From deflected permanent revolution to the law of uneven and combined development

Issue: 128

Neil Davidson

“Trotsky is the one for whom there is no room either in pre-1990 Really Existing Socialism or in post-1990 Really Existing Capitalism, in which even those who are nostalgic for Communism do not know what to do with Trotsky’s permanent revolution”.1 Slavoj Zizek wrote these words at the beginning of the millennium and, in this case, he expresses a sentiment with which readers of International Socialism are likely to agree. The question of “what to do” with the concept of permanent revolution is one which this journal first addressed in a systematic way with the publication of Tony Cliff’s major reappraisal of 1963, in which he augmented Trotsky’s original concept with that of “deflected permanent revolution”.2 Cliff’s article was part of a wider revisionist project. In the two years before his assassination in 1940, Trotsky made a number of claims about the world system and committed himself to a series of predictions about its future development. These included: that global capitalism had entered a period of permanent and irreversible decline, that the Russian Stalinist regime was an inherently unstable and historically unique formation which was doomed to collapse, and that the coming revolutions in the colonial and semi-colonial world would be led by the working class, as the Russian Revolution had been in 1917.

In fact, following the Second World War capitalism entered the greatest period of growth in its history; Stalinist Russia not only expanded territorially through conquest, but its basic structures were independently replicated by Stalinist parties in the Third World; and—as this outcome suggests—the revolutions which occurred there were led not by the working class, but by elements of the middle class who then became the managers of a new bureaucratic state. Given these outcomes, some revision of Trotsky’s final perspectives was inescapable but, short of abandoning them altogether, this could be done in one of two ways.

One way, ultimately adopted by adherents of what Isaac Deutscher called orthodox Trotskyism, was effectively to revise reality so that it corresponded with the theory—a necessary consequence of treating particular judgements by Trotsky as beyond falsification. In Alasdair MacIntyre’s words, “It transformed into abstract dogma what Trotsky thought in concrete terms at one moment in his life and canonised this”.3 Canonisation involved two strategies of reality-avoidance. The first was the recategorisation of social classes: a party led by petty-bourgeois intellectuals and consisting of militarised ex-peasants could, for example, be described as representing “the Chinese working class” and its victory in 1949 hailed as a socialist revolution. But even those Trotskyists who treated Marxist class theory with greater seriousness than this could still avert their gaze from the truth with a second strategy, namely the adoption of an arbitrary formal definition of a “workers’ state”, where state ownership of the means of production became the only deciding factor, although the working class had neither led nor even participated in the revolution, did not in any sense control the new state and was subjected to a ruthless police dictatorship.

The second way, taken by Cliff and his initially small band of followers, was to revise the theory in the light of reality. Cliff held fast, not to specific judgements by Trotsky, but to the central tenets and methods of historical materialism that underpinned the latter’s greatest achievements. Above all, Cliff cleaved to the self-activity of the working class, not as an optional if desirable extra, but as the indispensable core of Marxism as a theory of socialist revolution. In his autobiography Cliff recounted how, starting from this perspective, he “devoted a lot of time and effort to developing three interlinked theories to deal with the three areas of the world” where Trotsky’s predictions had proved false, “Russia and Eastern Europe, advanced capitalist countries, and the Third World”: “The three theories were: state capitalism, the permanent arms economy, and deflected permanent revolution.” This “troika”, Cliff writes, “makes a unity, a totality, grasping the changes in the situation of humanity after the Second World War”.4

Cliff was therefore responding to changes in the world capitalist system that orthodox Trotskyism refused to recognise; but there have been similarly dramatic shifts since Cliff concluded his reconsideration of the Trotskyist legacy. State capitalism still exists as a policy option for governments, as the quasi-nationalisation of banks during the financial crisis of 2007-8 has shown, but the era of state capitalism as a general tendency within the system ended between the emergence of neoliberalism in the mid-1970s and the fall of the Stalinist regimes in 1989-91. Vast sums are still wasted (in economic as well as moral terms) on arms, but military expenditure no longer acts to stabilise the system.5 What then of the third component of the “troika”? Has deflected permanent revolution also become an essentially historical category?

In International Socialism 126, Leo Zeilig argued that deflected permanent revolution remains relevant today, despite the declining significance of the other component of the troika most closely related to it: “While the central role of the intelligentsia in the absence of a self-conscious working class subject is an absolute law in Cliff’s theory, the importance of state capitalism for the deflected permanent revolution is neither absolute nor a requirement”.6 Zeilig applies the concept to Africa, a continent which, with the partial exception of Egypt, Cliff himself did not discuss, but the individual countries which Zeilig considers do fall into one of Cliff’s categories, that of “deviations from the norm” of deflected permanent revolution.7 The “norm” was established by those revolutions which had resulted in the most complete state capitalist outcomes under Stalinist leadership independently of Russia, particularly those in China and Cuba, although at the time when Cliff was writing in the early 1960s he could also have referred to North Vietnam, Albania or Yugoslavia. The “deviations” were those, actually the majority of cases, where the outcome was a mixture of state and private capitalism under radical nationalist leadership that may have been influenced by Stalinist ideas and organisational methods, but which often—as in the cases of Egypt or Iraq—oscillated between trying to incorporate the local Communist Party and trying to suppress it. With the very important exception of India, the most typical examples of the “deviations” were to be found in North Africa and the Middle East. Zeilig’s use of the concept is illuminating in relation to those African states in which liberation movements were either completed (Ghana) or at least begun (Zimbabwe) within the post-war period of decolonisation which formed the context of Cliff’s argument, but is it also the case that the theory can be applied to contemporary Africa and, by extension, the rest of the Global South?

I remain unconvinced. Not because I disagree with, for example, Zeilig’s analysis of the recent events in the Democratic Republic of the Congo—quite the contrary; but rather because these seem to me to have little to do with permanent revolution, deflected or otherwise. Trotsky saw permanent revolution as a strategy which would enable the less developed countries to decisively break with feudal, tributary or colonial rule under working class leadership and move directly to socialism as components of an international revolutionary movement. Cliff saw deflected permanent revolution as the process which ensues when the working class does not carry through that strategy and another social force takes on the role of leadership, enabling the break with pre-capitalist modes of production or foreign domination to take place, but only in order for the countries in question to become parts of the capitalist world system. Although Cliff did not use the term, he effectively treated deflected permanent revolution as the modern version or functional equivalent of the bourgeois revolution.8 Both the original and the revised concept therefore involved fundamental social transformations leading to either socialism (permanent revolution) or state capitalism (deflected permanent revolution).

Yet the term now tends to be used, as in Zeilig’s article, to mean political events of far less significance. That this can be done without undue conceptual stretching suggests, at the very least, that there was always an ambiguity in Cliff’s revision of Trotsky, which I think has two sources. One, which Cliff directly inherited from Trotsky, is the presence of an outstanding set of bourgeois revolutionary “tasks” which can be carried out by either the working class (permanent revolution) or the middle class “intelligentsia” (deflected permanent revolution). Much of the continued validity of both concepts therefore depends on how these tasks are defined and whether they are still outstanding. The other is the absence of any discussion of the
relationship between permanent revolution and the prior process of uneven and combined development, which was central to Trotsky’s original conception. Nor did Cliff deal with the subject in later writings. Despite describing uneven and combined development as “the essence of the permanent revolution” in the first volume of his biography of Trotsky, the discussion is confined to a mere five pages across that work as a whole, all relating solely to Russia.9 Yet, as we shall see, reintegrating the law of uneven and combined development with the strategy of permanent revolution will help answer many of the unresolved questions raised by its “deflection”.

