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Uneven and Combined Development in the Mirror of Passive Revolution

by Chris Hesketh on May 15, 2017
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In my latest article for Review of International Studies I explore the foundational contribution that Antonio Gramsci makes to International Relations via his concept of passive revolution. Moreover, I argue that when passive revolution is used in tandem with the re-popularized notion of uneven and combined development (U&CD) first developed by Leon Trotsky, it not only enhances the analytical purchase of the latter concept but also demonstrates the contemporary explanatory power of historical materialism more broadly.

Fred Halliday once opined that the study of revolution had been neglected within International Relations. He proposed that any such future enquiry should comprise the following three areas: (1) locating the place of revolutions and explaining their influence on the international system more broadly; (2) exploring the international dimensions of any revolution; and (3) reflecting on what theoretical issues the study of revolutions pose. In the article, I contend that Gramsci’s concept of passive revolution allows us to do all of these tasks. Namely, it informs us of the dialectical relationship between national (and subnational) state formation and the international context. It also allows us to draw theoretical lessons from this with regards to a political strategy for emancipation by learning from history. A variety of pieces on this site have previously either explained the concept of passive revolution, or demonstrated its applicability to certain cases. I will not therefore rehearse the definition of the concept which can nevertheless be found in the article, (along with a specific tracing of passive revolution’s genesis in Gramsci’s thought, based on an analysis from the Critical Edition of Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks).

In what follows I examine the way in which passive revolution can provide enhanced resonance for uneven and combined development. Stated explicitly I believe that passive revolution puts class struggle and preoccupations with contemporary societal transformation (indeed revolution) back onto the political agenda. Such a focus on revolution was integral to the original formation of U&CD by Leon Trotsky but has largely been absent from the concern of scholars associated with the latest wave of scholarship on the topic. Thus, whereas current trends in U&CD can collapse into a detached structural commentary via the positing of trans-historical laws (from which there can appear little escape), passive revolution breaks with this. It does so by offering more modest claims, namely, to explore the specific expression of U&CD within the capitalist epoch. Through the definite geographical seats by which the concept is rendered and operationalised, passive revolution focuses much greater attention on actual processes of class struggle and state formation, grounding the places and spaces of revolutions sociologically.

Over the last decade or so, the scholars associated with uneven and combined development have pioneered a fruitful research agenda, with Justin Rosenberg playing a vital role in breathing new life into – and indeed extending – Leon Trotsky’s original concept. However, despite important contributions, several objections have been raised. Among these objections are 1) whether the foundational premises of uneven and combined development are themselves adequately explained, 2) whether more attention needs to be paid to specific ‘modes of production’  and 3) whether the concept’s trans-historical application robs it of its critical capacities to say something particular about the capitalist era. It is noteworthy here that the substantive field of research for scholars working with U&CD have been largely based in historical interpretation, often of pre-contemporary history. Whilst intellectually stimulating, it does undoubtedly move the concept away from Trotsky’s original intention, namely to think about the possibilities for revolution. The danger here is that historical materialism becomes domesticated; useful as a framework for broad academic interpretation but denuded of a contemporary critical function.

The key issue at stake seems to be this: the more stock that is invested in making U&CD a stronger general abstraction with trans-historical validity, the less it functions as a precise tool for analysing the specificity of capitalism. As Neil Smith argued in his seminal text Uneven Development, ‘the potentially penetrating insights of the theory are dissolved when uneven development is seen as a universal metaphysics, its meaning reduced to the lowest common denominator’. This is a lacuna that I believe passive revolution can fill, and provides the case for why, to understand capitalist international relations, the two concepts must be used in tandem. Drawing from the work of Jairus Banaji we can say that conjoining the two concepts allows U&CD to be transformed from a ‘simple category’ – a term common to multiple epochs – to a ‘historically determinate category’, or so called ‘concrete category’, integral to understanding a particular era.

