‘The Origins of International Relations’

Seminar Presentation,
University of Kent, October 20th 2010

Justin Rosenberg

N.B. This presentation discusses ‘Basic Problems in the Theory of Uneven and Combined Development. Part II: Unevenness and Political Multiplicity’, Cambridge Review of International Affairs, 23: 1, 2010,  pp.165-189.


I wouldn’t blame anyone for thinking this is a rather weird paper. It appears to make large claims about IR theory. And yet its empirical focus is about 10,000 years removed from contemporary IR. So it might help if I start by explaining how I got drawn into writing about prehistory in the first place.

To put it simply, what dragged me there was my continuing preoccupation with Leon Trotsky’s idea of ‘uneven and combined development’. This is the eighth article I’ve written on this idea, which might make it look like I’ve got bogged down in some obscure specialism and can’t get out again. But I hope not. What it feels like is rather that as I’ve got further into the idea, its implications have grown and grown, and I’ve become more and more determined to get to the bottom of it.

Still, viewed from the outside, it might not seem that there’s anything particularly deep to get to the bottom of. I remember reading an edited volume on modern state formation. One of the writers in this book used Trotsky’s idea to point out that because some modern states emerged before others, this changed the environment in which those others later emerged, causing them to develop in quite a different way. But he didn’t make a big song and dance about this argument. He just noted that the difference was explained by the idea of ‘uneven and combined development’, an idea that, in his words, ‘appears quite obvious once it is grasped’ (Anderson1986, 19). And in a way, that’s quite true. It is obvious that the human world is made up of many different societies of differing kinds, at differing levels of development. It is obvious, when you think about it, that these societies interact with each other to produce a kind of dialectical quality to the nature of historical change. And perhaps it’s even obvious that under these conditions – multiplicity and interaction – historical development must be both uneven and combined.

But if all this is so obvious, what is there to get to the bottom of, and why do I find myself making such a big deal of it?

The Classical Lacuna and its Effects

Well, for me the big deal has two parts to it. First, (and I always have to pinch myself when I say this), it turns out that nearly all Classical Social Theories – including those of Marx, Weber and Durkheim – conceptualised historical development as if all this were not the case. And second, this neglect in social theory has produced a very strange knock-on effect in the one academic discipline where the interactive character of development should be most apparent – namely International Relations. Let me explain what I mean by these statements.

It’s often said that Classical Social Theory came into being to analyse the peculiar character of modern society. And that’s true. Whether they called it capitalism, Western rationalism, or organic society, modernity was what they most wanted to understand.

But it’s also true that in order to do this, Marx, Weber and Durkheim also each produced a general intellectual method for analysing all kinds of society – historical materialism, cultural sociology, the idea of social differentiation or the division of labour. And they also produced conceptual models to explain how societies change over time – models based on modes of production, processes of rationalisation, the growth of dynamic density and so on.

So, they produced conceptions of modernity, general theories of society, and models of historical change. Furthermore, their use of the comparative method also shows – though this hardly needs saying – that they were perfectly aware that historical development is multiple, involving different kinds of society in different times and places.

But here comes the key point. In none of these cases does this societal multiplicity – and the interaction arising from it – enter into either the theory of society or the model of historical change. All these writers have the following methodological premise in common: to analyse a given society, you look at the historically specific social relationships which compose and structure it in a particular way; and to theorise how it changes, you look further at these same internal relationships to identify the developmental logic arising from their operation over time. (Thus Marx wrote of the ‘laws of motion’ of different societies; and Weber talked of formulating ‘developmental ideal-types’.)

Now, I’m the last person to belittle the fantastic insights which have been generated by using these twin principles of ‘historical specificity’ and ‘developmental logic’. Without them, there would be no historical sociology at all. But it is nonetheless remarkable that by spotlighting the interior composition of societies in this way, these thinkers, and many others, threw into the shade theinteractive dimension of societal existence and change. So far as I can discover, there are no categories in Classical Social Theory for analysing the generic causal significance of societal multiplicity and interaction. The tradition was fundamentally ‘internalist’ in its explanatory methods. In effect, at the most basic level, it theorized the social world as if the international dimension did not exist.

