revolutionary reflections | Value, force, many states and other problems: part 3

In the third and final part of his essay on violence and capitalist social relations, Colin Barker insists that capitalist states cannot be theorised without recognising their multiplicity.

Albrecht Dürer, Knight, Death and the Devil (1513).

This posting forms the second instalment of a three-part article that remained in a draft form at the time of Colin Barker’s death, though it was his wish to share it in its current form, in the hope of stimulating further debate and to encourage others to take up the baton. See the first part here and the second part here

The full essay can be downloaded in PDF, MOBI and EPUB formats.

Many states


What, then, of force and states under capitalism? With respect to our earlier discussion, the first point to note is that under these circumstances, the pressure to transgress the property rights of others gains a new urgency and ferocity. If the development of capitalism involves the generalization of commodity production and exchange, it also involves the generalization of endless violent attempts to breach the legal limits of the commodity, to break down and remake the property fences and their associated ‘rights’. It might have seemed in the 19th century that capitalism and violence were somehow opposed, that the spread of the world market and the principles of commodity production and exchange might somehow ‘soften’ and ‘pacify’ social interactions. Today, we know otherwise.

It’s not clear, however, that this is adequately registered in a good deal of Marxist theorizing. There is, I suggest, a core reason for this, itself rooted in a problem in Marx’s own thinking about ‘states’. In earlier work, I drew attention to this problem in Marx, [1] which has been too often replicated in later theorizing.[2] It has come to be known as the ‘many states’ question.

From the early 1970s, especially in Germany, various groups of Marxist theorists attempted to ‘derive’ a theory of the state from Marx’s Capital.[3] Despite the considerable interest of much of this work, it suffered from a major weakness: the writers often did not even seem to notice, and mostly did not attempt to theorize, a fundamental feature of the modern state: its multiplicity.[4] Or, they added it on as an after-thought, untheorized in relation to their preceding arguments. They attempted to derive the characteristics of ‘the state’ as if it existed in the singular, and not as part of a system of inter-related states, whose external relations with each other were essential to their definition and their form. They focused on the state as a form of domination over society, a form of class rule, but not on the state’s other face, its existence simultaneously as an agency of conflict and competition with other states.

Going beyond Marx

One problem was that the theorists never attempted to go beyond Marx by exploring the limits of Marx’s own work. Consideration of two passages in Marx may help to elucidate the issue.

First, in the ‘Preface’ to Capital, volume 1, Marx warned German readers thinking their country would be immune to the developments he identified in English capitalist production:

What I have to examine in this work is the capitalist mode of production, and the relations of production and forms of intercourse that correspond to it. Until now, their locus classicus has been England. This is the reason why England is used as the main illustration of the theoretical developments I make. If, however, the German reader pharisaically shrugs his shoulders at the condition of the English industrial and agricultural workers, or optimistically comforts himself with the thought that in Germany things are not nearly so bad, I must plainly tell him: De te fabula narratur!

Intrinsically, it is not a question of the higher or lower degree of development of the social antagonisms that spring from the natural laws of capitalist production. It is a question of these laws themselves, of these tendencies winning their way through and working themselves out with iron necessity. The country that is more developed industrially only shows, to the less developed, the image of its own future.[5]

Capitalist development since 1867 suggests the problematical character of these remarks. Of course, at one level, Marx is immensely insightful. Many of the processes he analyzes in England can also be seen at work in a whole variety of other countries in the later nineteenth and in the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, often in even more dramatic and fateful form: forcible destruction of peasantries and expansion of a proletariat through ‘original accumulation’; subordination of more and more aspects of life to the necessities of competitive capital accumulation; centralization and concentration of capital; and so on. Likewise, the conceptual distinctions developed – for example, those between absolute and relative surplus-value production, or between the formal and the real subordination of labour – prove immensely fruitful in a whole variety of national and historical circumstances. Yet, that said, the implicit unilinearity of social development that can be read into what Marx says is gravely misleading. If England was the ‘locus classicus’ of development, it certainly did not provide a ‘model’ for development elsewhere. Rather, the English pattern of capitalist development needs to be seen as particular and ‘peculiar’, shaped not least by the very fact that England was the ‘first’ to develop capitalist production. The differences with English development are quite as important as the similarities in understanding capitalist development in other parts of the world.[6] But this was often not grasped by Marx’s followers.[7]

In the second passage, from Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Programme, Marx comments on the merely national form of the modern state:

The ‘present society’ is capitalist society, which exists in all civilized countries, freed in varying degrees from the admixture of medievalism, modified in varying degrees by the particular historical development of each country, and developed to a varying degree. In contrast to this, the ‘present state’ changes with each country’s border. It differs between the Prusso-German empire and Switzerland, between England and the United States. ‘The present state’ is thus a fiction.