From bourgeois to permanent revolution

Trotsky was not alone in arguing that, by the beginning of the 20th century, the bourgeoisie was no longer capable of carrying out the revolution which bore its name.10 Where he went far beyond his fellow-revolutionaries was in claiming that the Russian Revolution could lead, not only to the overthrow of absolutism, the establishment of representative government and the capitalist development of the productive forces, but to socialism itself. This was conditional, however, on the Russian Revolution being assisted by the revolutionary movement in the advanced West, whose own success could provide the material resources for socialist development that Russia lacked as an individual state. Trotsky was later to generalise this conception of permanent revolution, describing it as “the general trend of revolutionary development in all backward countries”.11 He also made what seemed at the time to be minor qualifications in relation to the two main social classes, but these contained possibilities, the realisation of which formed the background to Cliff’s article.

On the one hand, Trotsky thought that even where foreign dominance was “concealed by the fiction of state independence” the ruling bourgeoisie was capable of resisting imperialism, at least up to a certain point.12 This tended to be the case in countries which had never been formal colonies, or which ceased to be during the era of classic bourgeois revolutions. The most obvious examples of this were in the first and last destinations of his final exile: Turkey and Mexico. In this context he described the period of the 1930s as generally being one “in which the national bourgeoisie searches for a bit more independence from the foreign imperialists” and that revolutionaries were “in permanent competition with the national bourgeoisie as the one leadership which is capable of assuring the victory of the masses in fight against the foreign imperialists”. As the notion of “competition” suggests, although the organisations of the national bourgeoisie were in some senses “the Popular Front in the form of a party”, they played a different role from the entirely reactionary popular fronts in Europe and North America: “It can have a reactionary character insofar as it is directed against the worker; it can have an aggressive attitude insofar as it is directed against imperialism”.13 Trotsky had written off the possibility of decolonisation without permanent revolution, seeing the relative freedom of states like Turkey or Mexico as exceptional; but what were the implications of states with a similar relationship to the world system (ie backward capitalism) multiplying, as they did from 1947 onwards with the creation of India and Pakistan?

On the other hand, Trotsky was also aware that the level of capitalist economic development, “the hierarchy of backwardness”, varied enormously across what we now call the Global South.14 As a result, the size of the working class and its ability to influence events was also subject to massive differentiation. Trotsky was the opposite of a utopian voluntarist and he accepted that a certain degree of social weight was necessary on the part of a working class before it could aspire to taking power; what was possible in India and China would not necessarily be possible in Equatorial Africa or Afghanistan. It was always necessary to establish working class organisational and political independence, but: “The relative weight of the individual and transitional demands in the proletariat’s struggle, their mutual ties and their order of presentation, is determined by the peculiarities and specific conditions of each backward country and—to a considerable extent—by the degree of its backwardness”.15 However, even in those countries where the working class was much smaller than the Russian in relative terms, the global nature of the socialist project would enable them to overcome this obstacle. But what could the role of the working class be if the objective changed from international socialist revolution to national capitalist development?

Social or political revolution?

What were the “tasks” which Trotsky thought had to be accomplished in the process of passing from the bourgeois to the proletarian revolution? In Cliff’s summary, the bourgeoisie is “incapable of carrying out the thoroughgoing destruction of feudalism, the achievement of real national independence and political democracy”, which he treats as the main tasks of the bourgeois revolution: “A consistent solution to the agrarian question, of the national question, a break-up of the social and imperial fetters preventing speedy economic advance, will necessitate moving beyond the bounds of bourgeois private property”.16 A more orthodox Trotskyist, Michael Löwy, similarly concluded from a study of Trotsky’s works that what he calls the “democratic tasks” of the bourgeois revolution are “the agrarian democratic revolution”, “national liberation” and “democracy”.17 These are potentially very demanding criteria indeed, many of which remain unmet throughout the entire Global South and indeed beyond today. In some places Trotsky seemed to realise that this was a problem. He was reluctant to describe the Japanese Meiji Restoration 1868, for example, as a bourgeois revolution, referring to it instead as “a bureaucratic attempt to buy off such a revolution”, while at the same time acknowledging that the Meiji regime had accomplished in a matter of decades what it had taken Russia 300 years to achieve.18 But if the notion of “tasks” were taken seriously in the case of the Japan, then this would mean that the bourgeois revolution was only consummated when agrarian reform and representative democracy were imposed by the US occupiers between 1945 and 1955. Unfortunately this introduces further problems since the American Revolution itself was presumably unfinished until the black population achieved full formal civil rights with the passing of the 1965 Voting Rights Amendment Act, the 1967 judgment in the case of Loving versus Virginia allowing “mixed” marriages, and so on.

The question of democracy is particularly important here, since with the partial exception of France, even the classic bourgeois revolutions did not lead to the installation of representative democracy. In fact, if we take bourgeois democracy to involve, at a minimum, a representative government elected by the adult population, where votes have equal weight and can be exercised without intimidation by the state, it is a relatively recent development in the history of capitalism. Far from being intrinsic to bourgeois society, representative democracy has largely been introduced by pressure from the working class, often involving the threat of revolution, and extended by pressure from the oppressed.19 To insist that countries in the Global South are only completely capitalist when they have achieved stable representative democracy, apart from committing a category mistake (capitalism=economy; democracy=polity), is to expect a more complete outcome there than was achieved in the countries of the developed world. There are still important unresolved democratic issues in many countries, but they have nothing to do with the accomplishment or consolidation of capitalism.

This is what Cliff seems to have been implying in an important article from 1950 where he wrote of German unification “from above” during the 1860s: “The ‘Bismarckian’ path was not the exception for the bourgeoisie, but the rule, the exception was the French revolution”.20 The general conclusion was drawn by Alex Callinicos in this journal in 1982, when he noted the problem of making “an identification of bourgeois-democratic revolution with merely one of its cases”, which is of course the French, “and making its specific features…necessary components of any ‘genuine’ bourgeois revolution”: “Surely it is more sensible, rather than invoke the metaphysical concept of a ‘complete and genuine solution’ [to the tasks of the bourgeois revolution], to judge a bourgeois revolution by the degree to which it succeeds in establishing an autonomous centre of capital accumulation, even if it fails to democratise the political order, or to eliminate feudal social relations”.21 I agree with these conclusions, but they have certain implications for the theory of deflected permanent revolution that we have not considered. “Deflection” originally involved shifting from proletarian to bourgeois revolutionary objectives, but what can it mean if the real task of the bourgeois revolution has largely been accomplished on a global scale? In any case, “establishing an autonomous centre of capital accumulation” is scarcely an outcome which the working class can be expected to accomplish in the absence of the bourgeoisie!

The root of the problem is illustrated by the two main cases that Cliff discusses: China and Cuba. From the evidence of Cliff’s autobiography, China seems to have been the main model for deflected permanent revolution; indeed he describes the 1963 article as being a “distillation” of his earlier book Mao’s China (1957), with additional material on Cuba which, at that time, was the most recent addition to the roster of state capitalist regimes.22 Before 1949 China stood historically before the completion of the bourgeois revolution: there was effectively no central state, the agrarian sector still contained tributary and feudal relations and it was subject to oppression by several competing imperialist powers. Cuba by 1959, on the other hand, was a bourgeois state—a very weak one, of course, overawed by the US and penetrated by organised crime, but it seems to be an abuse of language to say that it was in any sense pre-capitalist, nor was the working class striving for power in the 1950s in the way that the Chinese working class had in the 1920s. In order to understand the difference between these two revolutions, we need to establish an important distinction first made by Marx in the 1840s and later adopted by Trotsky: that between social and political revolutions.23

Political revolutions sometimes have social aspects and social revolutions always have political implications, but the terms nevertheless indicate an essential difference. Political revolutions are struggles within society for control of the existing state, but which leave the social and economic structure intact. These revolutions have been relatively frequent in history, from the Roman Civil Wars, which led to the abandonment of Republican rule for the Principate in 27 BC, to the Eastern European revolutions of 1989-91, which swept away the Stalinist regimes and began what Chris Harman called the “sideways” movement from Eastern state capitalism to an approximation of the Western trans-state model.24 They may involve more or less popular participation, may result in more or less improvement in the condition of the majority, but ultimately the class that was in control of the means of production at the beginning will remain so at the end (although individuals and political organisations may have been replaced on the way), and the class that was exploited within the productive process at the beginning will also remain so at the end (although concessions may have been made to secure its acquiescence or participation). Social revolutions, however, are not merely struggles within existing society, but result in the transformation of one type of society into another and, as such, are extremely rare—so rare that we only know of two and one of these has not yet succeeded: the bourgeois revolution and the socialist revolution.