And this is not a problem for Classical Theory alone. It seems still to bedevil the social sciences today. In many disciplines there is an ongoing debate over the problem of so-called methodological nationalism. As Eric Wolf (1982) and Charles Tilly (1984) have both pointed out, this problem is all about the inherited neglect of the interactive dimension of historical development. Zygmunt Bauman, in his book Intimations of Postmodernity, (1992, 59-65) suggests that extending social theory into the space of the inter-societal is the hardest problem facing the social sciences. Freidrich Tenbruck (1994) argues that it requires a basic revision of sociological categories. At any rate, the fact that this debate is still ongoing suggests that the problem has not yet been overcome.

And this brings me to the second part of the ‘big deal’ – namely the impact of all this on the discipline of IR. Societies do co-exist and interact, and this is what IR is all about. But as we’ve already seen, if you want to conceptualise this, you won’t find the categories you need within the inheritance of social theory. In fact, the more you map that inheritance onto the international, the harder it becomes to focus on the interactive multiplicity which defines it as a social space.

Instead you end up with what Hedley Bull (1966) called ‘the fallacy of the domestic analogy’, or what Kenneth Waltz (1979) calls ‘reductionism’. I guess this is why political realists in general turn away from sociological theory, why they define their own intellectual premises in opposition to it, and why they try instead to conceptualise the international dimension as a self-contained realm. But that of course escapes one problem – reductionism – only to create another, which is usually called reification. What I mean is that they end up with a conception of the international as a thing in itself, which has no  sociological foundations and cannot be reconnected to the wider social world – even though it must in some way be the apex of that world. And realism’s core concepts – anarchy, state, balance of power and so on – therefore appear to be strangely empty of social content.

Even Waltz, who has pushed the separation of social and international theory further than most, knows that in the end this won’t really do. When Fred Halliday and I interviewed him back in 1998, he agreed that a theory which did not disconnect the international from the rest of the social world would be much better than neorealism. And he went on to say this: ‘I don’t see any logical reason why this can’t be done… However, nobody’s thought of how to do it. I’ve thought about that a lot. I can’t figure it out. Neither can anybody else so far’ (1998, 379). Now, I think he’s right. It is really hard to produce a social  theory of ‘the international’. And I think that’s because our conception of ‘the social’ excludes those aspects of social reality from which the international arises. And yet I also think that all along the solution has been staring us in the face, locked up inside this idea of ‘uneven and combined development’.

Uneven and Combined Development

But it does take quite a bit of unlocking. Because of course Trotsky himself produced the idea in order to explain one very particular thing – namely the peculiar structure of early 20th century Russian society, and why it led to the Bolshevik Revolution. So the idea arrives in a form that is tangled up with the very specific dynamics of capitalist world development, and with the fate of late-industrialising societies in the modern period. And a lot of people therefore argue that it’s wrong to try and generalise it beyond that.

Nonetheless, Trotsky’s own writings provide the warrant for doing so. Because every so often he makes statements like ‘unevenness is the most general law of the historic process’, and even, ‘the entire history of mankind is governed by the law of uneven development’. Clearly, these statements do not refer only to late-industrialisers, or just to the capitalist period. They are statements about the nature of historical development itself. And I think they provide the key to overcoming the separation of social and international theory. How do they do this? Answering this question always makes me feel that I have to pour a whole ocean of implications into the teacup of two or three sentences. But let me have a go anyway.

If the overall process of historical development is uneven, this makes intuitive sense of the existence of multiple societies. But if so – if the multiplicity arises from a property intrinsic to social development – then the international relations of these societies are not a supra-social feature of the world at all. On the contrary, they are the particular causal mechanisms through which one characteristic of development – namely, its unevenness – produces its effects.

Phew! That’s a real mouthful. But assuming it’s not just a tautology, I think it might be the start of a social theory which can deal with the international; one which no longer separates social and international theory; one which therefore overcomes the problems of methodological nationalism and domestic analogy and reductionism on the one hand, and the realist reification of geopolitics on the other. And that, I think, would be a big deal.

But there’s a problem. Exactly how does the unevenness of social development give rise to thepolitical multiplicity of societies? After all, individual societies are also always internally uneven in their development; but that does not always cause them to fragment into multiple separate entities. And without this numerical multiplicity of societies, there would be no inter-societal dimension. If Trotsky’s idea cannot be used to explain the origins of the international in this key sense of political multiplicity, then we’re back to square one. The international would then be what realism says it is: a brute fact about the world which has no sociological foundations, and which imposes itself on the course of social development from the outside. All the claims I make for this idea being a big deal would then evaporate into thin air. And that’s why, sooner or later, though I avoided it for as long as I could, I was going to be forced to write the article which I’m presenting today.

