George Novack’s Understanding History

Uneven And Combined Development In History

1. The Uneven Course Of History

This essay aims to give a connected and comprehensive explanation of one of the fundamental laws of human history—the law of uneven and combined development. This is the first time, to my knowledge, that this has been undertaken. I shall try to show what this law is, how it has worked out in the main stages of history, and also how it can clarify some of the most puzzling social phenomena and political problems of our age.

The Dual Nature Of The Law

The law of uneven and combined development is a scientific law of the widest application to the historic process. This law has a dual character or, rather, it is a fusion of two closely connected laws. Its primary aspect deals with the different rates of growth among the various elements of social life. The second covers the concrete correlation of these unequally developed factors in the historic process.

The principal features of the law can be briefly summarised as follows. The mainspring of human progress is man’s command over the forces of production. As history advances, there occurs a faster or slower growth of productive forces in this or that segment of society, owing to the differences in natural conditions and historical connections. These disparities give either an expanded or a compressed character to entire historical epochs and impart varying rates and extents of growth to different peoples, different branches of economy, different classes, different social institutions and fields of culture. This is the essence of the law of uneven development.

These variations amongst the multiple factors in history provide the basis for the emergence of exceptional phenomena in which features of a lower stage are merged with those of a superior stage of social development. These combined formations have a highly contradictory character and exhibit marked peculiarities. They may deviate so much from the rule and effect such an upheaval as to produce a qualitative leap in social evolution and enable a formerly backward people to outdistance, for a certain time, a more advanced. This is the gist of the law of combined development.

It is obvious that these two laws, or these two aspects of a single law, do not stand upon the same level. The unevenness of development must precede any combinations of the disproportionately developed factors. The second law grows out of and depends upon the first, even though it reacts back upon it and affects its further operation.

The Historical Background

The discovery and formulation of this law is the outcome of over 2500 years of theoretical investigation into the modes of social development. The first observations upon which it is based were made by the Greek historians and philosophers. But the law itself was first brought into prominence and consistently applied by the founders of historical materialism, Marx and Engels, over a century ago. This law is one of Marxism’s greatest contributions to a scientific understanding of history and one of the most powerful instruments of historical analysis.

Marx and Engels derived the essence of this law in turn from the dialectical philosophy of Hegel. Hegel utilised the law in his works on universal history and the history of philosophy without, however, giving it any special name or explicit recognition.

Many dialectically minded thinkers before and since Hegel have likewise used this law in their studies and applied it more or less consciously to the solution of complex historical, social and political problems. All the outstanding theoreticians of Marxism, from Kautsky and Luxemburg to Plekhanov and Lenin, grasped its importance, observed its operations and consequences, and used it for the solution of problems which baffled other schools of thought.

An Example From Lenin

Let me cite an example from Lenin. He based his analysis of the first stage of the Russian Revolution in 1917 upon this law. In his “Letters From Afar”, he wrote to his Bolshevik collaborators from Switzerland: “The fact that the (February) revolution succeeded so quickly — is due to an unusual historical conjuncture where there combined, in a strikingly favourable manner, absolutely dissimilar movements, absolutely different class interests, absolutely opposed political and social tendencies.”[1]

What had happened? A section of the Russian nobility and landowners, the oppositional bourgeoisie, the radical intellectuals, the insurgent workers, peasants and soldiers, along with the Allied imperialists—these “absolutely dissimilar” social forces—had momentarily arrayed themselves against the tsarist autocracy, each for its own reasons. All together they besieged, isolated and overthrew the Romanov regime. This extraordinary conjuncture of circumstances and unrepeatable combination of forces had grown up out of the whole previous unevenness of Russian historical development with all its long-postponed and unsolved social and political problems exacerbated by the first imperialist world war.

The differences which had been submerged in the offensive against tsarism immediately asserted themselves and it did not take long for this de facto alliance of inherently opposing forces to disintegrate and break up. The allies of the February 1917 revolution became transformed into the irreconcilable foes of October 1917.