The relation between these two types of revolution is complex. Some revolutions which, taken by themselves, appear to be merely political revolutions, are in fact part of a more extended social revolution. In relation to the bourgeois revolution, the English revolution of 1688 has this relationship to the revolution of 1640; similar cases could be made for the French revolution of 1830 in relation to that of 1789 or, reversing the chronological order of importance, the American Revolution of 1776 in relation to the Civil War of 1861-5. More importantly in the context of this discussion, some revolutions end up as political revolutions because they are failed social revolutions. In relation to the socialist revolution, this is clearly the case with the German Revolution of 1918. As Trotsky commented, “It was no democratic completion of the bourgeois revolution, it was proletarian revolution decapitated by the Social Democrats; more correctly, it was a bourgeois counter-revolution, which was compelled to preserve pseudo-democratic forms after its victory over the proletariat”.25 A similar case could also be made for the Portuguese Revolution of 1974—and indeed most of the so-called “democratic” revolutions to have taken place since, above all that of Iran in 1978-9.

China experienced a social revolution in 1949: it could have been the socialist revolution, if the movements of the mid-1920s had succeeded, but ended up instead as the functional equivalent of the bourgeois revolution instead—a lesser but still decisive systemic shift. Cuba only experienced a political revolution, which did not fundamentally change the nature of the economic system, and represented—using Harman’s term, but reversing the direction of movement—a sideways shift from a highly corrupt market capitalist economy to one on the state capitalist model. This would have been more obvious if US paranoia about encroaching “communism” had not effectively forced the new Cuban regime to ally with Russia and adopt state capitalist forms of organisation—which was certainly not Castro’s original intention. There were, in other words, two different types of revolution encompassed by the term “deflected permanent revolution” from the very beginning. As capital increasingly sweeps away even the remnants of previous modes of production and the social formations which include them, the pattern of revolutions has increasingly tended towards the “political” rather than the “social” type—the revolutions of 1989 in Eastern Europe; the subsequent displays of “people power” in the Philippines, Thailand and Serbia; and the “colour revolutions” in the former republics of the USSR. Capitalism endlessly reproduces differences in power and autonomy—the
“unevenness” which I discuss below. Except in a handful of cases (Afghanistan, Nepal, Tibet) the unstable but structured inequality which results is not an unresolved issue from an earlier period, not a remnant of feudalism or colonialism, but a result of the normal operation of competitive accumulation expressed at the level of nation-states.

At least one leading thinker in the International Socialist tradition did argue that none of the cases of deflected permanent revolution involved social revolutions, although without using the latter term. Discussing the same examples as Cliff in an article for this journal written during the collapse of the Stalinist regimes, Harman noted:

In none of these cases was there a shift from one mode of production to another. In each case those who had control of the existing state apparatus used it to reorganise industry, reducing internal competition to a minimum to accumulate in the face of external pressures. That does not mean that there was never any opposition to such a move—”police” actions of various sorts were often taken against old, “private” capitalist interests who resisted the changes. But these were possible without any mobilisation of the mass of the population for full blooded social revolution, indeed in some cases without any mobilisation of the mass of the population at all.26

This perhaps goes too far, not only in respect of the Chinese Revolution of 1949, but a minority of the revolutions which followed it. Before the Ethiopian Revolution of 1974, for example, feudal social relations were still dominant and the state was the nearest to the European absolutist model of any remaining in the world.27 Nevertheless, Harman’s central point about the non-social nature of the revolution, like the majority of its predecessors, is correct, but does raise the question of whether retaining the term “deflected permanent revolution” has any benefits other than providing the consolations of familiarity. It is possible, of course, to explicitly detach it from the “tasks” of the bourgeois revolution, real or imagined, and instead relate it to the possibility of working class leadership in accomplishing democratic tasks (as in Thailand) or anti-imperialist struggle (as in Iraq) on the road to socialism—and this is more or less how the term tends to be used, but this has the danger of obscuring what is at stake.

Political revolutions, changes of regime by non-constitutional methods, are a fact of life in the Global South and likely to remain so, but these can take place without involving any independent working class intervention. If one Russian-backed gang of scoundrels replaces another US-supported collection of villains (or vice versa) in, say, Kyrgyzstan, and some working class people take part in accompanying demonstrations, this is not an example of deflected permanent revolution. There are of course very important recent examples where the working class has irrupted into what would otherwise been an inter ruling class dispute, thus opening up the possibility of social(ist) revolution, and again Iran in 1978-9 is the key example, but their failure to seize power meant that the revolutions remained at the political level. Again this is not an example of deflected permanent revolution: Iran was a capitalist state, the working class was defeated and one wing of the bourgeoisie emerged triumphant over another on the basis of a different strategy for accumulation. The alternatives, of social revolution based on the working class or political revolution involving the ascendancy of a different section of the bourgeoisie organised by political Islamists, still pertain in Iran and also in Egypt, the two areas of the Middle East where new upheavals are most clearly being prepared—although as we shall see in due course, they are not alone. Before turning to the question of what is generating these potentially revolutionary situations, however, we need to address the nature of the class, or class fraction, which Cliff argued had replaced the working class, allowing the process of “deflection” to take place.

The incapacities of the bourgeoisie

Cliff identified the “revolutionary intelligentsia” as a substitute for the revolutionary bourgeoisie in the Global South. No summary can substitute for actually reading his exemplary analysis of this group, but the main characteristics that he ascribed to it are important to note here. As non-specialists, members of the intelligentsia can offer to represent the “nation” against other merely sectoral groups. The backwardness of their nation offends them, not simply as a matter of civic pride, but because in material terms it means they are unable to find work—or at least work in the state apparatus at a level appropriate to their education. As the traditional aspects of their society are increasingly destabilised by the irruption of capitalist development, they find it hard to maintain its values, but look instead to those of efficiency, modernisation, industrialisation, all of which are apparently embodied in the USSR. They claim to love “the people”, but simultaneously feel guilty at their relative privilege and distrustful of those less educated or intelligent than themselves. Above all, they are hostile to democracy and strive to exclude the masses from their strategies of transformation, except in a subordinate or supportive role, which is why their preferred method is one of military struggle on a guerrilla or even conventional basis.28

Harman subsequently extended the argument in an important article on political Islam. Although Cliff’s category was originally used with reference to “Stalinism, Maoism and Castroism”, Harman now claimed that it was equally applicable to “the Islamist intelligentsia around Khomeini in Iran”, who “undertook a revolutionary reorganisation of ownership and control of capital within Iran while leaving capitalist relations of production intact”.29

The brilliance of this collective portrait is not in doubt, but was the class fraction it describes a new development in the history of capitalism? The classical Marxist tradition was more sceptical than is generally thought about the extent to which the bourgeoisie had been at the forefront of revolutionary struggle, even in 1640 or 1789.30 Trotsky tended to regard the petty bourgeoisie as the driving force behind successful bourgeois revolutions up to and including the French.31 He also recognised, however, that other social groups had played this role, including feudal landlords in Prussia during the 1860s and—potentially at least—the working class in the Chinese Revolution of the 1920s. He did not, of course, claim that the bourgeoisie had never played a revolutionary role: simply that this was not a necessary condition for a revolution to qualify as bourgeois.32 But in the cases where the bourgeoisie did lead, it is important to understand which sections were involved.

