Uneven and Combined Development: Modernity, Modernism, Revolution (2): Causes, Consequences, Constraints

In this second part to his series of five pieces for revolutionary reflections Neil Davidson explores the aesthetic and political dimensions of the theory of Uneven and Combined Development. A PDF version of all five articles is available here.

El Lissitzky 1922


2.1.      Capitalist Modernity: Industrialisation and Urbanisation

Defining the Modern

I wrote in Part 1 that uneven and combined development was a consequence of ‘capitalist modernity’, but how does the meaning of this composite term differ from those of ‘capitalism’ on the one hand and ‘modernity’ on the other? Perry Anderson once dismissed the very notion of modernity on the grounds that it is so ‘extensive’ that it risks ‘dilution and banalization’: ‘If the modern is simply the new, and the passing of time assures its progress, everything in recent or current experience has acquired equal validity and meaning.’[1] Jack Goody has expressed similar views, but extends the indictment from ‘modernity’ to encompass ‘pre-modernity’ and ‘post-modernity’: ‘From the viewpoint of everyday usage, these terms do not make much sense, since modern, like contemporary, is a moving target and cannot represent a periodization or a style, except in a fleeting or ambiguous sense.’[2] There would be more force in these criticisms if the term was generally used in the relative sense of indicating that every successive era in human history was equally modern in relation to those which preceded them. This was of course the original meaning of the term and continued to be so from the fifth century CE down to the dawn of the Enlightenment.[3]

It is also true that even some of the classic nineteenth-century discussions of modernity carry this meaning. During the 1860s, for example, Baudelaire wrote that ‘every old master has his own modernity’ and asserted the necessity for any ‘modernity’ to be worthy of one day taking its place as ‘antiquity’.[4] Like most contemporary commentators, however, I do not intend to deploy the notion of modernity in this way, but rather to indicate a break in temporal continuity, a way of dividing history into ‘before’ and ‘after’. In other words, it is not the case that every age has its own modernity; the modern age begins after a certain point in historical time. ‘The Middle Ages were interested in eternity, the Renaissance was interested in the past’, writes Boris Groys: ‘modernity was interested in the future.’[5] At what point did it become possible to imagine a future in which one could be interested because it was radically different from the past?

One obvious historical turning point would be the emergence of capitalism. As Peter Osborne points out:

There is a widespread tendency to counterpose the categories of ‘capitalism’ (Marx) and ‘modernity’ (Durkheim and Weber) as competing alternatives for the theoretical interpretation of the same historical object. Yet there is no obligation to continue to use terms in the way in which they have been most consistently abused.[6]

On this reading, the concept of ‘modernity’ is a way of avoiding references to capitalism while effectively describing the same reality. Accordingly, Fredric Jameson argues that ‘the only satisfactory semantic meaning of modernity lies in its association with capitalism’ and recommends, in order to demonstrate this, ‘the experimental procedure of substituting capitalism for modernity in all the contexts in which the latter appears’.[7] Derek Sayer has similarly argued that capitalism and modernity are identical and furthermore claims that this was Marx’s position.[8] There are however, two reasons why a simple identification of capitalism with modernity is untenable.[9]

One concerns the future. As Jameson himself writes elsewhere in the work cited above, we should ‘entertain the possibility that modernity is incomplete because it could never be completed by the middle class and its economic system’, which suggests that modernity could continue to exist after the overthrow of capitalism.[10] Anderson is more definitive: ‘The energies of modernity, once generated by capitalism, are now ever more trapped and compromised by it.’[11] In other words, modernity may owe its existence to capitalism, but is not necessarily confined to it. David Frisby notes that ‘Marx himself was not a modernist in the sense of identifying himself with the experience of modernity that he outlined’.[12] Instead, Marx saw modernity, not only as characterising the capitalist present, but also pointing towards the socialist future. Perhaps more than any other interpreter, Marshall Berman has emphasised this dual aspect of Marx’s attitude:

The basic fact of modern life, as Marx experienced it, is that this life is radically contradictory at its base… …miseries and mysteries fill many moderns with despair. Some would ‘get rid of modern arts, in order to get rid of modern conflicts’; others will try to balance progress in industry with neofeudal or neoabsolutist regression in politics. Marx, however, proclaims a paradigmatically modernist faith… …a class of ‘new men’, men who are thoroughly modern, will be able to resolve the contradictions of modernity, to overcome the crushing pressures, earthquakes, weird spells, personal and social abysses, in whose midst all modern men and women are forced to live.[13]

The Equivalence of Capitalism and Modernity

With the exception of Deep Green advocates, or related ‘back-to-hunter-gathering’ anarcho-primitivist tendencies, most left-wing movements since Marx’s time have accepted that socialism will complete modernity.[14] ‘The socialist and communist movements were fully set within the framework of the cultural program of modernity, and above all the framework of the Enlightenment and of the major revolutions’, writes Shmuel Eisenstadt: ‘Their criticism of the program of modern capitalist society revolved around their concept of the incompleteness of these modern programs.’[15] We can imagine the balance of continuity and change that a socialist modernity might involve: the majority of people would not abandon the cities for rural communes, although the cities would now be fully habitable for their denizens; they would not revert from industrial to artisanal production, although industry would be designed with the needs of the workers and their environment; we would not cease to use electricity, although this would no longer be produced by fossil fuels or nuclear power, but by wind or solar power.[16] We will continue to be modern after the revolution.

The second reason for questioning the equivalence of capitalism and modernity – and the one most relevant to this chapter – concerns the historical past. For modernity did not emerge with the capitalist mode of production in its original mercantile, financial or agrarian forms, but only with the beginnings of capitalist industrialisation and the related, but partially distinct process of urbanisation in Europe, North America and Japan. In other words, it is associated with a particular stage in capitalist development. Political Marxists in particular have stressed that capitalism, as a set of (what they call) ‘social property relations’, is radically different from all pre-existing exploitative modes of production: ‘Only in capitalism is the dominant mode of appropriation based on the complete dispossession of direct producers, who (unlike chattel slaves) are legally free and whose surplus labour is appropriated by purely “economic” means.’[17] This is true, but less significant than is sometimes claimed, since the establishment of capitalism as a mode of production does not in and of itself immediately transform the lives of subaltern classes. There are two reasons for this.

One concerns the labour process and is outlined by Marx in Capital vol. 1, in his discussion of the difference between the ‘formal’ and ‘real’ subsumption of labour. In the case of the former, rather than ‘a fundamental modification in the real nature of the labour process…the fact is that capital subsumes the labour process as it finds it, that is to say, it takes over an existing labour process, developed by a different and more archaic modes of production’:

For example, handicraft, a mode of agriculture corresponding to a small, independent peasant economy. … The work may become more intensive, its duration may be extended, it may be more continuous or orderly under the eye of the interested capitalist, but in themselves these changes do not affect the character of the labour process, the actual mode of working. This stands in striking contrast to the development of a specifically capitalist mode of production (large-scale industry, etc.); the latter not only transforms the situations of the various agents of production, it also revolutionizes their actual mode of labour and the real nature of the labour process as a whole.[18]

In other words, the pre-existing ways of working can remain in place even during the initial phases of capitalist development. It may be possible for historians to retrospectively identify when the transition from feudalism was complete, but this does not mean that direct producers at the time understood that they had entered a new historical period.

The other concerns outputs, and particularly the productive capacities of the first fully capitalist states compared with the great Eastern empires which had once been impossibly more wealthy and civilised than the poverty-stricken lands of European feudalism. Peer Vries notes: ‘The type of growth that became normal in the industrial world had simply not existed in the past.’[19] The industrial world was in the West, but it only arose there relatively late, and certainly not the latest-manifestation of Western superiority, claims for which would have for most of history produced mocking laughter from the East. Indeed, as Kenneth Pomeranz notes, down to around 1800:

Far from being unique…the most developed parts of Western Europe seem to have shared crucial economic features – commercialization, commodification of goods, land, and labour, market-driven growth, and adjustment by households of both fertility and labour allocation to economic trends – with other densely populated core areas in Eurasia.[20]

It is possible that Pomeranz is being insufficiently attentive to the difference between capitalist and non-capitalist social property relations here, but the central point is accurate: even after the transition to capitalism the formerly backward Western European states, above all England, did not immediately catch-up and overtake those of the hitherto more advanced East. Our estimations of GDP for both areas were similar and, in the Chinese Empire at least, standards of living may have even been higher than in Western Europe and North America. It took until 1880 for per capita income there to reach double that of the East, and until the eve of the First World War for it to reach three times the size.[21]

In fact, it was the advent of industrial capitalism which initiated ‘the great divergence’ between West and East, and the overwhelmingly uni-directional impact of the former on the latter. As Justin Rosenberg points out:

Imperial China sustained its developmental lead over several centuries; yet the radiation of its achievements never produced in Europe anything like the long, convulsive process of combined development which capitalist industrialization in Europe almost immediately initiated in China.[22]

It is important to understand, however, that the decline of Imperial China was not simply an effect of direct or indirect Western intervention, but of its own internally generated limits to development:

After 1800, things changed very fast. Conditions in Asia deteriorated sharply, as continuing population growth ran into the traditional energy and land limits that constrain all organic societies. Indeed, it is reasonable to think that Europe and Asia had similar material conditions because prior to industrialization all societies were limited in what they could produce by the ability of farmers to produce food with organic inputs and muscle power, and of manufacturers to produce products with organic raw materials and wind and water power.[23]

For both reasons then, ‘it seems reasonable to argue that it was only with the British Industrial Revolution of the late eighteenth century that modernity received its material form’, as Krishan Kumar explains:

Partly this is because of the very explosiveness of the development – a speeding up of economic evolution to the point where it took on revolutionary proportions. Modernity therefore has a before-and-after quality that is also the hall-mark of revolution. With the Industrial Revolution, such a quality increasingly became evident to contemporaries, to the extent that for many of them the only significant division in human history appeared that between pre-industrial and industrial civilization.[24]

For Ronald Hartwell too, industrialisation is ‘the great discontinuity of modern history’.[25] Indeed, if we accept the notion that we have entered into a new epoch of geological time known the Anthropocene, then the discontinuity is even greater than these writers could have imagined. Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer argued in 2000 that the epoch of the Holocene – the 11,500-year era contiguous with human civilization – had come to an end as a result of industrialisation, which they date as symbolically beginning in 1784, when James Watt patented the steam engine and began the use of fossil energy as the basis for economic activity.[26]

The City

Yet it was not industrialisation alone which impacted on members of the new factory proletariat, but the fact that many of their new workplaces were situated in towns and cities. Indeed, as Osterhammel notes, ‘urbanization was a much more widespread process than industrialisation: cities grew and became more dense even where industry was not the driving force’. After noting that many of the greatest European cities, including London, had never been truly industrial, but administrative and commercial, he concludes: ‘Urbanization is a truly global process, industrialization a sporadic and uneven formation of growth centres.’[27] Osterhammel’s point about London can be generalised to some other historic cities whose existence long predated capitalism, let alone industrialisation. ‘In a very important sense Vienna and Berlin were much more typically “modernist” cities, almost along the lines of American cities like Chicago, than were cities like London and Paris which underwent slower and more organic growth’, writes Scott Lash.[28] But Vienna and Berlin were not equivalent either: of the two, Berlin was far closer to the American model – although the latter too need to be differentiated: ‘If Vienna is not Berlin, neither is Boston Chicago.’[29] There is unevenness between the cities of capitalist modernity as well as combination within them.

Even those cities which remained administrative and commercial rather than industrial centres were shaped by the requirements of industrialisation, not least the necessity for railways. Berman has identified ‘the unease and uncertainty that comes from constant motion, change, and diversity’ with ‘the experience of modern capitalism‘; Wood however claims that this is merely ‘the age-old fear and fascination aroused by the city‘, and what Berman has to say ‘about the experience of “modern life” could have been said by the Italian countrydweller arriving in the ancient city of Rome’.[30] Now, it is certainly the case that Berman’s specific example (Paris in the 1760s) could be challenged on the grounds that capitalism was not highly developed in France at this time, but Wood is making a general argument that rural populations encountering the city are essentially the same at any point in history. At one level it is obviously true that the size, noise and populousness of cities has often been bewildering for rural populations forced to cross their boundaries (although for some rustics they also provided a welcome relief from the narrowness and conformity of the countryside); but Berman is drawing attention to a qualitatively different situation.

