Towards a Radical Critique of Eurocentrism: An Interview with Alexander Anievas and Kerem Nisancioglu


According to the dominant narrative, the origin of capitalism was a European process at its core: this was a system born in the mills and factories of England, or under the blades of the guillotines during the French Revolution. Political Marxism or even World-Systems analysis have not escaped from this Eurocentric vise. In How the West Came to Rule: The Geopolitical Origins of Capitalism (Pluto Press, 2015), Alexander Anievas and Kerem Nisancioglu return to and reconceptualize Trotsky’s theory of unequal and combined development in order to assess the decisive role of non-Western societies in capitalism’s emergence. In this sense, they offer an internationalist theory of social change that is also not solely focused on the role of industrial labor. 

Benjamin Birnbaum: Your recently published book How the West Came to Rule, starts with a critical assessment of the Marxist-inspired theorizations regarding the transition to capitalism such as World-Systems Theory or Political Marxism. Why are they insufficient to account for how the West came to rule?

Alexander Anievas and Kerem Nisancioglu: Well, there are actually two distinct, albeit tightly interconnected, issues here. The first regards World-System Analysis and Political Marxist conceptions of the transition from feudalism to capitalism and the second involves explaining the ascendancy of Western domination. In the opening chapter of How the West Came to Rule, we really only focus on the first question concerning the transition to capitalism vis-a-vis Political Marxism and Immanuel Wallerstein’s particular rendition of World-System Analysis, while in later chapters we connect this issue to the “rise of the West” debate. We proceeded in such a way because for both Political Marxists and the particular form of World-System Analysis put forward by Wallerstein, these two historical questions are largely conflated: the origins of capitalism in certain Western European states (notably, Holland and England) explains how “the West” rose to a position of global dominance.

This kind of approach is not so much wrong, as it is incomplete. Clearly once the initial breakthroughs to capitalism were made in the Netherlands and England, this led to increasing material disparities between these societies and others. At the same time, however, the advent of capitalism in Northwestern Europe did not immediately translate into the kind of hierarchical power relation that characterized the nineteenth century international order. While capitalist social structures offered the productive potential for increased technological innovations (particularly within the military sphere) and superior financial and organizational capacities, the developmental effects were not instant or undifferentiated, but staggered and uneven. Indeed, had it not been for the European “discovery” of the New World and the significant material benefits accrued to Europe – the benefits of which were disproportionately distributed to the Netherlands and England – this potential may have gone largely unrealized (cf. Chapter 5). Much the same can be said for the effects that the colonies in the East Indies had on Dutch capitalist development: were it not for the Dutch ruling class’ abilities to draw on this vast – albeit dispersed – mass of labor-power in Asia, its capitalist development would have been unsustainable in the way other “antediluvian” forms of capital 1 were like the Northern Italian city-states of Genoa and Venice (cf Chapter 7).

For these reasons, an account of the origins of capitalism in Northwestern Europe is in itself not enough to explain the subsequent ascendancy of Western power. Rather, capitalism should be conceived as having provided the conditions of possibility for Northwestern European states to eventually overcome and dominate their Asian rivals. Nonetheless, it was only once capitalist Britain transformed itself into an industrial-capitalist power that it was capable of dominating other highly developed Asian societies such as China. Moreover, Britain’s industrialization was greatly facilitated by both the New World “discoveries” and, perhaps even more importantly, the colonization of the Indian landmass which was only made possible through a confluence of internal and external pressures that severely destabilized the Mughal Empire by the early eighteenth century (see Chapter 8).

So the reduction of the question of “how the West came to rule” to an explanation of the transition to capitalism is, as we see it, a general problem common to both Political Marxists and World-System Analysts such as Wallerstein and those who closely follow him. At the same time, there are number of more specific problems with their respective theorizations of the origins of capitalism (cf. Chapter 1). Briefly stated, we highlight three particularly problematic and interconnected issues with Political Marxist explanations of capitalism’s emergence: firstly, their commitment to a methodologically internalist and Eurocentric – or, more precisely, for Brenner’s followers, Anglocentric – analysis of the origins of capitalism; secondly, the resulting deficiencies in their examination of the relationship between the making of capitalism and geopolitics; and, thirdly, their highly abstract and minimalist conception of capitalism. For these reasons, we argue that Political Marxist approaches to the study of capitalism are both theoretically and historically untenable, despite the many invaluable insights and concepts they have to offer. Similarly, while highlighting some of the important contributions that Wallerstein and other World-System scholars have made to the study of capitalism’s origins, we nonetheless argue that this approach – especially Wallerstein’s rendition of it – remains limited by two debilitating problems: the unwitting reproduction of a certain kind of Eurocentrism that erases non-European agency; and the inability to provide a sufficiently historicized conception of capitalism.