The bourgeoisie does not only consist of capitalists, in the literal sense of those who own or control capital. Hal Draper describes the class in this larger sense as involving “a social penumbra around the hard core of capitalists proper, shading out into the diverse social elements that function as servitors or hangers-on of capital without themselves owning capital”.33 The components of this “penumbra” are not, in fact, members of the petty bourgeoisie, who stand outside the capital-labour relationship and “earn their living by dint of their own labour and their own property”, although they have often provided the foot soldiers for the struggle with feudal absolutism.34 On the contrary: according to Perry Anderson, the peripheral membership of the outer bourgeoisie “is typically composed…of the gamut of professional, administrative and technical groups that enjoy life-conditions similar to capitalists proper—everything customarily included in the broader term ‘bourgeoisie’ as opposed to ‘capital’.”35 Michael Mann has suggested that a variation of the schema erroneously ascribed to Lenin, whereby ideological leadership can only be brought to the working class “from outside”, might in fact be relevant in relation to the bourgeoisie: “Left to itself the bourgeoisie was only capable of economism—in the 18th century of segmental manipulative deference”.36 It is in any case historically demonstrable that, down to 1848 at least, the most decisive leaderships tended to emerge from those sections of the bourgeoisie without direct material interests in the process of production, who were simultaneously less concerned with the destructive effects of revolutionary violence, but more able to overcome the competitive economic divisions within their class.

Are the leaders of the “deflected” revolutions so very different from those who led them between 1789 and 1848? Guevara trained as a doctor, but Robespierre was a lawyer, Danton a journalist, Roux a priest; only a very few, of whom Roederer was the most important, could seriously be described as capitalists. In some respects the parallels are nearly exact. As Eric Hobsbawm notes of the radicalism of students and intellectuals in 1848, “it was largely based on the (as it turned out temporary) inability of the new bourgeois society before 1848 to provide enough posts of adequate status for the educated whom it produced in unprecedented numbers, and whose rewards were so much more modest than their ambitions”.37 John Rees once observed that the intelligentsia “had, in an earlier incarnation, often been a crucial element of the practical leadership of the classical bourgeois revolutions”, without however drawing any conclusions.38 But if the above argument is correct, then the bourgeoisie’s supposed abdication of its revolutionary role after 1848 was in fact simply an expression of the hostility which the core membership of this class had always displayed towards plebeian intervention, now heightened by the even greater threat posed by the working class.

The two real changes after 1848 lay elsewhere. One was that the non-capitalist sections of the bourgeoisie, which had previously given revolutionary leadership and which might have been less paralysed by fear of the working class, were increasingly integrated into a society in which their former frustrations and humiliations were rapidly becoming things of the past. The other was that sections of the existing ruling classes of Europe and Japan, such as the Prussian landlords to whom Trotsky refers, which had previously resisted revolution, now embraced a top-down version in order to make their states capable of military competition with their rivals—or in the case of Japan, to avoid the fate of colonisation and dismemberment that had befallen China. In the case of the colonial world after 1945, the core bourgeoisie had inherited the traditional fear of revolution from their predecessors, but the “revolutionary intelligentsia” were not in the position of their European equivalents after 1848 and far more closely resembled them before 1789: they could not look forward to wealth, power and recognition without a revolution. In some cases they did not need to take action for themselves because the process of transformation was initiated by an army coup.

This type of event, distantly related to the “revolutions from above” in Germany, Italy and Japan in the 1860s, had of course begun before the advent of Stalinism with the Turkish Revolution of 1919, and were led by groups which Ellen Kay Trimberger calls “autonomous military bureaucrats”.39 This is one area in which Cliff’s account needs to be qualified as it is not entirely clear that “intelligentsia” is sufficiently broad a category to include the leading social forces involved in these revolutions, at least two of which, those led by Nasser in Egypt and Mengitsu in Ethiopia, were among the most important of the “deviations from the norm” of deflected permanent revolution. Military leaders, who are quite often junior officers, do of course have one important characteristic in common with members of the intelligentsia, in that they can also claim to represent “the nation” beyond mere factional interests. In the majority of cases where the military solution was not available, however, the intelligentsia needed to mobilise themselves. What is new in these situations was not therefore the existence or activity of a “revolutionary intelligentsia” hitherto unknown: both were already familiar from the history of the 19th century. It was rather that this class fraction felt able to take action in the knowledge that they did not need to fear the working class. Why not?

Cliff offers a number of reasons why the working class in the Global South did not play the role envisaged by Trotsky. Of these, the general influence of ruling class ideas and the illiteracy and inexperience of the workers are clearly relevant, but this was also true of Russia in 1917 and China in the 1920s; they are not in themselves an explanation. Other reasons have genuine explanatory power and remain extremely pertinent even today. Many workers in urban industry retain links to smallholdings in the countryside, to which they return in times of unemployment, making the permanent formation of class consciousness and organisation difficult. Conversely, those workers who are in stable employment can have relatively higher living standards than the rural masses, making the possibility of alliances with them less likely. Those trade unions or community groups which do exist are often led by non working class elements, “outsiders”, with different interests and political goals, and are heavily reliant on support from the developmental state, which tends to impose an apolitical agenda acceptable to the regime. Both these leaderships and the personnel who run the state apparatus are influenced by Stalinist politics, the key subjective element in controlling and lowering the aspirations of the working class.40 But many of these characteristics were also present in pre-revolutionary Russia: workers with links to the countryside; trade unions established by agents of the state; and industries where trade unions did not exist even before the ban which followed the Revolution of 1905.41 Some deeper level of explanation is required.

The absence of the revolutionary party is clearly part of the explanation, but parties themselves can only have a meaningful existence where certain determinate conditions allow them to form and grow. Lack of revolutionary leadership can explain the outcome in China during the 1920s or in Iran in 1978-9, where major upheavals took place and Cliff’s other inhibiting conditions were overcome, but not where such situations did not arise. At the end of his discussion of workers in the Global South, Cliff writes, “An automatic correlation between economic backwardness and revolutionary political militancy does not exist”.42 But Trotsky never argued that such an automatic correlation did exist; for him it was conditional and Cliff does not refer to, let alone discuss, the enabling condition which Trotsky saw as fundamental to its establishment: uneven and combined development.

From uneven to combined development

The radical novelty of what Trotsky meant by uneven and combined development is often underestimated. The most common mistake is to reduce it to, or confuse it with, the longstanding theory of uneven development.43 The most famous (and certainly the most often quoted) passage in Trotsky’s The History of the Russian Revolution is an expression of this position: “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”.44 But if all that Trotsky had proposed was a schema in which the “advantages of backwardness” allowed less developed nation-states to adopt the most modern available technologies he would have remained within the established limits of unevenness and, indeed, would not have distinguished himself from Stalinist usage of the same concept. As Ernest Mandel once wrote, part of the “magnificent theoretical achievement” represented by the law of uneven and combined development is precisely that it is “quite distinct from the law of uneven development familiar to all Marxists”.45 Why was the distinction necessary? What was missing from Trotsky’s account of permanent revolution was any explanation for the origin of the revolutionary process, for the revolutionary militancy of the Russian working class and, by extension, at least some of the other working classes in the underdeveloped world.

Until the First World War uneven development had been a largely descriptive concept, without specific political implications. As Neil Smith notes, it “was first examined in any depth by Lenin, who tried to sketch some of the economic and geographical outlines of the process”.46 In Imperialism: the Highest Stage of Capitalism (1916) Lenin wrote, “The uneven and spasmodic development of individual enterprises, individual branches of industry and individual countries is inevitable under the capitalist system”.47 Essentially, he argued that by the beginning of the 20th century uneven development had acquired three main aspects. One was the process by which the advanced states had reached their leading positions within the structured inequality of the world system. During the late 19th century the “skipping of stages” had been the experience of several states, notably Germany, Italy and Japan. The pressure of military and commercial competition between the actual or aspirant Great Powers forced those which were still absolutist states based on the feudal mode of production—or at least those which were capable of doing so—to adopt the current stage of development achieved by their capitalist rivals, if they were to have any chance, not only of successfully competing, but of surviving at the summit of the world order. In very compressed timescales they had been able to adopt the socio-economic achievements of Britain to the extent that they became recognisably the same kind of societies, without necessarily reproducing every characteristic of the Anglo-Saxon pioneer: where backwardness remained it tended to be in the nature of the political regimes led by monarchs or emperors supported by a landowning aristocracy.