In fact, the experience of urban life under industrial capitalism was quite different from any predecessor: ‘In comparison with the village or ‘pre-modernist’ city, not just the sense of time but the experience of space was altered’, writes Scott Lash.’[31] There is evidence for this from first-hand observations of the English industrial cities. Here is Engels reporting on the changed forms of human interaction in Manchester during the 1840s:

The very turmoil of the streets has something repulsive, something against which human nature rebels. The hundreds of thousands of all classes and ranks crowding past each other, are they not all human beings with the same qualities and powers, and with the same interest in being happy? And have they not, in the end, to seek happiness in the same way, by the same means? And still they crowd by one another as though they had nothing in common, nothing to do with one another, and their only agreement is the tacit one, that each keep to his own side of the pavement, so as not to delay the opposing streams of the crowd, while it occurs to no man to honour another with so much as a glance. The brutal indifference, the unfeeling isolation of each in his private interest, becomes the more repellent and offensive, the more these individuals are crowded together, within a limited space. And, however much one may be aware that this isolation of the individual, this narrow selfseeking, is the fundamental principle of our society everywhere, it is nowhere so shamelessly barefaced, so self-conscious as just here in the crowding of the great city.[32]

Engels is here registering the destructive impact of city life on the first generations of the industrial working class, but as urban development stabilised and living conditions slowly improved, it began to take on a more multi-faceted aspect for new arrivals in particular. Beyond positive or negative experiences, life in the city was simply, vastly different from what inhabitants had previously known, creating new forms of consciousness. Some inhabitants still found this deeply disturbing. Writing in the early 1870s, the Scottish poet James Thompson drew on his personal experience of Glasgow earlier in the century to invoke a city constructed from ‘ruins of an unremembered past’:

           The City is of Night, but not of Sleep;

There sweet sleep is not for the weary brain;

The pitiless hours like years and ages creep,

A night seems termless hell. This dreadful strain

Of thought and consciousness which never ceases,

Or which some moments’ stupor but increases,

This, worse than woe, makes wretches there insane.[33]

For every nay-sayer like Thompson, there were others for whom the modern city of ‘thought and consciousness which never ceases’ was not a source of ‘dreadful strain’ but something to be willingly embraced for providing experiences which were simply unimaginable earlier in human history. George Simmel, writing in Germany before the First World War, described the impact of urbanism on city-dwellers in this evocative passage from his essay, ‘The Metropolis and Mental Life’:

The psychological foundation, upon which the metropolitan individuality is erected, is the intensification of emotional life due to the swift and continuous shift of external and internal stimuli. Man is a creature whose existence is dependent on differences, i.e., his mind is stimulated by the difference between present impressions and those which have preceded. Lasting impressions, the slightness in their differences, the habituated regularity of their course and contrasts between them, consume, so to speak, less mental energy than the rapid telescoping of changing images, pronounced differences within what is grasped at a single glance, and the unexpectedness of violent stimuli. To the extent that the metropolis creates these psychological conditions – with every crossing of the street, with the tempo and multiplicity of economic, occupational and social life – it creates in the sensory foundations of mental life, and in the degree of awareness necessitated by our organisation as creatures dependent on differences, a deep contrast with the slower, more habitual, more smoothly flowing rhythm of the sensory-mental phase of small town and rural existence.[34]      

These are experiences which would simply not have been available to an Italian country-dweller visiting first-century Rome, or, for that matter, an English one visiting sixteenth-century London. How were these experiences represented in culture?


2.2.      Modernism: The Cultural Logic of Uneven and Combined Development

Hybridity and Fusion

It is difficult to disagree with the Warwick Research Collective that ‘the cultural aspects of Trotsky’s initiating formulation concerning the “amalgamation of archaic with more contemporary forms”‘ have received little attention – certainly in comparison with current interest levels in International Relations and the social and political sciences more generally.[35] The authors of this assessment apart, applications of uneven and combined development in the field of culture have often involves attempts – like those of Bhambra and Keucheyan in other disciplinary contexts – to treat it as synonymous or at least compatible with more contemporary notions, above all, ‘hybridity’. Take, for example, this sentence by Gareth Williams:

The radically hybrid bearing of Latin American literary expression – a hybridity that emerges as a result of the historical realities of uneven and combined development; as a result of the disjunctive simultaneity of its subaltern/metropolis articulations; and ultimately as a result of Latin America’s profoundly nonunitary geopolitical location within world history – embodies and reproduces (perhaps) the discursive tensions (the encounters and disencounters) that are capable of opening up the supply-lines of reflection to a certain kind of futurity.[36]

Amid the general incomprehensibility of this passage, one relatively clear statement presents hybridity as a function of uneven and combined development; but the former was characteristic of human societies long before the emergence of capitalism, let alone capitalist industrialisation.[37] As Eric Wolf has demonstrated, the notion that the Americas consisted of self-contained, indigenous societies was false at least a hundred years before Columbus inadvertently ‘discovered’ them:

Conquest, incorporation, recombination, and commerce…marked the New World. In both hemispheres populations impinged upon other populations through permeable social boundaries, creating intergrading, interwoven social and cultural entities. If there were any isolated societies these were but a temporary phenomenon – a group pushed to the edge of a zone of interaction and left to itself for a brief moment of time. Thus, the social scientist’s model of distinct and separate systems, and of a timeless ‘precontact’ ethnographic present, does not adequately depict the situation before European expansion; much less can it comprehend the worldwide system of links that would be created by that expansion.[38]

Of course, once capitalism had emerged it increased the number and intensified the extent of these encounters, mainly through moving people, often forcibly, around the globe, by slavery, colonialism and migration. ‘Partly because of empire, all cultures are involved in one another; none is single and pure, all are hybrid, heterogeneous, extraordinarily differentiated, and unmonolithic’, writes Edward Said, who also notes that this is as ‘true of the contemporary United States’ as it is of the Global South.[39] But even within the context of multiple oppressions resulting from conquest and colonization, at least some of the populations which inhabited both North and South America were able to draw on techniques and styles of European origin in their own forms of cultural production, as Peter Wollen explains:

…the flow from core to periphery and its appropriation by artists on the periphery is nothing new. The rich nineteenth-century tradition of Haida soapstone carving developed directly because of the new market of sailors and travellers, who began to visit the Northwest Coast [of North America] for trade or tourism. … Spanish baroque was appropriated by indigenous artists in Mexico, and increasingly complex forms emerged (as we can see in the work of Frida Kahlo and, more recently, artists on both sides of the Mexican-United States frontier). Indeed this new baroque once again is beginning to redefine Americanness, in a complex composite of differential times and cultures.[40]

The direction of fusion has by no means been all one way. If Kahlo absorbed aspects of Spanish Baroque in Mexico, then her contemporary, Jackson Pollock, absorbed those of the Mexican muralists – which were themselves hybrids – and the Native America Navajo tribes in the USA.[41]  It is the temporal and not merely geographical distance between the elements which are brought together that differentiates the cultures of uneven and combined development from those of pre-existing forms of hybridity.

The experience of capitalist modernity was one of the conditions for the emergence of modernism, of which Kahlo and Pollock were leading representatives. Trotsky himself was alert to the relationship between modernism and the experience of capitalist modernity in its urban form, as in these remarks on Futurism: ‘Urbanism (city culture) sits deep in the subconscious of Futurism, and the epithets, the etymology, the syntax and the rhythm of Futurism are only an attempt to give artistic form to the new spirit of the cities which has conquered consciousness.’[42] He did not, however, explicitly link modernism as a general movement with uneven and combined development except in a handful of passing comments. Reporting on the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913 he wrote:

Like all backward countries, Bulgaria is incapable of creating new political and cultural forms through a free struggle of its own inner forces: it is obliged to assimilate the ready-made cultural products that European civilization has developed in the course of history.

However, in addition to referencing technological and political forms, Trotsky then goes on to mention ‘other spheres’: ‘Bulgarian literature lacks traditions, and has not been able to develop its own internal continuity. It has had to subordinate its unfermented content to modern and contemporary forms created under a quite different cultural zenith.’[43] Ten years later, he similarly noted how ‘the backward countries which were without any special degree of spiritual culture, reflected in their ideology the achievements of the advanced countries more brilliantly and strongly’. Eighteenth and nineteenth German philosophy was one example of this, but so too was Futurism, ‘which obtained its most brilliant expression, not in America and not in Germany, but in Italy and Russia’.[44]

UCD and Theories of Modernism

Few discussions of modernism have, however, attempted to explicitly relate it to Trotsky’s concept. One writer who might have been expected to do so was Clement Greenberg, doyen of post-war American art critics and himself a former Trotskyist sympathiser. In a late interview from 1967 Greenberg actually invoked combined development to explain why New York took over from Paris as the world centre of Modernist painting in the 1940s:

…we Americans felt so much further behind the French, or behind Paris, that we tried much harder to catch up – just catch up. Then what Marx called the law of combined development came into operation: the strenuous effort you make to catch up sends you ahead in the end; you don’t just catch up, you overtake.[45]

Marx had no theory of combined development and the process to which Greenberg refers (‘catch up and overtake’) is in any case an example of uneven development. Nevertheless, Greenberg’s rather more cogent earlier writings constitute, along with those of Georg Lukács and Fredrick Jameson, one of the three most important Marxist attempts to periodise and define modernism. Reviewing these in order of their appearance will allow us to see how uneven and combined development offers a more general and comprehensive alternative to them.


For Lukács, modernism is indicative of bourgeois decline. Realism, from Shakespeare and Cervantes onwards, had been the literary tendency most expressive of the bourgeois world view during its prolonged struggle against the feudal nobility and the absolutist state. The realist novel in particular was the form which played that role between the French Revolution in 1789 and the failure of the revolutions of 1848 – 9.

Lukács held consistently to the position that the connection between class position and aesthetic form remains even after the revolutionary phase of bourgeois history is over, but to different effect, for the art of the subsequent period is therefore the obverse of that produced earlier. Lukács is absolutely explicit about the date after which this reversal takes place, writing that ‘the decline of bourgeois ideology set in with the end of the 1848 revolution’.[46] From around that date – and certainly no later than 1871 – the bourgeoisie are said to have abandoned the struggle to reconstruct society in its own image, and settled instead for an alliance with their former aristocratic enemies against a now infinitely more threatening proletariat. In other words, the bourgeoisie had gone from a class challenging for power and anxious to reveal the workings of the society they were in the process of conquering, to one in control, all too aware of the class threatening their position, and as anxious to conceal the reality of this new situation as they had been to confront the old.

