MIA: Encyclopedia of Marxism: Glossary of Terms




The first premise of all human existence and, therefore, of all history, [is that humans] must be in a position to live in order to be able to "make history". But life involves before everything else eating and drinking, a habitation, clothing and many other things. The first historical act is thus the production of the means to satisfy these needs, the production of material life itself. And indeed this is an historical act, a fundamental condition of all history, which today, as thousands of years ago, must daily and hourly be fulfilled merely in order to sustain human life.

Karl Marx
German Ideology: History: Fundamental Conditions

Labour is, in the first place, a process in which both man and Nature participate, and in which man of his own accord starts, regulates, and controls the material re-actions between himself and Nature. He opposes himself to Nature as one of her own forces, setting in motion arms and legs, head and hands, the natural forces of his body, in order to appropriate Nature's productions in a form adapted to his own wants. By thus acting on the external world and changing it, he at the same time changes his own nature. He develops his slumbering powers and compels them to act in obedience to his sway. We are not now dealing with those primitive instinctive forms of labour that remind us of the mere animal. An immeasurable interval of time separates the state of things in which  a man brings his labour-power to market for sale as a commodity, from that state in which human labour was still in its first instinctive stage. We pre-suppose labour in a form that stamps it as exclusively human. A spider conducts operations that resemble those of a weaver, and a bee puts to shame many an architect in the construction of her cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality. At the end of every labour-process, we get a result that already existed in the imagination of the labourer at its commencement. He not only effects a change of form in the material on which he works, but he also realises a purpose of his own that gives the law to his modus operandi, and to which he must subordinate his will. And this subordination is no mere momentary act. Besides the exertion of the bodily organs, the process demands that, during the whole operation, the workman's will be steadily in consonance with his purpose. This means close attention. The less he is attracted by the nature of the work, and the mode in which it is carried on, and the less, therefore, he enjoys it as something which gives play to his bodily and mental powers, the more close his attention is forced to be.

The elementary factors of the labour-process are 1), the personal activity of man, i.e., work itself, [as described above] 2), the subject of that work, and 3), its instruments.

In the labour-process, therefore, man's activity, with the help of the instruments of labour, effects an alteration, designed from the commencement, in the material worked upon. The process disappears in the product, the latter is a use-value, Nature's material adapted by a change of form to the wants of man. Labour has incorporated itself with its subject: the former is materialised, the latter transformed. That which in the labourer appeared as movement, now appears in the product as a fixed quality without motion. The blacksmith forges and the product is a forging.

If we examine the whole process from the point of view of its result, the product, it is plain that both the instruments and the subject of labour, are means of production, and that the labour itself is productive labour.

Labour uses up its material factors, its subject and its instruments, consumes them, and is therefore a process of consumption. Such productive consumption is distinguished from individual consumption by this, that the latter uses up products, as means of subsistence for the living individual; the former, as means whereby alone, labour, the labour-power of the living individual, is enabled to act. The product, therefore, of individual consumption, is the consumer himself; the result of productive consumption, is a product distinct from the consumer.

In so far then, as its instruments and subjects are themselves products, labour consumes products in order to create products, or in other words, consumes one set of products by turning them into means of production for another set.

The labour-process, turned into the process by which the capitalist consumes labour-power, exhibits two characteristic phenomena. First, the labourer works under the control of the capitalist to whom his labour belongs; the capitalist taking good care that the work is done in a proper manner, and that the means of production are used with intelligence, so that there is no unnecessary waste of raw material, and no wear and tear of the implements beyond what is necessarily caused by the work.

