Capital, the State, and War: A Note on the Relation of Uneven and Combined Development to Historical Materialism

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.


David Alfaro Siqueiros - Lucha por la Emancipacio

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.

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Capital, the State and War: The Risks of Method

CraigA forum contribution from Campbell Craig, the first in our series responding to Alex Anievas’ new book, Capital, the State and War. Campbell is Professor in International Politics at Aberystwyth University, and the author of several books, including Glimmer of a New Leviathan: Total War in the thought of Niebuhr, Morgenthau and Waltz (2003), The Atomic Bomb and the Origins of the Cold War (2008, with Sergey Radchenko), and more recently America’s Cold War: the Politics of Insecurity (2012, with Fredrik Logevall). Campbell’s work has appeared in World Politics, Ethics & International Affairs and the Review of International Studies. He is also currently finishing an article on the nuclear revolution and neo-Trotskyism.


Woodrow Wilson 17c Stamp

In 1959 Kenneth Waltz published Man, the State and War, a study of three different levels of analysing international relations and their attempts to answer the question why war recurs. Waltz tackled his subject by demonstrating how the two most common levels of analysis – human nature, and regime type – ran into insuperable logical obstacles, and especially the problem of reductionism that social theorists such as Durkheim and Lakatos identified. His solution was to posit a third level – anarchy, or, as his title suggested, war – that could explain the recurrence of war without succumbing to the reductionist fallacy. The result was a study that has shaped the field of modern international relations more than any other single volume.

Anievas, as the title suggests, seeks to build upon Waltz’s ambition in his new book. He argues that the Marxian theory of uneven and combined development (UCD), a concept invented by Trotsky which explains international conflict by pointing to the uneven economic competition among more and less developed states whose economies are intertwined, can be used to theorise contemporary IR. This is a project being undertaken by other scholars, most notably Justin Rosenberg, but Anievas’s book is the most ambitious and thorough attempt yet to deploy Trotsky’s idea in a systematic way. However, Anievas’s method is quite different from the one used by Waltz (and Rosenberg). Rather than developing a logical or epistemological case for UCD, Anievas tries to use it as a means of shaping a detailed historical explanation of the two world wars of the twentieth century. What he is trying to do, as far as I can see, is to use UCD as a tool to explain and revise a key historical problem, as theorists in other schools of IR have done, rather than put forward an abstract case for the theory in the first place—a necessary move, for Anievas, because extant work on UCD suffers from “unsustainably high levels of analytical abstraction” (57). He concludes that the pressures of UCD upon capitalist states (particularly Germany, Great Britain, and the US) effectively explain the two world wars, and that they paved the way for a ‘proto-Cold War’ between the West and the USSR that began basically with the formation of the Soviet state in 1917.

In many ways the book is an impressive work. The narrative chapters on German, British, and American foreign relations are rich with historical detail and focused, often polemical argumentation. The engagement with competing theories is intensive and Anievas’s mastery of the debates among the neo-Marxian left is evident. Yet I was in the end not convinced by some of the main historical claims of the book nor by the method Anievas has deployed. In the spirit of Anievas’s blend of historical and theoretical inquiry, I will now present two critiques of the work from the respective points of view of the historian and the IR theorist.

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Capital, The State and War: Rethinking the Geopolitics of Capitalist Modernity in the Era of the Two World Wars

A guest post from Alex Anievas to inaugurate a brief symposium on his book anievasCapital, the State, and War: Class Conflict and Geopolitics in Thirty Years’ Crisis, 1914-1945 (Michigan University Press, 2014), which will unfold over the next few days. Alex is a Leverhume Early Career Researcher at the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge. He is editor or co-editor of numerous books (including Race and Racism in International Relations and The Longue Durée of the Far-Right, both of which have previously previewed at The Disorder). His work has also appeared in the European Journal of International Relations, the Cambridge Review of International Affairs, Millennium and the Review of International Studies.


The manuscript that would become Capital, the State, and War: Class Conflicts and Geopolitics in the Thirty Years’ Crisis, 1914-1945 developed, like so many first books, out of my PhD thesis[1] In its final form, Capital, the State, and War endeavours to offer nothing less than a systematic and radical reinterpretation and historical sociological reconceptualisation of some of the main geopolitical and socioeconomic fault-lines of the 1914-1945 period. It does so through the theoretical prism of uneven and combined development, demonstrating in the process the various problems with extant historiographical interpretations and IR theorisations of this crucial epoch in the development and remaking of modern world politics. But given the rather substantial differences between what I had originally envisioned the PhD thesis to be and what it became, it’s worth briefly discussing the origins of the project and how it changed in the process of researching and writing it.

