Anarchy, Sovereignty and Realism: The Significance of Trotsky’s Theory of Uneven and Combined Development for International Relations

Cameron Rogers


Any student of International Relations (IR) is made acutely aware of the importance of anarchy and sovereignty in constituting the subject matter of the discipline. The Realist school has maintained a long-term theoretical ascendency via the transformation of these concepts into historically and sociologically empty dynamics, while simultaneously charging theorists of historical materialism with failing to grasp the international dimensions of both anarchy and sovereignty. In short, Realists advocate that their theory alone can claim to be a true theory of the international, as all others succumb to internalist tendencies and domestic analogies (Bull, 1966). In recent years, Trotsky’s theory of Uneven and Combined Development (U&CD) has undertaken a revival within IR. This paper adds to a growing volume of literature that forwards U&CD as a theory capable of sociologically defining the international and geopolitical. The purpose of this paper is to outline the significance of U&CD for the discipline of IR by demonstrating how it allows a historical materialist approach to reconcile both anarchy and sovereignty within its theoretical parameters.

The Realist school has dominated IR since its birth as a discipline. Realism’s distinguishable characteristic, the separation of the international and domestic, gained IR’s acceptance into the wider social sciences, on the condition that international theorization would not trespass into the domestic sphere (Rosenberg, 2016b). The themes of anarchy and sovereignty, devoid of any sociological meaning, constitute the foundation of any Realist argument, and thus, are central to an understanding of discourse in IR. Anarchy, as the defining principle of the international system, is the mechanism that dictates the actions of sovereign states (Waltz, 1979). Why are the themes of anarchy and sovereignty revered as natural or scientific phenomena in IR? Theorists of historical materialism must defy Realist supremacy by providing a theory capable of demystifying the themes of anarchy and sovereignty.

This paper will argue that historical materialism is capable of incorporating the themes of anarchy and sovereignty into its analysis when it is adjusted to encompass an Uneven and Combined Development (U&CD) methodology. The first section of the paper will delineate the academic charges against historical materialism. The second section will outline Marx’s methodology and its implications for anarchy and sovereignty. The final section, building on the findings of the preceding sections, will argue that U&CD has the capabilities of revamping historical materialism for IR by avoiding reductionism, placing the existence of the inter-state system at the centre of its methodology and formulating a theory that transcends the specifics of historical change, while maintaining the basis of a materialist conceptualization of history. This paper will therefore resemble an investigation and shall culminate in the evaluation of U&CD in accordance with the criteria laid above.


The Critics of Historical Materialism

The first critique of historical materialism is Kublakova and Cruickshank’s (1989) notion that the lack of the ‘international’ in Marx’s writing has caused an unbridgeable chasm between Marxism and IR. In other words, Marx’s call to the proletariat was universal yet he concretized no mode of analysing the existence of the international system. The historical nature of the materialist methodology means that Marxists often strive to analyse a singular case study within a singular mode of production (Kublakova and Cruickshank, 1989: 12). Additionally, Marxists assign causality to economic and domestic occurrences, leading to an internalist/reductionist style that fails to conceive external dynamics (Kublakova and Cruickshank, 1989: 18). This prevailing feature of Marxian inquiry in IR makes it strikingly problematic for Marxism to construct a truly international theory. Historical materialism must develop a technique of elucidating the change in substance of domestic and international socio-economic structures across the ages and, in the process, refine the mode of production approach to permit the formulation of a theory capable of capturing the elusive themes of anarchy and sovereignty.

The second critique of historical materialism’s ability to theorize the themes of anarchy and sovereignty is Berki’s (1971) assertion that the existence of multiple states poses a serious problem for Marxism in IR (Berki, 1971: 81). This claim stems from the Marxian notion that a peaceful socialist future is possible with the destruction of capitalism and the unity of the proletariat. Berki (1971) draws attention to the fact that there is a lack of clarity within the Marxist tradition regarding the exact configuration of this utopia. If, he continues, a system of multiple states remains, it is likely that they will be drawn into the same antagonistic relations of today, regardless of their internal composition as individual polities, as would be the commanders of private property (Berki, 1971: 102). This futuristic tragedy is exactly what Realists have promised all along. Their trans-historical prediction is that the behaviour of units (sovereign polities) has always been, and will always be, dictated by the structure of the international system (anarchy).  Consequently, historical materialism requires a meta-theoretical shift that integrates the international, if it is to comprehend the existence of multiple states and the subsequent importance of anarchy and sovereignty for inter-state relations.

