A guest post from Kamran Martin (also the author of this popular and important piece on Kobani, recently liberated from the forces of the Islamic State). It is the third and final commentary in our symposium on Alex Anievas’ Capital, the State, and War: Class Conflict and Geopolitics in Thirty Years’ Crisis, 1914-1945. Kamran is a Senior Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Sussex, and the author most recently of Recasting Iranian Modernity: International Relations and Social Change, as well as ‘Redeeming the Universal: Postcolonialism and the Inner-Life of Eurocentrism’. Kamran is also the incoming co-convenor of the BISA Historical Sociology Working Group, and is beginning work on a project tracing the international history of the Kurdish national liberation movement.
Over the past 10 years or so Leon Trotsky’s idea of ‘uneven and combined development’ has gained considerable traction within the fields of International Relations (IR) and historical sociology. It has been critically and productively deployed or rethought to address a diverse group of international and sociological problematics ranging from anarchy, contingency, and eurocentrism to the rise of capitalism, premodern societies, and non-western modernities. Alex Anievas’s new book Capital, the State, and War: Class Conflict and Geopolitics in the Thirty Years’ Crisis, 1914-1945 is an extremely invaluable addition to this rich and growing body of scholarship on uneven and combined development.
Through a masterful deployment of uneven and combined development, Anievas provides a compelling alternative account of the two world wars that fundamentally challenges the existing polarized ‘internalist’ and ‘externalist’ modes of explanations. Weaving social, economic, (geo)political and ideological moments of the making of the ‘Thirty Years Crisis’ into a theoretically informed, historically grounded and empirically rich account Capital, the State, and War is a tour de force for anyone interested in Marxist historiography of the World Wars and the rise and demise of the twentieth century world order.
As someone who’s also contributed to the literature on uneven and combined development I’m particularly interested in Anievas’s explicit discussion of the precise relation of the idea of uneven and combined development to historical materialism in Capital, the State, and War. Explicit interrogations of this relation have been relatively neglected in much of the publications on uneven and combined development. As a leading Marxist thinker and political activist Trotsky himself saw his idea of uneven and combined development as simply derivative of Marxist dialectics and materialist conception of history and as such did not seem to have believed that the idea had any transformative implications for materialist conceptions of history.
Much of the subsequent Marxist engagements with uneven and combined development followed suit. It’s arguably only with more recent appropriations of uneven and combined development – that of Justin Rosenberg in particular – and its conception as a general abstraction whose referent has a transhistorical quality that this traditional view was problematized. And Anievas’s book, which adopts such a conception, stands out in addressing this issue directly. Using Lakatosian vocabulary Anievas argues that uneven and combined development was a response to the “emergence of particular anomalies within a Marxist research programme committed to an ontologically singular conception of society” (p. 43). As such, uneven and combined development acts, according to Anievas, as a ‘methodological fix’ and “progressive problem shift in the larger research programme of historical materialism, … an auxiliary theory consistent with the hard-core premises of that programme” (p. 43, emphasis original).
In the remainder of this note I’d like to take issue with this assessment of the intellectual status of uneven and combined development’s relation to historical materialism, which can be described as ‘critical conservative’. ‘Critical’ because it explicitly acknowledges that there is a basic problem in historical materialism represented by its recurrent inability to accommodate certain historical phenomena within its explanatory remit. And ‘conservative’ because depicting uneven and combined development as a merely ‘auxiliary theory’ protects the basic premises of historical materialism, its ‘hard-core’ in Anievas’s Lakatosian terms, from the destabilizing effects of the theoretical externalities, Lakatos’s ‘anomalies’.
But how plausible is this assessment?
It seems that the answer to this question hinges on the prior question of whether or not ontological assumptions of historical materialism, or any general social theory, can be seen as constitutive of its ‘hard-core’. In answering this prior question a brief look at Lakatos’s idea of ‘research programmes’ might be helpful.
According to Lakatos, ‘research programmes’ emerge when scholars attempt to protect the fundamental postulates or the ‘hard-core’ of existing theories against empirical refutations. Two strategies are common to these attempts. The first strategy involves either the restriction of the empirical scope of the hard-core, or the exclusion of the unexpected outcomes as ‘anomaly’ or ‘exception’, or both. This restrictive-repudiative strategy gives rise to a ‘degenerative research programme’ that over time and with the proliferation of ‘anomalies’ completely erodes the explanatory power of the hard-core.
Alternatively, scholars can resolve the anomalies through formulating ‘auxiliary theories’. An auxiliary theory expands the explanatory power of the research programme’s hard-core without adjusting its hard-core. This second expansionist strategy leads to a ‘progressive research programme’, which, according to Lakatos, best ensures the growth of knowledge. For Lakatos, embarking on degenerative research programmes or abandoning theories in the face of falsificatory facts, à la Popper, impedes scientific advance and theoretical knowledge. And this second strategy is what Anievas has adopted in his assessment of the relation between uneven and combined development and historical materialism.