These problems with Political Marxism and World-System Analysis turn out to be quite big when examining the history of capitalism. Without a strong understanding of the broader intersocietal or geopolitical contexts in which European societies (notably within the Northwest) first made the transition to capitalism, you simply cannot explain how capitalism first emerged. The making of capitalism in Europe was not simply an intra-European phenomenon, but a decidedly international or intersocietal one, which saw non-European agency relentlessly impinging upon and (re)directing the trajectory and nature of European development. Tracing this international, often extra-European dimension in the origins of capitalism and the so-called “rise of the West” is one of the key themes of the book.

While our emphasis on these international sources of capitalism’s emergence may seem rather obvious to some, it’s striking how few theoretical approaches (Marxist or otherwise) actually provide a substantive historical sociological theorization of “the international.” Whether the approach in question conceptualizes the primary “unit of analysis” as operating at the domestic or world level – as exemplified by Political Marxism and World-System Analysis, respectively – the problem remains the same. By working outwards from a conception of a specific social structure (be it slavery, feudalism, capitalism, etc.), the theorization of “the international” takes the form of a reimagining of domestic society writ large: an extrapolation from analytical categories derived from a society conceived as a unitary abstraction. This then vanishes what is unique to any intersocietal system: a superordinating “anarchical” structure irreducible to the historically variegated forms of societies constituting any given system.

This is a particularly debilitating problem for Marxism because one of the hallmarks of Marxist theory is a strong claim to be able to provide a genuinely holistic conception of social structures, which requires a theoretical internalization of the interdependency of each element within it “so that the conditions of its existence are taken to be part of what it is.” 2 If such a claim is to be taken seriously, then the theoretical standing of “the international” for a historical materialist approach to the origins of capitalism requires a direct engagement with the question of what is “the international” understood and theorized in its own substantive historical and sociological terms. In other words, how can one offer a properly “sociological definition” of “the international” – meaning “that dimension of social reality which arises specifically from the coexistence within it of more than one society” – which “formulates this dimension as an object of social theory…organically contained, that is, within a conception of social development itself?” 3

Our theoretical answer to this problematic – and the Eurocentric modes of analyses it often gives rise to – is a critical reconstruction of Leon Trotsky’s concept of uneven and combined development (UCD) which has seen a recent revival in the discipline of International Relations thanks in large part to Justin Rosenberg’s work. 4 By positing the multilinear character of development as its “most general law,” uneven development provides a necessary corrective to the ontological singular conception of societies and the attendant unilinear conception of history that underpins Eurocentric analyses. By positing the inherently interactive character of social-political multiplicity, combined development in turn challenges the methodological internalism of Eurocentric approaches whilst further subverting its strong stagist model of development.

BB: Political Marxists offer a sharp distinction between feudal extra economic forms of surplus extraction and capitalist non-coercive forms of surplus extractions. Thus, they get close to an ideal-type abstraction. Yet, Marx doesn’t seem to use such a sharp distinction as he considered – for example – slavery in the Americas as at least partially capitalist because it is part of a wider set of international capitalist economic relations. How do you determine capitalism?

AA and KN: We’re in absolute agreement with your assessment of Political Marxism’s conception of capitalism; it is far too abstract and Platonic to be very useful in understanding capitalism (past or present) as it excludes or externalizes so many sociohistorical processes that were – and continue to be – integral to the development and reproduction of capitalism. This has some important political implications. The externalization of “extra-economic” forms of exploitation and oppression from capitalism ultimately leads Political Marxists to exclude the histories of colonialism and slavery, an example you correctly point out, from the inner workings of capitalism, arguing instead that such practices were rooted in the feudal or absolutist logic of geopolitical accumulation. While we would not go as far as to claim that Political Marxists ignore colonialism and slavery per se – for example, Charlie Post has a number of excellent works 5 on these issues, even if we disagree with his theoretical conclusions – they do nonetheless view these histories as sitting outside the pure “logic” of capitalist development.