The realist novel therefore enters a decline after 1848: ‘The evolution of bourgeois society after 1848 destroyed the subjective conditions which made a great realism possible.’ In the first place, these changes affected the novelists themselves: ‘The old writers were participants in the social struggle and their activities as writers were either part of this struggle or a reflection, an ideological and literary solution, of the great problems of the time.’[47] Dissatisfied with the world which the bourgeoisie had made, but unable to embrace the alternative, the novelists first retreated to reporting the surface of events, to mere naturalism: ‘As writers grew more and more unable to participate in the life of capitalism as their sort of life, they grew less and less capable of producing real plots and action.’[48] Then, in a further declension, came the retreat inwards signalled by the rise of modernism. ‘Modernist literature thus replaces concrete typicality with abstract particularity.’[49] Lukács does allow, however, that this shift did not take place uniformly. In societies which had neither experienced the bourgeois revolution nor completed the transition to capitalism, the conditions still obtained for great realist writing to take place. In particular he refers to the work of Heinrich Ibsen (1828 – 1906) in Norway and, in particular, Leo Tolstoy (1828 – 1910) in Russia, but this could only be a temporary salvation for the form.[50] Lukács thus accounts for some late exceptions in a manner compatible with his general thesis. In the case of others which are clearly associated with the triumphant bourgeois world, however, he simply – and not very convincingly – cites uneven development without any attempt at explanation: ‘Of course we can find many latecomers – especially in literature and art – for whose work this thesis by no means holds good (we need only mention Dickens and Keller, Courbet and Daumier).’[51]

Largely consistent up till this point as a purely historical argument, Lukács now shifts ground and asserts that, far from being tied to a bourgeoisie which no longer has any need for it, realism has the potential instead to become a method appropriate to the cultural politics of the working class. Thus, in one of his contributions to the debates of the 1930s, he wrote that:

Through the mediation of realist literature the soul of the masses is made receptive for an understanding of the great progressive and democratic epochs of human history. This will prepare it for the new type of revolutionary democracy that is represented by the Popular Front… Whereas in the case of the major realists, easier access produces a richly complex yield in human terms, the broad mass of the people can learn nothing from avant – garde literature. Precisely because the latter is devoid of reality and life, it foists on to its readers a narrow and subjectivist attitude to life (analogous to a sectarian point of view in political terms).[52]

Is realism a method destined to decline with the revolutionary potential of the bourgeoisie which gave it birth then, or one which, detached from its origins, still represents a resource for critical artists today? And the contradictions do not stop there. ‘Lukács asserts that realistic literature has been produced by both bourgeois and socialist writers’, notes George Parkinson:

That he should assert this of socialist writers is not surprising, but may seem strange that he should grant the existence of bourgeois realists. We have seen that realism implies a grasp of reality; but in History and Class Consciousness…Lukács argues that the bourgeoisie, by virtue of its very nature as a class, is incapable of grasping a totality, which is something that only the proletariat can achieve.

Does Lukács, as this would suggest, therefore expect realist literature to be produced, if not by proletarians, then by writers who adopt ‘the perspective of the proletariat’, those whose sense of totality is informed by Marxist theory? No. ‘Lukács’ explanation of the existence of bourgeois realism is that some bourgeois writers were capable of grasping a totality after a fashion, though their knowledge of this totality was class – limited and their dialectics were only instinctive.’[53] In fact, the later Lukács goes out of his way to argue that realism can be produced by writers who are neither Marxists nor even socialists. These contradictions flow from the Stalinist political tradition within which Lukács stood during the period when his major works of criticism were written and they shatter the coherence of his historical argument, with which there are nevertheless two serious difficulties.

One is that the definition of realism which Lukács gives is quite specific to literature and this raises the question of the extent to which it can be generalised across the entire spectrum of artistic production. Some ill – considered comments on Schönberg apart, Lukács usually restricted himself to the discussion of writers, yet despite this refusal to engage with disciplines outside his professional specialism, he nevertheless made sweeping general statements about realism and modernism on the basis of literary developments alone.

Now, while it is at least possible to compare Thomas Mann’s novel The Magic Mountain with James Joyce’s novel Ulysses on a formal level; it is not possible to compare The Magic Mountain with Jackson Pollock’s painting Autumn Rhythm. Considerations on the realist novel cannot be the basis of a discussion of modernist art – which includes not only literature, but painting, sculpture, architecture and cinema. A modernist painting can scarcely be expected to fulfil the same function as a realist novel; indeed, a realist painting cannot be expected to fulfil the same function as a realist novel – and in some key modernist disciplines – architecture, for example – there are styles which precede it, but no ‘realist’ school with which comparisons can be made.

Music is perhaps the most obvious example. As Adorno wrote:

If we listen to Beethoven and do not hear anything of the revolutionary bourgeoisie – not the echo of its slogans, the need to realise them, the cry for that totality in which reason and freedom are to have their warrant – we understand Beethoven no better than does the listener who cannot follow his pieces’ purely musical content, the inner history that happens to their themes.[54]

Beethoven’s work is surely as expressive of bourgeois ascendancy as Scott or Balzac, but in what sense can it be described as ‘realist’? In other words, even if we accept for the moment that Lukács makes a coherent case (which is not the same as a convincing case) for the decline of literature after the bourgeois revolution, the very way in which his categories are drawn from literature make that case difficult to extend to other mediums other than by assertion.

The other difficulty with Lukács’s position is summarised in a statement from late in his life: ‘The author of these essays subscribes to Goethe’s observation: “Literature deteriorates only as mankind deteriorates.”‘[55] As Anderson writes: ‘The basic error of Lukács’s optic here is its evolutionism: time, that is, differs from one epoch to another, but within each epoch all sectors of social reality move in synchrony with each other, such that decline at one level must be reflected in descent at every other.’[56] Anderson rightly rejects this, arguing that transformations in culture do not simply occur in lockstep with those of the economic or the political; to imagine that they do is to ignore the distinction between the ‘immediate and mediated effects of the “economic structure” upon the various social institutions’ under capitalism to which Lukács himself had earlier drawn attention.[57] At one point in his later work Lukács still appeared to recognise this, quoting a passage from the Grundrisse in which Marx argues that uneven development means developments in art do not necessarily coincide with those of the economy: ‘In art it is recognised that specific flourishing periods hardly conform to the general development of society, that is, of the material base, the skeleton, so to speak, which produces them.’[58] The point endorsed here by Lukács is perfectly correct, but he ignores what Marx then goes on to say, which is not at all compatible with his general position:

Is the view of nature and of social relations on which Greek imagination and hence Greek [mythology] is based possible with self – acting mule spindles and railways and locomotives and electrical telegraphs? What chance has Vulcan against Roberts and Co., Jupiter against the lightning rod and Hermes against the Credit Mobilier? … From another side: is Achilles possible with powder and lead? Or the Illiad with the printing press, not to mention the printing machine? Do not the song and the saga and the muse necessarily come to an end with the printer’s bar, hence do not the necessary conditions for epic poetry disappear? [59]

There are two aspects to what Marx is saying here, one concerned with form and the other with technology; it is the former which is most relevant to Lukács’ arguments. Marx does indeed reject the idea that art must change in lockstep with socio-economic development, but the disjunction between the two is not infinitely extendable to the point of complete autonomy: some forms of artistic practice are so specific to a particular time that they cannot be practised outside it to any serious effect. As Jameson writes: ‘We cannot…return to aesthetic practices elaborated on the basis of historical situations and dilemmas which are no longer ours.’[60] James Wood points out that one of the functions of the novelist is to explore consciousness, yet there are greater difficulties in doing so today than at the height of the historical novel:

For consciousness and the construction of consciousness has changed, and is changing, rapidly. In fact, the rapidity of that change is one of the new challenges for writers. The reason that historical novels are nowadays almost always failures or of no artistic merit has to do with the speed of change. Tolstoy was able to reach back 60 years to the Napoleonic Wars because he had a confidence that those 60 years had made hardly any difference to the kind of humans he was writing about…[61]

But this is not now the case, and has not been since decades before Tolstoy died. As Henry James wrote to one practitioner of the historical novel over a hundred years ago:

The ‘historical novel’ is, for me, condemned…to a fatal cheapness…You may multiply the little facts that can be got from pictures and documents, relics and prints, as much as you like – the real thing is almost impossible to do, and in its essence the whole effect is as nought: I mean the invention, the representation of the old CONSCIOUSNESS, the soil, the sense, the horizon, the vision of individuals in whose minds half the things that make our, that make the modern world were non-existent. You have to think with your modern apparatus a man, a woman – or rather fifty – whose own thinking was intensely otherwise conditioned, you have to simplify back by an amazing tour de force – and even then its all humbug.[62]

In other words, Lukács is right that the realist novel (as he conceived it, at least) could not survive indefinitely, but not for the reasons he gives.


For Greenberg, unlike Lukács, modernism is not an unmediated expression of bourgeois cowardice and vulgarity, but rather a hostile reaction to these characteristics: ‘It was no accident…that the birth of the avant-garde coincided chronologically – and geographically too – with the first bold development of scientific revolutionary thought in Europe’. Greenberg argues that the revolutionary movements of the time allowed the avant-garde both to ‘isolate their concept of the “bourgeois” in order to define what they were not’ and gave them ‘the courage to assert themselves as aggressively as they did against the prevailing standards of society’. However, although avant-garde artists shared with Marxists a revulsion at the bourgeoisie, this was mainly on aesthetic rather than socio-economic grounds; and they was as much removed from the working class movement it was from the philistinism of the Moneybags. However, while they could remain aloof from the former, they could not entirely escape the latter; having abandoned aristocratic patronage, ‘the avant-garde remained attached to bourgeois society precisely because it needed its money’: ‘No culture can develop without a social basis, without a source of stable income. And in the case of the avant-garde, this was provided by an elite among the ruling class of the society from which it assumed itself to be cut off, but to which it remained attached by an umbilical cord of gold.’[63] This contradictory relationship with the bourgeoisie was unprecedented for an artistic movement, although it was to become the norm as the 19th century went on:

Romanticism was the last great tendency following directly from bourgeois society that was able to inspire and stimulate the profoundly responsible artist – the artist conscious of certain inflexible obligations to the standards of his craft. By 1848, Romanticism had exhausted. After that the impulse, although indeed it had to originate in bourgeois society, could only come in the guise of a denial of that society, as a turning away from it. It was not to be an about – face towards a new society, but an emigration to Bohemia which was to be art’s sanctuary from capitalism. It was to be the task of the avant-garde to perform in opposition to bourgeois society the function of finding new and adequate cultural forms for the expression of that same society, without at the same time succumbing to its ideological divisions and its refusal to permit the arts to be their justification.[64]

Greenberg pointed out that where there is an ‘advance-guard’ there is usually also a ‘rear-guard’. Industrial capitalism sucked the rural masses into the new urban centres of production, obliterating or making irrelevant the folk culture they had known in the countryside. What would replace it? ‘To fill the demand of the new market, a new commodity was devised: ersatz culture, kitsch, destined for those who, insensible to the values of genuine culture, are hungry nevertheless for the diversion that only culture of some sort can provide.’ Kitsch, as Greenberg describes it is ‘mechanical’, formulaic, relies on ‘vicarious experience’ and ‘faked sensations’: ‘Kitsch pretends to demand nothing of its customers except their money – not even their time.’ But there was nevertheless a connection between kitsch and the avant-garde: ‘The precondition for kitsch, a condition without which kitsch would be impossible, is the availability close at hand of a fully matured cultural tradition, whose discoveries, acquisitions, and perfected self-consciousness kitsch can take advantage of for its own ends.’ But there is a central difference: ‘If the avant-garde imitates the processes of art, kitsch…imitates its effects.’[65]

Greenberg insists that only by crossing the divide between aesthetic and political rejection of capitalism – by the mutual embrace of avant-garde and vanguard, if you like – was there any possibility of defending what was of value in culture against the remorseless advance of kitsch.[66]

Timothy Clark has described Greenberg as being an advocate of ‘Eliotic Trotskyism’ in which the defence of the artistic values of the bourgeoisie in the period of its ascendancy are necessary for the continuation of culture as such:

They are the repository, as it were, of affect and intelligence that once inhered in a complex form of life but do so no longer, they are the concrete form of intensity and self – consciousness, the only one left, and therefore the form to be preserved at all costs and somehow kept apart from the surrounding desolation.[67]

Greenberg’s attachment to Trotskyism was however considerably weaker than Lukács’ adherence to Stalinism, and by the late 1940s at the latest the former had abandoned his earlier revolutionary commitments, a shift which did not leave his theory of modernism untouched. From being a defence against appropriation by the bourgeoisie, modernism becomes an internally-generated process of disciplinary self-purification.