Secondly, the product is the property of the capitalist and not that of the labourer, its immediate producer. Suppose that a capitalist pays for a day's labour-power at its value; then the right to use that power for a day belongs to him, just as much as the right to use any other commodity, such as a horse that he has hired for the day. To the purchaser of a commodity belongs its use, and the seller of labour-power, by giving his labour, does no more, in reality, than part with the use-value that he has sold. From the instant he steps into the workshop, the use-value of his labour-power, and therefore also its use, which is labour, belongs to the capitalist. By the purchase of labour-power, the capitalist incorporates labour, as a living ferment, with the lifeless constituents of the product. From his point of view, the labour-process is nothing more than the consumption of the commodity purchased, i. e., of labour-power; but this consumption cannot be effected except by supplying the labour-power with the means of production. The labour-process is a process between things that the capitalist has purchased, things that have become his property. The product of this process belongs, therefore, to him, just as much as does the wine which is the product of a process of fermentation completed in his cellar.

Karl Marx
Capital: The Labour-Process And The Process Of Producing Surplus-Value

See also: Labour is one factor of the Productive Forces. Also see Labour Power and the Division of Labour.


Labour Power

[The combination] of those mental and physical capabilities existing in a human being, which he exercises whenever he produces a use-value of any description.

Labour Power as a Commodity: In order that labor power is a commodity, the following conditions must be met:

[1] The individual whose labour-power it is... sells it as a commodity. In order that he may be able to do this, he must have it at his disposal, must be the untrammelled owner of his capacity for labour, i.e., of his person. He and the owner of money meet in the market, and deal with each other as on the basis of equal rights, with this difference alone, that one is buyer, the other seller; both, therefore, equal in the eyes of the law. The continuance of this relation demands that the owner of the labour-power should sell it only for a definite period, for if he were to sell it rump and stump, once for all, he would be selling himself, converting himself from a free man into a slave, from an owner of a commodity into a commodity.

The second essential condition to the owner of money finding labour-power in the market as a commodity is this — that the labourer instead of being in the position to sell commodities in which his labour is incorporated, must be obliged to offer for sale as a commodity that very labour-power, which exists only in his living self.

For the conversion of his money into capital, therefore, the owner of money must meet in the market with the free labourer, free in the double sense, that as a free man he can dispose of his labour-power as his own commodity, and that on the other hand he has no other commodity for sale, is short of everything necessary for the realisation of his labour-power.

How the Value of Labour Power is Determined:

The value of labour-power is the value of the means of subsistence necessary for the maintenance of the labourer.

The value of labour-power is determined, as in the case of every other commodity, by the labour-time necessary for the production, and consequently also the reproduction, of this special article. So far as it has value, it represents no more than a definite quantity of the average labour of society incorporated in it. Labour-power exists only as a capacity, or power of the living individual. Its production consequently pre-supposes his existence. Given the individual, the production of labour-power consists in his reproduction of himself or his maintenance. For his maintenance he requires a given quantity of the means of subsistence. Therefore the labour-time requisite for the production of labour-power reduces itself to that necessary for the production of those means of subsistence; in other words, the value of labour-power is the value of the means of subsistence necessary for the maintenance of the labourer....

The owner of labour-power is mortal. If then his appearance in the market is to be continuous, and the continuous conversion of money into capital assumes this, the seller of labour-power must perpetuate himself, "in the way that every living individual perpetuates himself, by procreation." The labour-power withdrawn from the market by wear and tear and death, must be continually replaced by, at the very least, an equal amount of fresh labour-power. Hence the sum of the means of subsistence necessary for the production of labour-power must include the means necessary for the labourer's substitutes, i.e., his children, in order that this race of peculiar commodity-owners may perpetuate its appearance in the market.

The minimum limit of the value of labour-power is determined by the value of the commodities, without the daily supply of which the labourer cannot renew his vital energy, consequently by the value of those means of subsistence that are physically indispensable. If the price of labour-power fall to this minimum, it falls below its value, since under such circumstances it can be maintained and developed only in a crippled state. But the value of every commodity is determined by the labour-time requisite to turn it out so as to be of normal quality.

[All Quotes]
Karl Marx
Capital, Vol. 1: The Buying And Selling Of Labour-Power

Further Reading: Capital, Vol. 1: The Buying And Selling Of Labour-Power.