By contrast, in How the West Came to Rule, we examine these histories as integral or constitutive aspects of the formation of capitalism as the globally dominant mode of production (see esp. Chapters 5, 7 and 8). We also look at the intertwined and variegated formation of racial, gender and sexual hierarchies intricately bound up and constitutive of the making of capitalism. With these issues in mind, we argue in the book that capitalism is best understood as a set of configurations, assemblages, or bundles of social relations and processes oriented around the systematic (re)production of the capital–wage-labor relation, but not reducible – either historically or logically – to that relation alone. By placing an emphasis on such configurations and assemblages, we aim to highlight how the accumulation and reproduction of capital through the exploitation of wage-labor presupposes a wider array of different social relations that make these processes possible. These social relations may take numerous forms, such as coercive state apparatuses, ideologies and cultures of consent, or forms of power and exploitation that aren’t immediately given in or derivative of the simple capital-wage-labor relation, such as racism, patriarchy and unwaged labor. To be a bit more concrete, the example you give of slavery in the Americas – and, similarly, the forms of slavery in the Dutch colonies in East Asia – is exactly the kind of configuration which was geared toward the systematic reproduction of the capital–wage-labor relation within England, but is nonetheless not reducible to that relation itself (see Chapters 5 and 7).

BB: On the one hand, Chakrabarty states that History 1s are “constitutively but unevenly modified” by History 2s, on the other hand according to Chibber “Chakrabarty overestimates the power of History 2 to destabilize History 1, he vastly underestimates the sources of instability within History 1.” How does the theory of uneven and combined development (UCD) contribute to understand the processes of differentiation within the universalizing dynamics of capitalism? 6

AA and KN: There is a lot of confusion over Chakrabarty’s distinction between History 1 and History 2. Some quick definitions then:

  • History 1 denotes a past presupposed by capital, “a past posited by capital itself as its precondition” and “its invariable result.” 7 Although Chakrabarty leaves this largely unspecified, it is clear that what he has in mind is abstract labor.
  • History 2 denotes those histories that are encountered by capital “not as antecedents” established by itself, nor “as forms of its own life-process.” 8 History 2s are not “outside” of capital or History 1. Instead, they exist “in proximate relationship to it,” 9 whilst “interrupt[ing] and punctuat[ing] the run of capital’s own logic.” 10 History 2s may well include non-capitalist, pre-capitalist or local social relations and processes, but the concept is not exhausted by these, and can refer to universal and global categories, social relations and process, including commodities and money – two universal categories central to the reproduction of capitalism. 11

Now, on the one hand, we would argue that Chakrabarty doesn’t underestimate the sources of instability within History 1. In Provincializing Europe, Chakrabarty devotes an entire subsection titled “Abstract Labor as Critique” where he analyses precisely those sources of instability within History 1 (what is commonly known among Marxists as the “moving contradiction”). On the other hand, Chakrabarty in no way overstates the significance of History 2. That is, the mistake lies with Chibber’s interpretation; by reducing History 2 to “local culture,” 12 it is clear that Chibber doesn’t understand what History 2 actually means. This becomes especially evident when Chibber invokes the “universal struggle by subaltern classes to defend their basic humanity” and “the interest in well-being” as a “fundamental source of instability to capital.” 13 From the above definitions, we can see that when Chibber invokes “well-being” and “basic humanity,” he is paradoxically invoking History 2s as the “source of instability to capital.” If anything Chibber is guiltier of the problem he attaches to Chakrabarty than Chakrabarty himself.

The quagmire of muddle fashioned by Chibber shouldn’t hinder us from reading Chakrabarty sympathetically, or indeed reading him as a Marxist. Like Marx, Chakrabarty emphasizes the tendency for capital to universalize and differentiate in equal measure. But where Chakrabarty goes beyond Marx is identifying universalising and differentiating tendencies outside of but related to the pristine logic of capital (though he’s not alone in doing this). This brings into our understanding of global capitalism forms of oppression but also agency and resistance that can reside outside of the wage-relation. This opens the theoretical, historical and political space to acknowledge the ways in which reproductive and/or affective labor, or anti-racist, anti-caste struggles are  integral to anti-capitalist politics. It brings into view indigenous struggles over land or the earth as vital components of global resistance.

However, there is an additional source or field of universalization-differentiation that Chakrabarty doesn’t discuss – the intersocietal or international. One of the key insights of UCD is to demonstrate how the existence of multiple societies – multiple states – under capitalism is at once an indication of its universalising tendency and its tendency towards differentiation and fragmentation. That is, the nation-state functions as a universal standard of what form a political community can and should take. At the same time, concrete processes of uneven and combined development constitute one of the biggest sources of continuing differentiation between nation-states.