The differences from his earlier positions can be seen most clearly in the essay ‘Modernist Painting’ (1960). Greenberg argues that before the Enlightenment, art functioned in a similar way to religion; indeed, it usually functioned as an extension of religion. With the triumph of rationalist consciousness much of religion’s explanatory role was removed and it was reduced to the level of entertainment and, as Greenberg has it, therapy. ‘The arts could save themselves from this levelling down only by demonstrating that the kind of experience they provided was valuable in its own right and not to be obtained by any other kind of activity.’ But the Enlightenment not only posed this problem, it also offered a solution. Beginning with the work of Kant, modernism declared itself as a self-critical tendency in Western culture:

The essence of Modernism lies, as I see it, in the use of characteristic methods of a discipline to criticise the discipline itself, not in order to subvert it but in order to entrench it more firmly in its area of competence. … Realistic, naturalistic art had dissembled the medium, using art to conceal art; Modernism used art to call attention to art. … Whereas one tends to see what is in an Old Master before one sees the picture itself, one sees a Modernist picture as a picture first. … Modernist painting in its latest phase has not abandoned the representation of recognisable objects in principle. What it has abandoned in principle is the representation of the kind of space that recognisable objects can inhabit. … To achieve autonomy, painting has had above all to divest itself of everything it might share with sculpture, and it is in its efforts to do this, and not so much – I repeat – to exclude the representational or literary, that painting has made itself abstract.[68]

Unlike Lukács, Greenberg does not use a single style within a single discipline as a model for all contemporary artistic production, although, as an art critic, he is obviously most concerned with painting. In 1960 he began ‘Modernist Painting’ with a declaration of the universal significance of modernism: ‘Modernism includes more than art and literature. By now it covers almost the whole of what is truly alive in our culture.[69] If Greenberg’s conception of modernism avoids confining it to a particular discipline, he does reduce it to a particular style or approach, and in this, at least, the later Greenberg was consistent with the earlier. In 1944 he had declared that:

Poetry is lyric and ‘pure’; the serious novel has become either confessional or highly abstract, as with Joyce or Stein; architecture subordinates itself to function and the construction engineer; music has abandoned the programme. Let painting confine itself to the disposition pure and simple of colour and line, and not intrigue us by association with things we can experience more authentically elsewhere.[70]

This was the basis of his rejection of Surrealism – it was figurative, and no matter how bizarre the juxtapositions involved in Surrealist painting, it was consequently a literary form.[71]

Is this the sum total of modernism though? Eugene Lunn argues that there were four features of modernism common to all art forms: ‘aesthetic self – consciousness or self – reflexiveness; ‘simultaneity, juxtaposition, or “montage”‘; ‘paradox, ambiguity and uncertainty’; and ‘”dehumanisation” and the demise of the integrated individual personality.’[72] Yet only the first features in the Greenberg’s conception of modernism, here expressed in relation to Joyce: ‘Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake seem to be, above all…the reduction of experience to expression for the sake of expression, the expression mattering more than what is being expressed.’[73] But as George Orwell noted of the first of these novels:

Ulysses could not have been written by someone who was merely dabbling in word – patterns; it is the product of a special vision of life, the vision of a Catholic who has lost his faith. What Joyce is saying is “Here is life without God. Just look at it!” and his technical innovations, important though they are, are primarily to serve this purpose.[74]

More recent commentators like Colin McCabe have suggested that the content of certain chapters in the novel is specifically related to Irish politics: ‘The resonances and allusions of [the Aeolus section] indicate that the paralysis of Irish politics is a result of the illusions about class antagonisms that were fostered by nationalist ideology.’[75]

But even if we accept that one tendency within modernism has indeed been towards what we can refer to in shorthand as ‘abstraction’, there is more than one reason why this should be the case. One might be that artists were attempting to transcend their own historical moment. Boris Groys argues that the avant-garde had set themselves the following questions:

How could art continue under the permanent destruction of cultural tradition and the familiar world that is a characteristic condition of the modern age, with its technological, political and social revolutions? Or, to put it in different terms: How can art resist the destructiveness of progress? How does one make art that will escape permanent change – art that is atemporal, transhistorical?

This was written in relation to the Russian pre-revolutionary Constructivism, but the point is of general application: one way of producing an ‘art for all time’ might be to remove from it any of the recognisable markers of history or contemporaneity.[76] Another reason might be the one that Greenberg himself had given earlier in his career. He was not alone in doing so. In 1931 Walter Benjamin wrote a letter in which he commented on the attitude a committed writer should take to his work, faced with the prospect that it might be used in unintended ways by the class enemy: ‘Should he not…denature them, like ethyl alcohol, and make them definitively and reliably unusable for the counter – revolution at the risk that no one will be able to use them?’[77] Although none of the Abstract Expressionists would have known Benjamin’s name, let alone his work, during the late 1940s, the strategy he outlined was the one which some of them, at least, pursued as the Cold War intensified. Serge Guilbaut writes that:

Rothko tried to purge his art of any sign that could convey a precise image, for fear of being assimilated by society. Still went so far as to refuse at various times to exhibit his paintings publicly because he was afraid critics would deform or obliterate the content embedded in his abstract forms.[78]

In fact, the danger would not come from critics misrepresenting the content of his work but from critics – of whom Greenberg was in the, as it were, advance-guard – misrepresenting his work as having no content. There are two issues here.

The first is the distinction between ‘subject’ and ‘content’. The early Greenberg was aware of the difference: ‘Subject matter as distinguished from content: in the sense that every work of art must have content, but that the subject matter is something the artist does or does not have in mind when he is actually at work.’[79] The later, not so much:

I, who am considered an arch-“formalist”, used to indulge in …talk about “content” myself. If I do not do so any longer it is because it came to me, dismayingly, some years ago that I could always assert the opposite of whatever it was I did say about “content” and not get found out; that I could say almost anything I pleased about “content” and sound plausible.’[80] Now, at one level this is a necessary caution against ‘reading-in.[81]

Because one cannot say just ‘anything’ about content does not mean that there is nothing to say. David Caute once noted the confusion which exists in the minds of some critics (he was thinking particularly of Susan Sontag) with regard to these terms ‘subject’ and ‘content’:

The Anzin miner’s strike of 1884 is the subject of Zola’s novel Germinal; the content of the novel is what emerges through Zola’s literary treatment of the subject. It is not, therefore…a matter of choosing between form and content because every work of art, however ‘abstract’, however formalistic, has a content. Content always refers to the world (material, mental, associative or whatever) outside the work of art mediated and reshaped by artistic form. The fact is grasped once we cease to identify content with the mimetic representation of a subject or theme.[82]

Jameson too has criticised precisely the fallacy ‘that works of art…are conceivable that have no content, and are therefore to be denounced for failing to grapple with the “serious” issues of the day, indeed distracting from them…’ If this is understood, then the supposedly ‘abstract’ aspects of modernism take on a new meaning: ‘Modernism would then not so much be a way of avoiding social content…as rather of managing and containing it, secluding it out of sight in the very form itself, by means of specific techniques of framing and displacement which can be identified with some precision.’[83] Pollock, the doyen of abstract impressionism whose reputation was at least partly constructed by Greenberg, was himself was unambiguous on the question. In an interview in 1950 he said:

It seems to me that the modern painter cannot express his age, the airplane, the atom bomb, the radio, in the old forms of the Renaissance or of any other past culture. Every age finds its own technique…method is, it seems to me, a natural growth out of a need, and from the need the modern artist has of expressing the world about him.[84]

This brings us to the second distinction, between ‘representation’ and ‘resemblance’. In everyday usage ‘represents’ is taken to mean ‘something which stands in for something else’. In Greenberg’s hands, it appears to mean ‘something which resembles something else’. But representation can take place without resemblance. The Art and Language group (i.e. as far as this text is concerned, Michael Baldwin, Charles Harrison and Mel Ramsden) draw precisely this distinction: ‘Those features of a picture according to which we are able… to see it as resembling a person or etc. compromise… the descriptive content of the picture, although these features are in general neither necessary nor sufficient for descriptive or representational content.’ They conclude: ‘We cannot infer realism from resemblance.’[85]

Both aspects of this question were discussed in a brilliant article by Meyer Schapiro, one of Greenberg’s contemporaries and a fellow Trotskyist, in 1937:

The logical opposition of realistic and abstract art…rests on two assumptions about the nature of painting, common in writing on abstract art: that representation is a passive mirroring of things and therefore essentially non – artistic, and that abstract art, on the other hand, is a purely aesthetic activity, unconditioned by objects and based on its own eternal laws…These views are thoroughly one – sided and rest on a mistaken idea of what representation is. There is no passive, ‘photographic’ representation in the sense described. … All renderings of objects, no matter how exact they seem, even photographs, proceed from values, methods and viewpoints which somehow shape the image and often determine its contents. On the other hand there is no ‘pure art’, uncontaminated by experience; all fantasy and formal construction, even the random scribbling of a hand, are shaped by experience and non – aesthetic concerns.[86]


The final conception of modernism is that of Jameson. In his foundational essay on postmodernism, Jameson follows Ernest Mandel in arguing that there have been three stages (‘fundamental moments’) in capitalism: ‘These are market capitalism, the monopoly stage or the stage of imperialism, and our own, wrongly called postindustrial, but what might better be termed multinational, capital.’ As he goes on, ‘my own cultural periodization of the stages of realism, modernism, and postmodernism is both inspired and confirmed by Mandel’s tripartite scheme’.[87] There are in fact differences in the chronologies deployed by Mandel and Jameson; for the purposes of this discussion, however, they are secondary.[88] The key point is that Jameson sees particular periods in the history of capitalism as possessing distinct ‘cultural logics’ and that of modernism is associated with the period which begins after 1848.

He therefore retains the element of periodization characteristic of Lukács, but identifies realism and modernism as ‘cultural logics’ corresponding respectively to the market and imperialist stages in the development of capitalism, rather than indices of totality or fragmentation in the bourgeois world-view. This is free from both the moralism with which Lukács judged modernism and the narrowness with which Greenberg defined it, but is misleading in a different way. Jameson is right, in my view, to associate modernism with a period in capitalist development, but wrong about the nature of that period.

It is remarkable that Jameson and Anderson, his most persistent interlocutor, both recognise that modernism does not emerge from monopoly capitalism as such, but rather from the fusion of the ‘contemporary’ and the ‘archaic’, which it initiates. Yet neither man ever invokes the concept specifically intended to illuminate these juxtapositions. Indeed, Anderson has rarely discussed uneven and combined development at all, except for a very brief reference to Germany, post-Unification, although he has discussed uneven development, but not in the context of modernism.[89] Jameson, as we shall see, tends to refer to uneven development, even when he is discussing uneven and combined development. The latter concept therefore forms a ghostly unacknowledged presence in the background of their more concrete discussions, to which we now turn.

In his early work, Marxism and Form (1971), Jameson noted of Surrealism that the juxtaposed objects which it depicted are ‘places of objective chance or preternatural revelation…immediately identifiable as the products of a not yet fully industrialised and systematized economy’.[90] Although written of one specific school of Modernism, the essential point – that it involved the representation of a world in which old and new co-existed and inter-penetrated each other – was capable of generalisation to the entire field. Over a decade later, in his assessment of Berman’s All That is Solid Melts into Air, Anderson took this step, quoting Jameson on Surrealism but in order to illustrate a much more general argument.[91]

In my view, ‘modernism’ can best be understood as a cultural field of force triangulated by three decisive coordinates. The first…was the codification of a highly formalized academicism in the visual and other arts, which itself was institutionalized within official regimes of states and society still massively pervaded, often dominated, by aristocratic or landowning classes: classes in one sense economically ‘superseded’, no doubt, but in others still setting the political and cultural tone in country after country of pre-First World War Europe. … The second coordinate is then a logical complement of the first: that is, the still incipient, hence essentially novel, emergence within these societies of the key technologies or inventions of the second industrial revolution: telephone, radio, automobile, aircraft and so on. Mass consumption industries based on the new technologies had not yet been implanted anywhere in Europe, where clothing, food and furniture remained overwhelmingly the largest final-goods sectors in employment and turnover down to 1914. The third coordinate of the modernist conjuncture, I would argue, was the imaginative proximity of social revolution.[92]

In summary, Anderson argues that, in Europe at least, modernism ‘arose at the intersection between a semi-aristocratic ruling order, a semi-industrialised capitalist economy, and a semi-emergent or insurgent labour movement.’[93] This was the situation, not only in Russia, but across most of Europe, down to 1945.

