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Trotsky then observes that in general “the law of uneven development is supplemented throughout the whole course of history by the law of combined development”.6
What was its specific result in Russia? “The collapse of the bourgeoisie in Russia led to the proletarian dictatorship — that is, to a backward country’s leaping ahead of the advanced countries.” As we know, this caused a lot of grief to the schematic theorists in Russia and Western Europe who insisted that the workers could not and should not take power until capitalism had elevated the national economy to an advanced height.
But it also brought much genuine grief to the Russian people, as Trotsky goes onto explain. “However, the establishment of socialist forms of property in a backward country came up against the inadequate level of technique and culture.” That is, new types of unevenness emerged on the basis of the preceding achievements and on a higher historical level. “Itself born of the contradictions between high world productive forces and capitalist form of property, the October Revolution produced in its turn a contradiction between low national productive forces and socialist forms of property.”
While the achievements of the revolution — the nationalised property and planned economy — exercised a highly progressive action upon the Soviet Union, they were themselves subjected to the degrading influence of the low level of production in the isolated workers’ state. From this fundamental condition flowed all the degenerative effects witnessed in the Soviet state under the Stalinist regime, including that regime itself. The most advanced ideas and progressive productive relations could not prevail against the inadequacy of their economic substructure and suffered debasement as a result.
Thus unevenness prevents any simple, single straight line of direction in social development, and what we have instead is a complex, devious and contradictory route. The theoretical task is to analyse the dialectical interplay of action and reaction of the contending forces in their connection with the historical environment.
In this now the progressive tendencies and now the reactionary counterforces assert themselves and come to the fore.
This dialectical interplay can be observed in the contradictory consequences brought about by the same historical factors in the neighbouring countries of China and Japan. Both of these formerly isolated and backward countries felt the impact of capitalist forces upon them in the 19th century. Western capitalism invaded China, penetrated its economy, and established political and military control over its main centres. Only the rivalry of the contending imperialisms saved China from outright division amongst them.
Although the intrusion of capitalism with the latest techniques in production, transport, commerce, finance and knowledge mangled and shook up China, these instruments of modern capitalism did not, on the whole, modernise Chinese life or emancipate it. On the contrary, entrenched imperialism propped up the most archaic institutions, the feudal landholding system, and helped the compradore bourgeoisie, landlords, officials and militarists prolong precapitalist forms of social organisation. Its grip prevented China from passing through a genuine bourgeois democratic renovation or having any independent capitalist development.
In the same period that these capitalist influences were stunting Chinese development, they were stimulating Japan. There the introduction of Western capitalist civilisation promoted a reorganisation of the country’s precapitalist structure from on top without revolutionary convulsions from below. Along with the Meiji Restoration, the capitalist agencies of change strengthened new classes of industrialists, merchants, financiers, who developed large-scale industry, trusts, banks and military power after the most advanced Western models. Instead of being a victim of Western imperialism, Japan became the supreme embodiment of Eastern imperialism, avidly flinging itself upon China for its share of the spoils.
Thus, in the first stage, under the given historical conditions, the law of uneven and combined development led to the degradation and subjugation of China, while Japan experienced a tremendous surge of national energy and achievement under capitalist auspices. Little wonder that in Japan nationalism poured into imperialist channels, while across the China Sea nationalism had to seek other outlets along anti-imperialist lines.
However, as we know, the world historical process swung in a different direction following the First World War and the Russian Revolution, and this affected the trend of development in the Far East.
Even during the first period of the merger of Western capitalism with Far Eastern life, tendencies emerged that ran counter to the dominant direction of development in both countries. In Japan, the imperialist regime — product of the highest stage of world and national evolution — was headed by an Emperor cult carried over from pre-feudal times. Its capitalist structure bulged with bizarre combinations and extreme disproportions. Modern factories and workshops sprang up in the cities while feudal relations in the countryside remained unaltered. Light industry was overdeveloped, while the heavy industry from which contemporary mastery is derived remained underdeveloped. The military, equipped with the latest weapons, remained animated by feudal traditions. Because of its reformation from above instead of revolutionisation from below, democracy was feeble and parliamentary life flimsy. This incomplete modernisation of Japan’s social structure culminated in a supreme disproportion: the imperialist program imposed upon that latecomer by the needs of national capitalist expansion and world competition were beyond the capacities of its forces and resources. The result was the debacle suffered by Japanese militarism in the Second World War.