A central factor perpetuating this uneven development, manifested in territorialized and geographical forms, is the construction of spatially-embedded physical infrastructures (e.g. transport facilities and communication technologies) necessary for the expanded reproduction of capital. Investments in such built environments come to define regional spaces for the circulation of capital. Capital thus demonstrates a clear tendency towards concentrating in specific regions at the expense of others, producing a somewhat porous but nevertheless identifiable “territorial logic of power” – regionality – inherently arising out of the processes of capital accumulation in time and space. 14

This form of uneven development is unique to the capitalist system. The effect of these tendencies is that they will perpetually act to undermine any unification of “many capitals” into a single fraction of “global capital.” As Marx said, “Capital exists and can only exist as many capitals and its self-determination therefore appears as the mutual interaction of these upon one another.” It must then by necessity “repel itself from itself.” Consequently, a “universal capital, one without alien capitals confronting it, with which it exchanges – is therefore a non-thing.” 15

Moreover, as David Harvey has shown, the reproduction and spatial expansion of capital accumulation produces and necessitates the creation of relatively immobile and concentrated organized territorial configurations. Dense spatial constellations of capitalist social relations can thereby provide the territorial foundations of states by both commanding and supplying the necessary resources to sustain a functioning state apparatus. In this sense, the uneven and combined character of capitalist development reinforces and perpetuates territorial fragmentation which, in its contemporary modality, takes the form of a plurality of sovereign nation-states. In our view, this territorializing and deterritorializing geopolitics of capitalism is unaccounted for in Chakrabarty; a geopolitics that we think is crucial to understanding the origins of capitalism and its continued contemporaneous reproduction.

BB: You underline a weakness shared by both Eurocentric and postcolonial accounts:the presupposition of a “hermetically sealed European history in which modernity was created before being subsequently expanded globally.” 16 What are the main ideas of the “internationalist historiography” of capitalism which is supposed to abolish that weakness?

AA and KN: What we mean by an “internationalist historiography” 17 is this: that the origins and history of capitalism can only be properly understood in “international” or intersocietal terms, and that this very “internationality” is constitutive of capitalism as a historical mode of production. Although this may seem intuitively obvious to many readers, in the book we demonstrate how existing conceptions of capitalism have hitherto failed to take this “internationality” seriously, leading to problematic theorizations of its origins and development that limit not only our histories of capitalism, but also our critiques of the present.

While there have been many studies that empirically point to this “international” dimension of capitalism’s historical emergence and development, they by and large fail to theoretically incorporate the specificities of “the international” as an organic component of social development (see above). In other words, the international or geopolitical sources of development are relegated to the sphere of contingencies, exogenous “shocks” and/or other untheorized externalities attached in an ad-hoc way to a pre-formed theory of society conceived as a singular abstraction. In overcoming the theoretical and empirical weaknesses of such approaches, the book offers a theoretical reconstruction of Trotsky’s idea of UCD which uniquely incorporates a distinctly intersocietal dimension of causality into its basic conception of development. For implicit in Trotsky’s original formulation was a fundamental redefinition of the concept and logic of development itself: one inscribed with a “more-than-one” ontological premise that is missing in other social theoretical approaches. 18

Such a perspective not only widens the spatial scope of analysis to capture the distinct determinations arising from the coexistence and interaction of multiple societies (i.e. “the international”), but also allows for a resolute focus on the variegated relations of interconnection and co-constitution between “the West” and “the Rest” in their joint, if uneven, making of the modern capitalist world. From the economically regenerative effects of the expansion of the Pax Mongolica over the Long Thirteenth Century to the Ottoman-Habsburg “super-power” rivalry during the Long Sixteenth century to the “discovery” of the New World and its’ division along linearly-demarcated spaces of sovereignty to the broader economic and strategic benefits accrued from the colonies spanning the Atlantic to Indian Ocean, all these historical processes and developments were absolutely central to collapse of feudalism and the emergence of capitalist modernity (cf. Chapters 3-8).

BB: Marx wrote that “the veiled slavery of the wage workers in Europe needed, for its pedestal, slavery pure and simple in the new world.” 19 How did the new world “discoveries” contribute to the development of capitalism and the modern territorialized state system?

AA and KN: Indeed, the 1492 “discoveries” were crucial to the formation of modern capitalist European societies, constituting a fundamental vector of uneven and combined development through which the modern world order was born. In How the West Came to Rule, we examine a vast array of different processes and developments in which the “New World” impacted the differential developmental trajectories of the “Old World” in their variegated transitions (and non-transitions) to capitalist modernity.

For example, we look at how the intersocietal interactions, conflicts and struggles between Europeans and Amerindians that took place in the Americas were critical to the emergence of modern conceptions of territorial sovereignty and the development of Eurocentrism, scientific racism and the modern institution of patriarchy. We examine in particular how the Spanish jurists of the sixteenth century sought to reconcile the increasing gap between Christendom as an all-encompassing universal ideology and the encounter with non-Christian peoples in the Americas. The jurists’ response to these problems invited a reconceptualization of universality, based on an ontological distinction between Europeans and “Indians.”

