&CD contributes to a new kind of planetary consciousness – which presents alternatives to cosmopolitan approaches to world literature (even the reconstructed versions we have seen in the past decade through the work of Appiah, Bhabha, Beck, etc.) – as well as alternative ways of thinking about the work of the text on the world reader.

Best regards, Wendy

U&CD and World Literature

On June 15th 2014, a conference on ‘Cultures of Uneven and Combined Development’ was held at the University of Warwick, organised by the Department of English and Comparative Literary Studies.

The conference was unique in bringing together scholars from both the social sciences and the humanities to discuss the potential of Uneven and Combined Development for cultural studies.

After the conference, the following exchanges ensued.

If you would like to contribute to a current discussion please use the ‘comment’ box at the end of the page.


From Justin Rosenberg, University of Sussex 

Dear Colleagues,

It was great to meet you at last week’s conference on ‘Cultures of Uneven and Combined Development’. While the pleasure and excitement of that event are still fresh, I wonder whether I could open up an additional line in our discussions, over and above the issue of ‘reading under the sign of U&CD’ that I wrote to you about before. (I’ve pasted in those earlier thoughts at the end below in case it helps.)

I was very interested to discover how influential and productive World-Systems Theory has been in literary studies – from Marshal Berman in the 1980s all the way through to Franco Moretti and your own engagements with ‘world literature’ today.

As you know, WST has been heavily criticised – for having a crudely functionalist (and instrumentalist) definition of the state; for indulging a non-Marxian, Smithian definition of capitalism; for expressing an outdated, Third Worldist politics; for providing an excessively rigid, deterministic model of world development; for falsely predicting the impossibility of significant peripheral development – the list goes on.

I agree with some of these criticisms, but not all of them. Years ago, I was ‘brought up’ to believe that the Brenner-Wallerstein debate was just a re-run of the Dobb-Sweezy debate, and that all ‘right-thinking’ Marxists must side with Brenner. However, since then I’ve come to the view that Brenner’s critique completely failed to grasp the fundamental intellectual problem which provides the starting point for Wallerstein’s work: namely, what is the correct unit of analysis for social scientific enquiry? And I also find myself agreeing more and more with Wallerstein that the earlier failure to resolve this question – which of course is the same question that led to Trotsky’s innovations too – accounts for all manner of intellectual blind-spots and absurdities in the history of Marxist thought.

Nonetheless, Wallerstein is not Trotsky, and, so far as I can see, ‘combined and uneven development’ (C&UD) is not the same concept as ‘uneven and combined development’ (U&CD). This came up again and again in our discussions during the conference. But is it important? Let’s try and parse it out a little.

As I understand things, C&UD, like Wallerstein, sees unevenness as a feature of the modern world that arises from capitalism itself: thus unevenness here refers to the inequalities of development that are produced and widened by processes of unequal exchange across the Capitalist World-Economy; and it could also refer to the different political forms and labour regimes that characterise different societies according to their structural location in this World-Economy.

Meanwhile, U&CD sees unevenness as a spatio-temporal characteristic of the historical process itself: world development has always been (politically) fragmented, (culturally) varied, and (inter-societally) interactive. And this means that – even under capitalism – world development includes dialectical logics of combination and mutation that (a) need specifying and adding to the materialist conception of history and (b) continually push world development beyond ‘fixed categories’ of all kinds – including, for example, models of a tripartite global structure of core/periphery/semi-periphery.

For me, the key thing that arises from this contrast is not just that the WST model might turn out to be conjuncturally-specific, and hence unable to make sense of, say, Asian industrialisation. The key point is rather that the very nomenclature of U&CD – multiplicity, borrowing, amalgamation, mutation – seems to provide a much more immediate resource than WST for addressing a range of cultural aspects of capitalist world development that do need analysis (above all in literary studies) and that postcolonial theory might otherwise make entirely its own: aspects such as alterity, mimesis, translation, hybridity etc. This makes me think that if we were to use U&CD (rather than Moretti’s WST), there would be no need to fall back on ‘distant reading’. The nomenclature of U&CD itself gives a guide to what a close textual analysis would seek out (as outlined in my four-part answer pasted in below). Moreover, we’d also be freed from the potential confusion of using U&CD via Jameson’s unattributed paraphrase. (The liability of using Jameson without Trotsky, I think, is that we invoke a ‘socio-historical logic of combination’ without really being able to clarify whence it sociologically derives: Exactly why does capitalism produce this logic? Did not combination occur in pre-capitalist social formations too? Etc.)