Labour Standard

1. (in Russia) The amount of land that could be tilled by its owner without outside help.

Labour Theory of Value

The labour theory of value is the proposition that the value of a commodity is equal the quantity of socially necessary labour-time required for its production.

The “germ” of bourgeois society is the commodity relation, by means of which the labour of one person is brought into relation with that of another person and exchanged. The quantitative aspect of that act of measuring the labour of one against the labour of another is the determination of value. A central part of Marx’s study of bourgeois society was his study of this value-relation:

“... that which determines the magnitude of the value of any article is the ... the labour-time socially necessary for its production. Each individual commodity, in this connection, is to be considered as an average sample of its class. Commodities, therefore, in which equal quantities of labour are embodied, or which can be produced in the same time, have the same value. The value of one commodity is to the value of any other, as the labour-time necessary for the production of the one is to that necessary for the production of the other. ‘As values, all commodities are only definite masses of congealed labour-time.’ ” [Capital, Chapter 1]

That it is the quantity of labour-time required to produce a commodity which determines its value (or “natural price”) in bourgeois society was by no means a discovery of Marx, but was an observation dating back to ancient times. Adam Smith formulated it as follows:

“The value of any commodity, therefore, to the person who possesses it, and who means not to use or consume it himself, but to exchange it for other commodities, is equal to the quantity of labour which it enables him to purchase or command. Labour, therefore, is the real measure of the exchangeable value of all commodities.

“The real price of everything, what everything really costs to the man who wants to acquire it, is the toil and trouble of acquiring it. What everything is really worth to the man who has acquired it, and who wants to dispose of it or exchange it for something else, is the toil and trouble which it can save to himself, and which it can impose upon other people.” [Wealth of Nations, Chapter 5]

There can be no doubt that the labour theory of value tells us important things about the way people relate to one another in bourgeois society and the growth of these relations into entities which take on the appearance of objective laws of nature. Nevertheless, it should not be thought that Marx shared the view of the political economists that the labour theory of value constituted such a law of nature or eternal law of society or that in that sense, that Marx was developing a branch of social science in the writing of Capital. Marx studied the “social science” writing of the political economists as the more consistent and worked out formulations of the same forms of consciousness that they claimed to study.

Thus, for Marx, the labour theory of value is a form of consciousness which is “natural” on the basis of social relations founded on commodity production. It is itself a “fetishism” of exactly the kind described in Section 4, Chapter 1 of Capital:

“Whence, then, arises the enigmatical character of the product of labour, so soon as it assumes the form of commodities? Clearly from this form itself. The equality of all sorts of human labour is expressed objectively by their products all being equally values; the measure of the expenditure of labour-power by the duration of that expenditure, takes the form of the quantity of value of the products of labour; and finally the mutual relations of the producers, within which the social character of their labour affirms itself, take the form of a social relation between the products.

“A commodity is therefore a mysterious thing, simply because in it the social character of men’s labour appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labour; because the relation of the producers to the sum total of their own labour is presented to them as a social relation, existing not between themselves, but between the products of their labour. This is the reason why the products of labour become commodities, social things whose qualities are at the same time perceptible and imperceptible by the senses. In the same way the light from an object is perceived by us not as the subjective excitation of our optic nerve, but as the objective form of something outside the eye itself. But, in the act of seeing, there is at all events, an actual passage of light from one thing to another, from the external object to the eye. There is a physical relation between physical things. But it is different with commodities. There, the existence of the things qua commodities, and the value-relation between the products of labour which stamps them as commodities, have absolutely no connection with their physical properties and with the material relations arising therefrom. There it is a definite social relation between men, that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things. In order, therefore, to find an analogy, we must have recourse to the mist-enveloped regions of the religious world. In that world the productions of the human brain appear as independent beings endowed with life, and entering into relation both with one another and the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands. This I call the Fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour, so soon as they are produced as commodities, and which is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities.