Thus, whilst colonialists were conducting the “greatest genocide in human history” 20 in the Americas, these ideologues in Europe were busying themselves with tearing down an authority – Christendom – that was proving incapable of articulating New World experiences. It was out of the resultant debris that the twin conceptions of the European Self and the non-European Other would emerge, paving the way for an ideological apparatus – Eurocentrism, racism, patriarchy – that would serve to both legitimize the horrors of colonialism and spur the development of capitalism. The colonial encounter in the Americas also witnessed (for the first time in history) the development of linear forms of sovereignty territoriality (cf. Chapter 5).

We further show how the plunder of American precious metals and resources by Europeans further exacerbated an already nascent divergence between the feudalism of the Iberian empires and the incipient capitalisms of Northwest Europeans. Indeed, the development of capitalism in England was itself dependent on the widened sphere of activity offered by the Atlantic. As we demonstrate, it was only through the sociological combination of American land, African slave labor, and English capital that the limits of English agrarian capitalism were eventually overcome. Not only did the widened sphere of circulation implied by the highly lucrative transatlantic triangular trade offer numerous opportunities to English capitalists to expand their sphere of activity, but the combination of different labor processes across the Atlantic enabled the recomposition of labor in Britain through the Industrial Revolution. The brutal exploitation of slaves on the plantation offered an array of “inputs” that contributed to the Industrial Revolution. It was in this respect, among others, that the real subsumption of labor under capital in the British factory, and the establishment of “free” wage labor in Europe, “needed” as its fundamental precondition “the unqualified slavery of the New World as its pedestal.”

BB: Neo-Weberian scholars consider geopolitical competition as the driving force behind state formation in Europe. Thereby, in a realist manner, they suppose that international politics take place within a context of anarchy. If anarchy is not the driving force behind politics what explains the war-prone nature of the European feudal state system?

AA and KN: In short, the answer lies in the specificities of feudal relations of production which, over the course of the late Medieval and early modern periods, descended into a generalized systemic crisis. At first sight, this might seem like an illicit return to the kind of internalist Eurocentric theorizing we criticize throughout the book. However, when widening the analysis beyond Europe, it is important to recognize that Europe’s feudal social relations – and the geopolitical system emerging therewith – along with their technological, military, and ideological components all bore a distinctly intersocietal origin as we show in the book (cf. Chapters 3, 4, 6, 8)

While keeping these intersocietal, extra-European sources of the making of European feudalism in mind, how then did feudalism generate such a competitive and war-prone geopolitical system? Here we partially follow Robert Brenner’s work on the subject. In the absence of the kind of unprecedented economic dynamism afforded by capitalist social relations, war was an expedient mode of expanding the surpluses available to the ruling classes under feudalism. Feudal productive relations offered few incentives for either peasant or lord to continuously and systematically introduce more productive technological methods, particularly as peasants had direct access to their means of production and subsistence. Consequently, lordly interests lay in extracting more surpluses by directly coercive means. This could be done by pushing the peasants to the limit of their subsistence or by seizing the demesnes of other lords. The latter course resulted in a process of “political accumulation” amongst the lords themselves – a war-driven process of state formation. 21

This condition meant that the aristocratic ruling class required the political, ideological, and military means in order to exploit the peasantry and extract a surplus for the purpose of lordly consumption. However, unlike the tributary empires in Asia, these means were not controlled by – or concentrated in – a centralized and unified state, but instead dispersed across the nobility. This dispersion of coercive capabilities meant that political authority in Europe was fragmented, parcellized and therefore also highly competitive, with heightened intra-lordly struggle taking place over territories both within and outside of feudal “states” (see Chapters 4, 6,and 8).

The lords left standing at the end of the process of geopolitical accumulation formed the basis for the absolutist state. Representing a “redeployed and recharged apparatus of feudal domination,” 22 the absolutist states system of early modern European remained driven by the systemic imperatives of geopolitical accumulation that came to interact – and in some cases fuse – with the emerging logic of competitive capital accumulation accompanying those states already making the transition to capitalism in part explaining the endemic state of war-marking the epoch. What made this era of permanent war so intense was the generalized crisis of feudal production relations besetting Europe.