Furthermore, in Trotsky’s account, these ‘mechanics of difference’ are not analysed in abstraction from the imperialist character of the overall process; nor do they involve (as WST seem to do) an abandonment of Marx’s social theory of value – surely the most profound and indispensable part of the critique of political economy. It’s true that in my own writings neither of these things (imperialism and value theory) has been given its due. But that’s because my main concern has been to excavate what is distinctive to Trotsky’s idea, rather than to rehearse what it has in common with other Marxist approaches. Perhaps that’s been a mistake on my part, but I don’t think it proceeds from a limitation of U&CD per se.

Let me try to put these thoughts into clearer propositional form.

1. C&UD and U&CD are not the same. One is about how capitalism generates inequalities of development across a system whose broad structure is reproduced in a more or less fixed shape over time. The other is about how the multi-linear character of historical process imposes a dialectical, interactive logic even on capitalism – and how capitalism, in turn, raises this inter-societal logic to a wholly new level of intensity.

2. This difference has a special significance for literary studies. Of course one might fruitfully read texts in relation to their location in the core-periphery structure of the Capitalist World Economy. However, WST does not itself provide the concepts for doing so – that is, for anatomizing the specific interactive logics (sociological and imaginative) involved in ‘world literature’. Extra concepts of uncertain provenance (C&UD, or ‘a logic of socio-historical combination’) have to be super-added, which do not themselves derive from the premises of WST.

3. By contrast, U&CD provides a conceptual vocabulary that is all about the interactions of difference under the pressure of a universalizing social dynamic (of capitalism) – and the innovative leaps and fusions of socio-cultural development that this involves. Thus, if we use U&CD instead of C&UD, we reconnect these phenomena to a narrative of capitalist world development that organically includes the interactive mechanisms that actually produce them. Literary theory reconnects to the premises of a social theory, as (presumably) it should.

4. Finally, one might ask: but still, what’s wrong with employing a division of labour, in which WST provides the ‘big picture’ of the unequal structure of the CWE, while U&CD is used to explore the concrete local experiences of this structure, as they are apprehended and wrestled with in literary creation? Once again, I’m not saying this shouldn’t be allowed (!); but I do think it might understate the potential of U&CD, and, with that, the contribution it can make to literary studies.

After all, U&CD has its own ‘big picture’ which is all about how the spatio-temporal unevenness of capitalist industrialization continually produces geopolitical upheavals, mutating structures of interdependence between advanced and emerging economies, and new ‘peculiarities’ of all kinds arising out of the process of combined development. It’s an amazingly versatile historical theory that can make sense of such diverse conjunctures as the 19th Century age of imperialism, the era of the world wars (and Cold War), and the dramatic rise of China today. And in each case it yields a highly distinctive explanation.

World War I provides a good example. The (enormous) literature on this conflict remains largely divided between geopolitical (balance of power) explanations and sociological accounts that focus on the ‘peculiarities’ of German development. U&CD alone seems able to overcome this dualism. For it turns out that historical unevenness produced both the geopolitical upheaval of Germany’s catch-up and the fatally unstable pattern of its internal combined development (the ‘marriage of iron and rye’). To be honest, I don’t even know what a WST explanation for the war would be. My guess is that it would revolve around the idea of inter-imperialist rivalry among the core states. But this would be highly problematic because the differences among those states (especially Germany and England) had such a large part to play in the July Crisis of 1914.

So I guess what I’m saying is: not only does U&CD have its own big picture, such that sundering the method of literary and historical sociological analysis may be unnecessary; but also, U&CD’s ‘big picture’ may even be a more reliable one than that provided by WST.