How did this hostility come about?, The overthrow of tsarisrn had in turn produced a new and higher unevenness in the situation, which may be summarised in the following formula. On the one hand, the objective conditions were ripe for the assumption of power by the workers; on the other hand, the Russian working class, and above all its leadership, had not yet correctly appraised the real situation or tested the new relationship of forces. Consequently they were subjectively unready to solve that supreme task. The unfolding of the class struggles from February to October 1917 may be said to consist in the growing recognition by the working class and its revolutionary leaders of what had to be done and in overcoming the disparity between the objective conditions and the subjective preparation. The gap between these was closed in action by the triumph of the Bolsheviks in the October Revolution which combined the proletarian conquest of power with the widespread peasant uprising.

The Formulator Of The Law

This process is fully explained by Trotsky in his History of the Russian Revolution. The Russian Revolution itself was the most striking example of uneven and combined development in modern history. In his classic analysis of this momentous event Trotsky gave to the Marxist movement the first explicit formulation of that law.

Trotsky, the theoretician, is most celebrated as the originator of the theory of the Permanent Revolution. It is likely that his exposition of the law of uneven and combined development will come to be ranged by its side in value. He not only gave this law its name but was also the first to expound its full significance and to give it a rounded expression.

These two contributions to the scientific understanding of social movement are in fact intimately interlinked. Trotsky’s conception of the Permanent Revolution resulted from his study of the peculiarities of Russian historical development in the light of the new problems presented to world socialism in the epoch of imperialism. These problems were especially acute and complex in backward countries where the bourgeois-democratic revolution had not yet taken place or set about to solve many of its most elementary tasks at a time when the proletarian revolution was already at hand. The fruits of his thinking on these questions, confirmed by the actual developments of the Russian Revolution, prepared and stimulated his subsequent elaboration of the law of uneven and combined development.

Indeed, Trotsky’s theory of the Permanent Revolution represents the most fruitful application of this very law to the key problems of the international class struggles in our own time, the epoch of the transition from the capitalist domination of the world to socialism, and offers the highest example of its penetrating power. However, the law itself is not only pertinent to the revolutionary events of the present epoch but, as we shall see, to the whole compass of social evolution. And it has even broader applications than that.

Uneven Development In Nature

So much for the historical background out of which the law of uneven and combined development has emerged. Let us now consider the scope of its application.

Although directly originating in the study of modern history, the law of uneven and combined development is rooted in features common to all processes of growth in nature as well as in society. Scientific investigators have emphasised the prevalence of unevenness in many fields. All the constituent elements of a thing, all the aspects of an event, all the factors in a process of development are not realised at the same rate or to an equal degree. Moreover, under differing material conditions, even the same thing exhibits different rates and grades of growth. Every rural farmer and urban gardener knows that.

In Life of the Past, G.G. Simpson, one of the foremost authorities on evolution, develops this same point along the following lines:

The most striking things about rates of evolution are that they vary enormously and that the fastest of them seem very slow to humans (including palaeontologists, I may say). If any one line of phylogeny is followed in the fossil record it is always found that different characters and parts evolve at quite different rates, and it is generally found that no one part evolves for long at the same rate. The horse brain evolved rapidly while the rest of the body was changing very little. Evolution of the brain was much more rapid during one relatively short span than at any other time. Evolution of the feet was practically at a standstill most of the time during horse evolution, but three times there were relatively rapid changes in foot mechanism.

Rates of evolution also vary greatly from one lineage to another, even among related lines. There are a number of animals living today that have changed very little for very long periods of time: a little brachiopod called Lingula, in some 400 million years; Limulus, the horseshoe “crab”—really more of a scorpion than a crab—in 175 million or more; Sphenodon, a lizard-like reptile now confined to New Zealand, in about 150 million years; Didelphis, the American oppossum, in a good 75 million years. These and the other animals for which evolution essentially stopped long ago all have relatives that evolved at usual or even at relatively fast rates.