“This Fetishism of commodities has its origin, as the foregoing analysis has already shown, in the peculiar social character of the labour that produces them.

“As a general rule, articles of utility become commodities, only because they are products of the labour of private individuals or groups of individuals who carry on their work independently of each other. The sum total of the labour of all these private individuals forms the aggregate labour of society. Since the producers do not come into social contact with each other until they exchange their products, the specific social character of each producer’s labour does not show itself except in the act of exchange. In other words, the labour of the individual asserts itself as a part of the labour of society, only by means of the relations which the act of exchange establishes directly between the products, and indirectly, through them, between the producers. To the latter, therefore, the relations connecting the labour of one individual with that of the rest appear, not as direct social relations between individuals at work, but as what they really are, material relations between persons and social relations between things. It is only by being exchanged that the products of labour acquire, as values, one uniform social status, distinct from their varied forms of existence as objects of utility.” [Capital, Chapter 1]

Nowadays, many people say that “Marx’s theory of value is out of date” by which one can presume is meant “value is no longer determined by the quantity of labour-time required for its production”, for Marx only claimed to describe the dynamics of social relations of the bourgeois society of his day, not to have constructed an eternal scientific theory. The question remains though: is labour-time now irrelevant to value determination? Have we changed our values in this respect?

For example Nike shoes, produced by sweated labour in “free trade zones” by people who do not earn enough in a week to buy one pair of the shoes they produce in five minutes, while Michael Jordan is paid more than the entire Indonesian labour force for lending his name to the product.

Firstly, integral to this trick is maintaining the separation between the workers in these countries and workers in the country where the shoes will be consumed. The act of exchange is an act of measuring the value of one person against that of another. Within bourgeois society “the notion of human equality has already acquired the fixity of a popular prejudice” but it is a fact that this notion does not yet extend from an imperialist country to people in the “Third World”.

“The secret of the expression of value, namely, that all kinds of labour are equal and equivalent, because, and so far as they are human labour in general, cannot be deciphered, until the notion of human equality has already acquired the fixity of a popular prejudice. This, however, is possible only in a society in which the great mass of the produce of labour takes the form of commodities, in which, consequently, the dominant relation between man and man, is that of owners of commodities. [Capital, Chapter 1]

The labour of an animal or a slave and equally that of a distant foreigner is consumed as such, adding value according to the cost of acquiring it, and does not create labour. Insofar as these countries become part of the same market and merge with the working class of the imperialist countries and enjoy the same rights and standard of living, then this aspect of the issue will disappear.

Further however, Intellectual Property laws ensure that it is not possible for anyone else to make a Nike shoe – a sneaker, for all intents the same, but a copy, not a Nike, not a sneaker with the Nike brand name. Consequently, the equivalence of labour, of the content of socially necessary labour, is indeterminate. Adam Smith put it:

“What everything is really worth to the man who has acquired it, and who wants to dispose of it or exchange it for something else, is the toil and trouble which it can save to himself”,

and if there is no way of getting a Nike shoe other than buying one off Nike, then the question is: exactly what need is being fulfilled by buying a Nike shoe? What other equivalent means is there of satisfying this need? Obviously it is not a need that can be fulfilled by just any sneaker, and:

“A commodity is, in the first place, an object outside us, a thing that by its properties satisfies human wants of some sort or another. The nature of such wants, whether, for instance, they spring from the stomach or from fancy, makes no difference” . [Capital, Chapter 1]

So the fact is that the young person who purchases a Nike sneaker is paying not for the few minutes of labour involved in gluing together the pieces of rubber and plastic, but for the “image” or “aura” surrounding the Brand name which is far more costly.

So it would seem that the claim that the labour theory of value is no longer applicable is misguided; what has changed is the nature of human needs, which in this postmodern world, are very different from what those of the world in which life hinged more around food, warm and security than image, and the manner of their satisfaction. For example, if one determined the value of two hours spent in a cinema watching Moulin Rouge without taking account of the complex emotional and cultural qualities of the images and story line of the movie, and the labour-time involved in producing that, it would be quite impossible to understand what the moviegoers were paying for.