Passive revolution therefore gives the concept of U&CD a greater degree of analytical clarity to understand the specificity of capitalist modernity. In particular, passive revolution is able to do this as it is a concept that was developed and gained resonance through specific ‘geographical seats’.  U&CD, despite its intrinsic spatio-temporal claims has often failed to develop sufficiently spatially-sensitive theory (linked in part to a lack of engagement with cognate geographical scholarship on uneven development). Rosenberg himself acknowledges the inherent weaknesses in the version of U&CD he has pioneered, stating that the theory ‘lacks any tools for specifying the causal properties of those processes of social life to whose multiplicity and interaction it draws attention’. Consequently, ‘it cannot operate as a replacement for the classical social theories whose limitations we are trying to overcome’ and without these ‘it cannot reach down to the level of concrete historical explanation at all’.

What then does passive revolution usefully add that is not already present within the current scholarship on uneven and combined development? I argue that it can contribute three key elements.

First the usage of passive revolution can overcome the criticism of U&CD as being aspatial. Rather than setting up a broad transhistorical method of abstract inquiry, passive revolution forces us to explore specific cases (what I refer to as the geographical seats) within the framework. Passive revolution becomes the political method of analysis where uneven development results in combination within the broader capitalist global political economy. The very nature of the concept passive revolution invites us to examine the peculiarities of national state formation linked to developments within the broader international context in a similar manner to U&CD itself. However, the utility here comes from the fact that passive revolution also enables us to explore the further ongoing consequences of uneven development that result from such a process, linked to the construction of hegemonic projects of new class alliances that follow in the wake of a passive revolution. The construction of state formation across multiple spatial scales is thereby revealed through this method.

Second, with passive revolution there is a focus on class agency as opposed to only looking at the structural conditioning situation, something U&CD slides into quite easily. To misquote Eric Wolf, the type of grand narrative offered by U&CD can unfortunately translate into a story about ‘the international’ and the people without history. By contrast, passive revolution reverses this formulation. As Peter Thomas rightly claims, passive revolution ‘analyses the formation of determining structures through the activity of the determinate social actors’. It reveals the political strategies of the state, therefore, in authoring such forms of class transition. However, this is not simply a narrative of despair and resigned fatalism that speaks to a timeless element of the human condition. As Gramsci reminds us ‘the conception remains a dialectical one—in other words, presupposes, indeed postulates as necessary, a vigorous anti-thesis which can present intransigently all its potentialities for development’.

This leads to the final advantage of deploying the term passive revolution—namely that it is more instantly politicised than U&CD. It is concerned first and foremost with the institutionalisation or expansion of capitalism. This means that it necessarily relates to recent history and the immediate present as engaged critique (as opposed to a transhistorical social theory with largely academic value). Passive revolution draws our attention to the state form as an object of criticism and thus can aid our understanding of political struggle, not so much in providing an answer to Lenin’s famous question of ‘What is to be done?’ but rather in offering a strategic orientation as to what is to be avoided. As well as an interpretation of history, passive revolution is also a warning from history, and forewarned is forearmed. Against a so-called passive revolution, what is needed is an anti-passive revolution or an active revolution.

Where does this then leave social movements and those wishing to affect change? Whilst the focus of the article looks at how Gramsci’s notion of passive revolution can complement Trotsky’s notion of uneven and combined development, I would tentatively suggest that if we are to put an end to passive revolution as a universal characteristic of modernity then it requires that its antithesis be developed to the maximum possibility. Here Trotsky’s adjunct notion to uneven and combined development should be revisited. The active building of a transformative politics that reaches beyond borders must be based in something akin to what Trotsky famously called a ‘permanent revolution’.

Chris Hesketh
Chris Hesketh is a Senior Lecturer in International Political Economy. He received his BA, MA and PhD all from the University of Nottingham. Before joining Oxford Brookes in 2012 he taught at the University of Nottingham and at Birkbeck College, University of London. He has an inter-disciplinary research agenda that combines international political economy, the historical sociology of international relations, political geography, political theory and Latin American studies.

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