In the conclusion to his first collection of essays on postmodernism, Jameson, deployed what he called ‘uneven development’ to reach very similar conclusions to those of Anderson:

…in an age of monopolies (and trade unions), of institutionalized collectivization, there is always a lag. Some parts of the economy are still archaic, handicraft enclaves; some are more modern and futuristic than the future itself. Modern art, in this respect, drew its power and possibilities from being a backwater and an archaic holdover within a modernizing economy: it glorified, celebrated, and dramatized older forms of individual production which the new mode of production was elsewhere on the point of displacing and blotting out.

Jameson then refers to Joyce creating his version of Dublin alone in his rooms in Paris, but the point is clearly intended to be of wider application than literature, or any specific form of artistic production, almost an explanation for modernism itself. ‘Modernism must thus be seen as uniquely corresponding to an uneven moment of social development’ – but here Jameson refers specifically to Bloch and ‘non-synchronicity’ rather than Trotsky and uneven and combined development, before going on to describe ‘the coexistence of realities from radically different moments in history – handicrafts alongside the great cartels, peasant fields with the Krupp factories or the Ford plant in the distance’.[94] It was left to one of Jameson’s admirers, Julian Stallabrass, to draw out the connection with Trotsky’s concept:

Jameson has convincingly argued that the most systematic works are produced in circumstances where, due to combined and uneven development, thinkers are faced with extreme contrasts of scene, as if they lived in an environment where it is easy to step from one historical period to another. Peasants in paddy fields may raise their eyes from their work to glimpse a new neighbour, a high rise postmodern office complex. Such variegated environments, argues Jameson, foster systematic and totalising thinking about historical change.[95]

Modernism as the cultural logic of UCD

Modernism must be seen then, not as a conjunctural moment in the history of capitalism, but as a form of artistic production generated by the triumph of capitalism as the globally dominant socio-economic system. The significance of 1848, in this perspective, is not the failure of the revolutions of that year, but as a marker indicating the when that system became definitively established.

If the argument of this chapter is correct, however, then the form taken by that triumph was precisely the sudden onrush of capitalist modernity into long-established pre-capitalist societies: modernism is not the cultural logic of monopoly capitalism, but of uneven and combined development, which is one of the reasons why countries as politically distinct as Italy and Russia could both manifest such similar versions. Modernism is the way in which the experience of that transformation has been transmitted and understood through culture. In this, modernism would appear not as a set of artistic practices related to the historic decline of the bourgeoisie – or indeed to the fortunes of any particular class – but to the contemporary reality of class society itself; the rhythms of capitalist industrialisation, the stimuli associated with urban life and the patterns of social conflict during the epoch of Classical Imperialism – an epoch which, like modernism itself, apparently climaxed with the Second World War.

Modernism is obviously not an unmediated expression of experience. Lukács argues that the key distinction between realist authors (such as Mann) and their modernist contemporaries (such as Joyce) is the ability of the former to convey the totality of the social world and the inability of the latter to convey anything but the fragmented experience of that world.[96] As Terry Eagleton has pointed out, however, the view that modernist work simply embodies subjective ‘experience’ is untenable: ‘Expressionist and surrealist art, need it be said, are every bit as much constructed as Balzac; we are judging (if we need to) between two different products of ideological labour, not between “experience” and the “real”‘.[97]

I began this section by quoting Trotsky’s views on Futurism. Here, Day shows three different ways in which that branch of modernism was able to translate the experience of capitalist modernity into the forms of art:

First, it can refer to a range of modern motifs (cars, aeroplanes, telephones) or their associated qualities (speed). Second, it can refer to the experiential ‘sensations’ of life in modern cities (experiences of speed and of ‘simultaneity’ across time and space, as new methods of transport and communication make the world seem smaller, or the feeling of exhilaration produced by competing sensations in the city). Third, it might refer to the technical and formal devices used by artists to ‘represent’ any of the above (the fragmentation and fracturing of picture space, the juxtaposition or collaging of different materials/elements as a way of ‘expressing’ sensations of speed or simultaneity).[98]

One final issue remains in this connection: the attitude of modernists to capitalist modernity. ‘Generally it is right to stress that modernism was no simple rejection of modernity; it was rather a reaction, a critical response to it,’ writes Krishan Kumar. As we have already seen, it was possible to critically embrace modernity from diametrically opposed political positions. According to Kumar, for the Futurists and Constructivists, ‘modern society was not modern enough‘: ‘It was ‘inauthentically’ modern. It was too cautious, too cowardly, to accept all the implications of modernity. It preferred to harbour past relics, so preventing the realization of modernity’s full potential.’[99] These attitudes extended beyond the Italian and Russian representatives of modernism: they could be found in Weimar Germany, for example: ‘What Gropius taught, and what most Germans did not want to learn, was the lesson of Bacon and Descartes and the Enlightenment: that one must confront the world and dominate it and that the cure for the ills of modernity is more, and the right kind of modernity.’[100]

Not every modernism embraced modernity and wished to extend it. Modernists in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Ireland – in every sense the most ‘Western’ society in the colonial world – took a quite different perspective. Eagleton describes it as ‘stratified…made up of disparate time scales. Its history was differentiated rather than homogenous, as the anglicised and atavistic existed side by side, and a commercialised agriculture still bore a few quasi-feudal traces.’ This is a by-now-familiar exercise in identifying an example of uneven and combined development without using the actual concept; for, as Eagleton makes clear, the two temporalities of Irish life did not simply co-exist in separate life worlds: ‘…what is afoot in nineteenth-century Ireland, with the cataclysm of the Famine, the agricultural revolution, the sharp decline of the language and the sea changes in popular culture, is the transformation within living memory of a social order in some ways quite traditional, and so a peculiarly shocking collision of the customary and the contemporary.’ The intrusion of capitalist modernity was associated with British colonial power and its local agents, and as a consequence: ‘The modernist sensibility [in Ireland] is not of course synonymous with modernity. On the contrary, it is its sworn enemy, hostile to that stately march of secular reason which was precisely, for many a nineteenth-century Irish nationalist, where a soulless Britain had washed up.’ Modernism in this context was ‘a last ditch resistance to mass commodity culture’.[101] Or to put it in Greenberg’s terms, the struggle between avant-garde and kitsch expressed in terms of nationalist resistance to imperialism.

What this example suggests is that the attitude of modernists to modernity is less to do with left-right oppositions within nation-states, but where these nation-states (actual or aspirant) are situated within the structured inequality of the capitalist system in its imperialist stage. And that, in turn, inevitably leads us to the question of the state.


2.3.      Capitalist States and Bourgeois Hegemony

The applicability of UCD and its challenges

All societies which have undergone the impact of factories and cities have experienced uneven and combined development to some degree, with the important exception of England, which completed the transition to capitalism before these processes began. Why then have they had such different outcomes, above all with respect to their propensity for revolution?

According to David Armstrong, uneven and combined development:

has no real explanatory power when it comes to understanding why some societies experience revolution while others, apparently very similar societies do not; why some quite different societies experience fairly similar revolutions and why some similar societies had rather different revolutionary experiences.[102]

I think the concept can be defended against these challenges. First, Trotsky never claimed that all revolutionary situations were or would be the result of uneven and combined development: the working class insurgencies which convulsed Britain in 1919, France in 1968 and Poland in 1980-1 do not require the concept in order to be understood. Second, even where revolutionary situations were made more likely by the existence of uneven and combined development, it is scarcely the only relevant factor; some decisive trigger event such as wartime defeat (Germany 1918), military coup (Spain 1936), external aggression (Hungary 1956), or economic crisis (Egypt 2011) is usually necessary to detonate the socially combustible material. Whether these situations develop into actual revolutions, and whether these revolutions are subsequently successful is partly dependent on subjective factors – such as the existence and quality of leadership – on both sides. Equally important, however, is the political context in which revolutionary situations arise; in particular, whether the state is pre-capitalist or capitalist or in nature and, if the latter, whether or not the ruling class is capable of exercising hegemony. These questions make reference to another, overlapping discussion in the Classical Marxist tradition unavoidable.

East and West

Between the victory of the Russian Revolution in 1917 and the defeat of the Chinese Revolution in 1927 Trotsky tended to treat the question of permanent revolution as an essentially historical one, relevant only to Russia, which he seems to have considered as sui generis, uniquely situated exactly half-way between West and East, as he explained in this speech from early in the 1920s:

We Russians find ourselves – in terms both of sociology and geography – on the border-line between those countries which possess colonies and those which are themselves colonies. We are a colony in the sense that our largest factories in Petrograd, in Moscow and in the South were obtained by us ready-made from the hands of European and American finance capital which formerly drew off the profits. That a Russian industrial capitalist was merely a third-rate agent of world finance capitalism – this fact tended immediately to invest the struggle of the Russian worker with an international revolutionary character. Russian workers had before their eyes: on the one hand, the combined money-bags of Russia, France, Belgium, etc.; and on the other – the backward peasant masses, entangled in semi-feudal agricultural relations. At one and the same time we thus had in our country both London and India. This, despite all our backwardness, brought us flush up against European and world tasks in their most developed historical forms.[103]

Permanent revolution was unnecessary in the West where the bourgeois revolution had been accomplished and inapplicable in the East where the working class was not yet of sufficient size or militancy to move directly to the socialist revolution; in the East, Lenin’s original formula for Russia, the bourgeois-democratic – now rechristened ‘national-democratic’ – revolution was still relevant. Stalin’s disastrous adherence to this supposedly necessary stage of the revolution in China led Trotsky to generalise the strategy of permanent revolution beyond Russia, but also provoked him into formulating uneven and combined development as an explicit ‘law’, rather than an implicit but untheorized set of conditions which made permanent revolution possible.[104]

Thereafter, he tended to regard countries where some level of capitalist industrialisation had occurred, but which were still subject to pre-capitalist states of one sort or another, as subject to uneven and combined development and consequently as possible sites of permanent revolution. He did not, however, ever consider whether uneven and combined development might also exist in the West, except perhaps as a historical phenomenon long since surpassed; he wrote, for example, of the consequences ‘when the productive forces of the metropolis, of a country of classical capitalism . . . find ingress into more backward countries, like Germany in the first half of the nineteenth century’.[105]

At one level this geographical delimitation was unsurprising. One of the major debates in the Communist International, while it was still a forum for genuine debate (1919-1924), was the extent to which the more advanced countries – above all, Germany – required different strategy and tactics from those which had proved successful in Russia. The initial view of the Bolshevik leadership was that assumptions about the universal applicability of the Russian experience were deeply problematic. Karl Radek, for example, wrote in The Development of the World Revolution and the Tactics of the Communist Parties in the Struggle for the Dictatorship of the Proletariat (1919): ‘The illusion of a quick victory arose from the incorrect interpretation of the lessons of the Russian Revolution, the conditions of which, although within an identical historical framework, were by no means the same as those of the European revolution.’[106] The West was different from Russia in two key respects: on the one hand, it lacked a revolutionary peasantry, but on the other hand it possessed a more confident, experienced bourgeoisie and a far stronger reformist tradition. The conclusions were drawn by Lenin the following year in ‘Left-Wing Communism – an Infantile Disorder’ (1920):

The whole difficulty of the Russian revolution is that it was much easier for the Russian revolutionary working class to start than it was for the West-European classes, but it is much more difficult for us to continue. It is more difficult to start a revolution in West-European countries because there the revolutionary proletariat is opposed by the higher thinking that comes with culture, and the working class is in a state of cultural slavery.[107]

De-differentiation and the Russian Model

However, from around the time Lenin’s article was published, the direction of Bolshevik and Comintern leaderships began to move firmly away from this kind of differentiation towards an ever-greater emphasis on the universal significance of the Russian experience, including, in Lenin’s own work.[108] There seems to have been two reasons for this reversal.

