George Novack’s Understanding History

Uneven And Combined Development In History

4. Appendix: How To Apply A Law Of Sociology

William F. Warde’s series “The Law of Uneven and Combined Development” must have been very stimulating to British Marxists. In the complex and rapidly moving world of the 20th century a formal notion of eternal sequences for the development of societies is as useless as the idea that there are no law-governed processes at all in social life. Warde therefore does a service in highlighting that aspect of materialist dialectics which explains the result of a clash between, or a combination of, phenomena at different levels of development, e.g., American technical efficiency with semi-feudal—or recently tribal—economies and the accompanying customs.

The place of this law of uneven and combined development requires a systematic treatment as part of the dialectical method; meanwhile one question seems to be raised from Warde’s own material. A scientific law should outline the particular sets of conditions which give rise to a typical result in the given sphere of investigation. In sociology, a law of this kind is the law that the productive forces develop to a point where they demand a change in, first, the economic structure and then the political and ideological superstructure of a society. A definite dependence of one set of facts on another set is clearly stated. Can the law of uneven and combined development be seen in the same way? It states that factors developed to an uneven extent, either between societies or within one society, combine to form single formations of a contradictory character. If this generalisation is to be accorded the status of a law it should give clear guiding lines to the following problem, among others. Will the processes at work give rise to a dialectical leap forward in history, as in the October Revolution in Russia, or will they give rise to degenerative processes, as in the bureaucratic distortions of Stalin’s regime, or the destruction of the Tasmanian aborigines? One does not expect of course an answer to all questions which will be a substitute for analysis of each particular case, for that is the essence of the scientific method. But a law should state the characteristics of progressive as against regressive combinations. If this point can be cleared up, then other fruitful controversial problems can be raised later.


I do not clearly see why C.S. hesitates to accord the law of uneven and combined development the status of a law. Lawfulness is derived from ascertaining materially conditioned, necessary connections among phenomena. Laws formulate such necessary relations among the factors in a certain sector of reality in a generalised way. In natural science, for example, the early physicists Boyle, Charles, Gay-Lussac and Avagadro established simple relationships connecting the volume, temperature and pressure of gases which they formulated in elementary empirical laws.

Since different aspects of reality have their own laws, different laws do not operate on the same level of generality nor do they have the same degree of necessity. The broadest laws are formulated in the materialist dialectic of being and becoming, which embraces universal processes and modes of development. The law of the interpenetration of opposites belongs in this class. On the other hand there are particular laws which apply only within the limits of specific social-economic formations—as, for instance, the law of the growing concentration of capital which pertains exclusively to the capitalist system.

The law of uneven and combined development stands midway between these two types in its scope of operation. It belongs not to philosophy or to political economy but primarily to the science of sociology which seeks to discover the general laws of human evolution. It formulates certain important aspects of the historical tendencies of social development. It is more concrete than the law of the interpenetration of opposites, of which it is a specific expression, and less limited than the law of the concentration of capital.

The Material Source Of Unevenness

1. Historical materialism starts from the factual premise that men cannot exist without eating, drinking, etc. This is the supreme law of life.

2. This inescapable physical contradiction between eating and living which animals overcome by direct appropriation of and consumption of food is solved by mankind through labour activities.

3. The development of society is determined by the development of the productive forces at men’s command.

4. These productive forces give rise to certain definite relations of production which shape the rest of the social structure.

5. The further development of the productive forces eventually comes into conflict with the existing relations of production, initiating a revolutionary period which, if progressively resolved, results in the establishment of a higher social-economic order.

These are the main links in the chain of necessity which governs social development and in the logical reasoning of the scientific socialism which explains them. The law of uneven and combined development enters this chain at the following point: the productive forces which are the mainspring of the entire social movement developed unevenly from one time and place to another, from one people to another, and from one social formation to the next. These differences in the degree of development in turn produce disproportion not only between different segments of society but also among the various elements in any given social structure.

The fundamental lawfulness of the phenomena theoretically expressed in the law of uneven development comes from the observed, verifiable fact, running throughout history, that disproportions of various types emerge from the different rates of economic development. Given these disparities, certain consequences inescapably follow in the subsequent unfolding of the social process.

To prove the contrary, i.e., the lack of historical necessity in this law, it would have to be demonstrated that society proceeds in a different way; that the productive forces develop evenly and that the resultant social organisations and cultural superstructures consist of harmonious elements perfectly proportioned to one another.

The Further Course Of Evolution

From this basic starting point, the process goes on to a second stage formulated in the law of combined development, which is the essential supplement of the first. The diversely developed elements are united, not in simple homogeneous structures, but in complex, heterogeneous and sometimes highly contradictory ways.

The contradictory characteristics of the combinations do not depend only on the fact that the various formations and factors have evolved independently of one another and coexist on different levels of social development. The manner and consequences of the merger also depend upon the historical period in which they come together. It can make considerable difference whether the elements are united in precapitalist times, during the capitalist period, or under post-capitalist conditions.