There are, further, characteristic differences of rates in different groups. Most land animals have evolved faster than most sea animals—a generalisation not contradicted by the fact that some sea animals have evolved faster than some land animals. [pp. 137-138]

The evolution of entire orders of organisms has passed through a cycle of evolution marked by an initial phase of restricted, slow growth, followed by a shorter but intense period of “explosive expansion”, which in turn settled down into a prolonged phase of lesser changes.

In The Meaning of Evolution, G.G. Simpson states, “Times of rapid expansion, high variability and beginning adaptive radiation — are periods when enlarged opportunities are presented to groups able to pursue them” (pp. 72-73). Such an opportunity for explosive expansion was opened to the reptiles when they evolved to the point of independence from water as a living medium and burst into landscapes earlier barren of vertebrate life. Then a “quieter period ensues when the basic radiation has been completed” and the group can indulge in “the progressive enjoyment of a completed conquest”.

The evolution of our own species has already gone through the first phase of such a cycle and entered the second. The immediate animal forerunners of mankind went through a prolonged period of restricted growth as a lesser breed compared to others. Mankind arrived at its phase of “explosive expansion” only in the past million years or so, after the primate from which we are descended acquired the necessary social powers. However, the further development of mankind will not duplicate the cycle of animal evolution because the growth of society proceeds on a qualitatively different basis and is governed by its own unique laws.

The evolution of the distinctive human organism has been marked by considerable irregularity. The skull developed its present characteristics among our ape ancestors long before our flexible hands with the opposable thumb. It was only after our prototypes had acquired upright posture and working hands, that the brain inside the skull expanded to its present proportions and complexity.

What is true of entire orders and species of animals and plants holds good for its individual specimens. If equality prevailed in biological growth, each of the various organs in the body would develop simultaneously and to the same proportionate extent. But such perfect symmetry is not to be found in real life. In the growth of the human foetus some organs emerge before others and mature before others. The head and the neck are formed before the arms and legs, the heart at the third week and the lungs later on. As the sum of all these irregularities, we know that infants come out of the womb in different conditions, even with deformations, and certainly at varying intervals between conception and birth. The nine-month gestation period is no more than a statistical average. The date of delivery of a given baby can diverge by days, weeks or months from this average.

The frontal sinus, a late development in the primates since it is possessed only by the great apes and men, does not occur in young humans, but emerges after puberty. In many cases, it never develops at all.

The Uneven Evolution Of Primitive Societies

The development of social organisation, and of particular social structures, exhibits unevenness no less pronounced than the life histories of biological beings out of which it has emerged with the human race. The diverse elements of social existence have been created at different times, have evolved at widely varying rates, and grown to different degrees under different conditions and from one era to another.

Archaeologists divide human history into the Stone, Bronze and Iron Ages according to the main materials used in making tools and weapons. These three stages of technological development have had immensely different spans of life. The Stone Age lasted for around 900,000 years; the Bronze Age dates from 3000-4000 BC; the Iron Age is less than 4000 years old. Moreover, different sections of mankind passed through these stages at different dates in different parts of the world. The Stone Age ended before 3500 BC in Mesopotamia, about 1600 BC in Denmark, 1492 in America, and not until 1800 in New Zealand.

A similar unevenness in time-spans marks the evolution of social organisation. Savagery, when men lived by collecting food through foraging, hunting or fishing, extended over many hundred thousands of years while barbarism, which is based upon the breeding of animals and the raising of crops for food, dates back to about 8000 BC. Civilisation is little more than 6000 years old.

The production of regular, ample and growing food supplies effected a revolutionary advance in economic development which elevated food-producing peoples above backward tribes which continued to subsist on the gathering of food. Asia was the birthplace of both domestication of animals and of plants. It is uncertain which of these branches of productive activity preceded and grew out of the other, but archaeologists have uncovered remains of mixed farming communities which carried on both types of food production as early as 8000 BC.