The persistence of armed conflict throughout the period was not just a result of the usual structural dynamics of the feudal mode – the tendency toward (geo)political accumulation – but, rather, because the process of ruling class reproduction was itself in crisis and under threat as feudalism had virtually exhausted all possibilities for further internal expansion (i.e. within Europe). This in turn precipitated a sharp fall in seigniorial revenues, itself further exacerbated by the plague-induced demographic crisis, leading to a dramatic rise in peasant revolts and class struggles more generally (see Chapter 3). This perilous situation was further exacerbated and “overdetermined” by the persistent geopolitical threat emanating from the Ottoman Empire (see Chapter 4). Under such conditions, a near continuous state of war – including both intra-ruling class struggles and the incessant efforts to crush peasant rebellions – became a sociological “necessity” (cf. Chapter 6).

BB: Against Political Marxist accounts insisting on the internal reasons for the development of capitalism in England you underline the decisive role of external factors via “the privilege of backwardness” or “the whip of external necessity.” What external factors contributed to the development of capitalism in England and how are the linked to internal factors such as the class struggle between lords and peasants leading to agrarian capitalism?

AA and KN: Political Marxists have correctly identified the existence of a relatively homogenous English ruling class as an explanation for England’s peculiar trajectory to agrarian capitalism. In contrast to the French, where the state and the nobility competed over peasant surpluses, the English ruling class acted in unison to expropriate the peasantry and enclose land. By “freeing” the peasantry from land in this way, and by concentrating the means of production in the hands of the ruling class, we see the emergence of a distinct class of capitalists, on the one hand, and wage-laborers, on the other. But why did England specifically exhibit this peculiar ruling class unity? For Perry Anderson, among others, the answer lies in the relative demilitarization of the English ruling class during the sixteenth century. Whereas early modern absolutist states in the rest of Europe were centralizing and expanding their military capacities in the form of standing armies and investment in arms, England was regressing militarily.

The obvious explanation for this demilitarization is England’s relative isolation from geopolitical pressures – they didn’t need an army because they were comparatively insulated from the multiple wars engulfing Europe at the time. We argue one of the key reasons – arguably the single most important reason – for England’s isolation was that it was unimportant to the ambitions and concerns of the major geopolitical powers of the time – it was considered “relatively backward,” a north eastern backwater that was irrelevant to the reproduction of Christendom and imperial feudalism. In the sixteenth century, the single most important threat to the great powers of Christendom was found to the southeast, in the Ottoman Empire.

The Ottomans were making rapid incursions into south east Europe and taking possession of the eastern Mediterranean – at this time the pivot of European geopolitical interests. The Ottomans thus acted as a kind of buffer, or geopolitical center of gravity, that sucked the most powerful state in Europe into its orbit, leaving England relatively isolated from the machinations of the Habsburgs, the Papal states, Italian city states and (to a lesser degree) the French. And it was the isolation wrought by the Ottoman buffer that homogenized the English ruling class, enabling it to undertake such unified action against the peasantry. The history of the enclosures therefore can only be fully understood when viewed from an Ottoman vantage point.

BB: According to André Tosel, 1991 was not the end of Marxism but the end of Marxism-Leninism which also contained a deterministic, stagist perspective of historical development. How do you explain the re-emergence of UCD in Marxist theory?

AA and KN: Trots might cry: “Re-emergence? Pah! We always spoke about UCD!” However, it is interesting that despite Trotskyists’ invoking UCD, it is only in the last decade or so that there has been such a resolute and innovative use of the idea, either theoretically or historically. Perhaps, more interestingly, many of these innovations are coming from people who long abandoned Trotskyism as a political project (or who were never part of it in the first place). This, incidentally, is why we would resist John Hobson’s characterization of UCD as “neo-Trotskyist.” 23

But the question of UCD’s very own historicity is extremely important and one we only partially broach in the book. Though we do recognize the context of its emergence in debates among revolutionaries in the early 20th century, we don’t really examine its recent re-emergence. And although we historically situate the study of capitalism in the post-2008 context, the history of UCD as an intellectual project has a different pulse. From a rather insular, academic perspective, the currency of the idea of UCD is rooted in a set of intellectual problems that Marxists (and subsequently non-Marxists) were grappling within the discipline of International Relations – specifically, “why is there no international historical sociology?” or, more generally, why has been so difficult to bridge between sociological and geopolitical modes of theorizing. 24 UCD struck many of us as a remarkably useful way of answering these questions. But there is a wider historical and political context that is worth explicating.

