This page presents four selections of fragments from Trotsky’s writings. Section 1 presents some of the key passages setting out the theory of uneven and combined development, together with the modification it requires of the Marxist understanding of the international spreadof capitalism. Section 2 concentrates on Trotsky’s account of the developmentof the world market as an international process, including some suggestions as to its implications for the geopolitical relations between states. Section 3 looks at how he applied the theory of uneven and combined development to the specific case of Czarist Russia in order to explain the Russian revolution as an historical event. Finally, Section 4 contains some reflections on intellectual method – including Trotsky’s exposition and defense of ‘dialectics’.
For a fuller digest of relevant quotations from Trotsky’s writings, organised by source, click here: Trotsky Digest.
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1. The Theory of Uneven and Combined Development
A backward country assimilates the material and intellectual conquests of the advanced countries. But this does not mean that it follows them slavishly, reproduces all the stages of their past. The theory of the repetition of historic cycles – Vico and his more recent followers – rests upon an observation of the orbits of old pre-capitalistic, and in part upon the first experiments of capitalist development…. Capitalism means, however, an overcoming of those conditions. It prepares and in a certain sense realizes the universality and permanence of man’s development. By this a repetition of the forms of development by different nations is ruled out. Although compelled to follow after the advanced countries, a backward country does not take things in the same order. The privilege of historic backwardness – and such a privilege exists – permits, or rather compels, the adoption of whatever is ready in advance of any specified date, skipping a whole series of intermediate stages. Savages throw away their bows and arrows for rifles all at once, without traveling the road which lay between those two weapons in the past. The European colonists in America did not begin history all over again from the beginning. The fact that Germany and the United States have now economically outstripped England was made possible by the very backwardness of their capitalist development…. The development of historically backward nations leads necessarily to a peculiar combination of different stages in the historic process. Their development as a whole acquires a planless, complex, combined character.
The possibility of skipping over intermediate steps is of course by no means absolute. Its degree is determined in the long run by the economic and cultural capacities of the country. The backward nation, moreover, not infrequently debases the achievements borrowed from outside in the process of adapting them to its own more primitive culture. In this the very process of assimilation acquires a self-contradictory character. Thus the introduction of certain elements of Western technique and training, above all military and industrial, under Peter I, led to a strengthening of serfdom… European armament and European loans – both indubitable products of a higher culture – led to a strengthening of Czarism, which delayed in its turn the development of the country.
The laws of history have nothing in common with a pedantic schematism. Unevenness, the most general law of the historical process, reveals itself most sharply and complexly in the destiny of the backward countries. Under the whip of external necessity their backward culture is compelled to make leaps. From the universal law of unevenness thus derives another law which, for the lack of a better name, we may call the law of combined development – by which we mean a drawing together of separate steps, an amalgam of archaic with more contemporary forms. Without this law, to be taken of course in its whole material content, it is impossible to understand the history of Russia, and indeed of any country of the second, third or tenth cultural class. [History of the Russian Revolution, p.24-6]
‘The industrially more developed country shows the less developed only the image of its own future.’ This statement of Marx, which takes it departure methodologically not from world economy as a whole but from the single capitalist country as a type has become less applicable in proportion as capitalist evolution has embraced all countries regardless of their previous fate and industrial level. England in her day revealed the future of France, considerably less of Germany, but not in the least of Russia and not of India. [History of the Russian Revolution: Appendix II, Vol. III p.378]
Pedants… believe that the history of one capitalist nation must repeat itself in the history of any other capitalist nation, with larger or smaller divergences. What these pedants fail to see is that the world is now undergoing a unified process of capitalist development which absorbs all the countries it meets on its way and creates in them a social amalgam combining the local and general conditions of capitalism. The actual nature of this amalgam cannot be determined by mouthing historical cliches, but only by applying a materialistic analysis. [1905, cited in The Social and Political Thought of Leon Trotsky, Baruch Knei-Paz, p.88]
History does not repeat itself. However much one may compare the Russian Revolution with the Great French Revolution, the former can never be transformed into a repetition of the latter. The 19th century has not passed in vain. [Results and Prospects, New Park Publications, p.184]
It is nonsense to say that stages cannot in general be skipped. The living historical process always makes leaps over isolated ‘stages’ which derive from theoretical breakdown into its component parts of the process of development in its entirety, that is, taken in its fullest scope. The same is demanded of revolutionary policy at crucial moments. It may be said that the first distinction between a revolutionist and a vulgar evolutionist lies in the capacity to recognize and exploit such moments. [Permanent Revolution p.116]