There have been purely pastoral tribes, which depended exclusively on stock raising for their existence, as well as wholly agricultural peoples whose economy was based on the cultivation of cereals or tubers. The cultures of these specialised groups underwent a one-sided development by virtue of their particular type of production of the basic means of life. The purely pastoral mode of subsistence did not however contain the potentialities of development inherent in agriculture. Pastoral tribes could not incorporate the higher type of food production into their economies on any scale, without having to settle down and alter their entire mode of life. This became specially true after the introduction of the plough superseded the slash-and-burn techniques of gardening. They could not develop an extensive division of labour and go forward to village and city life, so long as they remained simply herders of stock.

The inherent superiority of agriculture over stockbreeding was demonstrated by the fact that dense populations and high civilisations could develop on the basis of agriculture alone, as the Aztec, Inca and Mayan civilisations of Middle and South America proved. Moreover, the agriculturalists could easily incorporate domesticated animals into their mode of production, blending food cultivation with stockbreeding and even transferring draft animals to the technology of agriculture through the invention of the plough.

It was the combination of stockbreeding and cereal cultivation in mixed farming that prepared inside barbaric society the elements of civilisation. This combination enabled the agricultural peoples to outstrip the purely pastoral tribes, and in the favourable conditions of the river valleys of Mesopotamia, Egypt, India and China to become the nurseries of civilisation.

Since the advent of civilisation peoples have existed on three essentially different levels of progress corresponding to their modes of securing the necessities of life: the food-gatherers, the elementary food-producers, and the mixed farmers with a highly developed division of labour and a growing exchange of commodities. The Greeks of the classical age were very highly conscious of this disparity in development between themselves and the backward peoples around them who still remained at earlier, lower stages of social existence. They summed up these differences by drawing a sharp distinction between civilised Greeks and barbarians. The historical connection and distance between them was explicitly articulated by the historian Thucydides when he said: “The Greeks lived once as the barbarians live now.”

The New World And The Old

The unevenness of world historical development has seldom been more conspicuously exhibited than when the aboriginal inhabitants of the Americas were first brought face to face with the white invaders from overseas Europe. At this juncture, two completely separated routes of social evolution, the products of from 10 to 20 thousand years of independent development in the two hemispheres, encountered each other. Both were forced to compare their rates of growth and measure their respective total achievements. This was one of the sharpest confrontations of different cultures in all history.

At this point the Stone Age collided with the late Iron and the early Machine Age. In hunting and in war the bow and arrow had to compete with the musket and cannon; in agriculture the hoe and the digging stick with the plough and draft animals; in water transportation, the canoe with the ship; in land locomotion, the human leg with the horse and the bare foot with the rolling wheel. In social organisation, tribal collectivism ran up against feudal-bourgeois institutions and customs; production for immediate community consumption against a money economy and international trade.

These contrasts between the American Indians and the West Europeans could be multiplied. However, the inequality of the human products of such widely separated stages of economic development was starkly apparent. They were so antagonistic and removed from each other that the Aztec chiefs at first identified the white newcomers with gods while the Europeans reciprocated by regarding and treating the natives like animals.

The historical inequality in productive and destructive powers in North America was not overcome, as we know, by the Indian adoption of white man’s ways and their gradual, peaceful assimilation into class society. On the contrary, it led to the dispossession and annihilation of the Indian tribes over the next four centuries.

The Backwardness Of Colonial Life

But if the white settlers thereby displayed their material superiority over the native peoples, they themselves were far behind their motherlands. The general backwardness of the North American continent and its colonies compared with Western Europe predetermined the main line of development here from the start of the 15th century to the middle of the 19th century. The central historical task of the Americans throughout this period was to catch up with Europe by overcoming the disparities in the social development of the two continents. How and by whom this was done is the main theme of American history throughout these three and a half centuries.

It required, among other things, two revolutions to complete the job. The colonial revolution which crowned the first stage of progress gave the American people political institutions more advanced than any in the Old World—and paved the way for rapid economic expansion. Even after winning national independence the United States had still to conquer its economic independence within the capitalist world. The economic gap between this country and the nations of Western Europe was narrowed in the first half of the 19th century and virtually closed up by the triumph of Northern industrial capitalism over the slave power in the Civil War. It did not take long after that for the United States to come abreast of the West European powers and outstrip them.