Laissez Faire

Laissez faire is the economic policy in which the government reduces its interference in the economic affairs to a minimum.

Sismondi credits the idea to the Physiocrats, who, he says:

“incessantly repeated laissez faire et laissez passer (let every man do as he pleases, and every thing take its course) for as the public interest consists in the union of all individual interests, individual interest will guide each man more surely to the public interest than any government can do. An excessive ferment was excited in France by the system. The government of that nation allowed the people to talk about public affairs, but not to understand them.” [Sismondi, Political Economy, 1815]

Laissez faire was a popular belief in early to mid-nineteenth century Britain, resting on Adam Smith’s metaphor of an “Invisible Hand” which operates through the market, but even in the nineteenth century, no economist would have advised a government to simply leave the market alone. All the great political economists advised the government to intervene in the economy one way or another.

After the Great Depression, laissez faire fell into disrepute, but following the failure of Keynesian economics in the 1970s, it enjoyed somewhat of a resurgence among right-wing monetarists.

The economic basket-case of post-1991 former Soviet countries results to a large extent from over-zealous laissez faire policies, all the more damaging due to the lack of a mature bourgeoisie capable of running a market economy or government capable of regulating the market even if they wanted to.



Language is the sign-system which fulfills the communicative and cognitive role in human activity. Marx defines language as the “immediate actuality of thought”:

As old as consciousness, language is practical, real consciousness that exists for other people as well, and therefore does it exist for me; language like consciousness, only arises from the need, the necessity, of intercourse with other people. [German Ideology]

Marx could have had today's philosophers in mind when he wrote in The German Ideology:

One of the most difficult tasks confronting the philosopher is to descend from the world of thought to the actual world. Language is the immediate actuality of thought. Just as philosophers have given thought an independent existence, so they were bound to make philosophical language, in which thoughts in the form of words have their own content. The problem of descending from the world of thoughts to the actual world is turned into the problem of descending from language to life

We have shown that thoughts and ideas acquire an independnent existence in consequence of the personal circumstances and relations of individuals acquiring independent existence. We have shown that exclusive, systematic occupation with these thoughts on the part of ideologists and philosophers, and hence the systematisation of these thoughts, is a consequence of division of labour, and that, in particular German philosophy is a consequence of German petit-bourgeois conditions. The philosophers have only to dissolve their language into the ordinary language, from which it is abstracted, in order to recognise it as the distorted language of the actual world, and to realise that neither thoughts nor language in themselves form a realm of their own, that they are only manifestations of actual life.

The main citadel from which contemporary bourgeois philosophy attacks socialist thinking is literary criticism which passes itself off as social criticism, and has its roots in certain trends in the science of linguistics. See the biographies of Ferdinand de Saussure, Roman Jakobson, Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida.

Further Reading: See Thinking and Speaking by Lev Vygotsky, for a Marxist account of language, The German Ideology, Role of Labour in Transition from Ape to Man, Science of Logic, Hegel's First system (Marcuse) and Speech and Writing according to Hegel (Derrida).



Socialist-Idealist trend that frequently opposed Marxism, named after the Socialist Ferdinand Lassalle.

Lassalle wrote the Science and the Working Man:

"The course of history, is a struggle against nature, against ignorance and impotence, and consequently, against slavery and bondage of every kind in which we were held under the law of nature at the beginning of history. The progressive overcoming of this impotence is the evolution of liberty, of which history is an account. In this struggle humanity would never have made one step in advance, and men gone into the struggle singly, each for himself. The state is the contemplated unity and co-operation of individuals in a moral whole, whose function it is to carry on this struggle, a combination which multiplies a million-fold the forces of all the individuals comprised in it, and which heightens a million times the powers which each individual would be able to exert singly."