Every attempt to skip over real, that is, objectively conditioned stages in the development of the masses, is political adventurism. [Permanent Revolution p.117-8]
One must not proceed from a preconceived harmony of social development. The law of uneven development still lives, despite the tender theoretical embraces of Stalin. The force of this law operates not only in the relations of countries to each other, but also in the mutual relationships of the various processes within one and the same country. A reconciliation of the uneven processes of economics and politics can be attained only on a world scale. [Permanent Revolution p.131]
2. The Spread of the World Market as a Historical Process
Our entire planet, its land and water areas, the earth’s surface and its subsoil provide today the arena for a worldwide economy, the dependence of whose various parts upon each other has become indissoluble. [The Age of Permanent Revolution: a Trotsky Anthology, Deutscher, (ed), p.71]
…in the epoch of imperialism it is impossible to approach the fate of one country in any other way but by taking as a starting point the tendencies of world development as a whole in which the individualcountry, with all its national peculiarities, is included and to which it is subordinated. [The Third International After Lenin, Pathfinder NY 1970, p.42]
Linking up countries and continents that stand on different levels of development into a system of mutual dependence and antagonism, levelling out the various stages of their development and at the same time immediately enhancing the differences between them, and ruthlessly counterposing one country to another, world economy has become a mighty reality which holds sway over the economic life of individual countries and continents. [The Third International After Lenin, Pathfinder NY 1970, p.5]
[T]he entire history of mankind is governed by the law of uneven development. Capitalism finds various sections of mankind at different stages of development, each with its profound internal contradictions. The extreme diversity in the levels attained , and the extraordinary unevenness in the rate of development of the different sections of mankind during the various epochs, serve as the starting point of capitalism. Capitalism gains mastery only gradually over the inherited unevenness, breaking and altering it, employing therein its own means and methods. In contrast to the economic systems which preceded it, capitalism inherently and constantly aims at economic expansion, at the penetration of new territories, the surmounting of economic differences, the conversion of self-sufficient provincial and national economies into a system of financial interrelationships. Thereby it brings about their rapprochement and equalises the economic and cultural levels of the most progressive and the most backward countries. Without this main process, it would be impossible to conceive of the relative levelling out, first of Europe with Great Britain, and then, of America with Europe; the industrialisation of the colonies, the diminishing gap between India and Great Britain…
By drawing the countries economically closer to one another and levelling out their stages of development, capitalism, however, operates by methods of its own, that is to say, by anarchistic methods which constantly undermine its own work, set one country against another, and one branch of industry against another, developing some parts of world economy while hampering and throwing back the development of others. Only the correlations of these two fundamental tendencies – both of which arise from the nature of capitalism – explains to us the living texture of the historical process…
Imperialism, thanks to the universality, penetrability, and mobility and the break-neck speed of the formation of finance capital as the driving force of imperialism, lends vigor to both these tendencies. Imperialism links up incomparably more rapidly and more deeply the individual national and continental units into a single entity, bringing them into the closest and most vital dependence upon each other and rendering their economic methods, social forms, and levels of development more identical. At the same time, it attains this ‘goal’ by such antagonistic methods, such tiger-leaps, and such raids upon backward countries and areas that the unification and levelling of world economy which it has effected, is upset by it even more violently and convulsively than in the preceding epochs…
Uneven or sporadic development of various countries acts constantly to upset but in no case to eliminate the growing economic bonds and interdependence between those countries which the very next day, after four years of hellish slaughter, were compelled to exchange coal, bread, oil, powder , and suspenders with each other…
On the one hand, unevenness, i.e., sporadic historical development, stretches the proletarian revolution through an entire epoch in the course of which nations will enter the revolutionary flood one after another; while, on the other hand, the organic interdependence of the several countries, developing toward an international division of labor, excludes the possibility of building socialism in one country. [The Third International After Lenin, Pathfinder NY 1970, pp.19-22]
We thus see that the world bourgeoisie has made the stability of its State system profoundly dependent on the unstable pre-bourgeois bulwarks of reaction. This immediately gives the events now unfolding an international character and opens up a wide horizon. [Results and Prospects, New Park Publications, p.240]
The collapse of Russian capitalism was a local avalanche in a universal social formation. [History of the Russian Revolution: Appendix II, Vol. III, p.379]
…it is precisely the international strength of the United States and her irresistible expansion arising from it, that compels her to include the powder magazines of the whole world into the foundations of her structure, i.e., all the antagonisms between the East and the West, the class struggle in Old Europe, the uprisings of the colonial masses, and all wars and revolutions. … this transforms North American capitalism into the basic counter-revolutionary force of the modern epoch, constantly more interested in the maintenance of ‘order’ in every corner of the terrestrial globe… [The Third International After Lenin, Pathfinder NY 1970, p.8]