One was the need to counter the twin problems of centrism and ultra-leftism within the Comintern. The former downplayed or the need for a revolutionary strategy on the grounds that Western parliamentary democracy rendered an insurrectionary overthrow of the state unnecessary; the latter tended to reject Bolshevik tactics – above all the united front and participation in parliamentary elections – on opposite grounds, namely that under Western conditions these would simply lead to a strengthening of reformism; both in their different ways started from the differences between the West and Russia, which in turn led the Bolsheviks to minimise them. This was justified in relation to centrist vacillations, but the problem was that the Dutch, German and Italian ‘ultra-left’ had a serious point, however misguided were the political conclusions they drew from it.[109] Here, for example, is Pannekoek:

The German experience brings us face to face with the major problem of the revolution in Western Europe. In these countries, the old bourgeois mode of production and the centuries-old civilisation which has developed with it have completely impressed themselves upon the thoughts and feelings of the popular masses. Hence, the mentality and inner character of the masses here is quite different from that in the countries of the East, who have not experienced the rule of bourgeois culture; and this is what distinguishes the different courses that the revolution has taken in the East and the West.[110]

A second reason for Bolshevik denial of Western difference was the conflation of the issue with another: the universal need for Communist Parties on the Russian model. This was a powerful argument, since the only country to have developed this kind of organisation was also the only one to have achieved a successful revolution, but it did not require pretending that there were no significant differences between Russia and the West. Indeed, in the absence of the socially explosive situation produced by uneven and combined development in Russia, it might have been argued that the revolutionary party is actually more important in the West, not least in developing and maintaining working class consciousness. The point is rather that organisational forms and revolutionary strategies have to be appropriate to the situations in which the former have to operate and the latter have to be advanced.


In any event, even before the consolidation of Stalinism in the late 1920s, there were no longer serious attempt within the ‘official’ Communist movement to argue for different strategy and tactics in the West than in Russia. When the argument did revive, it did so from the inside of the fascist prisons in which Trotsky’s great contemporary, Antonio Gramsci, was incarcerated from late 1926. Gramsci was aware of the similarities between Italy and Russia, as he wrote the year of his arrest: ‘The proletariat has even greater importance in Italy than in other European countries, even of a more advanced capitalist nature: it is comparable only to that which existed in Russia before the Revolution.”[111] Gramsci shifted his position to one which, while not retreating from his estimation of Italian working-class militancy, was instead concerned with explaining why the outcome of the class struggle had been so different from that in Russia – and not only in Italy.

Around the same time that Trotsky was formulating the law of uneven and combined development, Gramsci was criticising the very strategy of permanent revolution which it was designed to explain, in lines which have perhaps become the most famous in the Prison Notebooks, and which summarise his revised position:

In the East, the State was everything, civil society was primordial and gelatinous; in the West, there was a proper relationship between State and civil society, and when the State trembled a sturdy structure of civil society was at once revealed. The State was only an outer ditch, behind which there was a powerful system of fortresses and earthworks: more or less numerous from one State to the next, it goes without saying – but this precisely necessitated an accurate reconnaissance of each individual country.[112]

In his critique of this passage, Anderson accepted the distinction between East and West but argued that it was not in fact the greater strength of civil society which distinguished the West from the East, but nature of the state. According to Anderson, it was Gramsci’s comrade Bordiga – another of the ‘ultra-lefts’ – who more accurately understood ‘the essential twin character of the capitalist state’:

…it was stronger than the Tsarist State, because it rested not only on the consent of the masses, but also on a superior repressive apparatus. In other words, it is not the mere ‘extent’ of the State that defines its location in the structure of power (what Gramsci elsewhere called ‘Statolatry’), but also its efficacy. The repressive apparatus of any modern capitalist State is inherently superior to that of Tsarism, for two reasons. Firstly, because the Western social formations are much more industrially advanced, and this technology is reflected in the apparatus of violence itself. Secondly, because the masses typically consent to this State in the belief that they exercise government over it. It therefore possesses a popular legitimacy of a far more reliable character for the exercise of this repression than did Tsarism in its decline, reflected in the greater discipline and loyalty of its troops and police – juridically the servants, not of an irresponsible autocrat, but of an elected assembly.[113]

As we shall see, Anderson was right to draw attention to the extent of the differences between capitalist and pre-capitalist states (and ‘Tsarism’ can act as a synonym for all the different varieties of the latter) and these have to be incorporated into any discussion of uneven and combined development. He is at least partly wrong, however, about the nature of those differences.[114]


First, capitalist states do indeed have greater repressive powers than their pre-capitalist forerunners or contemporaries. One of Gramsci’s more accurate recent admirers, Ranajit Guha, has pointed to ‘the absurdity of an uncoercive state’.[115] This is not, however, their only distinguishing characteristic. Equally important is their flexibility, which enables them to make gradual structural reforms in ways that pre-capitalist states, of the sort which existed in Trotsky’s lifetime and for several decades after his death, were not; the latter consequently had to be either overthrown by revolution, or destroyed in war. The same type of flexibility is also constitutive of contemporary capitalist states, even those in the Global South or former ‘East’. However backward they may be in many other respects, they have a far greater capacity for absorption and renovation under pressure. Jeff Goodwin’s ‘state-centred’ approach identifies a number of ‘practices’ or ‘characteristics’ which can make the emergence of revolutionary movements or situations less likely. The most relevant to our discussion is ‘political inclusion’, which:

…discourages the sense that the state is unreformable or an instrument of a narrow class or clique and, accordingly, needs to be fundamentally overhauled. … Accordingly, neither liberal populist polities nor authoritarian yet inclusionary (for example) ‘populist’ regimes have generally been challenged by powerful revolutionary movements.[116]

If the states in question need not be ‘democratic’, then this suggests a second difficulty with Anderson’s argument, namely his claim that representative institutions in and of themselves form a second ‘bulwark’ against overthrow. The role of democracy had been emphasised during the debates in the early 1920s. Here, for example, is Paul Levi responding to the idiocies of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD), one of which was to assume a false identity between German and Russian conditions:

Here the proletariat faces a fully developed bourgeoisie, and confronts the political consequences of the development of the bourgeoisie, i.e. democracy, and under democracy, or what is understood as democracy under the rule of the bourgeoisie, the organisational form of the workers takes different forms from the state-form of agricultural feudalism, which is absolutism.[117]

The significance of democracy is, however, not so great as it might first appear.

In fact, if we take bourgeois democracy to involve, at a minimum, a representative government elected by the adult population, where votes have equal weight and can be exercised without intimidation by the state, then it is a relatively recent development in the history of capitalism.[118] Indeed, in the context of his discussion of modernity, Anderson himself noted that down to the close of the Second World War: ‘In no European state was bourgeois democracy completed as a form, or the labour movement integrated or co-opted as a force.’[119] Far from being intrinsic to bourgeois society, representative democracy has largely been introduced by pressure from the working class and extended by pressure from the oppressed. The authors of an important study of the relationship between capitalism and democracy are therefore right to reject any automatic correspondence between the two:

It was not the capitalist market nor capitalists as the new dominant force, but the contradictions of capitalism that advanced the cause of democracy. … The relationship between working-class strength and democracy may be summarised in the following way: a diachronic analysis within each of the Western European countries reveals that the growth of working-class organizational strength led to increased pressure for the introduction of democracy; a synchronic analysis reveals that these pressures led to the development of stable democratic regimes where the working class found allies in other social groups.[120]

It is true that that mass suffrage has not proved as dangerous to capitalism as the bourgeoisie initially feared it would; but recognizing this does not involve accepting the much more sweeping claim that it is the main source of popular legitimacy for the capitalist state. Most capitalist states in the West and the system over which they presided were afforded legitimacy by their working classes before the vote was extended to them. In the case of Britain, the Representation of the People Act which finally introduced suffrage for all men and women over the age of 21 was only passed in 1928, two years before Gramsci composed his note.


The key factor in securing the adherence of the subaltern is surely not democracy, but the concept most closely associated with Gramsci, hegemony, which may include democratic institutions, but not necessarily so. Above all, it is not exercised solely through the state, as Peter Thomas explains:

A class’s hegemonic apparatus is the wide-ranging series of articulated institutions (understood in the broadest sense) and practices – from newspapers to educational organisations to political parties – by means of which a class and its allies engage their opponents in a struggle for political power. This concept traverses the boundaries of the so-called public (pertaining to the state) and the private (civil society), to include all initiatives by which a class concretizes its hegemonic project in an integral sense.[121]

These are some of the mechanisms through which hegemony is maintained; its content need not be wholehearted endorsement of capitalism. As Jeremy Lister notes:

Capitalism is not maintained by a mass popular affirmation or affection for what the system objectively produces for society as a whole; it is maintained by the way it has hitherto marginalised alternatives against it, a “better the devil you know” kind of common sense attitude, which in turn promotes a notion of apathy and disinterestedness in the very possibility of change.

In this context all that capitalism requires to do is maintain a majority of the working class in circumstances which are bearable compared to the imaginable alternatives, and as Lister points out, those for whom it is not bearable, ‘often lack the conceptual and linguistic tools to understand their position in this system, let alone do anything about it.’[122] One reason why an irreplaceable component of capitalist hegemony is nationalism, both as a source of psychic compensation and means of political mobilisation, is to prevent the most oppressed and exploited from acquiring the tools of which Lister writes.[123]

Concluding remarks

The social and cultural experiences produced by uneven and combined development were similar across East and West, albeit to different degrees, but the class adversary and consequently the nature of the state was quite different. Guha once described colonial India as a situation involving ‘dominance without hegemony’, but this could be found throughout the East.[124]

In a sense, it is where uneven and combined development is present but hegemony is absent that the conditions for permanent revolution arose.

To conclude: there is no necessary connection between uneven and combined development and permanent revolution, as the former existed throughout much of the West, outside of North-Western Europe, even into the era of the Russian Revolution.


[1] Perry Anderson [1985], ‘Postscript to “Modernity and Revolution”‘, in A Zone of Engagement (London: Verso, 1992), p. 47. Anderson oscillates between two positions. The remarks quoted here are from the ‘Postscript’ to his review essay, ‘Modernity and Revolution’, but there it is modernism rather than modernity which is denounced as ‘a portmanteau concept whose only referent is the blank passage of time itself’. See Perry Anderson, ‘Modernity and Revolution’, New Left Review I/144 (March-April 1984), p. 113.

[2] Jack Goody, Capitalism and Modernity: The Great Debate (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2004), p. 6.

[3] Krishan Kumar, From Post-Industrial to Post-Modern Society: New Theories of the Contemporary World. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1995), pp. 67-75; Peter Osborne, The Politics of Time: Modernity and the Avant-Garde (London: Verso, 1995, pp. 9-13.

[4] Charles Baudelaire [1863], ‘The Painter of Modern Life’, in The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays, edited by Jonathan Mayne (London: Phaidon Press, 1964), p. 13.

[5] Boris Groys, ‘Modernity and Contemporaneity: Mechanical vs. Digital Reproduction’, in In the Flow. (London: Verso, 2016), p. 137.

[6] Osborne, The Politics of Time, pp. 199-200.

[7] Fredric Jameson, A Singular Modernity: An Essay on the Ontology of the Present (London: Verso, 2002), pp. 13, 215.

[8] Derek Sayer, Capitalism and Modernity: An Excursus on Marx and Weber (London: Routledge, 1991), p. 24.