Meanwhile, China’s backwardness under imperialism built up the impetus for its forward leap at the next stage. Along with the venal and weak compradore bourgeoisie, represented by Chiang Kai-shek, the Westernisation process created a modern proletariat. The unsolved but pressing problems of national unification and independence, agrarian revolution, industrialisation, etc., which imperialism blocked and Chiang’s regime could not tackle, gave an explosive force to the popular movements for their solution.
After the Russian Revolution, world historical factors of a higher order intervened in the Far East and with special force in China. The influences emanating from the October Revolution and the Soviet Union permeated China more effectively than the capitalist ideas and forces of Western imperialism had penetrated Japan.
Thanks to the power of these influences on an international and national scale, China, so long dragged down by imperialism and its servitors, rose up after the Second World War. In the process of tackling the long-postponed historical task, the movements of the proletarian and peasant masses lifted the country over native capitalism into the first stage of a workers’ state.
This mighty leap reversed the relations between China and Japan. Under the pressures of world capitalism, Japan had climbed from feudalism to imperialism in a couple of generations, while China was held down by the same forces. Then, at the next stage, under the combined pressures of reactionary imperialism and progressive socialism (intermixed with Stalinism) China vaulted beyond capitalism and took the lead from Japan.
Thus each of the two series of historical influences, the first issuing from capitalism in the 19th century, the second from post-capitalist movements in the 20th century, had very different impacts upon the development of the two neighbouring countries. This demonstrates how the consequences of the law of uneven and combined development depend upon the action and reaction of the new forces upon the old; the concrete reality at any given stage is a resultant of the dynamic interplay between them. These can acquire the most divergent forms.
A sociological generalisation like the law of uneven and combined development can serve only as a guide to the investigation and analysis of the processes at work in a given social environment. It can help us understand the peculiarities of past history and orient us in respect to the peculiarities of unfolding social processes. But it cannot categorically tell us in advance what will issue from its further operation. The specific results are determined by the struggle of living forces on the national and international arenas.
The law of uneven and combined development expresses certain features of the dialectics of history. The dialectic is “the algebra of revolution” and evolution. That is to say, it formulates certain necessary aspects, relations or tendencies of reality in a general form, extracted from specific conditions. Before its abstract algebraic qualities can be converted into definite, “arithmetic” quantities, they have to be applied to the substance of a particular reality. In every new case and at every successive stage of development, specific analysis is necessary of the actual relations and tendencies in their connection and continual interaction. The dialectical formulas are abstract but “the truth is concrete”.
The problem of transitional formations has immense methodological significance in both the natural and social sciences. It has special theoretical and political importance for contemporary Marxists, because the 20th century is preeminently an age of transition from one socioeconomic formation to another.
Each epoch in the progress of humanity has its dominant form of economy, politics and culture. In the 18th and 19th centuries this was the capitalist system in its stages of expansion. The distinctive general form of the 20th century is its transitional character. This is a period of rapid and convulsive motion from the dominion of world capitalism as the ultimate form of class society to the establishment of postcapitalist states oriented toward socialism, which will eradicate all vestiges of class differentiations.
“The old surviving in the new confronts us in life at every step in nature as well as in society”, Lenin observed in State and Revolution. He wrote this during the first world war and the Russian Revolution — the two cataclysmic events that ushered in the new epoch of history. Although that epoch is already 50 years old, it is far from maturity, and its progeny suffer from many congenital maladies of infancy.
The fundamentally transitional character of this period and the prevalence of conspicuously contradictory traits necessitate research into the essential nature of this phenomenon. The presence of transitional formations, types, and periods has been empirically noted, and their concrete characteristics analysed, in the writings of many Marxists, and not by them alone. But the topic has seldom been treated along systematic lines. This theoretical deficiency is regrettable because a host of perplexing sociological and political problems could be illuminated through a correct understanding of the peculiarities of this widespread aspect of things.
In the unceasing cosmic process of becoming and being, all things pass from one state to another. This means that transitional states and forms are everywhere to be found in the physical world, in society, in intellectual development.
The antithesis to a transitional formation is a fixed and stable one with clear-cut characteristics which compose a definitive pattern. The distinction between the two is relative, since even the most enduring entity is subject to change and transformation into something else over a long enough stretch of time.
