Review of International Studies


The ‘philosophical premises’ of uneven and combined development



Recent debates over Leon Trotsky's idea of ‘uneven and combined development’ (U&CD) have focused on its potential in the field of International Relations, but they have not established the source of this potential. Does it derive from the philosophical premises of dialectics? The present article argues that the idea of U&CD in fact involves an innovation as fundamental for Marxist dialectics as for other branches of social theory. And it also argues that in formulating this innovation, Trotsky provided a general solution to some of the most basic problems in social and international thought. The argument is set out in three parts. The first part reconstructs Trotsky's own account of dialectical premises and their implications for social explanation. The second shows how the concept of U&CD departs from this, in ways that presuppose the tacit addition of a further ontological premise. Finally, part three analyses the locus classicus of the concept – the opening chapter of Trotsky's History of the Russian Revolution – showing how it is this additional premise which underpins the central achievement of the idea: its incorporation of ‘the international’ into a theory of history.

(Online publication December 11 2012)

Justin Rosenberg is Professor of International Relations at the University of Sussex. He is Co-Convenor of the BISA Working Group on Historical Sociology and International Relations {}, and author of The Empire of Civil Society (1994); The Follies of Globalisation Theory (2001); and numerous articles on ‘uneven and combined development’. See {}.


*  Earlier versions of this article were presented at the LSE, the Open University, and the Universities of Sussex, and Cornell. For helpful comments and criticisms I am grateful to all the participants, and especially to Kirsten Ainley, Chris Boyle, Simon Bromley, William Brown, Andrew Davenport, Beate Jahn, Jonathan Joseph, George Lawson, Fouad Makki, Kamran Matin and the members of the Sussex Working Group on Uneven and Combined Development. I would also like to thank the Editors and anonymous reviewers of the Review of International Studies: I have been unable to address all their criticisms, but I have benefitted enormously from trying.