For starters, yes, 1991 and the fall of the Soviet Union put paid to any remnants of stadial theorizing (within Marxism at least). But it also opened up a set of political questions that tore at many of the old (and problematic) certainties of the Marxist(-Leninist) left. We see in this period the triumph of neoliberalism, the changing nature of the state-form, the growing vagaries of so-called globalization and the increasing subsumption of social life under the auspices of capital accumulation. All of these developments opened very new political possibilities and necessities that the “old left” – with its attachment to the identity of “the worker” – could not adequately engage with. Reflecting on this political and intellectual history then, it is not surprising that UCD emerges in a context in which theoretical constructs derived from singular experiences of oppression – derived from singular vantage points – were becoming increasingly irrelevant if not downright useless to the lived experiences of the global proletariat.

Concurrently, the increasing currency of poststructuralist, postcolonial, critical race, feminist and queer conceptions of the way in which capitalism – and power more generally – operates placed a greater conceptual need to engage with questions of liminality, hybridity, intersectionality and so on. Many of the more dogmatic trends of Marxism tended to ignore, sideline or be openly hostile to these different approaches, and many continue to do so (think of the various lazy dismissals of “identity politics” that continue to pervade various political organizations that lay claim to liberation and revolution). UCD is an idea that is – theoretically at least – more sympathetic to and more in common with these “post-positivist” trends (or rather that’s the way we see it). At the same time, it is an idea that remains wedded in many (not necessarily all) respects to a historical materialist approach, class analysis and Marx(ist) writings. To our minds, UCD therefore might constitute a framework through which theoretical and political gaps between Marxist and non-Marxist critical approaches might be productively bridged. For example, in How the West Came to Rule, we seek to open a dialogue with postcolonial approaches, rather than dismiss them.

BB: Michael Löwy states that “the politics of combined and uneven development” consists of three dialectically linked problems: the possibility of proletarian revolution in “backward” countries; the uninterrupted transition from the democratic to socialist revolution; and the international extension of the revolutionary process. 25 What role does the uninterrupted international revolutionary process play in your analysis, where UCD is considered to be transhistorical, or – to be precise – transmodal?

AA and KN: Perhaps it’s worth clarifying what we mean by UCD operating transmodally.  When used at a general, transmodal level, UCD is best understood as a basic premise or ontology of human history. Put differently it identifies an abstract set of determinants which describe a general condition confronted by all societies irrespective of historical context. Therefore, when used at this transmodal level, UCD doesn’t actually tell us much about concrete historical processes and certainly explains very little about these processes. At this level of abstraction it does not constitute theory. However, this is not the only way in which UCD can be used. In the book, we also use it methodologically. From the transmodal ontological premise we can derive a set of questions for research, in particular an attentiveness to: (1) the multiplicity of societal development; (2) interactions between societies arising out of that multiplicity; and, (3) the combined forms of development that emerge out of these interactions. But, these general ontological and methodological assumptions taken on their own, still do not constitute a theory as such – at least not in the specifically Marxist sense. That is, theory is only possible at the more historically specific-level at which the ontological and methodological coordinates of study are connected to more determinate, concrete, historical-sociological categories. We think this is useful in that we can consider UCD in its historical specificity, as something that is different in different historical contexts, without necessarily abandoning the transmodal premise. (This is in fact precisely how the Marxist idea of “mode of production” works).

Returning to Löwy, his excavation of the politics of UCD takes place at a concrete level of analysis, one which is inflected by the transmodal conception of UCD, but not derived from it. The problems Löwy therefore identifies are specific to a set of historical problems (in particular those pertaining to the 20th century) that do not necessarily hold in different contexts, be it today or the early modern period (which is the focus of our analysis). Whether these problems are constituted in different epochs is the work of historical sociology and political activity, and cannot be derived from any transmodal claims alone.

Were Löwy’s problems present or observable in the focus of our analysis (i.e. the origins to capitalism)? Well, some of his claims – specifically the existence of a proletariat and the question of transition from democratic to socialist revolution – presuppose capitalism, and therefore cannot be considered as part of the history of its origins. The way the third problem – the international extension of the revolutionary process – is framed is itself problematic. It presupposes some internal – domestic – revolution that subsequently extends outwards – internationally. Such a perspectives suffers from the sort of internalism (or methodological nationalism) that UCD is used to overcome.

Nonetheless, in some formal sense, you could argue that there are numerous ways in which “international revolutionary processes” played some significant role in the period we look at the in the book. Take for example, the crisis of Christendom. We have in Europe the breakdown of feudalism and peasant uprisings, articulated along the lines of religious revolt. At the same time, peasant revolts against Christendom facilitated the expansion of the Ottoman Empire into Christian territories, further weakening the Papacy and the Habsburg Empire. We have simultaneously in the Americas a series of revolts by indigenous communities against Iberian imperialism. Meanwhile, in Asia, local communities were resisting attempts at colonial settlement by the Iberians and, later, Dutch powers.