If these propositions hold, they might entail that Trotsky’s concept of U&CD provides a surer foundation for a theory of world literature than does a mixture of World Systems Theory with the idea of C&UD.

I’d be really interested to know your views on this. Quite possibly I’ve misinterpreted the WREC thesis, or World Systems Theory, or both! But I’m sure I’d benefit greatly from any dialogue we might have.

With best wishes,


What would it mean to read a text under the sign of Uneven and Combined Development?

During one of the conference sessions, I recalled an excellent phrase used by Neil Lazarus about ‘reading under the sign of uneven and combined development’; and I asked the speakers how they would define that as a method. It was a bit of an unfair question to throw at anyone (!), but it made me think about what my own answer to it would be, and I came up the following thoughts.

The first step would be to establish that by U&CD we refer to the multiple and interactive texture of historical process, whose effects continually falsify the predictions of uni-linear, stadial theories of social change.

Not all texts will be equally focused on this dimension of social reality. But for those that do explore it (consciously or otherwise), reading one of them under the sign of U&CD could mean:

1. Showing how the text reflects and explores the paradoxes, leaps, disjunctures and fusions of a particular instance/experience of combined development.

2. Showing how the text itself participates in the cultural production of this combined development by creating and/or enacting new hybrid forms of consciousness and subjectivity.

3. Showing how the text furthers the interactive development of a given literary form (e.g. the novel, the sonnet, the epic etc.), taking it on from elsewhere and pushing it in new directions by combining it with unfamiliar materials or purposes drawn from its own (different) spatio-temporal location.

4. Using uneven and combined development to show how the content and practice of this text is intelligibly part of a wider historical sociology of modern world development (recalling The German Ideology’s insistence that ideas have no independent history of their own, but adding U&CDs unique ability to make sense of apparently baffling and paradoxical phenomena).

Justin Rosenberg

On 19 June 2014, Benita Parry <B.Parry@warwick.ac.uk> wrote:

Dear Justin

I must thank you for teaching me the conceptual underpinnings of U&CD, and (inadvertently?) alerting me to the promiscuity with which I ( I do not speak for here for WREC ) have been drawing on the theory in seamless conjunction with world systems analysis.

Having conceded this, I still cannot relinquish the presumption that an understanding of peripheral culture and consciousness is advanced by a perspective on a capitalist world-system that is everywhere scored by U&CD, but with the proviso that the peripheries and to a lesser extent the semi-peripheries experienced a qualitatively more intense and invasive combined development  – for a host of reasons including the imperial powers’ promotion of backwardness by safeguarding the continuation of archaic forms of economic and social life e.g the maintenance of feudal social arrangements, tribalism etc.

It is true that residues of older ideologies and customs can be found in contemporary Western Europe and North America, where the capital cities remain contemporaneous with peasant or agrarian societies. However in the zone of the semi-periphery, the coexistence of disjunctive temporalities and discrepant types of social and economic organization persisted because of internal histories specific to each ‘spatio-temporal location’; while in those lands seized and colonized for their natural and labour resources, and where dispossession and precipitate, selective modernization were imposed with memorable violence, the survival of pre-existing forms of social life and culture interrupted/disrupted by the insertion into capitalism, ensured that egregious anomalies remained and remain – and for reasons that can be explained in materialist terms.

Such extremities I find are registered in the fractures marking peripheral literatures, and because the inventions of such writing are always in excess of metamorphosing or ‘indigenizing’ and ‘cannibaliizing’ or appropriating and creatively mimicking cultural traditions from the West, I avoid referring to fusions or hybridity – which seems to me to introduce an emollient element into the relationships between the imperial powers and the non-capitalist world, structurally, culturally and experientially – and is distinct from interactions.

Best wishes


On 27th June 2014, Justin Rosenberg <J.P.Rosenberg@Sussex.ac.uk> wrote:

Dear Benita,

Many thanks for your reply. It goes straight to the heart of things, and gives me – and I’m sure others too – lots to think about. As I prepare the final version of this response, I’ve just looked again at my earlier comments, (posted above), and I note, rather sheepishly, that the paragraphs below repeat much of what was said there. But they do so from a slightly different angle, so I hope they’re not completely worthless.