By the outbreak of the First World War membership of the dominant states was essentially fixed. What remained was the second aspect of uneven development: the ongoing rivalry between the great powers which involved them constantly trying to “catch up and overtake” each other in a contest for supremacy that would continue as long as capitalism itself. This rivalry led in turn to a third aspect: the developed imperialist states collectively, but competitively asserting their dominance over two other types, described by Lenin as “the colonies themselves” and “the diverse forms of dependent countries which, politically, are formally independent but, in fact, are enmeshed in the net of financial and diplomatic dependence”, like Argentina and Portugal.48 Colonial expansion prevented some of the societies subject to it from developing at all, and in the case of the most undeveloped, the peoples involved suffered near or complete extermination and their lands were taken by settlers. More often the peoples survived, but their social systems were immobilised by imperial powers interested in strategic advantage or plunder, or both.

Trotsky certainly took uneven development in these three senses as his starting point—as is suggested by the word order in the title of his own theory: “I would put uneven before combined, because the second grows out of the first and completes it”.49 How then does the concept of uneven and combined development differ from uneven development as such? The main difference is that it takes account of the internal effects of uneven development.50 To explain the link between the advanced nature of Russian industry on the one hand, and the militancy of Russian workers on the other, Trotsky had to transcend the theory of uneven development, a process he did not complete until the early 1930s. The inability of uneven development to fully encapsulate these phenomena is what appears to have made Trotsky search for a new concept with which to supplement it. It took a political crisis to provoke this conceptualisation.

During the Chinese Revolution of 1925-7 the emergent Stalinist regime in Russia ordered the local Communist Party to subordinate its own organisation and demands to those of the bourgeois nationalists in the Guomindang. The ultimately disastrous outcome for the Chinese working class movement was the catalyst for Trotsky to generalise the strategy of permanent
revolution from Russia to sections of the colonial and semi-colonial world, not indiscriminately—since some were still untouched by capitalist development and had no working class of any size—but where conditions similar to those in Russia prevailed. Due to a common set of circumstances, the working classes in these countries had far greater levels of both consciousness and organisation than the proletariat in the more developed countries where Marxists had traditionally expected the socialist revolution to begin. Trotsky claimed that “the prediction that historically backward Russia could arrive at the proletarian revolution sooner than advanced Britain rests almost entirely upon the law of uneven development”.51 But uneven development was not the sole basis for this prediction, as we can see by contrasting actual Russian development with two possible alternatives.

One was the path of the advanced capitalist states. The pace of development was relatively faster in most of the countries that followed Holland and England, partly because of the urgency of acquiring the attributes of capitalist modernity, partly because the long period of experiment and evolution, characteristic of the two pioneers, could be dispensed with. In the case of Scotland in the 18th century or Prussia in the 19th century, this led to enormous tensions which resolved themselves in moments of class struggle foreshadowing the process of permanent revolution, above all in the 1820 general strike in the former and the 1848 revolution in the latter. But because these societies did make the transition to the ranks of the advanced societies, either as the centre (Prussia/Germany) or a component part of another national formation (Scotland/Britain) these moments passed with the tensions that caused them.

The other was the path of the colonies or semi-colonies. What Peter Curtin calls “defensive modernisation” was not enough to protect these societies from Western incursions. In the case of the Merinian monarchs of Madagascar, for example, “They not only failed to modernise beyond adopting Christianity and superficial European fashions, they failed to build a kind of society and government administration that would perpetuate their own power”.52 Colonial rule could even throw societies backwards, as in the case of British-occupied Iraq. Ruling through the Hashemite monarchy after 1920, the regime deliberately rejected any attempts at modernisation, except in the oil industry. Instead it reinforced disintegrating tribal loyalties and semi-feudal tenurial relationships over the peasantry. Peter Gowan describes the British initiatives as “the creation of new foundational institutions of landownership in order to revive dying traditional authority relations, resulting in economically and socially regressive consequences, undertaken for thoroughly modern imperialist political purposes—namely, to create a ruling class dependent upon British military power and therefore committed to imperial interests in the region”.53

A further group of states embodied “combination”. These were unable to reproduce the level of development attained by the advanced capitalist states, but were nevertheless able to “unblock” themselves to the extent of making partial advances in specific areas. There were essentially three sub sets in this group. The first were feudal-absolutist or tributary states, like Russia or Turkey, which, under pressure from the Western powers, were forced for reasons of military competition to introduce limited industrialisation and partial agrarian reform. The second were still more backward states like China or regions like the post-Ottoman Arab Middle East, which had been broken by imperialist pressure, but which, instead of being colonised, were allowed to disintegrate while the agents of foreign capital established areas of industrialisation under the protection of either their own governments or local warlords. The third were colonial states like British India, and to a lesser extent French Algeria, where the metropolitan power was unwilling to allow full-scale industrialisation in case it produced competition for its own commodities, but was prepared to sanction it in specific circumstances for reasons of military supply or where goods were not intended for home markets. Tsarist Russia neither emulated the process of “catch up and overtake” among the advanced countries nor suffered that of “blocked development” within the backward ones, but instead experienced a collision between the two.

It was in relation to developments in China that Trotsky finally moved beyond uneven development. He continued to employ the term between 1928 and 1930, most importantly in the articles collected in The Third International after Lenin, and in Permanent Revolution and its various prefaces. In these texts his main emphasis is still distinguishing his use of uneven development from that of Stalin, for whom countries developed at different tempos and must therefore advance through a series of stages—including that of socialism—at their own individual pace. Trotsky highlighted instead the “unity” of the world economy and the “interdependence” of the imperial powers and the colonial and semi-colonial world. Unevenness in this sense means simultaneously that individual countries could leap over the capitalist stage of development, as Russia had done and as China might have done, but would still be unable to complete the transition to socialism while the world economy as a whole remained dominated by the capitalist mode of production: the international system was both a spur at one moment and a block at another.54 Yet these important insights still did not address the question of how the first part of this process, the revolutionary moment, was possible. Trotsky needed a new concept, incorporating uneven development, but deepening its content.

It was in the first volume of The History of the Russian Revolution (1932) that he first outlines this new concept: “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”.55 The precise forms which combination took obviously varied depending on whether the country involved was a formal colony controlled by a single imperial power, like India, or one nominally independent, but actually subdivided between several warlords and imperial powers, like China. Clearly there were differences. Unlike Tsarist Russia, neither Imperial nor Republican China was in a position to stimulate capitalist industrial growth. Where similarities did exist was in the role of foreign capital and imported technology and in the limited geographical implantation of capitalist industry. Nevertheless it was possible to generalise in relation to the effects:

Historical backwardness does not imply a simple reproduction of the development of advanced countries, England or France, with a delay of one, two, or three centuries. It engenders an entirely new “combined” social formation in which the latest conquests of capitalist technique and structure root themselves into relations of feudal or pre-feudal barbarism, transforming and subjecting them and creating peculiar relations of classes.56

Uneven and combined development affects the totality of a national society, not merely the economy. Trotsky was not saying that forms characteristic of different stages of development simply coexist alongside each other in striking or dramatic contrasts, although that could be true. Nor was he just emphasising the existence of transitional modes of production, although he recognised that these could exist. Uneven and combined development usually involves what Michael Burawoy calls “the combination of the capitalist mode of production with pre-existing modes”.57 Jamie Allinson and Alex Anievas too have written of how the “logics of different modes of production interact with one another in consequential ways in backward countries”.58 But a process that permeates every aspect of society, ideology as much as economy, must involve more than this. The “articulation” of capitalist and pre-capitalist modes had, after all, been progressing slowly in the Russian countryside since the abolition of serfdom in 1861, and had led to many complex transitional forms, as Lenin documented.59 None by themselves led to the type of situation Trotsky was seeking to explain: “At the same time that peasant land-cultivation as a whole remained, right up to the revolution, at the level of the 17th century, Russian industry in its technique and capitalist structure stood at the level of the advanced countries, and in certain respects even outstripped them”.60

