2. The Main Course of American History and Its Next Stage

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absolutely dissimilar movements, absolutely different class interests, absolutely opposed political and social tendencies.”1

What had happened? A section of the Russian nobility and landowners, the oppositional bourgeoisie, the radical intellectuals, the insurgent workers, peasants and soldiers, along with the Allied imperialists — these “absolutely dissimilar” social forces — had momentarily arrayed themselves against the tsarist autocracy, each for its own reasons. All together they besieged, isolated and overthrew the Romanov regime. This extraordinary conjuncture of circumstances and unrepeatable combination of forces had grown up out of the whole previous unevenness of Russian historical development with all its long-postponed and unsolved social and political problems exacerbated by the first imperialist world war.

The differences which had been submerged in the offensive against tsarism immediately asserted themselves and it did not take long for this de facto alliance of inherently opposing forces to disintegrate and break up. The allies of the February 1917 revolution became transformed into the irreconcilable foes of October 1917.

How did this hostility come about?, The overthrow of tsarisrn had in turn produced a new and higher unevenness in the situation, which may be summarised in the following formula. On the one hand, the objective conditions were ripe for the assumption of power by the workers; on the other hand, the Russian working class, and above all its leadership, had not yet correctly appraised the real situation or tested the new relationship of forces. Consequently they were subjectively unready to solve that supreme task. The unfolding of the class struggles from February to October 1917 may be said to consist in the growing recognition by the working class and its revolutionary leaders of what had to be done and in overcoming the disparity between the objective conditions and the subjective preparation. The gap between these was closed in action by the triumph of the Bolsheviks in the October Revolution which combined the proletarian conquest of power with the widespread peasant uprising.

This process is fully explained by Trotsky in his History of the Russian Revolution. The Russian Revolution itself was the most striking example of uneven and combined development in modern history. In his classic analysis of this momentous event Trotsky gave to the Marxist movement the first explicit formulation of that law.

Trotsky, the theoretician, is most celebrated as the originator of the theory of the Permanent Revolution. It is likely that his exposition of the law of uneven and combined development will come to be ranged by its side in value. He not only gave this law its name but was also the first to expound its full significance and to give it a rounded expression.

These two contributions to the scientific understanding of social movement are in fact intimately interlinked. Trotsky’s conception of the Permanent Revolution resulted from his study of the peculiarities of Russian historical development in the light of the new problems presented to world socialism in the epoch of imperialism. These problems were especially acute and complex in backward countries where the bourgeois-democratic revolution had not yet taken place or set about to solve many of its most elementary tasks at a time when the proletarian revolution was already at hand. The fruits of his thinking on these questions, confirmed by the actual developments of the Russian Revolution, prepared and stimulated his subsequent elaboration of the law of uneven and combined development.

Indeed, Trotsky’s theory of the Permanent Revolution represents the most fruitful application of this very law to the key problems of the international class struggles in our own time, the epoch of the transition from the capitalist domination of the world to socialism, and offers the highest example of its penetrating power. However, the law itself is not only pertinent to the revolutionary events of the present epoch but, as we shall see, to the whole compass of social evolution. And it has even broader applications than that.

So much for the historical background out of which the law of uneven and combined development has emerged. Let us now consider the scope of its application.

Although directly originating in the study of modern history, the law of uneven and combined development is rooted in features common to all processes of growth in nature as well as in society. Scientific investigators have emphasised the prevalence of unevenness in many fields. All the constituent elements of a thing, all the aspects of an event, all the factors in a process of development are not realised at the same rate or to an equal degree. Moreover, under differing material conditions, even the same thing exhibits different rates and grades of growth. Every rural farmer and urban gardener knows that.

In Life of the Past, G.G. Simpson, one of the foremost authorities on evolution, develops this same point along the following lines:

The most striking things about rates of evolution are that they vary enormously and that the fastest of them seem very slow to humans (including palaeontologists, I may say). If any one line of phylogeny is followed in the fossil record it is always found that different characters and parts evolve at quite different rates, and it is generally found that no one part evolves for long at the same rate. The horse brain evolved rapidly while the rest of the body was changing very little. Evolution of the brain was much more rapid during one relatively short span than at any other time. Evolution of the feet was practically at a standstill most of the time during horse evolution, but three times there were relatively rapid changes in foot mechanism.

Rates of evolution also vary greatly from one lineage to another, even among related lines. There are a number of animals living today that have changed very little for very long periods of time: a little brachiopod called Lingula, in some 400 million years; Limulus, the horseshoe “crab” — really more of a scorpion than a crab — in 175 million or more; Sphenodon, a lizard-like reptile now confined to New Zealand, in about 150 million years; Didelphis, the American oppossum, in a good 75 million years. These and the other animals for which evolution essentially stopped long ago all have relatives that evolved at usual or even at relatively fast rates.