After such combinations are brought into being, the process passes over to a still higher stage in which the emergence of new unevennesses in the situation leads to the conflict and dissociation of the previously synthesised, contradictory factors.

This sociological law, whose operations and effects can be observed throughout the course of history, has attained its maximum strength and scope under capitalism and during the period of transition to socialism because all the accumulated disproportions of historical development inherited from past ages come to a head and are entangled in the most acute contradictions at this juncture.

‘Circumstances Alter Cases’

The single difficulty raised in the remarks of C.S. is that the law of uneven and combined development ought to indicate without ambiguity what the specific outcome of its operation is going to be. It should enable us to foretell what the combination of factors at different levels of development will culminate in: a leap forward or retrogression.

The law cannot do that because its action and results do not depend upon itself alone as a theoretical formulation of general tendencies, but even more upon the total situation in which it functions. The latter is decisive. What determines the specific outcome of its operation are the material factors in their totality: the living structure of a society, the dynamics of its inner forces, and their historical and international connections.

One and the same law can give different results at different stages in the development of the same economic system, as the objective conditions of its operations change. The law of value, which is the supreme regulator of the capitalist system, energetically promotes the productive forces in its progressive period—and then in its further operation leads to the constriction of the productive forces in its declining monopolist-imperialist stage.

The law of uneven and combined development likewise leads to different results according to the specific circumstances of its operation. Under certain conditions the introduction of higher elements and their amalgamation with lower ones accelerates social progress; under other conditions, the synthesis can retard progress and even push it back for a time. Which trend will be dominant, whether progress or reaction will be favoured, depends upon the specific weight of all the factors in the given situation and the depth of the penetration of the higher ones.

Advanced elements cannot, in and of themselves, guarantee a comprehensive and uninterrupted forward movement unless and until they reach down into the foundations of the social system, revolutionise and reconstruct them. Otherwise their efficacy can be restricted and distorted.

Russian Development

Consider in this light the evolution of the Soviet Union since 1917, as Trotsky explained it in The Revolution Betrayed with the aid of the law of uneven and combined development. Trotsky pointed out how, in the first place, “the law of uneven development brought it about that the contradiction between the technique and property relations of capitalism (a universal feature in its death agony) shattered the weakest link in the world chain.”[5] The Russian Revolution was, as he stated elsewhere, a national avalanche in a universal social formation. “Backward Russian capitalism was the first to pay for the bankruptcy of world capitalism.”

Trotsky then observes that in general “the law of uneven development is supplemented throughout the whole course of history by the law of combined development”.[6]

What was its specific result in Russia? “The collapse of the bourgeoisie in Russia led to the proletarian dictatorship—that is, to a backward country’s leaping ahead of the advanced countries.” As we know, this caused a lot of grief to the schematic theorists in Russia and Western Europe who insisted that the workers could not and should not take power until capitalism had elevated the national economy to an advanced height.

But it also brought much genuine grief to the Russian people, as Trotsky goes onto explain. “However, the establishment of socialist forms of property in a backward country came up against the inadequate level of technique and culture.” That is, new types of unevenness emerged on the basis of the preceding achievements and on a higher historical level. “Itself born of the contradictions between high world productive forces and capitalist form of property, the October Revolution produced in its turn a contradiction between low national productive forces and socialist forms of property.”

While the achievements of the revolution—the nationalised property and planned economy—exercised a highly progressive action upon the Soviet Union, they were themselves subjected to the degrading influence of the low level of production in the isolated workers’ state. From this fundamental condition flowed all the degenerative effects witnessed in the Soviet state under the Stalinist regime, including that regime itself. The most advanced ideas and progressive productive relations could not prevail against the inadequacy of their economic substructure and suffered debasement as a result.

Thus unevenness prevents any simple, single straight line of direction in social development, and what we have instead is a complex, devious and contradictory route. The theoretical task is to analyse the dialectical interplay of action and reaction of the contending forces in their connection with the historical environment.

In this now the progressive tendencies and now the reactionary counterforces assert themselves and come to the fore.

China And Japan Under Imperialism

This dialectical interplay can be observed in the contradictory consequences brought about by the same historical factors in the neighbouring countries of China and Japan. Both of these formerly isolated and backward countries felt the impact of capitalist forces upon them in the 19th century. Western capitalism invaded China, penetrated its economy, and established political and military control over its main centres. Only the rivalry of the contending imperialisms saved China from outright division amongst them.

Although the intrusion of capitalism with the latest techniques in production, transport, commerce, finance and knowledge mangled and shook up China, these instruments of modern capitalism did not, on the whole, modernise Chinese life or emancipate it. On the contrary, entrenched imperialism propped up the most archaic institutions, the feudal landholding system, and helped the compradore bourgeoisie, landlords, officials and militarists prolong precapitalist forms of social organisation. Its grip prevented China from passing through a genuine bourgeois democratic renovation or having any independent capitalist development.