The detonation of the process requires sudden, intensive industrialisation and urbanisation, regardless of whether the pre-existing agrarian economy was based on feudal or capitalist relations. Burawoy is therefore right to describe uneven and combined development as a product of “the timing of industrialisation in relation to the history of world capitalism”.61 Here too the Chinese experience was important. Trotsky was quite insistent—perhaps over-insistent—on which mode dominated the Chinese social formation. He rejected Communist International claims that feudalism predominated in the Chinese economic base and political superstructure: “Of course, matters would be quite hopeless if feudal survivals did really dominate in Chinese economic life,” he wrote in 1929. “But fortunately, survivals in general cannot dominate.” Instead he emphasised the extent of market relations and influence of different forms of mercantile and banking capital. Rural social relations “stem in part from the days of feudalism; and in part they constitute a new formation”, but within this formation:

it is capitalist relations that dominate and not “feudal” (more correctly, serf and, generally, pre-capitalist) relations. Only thanks to this dominant role of capitalist relations can we speak seriously of the prospects of proletarian hegemony in a national revolution.62

Whatever the extent of Trotsky’s exaggerations, it is important—not least in relation to modern China—that uneven and combined development can take place where the capitalist mode was already dominant. The archaic and the modern, the settled and disruptive, overlap, fuse and merge in all aspects of the social formations concerned, from the organisation of arms production to the structure of religious observance, in entirely new and unstable ways, generating socially explosive situations in which revolution became what Georg Lukács termed “actual”.63 It is tempting to describe these as mutations, except that the inadequacy of the language led Trotsky to reject the biological metaphors in which stages of development had been described from the Enlightenment to the Third International in its Stalinist phase: “The absorptive and flexible psyche, as a necessary condition for historical progress, confers on the so-called social ‘organisms’, as distinguished from the real, that is, biological organisms, an exceptional variability of internal structure”.64

These new combined formations gave rise to conflicts unknown in earlier historical periods. On the one hand: “The [backward] nation…not infrequently debases the achievements borrowed from outside in the process of adapting them to its own more primitive culture”.65 From 1861 Tsarism established factories using manufacturing technology characteristic of monopoly capitalism in order to produce arms with which to defend a feudal absolutist state.66 On the other hand, by doing so they bring into being a class more skilled, more politically conscious than that faced by any previous absolutist or early capitalist states.67 All subsequent non-Marxist theories of “the advantages of backwardness” assumed that technological transfers had a limited, or at least delayed, impact on other aspects of social life.68 Against this Trotsky argued that these transfers could in fact quicken the pace of change more generally, so that they attained higher levels of development than in their established rivals. As an example of this he drew attention to the greater implantation of Marxist theory among the working classes of Russia and, later, China than in that of Britain. Thus, for Trotsky, the most important consequence of uneven and combined development was the enhanced capacity it gave the working classes for political and industrial organisation, theoretical understanding and revolutionary activity:

When the productive forces of the metropolis, of a country of classical capitalism…find ingress into more backward countries, like Germany in the first half of the 19th century, and Russia at the merging of the 19th and 20th centuries, and in the present day in Asia; when the economic factors burst in a revolutionary manner, breaking up the old order; when development is no longer gradual and “organic” but assumes the form of terrible convulsions and drastic changes of former conceptions, then it becomes easier for critical thought to find revolutionary expression, provided that the necessary theoretical prerequisites exist in the given country.69

But uneven and combined development can also work, as it were, in reverse: “debased adaptation” is not only a feature of backward societies. Here too the opening of the age of imperialism is decisive. Between 1870 and 1914, for example, imperial Britain, Germany and Japan all consciously emphasised the role of their monarch-emperors; in each case, the pre-existing symbolism of the crown being used to represent national unity against two main challenges: external imperial rivalry and internal class divisions.70 But Trotsky saw this as a much more general phenomenon, necessarily caused by the need to maintain bourgeois hegemony over the exploited and oppressed in an era of revolution and which reached its apogee in the US:

It is considered unquestionable that technology and science undermine superstition. But the class character of society sets substantial limits here too. Take America. There, church sermons are broadcast by radio, which means that the radio is serving as a means of spreading prejudices.71

Trotsky’s argument suggests two questions about the character of uneven and combined development. One is whether it applies to all periods in human history. Trotsky himself tended to think that it did. His claim that “the entire history of mankind is governed by the law of uneven development” can certainly be defended.72 He later extended this, writing in The Revolution Betrayed (1937), “The law of uneven development is supplemented throughout the whole course of history by the law of combined development”.73 Whether this is equally defensible is, however, another matter.74 Trotsky did not attempt to demonstrate his claims for the transhistoricity of uneven and combined development, but Justin Rosenberg has attempted to do so with examples from the Russian state after 800 AD, which he claims show three aspects of combination.

First, “the course of Russian development was ‘combined’ in the sense that at every point it was causally integrated with a wider social field of interacting patterns of development”.75 By this he means that Russia was subject to “inter-societal causality”, an environment in which the endless interplay of other states or social forces shaped its internal structure in a way that could never be completed. Second, combination also involved “structures” which “extended beyond Russia itself”. Among such structures Rosenberg includes “regional political orders, cultural systems and material divisions of labour”. The third, “yet deeper” dimension is the consequence of the first two, the creation of a “hybrid” social formation, “a changing amalgam of pre-existent ‘internal’ structures of social life with external socio-political and cultural influences”. Consequently, there “never existed a ‘pre-combination’ Russia”; at every point its existence was traversed by these influences: “combined development identifies the inter-societal, relational texture of the historical processes within which the shifting meanings of the term ‘Russia’ crystallised and accumulated”. In general terms, Rosenberg invites us to “abandon at the deepest theoretical level any notion of the constitution of society as analytically prior to its interaction with other societies”.76

The inseparability of the international from the social is, however, inscribed in historical materialism from the moment of its formation, notably The German Ideology. But in this moment, Marx and Engels were also clear that “history becomes world history” only as a result of capitalism.77 Why? Before capitalism all class societies, with the exception of those based on slavery, were based on variations of the same mode of production, involving surplus extraction from a class of peasants and taking either a “feudal” or “tributary” form depending on whether the main agent of exploitation was a class of local landlords or the state bureaucracy.78 There were important differences between them, particularly in terms of how the ruling classes organised, but most pre-capitalist societies seem to have involved elements of both, with one or the other achieving dominance at different times. Those cases which were the purest examples of one variant or the other (for example, feudal England or tributary China) had quite different possibilities for capitalist development. Until that development took place, however, societies could borrow from each other, influence one another—particularly in the field of culture and philosophy—but were not sufficiently differentiated from each other for elements to “combine” to any effect. The very terms that Trotsky uses in describing
combination—”archaic and more contemporary forms”—were unthinkable until capitalism defined what it meant to be “archaic”.79

We therefore need to draw a distinction between Trotsky’s general account of Russian development, which, as Rosenberg correctly says, was always subject to external influence, and the specific moment at which these influences were not merely successfully absorbed into an endlessly mutating social form, but set up a series of tensions which threatened to, and eventually did, tear the fabric of Russian society apart in 1917. The moment of uneven and combined development, in other words, only arrives with capitalist industrialisation and the historically unique society to which it gave rise. The immense difference between industrial capitalism and previous modes of production meant that, from the moment the former was introduced, combination became possible in a way that it had not been hitherto; but the structural dynamism of industrial capitalism compared with previous modes of production also meant that combination became inescapable, as all aspects of existing society registered the impact on them, to differing degrees, of this radically new means of exploitation. “In contrast to the economic systems that preceded it,” wrote Trotsky, “capitalism inherently and constantly aims at economic expansion, at the penetration of new territories, the conversion of self-sufficient provincial and national economies into a system of financial interrelationships”.80 Rosenberg himself notes that, “for Trotsky, capitalism did not just change the world: it actually changed the overall nature of historical change itself”.81 I think he has insufficiently incorporated this insight into his own work.