 As I see it, you make four fundamental points.

  1. Uneven and combined development may indeed be a universal characteristic of the capitalist world-system; but its operation is far more intense and consequential outside the core of that system.
  2. In the semi-periphery, for example, archaic social and political forms co-existed with the new due to features of the ‘internal histories’ of the societies involved. In the periphery, meanwhile, such ‘combined development’ was a function of imperial policy which engaged in selective modernisation alongside deliberate co-opting of pre-existing hierarchies into new structures of alien domination and exploitation.
  3. Peripheral literatures reflect this history via ‘fractures’ that go beyond either slavish imitation or simple fusion – and they thereby yield a creative surplus that is particular to their structural location in the overall process.
  4. Thus, the disjunctive temporalities we know as uneven and combined development are created by capitalism spilling out into a world of other societies which it only partly modernises (due either to the strength of local barriers to change or the selective logic of its own imperial convenience). This is why the extreme encounters of old and new (and their literary expressions) become more and more salient as we move out from the core, through the semi-peripheral and into the peripheral experiences of capitalist development. WST and U&CD therefore fit together like hand in glove.

There’s so much to agree with here that I struggled at first to find points of real difference – but in the end, I do think a real issue exists. One way of expressing it is to note that for you U&CD refers to the local phenomenology of capitalist development in peripheral settings – the extreme disjunctures of old and new ‘on the ground’. For Trotsky, by contrast, it also refers to the macro dynamics of modern world history: uneven development among co-existing societies makes for a multilinear, interactive process that not only rules out simple repetition of core trajectories by peripheral societies; it also dialectically modifies the social logic, causal mechanisms and historical geography of world development in ways that cannot be confined by any ‘fixed categories’ – even such apparently capacious ones as ‘core’, ‘semi-periphery’ and ‘periphery’. I’ll return to this point further below.

But let me first turn more directly to your own observations. When I first read your email, I felt that your point about combined development being most intense in the periphery (and hence reflected most strongly in peripheral literatures) was a really strong one. Surely, as you say, this means that WST and U&CD can be used in ‘seamless conjunction’ to analyse peripheral literatures?

And yet, the more I thought about it, the more I was struck by the fact that although WST can point to the intense conditions of peripheral development, it does not itself seem to provide the categories by which we can analyse what they mean for cultural production. Above all, it does not identify the causal mechanism through which the extreme fractures and encounters that you mention enable creative literary responses that go far beyond mimicking, indigenizing and so on.

Consequently, it is at this point that uneven and combined development is invoked (not derived from WST, but rather brought from elsewhere into ‘seamless conjunction’ with it). And here’s the amazing thing: as we discovered at the conference, many people who use the phrase are only vaguely aware that U&CD is in fact a substantial revision to the materialist conception of history, rooted in Trotsky’s writings; instead, they encounter it as a free-floating signifier that can be picked up, for example in Jameson’s work, and combined at will with other theories. This unawareness is perhaps indicated by the uncertainties surrounding the term itself: U&CD or C&UD?

For me, these uncertainties point to something remarkable: even when people are not in a position to access the intellectual resource of Trotsky’s idea itself (because they don’t know about it) they feel driven to invoke the phrase (or apparent near equivalents) because there is some dialectical feature of historical process that otherwise goes uncaptured by the general theories they’re using. Thus the general melee around the phrase itself does not so much indicate looseness or confusion: rather it tells us that Trotsky’s idea is so significant that even if it didn’t exist (or were not known to exist), it would have to be invented.

Now, as it happens, Trotsky’s original version turns out to be unusually well adapted to meet the needs that people have when they reach towards it. And that’s because it is, at one level, an extended meditation on four things:

  1. how the unevenness of social development is expressed across history in the coexistence at any given point of a multiplicity of different but interacting social formations;
  2. how this means that social artefacts (mental and material) are transferred between social settings as a chronic ingredient of social and political and cultural change;
  3. how this transfer in turn adds an interactive dimension to the logic of social development and change (on top of the purely reproductive logic analysed by Classical Social Theory), thus fundamentally altering the logic of development itself; and
  4. how and why this transfer can either ‘debase’ the artefacts (e.g. Peter I’s use of Western innovations to extend the life of Russian feudalism) or unlock new developmental possibilities within them (by combining them with new social environments and imperatives).