There are, further, characteristic differences of rates in different groups. Most land animals have evolved faster than most sea animals — a generalisation not contradicted by the fact that some sea animals have evolved faster than some land animals. [pp. 137-138]

The evolution of entire orders of organisms has passed through a cycle of evolution marked by an initial phase of restricted, slow growth, followed by a shorter but intense period of “explosive expansion”, which in turn settled down into a prolonged phase of lesser changes.

In The Meaning of Evolution, G.G. Simpson states, “Times of rapid expansion, high variability and beginning adaptive radiation … are periods when enlarged opportunities are presented to groups able to pursue them” (pp. 72-73). Such an opportunity for explosive expansion was opened to the reptiles when they evolved to the point of independence from water as a living medium and burst into landscapes earlier barren of vertebrate life. Then a “quieter period ensues when the basic radiation has been completed” and the group can indulge in “the progressive enjoyment of a completed conquest”.

The evolution of our own species has already gone through the first phase of such a cycle and entered the second. The immediate animal forerunners of mankind went through a prolonged period of restricted growth as a lesser breed compared to others. Mankind arrived at its phase of “explosive expansion” only in the past million years or so, after the primate from which we are descended acquired the necessary social powers. However, the further development of mankind will not duplicate the cycle of animal evolution because the growth of society proceeds on a qualitatively different basis and is governed by its own unique laws.

The evolution of the distinctive human organism has been marked by considerable irregularity. The skull developed its present characteristics among our ape ancestors long before our flexible hands with the opposable thumb. It was only after our prototypes had acquired upright posture and working hands, that the brain inside the skull expanded to its present proportions and complexity.

What is true of entire orders and species of animals and plants holds good for its individual specimens. If equality prevailed in biological growth, each of the various organs in the body would develop simultaneously and to the same proportionate extent. But such perfect symmetry is not to be found in real life. In the growth of the human foetus some organs emerge before others and mature before others. The head and the neck are formed before the arms and legs, the heart at the third week and the lungs later on. As the sum of all these irregularities, we know that infants come out of the womb in different conditions, even with deformations, and certainly at varying intervals between conception and birth. The nine-month gestation period is no more than a statistical average. The date of delivery of a given baby can diverge by days, weeks or months from this average.

The frontal sinus, a late development in the primates since it is possessed only by the great apes and men, does not occur in young humans, but emerges after puberty. In many cases, it never develops at all.

The development of social organisation, and of particular social structures, exhibits unevenness no less pronounced than the life histories of biological beings out of which it has emerged with the human race. The diverse elements of social existence have been created at different times, have evolved at widely varying rates, and grown to different degrees under different conditions and from one era to another.

Archaeologists divide human history into the Stone, Bronze and Iron Ages according to the main materials used in making tools and weapons. These three stages of technological development have had immensely different spans of life. The Stone Age lasted for around 900,000 years; the Bronze Age dates from 3000-4000 BC; the Iron Age is less than 4000 years old. Moreover, different sections of mankind passed through these stages at different dates in different parts of the world. The Stone Age ended before 3500 BC in Mesopotamia, about 1600 BC in Denmark, 1492 in America, and not until 1800 in New Zealand.

A similar unevenness in time-spans marks the evolution of social organisation. Savagery, when men lived by collecting food through foraging, hunting or fishing, extended over many hundred thousands of years while barbarism, which is based upon the breeding of animals and the raising of crops for food, dates back to about 8000 BC. Civilisation is little more than 6000 years old.

The production of regular, ample and growing food supplies effected a revolutionary advance in economic development which elevated food-producing peoples above backward tribes which continued to subsist on the gathering of food. Asia was the birthplace of both domestication of animals and of plants. It is uncertain which of these branches of productive activity preceded and grew out of the other, but archaeologists have uncovered remains of mixed farming communities which carried on both types of food production as early as 8000 BC.

There have been purely pastoral tribes, which depended exclusively on stock raising for their existence, as well as wholly agricultural peoples whose economy was based on the cultivation of cereals or tubers. The cultures of these specialised groups underwent a one-sided development by virtue of their particular type of production of the basic means of life. The purely pastoral mode of subsistence did not however contain the potentialities of development inherent in agriculture. Pastoral tribes could not incorporate the higher type of food production into their economies on any scale, without having to settle down and alter their entire mode of life. This became specially true after the introduction of the plough superseded the slash-and-burn techniques of gardening. They could not develop an extensive division of labour and go forward to village and city life, so long as they remained simply herders of stock.