3. The Case of Czarist Russia
…the indubitable and irrefutable belatedness of Russia’s development under influence and pressure of the higher culture from the West, results not in a simple repetition of the West European historic process, but in the creation of profound peculiarities demanding independent study. [History of the Russian Revolution, Appendix 1, Vol 1, p.464]
Russian thought, like the Russian economy, developed under the direct pressure of the higher thought and more developed economies of the West. [Results and Prospects, New Park Publications, p.173]
Not to see this immense peculiarity of our historic development means not to see our whole history. [History of the Russian Revolution, Appendix 1, Vol 1, p.466]
Human development: from the primitive savagery of the northern forests where men eat raw fish and worship trees, to the most modern social relations of the capitalist city… The most concentrated industry in Europe, based on the most backward agriculture in Europe. The most colossal governmental apparatus in the world, exploiting all the achievements of technical progress – to arrest the historical progress of its own country. [1905 cited in The Social and Political Thought of Leon Trotsky, Baruch Knei-Paz, p.77]
Primitiveness and backwardness here cry to the heavens… The most primitive beginnings and the latest European endings…. [History of the Russian Revolution, Appendix 1, Vol 1, p468]
…capitalism in Russia did not develop out of the handicraft system. It conquered Russia with the economic culture of the whole of Europe behind it, and before it, as its immediate competitor, the helpless village craftsman or the wretched town craftsman, and it had the half-beggared peasantry as a reservoir of labour-power. Absolutism assisted in various ways in fettering the country with the shackles of capitalism.
In the first place it converted the Russian peasant into a tributary of the Stock Exchanges of the world…The European Stock Exchange was even directly interested in the maintenance of absolutism, for no other government could guarantee such usurious interest…
By economically enslaving this backward country, European capital projected its main branches of production and methods of communication across a whole series of intermediate technical and economic stages through which it had had to pass in its countries of origin. But the fewer obstacles it met with in the path of its economic domination, the more insignificant proved to be its political role. [Results and Prospects, New Park Publications, p.181-2]
At the moment when developing bourgeois society began to feel a need for the political institutions of the West, the autocracy proved to be armed with all the material might of the European States. [Results and Prospects, New Park Publications, p.175]
Thus the main thing was not that Russia was surrounded by enemies on all sides. This alone does not explain the position… [Results and Prospects, New Park Publications p.170]
…The quantitative contraction of the two stages was so great that it engendered an entirely new quality in the whole social structure of the nation. The most striking expression of this new ‘quality’ in politics is the October Revolution. [Permanent Revolution]
We have attributed the October revolution in the last analysis not to the fact of Russia’s backwardness, but to the law of combined development. The historical dialectic knows neither naked backwardness nor chemically pure progressiveness. It is all a question of concrete correlations. The present-day history of mankind is full of ‘paradoxes’, not so colossal as the arising of a proletarian dictatorship in a backward country, but of similar historic type… Scholastic, pedantically single-track, or too short national criteria are no good in our epoch. World development forced Russia out of her backwardness and her Asiaticness. Outside the web of this development, her further destiny cannot be understood. [History of the Russian Revolution: Appendix II, Vol. III]
Uneven, sporadic development thus compelled the proletariat of the most backward imperialist country to be the first to seize power. Formerly we were taught that it is precisely for this reason that the working class of the ‘weakest link’ will encounter the greatest difficulties in its progress towards socialism as compared with the proletariat of the advanced countries, who will find it more difficult to seize power but who, having seized power long before we have overcome our backwardness, will not only surpass us but will carry us along so as to bring us towards the point of real socialist construction on the basis of the highest world technology and international division of labour. This was our idea when we ventured upon the October Revolution. [The Third International After Lenin, Pathfinder NY 1970, p.56]
4. Marxist Method & ‘Dialectics’
Marxism is above all a method of analysis – not analysis of texts, but analysis of social relations… [Results and Prospects, New Park Publications, p.196]
To define the Soviet regime as transitional, or intermediate, means to abandon such finished social categories as capitalism (and therewith ‘state capitalism’) and also socialism…. The soviet union is a contradictory society half-way between capitalism and socialism… Doctrinaires will doubtless not be satisfied with this hypothetical definition. They would like categorical formulae… Sociological problems would certainly be simpler if social phenomena had always a finished character. There is nothing more dangerous, however, than to throw out of reality, for the sake of logical completeness, elements which today violate your scheme and tomorrow may wholly overturn it. In our analysis, we have above all avoided doing violence to dynamic social formations which have no precedent and have no analogies. The scientific task, as well as the political, is not to give a finished definition to an unfinished process, but to follow all its stages, separate its progressive from its reactionary tendencies, expose their mutual relations, foresee possible variants of development, and find in this foresight a basis for action.
