우물 안 개구리

12/12/2005

Continent, Peninsula, Islands: notes on the theory of uneven and combined development and its possible application to northeast Asian history

Filed under: — Owen @ 11:42 am Print

A few weeks ago I attended the conference organised by Historical Materialism journal at SOAS on the theme ‘Towards a Cosmopolitan Marxism’. There was one session in particular that I wanted to attend: one of my favourite historians, Neil Davidson, discussing the theory of uneven and combined development with Colin Barker. The session didn’t disappoint. Neil Davidson’s paper looked at the intellectual history of the idea of uneven development going back to enlightenment thinkers such as Leibniz and tracing it through to its more developed form in the writings of Trotsky, such as his History of the Russian Revolution (although even here it is not really systematically developed as a theory). Here is the classic passage from the introduction to that book, quoted by Davidson:

The privilege of historic backwardness – and such a privilege exists – permits, or rather compels, the adoption of whatever is ready in advance of any specified date, skipping a whole series of intermediate stages.

And here is Trotsky’s passage on combined development:

From the universal law of unevenness thus derives another law which for want of a better name, we may call the law of combined development – by which we mean a drawing together of the different stages of the journey, a combining of separate steps, an amalgam of archaic with more contemporary forms.

Colin Barker on the other hand asked whether it might be possible to extend the theory in two directions: into the study of pre-capitalist history and beyond the national level to an understanding of global combined development. I won’t deal with the latter idea here, but the idea of the application to the history of pre-capitalist societies did give rise to some thoughts that I’d like to jot down here.
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