For historical materialism to incorporate the themes of anarchy and sovereignty into its analysis it must overcome three distinct charges. Firstly, causality must not be reduced to solely economic or internal structures (reductionism/ internalism). Secondly, the existence of the inter-state system must be central to the materialist conception of history. Thirdly, historical materialism must fathom a way to extend its theoretical framework in a manner that vivifies the intrigues of historical change beyond the confines of a singular mode of production approach.


 Classical Marxist Theory: The Historical Materialist Methodology

Historical materialism is built on the premise that any study of human history must “ascend from earth to heaven” (Marx and Engels, 2004: 47). Marx (2004) argued that the young Hegelian perspective inverted social reality and that history’s true beginning lies in the relationship between man and nature. Since the dawn of time humanity has lived in interaction with nature, the universality of humanity allows for the manipulation of the inorganic body of nature. Labour facilitates this relationship as humanity enters into relations of production. This composes the material life-activity of society and from it springs the essence of human culture, politics and law. These fundamental structures of society are ideologically correlated to production. This philosophical notion leads one to conclude that the substance of social life is dependent on productive relations. In Marx’s words, “the production of ideas is interwoven with the material activity of men” (Marx, 2004: 47). The logical insinuation of this methodology is that anarchy and sovereignty are conceived of socio-economic relations, and thus, Realists are guilty of inverting reality in the same manner as the young Hegelians.

Historical materialism analytically divides history into epochs, highlighting how anarchy and sovereignty are dependant to each epoch and therefore cannot be trans-historical, as each epoch brings a new set of structures and institutions. Realism has no way of accurately theorising anarchy and sovereignty as it rejects socio-economic hypotheses in favour of a purely political analysis.

Marx and Sovereignty

Marx’s socio-analysis of capital “intended to reveal the political face of the economy” (Wood, 1995: 20) by piercing the false façade of liberal economics and its “proclamation of everlasting truths” (Marx, 1977: 175). There is an abundance of similarities between Marx’s critique of classical economists and our critique of Realist conceptualizations of sovereignty. Firstly, Realists assume that sovereignty is intrinsically trans-historical. Secondly, Realists maintain a false separation of international and domestic spheres, thus concealing the socio-economic foundations of the international. Therefore, historical materialism’s task is to demonstrate the spatial-temporal uniqueness of sovereignty.

The capitalist sovereign state is characterized by the separation of the economic and political spheres of social life. This phenomenon is facilitated by the removal of the worker from the means of production and the subsequent initiation of wage-labour. This social structure is dependent on the liberty and equality of citizens, made possible when production “is no longer embedded in extra-economic social relations” (Polanyi, 1957: 57). Feudal era surplus extraction was based on the extra-economic (political) force of lords over peasants and, consequently, economic surplus was gathered via political means. Production in the capitalist epoch operates via a system of economic coercion. Workers are forced to engage in wage-labour transactions and to forgo any right to ownership of the products of their labour, as every aspect of the metabolism between humanity and nature becomes geared towards exchange. Surplus is extracted in the production process through consumption of labour power, which under capitalism assumes the form of a commodity. This mystification is what “Marx believed to be the innermost secret of capitalism” (Heilbroner, 1980: 107). The sovereign state is independent of “private transactions between individuals”, and thus, surplus is extracted via economic means (Seyer, 1985: 240).

Clearly, the separation of the economic and political spheres enables the bourgeois exploitation of the proletariat and is the principle source of their dominance. Therefore, sovereignty can be redefined as a social relation involving economic and political processes that sees the capitalist class ascend to the rank of sovereign. According to Marx (2004), “the state is the form in which individuals of a ruling class assert their common interest” (Marx, 2004: 80). A logical continuation of this analysis is that a historically specific ruling class is likely to harbour international as well as domestic interests. Yet without a conceptualization of anarchy, historical materialism has no means of theorizing how capitalist sovereign entities behave in the inter-state system.