The dynamic polarity of physical forms is exemplified by a liquid. This is a more or less stable state of matter on earth, intermediate between a solid and a gas, being partly like one and partly like the other, yet essentially different from both. A liquid has more cohesion than a gas and more mobility than a solid. It resembles a solid by having a definite volume but differs from it and resembles a gas by the absence of any definite shape.
The qualitative transformations of H2O and other chemical compounds result from changes in molecular constitution. A solid consists of rigidly locked molecules. When these are disaggregated by changes of temperature and pressure, they pass over into a more fluid condition in which the molecules maintain a certain proximity to one another while acquiring more mobility than in a solid. Once the molecules move farther away from one another and are fully loosened from their mutual bonds, they become gaseous. Gaseousness is the state of matter most unlike the solid in respect to the interlock of its molecular constituents.
Thus a liquid is negatively defined by its relations to the solid state on one of its boundaries and the gaseous state on the other. It is positively determined by its special intermixture of cohesiveness and mobility. If the capacity of a liquid to turn into its opposite at either end exhibits its intermediate character, its combination of contrary properties brings out the intrinsic duality of its being.
But when a liquid boils, these polarities of definite volume and variable shape are sharpened to the extreme of contradiction. At one and the same time, within the system as a whole, there is both definite and indefinite volume, as well as indefinite shape. This difference is distributed over parts of the system, over different molecules. Thus, water and steam coexist; some molecules are in gaseous state, others in liquid state. But for the system as a whole, we can say neither that it is exclusively gas nor exclusively liquid; it is in fact both gas and liquid: it is boiling. This is the transitional stage between liquid and gas.
All things have a dual nature, as an example taken from geography rather than chemistry will illustrate. A beach is defined both by water and by land. Each of these opposing physical entities are essential components of its makeup. Take away one or the other and the beach no longer exists.
But transitional formations are distinguished from ordinary things by the heightened character of their dual constitution. They belong to a special kind of processes, events and forms in nature, society, and individual experience which have exceptionally pronounced, almost outrageously, contradictory traits. They carry the coexistence of opposites in a single whole to the most extreme and anomalous lengths.
These phenomena are so self-contradictory that they can embody the passage from one stage or form of existence to another. Since the major features of transitional formations belong to consecutive but qualitatively different stages of development, they must represent a combination of the old and the new.
In the life process, the first products of development are necessarily inadequately realised on their own terms. What is new makes its first appearance in and through underdeveloped forms and asserts its emerging existence within the shell of the old. The new becoming is struggling to go beyond its previous mode of existence. It is passing over from one stage to the next but is not yet mature, powerful or predominant enough to destroy and throw off the afterbirth of its natal state and stand fully and firmly on its own feet. Like a foetus, it is still dependent on the conditions of its birth or, like an infant, dependent on its parents.
In a full and normal development, transitional formations go through three phases. 1. A prenatal or embryonic stage when the functions, structures and features of the nascent entity are growing and stirring within the framework of the already established form. 2. The qualitative breakthrough of its birth period, when the aggregate of the novel powers and features succeeds in shattering the old form and stepping forth on its own account. At this point the fresh creation continues to retain many residues belonging to its preceding state. 3. The period of maturation when the vestigial characteristics unsuited to its proper mode of existence are largely sloughed off and the new entity is unmistakably, firmly, strongly developing on its distinctive foundations.
It takes time for the unique features and functions of something novel to manifest their potential, engender the most appropriate type of expression, and become stabilised in normal or perfected shape. At the beginning of their career they are trammeled, often even disfigured, by the heritage of the past.
These borderline phenomena are so significant — and puzzling — because they form the bridge between successive stages of evolution. Their hybrid nature, embodying characteristics belonging to antithetical phases of growth, casts light upon both the old and the new, the past and the future. Through them it is possible to see how and where the carapace of the old is being broken through by antagonistic forces striving to establish the groundwork, the basic conditions, for higher forms of existence.
Each turning point in the evolution of life has produced species with contradictory features belonging to different sequential forms. These betoken their status as links between two separate and successive species.
The most momentous turning point in organic evolution was the changeover from the ape to man. Here scientists have found once living fossils with opposite characteristics. Structurally the South African
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