Now, I didn’t expect that doing this would draw me all the way back to the prehistoric period. But in retrospect, it’s not hard to see why that happened. I wanted to find the source of political multiplicity. But political multiplicity had obtained throughout recorded history. So if it had developmental origins, these were going to lie in the period before recorded history.

But there was also a more pressing reason why I had to go back this far. It turned out that Barry Buzan and Richard Little had already visited the literature on prehistoric development. In fact, in their book International Systems in World History (2000) they had used it to produce a sociological explanation for the emergence of the international. And they had done so without using anything like the idea of uneven and combined development. So not only had they got there first, but they did so in a way that directly undermined the claims I was making for Trotsky’s idea. To make it even worse, they also did it by using the Classical Social Theory tools of historical specificity and developmental logic which I thought were not enough on their own.

So let me first summarise their argument, and then say how I tried to respond to it in this article.

The Argument of Buzan and Little

Put very broadly, their argument is that the origins of political multiplicity lie in the shift from hunter-gatherer existence to settled agriculture which began roughly 15,000 years ago.

It’s not that humans didn’t live in groups before that, groups which were always connected to each other in wider social systems. But these groups took the form of small hunter-gatherer bands, which typically numbered only a few dozen individuals, and which were more or less constantly on the move. And so long as all that was the case, the wider systems in which they were involved remained ‘pre-international’ in various ways. Buzan and Little explain what they mean by this as follows.

Being so small and mobile meant that these groups were biologically dependent on sexual interaction with neighbouring groups in order to reproduce themselves physically; and it also meant that they were basically egalitarian: everyone had to be able-bodied in order to keep moving. There was no scope for a complex division of labour beyond the rudimentary sexual one. And there was also no point in accumulating surplus food because you couldn’t carry it around; so there was no material basis for sustaining an organised division of the group into rulers and ruled.

Hence, although these groups were multiple and interactive, they did not form an international system. And that was because they were not strictly political entities at all. They didn’t have an internal hierarchy which would produce specifically political dynamics. And they didn’t have a clear division between inside and outside. And for this reason – that is, because of their lack of internal and external differentiation – their interactions with each other certainly formed a social system which could be very wide geographically. But it did not comprise an international system, in which, for example, geopolitical competition adds a whole additional layer to the causal dynamics of survival and development.

What changed all this, according to Buzan and Little, was the shift from hunter-gathering to settled agriculture. And it did so above all by fostering a developmental logic of internal and external differentiation. When humans started to produce their own food, they were no longer restricted to small groups. They could stay in one place and produce a surplus that could sustain them year-round. Together with their increased size, this made them less dependent on symbiotic interaction with other groups. And because they were no longer constantly on the move, this surplus could be stored at a fixed location. Furthermore, control of this surplus provided both a means by which some members could start to exercise patronage and dominance over others and a target for organised raids by other groups. In fact, because the power of these ruling members arose from their control of surplus food, they even had a new incentive to expand their domination over other groups, to increase their wealth further. This in turn led to the early spread of fortifications among settled communities, and the emergence of organised warfare, as opposed to the feuding and homicides which were the kind of violent interaction characteristic of hunter-gatherer bands, and so on.

In effect, Buzan and Little are saying that the emergence of agriculture produced a whole new set of social logics. These social logics fostered the emergence of internal state-formation and external geo-politics. And that process, driven by differentiation, produced in turn a set of systemic inter-societal logics where none had previously existed. It produced the international as an extra dimension of social existence and development.

Now there’s a lot to say about this argument, but I’ll restrict myself to just two key points. First, the argument is necessarily speculative; but to the best of my knowledge it accords with an archeologically-based consensus among world historians about the origins of early states. Second, it also accords with the explanatory method of classical social theory: start by specifying the inner character of a given social entity (in this case, early agricultural society); and then work out the developmental logic by which this would give rise to something else (in this case, the logic of differentiation which gives rise to the international).

And all this of course was a real headache for me. Because it meant that Buzan and Little had constructed a genuinely social explanation of the international and its origins. And they’d done it without making any theoretical use of unevenness and combination at all. And that meant I either had to drop the claims I was making for Trotsky’s idea; or I had to show that their neglect of these factors somehow caused real problems for their explanation.