The Inequality Of Continents And Countries

These changes in the international position of the United States illustrate the unevennesses in the development between the metropolitan centres and the colonies, between the different continents, and between countries on the same continent.

A comparison of the diverse modes of production in the various countries brings out their unevenness most sharply. Slavery had virtually vanished as a mode of production on the mainland of Europe before it was brought to America—thanks to the needs of these very same Europeans. Serfdom had disappeared in England before it arose in Russia — and there were attempts to implant it in the North American colonies after it was on the way out in the mother country. In Bolivia, feudalism flourished under the Spanish conquerors and slavery languished while in the Southern English colonies feudalism was stunted and slavery flourished.

Capitalism was highly developed in Western Europe while only meagrely implanted in Eastern Europe. A similar disparity in capitalist development prevailed between the United States and Mexico.

Disparities in the quantity and quality of social formations in the course of their developments are so conspicuous and predominant that Trotsky terms unevenness “the most general law of the historic process”.[2] These inequalities are the specific expressions of the contradictory nature of social progress, of the dialectics of human development.

They occurred even at the lowest stages of social evolution. In New Light on Ancient America, the anthropologist Ralph Linton tells us that, in passing over from savagery toward barbarism, the central areas of progress among the American Indians changed places. “As long as the Americans remained in a hunting, food-gathering economy, northern North America was culturally the most advanced part of the continent. None of the pre-agricultural cultures that have been found south of the Great Plains and Northern Woodland areas compares with those of these areas in richness of content. With the rise of agriculture-based civilisations in Middle America, the situation was reversed. The main line of diffusion was now from south to north, and Middle American influences become increasingly recognisable over the whole area east of the Rockies.”

Internal Inequalities

The inequality of development between continents and countries is matched by an equally uneven growth of the various elements within each social grouping or national organism.

In a book on the American working class written by Karl Kautsky early in this century, the German Marxist pointed out some of the marked contrasts in the social development of Russia and the United States at that time. “Two states exist”, he wrote, “diametrically opposed to each other, each of which contains an element inordinately developed in comparison with their standard of capitalist production. In one state—America—it is the capitalist class. In Russia it is the proletariat. In no other country but America is there so much ground for speaking of the dictatorship of capital, while the proletariat has nowhere acquired such importance as in Russia.” This difference in development, which Kautsky described in the bud, has since become enormously accentuated.

Trotsky gave a superb analysis of the significance of such unevenness for explaining the course of a nation’s history in the opening chapter of his History of the Russian Revolution on “Peculiarities of Russia’s Development”. Tsarist Russia contained social forces belonging to three different stages of historical development. On top were the feudal elements: an overgrown Asiatic autocracy, a state clergy, a servile bureaucracy, a favoured landed nobility. Below them were a weak, unpopular bourgeoisie and a cowardly intelligentsia. These opposing phenomena were organically interconnected. They constituted different aspects of a unified social process. The very historical conditions which had preserved and fortified the predominance of the feudal forces—the slow tempo of Russian development, her economic backwardness, her primitiveness of social forms and low level of culture—had stunted the growth of the bourgeois forces and fostered their social and political feebleness.

That was one side of the situation. On the other side, the extreme backwardness of Russian history had left the agrarian and the national problems unsolved, producing a discontented, land-hungry peasantry and oppressed nationalities longing for freedom, while the late appearance of capitalist industry gave birth to highly concentrated industrial enterprises under the domination of foreign finance capital and an equally concentrated proletariat armed with the latest ideas, organisations and methods of struggle.

These sharp unevennesses in the social structure of tsarist Russia set the stage for the revolutionary events which started with the overthrow of a decayed medieval structure in 1917 and concluded in a few months with placing the proletariat and the Bolshevik Party in power. It is only by analysing and understanding them that it is possible to grasp why the Russian Revolution took place as it did.