Lassalleans believed that the proletariat represented community, solidarity of interest, and reciprocity of interest; therefore the cause of the workers is the cause of humanity – when the proletariat gains political supremacy, a higher degree of morality, culture and science would occur.

Lassalleans believed in the State as the organ of right and justice, and that only through the mechanisms of the existing State could the proletarian victory be gained; revolution was not only unnecessary, it was to the detriment of the cause of the proletariat. "The aim of the State is the education and development of liberty in the human race."


Last Testament

See: Lenin's Last Testament



(1) In modern society, law is the written, authentic, public system of rights and sanctions enforceable by the state. In earlier forms of society, law was not written, and the enforcing institution was not the state. (2) In science, law is the expression of regularity in phenomena.

(1) Giving a formally correct definition of law faces the difficulty that when a law or system of law is seriously called into question, the matter is resolved by social conflict and violence or threat of violence, but law invariably explicitly excludes such a possibility. Thus law can only codify rights embedded in the existing state and in particular the interests of the ruling class in society. By codifying rights reflecting the balance of brute force, the appearance is given of authority standing above society and social interests and violence.

“In civil law the existing property relationships are declared to be the result of the general will.” [German Ideology]

Nevertheless, law is far from just being some kind of fraud perpetrated by the powers that be; class rule entails the creation of objective forms which predominate over the caprice of individual will, and for 99 per cent of the time law indeed acts as an objective force; at least it does so in a developed and mature social formation.

Further, what gets codified in law, as a result of actions by legislators and judges can only give a determinate form to the real social practice, either as it is, or as it becoming. A law that is out of line with reality “on the ground” is, as the saying goes, “an ass”, and deserves to be flouted.

“Whenever, through the development of industry and commerce, new forms of intercourse have been evolved, the law has always been compelled to admit them.” [German Ideology]

While above we have explained the content of law, it is also necessary to explain the form of law. Leading Marxist thinker Evgeny Pashukanis espoused that law is created when the class system begins, and that the rule of capitalist law will largely carry itself over into Socialism; that there is no such thing as workers' law, only the dismantling of capitalist law, as society moves from capitalism to socialism, and from socialism into communism.

Naturally, it was on this basis that Pashukanis was attacked by the Stalinists, who believed in increasing the power of the state (and thus the rule of law), and in building up a gigantic bureaucracy around a myriad of rules and regulations. The Stalinists attempted to argue that law is an instrument of class rule, and as a result that workers' should use it just as any other class has in the past -- completely misunderstanding that the essence of workers' rule is the destruction of the state, and thus, that by enforcing and building up the power of the state, the rule of workers is crushed. Pashukanis emphasised that the rule of law is not neutral, that law is tied to political economy, and that just as exploitation cannot be class neutral, nor can law -- both institutions must be abolished during the Socialist transformation.

The Stalinists would often quote Lenin piecemeal and out of context, showing him supporting the supression of capitalists as a necessity for workers' power, neglecting to quote more than sentance fragments. In the following passage, Lenin re-iterates what Marx laid out in the Critique of the Gotha Programme:

In its first phase, or first stage, communism cannot as yet be fully mature economically and entirely free from traditions or vestiges of capitalism. Hence the interesting phenomenon that communism in its first phase retains "the narrow horizon of bourgeois law". Of course, bourgeois law in regard to the distribution of consumer goods inevitably presupposes the existence of the bourgeois state, for law is nothing without an apparatus capable of enforcing the observance of the rules of law.

It follows that under communism there remains for a time not only bourgeois law, but even the bourgeois state, without the bourgeoisie! This may sound like a paradox or simply a dialectical conundrum of which Marxism is often accused by people who have not taken the slightest trouble to study its extraordinarily profound content. But in fact, remnants of the old, surviving in the new, confront us in life at every step, both in nature and in society. And Marx did not arbitrarily insert a scrap of "bourgeois" law into communism, but indicated what is economically and politically inevitable in a society emerging out of the womb of capitalism.