[The Age of Permanent Revolution: a Trotsky Anthology, Deutscher, (ed), p.161-2]
The dialectic is neither fiction nor mysticism but a science of the forms of our thinking insofar as it is not limited to the daily problems of life but attempts to arrive at an understanding of more complicated and drawn-out processes…
I will here attempt to sketch the substance of the problem in a very concise form. The Aristotelian logic of the simple syllogism starts from the proposition that “A is equal to A.” This postulate is accepted as an axiom for a multitude of practical human actions and elementary generalisations. But in reality A is not equal to A. This is easy to prove if we observe these two letters under a lens – they are quite different from each other. But, one can object, the question is not of the size or the form of the letters, since they are only symbols for equal quantities, for instance, a pound of sugar. The objection is beside the point; in reality a pound of sugar is never equal to a pound of sugar – a more delicate scale always discloses a difference. Again one can object: but a pound of sugar is equal, to itself. Neither is this true – all bodies change uninterruptedly in size, weight, colour, etc. They are never equal to themselves. A sophist will respond that a pound of sugar is equal to itself “at any given moment.” Aside from the extremely dubious practical value of this “axiom,” it does not withstand theoretical criticism either. How should we really conceive the word “moment”? If it is an infinitessimal interval of time, then a pound of sugar is subjected during the course of that “moment” to inevitable changes. Or is the moment” a purely mathematical abstraction, that is, a zero of time? But everything exists in time; and existence itself is an uninterrupted process of transformation; time is consequently a fundamental element of existence. Thus the axiom “A is equal to A” signifies that a thing is equal to itself if it does not change, that is, if it does not exist.
At first glance it could seem that these “subtleties” are useless. In reality they are of decisive significance. The axiom “A is equal to A” appears on one hand to be the point of departure, for all our knowledge, on the other hand the point of departure for all the errors in our knowledge To make use of the axiom “A is equal to A” with impunity is possible only within certain limits. When quantitative changes in A are negligible for the task at hand, then we can presume that Ais equal to A. This is, for example, the manner in which a buyer and a seller consider a pound of sugar. We consider the temperature of the sun likewise. Until recently we considered the buying power of the dollar in the same way. But quantitative changes beyond certain limits become converted into qualitative ones. A pound of sugar subjected to the action of water or kerosene ceases to be a pound of sugar. A dollar in the embrace of a president ceases to be a dollar. To determine at the right moment the critical point where quantity changes into quality is one of the most important and difficult tasks in all the spheres of knowledge, including sociology.
Every worker knows that it is impossible to make two completely equal objects. In the elaboration of bearing brass into cone bearings, a certain deviation is allowed for the cones, which should not, however, go beyond certain limits (this is called “tolerance”). By observing the norms of tolerance, the cones are considered as being equal. (A is equal to A.) When the tolerance is exceeded the quantity goes over into quality; in other words, the cone bearings become inferior or completely worthless.
Our scientific thinking is only a part of our general practice including techniques. For concepts there also exists ‘tolerance’, which is established not by formal logic issuing from the axiom “Ais equal to A”, but by dialectical logic issuing from the axiom that everything is always changing. ‘Common sense’ is characterised by the fact that it systematically exceeds dialectical ‘tolerance’.