Historical materialism, in its endeavour to pierce the false façade of society, has provided us with a sociological definition of sovereignty and proved that the socio-economic structure of capitalism is an integral driver of historical change. The spatial-temporal specificity of the contemporary sovereign state has also been clarified. However, the charge of internalism persists as, thus far, this paper has failed to comprehend the international dimension of sovereignty. In other words, historical materialism takes states in isolation of their geopolitical and cultural context, therefore the methodology fails to conceptualize how the international has fashioned individual sovereign polities, and how the international formulates interaction between them. In order to incorporate the theme of sovereignty into its analytical parameters, historical materialism must develop a methodology that accounts for the existence of multiple societies.

Marx, Wallerstein and Trotsky: Theorization of Anarchy

Unlike sovereignty, there is little mention of anarchy in Marx’s writing. In fact, Marx viewed IR as a temporary obstacle to universal proletarian harmony and the withering away of the state (Marx and Engels, 2002). Marx’s personal sentiment on IR is often reduced to the notion that capital would “create a world in its own image” (Marx and Engels, 2002: 43). This part of the paper sees us diverge from the classical Marxian path for the first time and follow that of World Systems Theory. Wallerstein (1974) formulated the notion that capitalism had not spread in an organic nor teleological process. He observed how core states engaged in exploitative relations with peripheral states. This global division of labour represents an expansion of our analysis of sovereignty to the level of world economy (Chase-Dunn, 1981: 25), thus overcoming the dual pitfalls of internalism and the lack of international dynamics.

The World Systems debate is crucial to a theorization of anarchy due to Wallerstein’s challenge of the ontological prevalence of Realism by reformulating the question: what drives IR? Chase-Dunn (1981: 36) argues that the logic of capitalism contains a set of developmental tendencies, of which “the competitive accumulation process, state building and geopolitics play an integrated part” (Chase-Dunn, 1981: 36). This materialist approach not only refutes Realism’s focus on the structural implications of anarchy but crucially, refines the Marxist methodology by highlighting the heretical nature of Callinicos’ (2007) ‘Realist moment’. Pozo-Martin’s (2007) rebuttal of Callinicos is based on the idea that if geopolitical logic is autonomous it cannot be reconciled within a historical materialist analysis. Essentially, this paper must strive to discover the socio-economic hieroglyph of anarchy and not fall into the trap of reifying Realist definitions of geopolitical and territorial logics.

Chase-Dunn (1981) asserts that capitalism dictates the logic of the state system, thus rendering the two inseparable. However, recall Kublakova and Cruickshank’s (1985) argument that for Marxism to form an international theory (as opposed to a sociological theory) it must develop the ability to meta-theoretically operate in a trans-historical manner. By Chase-Dunn’s (1981: 38) own admission, a retreat into historical explanations constitutes an ‘atheoretical manoeuvre’. The problem this paper now faces is the simple fact that the inter-state system is significantly older than capitalism (Lacher, 2005). This brings us to a new puzzle, what would be the theoretical consequence of viewing capitalism through the lens of the international and not vice versa?

Russia’s road to revolution followed a very different route than that laid out in the communist manifesto. Seeking an answer to this puzzle Trotsky sought to break down the barricades of internalism and in doing so he uncovered that the international itself held the missing source of causal significance. Trotsky’s (2008) analysis starts with the empirical observation that “unevenness is the most general law of the historic process” (Trotsky, 2008: 5). In line with the materialist tradition, unevenness is attributed to humanity’s metabolism with nature. The implications of “the universal law of unevenness” (Trotsky, 2008: 6) are twofold. Firstly, it presupposes multiplicity as unevenness is relative and secondly, determines that a theory of social development must include the outcomes of interaction between societies (Rosenberg, 2006).

It is necessary to delineate how exactly uneven societies combine their development, Trotsky identified three ‘causal mechanisms’ (Rosenberg, 2006) that highlight this phenomenon, thus, the ‘universal law of combined development’ derives from uneven development. “The whip of external necessity” (Trotsky, 2008: 6) constitutes economic or geopolitical pressure on a society to modernize. Trotsky described how the Tsars, forced by their ‘foe’ and ‘teacher’ (Trotsky, 2008), were compelled to industrialize or adopt foreign military technology to survive western invasion. Yet, how was imperial Russia able to transform its politico-military structures? “The privilege of historic backwardness” explains how “a backward country assimilates the material and intellectual conquests of advanced countries” (Trotsky, 2008: 4). For the West was Russia’s greatest teacher but that did not mean that Russian development pursued the same path to modernity, rather she was obliged to skip development stages or “draw together separate steps” (Trotsky, 2008: 6). The consideration of the whip of external necessity and the privilege of historic backwardness in conjunction demonstrates how the uneven and combined texture of interactive development transforms the social structures of society, or rather, it combines an “amalgam of archaic with contemporary forms” (Trotsky, 2008: 6). This brings us to Trotsky’s final causal mechanism, the seemingly paradoxical fusion of ancient and modern social forms.