Lenin; State and Revolution, Chapter 5

(2) Natural science has developed through the discovery of deeper and deeper forms of regularity in phenomena. Essentially, this process of social cognition develops in connection with the development of the forms of human activity, particularly productive activity, and the regularities express the regularities in human practice. However, science develops by the discovery of forms of existence which, within the framework of a given system of practice, take the form of objective, natural entities, and laws of nature express the regularities in human practice in the form of regularities in the relation between these objective forms expressed in theory.

Just as is the case with social law, from time to time these laws are called into question and undergo transformation. Such transformations are not, in general “exceptions” or qualifications to existing laws, but rather, laws are recast in terms of new categories corresponding to different modes of human practice. This process has been popularised by Thomas Kuhn under the concept of “paradigm”.

Further Reading: Hegel’s Philosophy of Right; Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right; On the Jewish Question; German Ideology, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.


Combined and Uneven Development, Law of

The law of combined and uneven development describes the development of the productive forces in nations where bourgeois social relations first begin to develop within a world market already dominated by the great imperialist powers.

The law was formulated by Leon Trotsky in 1906 in Results and Prospects, to underpin the political programme of “Permanent Revolution”, and drew to a conclusion discussions among Marxists in Russia and elsewhere, beginning with Marx in the 1870s [See Marx & Engels on Russia], about the peculiar development of social relations and prospects for social revolution in Russia.

The question of the possible lines of development for a backward economy setting out on the road of capitalist development had been settled by the opening of the epoch of Imperialism, first described by Lenin in his 1899 Development Of Capitalism In Russia and systematically analysed in his 1916 Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism.

In Trotsky's words:

A backward country assimilates the material and intellectual conquests of the advanced countries. But this does not mean that it reproduces them slavishly, reproduces all the stages of their past. The theory of the repetition of historical cycles rests upon an observation of the orbits of old pre-capitalistic cultures, and in part upon the first experiments of capitalist development. ... The privilege of historic backwardness 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 travelling the road which lay between those two weapons in the past. The development of historically backward nations leads necessarily to a peculiar combination of different stages in the historic process. [Leon Trotsky Peculiarities of Russia’s Development]

The law of uneven development states that once a world market has engulfed all countries in the world and comes under the domination of finance capital, the road of capitalist development, followed in the past by the old capitalist powers, is blocked for newcomers. The wealth and power of the great powers is maintained only by the exploitation and impoverishment of the colonies. In their search for sources of cheap labour and raw materials, the imperialist powers distort and stunt the development of culture in the colonies. These colonies do not simply “lag behind”, but rather their development is the “other side of the coin” of the advanced conditions enjoyed in the great powers.

The law of combined development flows directly from that of uneven development: while blocking their normal development, the imperialist powers introduce into the dominated countries the most advanced techniques and relations of production, side by side with the most primitive.

Thus, there are countries which have not yet developed their own bourgeoisie and bourgeois culture, have not yet mechanised agriculture or developed the complex array of social strata and industries to support a fully developed industrial economy, with the mass of the population still engaged in subsistence farming. Without passing through any of the intermediate stages, foreign companies introduce into such countries the most modern factories and services, often more advanced than in their own country where there may be resistance to change. The new industries then create a focus for employment and a new proletariat springs up in a very short period of time, side by side with a mass of peasantry. This combination of social relations, belonging to widely separated stages in the development of production, in a single country, is called combined development.

Both uneven and combined development characterise both the economy of individual countries in which bourgeois relations are developing, and the world economy as a whole. Whereas, for example, England took centuries of development to become the “workshop of the world”, without any competition from other industrial economies, organisations like the WTO are used today to ensure that newly industrialised countries cannot protect their local industry from unequal competition from Europe and America, preventing them from following the same kind of path of development as that followed by England, forcing them to develop in a one-sided way, serving the interests of the powerful transnational corporations, preventing the introduction of environmental or human rights legislation.