It took a while, but I did eventually find a loose thread in their argument. And luckily for me, it was connected with their underlying conception of historical development – which is exactly where I think that Trotsky’s idea makes a real difference.

The loose thread was this. Agriculture produced differentiation, which produced the international. That’s their theoretical model of the process. But what produced agriculture? Buzan and Little’s answer is that the number of known cases where agriculture was independently invented is so small that the combination of circumstances required to bring it about must have been extremely rare and particular. And because it was so exceptional in this way, it can’t be fitted into or explained by ageneral theory of development. Any attempt to do so would just impose a false teleology and uni-linearity on a process which was incredibly varied and differentiated across the planet, and not at all pointing everywhere in the same direction. The sheer scale of empirical variety, they argue, vetoes any general theoretical explanation.

Now, at one level of course, this position seems entirely reasonable. But it does also create real complications for their wider argument. And that’s because Buzan and Little describe their book as ‘a marriage of theory and history’. They claim to have provided for the first time a continuous narrative of the origins and evolution of international systems in world history. But when it comes to this basic step of theorising the transition from pre-international to international systems, they draw back from applying their general theory and say it can’t be done. And that is despite the fact that, as I mentioned earlier, the Classical Social Theorists  all tried to provide general concepts of development by which to explain exactly this kind of transition from one kind of social existence to another.

And the more I thought about this, the more it seemed to me that Buzan and Little were right to reject those classical conceptions as they stand – because they do produce falsely unilinear explanations. But they might still have been wrong to draw back from general theory altogether. What do I mean by this?

Reframing the Concept of Development

Well, what if there was a general theory of development which argued that this process must give rise to the enormous empirical variation they describe? And what if it turns out that this variation, and the interactions within it, are in fact causally central to the account they do give of why agriculture might have arisen in some places and not others? If there was such a theory, it would be free of the uni-linear fallacies which make Buzan and Little shy away from continuing their own general theoretical argument at this point. And it would enable that argument to connect to the particular processes by which they explain the transition from hunter-gathering to agriculture. In this way, it would bring them a big step closer to the ‘marriage of theory and history’ which is the goal of their book. In fact, this alternative theory would be the missing link in their own argument about the origins of the international. And what I try to show in the rest of the article is that that U&CD is this missing link.

The way I try to do this is not by setting up Trotsky’s idea as a free-standing theory. Instead, I try to weave it into Marx’s theory of development, and see if that enables a solution to Buzan and Little’s problem. And I think it does.

Marx argued that historical development arose out of the productive interactions of humans with the natural world. He also noted that this process was inevitably shaped, especially in its early stages, by the characteristics of the natural world itself. And since those characteristics vary enormously in different places, it follows that the original spread of humans across the planet must have produced an enormous variety of patterns of development. So unevenness of development is not just an empirical happenstance. It’s logically entailed by the nature of development as an historical process.

What Marx does not say – but what turns out to be no less important for theorising development – is that this process is also intrinsically ‘combined’. That is to say, the variation of development from one place to another is not just a field of comparative difference. Because these variations co-exist in space and time, they also compose a field of concrete interaction. And this too is essential to what development is, as a historical process.

All the world historians who write about this period argue that exchange of ideas and objects  between groups provides a key mechanism of collective learning in relation to things like the development of language, the making of tools, the control of fire and so on. But interactive dynamics even play a vital role in Buzan and Little’s own explanation of the social changes which led to the emergence of the international. What I mean by this is that, in their account, interaction with other groups turns out to be a key driver of the process of internal differentiation which produces political hierarchy. In particular, they say that trade for exotic goods provides a vital resource for establishing and maintaining this hierarchy.

And here I think we come to the crux of the matter. Buzan and Little’s implied general theory of development is all about a linear process of differentiation occurring within society. Yet it now turns out that their explanation of state-formation presupposes a situation – namely the interactive multiplicity of societies – which is not explicitly provided for in that theory. So there appears to be an unbridgeable gap between their overall theoretical model and the historical process they’re using it to try and explain. Buzan and Little themselves justify this gap by saying that the subject matter of IR is too big and complicated for any encompassing theory. But that of course just undermines the claim to be providing a marriage of theory and history. And in any case, what I think is actually happening here is that the ‘internalist’ conception of development inherited from Classical Social Theory has come back to haunt their argument. It’s the unilinear effects of that conception which makes them, (quite understandably), hold back. But if, instead of holding back, they reworked their idea of development so that it included unevenness and combination, the problem of the gap would largely disappear.