By concretising the main effects of societal multiplicity (i.e. ’the whip of external necessity’ and ’the privilege of historic backwardness’), we can analyse how intersecting temporalities operate as a cultural mechanism for literary creation, just as they are simultaneously a sociological mechanism for political, technological and societal innovation. We can thereby bring into focus a key aspect of the creative process itself – one that directly connects it to the wider sociology of modern world development. Perhaps I’m mistaken, but I’m not sure there exists an analogue to this in the core theoretical repertoire of WST.

But, as I already implied above, this is not just a point about the micro-sociology of capitalist development, and it’s not just about the periphery either. In the opening chapter of his History of the Russian Revolution, Trotsky figures the sequence of European revolutions (English, French, Russian) as a cumulative process of uneven and combined development, with the form and meaning of ‘revolution’ itself changing over time.

We can go further. We can analyse the 19th Century process of industrialisation in the Euro-American core of capitalist development in the same way. This process comprised a staggered sequence of industrial revolutions, stretching from East to West across the long 19th Century. Each of these (a) involved its own combination of pre-existing local forms with the universalising spread of capitalist social relations, and (b) transformed the international conditions in which the next iteration would occur. The peculiarities of German combined development, exemplified in the fatal ‘marriage of iron and rye’, would become quite central to the causes of two world wars. And of course the equivalent process in the quite different spatio-temporal setting of Russia created the seedbed of the Bolshevik Revolution, whose impact, via the Cold War, continued to shape world politics right up to 1989. Thus, while I can understand why one would assume that the experience of combined development is most extreme in the periphery, this could be a very misleading assumption that prevents us from realising the full potential of the concept.

Perhaps most significantly of all, I do think we may now have moved into a historical conjuncture in which the grip of WST categories on real world development is starting to loosen. What if WST’s three-part model of the Capitalist World-System turned out to be a snapshot of world development at a particular point in its evolution, unwittingly setting in stone characteristics that belonged uniquely to that conjuncture? Of course, that’s a danger for all of us. But the case of WST is nonetheless suggestive. It was after all formulated just around the historical high-water mark of international inequality. By 1974, the spatio-temporal unevenness of capitalist industrialisation (advanced in some countries, yet to really begin in many others) had widened the developmental gap to unprecedented proportions. An approach that inverted the expectations of Modernisation Theory, and provided a spatial model that explained the different social and political structures in different countries as parts of an interrelated whole – this was an approach that once truly had the winds of history in its sails. But does it any more?

What if the same historical unevenness that produced the yawning gap also entailed that delayed instances of capitalist industrialisation would occur later? What if these then began to occur on such a scale (in Continental Asia, for example) that a mere four decades after the high-water mark we would already be envisaging not only the end of the old (mainly Western) core’s domination, but also a major shrinkage of the periphery as we knew it? In such a scenario, would we still find the same utility in a theory that had previously explained how inequality was maintained by the enduring structure of core-periphery relations? Or would we look rather for a theory that, having built the premise of historical unevenness into its own foundations, was equipped to follow the new developments and to analyse the different global configuration to which they are giving rise?

So, in conclusion, I’m making two broad points.

First, the allure of the phrase ‘uneven and combined development’ does not reside simply in its ability to describe phenomena whose existence is already explained in principle by other theories like WST. Reconnected to its source in Trotsky’s writings, it turns out to be a fully analytical category that draws on ontological assumptions (about societal multiplicity, interaction, and the production of new phenomena) that are not present in other theories. And it is these assumptions too that enable its analysis of cultural artefacts to pinpoint the creative mechanisms through which these artefacts are produced. I’m not qualified to take this intuition further into an actual textual analysis, so I’m really hoping to learn from Humanities colleagues what this might involve and what it might reveal.