In the same period that these capitalist influences were stunting Chinese development, they were stimulating Japan. There the introduction of Western capitalist civilisation promoted a reorganisation of the country’s precapitalist structure from on top without revolutionary convulsions from below. Along with the Meiji Restoration, the capitalist agencies of change strengthened new classes of industrialists, merchants, financiers, who developed large-scale industry, trusts, banks and military power after the most advanced Western models. Instead of being a victim of Western imperialism, Japan became the supreme embodiment of Eastern imperialism, avidly flinging itself upon China for its share of the spoils.

Thus, in the first stage, under the given historical conditions, the law of uneven and combined development led to the degradation and subjugation of China, while Japan experienced a tremendous surge of national energy and achievement under capitalist auspices. Little wonder that in Japan nationalism poured into imperialist channels, while across the China Sea nationalism had to seek other outlets along anti-imperialist lines.

However, as we know, the world historical process swung in a different direction following the First World War and the Russian Revolution, and this affected the trend of development in the Far East.

Even during the first period of the merger of Western capitalism with Far Eastern life, tendencies emerged that ran counter to the dominant direction of development in both countries. In Japan, the imperialist regime—product of the highest stage of world and national evolution—was headed by an Emperor cult carried over from pre-feudal times. Its capitalist structure bulged with bizarre combinations and extreme disproportions. Modern factories and workshops sprang up in the cities while feudal relations in the countryside remained unaltered. Light industry was overdeveloped, while the heavy industry from which contemporary mastery is derived remained underdeveloped. The military, equipped with the latest weapons, remained animated by feudal traditions. Because of its reformation from above instead of revolutionisation from below, democracy was feeble and parliamentary life flimsy. This incomplete modernisation of Japan’s social structure culminated in a supreme disproportion: the imperialist program imposed upon that latecomer by the needs of national capitalist expansion and world competition were beyond the capacities of its forces and resources. The result was the debacle suffered by Japanese militarism in the Second World War.

After The Russian Revolution

Meanwhile, China’s backwardness under imperialism built up the impetus for its forward leap at the next stage. Along with the venal and weak compradore bourgeoisie, represented by Chiang Kai-shek, the Westernisation process created a modern proletariat. The unsolved but pressing problems of national unification and independence, agrarian revolution, industrialisation, etc., which imperialism blocked and Chiang’s regime could not tackle, gave an explosive force to the popular movements for their solution.

After the Russian Revolution, world historical factors of a higher order intervened in the Far East and with special force in China. The influences emanating from the October Revolution and the Soviet Union permeated China more effectively than the capitalist ideas and forces of Western imperialism had penetrated Japan.

Thanks to the power of these influences on an international and national scale, China, so long dragged down by imperialism and its servitors, rose up after the Second World War. In the process of tackling the long-postponed historical task, the movements of the proletarian and peasant masses lifted the country over native capitalism into the first stage of a workers’ state.

This mighty leap reversed the relations between China and Japan. Under the pressures of world capitalism, Japan had climbed from feudalism to imperialism in a couple of generations, while China was held down by the same forces. Then, at the next stage, under the combined pressures of reactionary imperialism and progressive socialism (intermixed with Stalinism) China vaulted beyond capitalism and took the lead from Japan.

Thus each of the two series of historical influences, the first issuing from capitalism in the 19th century, the second from post-capitalist movements in the 20th century, had very different impacts upon the development of the two neighbouring countries. This demonstrates how the consequences of the law of uneven and combined development depend upon the action and reaction of the new forces upon the old; the concrete reality at any given stage is a resultant of the dynamic interplay between them. These can acquire the most divergent forms.

‘The Truth Is Concrete’

A sociological generalisation like the law of uneven and combined development can serve only as a guide to the investigation and analysis of the processes at work in a given social environment. It can help us understand the peculiarities of past history and orient us in respect to the peculiarities of unfolding social processes. But it cannot categorically tell us in advance what will issue from its further operation. The specific results are determined by the struggle of living forces on the national and international arenas.

The law of uneven and combined development expresses certain features of the dialectics of history. The dialectic is “the algebra of revolution” and evolution. That is to say, it formulates certain necessary aspects, relations or tendencies of reality in a general form, extracted from specific conditions. Before its abstract algebraic qualities can be converted into definite, “arithmetic” quantities, they have to be applied to the substance of a particular reality. In every new case and at every successive stage of development, specific analysis is necessary of the actual relations and tendencies in their connection and continual interaction. The dialectical formulas are abstract but “the truth is concrete”.


[5] Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed (Pathfinder Press: New York, 1972), p. 299.

[6] Ibid., p. 300.