And I think that once you’ve done this, you can then take the final step in theorising the origins of the international. That is, once you include these interactive causes in your model of the emergence of the political, you can also see how the same process would also have interactive consequenceswhich help to explain the emergence of more than one polity. Put very simply, the beginnings of political hierarchy in one place creates a new demand for trade with other communities elsewhere. Meeting this demand fosters processes of differentiation and hierarchy inside those other communities, leading to the crystallising of multiple polities. I know this sounds simplistic. And like everything else about prehistory, it’s highly speculative. But it does correspond to the way that world historians trace the impact of the original Sumerian process of state-formation on its surrounding communities. In other words, so far as we know, this is how the world’s first geopolitical system emerged – through a developmental logic which was intrinsically multiple and interactive, that is, through a process of uneven and combined development.


Well, that’s how I tried to respond to Buzan and Little’s challenge. But all this has got a bit convoluted. So let me end by trying to step back and say what I think the wider point of it might be.

I think the problem faced by Buzan and Little, the problem of a gap between theory and history, is not theirs alone. In fact, by itself the existence of a gap is not necessarily a problem at all. No theory matches reality point for point, because all theory is a selective abstraction from reality. Nonetheless, what you select does matter. And some gaps are counter-productive because they come from missing out elements of reality which need to be inside the abstraction. It is gaps of this kind which can potentially be overcome by revising the elements of the theory.

I agree with Friedrich Tenbruck when he says that the modern social sciences have long been afflicted by a gap of this second kind. Classical Theory did not include multiplicity and interaction in its basic abstraction of what a society is. And social and international theory continue to pay a high price for that exclusion.

Now, actually, this point has been widely remarked, and there have been many attempts to close the gap. I think particularly of Theda Skocpol’s work on social revolutions (1979). And within the classical tradition itself there is the work of Otto Hintze, which was a big influence on Skocpol (Hintze 1975). But in the end, it also matters at what level you try to add the missing elements back in. Hintze and Skocpol both brought geopolitics back in to their explanations of developmental processes – and they produced great insights by doing so. But they brought it in at the level of mid-range theory, so that the existence of geopolitics was not itself explained sociologically. And this is perhaps why their net impact in IR has been to reinforce the intellectual dominance of realism. What makes Trotsky’s idea different is that it seems to tackle the problem at its source. It seems to indicate the kind of re-theorisation of society we need in order to stop the problem arising in the first place. And that’s why I think it’s worth trying to get to the bottom of, even if, along the way, that forces me to write the kind of rather weird article I’ve been presenting today.


Anderson, J. (ed.) (1986) The Rise of the Modern State, New Jersey: Humanities Press International.

Bauman, Z. (1992) Intimations of Postmodernity, London: Routledge.

Bull, Hedley (1966) ‘Society and anarchy in international relations’ in Herbert Butterfield and Martin
Wight (eds) Diplomatic investigations (London: Allen & Unwin), 35–50

Buzan, Barry and Richard Little (2000) International systems in world history: remaking the study of
international relations (Oxford: Oxford University Press)

Hintze, O. (1975) The Historical Essays of Otto Hintze, edited with an introduction by Felix Gilbert,
New York: Oxford University Press.

Halliday, F. & Rosenberg, J. (1998) ‘Interview with Kenneth Waltz’, Review of International Studies,
24 (July 1998) 371-86.

Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels (1976) ‘The German ideology’ in Marx–Engels collected works, vol 5
(Moscow: Progress), 19–644.

Rosenberg, J. (2010) ‘Basic problems in the Theory of Uneven and Combined Development. Part II:
Unevenness and Political Multiplicity’, Cambridge Review of International Affairs, 23: 1, 2010,

Skocpol, T. (1979) States and Social Revolutions, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Tenbruck, Friedrich (1994) ‘Internal history of society or universal history’, Theory, Culture & Society,
11, 75–93.

Tilly, C. (1984) Big Structures. Large Processes. Huge Comparisons. New York: Russell Sage

Trotsky, Leon (1980) The history of the Russian revolution, volume 1: the overthrow of tsarism, ed
Max Eastman (New York: Pathfinder).

Waltz, Kenneth N (1979) Theory of international politics (Boston: McGraw-Hill).

Wolf, Eric (1982) Europe and the people without history (Berkeley: University of California Press).

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