Irregularities In Society

The pronounced irregularities to be found in history have led some thinkers to deny that there is, or can be, any causality or lawfulness in social development. The most fashionable school of American anthropologists, headed by the late Franz Boas, explicitly denied that there were any determinate sequence of stages to be discovered in social evolution or that the expressions of culture are shaped by technology or economy. According to R.H. Lowie, the foremost exponent of this viewpoint, cultural phenomena present merely a “planless hodgepodge”, a “chaotic jumble”. The “chaotic jumble” is all in the heads of these anti-materialists and anti-evolutionists, not in the history or the constitution of society.

It is possible for people living under Stone Age conditions in the 20th century to possess a radio though not to manufacture one. But it would be categorically impossible to find such a product of contemporary electronics buried with human remains in a Stone Age deposit of 20,000 years ago.

It does not take much penetration to see that the activities of food-gathering, foraging, hunting, fishing and fowling existed long before food production in the forms of gardening or stockbreeding. Or that stone tools preceded metal ones; speech came before writing; cave-dwellings before house-building; camps before villages; the exchange of goods before money. On a general historical scale, these sequences are absolutely inviolable.

The main characteristics of the simple social structures of savages are determined by their primitive methods of producing the means of life which, in turn, depend upon the low level of their productive forces. It is estimated that food-gathering peoples require from four to 40 square miles per capita to maintain themselves. They could neither produce nor maintain large concentrations of population on such an economic foundation. The groups usually numbered less than 40 persons and seldom exceeded 100. The inescapable smallness of their food supply and dispersion of their forces set strict limits to their development.

From Barbarism To Civilisation

What about the next higher stage of social development, barbarism? The noted archaeologist, V. Gordon Childe, has published in a book called Social Evolution a survey of the “successive steps through which barbarian cultures actually passed on the road to civilisation in contrasted natural environments”. He acknowledges that the starting point in the economic sphere was identical in all cases, “inasmuch as all the first barbarian cultures examined were based an the cultivation of the same cereals and the breeding of the same species of animals”. That is to say, barbarism is marked off from savage forms of life by the acquisition and application of the higher productive techniques of agriculture and stock raising.

He further points out that the final result—civilisation—although exhibiting concrete differences in each case, “yet everywhere did mean the aggregation of large populations in cities; the differentiation within these of primary producers (fishers, farmers, etc.), fulltime specialist artisans, merchants, officials, priests and rulers; an effective concentration of the economic and political power; the use of conventional symbols for recording and transmitting information (writing), and equally conventional standards of weights and measures, and of measures of time and space leading to some mathematical and calendrical science”.

At the same time Childe points out that “the intervening steps in development do not exhibit even abstract parallelism”. The rural economy of Egypt, for example, developed differently from that of temperate Europe. In Old World agriculture the hoe was replaced by the plough, a tool which was not even known to the Mayas.

The general conclusion which Childe draws from these facts is that “the development of barbarian rural economics in the regions surveyed exhibits not parallelism but divergence and convergence” (p. 162). But this does not go far enough. Viewed in their totality and historical interconnections, the many peoples which entered barbarism all started from the same essential economic activities, cereal cultivation and stockbreeding. They then underwent a diversified development according to different natural habitats and historical circumstances, and, provided they traversed the entire road to civilisation and were not arrested en route or obliterated, ultimately arrived at the same destination: civilisation.

The March Of Civilisation

What about the evolution of civilisation itself? Is that all a “planless hodgepodge”? When we analyse the march of mankind through civilisation, we see that its advanced segments passed successively through slavery, feudalism and capitalism and is now on the way toward socialism. This does not mean that every part of humanity passed, or had to pass, through this invariable sequence of historical stages, any more than each of the barbarians passed through the same sequence of stages. In each instance, it was necessary for the vanguard peoples to work their way through each given stage. But then their very achievements enabled those who followed after to combine or compress entire historical stages.