[9] It is of course possible to argue, as Ellen Wood does, that modernity – which she narrowly identifies with Weberian ‘rationality’ – had no necessary connection with capitalism at all. Wood argues that this form of rationality could not be detected in seventeenth-century English countryside, where capitalist social property relations prevailed, but could be found in eighteenth-century urban France under the absolutist regime, which leads Wood to further conclude that the Enlightenment itself had no connection with capitalism – like apparently everything else in history not immediately reducible to ‘capitalist social property relations’. See Ellen Meiksins Wood [1999], The Origin of Capitalism: A Longer View (London: Verso, 2002), p. 187. For a critique, see Neil Davidson [2006], ‘Enlightenment and Anti-Capitalism’, in Nation-States: Consciousness and Competition (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2016), pp. 129-141 and How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions? (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2012), pp. 589-594.

[10] Jameson, A Singular Modernity, p. 11. Here Jameson is partly endorsing the description of modernity as ‘unfinished’ given in Jürgen Habermas [1981], ‘Modernity – an Incomplete Project’, in Postmodern Culture, edited by Hal Foster (London: Pluto Press, 1985), p. 5.

[11] Anderson, ‘Postscript to “Modernity and Revolution”‘, p. 55. Note, as an example of the inconsistency to which I have already referred, that this argument assumes modernity is a historical phenomenon. For a more recent ‘accelerationist’ argument for ‘socialist modernity’, see Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World without Work. (London: Verso, 2015), pp. 69-83, 178-181.

[12] David Frisby, Fragments of Modernity: Theories of Modernity in the Work of Simmel, Kracuer and Benjamin (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1985), p. 27.

[13] Marshall Berman, All that is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity (London: Verso, 1983), pp. 19-20. The identification of Marx as a modernist was more common in continental Europe than the USA before Berman’s seminal work appeared, although still relatively rare. But see Henri Lefebvre [1962], Introduction to Modernity: Twelve Preludes, September 1959-May 1961 (London: Verso, 1995), pp. 169-175, 231-238, which also invokes the same speech by Marx. See Karl Marx [1855], ‘Speech at the Anniversary of the People’s Paper‘, in Surveys from Exile, vol. 2 of Political Writings, edited David Fernbach (Harmondsworth: Penguin/New Left Review, 1974).

[14] See, for example, Aric McBay, Derrick Jensen and Lierre Keith, Deep Green Resistance: Strategy to Save the Planet (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2011), p. 439 and John Zerzan [1993], ‘Postscript to Future Primitive re the Transition’, in Running on Emptiness: The Pathology of Civilization (Los Angeles: Feral House, 2002), p. 117.

[15] Shmuel N. Eisenstadt, ‘Multiple Modernities’, Daedalus 129 (Winter 2000), p. 11.

[16] Michael Löwy, ‘The Revolution is the Emergency Brake: Walter Benjamin’s Political-Ecological Currency’, in On Changing the World: Essays in Political Philosophy, from Karl Marx to Walter Benjamin (Second expanded edition, Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2013), pp. 186-189.

[17] Wood, The Origin of Capitalism, p. 96 and pp. 94-105 more generally. Central to this conception of capitalism is the notion of ‘market dependence’ (or even ‘market compulsion’) and the claim that this only emerged as the result of a purely internal process in England, and even there only in the countryside. I have discussed the problems with this approach elsewhere (Davidson, How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions?, chapter 17), but one point needs to be made here. This definition is an ‘ideal type’, not one which has actually existed in pure form anywhere – a point which Robert Brenner, the founder of this school, has himself made: ‘I do not contend that such economies ever existed in pure form, though rough approximations can be found in seventeenth-century England and seventeenth-century northern Netherlands.’ See Robert Brenner, ‘Competition and Class: A Reply to Foster and McNally’, Monthly Review, vol.  51, no. 7 (December 1999), p. 44.

[18] Karl Marx [1867], Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, vol. 1 (Harmondsworth: Penguin/New Left Review, 1976, p. 1021 and pp. 1019-1038 more generally.

[19] Peter Vries, Via Peking to Manchester: Britain, the Industrial Revolution, and China (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 2003), p. 4.

[20] Kenneth Pomeranz, The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern world Economy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), p. 107.

[21] Eric J. Hobsbawm, The Age of Empire, 1975-1914 (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1987), p. 15.

[22] Justin Rosenberg, ‘International Relations – the “Higher Bullshit”: A Reply to the Globalization Theory Debate’, International Politics, vol. 44, no. 4 (2007), pp. 44-45.

[23] Jack Goldstone, ‘Capitalist Origins, the Advent of Modernity, and Coherent Explanation: A Response to Joseph M. Bryant’, Canadian Journal of Sociology, vol. 33, no. 1 (2008), pp. 125-126.

[24] Kumar, From Post-Industrial to Post-Modern Society, pp. 82-83.

[25] Ronald Max Hartwell, The Industrial Revolution and Economic Growth (London: Methuen, 1971), p. 57.

[26] Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer, “The ‘Anthropocene'”, International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP) Global Change Newsletter 41 (May 2000); see also Christophe Bonneuil and Jean Baptiste Fressoz, The Shock of the Anthropocene: The Earth, History and Us (London: Verso, 2016), p3, p. 50 and Robert Macfarlane ‘What have we done?’ The Guardian (2 April 2016). The Anthropocene has itself subdivided into three stages, respectively beginning around 1750, 1945 and 2000, for which see Bonneuil and Fressoz, The Shock of the Anthropocene, pp. 50-53.

[27] Jürgen Osterhammel [2009], The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the Nineteenth Century (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2014), pp. 149-50.

[28] Scott Lash, Sociology of Postmodernism (London: Routledge, 1990), p. 207.

[29] Frisby, Fragments of Modernity, p. 177 and pp. 165-177 more generally.

[30] Berman, All That is Solid Melts into Air, pp. 17-18; Wood, The Origin of Capitalism, p. 187.

[31] Lash, Sociology of Postmodernism, p. 207.

[32] Frederick Engels [1845], The Condition of the Working-Class in England: From Personal Observations and Authentic Sources, in Collected Works, vol. 4 (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1975), p. 329.

[33] James Thompson [1874], The City of Dreadful Night (Edinburgh: Canongate Press, 1993), p 30, lines 36-37; p. 31, lines 71-77.

[34] George Simmel [1903], ‘The Metropolis and Mental Life’, in On Individuality and Social Forms, edited by Donald N. Levine (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971), p. 325.

[35] Warwick Research Collective, ‘World Literature in the Context of Uneven and Combined Development’, in Combined and Uneven Development: Towards a New Theory of World Literature (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2015), p. 6.

[36] Gareth Williams, The Other Side of the Popular: Neoliberalism and Subalternity (Durham NC: Duke University Press, 2002), p. 155. Anyone looking examples of bad writing with which to update George Orwell’s discussion of the subject should start with this quotation. For his original examples, see [1946]. ‘Politics and the English Language’, in The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, vol. 4, In Front of Your Nose, 1945-1950, edited by Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1970), pp. 157-158.

[37] For examples dating back to the fifth millennium BCE, see Jerry H. Bentley, ‘Cross-Cultural Interaction and Periodization in World History’, American Historical Review, vol. 101, no. 3 (June1996).

[38] Eric R. Wolf, Europe and the Peoples without History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982, p. 71. It is only fair to note that Rosenberg draws on this and other passages from Wolf to support his case for a transhistoric interpretation of uneven and combined development; but although the latter is here surveying the world around 1400 CE, the type of social interpenetration he describes can be found much further back in history. If every type of human group interaction can be encompassed by the notion of uneven and combined development, however, then the term is virtually co-extensive with history itself, at which point it has lost any analytic specificity. See Justin Rosenberg, ‘Why is there no International Historical Sociology?’, European Journal of International Relations, vol. 12, no. 3 (September 2006), pp. 314-316.

[39] Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism (London: Chatto and Windus, 1993), p. xxix.

[40] Peter Wollen, Raiding the Icebox: Reflections on Twentieth-Century Culture (London: Verso, 1993), p. 209.

[41] Leanhard Emmerling, Pollock (Los Angeles: Taschen, 2007), pp. 14, 18-22; Steven Naifeh and Gregory Smith, Jackson Pollock: An American Saga (New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1989), pp. 285-289; pp. 298-302; pp. 337-338; Kirk Varnedoe with Pepe Karmel, Jackson Pollock (London: Tate Gallery Publishing, 1998), pp. 25-27, 32-33.

[42] Leon D. Trotsky [1923], Literature and Revolution (London: Bookmarks, 1991), p. 195.

[43] Leon D. Trotsky [1912], ‘In a Backward Country’, in The Balkan Wars, 1912-13: The War Correspondence of Leon Trotsky (New York: Monad Press, 1980), p. 49.

[44] Trotsky, Literature and Revolution, p. 158.

[45] Clement Greenberg [1967], ‘Interview Conducted with Lily Leino’, in The Collected Essays and Criticism, vol. 4, Modernism with a Vengeance, 1957-1969, edited by John O’Brian (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), p. 304.

[46] György Lukács [1952], The Destruction of Reason (London: Merlin Press, 1980), p. 309.

[47] György Lukács [1950], Studies in European Realism: A Sociological Survey of the Writings of Balzac, Stendhal, Zola, Tolstoy, Gorki and Others (London: Merlin Press, 19720, p. 140.

[48] Ibid, p. 169.

[49] Ibid, p. 43.

[50] Ibid, pp. 134-137.

[51] Lukács, The Destruction of Reason, p. 309.

[52] György Lukács [1938], ‘Realism in the Balance’, in Aesthetics and Politics: Debates between Bloch, Lukács, Brecht, Benjamin and Adorno (London: New Left Books, 1977), pp. 56-57.

[53] George Parkinson, Georg Lukács (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1977), p. 89.

[54] Theodor W. Adorno [1962], Introduction to the Sociology of Music (New York: Seabury, 1976), p. 62.

[55] György Lukács [1965/1970], ‘Preface’, in Writer and Critic and Other Essays, edited by Arthur Kahn (London: Merlin Press, 1970), p. 9.

[56] Anderson, ‘Modernity and Revolution’, p. 103.

[57] György Lukács [1923], ‘The Changing Function of Historical Materialism’, in History and Class Consciousness: Essays in Marxist Dialectics (London: Merlin Press, 1971), p. 235.

[58] György Lukács, ‘Marx and Engels on Aesthetics’, in Writer and Critic and Other Essays, p. 67.

[59] Karl Marx [1857-8], Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy (Rough Draft) (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books/New Left Review, 1973), pp. 110-111. The passage quoted by Lukács above comes from an earlier and inferior translation.

[60] Fredric Jameson [1984], ‘The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism’, in Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (London: Verso, 1991), p. 50.

[61] James Wood, ‘Life Just Isn’t Like That’, The Guardian (8 January 2000.

[62] Henry James [1905], James to Sarah Orne Hewlett, October 5, 1905, in Henry James Letters, vol. 4, 1895-1916 edited by Leon Edel (London: Macmillan, 1984), p. 208.

[63] Clement Greenberg [1939], ‘Avant Garde and Kitsch’, in Collected Essays and Criticism, vol. 1, Perceptions and Judgements, 1939-1944, edited by John O’Brian (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,1986), pp. 7, 10-11.

[64] Clement Greenberg [1940], ‘Towards a Newer Laocoon’, in Collected Essays and Criticism, vol. 1, p. 28.

[65] Greenberg, ‘Avant Garde and Kitsch’, pp. 12, 17.

[66] For anticipations of this position, see Walter Benjamin [1938], ‘The Paris of the Second Empire in Baudalaire’, in Selected Writings, vol. 4, 1938 – 1940, edited by Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006), pp. 64-66. A similar account of the origins of the modern artist outlined by Greenberg was given, nearly 50 years later, by Raymond Williams, without reference of the earlier thinker. Given the academic specialisation which means that literary critics are unlikely to be acquainted with the work of art critics, this was probably not plagiarism on the part of the latter, but it is indicative of how little Greenberg’s work has been absorbed into the intellectual culture of the Left. See Raymond Williams [1987], ‘When was Modernism?’ In The Politics of Modernism: Against the New Conformists, edited by Tony Pinkney (London: Verso, 1989).