However, there is arguably a limit to the growth of knowledge even within the so-called progressive research programmes, especially those whose hard-core is a general social theory. This limitation arises when the protective belt of auxiliary theories enveloping the hard-core becomes over-layered as a result of the growing number of anomalies. As the relation of the auxiliary theories to the hard-core becomes increasingly inorganic the hard-core’s logical cohesion and theoretical parsimony are compromised. The accumulating auxiliary theories neither spring from the macro-theoretical postulates of the hard-core, nor can possess a level of generality commensurate with that of the pre-refutation hard-core. In other words, auxiliary theories might ward off specific empirical challenges to the hard-core but their overgrowth recurrently betrays a constitutive defect in the hard-core itself, a defect that auxiliary theories can only contingently remedy. Such constitutive defects are particularly evident when auxiliary theories pertain to a dimension of social reality that is ontologically at par with aspects of social reality from which the hard-core’s own fundamental categories are derived. Put conversely, there might exist a hitherto theoretically undigested dimension of social reality whose incorporation into the hard-core of a progressive research programme would either render its auxiliary theories redundant, or intellectually demote them as concretisations of the hard-core’s general abstract postulates.
Unevenness – which Trotsky defined as ‘the most general law of the historic process’ – constitutes precisely such a dimension of social reality, which is arguably absent from the ‘hard-core’ of historical materialism and classical social theory more generally. And the anomalies that according to Anievas elicited the original formulation of uneven and combined development by Trotsky are directly generated by this absence. In fact, this absence is the explicit departure point of Capital, the State, and War and a considerable number of other contributions to historical sociology and IR that theoretically draw on the idea of uneven and combined development. Therefore logically uneven and combined development cannot be reduced to an ‘auxiliary theory’, which, pace Anievas, is ‘consistent with the hard-core premises’ of the research programme of historical materialism. Rather, the integration of uneven and combined development into historical materialism necessitates a modification of its ‘hard-core’ ontological premises. Venturing out of the Lakatosian discourse I’d like to call this assessment of the relation between uneven and combined development and historical materialism ‘critical-reformist’ in that like Anievas’s ‘critical-conservative’ assessment it recognises a basic flaw in the hard-core of historical materialist research programme, but ‘reformist’ because unlike Anievas’s assessment it also calls for a modification of the hard-core itself.
This is so because as I have tried to explain in my recent book Recasting Iranian Modernity: International Relations and Social Change, uneven and combined development’s intellectual premise of the ontological multiplicity of the social not only exerts a downward pressure on historical materialism’s intermediate concepts but also an upward pressure on its transhistorical categories. For it comes into an immediate and productive tension with historical materialism’s ontological premise of the ‘double relationship’, which Marx and Engels formulate in The German Ideology. There they write “the production of life … appears as a double relationship: on the one hand as natural, on the other as a social relationship”. The ontologically singular conception of the social that underlies the premise of the double relationship is even more visible in its later rendition in Grundrisse where Marx asserts that “All production is appropriation of nature on the part of an individual within and through a specific form of society”. As it can be readily seen, in both iterations of this basic premise of historical materialism the site of ‘production in general’ is the individual society. The logic is also operative in Marx’s explicit abstraction from societal multiplicity in Capital.
In short, historical materialism’s general abstraction of ‘production in general’ involves an implicit but highly consequential abstraction from the fact of societal multiplicity (unevenness) and hence from its consequence of the interactive development of each individual society (combination). And since uneven and combined development has a transhistorical reach – not to be conflated with a supra-historical or unhistorical quality – it cannot be reintroduced into particular forms of production a posteriori as one of many ‘concrete determinations’. This would involve the restriction, if not the suppression, of the causal and constitutive impact of the condition of societal multiplicity, or the international, on the concrete form of the reproduction of the society in question.
Thus, to put it crudely, the logical implication of the idea of uneven and combined development for historical materialism seems to consist of reforming its premise of the ‘double relationship’ as a triple relationship whereby coexistive and interactive relations among societies have a dialectical relationship with their internal social relationships and external relationship with nature. I think this reform of historical materialism’s social ontology is, inter alia, central to the solution of the problems of eurocentrism, alterity and difference whose formidable intellectual and political challenge to Marxist theory is highlighted in the concluding pages of Capital, the State, and War.
The criticism outlined above by no means diminishes the real significance and the superb quality of Anievas’s Capital, the State, and War as a major contribution to Marxist and critical scholarship on capitalist modernity. Rather, it’s meant as a very modest effort to further refine uneven and combined development as a novel and highly fertile Marxist paradigm.