We argue that these international, often non-European, uneven yet intersecting histories were crucial to breakdown of social order in Europe. It was subsequently out of the wreckage of this crumbling social order that alternative methods of exploitation and social order emerged – namely capitalism, racism and modern forms of patriarchy. Moreover, such new methods were used specifically to crush and/or control these international insurgent movements. I guess the point here is a more basic one – the ontological premise of a transmodal UCD and the methodological pointers it gives rise to helps us understand class struggle and subaltern agency in intersocietal rather than domestic or methodologically nationalist terms. UCD helps us recognize how uneven, multiple, insurrectionary processes might intersect and combine globally. And this is of relevance today, just as much as it was when Löwy was writing.

This interview was originally published in Période.


1 Karl Marx, Capital, Volume III, trans. David Fernbach (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1981), 728.
2 Bertell Ollman, “Marxism and Political Science: Prolegomenon to a Debate on Marx’s Method,” in Social and Sexual Revolution: Essays on Marx and Reich (London: Pluto Press, 1979), 99-156, 105.
3 Justin Rosenberg, “Why Is There No International Historical Sociology?,” European Journal of International Relations, Vol. 12 No. 3 (2006): 307–340, 308.
4 See esp. Rosenberg, “Why Is There No International Historical Sociology?.” See also this list of some of the contemporary literature on uneven and combined development.
5 See esp. Charlie Post, The American Road to Capitalism: Studies in Class-Structure, Economic Development, and Political Conflict, 1620–1877 (Leiden: Brill, Historical Materialism Book Series, 2011).
6 Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008, 2nd Edn.), 70; Vivek Chibber, Postcolonial Theory and the Spectre of Capital (London: Verso, 2013), 229.
7 Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe, 63.
8 Ibid., 63; Karl Marx, Grundrisse, trans. Martin Nicolaus (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973), 105–106.
9 Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe, 66.
10 Ibid., 64.
11 “Capital originally finds the commodity already in existence, but not as its own product, and likewise finds money circulation, but not as an element in its own reproduction… But both of them must be destroyed as independent forms and subordinated to industrial capital” (Marx quoted in Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe, 64).
12 Chibber, Postcolonial Theory and the Spectre of Capital, 235.
13 Chibber, Postcolonial Theory and the Spectre of Capital, 235.
14 David Harvey, Spaces of Global Capitalism (London: Verso, 2006), 102; Ray Kiely, “Capitalist Expansion and the Imperialism-Globalization Debate: Contemporary Marxist Explanations,” Journal of International Relations and Development  Vol. 8, No. 1 (2005): 27–57, 41; David Harvey, The New Imperialism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 103.
15 Marx, Grundrisse, 401, 421.
16 Alexander Anievas and Kerem Nisancioglu, How the West Came to Rule (London: Pluto Press, 2015), 40.
17 Jairus Banaji, Theory as History (Leiden: Brill, 2010), 253.
18 Justin Rosenberg, “The Philosophical Premises of Uneven and Combined Development,” Review of International Studies, 39, 3 (2013): 569-597, 581-83.
19 Karl Marx, CapitalVolume I, trans. Ben Fowkes (London: Penguin Books, 1976), 925.
20 Tzvetan Todorov, The Conquest of America: The Question of the Other (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1982), 5.
21 Robert Brenner, “The Social Basis of Economic Development,” in John Roemer, ed, Analytical Marxism (Cambridge:Cambridge University Press, 1986), 23-53, 31–32.
22 Perry Anderson, Lineages of the Absolutist State (London: New Left Books, 1974), 18.
23 John M. Hobson, “What’s at Stake in the Neo-Trotskyist Debate? Towards a Non-Eurocentric Historical Sociology of Uneven and Combined Development,” Millennium, Vol. 40, No. 1 (2011): 147-166.
24 Rosenberg, “Why Is There No International Historical Sociology?.”
25 Michael Löwy, The Theory of Revolution in the Young Marx (Chicago: Haymarket, 2010), 1; see also his The Politics of Combined and Uneven Development: The Theory of Permanent Revolution (London: New Left Books, 1981).

Authors of the article

teaches political science and international relations at the University of Cambridge. Most notably, he is the author of Capital, State, War (2014).

is member of the editorial committee of the French-language review Période and graduated from Sciences Po Paris.

is a Lecturer in International Studies at SOAS, University of London. He recently published The Ottoman Origins of Capitalism: Uneven and Combined Development and Eurocentrism (2014).