[67] Timothy J. Clark [1982], ‘Clement Greenberg’s Theory of Art’, in Pollock and After: the Critical Debate, edited by Francis Frascina (London: Harper and Row, 1985), p. 54. See also p. 50.

[68] Clement Greenberg [1960], ‘Modernist Painting’, in in The Collected Essays and Criticism, vol. 4, pp. 85-88.

[69] Ibid, p. 85.

[70] Clement Greenberg [1944], ‘Abstract Art’, in Collected Essays and Criticism, vol. 1, p. 203.

[71] Clement Greenberg [1944], ‘Surrealist Painting’, in Collected Essays and Criticism, vol. 1.

[72] Eugene Lunn, Marxism and Modernism: An Historical Study of Lukacs, Brecht, Benjamin, and Adorno (London: Verso, 1982), p. 39 and pp. 34-42 more generally. As Alex Callinicos points out, the characteristics identified by Lunn as constitutive of modernism have subsequently been ascribed to postmodernism by figures like Charles Jenks, which one of many reasons why the existence of the latter as a distinct set of artistic practices should be in doubt. See Alex Callinicos, Against Postmodernism: A Marxist Critique (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1989), pp. 12-14. On the specific question of how the modernist device of Collage has been wrongly claimed for postmodernism, see Brandon Taylor, Modernism, Post-Modernism, Realism: A Critical Perspective for Art (Winchester: Winchester School of Art Press, 1987), pp. 53-65

[73] Greenberg, ‘Avant Garde and Kitsch’, p. 10.

[74] George Orwell [1940], ‘Inside the Whale’, in The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, vol. 1, An Age Like This, 1920-1940, edited by Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books 1970), p. 557.

[75] Colin McCabe James Joyce and the Revolution of the Word (Houndmills: Macmillan 1978), p. 140.

[76] Boris Groys, ‘Becoming Revolutionary: On Kazimir Malevech’, in In the Flow, p. 65.

[77] Benjamin to Scholem, April 17, 1931, in Gershom Scholem, Walter Benjamin: The Story of a Friendship (London: Faber and Faber, 1982), pp. 232-233.

[78] Serge Guilbaut 1980], ‘The New Adventures of the Avant-Garde in America: Greenberg, Pollock, or from Trotskyism to the New Liberalism of the ‘Vital Centre”’, in Pollock and After, p. 160.

[79] Greenberg, ‘Towards a Newer Laocoon’, p. 28.

[80] Clement Greenberg, ‘Complaints of an Art Critic’, in The Collected Essays and Criticism, vol. 4, p. 270.

[81] Orwell too noted the same tendency among literary critics to use words which were ‘almost completely lacking in meaning’: ‘When one critic writes, “The outstanding features of Mr X’s work is its living quality”, while another writes, “The immediately striking thing about Mr X’s work is its peculiar deadness”, the reader accepts this as a simple difference of opinion. If words like black and white were involved, instead of the jargon words dead and living, he would see at once that language was being used in an improper way.’ See Orwell, ‘Politics and the English Language’, pp. 161-162.

[82] David Caute, The Illusion:  An Essay on Politics, Theatre and the Novel (London: Harper and Row, 1971), p. 151.

[83] Fredric Jameson, ‘Reflections in Conclusion’, in Aesthetics and Politics, pp. 201-202.

[84] Jackson Pollock 1950], ‘Interview with William Wright’, in  Art in Theory, 1900-1990, edited by Paul Wood and Charles Harrison (Oxford: Blackwell, 1992), pp. 575-576.

[85] Art and Language [1980], ‘Portrait of V. I. Lenin’, in Modernism, Criticism, Realism, edited by Charles Harrison and Fred Orton (London: Harper and Row, 1984), pp. 148, 167. The title of this essay is reference to the series of paintings by Art and Language called ‘Portraits of V. I. Lenin in the Style of Jackson Pollock’.

[86] Meyer Shapiro [1937], ‘Abstract Art I: The Nature of Abstract Art’, in Modern Art: 19th and 20th Centuries (London: Chatto and Windus, 1978), pp. 195-196.

[87] Jameson, ‘The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism’, pp. 35-36.

[88] Jameson misrepresents Mandel in two respects. First, the latter identifies four periods in the history of capitalism, down to the early 1970s, not three, each characterised by different forms of technology, in which the stage of ‘market capitalism’ is preceded by an earlier one extending from ‘the end of the 18th century up to the crisis of 1847′. See Ernest Mandel [1972], Late Capitalism (London: Verso, 1975), pp. 120-121. Second, where Jameson sees the period of multinational capital and postmodernism continuing from the post-war period until the present, Mandel regarded that period as definitively ending with the crisis which opened in 1973-4, a point with which I am in agreement. This difference in periodization is highlighted in Mike Davis, ‘Urban Renaissance and the Spirit of Postmodernism’, New Left Review I/151 (May/June 1985), pp. 107-108.

[89] Perry Anderson, Lineages of the Absolutist State (London: New Left Books, 1974), pp.236, 276; Perry Anderson, ‘Brief Remarks on the Notion of “Uneven Development”‘, in Criteria and Indicators of Backwardness: Essays on Uneven Development in European History, edited by Miroslav Hroch and Luďa Klusáková (Prague: Variant Editors for Faculty of Arts, Charles University, 1996).

[90] Fredric Jameson, Marxism and Form: Twentieth Century Dialectical Theories of Literature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971), p. 103.

[91] Anderson, ‘Modernity and Revolution’, pp. 106-107.

[92] Ibid, p. 104.

[93] Ibid, p. 105.

[94] Fredric Jameson, ‘Secondary Elaboration’, in Postmodernism, p. 307.

[95] Julian Stallabrass, Art Incorporated: The Story of Contemporary Art (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 71.

[96] See, for example, Lukács, ‘Realism in the Balance’, pp. 33-36.

[97] Terry Eagleton, Walter Benjamin, or Towards a Revolutionary Criticism (London: Verso, 1981), p. 88.

[98] Gail Day, ‘The Futurists: Transcontinental Avant-Gardism’, in The Challenge of the Avant-Garde, edited by Paul Wood (New Haven: Yale University Press in association with The Open University, 1999, p. 206.

[99] Kumar, From Post-Industrial to Post-Modern Society, p. 98.

[100] Peter Gay, Weimar Culture: The Outsider as Insider (New York: Harper and Row, 1968), p. 101.

[101] Terry Eagleton, Heathcliff and the Great Hunger (London: Verso, 1995), pp. 278-280.

[102] David Armstrong, ‘On Revolutionary Chickens and International Eggs’, Review of International Studies, vol. 27, no. 4 (October 2001), p. 671.

[103] Leon D. Trotsky [1920], ‘On the Policy of the KAPD: Speech Delivered at the Session of the ECCI, November 24, 1920’, in The First Five Years of the Communist International, vol. 1 (London: New Park Publications, 1973), p. 176.

[104] Davidson, How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions?, pp. 242-247, 284-308.

[105] Leon D. Trotsky [1924], ‘For the Internationalist Perspective’, in Leon Trotsky Speaks (New York: Pathfinder Books, 1972), p. 199.

[106] Pierre Broué [1971], The German Revolution, 1917-1923, edited by Ian Birchall and Brian Pearce (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 2005, pp. 308-309 and pp. 307-313 more generally.

[107] Vladimir I. Lenin [1918], ‘Fourth Conference of Trade Unions and Factory Committees of Moscow: Report on the Current Situation, June 27, 1918’, in Collected Works, vol. 27, February-July 1918 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1965), p. 464.

[108] Neil Harding [1977/1981], Lenin’s Political Thought: Theory and Practice in the Democratic and Socialist Revolutions, vol. 2 (Houndmills: Macmillan, 1983), pp. 235-243.

[109] From 1920 Bolshevik leaders often responded to ultra-left arguments by making fundamentally dishonest debating points that refused to accept even those aspects of their opponent’s case which were accurate, such as the implications of a non-revolutionary peasantry – a point which, as we have seen, Radek had acknowledged only a short time before. Trotsky himself responded to Gorter by arguing that the British revolution would involve a peasant uprising – not in Britain itself, but in India. To say the least, this is not one of Trotsky’s finest polemical interventions: the point is correct, but irrelevant, since it was the social role of the peasantry within the imperialist countries which was at stake, not that of the oppressed peasantry in their overseas territories. See Hermann Gorter [1920], “Open Letter to Comrade Lenin: an Answer to Lenin’s Pamphlet, ‘Left-wing Communism: an Infantile Disorder’,” in International Communism in the Era of Lenin: a Documentary History, edited by Helmut Gruber (New York: Anchor Books, 1972), p. 223 and Trotsky, ‘On the Policy of the KAPD, p. 176.

[110] Anton Pannekoek [1920], ‘World Revolution and Communist Tactics’, in Pannekoek and Gorter’s Marxism, edited by D. A. Smart (London: Pluto Press, 1978, p. 103.

[111] Antonio Gramsci and Palmiro Togliatti [1926], ‘The Italian Situation and the Tasks of the PCI (“Lyons Theses”)’, in Selections from Political Writings, edited by Quintin Hoare (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1978), p. 345.

[112] Antonio Gramsci [1929-35], Selections from the Prison Notebooks, edited by Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1971), p. 238, Q7§16.

[113] Perry Anderson, ‘The Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci’, New Left Review II/100 (November-January 1976-7), p. 55.

[114] Peter Thomas has in any case argued that Gramsci’s position was more complex than Anderson suggests, in that his emphasis on the dominance of the state in the East was not intended to suggest strength but rather vulnerability, in the absence of a fully functioning civil society. More importantly, in his actual concrete analysis of Western societies, Gramsci was perfectly aware that they were by not uniform in the extent to which civil society had developed and – a more unusual point to make at the time – that the more advanced constituted a ‘hegemonic centre’ which produced ‘the peripheral zones’: ‘West and East are comparable, just as variations in the West itself, because both participate in the dynamic of an expansive political and economic order that is fundamentally and essentially internationalist in character.’ See Peter Thomas, The Gramscian Moment: Philosophy, Hegemony and Marxism (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 2009), pp. 200-203.

[115] Ranajit Guha, Dominance without Hegemony: History and Power in Colonial India (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1997), p. 23.

[116] Jeff Goodwin, No Other Way Out: States and Revolutionary Movements, 1945-1991 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), pp. 44, 46-47.

[117] Paul Levi [1921], ‘What is the Crime: the March Action or Criticising it? Speech at the Session of the Central Committee of the German Communist Party on 4 May 1921’, in In the Steps of Rosa Luxemburg: Selected Writings of Paul Levi, edited by David Fernbach (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 2011), p. 182.

[118] Goran Therborn ‘The Rule of Capital and the Rise of Democracy’, New Left Review I/103 (May-June 1977), pp. 4, 17.

[119] Anderson, ‘Modernity and Revolution’, p. 105.

[120] Dietrich Rueschemeyer, Evelyne Huber Stephens and John D. Stephens, Capitalist Development and Democracy (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1992), pp. 7, 142-143.

[121] Thomas, The Gramscian Moment, p. 226. Although Thomas writes ‘a class’ throughout this passage, what he describes here is only comprehensible as the modus operandi of a single class: the bourgeoisie.

[122] Jeremy Lester, Dialogue of Negation: Debates on Hegemony in Russia and the West. (London: Pluto Press, 2000), p. 72; see also Kate Crehan, Gramsci’s Common Sense: Inequality and its Narratives (Durham NC: Duke University Press, 2016), p. 60.

[123] Neil Davidson [2000], ‘From National Consciousness to Nation-States, in Nation-States, pp. 67-76 and [2009/2010/2012], ‘The Necessity of Nation-States for Capital’, in ibid, pp. 235-243, 250-257.

[124] Guha Dominance without Hegemony; see also Giovanni Arrighi, Adam Smith in Beijing: Lineages of the Twenty-First Century (London: Verso, 2007), pp. 150-151, 175-210.




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