But second, these same assumptions also provide the basis for an alternative ‘big picture’ of capitalist world development which (a) may (or may not!) produce a fuller explanation of Nineteenth and Twentieth Century world history, and (b) may become more and more necessary for us all if the core-periphery shape of modern world development is revealed to be a conjunctural, rather than a permanent feature of the historical process.

If the differences between World-Systems Theory and Uneven and Combined Development might really be of this order, then I hope you’ll agree that they could well repay further investigation and debate.

With best wishes,



On 6th July 2014, Benita Parry wrote:

Your comments are an uncomfortable spur to rethink the question. You are right about U&CD becoming a floating signifier – visible in Jameson but perhaps also in WREC and your work ?  What I have observed – perhaps mistakenly – is the theory being appropriated to serve various theoretical agendas; hence the differences between you and Neil Davidson in interpreting Trotsky’s meanings when citing the same passages and drawing attention to the significance of the leap from ‘uneven’ to ‘combined and uneven’.

Consider something like this: Rosenberg values Trotsky as a thinker whose writing on U&CD demands attention to the ontological assumptions on which it draws and which have been overlooked in subsequent criticism and elaboration – a significant methodological move to promote understanding of the quality of Trotsky’s work. In pursuing his intellectual agenda ‘to  elevate the idea to the level of a paradigm for social and international theory’, Rosenberg urges recognition that Trotsky’s  ‘fundamental innovation was to analyse the‘peculiarities’ of Russia’s social structure as outcomes of a wider and specifically inter-societal process of historical development‘, urging the significance of uneven and combined development” at the level of those determinants which apply to all societies.

Davidson and Michael Löwy, writing as engaged Trotskyists, place the original postulate of U&CD (uneveness) and its subsequent expansion (combination) as analyses of the internal conditions of un- or undercapitaliized societies, such as Russia before 1917 and China in the thirties, and perceive these features, including the peculiarity of class formations,  as providing insight into the potential – and strategies – for making revolution. Davidson claims that for Trotsky the resulting combined forms, because of their inbuilt social instability, paradoxically enhanced the working classes’ capacity for political and industrial organisation, theoretical understanding, and revolutionary activity, making revolutionary outbreaks more likely than in the developed world’; and Michael Löwy who named his study The Politics of Combined and Uneven Development : The Theory of Permanent Revolution, calls attention to the imbrication of the two concepts in Trotsky’s thinking : ‘To what extent could the theory of permanent Revolution be generalized to zones of belated capitalist development or to the regions of colonial oppression ? – Trotsky was later to describe the conception of permanent revolution, as ‘the general trend of revolutionary development in all backward countries’.

On reflection it seems to me that neither you nor WREC  have properly placed the idea of combined development as inseparable from the idea and strategy of permanent revolution, with WREC amputating this limb  when pursuing how, in your felicitous phrase, ‘intersecting temporalities operate as a cultural mechanism for literary creation’.  What WREC did develop was insight into how literature transfigured and estranged incommensurable material, cultural, social and existential conditions, contradictory amalgams of pre-existing local structures of social life and external socio-political and cultural influences, antiquated modes alongside modern social formations and institutions – these producing incongruities throughout the society.

I hope you will review the WREC publication when it is published.

Although I did not claim that WST and U&CD could be used in seamless conjunction – I intended to indicate that such usage  was a problem – it could be argued that the shape of the world during capitalism’s reign was determined by the installation of a core and peripheries. The extent to which this persists is suggested by Sean Starrs : ‘The Chimera of Convergence’, in the current New Left Review 87. Perhaps then we are not witnessing the end of the old Western core’s domination or the shrinking of the periphery, but a reconfiguration of capitalism in order to prolong its existence in changing circumstances – and a permanent feature, not of historical processes past, present and yet to come, but of capitalism.

On July 8th, Justin Rosenberg wrote:

I’m sure you’re right that U&CD has been appropriated to different agendas – broadly, social theory versus revolutionary politics. From my own (social theoretical) perspective, the idea of permanent revolution – like those of ‘the whip of external necessity’ and ‘the privilege of historic backwardness’ – should not be limited to the particular, vanguardist political form that its origins imprinted upon it. It should stand as a general purpose critique of political strategy based on unilinear thinking. And what it will mean in any given instance must depend on the concrete circumstances that are disrupting ‘fixed categories’ and creating unpredicted openings for socio-historical change.