 The Theory of Uneven and Combined Development

Before addressing the significance of Trotsky’s theory for the themes of anarchy and sovereignty let us pause and take stock of the theory we are developing. Trotsky’s theory signals a breakthrough for historical materialism in its battle to incorporate the themes of anarchy and sovereignty, yet there is something in the politics of Trotsky’s approach that restricts the growth of his theory. Once again, we find ourselves engaging with Kublakova and Cruickshank (1989) as Trotsky’s concentration on capitalism fails to break the confines imposed by a singular mode of production approach. U&CD becomes trans-modal when transformed to a general abstraction of inter-societal coexistence (Rosenberg, 2006: 319). A few small steps are necessary to concretize this gigantic theoretical leap.

Our first step takes the form of a logical continuation of Trotsky’s (2008) universal law of uneven development, by stating it to be a “anterior sociological attribute to development itself” (Rosenberg, 2007: 453). The second step, comes in the guise of extending combined development to a trans-historical law, which can be qualified empirically considering that all uneven societies in history have interactively coexisted (Allinson and Anievas, 2009). In other words, all social development is uneven, interactive and combined. The causality of combined development had certainly been accelerated by capitalism, but it would be counterintuitive to describe it as unique to the capitalist epoch. Trotsky (2008) himself illustrated the effects of a pre-capitalist ‘whip of external necessity’ in the shaping of the politico-military ministries of Peter I.

The aforementioned charges against historical materialism stated that the trans-historical existence of the international formed an insurmountable obstacle for Marxist thought. U&CD overcomes these challenges with the assertion that every society in history has been a causal cog in an ever-realigning inter-societal engine that drives the sociological development of all its components (Rosenberg, 2006). Combined development operates at a universal level with no apparent centre to an interactive societal-system, all driven by multi-dimensional causality, at varying rates over time and space. Subsequently, U&CD’s unit of analysis becomes “social development as a differentiated but ontological whole” (Allinson and Anievas, 2009: 54). The international plays an integral role in the evolution of social development.

U&CD and Anarchy

For decades theorists of historical materialism have been locked in debate vis-à-vis the logics of capitalist accumulation, geopolitics and the inter-state system. This debate is characterized by the failure of Marxism to overcome Realist dominance. In contrast, U&CD allows historical materialism to grasp, redefine and theorize anarchy as an essential corollary of uneven development (Rosenberg, 2013). Unevenness necessitates societal-multiplicity, which in its very substance gives rise to a “interactive dimension” (Rosenberg, 2013: 94) of coexistence. This combined development emerges via causal mechanisms (now abstracted to trans-historical status) that ensure development can only be considered as an ontological whole. Recall the implications that Trotsky’s causal mechanisms entailed for society, the ‘whip of external necessity’ and ‘the privilege of historic backwardness’ drives socio-historical change. This “strategic dimension of combined development” (Rosenberg, 2006: 323) materializes as a property of uneven development. Thus, anarchy, emerging from the interactive texture of unevenness, is responsible for the transformation of cultural, socio-political and economic structures within society (Rosenberg, 2013).

U&CD’s redefinition of anarchy remarkably differs from the Realist notion that anarchy governs the behaviour and actions of sovereign states within the distinct international realm. U&CD has proved that the fetishized Realist separation of the domestic and international spheres blurs the causality of anarchy for the internal composition of sovereign states and society (Rosenberg, 2013).


U&CD, Methodology and Sovereignty

In which ways can we show the extent to which anarchy is causally significant in shaping social structures? Hitherto, we outlined the abstracted trans-historical structure of U&CD, which seems to operate contrary to the fundamental logics of historical materialism. However, U&CD does not only operate at the level of general abstraction, in fact, it can always be applied as an algorithm to examine the intrigues of specific cases, and thus maintains the critical scope of historical materialism. U&CD provides a methodological structure that adjusts the historical materialist perspective in order to overcome the accusations of Berki (1971) and Kublakova and Cruickshank (1989).