The inherent superiority of agriculture over stockbreeding was demonstrated by the fact that dense populations and high civilisations could develop on the basis of agriculture alone, as the Aztec, Inca and Mayan civilisations of Middle and South America proved. Moreover, the agriculturalists could easily incorporate domesticated animals into their mode of production, blending food cultivation with stockbreeding and even transferring draft animals to the technology of agriculture through the invention of the plough.

It was the combination of stockbreeding and cereal cultivation in mixed farming that prepared inside barbaric society the elements of civilisation. This combination enabled the agricultural peoples to outstrip the purely pastoral tribes, and in the favourable conditions of the river valleys of Mesopotamia, Egypt, India and China to become the nurseries of civilisation.

Since the advent of civilisation peoples have existed on three essentially different levels of progress corresponding to their modes of securing the necessities of life: the food-gatherers, the elementary food-producers, and the mixed farmers with a highly developed division of labour and a growing exchange of commodities. The Greeks of the classical age were very highly conscious of this disparity in development between themselves and the backward peoples around them who still remained at earlier, lower stages of social existence. They summed up these differences by drawing a sharp distinction between civilised Greeks and barbarians. The historical connection and distance between them was explicitly articulated by the historian Thucydides when he said: “The Greeks lived once as the barbarians live now.”

The unevenness of world historical development has seldom been more conspicuously exhibited than when the aboriginal inhabitants of the Americas were first brought face to face with the white invaders from overseas Europe. At this juncture, two completely separated routes of social evolution, the products of from 10 to 20 thousand years of independent development in the two hemispheres, encountered each other. Both were forced to compare their rates of growth and measure their respective total achievements. This was one of the sharpest confrontations of different cultures in all history.

At this point the Stone Age collided with the late Iron and the early Machine Age. In hunting and in war the bow and arrow had to compete with the musket and cannon; in agriculture the hoe and the digging stick with the plough and draft animals; in water transportation, the canoe with the ship; in land locomotion, the human leg with the horse and the bare foot with the rolling wheel. In social organisation, tribal collectivism ran up against feudal-bourgeois institutions and customs; production for immediate community consumption against a money economy and international trade.

These contrasts between the American Indians and the West Europeans could be multiplied. However, the inequality of the human products of such widely separated stages of economic development was starkly apparent. They were so antagonistic and removed from each other that the Aztec chiefs at first identified the white newcomers with gods while the Europeans reciprocated by regarding and treating the natives like animals.

The historical inequality in productive and destructive powers in North America was not overcome, as we know, by the Indian adoption of white man’s ways and their gradual, peaceful assimilation into class society. On the contrary, it led to the dispossession and annihilation of the Indian tribes over the next four centuries.

But if the white settlers thereby displayed their material superiority over the native peoples, they themselves were far behind their motherlands. The general backwardness of the North American continent and its colonies compared with Western Europe predetermined the main line of development here from the start of the 15th century to the middle of the 19th century. The central historical task of the Americans throughout this period was to catch up with Europe by overcoming the disparities in the social development of the two continents. How and by whom this was done is the main theme of American history throughout these three and a half centuries.

It required, among other things, two revolutions to complete the job. The colonial revolution which crowned the first stage of progress gave the American people political institutions more advanced than any in the Old World — and paved the way for rapid economic expansion. Even after winning national independence the United States had still to conquer its economic independence within the capitalist world. The economic gap between this country and the nations of Western Europe was narrowed in the first half of the 19th century and virtually closed up by the triumph of Northern industrial capitalism over the slave power in the Civil War. It did not take long after that for the United States to come abreast of the West European powers and outstrip them.

These changes in the international position of the United States illustrate the unevennesses in the development between the metropolitan centres and the colonies, between the different continents, and between countries on the same continent.

A comparison of the diverse modes of production in the various countries brings out their unevenness most sharply. Slavery had virtually vanished as a mode of production on the mainland of Europe before it was brought to America — thanks to the needs of these very same Europeans. Serfdom had disappeared in England before it arose in Russia … and there were attempts to implant it in the North American colonies after it was on the way out in the mother country. In Bolivia, feudalism flourished under the Spanish conquerors and slavery languished while in the Southern English colonies feudalism was stunted and slavery flourished.

Capitalism was highly developed in Western Europe while only meagrely implanted in Eastern Europe. A similar disparity in capitalist development prevailed between the United States and Mexico.

Disparities in the quantity and quality of social formations in the course of their developments are so conspicuous and predominant that Trotsky terms unevenness “the most general law of the historic process”.2 These inequalities are the specific expressions of the contradictory nature of social progress, of the dialectics of human development.

They occurred even at the lowest stages of social evolution. In
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