But let us leave that for the moment, because you’re right to say that I’ve not really ‘placed’ permanent revolution in relation to unevenness and combination. And that is indeed because I regard the intellectual significance of these latter two to have been massively under-recognised (not least in the Trotskyist literature, which has focused almost entirely on permanent revolution).

I wonder if this under-recognition is still there in your account of ‘what WREC did develop’. It’s certainly apposite to use U&CD as a name for ‘how literature transfigured and estranged incommensurable conditions… contradictory amalgams’ etc. But if we restrict it to that, do we actually have enough to provide a ‘new theory of world-literature’ (as suggested by the title of the WREC monograph)?

I think that U&CD really does provide the basis for a ‘theory of world literature’ in the strong sense. By this I mean that it enables us

(a) to situate specific instances of ‘what literature is doing’ within a wider conception of the modern historical process – a specifically interactive, increasingly world-wide process of development of which literary production is then recognisably a part;

(b) to analyse the ‘transfiguring and estranging’ so visible in peripheral literatures as not just expressions but also mechanisms of combined development; and

(c) to trace and illuminate the development of whole literary genres as the outcome in part of this same wider  (inter)active process.

 Perhaps I’m chasing a will-o’-the-wisp . But I can’t help thinking that if such a theory of world literature were indeed possible, then it would be worth comparing with WST in order to see which carries our understanding deeper into the specific – literary – object of analysis itself. It might even enable an enhancement of the WREC thesis – and one drawn out of a concept the collective is already using to badge its enterprise.

 Finally, I agree that so far as the ‘big picture’ of contemporary world affairs is concerned, we are witnessing ‘a reconfiguration of capitalism in order to prolong its existence in changing circumstances’. But my question, once again, would be: if this reconfiguration involves the blurring of geographically identifiable core, semi-peripheral and peripheral zones, then how can the categories of WST be used to follow it?

 Anyway, my thanks again for your extremely thoughtful and thought-provoking comments. I think I now need to go away and work out some literary examples that will demonstrate the potential I think I see in this idea.

Origins of International Relations

Phil Cunliffe
School of Politics and International Relations
University of Kent

As regards your paper (‘The Origins of International Relations’.) presented recently at Kent, there are several issues that come to my mind.

1) Political multiplicity may be a problem for classical social theory, but not, it seems to me, for Marxist social theory. For Marxism, the rise of industrial capitalism betokens a break in human history with which only the agricultural revolution is genuinely comparable in terms of its historic significance. More to the point, on the scale of the whole of human history, capitalism is the first genuinely universal social formation – free trade is the cannon that batters down all Chinese walls. From this viewpoint, political multiplicity is a phenomenon internal to capitalism, not a historic legacy – which would surely make it a fetter on genuine capitalist development. Another way to formulate this question is, why didn’t capitalism develop as a single universal empire or world state rather than as a set of competing states across the 16-17C? It seems to me that the existence of political multiplicity has to be established logically in relation to the internal development of capitalist social relations, and the historical mediations, vestigial remnants of prior social formations, etc., worked out subsequently.

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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.

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Why ‘Development’? Why IR?

Michael Rustin: Professor of Sociology at the University of East London, and a founding editor of Soundings.

Hi Justin

Here are some thoughts on your article, ‘Why is there no international historical sociology?’.

As I was reading. I was puzzling about where the ‘Development’ in Uneven and Combined Development was going to come in, and then I got to that section.

Why ‘development’ at all, I was thinking. Why did Trotsky not call his theory Uneven and Combined Change (hereafter by initials) rather than ‘development’, and does it matter?  Well of course it does, because his theory presupposes a Marxist concept of development. What U&CD is counterposed to in his theory is even and uncombined development – an undifferentiated model whose reference point was an idealised version of Western Europe’s trajectory.

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