At the same time, vast concentrations of proletarians are being brought into being in all the countries of Asia, Latin America and so on, but not in the same way as in 18th / 19th century Europe and North America, but under the contradictory conditions of combined and uneven development.

According to Lenin and Trotsky, the stunted development of the bourgeoisie in Russia and the advanced condition of the proletariat which followed from this process of combined and uneven development, posed the necessity of the working class taking the leading role in the Revolution against the Tsarist autocracy and imperialism:

“The history of recent decades very clearly shows that, in the conditions of capitalist decline, backward countries are unable to attain that level which the old centres of capitalism have attained. Having themselves arrived in a blind alley, the highly civilised nations block the road of proletarian revolution, not because her economy was the first to become ripe for a socialist change, but because she could not develop further on a capitalist basis. Socialisation of the means of production had become a necessary condition for bringing the country out of barbarism. That is the law of combined development for backward countries. Entering upon the socialist revolution as “the weakest link in the capitalist chain” (Lenin), the former empire of the Czars is even now, in the 19th year after the revolution, still confronted with the task of “catching up with and outstripping” – consequently in the first place catching up with – Europe and America. She has, that is, to solve those problems of technique and productivity which were long ago solved by capitalism in the advanced countries.” [Revolution Betrayed]

The formulation of the law of combined and uneven development in the years leading up to the October 1917 Revolution, negated two earlier analyses of the problem of the path of development of Russia.

Firstly, there was the Narodnik and Anarchist perspective of Russia skipping over capitalism altogether, to a socialist society basing itself on the Russian peasant communes. Marx believed that such a development was possible given a successful proletarian revolution in Europe and a successful revolution in Russia. However, with the ebbing of the revolutionary tide in the 1970s, Marx believed that the Russian peasant commune was doomed and would soon be destroyed by capitalism. Thus, in the 1870s Marx drew the conclusion that development of bourgeois rights, a capitalist economy and modern working class was the only way forward for Russia.

This led to the second alternative perspective, held by the Mensheviks, according to which Russia had no choice but to follow the same path of capitalist development as that followed by England, the United States and the other capitalist powers, denying that this road was in fact blocked.

Although it was not until 1917 that Lenin came to the same conclusion that Trotsky had arrived at in 1905, even in 1899, Lenin rejected the idea that because Russia needed a bourgeois-democratic revolution, therefore the working class had to subordinate itself to the bourgeoisie. Both Lenin and Trotsky held that only the working class leading the peasantry, could make this bourgeois-democratic revolution.

The law of combined and uneven development was necessary to make sense of the perspective of workers revolution in a backward country, and is even more true in the 21st century than it was in 1900.


Laws of Dialectics

The Three Laws of Dialectics were enunciated by Engels in his article Dialectics, published with Dialectics of Nature. The Laws were formulated in an effort to popularise the ideas of dialectics in the workers' movement, but do not really do justice to the profundity of Engels' own understanding of dialectics and their importance should not be exaggerated. See Lenin's Philosophical Notebooks.

(1) The Law of the Unity (Interpenetration) of Opposites: “the two poles of an antithesis, positive and negative, e.g., are as inseparable as they are opposed, and despite all their opposition, they mutually interpenetrate”. [Engels, Socialism, Utopian & Scientific]

(2) The Law of Transformation of Quality into Quantity and vice versa.

“in nature, in a manner exactly fixed for each individual case, qualitative changes can occur only by the quantitative addition or quantitative subtraction of matter or motion (so-called energy)”. (Engels)

(3) The Law of the Negation of the Negation.

Negation of the Negation expresses the connection of the old and the new, and the repetition at a higher stage of development of some properties of the lower stage of a process.

Further Reading: (1) Lenin's Philosophical Notebooks; (2) Quantity, Hegel on Quantity and Quality in Chemistry; (3) Negation and Negation of the Negation, and Lenin's understanding in his annotations.