The second question is whether uneven and combined development is a process necessarily confined to individual states. Rosenberg argues that, for Trotsky, “’combined development’ was a phenomenon not of individual societies alone, but of the evolving international social formation as a whole”.82 In a discussion of Marx’s original plan for the structure of Capital, he further claims that if we “neglect the significance of uneven and combined development” at the level of those determinants which apply to all societies, then the result will ultimately be either economic reductionism or a version of Realist International Relations theory in which states appear as sovereign actors seeking—insofar as they are able—advantage and security within the global system.83 Colin Barker has reached similar conclusions to Rosenberg, suggesting that an “extended” concept of uneven and combined development is implicit in Trotsky’s own work, “Only from the angle of world economy, of the combined development of the different countries within it, do words like ‘advanced’ and ‘archaic’ have any meaning, as measures of coercive comparison within a larger system of competitive transactions”.84

I have more sympathy with these arguments since, as I have argued above, uneven and combined development is produced by the impact of different aspects of the international capitalist system (economic competition, military rivalry and colonial rule) on the societies constitutive of it. It is important, however, not to confuse the sources of a particular historical process with the process itself. Trotsky famously wrote, “Marxism takes its point of departure from world economy, not as a sum of national parts, but as a mighty and independent reality which has been created by the international division of labour and the world market, and which in our epoch imperiously dominates the national markets”.85 Uneven and combined development is a consequence of the world economy, but it is played out within the component parts of the states system: the territorial confines of these states are where the specific combinations take place. Indeed, it is difficult to see how any analysis of a “concrete situation” can be undertaken while remaining at the level of “the international”. If the writers quoted in the previous paragraph are right, and what happened in Russia was merely an example of a universal process, then what remains of the “peculiarities” of Russian development which Trotsky took as the basis of his theory, and which he later extended to other areas of the colonial and semi-colonial world? If everywhere is subject to uneven and combined development then it clearly explains nothing in particular about Russia, or anywhere else for that matter, and we must search for another theory to achieve what Trotsky sought to do.

Uneven and combined development is a feature of certain societies: unlike the world economy of which Trotsky spoke or the states system, whose interaction gave it birth; it does not constitute “an independent reality” greater than its component parts. Uneven development occurs at the international level, but it is meaningless to talk about combined development in this respect. The significance of the process is precisely the tensions and conflicts to which it gives rise within the territorial boundaries of particular states, not least because the state itself is a combined formation. In Russia after 1861, for example, the state apparatus remained staffed by members of the landed aristocracy, but these were not, as in England after 1688 and Germany after 1871, essentially agrarian capitalists, but feudal landlords presiding over a complex set of class relationships in various early stages to the transition to capitalism. The absolutist state nevertheless needed to industrialise in order to remain on a position of military parity with its rivals, but the reliance that it placed on the landlord class meant that industrialisation could not be financed through taxation or by using the appropriation of agricultural surpluses. This in turn compelled the state to borrow foreign capital, above all from France, with contradictory effect. Industrialisation took place rapidly and intensively, but without leading to the creation of a powerful native bourgeoisie. In order to sustain it the state needed to export grain in order to service its foreign debt repayments, leading, as grain prices fell, to greater pressure on the peasantry to deliver more grain without providing them with the means to increase productivity, thus leading to growing peasant unrest. And since industrialisation effectively coincided with the transition to capitalism, the proletariat was formed without intermediary stages, making it more volatile from the start, in a situation where the state could afford less in terms of making concessions over wages, conditions or political rights.86

Trotsky, who emphasised more than any of his contemporaries the reality of the world economy, was also the thinker who refocused attention from “the international” in general to its impact on individual nation-states. He never faltered in his belief that the socialist revolution could only ever be accomplished on a global basis, but was equally forceful in arguing that the strategies adopted by revolutionaries outside the developed West had to be based on an assessment of the extent of combined development and the specific forms which it took.

We can now return to the central absence in Cliff’s revision of Trotsky. The theory of uneven and combined development explained what occurs when the process of “overleaping” takes place in the colonial or neo-colonial world, where it is impossible to fully “catch up” with, let alone “overtake” the developed West, but to do so instead in a fragmentary or partial way. But the resulting combined forms, because of their inbuilt social instability, paradoxically made revolutionary outbreaks more likely than in the developed world, with its greater levels of stability and reformist traditions. In other words, the presence of uneven and combined development made it possible for a strategy of permanent revolution to be pursued with greater likelihood of success; its absence made it, not inevitable, but less likely that such a strategy would be pursued in the first place, thus leading to the process of “deflection” highlighted by Cliff.


Permanent revolution, and consequently deflected permanent revolution may now be historical concepts, but uneven and combined development is not, with important implications for the possibility of socialist revolution beginning in the Global South. Following Trotsky, Tim McDaniel argues that there were four reasons why what he calls the “autocratic capitalism” of Tsarist Russia tended to produce a revolutionary labour movement. First, it eliminated or reduced the distinction between economic and political issues. Second, it generated opposition for both traditional and modern reasons. Third, it reduced the fragmentation of the working class, but also prevented the formation of a stable conservative bureaucracy, thus leading to more radical attitudes. Fourth, it forced a degree of interdependence between the mass of the working class, class-conscious workers and revolutionary intellectuals.87 McDaniel claims that a comparable situation has arisen since only in Iran, but this seems to unnecessarily restrict the applicability of the model to situations which resemble pre-Revolutionary Russia closely in formal terms.88 In fact, the relentless expansion of neoliberal globalisation, and the consequent irruption of industrialisation and urbanisation into areas they had previously bypassed, often under conditions of intense state repression, means that the responses identified by McDaniel are being reproduced places as distinct as China and Dubai.89 But these are only the most extreme examples of a general trend that is the most characteristic of the current phase of capitalist development. Two points need to be made in relation to the process.

One is that it is not limited to the Global South, but to the relatively undeveloped parts of the First and former Second Worlds. As Beverley Silver writes:

Strong new working class movements had been created as a combined result of the spatial fixes pursued by multinational capital and the import substitution industrialisation efforts of modernising states. In some cases, like Brazil’s automobile workers; labour militancy was rooted in the newly expanding mass production consumer durable industries. In other cases, like the rise of Solidarno´s´c in Poland’s shipyards, militancy was centred in gigantic establishments providing capital goods. In still others, like Iran’s oil workers, labour militancy was centred on critical natural resource export industries.90

Take, for example, the Italian Mezzogiorno, where Italian unification was followed by a pronounced process of deindustrialisation, which led to a steady drain of capital to the North, with a long-term reservoir of cheap labour-power, cheap agricultural products and a docile clientele in the South; here the process of uneven and combined development led to similarly high levels of militancy to that seen in countries characterised by more general backwardness, the key episode being the revolt of the Italian in-migrants against their living conditions and low pay during the “industrial miracle” of the late 50s and early 60s. What is interesting about the Italian example, however, is that the process has continued, in different forms until the present day.91

The second point to be made is that, in the Global South proper at least, the process is still unable completely to transform those societies. The state “containers” within which the process of uneven and combined development unfolds, including China, will never achieve the type of total transformation characteristic of the states that formed the original core of the capitalist world system, at least in any foreseeable timescale. One intelligent conservative commentator, Edward Luttwak, has referred to “the perils of incomplete imitation” whereby developing world ruling classes “have been importing a dangerously unstable version of American turbo-capitalism, because the formula is incomplete”. What is missing? On the one hand, the legal regulation to control what he calls “the overpowering strength of big business”, and on the other, the internal humility of the winners and acceptance of the essential justice of their personal situation by the losers from the system.92 Uneven and combined development is therefore likely to be an ongoing process, which will only be resolved by either revolution or disintegration. But in the meantime, China and other states like India and Brazil where growth has been less dramatic remain both inherently unstable in their internal social relations and expansive in their external search for markets, raw materials and investment opportunities. It is in this inherent instability that the possibilities for permanent revolution lie. This does not mean that wherever uneven and combined development exists today the working class movement will automatically adopt what Trotsky called the “boldest conclusions of revolutionary thought”. In circumstances where Marxist ideas (and those of secular radicalism more generally) are either unavailable or discredited after the experience of Stalinism, movements will reach for whatever ideas seem to assist them in their struggle, regardless of their antiquity—but they will transform them in the process, contrary to what is asserted to the contrary by reactionaries in the West.