I. Origins

My PhD project was originally conceived as an intervention into the contemporary debates on the ‘resurgence’ of US imperialism in the wake of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq – very much a radicalising moment in my own intellectual and political trajectory – and the concomitant return to Marxist theories of imperialism and empire. My aim then was to essentially rethink and ‘update’ the classical Marxist theories of imperialism and, in particular, Lenin and Bukharin’s theory of inter-imperial rivalry which, whatever its faults, still captured an essential aspect of contemporary imperialism. I was then heavily influenced by a number recent Marxist works on imperialism, particularly David Harvey’s 2003 The New Imperialism (along with his earlier, more theoretically sophisticated The Limits to Capital) and Alex Callinicos’ The New Mandarins of American Power.

Both studies, in their different ways, sought to retain the fundamental insights of the classical Marxist theories of imperialism (e.g. the persistence of historically-differentiated forms of inter-imperial rivalries rooted within the inherently competitive dynamics of capital accumulation), whilst dispensing with their more economically determinist and instrumentalist features. They did so, in particular, by reconceptualising imperialism as the intersection of two analytically distinct, but historically interconnected, ‘capitalist’ and ‘territorial’ logics of economic and geopolitical competition. While critical of certain aspects of this kind of approach – particularly, Harvey and Callinicos’ relatively undigested incorporation of a ‘proto-realist’ conception of ‘the international’ – my initial thought was that, if rooted in a stronger conception of the spatio-temporal dynamics of capitalist development and expansion that produced the somewhat porous but nonetheless identifiable ‘territorial logic of power’ – regionality – inherently arising out of the processes of capital accumulation in space and time, this perspective could provide a more adequate historical materialist theory of geopolitics.[2] At this stage in the development of the project, this is how I originally envisaged the role of Trotsky’s concept of ‘uneven and combined development’ – a kind of supplementary theory that could be employed in capturing the spatio-temporal dynamics of capitalist development in reconstructing a modified Marxist theory of imperialism. Add in a more attentive focus to the relations between capitalists and state managers and the role of ideology in structuring foreign policymaking processes and I thought this would do.

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Kissingerian Contempt: Realism, Statism and Other People’s Genocides

For a blog apparently devoted to global politics, we have so far rather neglected its voguish scandals and intrigues. Disciplinary exposure therapy has evidently done its work, particularly where the amorphous theory-cum-policy-manual of Realism is concerned. After all, what could be more mutually disappointing than a lengthy online discourse on the neo-neo ‘debate’ or its ilk? So much somnabulatory exegesis.

That said, last month’s fracas over ‘criminal psychopath’ and one-time ‘elegant wit’ Dr Henry A. Kissinger deserves a mention. In new releases from the Nixon tapes, his fawning jingoism in the name of some clear-cut national interest rather caught the eye:

The emigration of Jews from the Soviet Union is not an objective of American foreign policy…And if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern. Maybe a humanitarian concern.

Bushite polemicist Michael Gerson took the opportunity to indict Realism, denouncing its shallow moral compass in favour of a vision of more righteous foreign policy (neo-conservative manifest destiny branch). Stephen Walt responded, pointing out that Kissinger is not the delegated representative of Realists, that many who self-describe as such opposed both the Vietnam and Iraq wars, and that hand-wringing by culpable members of the Bush administration over the human costs of foreign policy is straight-up hypocrisy. Henry Farrell at Crooked Timber rightly stressed that this was besides the point, since what makes Kissinger Realist in the relevant sense is his instrumentalist attitude to the lives of others and the over-riding importance of material power in his world view. Along the way, he also provided a particularly apt description of this particular peace-prize winning carpet-bomber as in thrall to “a scholar’s fantasy of Metternich, in which cynicism, duplicity, and clandestine brutality were not foreign policy tools so much as a demonstration of one’s ‘seriousness’ as a statesman“. Nice. Enter Christopher Hitchens, spraying invective like it was the old days and usefully dismantling the apologetics now apparently emanating from several quarters [1].

Naturally, the seriousness of Kissinger’s servile indifference is as nothing next to his actual and extensive crimes, if legal language can be made to fit the special character of his achievements. And one can hardly credit that the good doctor’s snivelling before the anti-Semitism of Richard Milhouse Nixon should matter half as much as his responsibility for the deaths visited on Kien Hoa or the euphemistic and not-so-euphemistic barbeques served up as part of operations ‘Breakfast’, ‘Lunch’, ‘Dinner’, etcetera. Continue reading