The real course of history, the passage from one social system to another, or from one level of social organisation to another, is far more complicated, heterogeneous and contradictory than is set forth in any general historical scheme. The historical scheme of universal social structures—savagery, barbarism, civilisation, with their respective stages—is an abstraction. It is an indispensable and rational abstraction which corresponds to the essential realities of development and serves to guide investigation. But it cannot be directly substituted for the analysis of any concrete segment of society.

A straight line may be the shortest distance between two points but we find that humanity frequently fails to take it. It more often follows the adage that the longest way round is the shortest way home.

Both regularity and irregularity are mingled together in history. The regularity is fundamentally determined by the character and development of the productive forces and the mode of producing the means of life. However, this basic determinism does not manifest itself in the actual development of society in a simple, direct and uniform fashion but in extremely complex, devious and heterogeneous ways.

The Uneven Evolution Of Capitalism

This is exemplified most emphatically in the evolution of capitalism and its component parts. Capitalism is a world economic system. Over the past five centuries it has spread from country to country and from continent to continent and passed through the successive phases of commercial capitalism, industrial capitalism, finance capitalism and state monopoly capitalism. Every country, however backward, has been drawn into the network of capitalist relations and become subject to its laws of operation. While every nation has become involved in the international division of labour at the base of the capitalist world market, each country has participated in its own peculiar way and to a different degree in the expression and the expansion of capitalism and played different roles at different stages of its development.

Capitalism rose to greater heights in Europe and North America than in Asia and Africa. These were interdependent phenomena, opposing sides of a single process. The capitalist underdevelopment in the colonies was a product and condition of the overdevelopment of the metropolitan areas at their expense.

The participation of various nations in the evolution of capitalism has been no less irregular. Holland and England took the lead in establishing capitalist forms and forces in the 16th and 17th centuries while North America was still largely possessed by the Indians. Yet in the final stage of capitalism in the 20th century the United States has far outdistanced England and Holland.

As capitalism absorbed one country after another into its orbit, it increased their dependence upon one another. But this growing interdependence did not mean that they followed identical paths or possessed the same characteristics. As they drew closer together economically, profound differences asserted themselves and separated them. Their national development in many respects did not proceed along parallel lines but at angles to each other, and sometimes even at right angles. They acquired not identical but complementary traits.

Same Causes—Different Effects

The rule that the same causes produce the same effects is not an unconditional and all-embracing one. The law holds good only when the historically produced conditions are the same—and since these are usually different for each country and constantly changing and interchanging with one another, the same basic causes can lead to very different, and even opposite, results.

For example, in the first half of the 19th century England and the United States were both governed by the same laws of industrial capitalism. But these laws had to operate under very different conditions in the two countries and, in the field of agriculture, they produced very different results. The enormous demand of British industry for cotton and cheap foodstuffs immensely stimulated American agriculture at the same time that these very economic factors strangled farming in England itself. The expansion of agriculture in the one country and its contraction in the other were opposite but interdependent consequences of the same economic causes.

To shift from economic to intellectual processes, the Russian Marxist Plekhanov pointed out in his remarkable work “The Development of the Monist View of History” how the uneven development of the diverse elements composing a national structure permits the same stock of ideas to produce very different impacts upon philosophical life. Speaking of ideological development in the 18th century, Plekhanov stated:

The very same fund of ideas leads to the militant atheism of the French materialists, to the religious indifferentism of Hume and to the “practical” religion of Kant. The reason was that the religious question in England at that time did not play the same part as it was playing in France, and in France not the same as in Germany. And this difference in the significance of the religious question was caused by the fact that in each of these countries the social forces were not in the same mutual relationship as in each of the others. Similar in their nature, but dissimilar in their degree of development the elements of society combined differently in the different European countries, and thereby brought it about that in each of them there was a very particular “state of minds and manners” which expressed itself in the national literature, philosophy, art, etc. In consequence of this, one and the same question might excite Frenchmen to passion and leave the British cold; one and the same argument a progressive German might treat with respect, while a progressive Frenchman would regard it with bitter hatred.[3]


I should like to close this examination of the processes of uneven development with a discussion of the problem of national peculiarities. Marxists are often accused by their opponents of denying, ignoring or underestimating national peculiarities in favour of universal historical laws. There is no truth to this criticism, although individual Marxists are sometimes guilty of such errors.