At varying rates U&CD has subjected every societal constellation in history to the tidal effects of its causal mechanisms. Therefore, it is necessary to abandon the vulgarity that societal formation proceeds societal interaction (Rosenberg, 2006). This argument only appears perplexing because of the permeation of Neo-Realist categories into the social sciences. Sovereign states are not trans-historical undifferentiated units, rather, they are in a continuous process of combination and construction. Realist epistemology fails to capture the manner in which “combined development identifies the inter-societal, relational texture of the historical process within which the shifting meanings of the term ‘Russia’ (any know society) becomes crystalized and accumulated” (Rosenberg, 2006: 325).

The adoption of U&CD’s methodological framework has implications for the Marxian conceptualisation of sovereign states. The combined nature of development renders the internalist analysis of sovereign states a fallacy. Therefore, the composition of sovereign states must include international causality as the expression of anarchy (interactive multiplicity) and its effects on the cultural, social and political structures of a given society. Sovereignty is also fashioned by the strategic behaviour of the society, produced by (and in the production of) the mechanisms of combined development (Rosenberg, 2006). U&CD rescues the historic materialist analysis with the injection of an international antidote, which, when multiplied by the phenomena analysed previously, equates to a ground-breaking perception of the international. U&CD has amalgamated social and international theory, by indicating that the ‘universal law of unevenness’ presupposes multiplicity, which in turn, gives rise to ‘the universal law of combined development’ and interactivity. Our final step is the realisation that the international stems from the consequences of trans-historical social development. According to Rosenberg (2006, the international exists “in a dimension of their [societies] being which cuts across both these places and reaches simultaneously into the domestic constitution of those societies themselves” (Rosenberg, 2006: 327).

U&CD and Historical Materialism

The formulation of U&CD as a universal theory has been met with controversy, particularly from within the historical materialist tradition. According to Rioux (2015), theorists of U&CD merely pander to Realist formulations of grand theory, and thus, contort the materialist method. This leads to the mystification of the relations of production, continues Rioux (2015), and causes U&CD to essentialise the changing dynamics of historical change (Callinicos and Rosenberg, 2008: 87). In short, the critics argue that U&CD is not compatible with the historical materialist method, ergo, nullifying this paper’s content.

Rioux’s argument revolves around the notion that each mode of production contains a specific set of logics that universal theories cannot incorporate into their analysis. Yet, Rioux tactically omits the fact that, rather than abandoning these peculiarities, U&CD provides a lens through which to gauge their true nature (Allinson and Anievas, 2009: 57). Historical materialism provides a localised context of dynamics which are bound up with, and driven by, the causal mechanisms of combined development. The implications of this formula are twofold. Firstly, U&CD is a general law that can be applied to the localised dynamics of historical cases, thus, U&CD does not essentialise the forces of historical change. Secondly, U&CD relies upon historical materialism to flesh-out the relations of production (Allinson and Anievas, 2009) but, historical materialism requires U&CD to elucidate international phenomena, of which anarchy and sovereignty are the examples of choice in this paper. U&CD has an amorphous character, it can alternate between a general abstraction of social development and a concrete abstraction of historical specifics. This paper has shown that U&CD is capable of pin-pointing and theorising the dynamics of trans-modal historical change. This assertion makes one wonder if Rioux (2015: 97) is truly demanding a form of methodological pluralism when he accuses U&CD of lacking explanatory power.

Conclusions and Further Research

Perhaps U&CD’s most exciting aspect is the seemingly boundless potential to rid the social sciences of internalism. Yet, this promise comes with the need to methodologically refine and philosophically clarify its theoretical functions, it can therefore be stated that U&CD is in its embryonic stages. This paper has not engaged with the high-profile Cambridge Review of International Affairs debate, choosing instead to open new avenues of research in order to highlight the scope of U&CD. Accusations from Marxists and critical theorists are abundant, yet these theorists seem to have radically misinterpreted the purpose of U&CD. In my opinion, U&CD strives to unlock the explanatory and predicting potential of Marx’s thought, so long caged in an internalist framework. Marx’s (1977) socio-analysis of capital is a unique work, for it demystified the most fundamental aspect of social life. This paper has highlighted how, in the same manner as Marx, U&CD equips historical materialism with the tools to capture and sociologically define the themes of sovereignty and anarchy.



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