The late Fred Halliday once expressed his own disillusionment after the fall of the Soviet Empire, rejecting the revolutionary possibilities of uneven and combined development:

The insight of Trotsky was that of locating the history, and revolution of any one country in a broader, contradictory context, in seeing how ideas, and forms of conflict, like forms of technology or economic activity, could be transposed to contexts very different from that in which they originated. The mistake of the Marxist approach was to conclude that, in the end, the combination would prevail over the unevenness. The unevenness, evident above all in the widening income gaps between rich and poor on a world scale, has continued to grow, and is replicated dramatically in an era of capitalist globalisation. But because of the fragmentary character of states, the spatial and political distributor of that unevenness, the combination, the world revolutionary cataclysm, did not occur.93

To this we reply: combination is not “the world revolutionary cataclysm”, it is the objective enabling condition for it to take place. And if the cataclysm has not yet occurred, this is largely because of the absence of the missing subjective condition, which Trotsky recognised in 1917, and which Cliff highlighted back in the 1960s: the revolutionary organisation capable of giving focus to the social explosions which the process of uneven and combined development brings in its wake. In that respect, whatever else may have changed since both men wrote, the necessity for the party remains, if the incredible energies unleashed by uneven and combined development are not to be wasted yet again, with terrible consequences for the world and those who live in it.


1: i-ek, 2002, pp305-306. Thanks to Alex Callinicos, Joseph Choonara, Gareth Dale and Gonzalo Pozo for comments on the first draft.

2: Cliff, 2003.

3: MacIntyre, 2008, p275.

4: Cliff, 2000, pp42, 48.

5: Pozo, 2010.

6: Zeilig, 2010, p182.

7: Zeilig, 2010, p163. The article is part of a growing and impressive body of work by the same author on the rich and complex history of African politics. See also Zeilig, 2007, Zeilig 2008, and Zeilig, 2009.

8: Other writers in the International Socialist tradition have subsequently made this more explicit. See, for example, Callinicos, 1989, pp159-160, and Harris, 1978, pp261-282.

9: Cliff, 1989, p128. For his entire discussion see Cliff, 1989, pp126-128 and Cliff, 1993, pp164-165.

10: See Day and Guido, 2009; Geras, 1976; Larsson, 1970, pp252-304; Löwy, 1981, chapter 2.

11: Trotsky, 1977b, p138.

12: Trotsky, 1976c, pp581, 582-583.

13: Trotsky, 1979a, pp784-785.

14: Trotsky, 1976c, p582.

15: Trotsky, 1977b, p138.

16: Cliff, 2003a, p188.

17: Löwy, 1981, p89.

18: Trotsky, 1972c, p291.

19: Acemoglu and Robinson, 2000, pp1182-1186; Therborn, 1977, pp4, 17.

20: Cliff, 1984, pp65-66.

21: Callinicos, 1982, p110.

22: Cliff, 2000, p227.

23: Marx, 1975, pp419-420; Trotsky, 1937, p288. Much the clearest discussion of the subject is in Draper, 1978, pp17-21.

24: Harman, 1990, pp64-71.

25: Trotsky, 1969b, p131.

26: Harman, 1990, p38.

27: Halliday and Molyneux, 1981, pp62-74.

28: Cliff, 2003, pp196-198.

29: Harman, 2010, p344.

30: Davidson, 2005, pp21-27. I discuss this issue in more detail in Davidson, 2011a, chapter 2.

31: Trotsky, 1976c, pp581, 583-584.

32: For discussions of this “consequentialist” position, see Callinicos, 1989, pp124-127 and Davidson, 2005, pp27-32.

33: Draper, 1978, p169.

34: Draper, 1978, p289.

35: Anderson, 1992, p112.

36: Mann, 1993, p229.

37: Hobsbawm, 1975, p21.

38: Rees, 1999, p28; Rees, 2006, p155.

39: Trimberger, 1978, pp4-5, 41-45. Trimberger identifies the Meiji Restoration as the first revolution of this type.

40: Cliff, 2003, pp194-195.

41: Gatrell, 1994, p93; Koenker and Rosenberg, 1989, pp103-110; Schneiderman, 1976, pp69-140.

42: Cliff, 2003, p196.

43: For examples of these mistakes and a sketch of the history of the theory of uneven development, see Davidson, 2006a, pp10-20, and Davidson, 2009, pp10-11. For a more detailed discussion, see Davidson, forthcoming in 2011b, chapter 1.

44: Trotsky, 1977a, p27.

45: Mandel, 1995, p1.

46: Smith, 1990, pxiv.

47: Lenin, 1964, p241.

48: Lenin, 1964, pp263-264.

49: Trotsky, 1979b, p858.

50: The only real forerunner here is Rosa Luxemburg in a brilliant article from 1896 on the Ottoman Empire-see Luxemburg, 2003, pp38-40.

51: Trotsky, 1969b, p241.

52: Curtin, 2000, p150.

53: Gowan, 1999, p167.

54: Trotsky, 1969b, pp148-150, 252-260; Trotsky, 1974b, pp14-19.

55: Trotsky, 1977a, pp27-28.

56: Trotsky, 1976c, p583.

57: Burawoy, 1985, p99.

58: Allinson and Anievas, 2009, p52.

59: Lenin, 1960, pp191-210.

60: Trotsky, 1977a, p30. And see, for example, Reiber, 1982, p224.

61: Burawoy, 1985, p99.

62: Trotsky, 1974b, pp159-160.

63: Lukács, 1970, chapter 1.

64: Trotsky, 1972b, p251.

65: Trotsky, 1977a, p27.

66: Treblicock, 1981, p208.

67: Trotsky, 1977a, p55. And see, for example, Gatrell, 1994, p15.

68: See, for example, Gerschenkron, 1962, pp127-128.

69: Trotsky, 1972a, p199. See also Trotsky, 1977a, p33.

70: Cannadine, 1983, pp120-150; Bayly, 2004, pp426-430.

71: Trotsky, 1994, p257.

72: Trotsky, 1974b, p115.

73: Trotsky, 1937, p300.

74: James Allinson and Alex Anievas also have concerns with claims for the transhistorical nature of uneven and combined development, although for different reasons from those expressed here. See Allinson and Anievas, 2009, pp62-63.

75: Rosenberg, 2006, p321.

76: Rosenberg, 2006, pp321-325.

77: Marx and Engels, 1976, pp50-51.

78: Haldon, 1993, pp63-69; Wickham, 2005, pp57-61.

79: Trotsky, 1977a, p28.

80: Trotsky, 1974b, p15.

81: Rosenberg, 2007, p456.

82: Rosenberg, 2005, p41.

83: Callinicos and Rosenberg, 2008, p99.

84: Barker, 2006, p78. See also Allinson and Anievas, 2009, p54.

85: Trotsky, 1969b, p146.

86: Looker and Coates, 1986, pp112-113; Schwartz, 2000, pp95-96.

87: McDaniel, 1988, pp41-47.

88: McDaniel, 1988, p407.

89: Davis, 2007, pp53-54. Indeed, in the case of China, it might be said that the neoliberal turn after 1978 actually resumed the process of uneven and combined development originally detected by Trotsky in the 1920s, which had been consciously halted by a Maoist leadership only too conscious of the explosive effects of uncontrolled urban expansion. See Davidson, 2006, pp214-222.

90: Silver, 2003, p164.

91: Ginsborg, 1990, pp223-9, 47-53; Hardt and Negri, 2000, pp287-289.

92: Luttwak, 1998, pp25-26.

93: Halliday, 1999, pp320-321.


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