Marxists deny neither the existence nor the importance of national peculiarities. It would be theoretically stupid and practically reckless for them to do so, since national differences may be decisive in shaping the policy of the labour movement, of a minority struggle, or of a revolutionary party in a given country for a certain period. For example, most politically active workers in Britain follow the Labour Party. This monopoly is a prime peculiarity of Great Britain and the political development of its working people today. Marxists who failed to take this factor into account as the keystone of their organisational orientation would violate the spirit of their method.

Far from being indifferent to national differences, Marxism is the only historical method and sociological theory which adequately explains them, demonstrating how they are rooted in the material conditions of life and viewing them in their historical origins, development, disintegration and disappearance. The schools of bourgeois thought look upon national peculiarities in a different way, as inexplicable accidents, god-given birthrights, or fixed and final features of a particular people. Marxism regards them as historical products arising out of concrete combinations of worldwide forces and intra-national conditions.

This procedure of combining the general with the particular, and the abstract with the concrete, accords not only with the requirements of science but with our everyday habits of judgment. Every individual has a distinctive facial expression which enables us to recognise him and separate him from all others. At the same time we realise that this individual has the same kind of eyes, ears, mouth, forehead and other organs as the rest of the human race. In fact, the peculiar physiognomy which produces his distinctive expression is nothing but the outward manifestation of the specific complex of these common human structures and features. So it is with the life and the profile of any given nation.

Each nation has its own distinctive traits. But these national peculiarities arise out of the operation of general laws as they are modified by specific material and historical conditions. They are at bottom individual crystallisations of universal processes.

Trotsky concluded that national peculiarity is the most general product of the unevenness of historical development, its final result.

The Limits Of National Peculiarities

But however deep-seated these peculiarities may be in the social structure and however powerful their influence upon national life, national peculiarities are limited. First, they are limited in action. They do not replace the overriding processes of world economy and world politics nor can they abolish the operation of their laws.

Consider, for example, the different political consequences the 1929 world crisis had upon the United States and Germany, owing to their different historical backgrounds, special social structures and national political evolution. In one case Roosevelt’s New Deal came to power; in the other, Hitler’s fascism. The program of reform under bourgeois-democratic auspices and the program of counterrevolution under naked totalitarian dictatorship were totally different methods utilised by the respective capitalist classes to save their skins.

This contrast between the American and the German capitalist modes of self-preservation was exploited to the hilt by the apologists for American capitalism who attributed it to the inherently democratic spirit of the American nation and its capitalist rulers. In reality, the difference was due to the greater wealth and resources of US imperialism on the one hand, and the immaturity of its class relations and conflicts on the other.

However, at the very next stage and before the decade was over, the processes of imperialism drove both powers into a second world war to determine which would dominate the world market. Despite the significant differences in their internal political regimes, both arrived at the same destination. They remained subordinate to the same fundamental laws of capitalist imperialism and could not abolish their operation or avoid their consequences.

In the second place, national peculiarities have definite historical limits. They are not eternally fixed and absolutely final. Historical conditions generate and sustain them; new historical conditions can alter and eliminate them, even transform them into their opposites.

In the 19th century, Russia was the most reactionary country in Europe and in world politics; in the 20th century it became the most revolutionary. In the middle of the 19th century the United States was the most revolutionary and progressive nation; in the middle of the 20th century it has taken Russia’s place as the fortress of world counterrevolution. But this role, too, will not be everlasting, as will be indicated in the next section where we shall deal with the character and consequences of combined development.


[1] Lenin, “Letters from Afar”, Collected Works, Vol. 23 (Progress Publishers: Moscow, 1964), p. 302. (The translation is slightly different to that given here.)

[2] Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution (Monad Press: New York, 1980), Vol. 1, p. 5.

[3] Plekhanov, Selected Philosophical Works, Vol. I (Progress Publishers: Moscow, 1977), p. 635.