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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”.
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”.
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.
By the outbreak of the First World War membership of the dominant states was essentially fixed.
What remained was the second aspect of uneven development: the ongoing rivalry between the great powers which involved them constantly trying to “catch up and overtake” each other in a contest for supremacy that would continue as long as capitalism itself.
In very compressed timespans they had been able to adopt the socio-economic achievements of Britain to the extent that they became recognisably the same kind of societies, without necessarily reproducing every characteristic of the Anglo-Saxon pioneer.
Where backwardness remained it tended to be in the nature of the political regimes led by monarchs or emperors supported by a landowning aristocracy.