Vulgar thought operates with such concepts as capitalism, morals, freedom, workers’ state etc. as fixed abstractions, presuming that capitalism is equal to capitalism, morals are equal to morals etc. Dialectical thinking analyzes all things and phenomena in their continuous change, while determining in the material conditions of those changes that critical limit beyond which Aceases to be A, a workers’ state ceases to be a workers’ state.
The fundamental flaw of vulgar thought lies in the fact that it wishes to content itself with motionless imprints of a reality which consists of eternal motion. Dialectical thinking gives to concepts, by means of closer approximations, corrections, concretizations, a richness of content and flexibility; I would even say a succulence which, to a certain extent, brings them close to living phenomena. Not capitalism in general, but a given capitalism at a given stage of development. Not a workers’ state in general, but a given workers’ state in a backward country in an imperialist encirclement etc.
Dialectical thinking is related to vulgar thinking in the same way that a motion picture is related to a still photograph. The motion picture does not outlaw the still photograph but combines a series of them according to the laws of motion. Dialectics does not deny the syllogism, but teaches us to combine syllogisms in such a way as to bring our understanding closer to the eternally changing reality. Hegel in his [Science of] Logic [1812-16] established a series of laws: change of quantity into quality, development through contradictions, conflict of content and form, interruption of continuity, change of possibility into inevitability, etc., which are just as important for theoretical thought as is the simple syllogism for more elementary tasks.
Hegel wrote before Darwin and before Marx. Thanks to the powerful impulse given to thought by the French Revolution, Hegel anticipated the general movement of science. But because it was only an anticipation, although by a genius, it received from Hegel an idealistic character. Hegel operated with ideological shadows as the ultimate reality, Marx demonstrated that the movement of these ideological shadows reflected nothing but the movement of material bodies.
We call our dialectic, “materialist” since its roots are neither in heaven nor in the depths of our “free will,” but in objective reality, in nature. Consciousness grew out of the unconscious, psychology out of physiology, the organic world out of the inorganic, the solar system out of nebulae. On all the rungs of this ladder of development, the quantitative changes were transformed into qualitative. Our thought, in including dialectical thought, is only one of the forms of the expression of changing matter. There is place within this system for neither God, nor Devil, nor immortal soul, nor eternal norms of law and morals. The dialectic of thinking, having grown out of the dialectic of nature, possesses consequently a thoroughly materialist character.
Darwinism, which explained the evolution of species through quantitative transformations passing into qualitative, was the highest triumph of the dialectic in the whole field of organic matter. Another great triumph was the discovery of the table of atomic weights of chemical elements and, further, the transformation of one element into another.
With these transformations (species, elements, etc.) is closely linked the question of classification, equally important in the natural as in the social sciences. [The Swedish naturalist Carolus] Linnaeus’ system (eighteenth century), utilizing as its starting point the immutability of species, was limited to the description and classification of plants according to their external characteristics. The infantile period of botany is analogous to the infantile period of logic, since the forms of our thought develop like everything that lives. Only decisive repudiation of the idea of fixed species, only the study of the history of the evolution of plants and their anatomy prepared the basis for a really scientific classification.
Marx, who in distinction from Darwin was a conscious dialectician, discovered a basis for the scientific classification of human societies in the development of their productive forces and the structure of the relations of ownership which constitute the anatomy of society. Marxism substituted for the vulgar descriptive classification of societies and states, which even up to now still flourishes in the universities, a materialistic dialectical classification. Only through using the method of Marx is it possible correctly to determine both the concept of a workers’ state and the moment of its downfall.
All this, as we see, contains nothing “metaphysical” or “scholastic,” as conceited ignorance affirms. Dialectic logic expresses the laws of motion in contemporary scientific thought. The struggle against materialist dialectics on the contrary expresses a distant past, conservatism of the petty bourgeoisie, the self-conceit of university routinists and … a spark of hope for an afterlife.
[‘The ABC of Materialist Dialectics’, extracted in The Age of Permanent Revolution, edited by I. Deutscher]
Life has beaten rationalism out of me and has taught me the workings of dialectics. [My Life: An attempt at an Autobiography, p.95]
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