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.
This was necessary if they were to have any chance, not only of successfully competing, but of surviving at the summit of the world order.
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”.
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.The most famous (and certainly the most often quoted) passage in Trotsky’s (1932) 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”.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. Uneven development Until the First World War uneven development had been a largely descriptive concept, without specific political implications.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”.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.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.The first 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.