Nevertheless, the various states of the various civilized countries, despite their motley diversity of form, do have this in common: they all stand on the ground of modern bourgeois society although the degree of capitalist development varies. They thus also share certain essential characteristics. In this sense one can speak of ‘present states’ in contrast to the future when their present root, bourgeois society, will have died off.[8]

What makes modern states similar, Marx suggests, is that all these different states stand on the ground of modern bourgeois society. But what he does not bring out is that they stand in some kind of relations to each other on that common ground. The differences between them appear as mere accidents of history, and not as aspects of their mutual connectedness.

In summary, Marx never seems to offer an account of the system of states in the modern period, and certainly not in any form that is adequately theorised. There are several reasons that might be adduced for this gap in his work.

First, and as already noted, his own theoretical project was massively unfinished. Had he developed a theorization of such matters as the State, International Trade or the World Market and Crises (the provisional titles for his projected continuations of Capital), he might well have been forced to deal with the question systematically.[9]

Second, perhaps Marx did not get beyond the limits of the questions asked about ‘the state’ within classical political economy. There was a political reason for this. Much of Marx’s political argumentation was focused on a specific question, namely the limits of pure political revolutions. It is that question which unites his early Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, On the Jewish Question, The King of Prussia and Social Reform, and the Communist Manifesto with the later Civil War in France and Critique of the Gotha Programme. Much less central to his thinking are questions about the limits of merely ‘national’ revolutions – questions which became a vital issue of twentieth century communism after the 1917 revolution. Both Marx and Engels certainly took a definite position on the issue: see The German Ideology of 1845-6[10] and Engels’ Principles of Communism of 1847. But it was never central to their thinking, in the sense that they worried away at it time and again.

Third, the relative silence in Marx mirrored a silence among his forebears, the thinkers of the Enlightenment, which we shall explore in the following section.

Limits of Enlightenment theories of the state

Where should the boundaries of states lie? What size of territory and population do states cover, and why? Why should this group of people owe obedience to this particular state, and that group owe it to another? Many thinkers seem merely to have taken the established division of the world into states as a natural feature. Adam Smith, for example, lists as the first function of the state the organization of ‘defence’ against threats from other states, but never inquires why this should be necessary. Nor does he relate this question to his master-issue, ‘the wealth of nations’. He simply took the necessity of state military organization for granted.

By and large, the thinkers of the Enlightenment regarded warfare and conflict between nations and states with distaste. But they tended to treat the matter as a regrettable hangover from ‘feudalism’. When they considered the matter at all, they looked to two forces to produce a more peaceful world. One was what they saw as the growing power of Reason; the other was the development of world trade. Neither force, it must be noted, has done much to date to prevent mutual slaughter between peoples over the past two centuries, although contemporary proponents of Reason and Free Trade sometimes plead the same old cases.

Immanuel Kant, who expressed nothing but horror and dislike for war between states and nations, nonetheless also took the existence of separate (and antagonistic) nations and states for granted.[11]While he hoped that ‘Reason’ would gradually prevail, in the sense that people would come eventually to persuade their governments to submit their disputes to international arbitration rather than to the contest of arms, he did not inquire into the causes of the disputes between them, and he explicitly ruled out the possibility that the national-state form of government could ever be transcended.

Like Kant, Tom Paine – particularly in the Smithian-influenced second part of The Rights of Man – assumed that the cause of war was chiefly old governments, anciens régimes, irrational aristocratic forms of rule. Once political democracy developed, and with it the huge spread of international economic exchange, he supposed, there would be no further reason for war. Mankind, having secured its political rights against the old regimes, could look forward to a peaceful and plentiful future.

Hegel perhaps came closest to recognizing the problem:

… since the sovereignty of states is the principle governing their mutual relations, they exist to that extent in a state of nature in relation to one another, and their actual rights are actualized not in a universal will with constitutional powers over them, but in their own particular wills. Consequently, the universal determination of international law remains only an obligation, and the [normal] condition will be for relations governed by treaties to alternate with the suspension of such relations.

There is no praetor to adjudicate between states, but at most arbitrators and mediators, and even the presence of these will be contingent, i.e. determined by particular wills.[12]

Interestingly, Marx, in his 1843 Critique of Hegel, does not comment on this passage. Hegel resolves the problem he has posed mystically: ‘The relations between states are unstable, and there is no praetor to settle disputes; the higher praetor is simply the universal spirit which has being in and for itself, i.e. the world spirit.’ This universal spirit is ‘the world’s court of judgement’.[13]

Grotius and the International Relations tradition

Since the beginning of the 19th century, Science and Reason have multiplied their effects upon society and its production; the division of labour and economic exchange have indeed extended across the globe, and conquered for themselves a whole world economy. But their extension has not done away with war, nor made it less frequent or terrible. Modern, republican, democratic and constitutional states have not been notably less bellicose than ‘traditional’, ‘aristocratic’ and ‘totalitarian’ regimes.

The major tendency of classical political thought was to treat ‘state’ and ‘nation’ as unproblematic entities, natural givens. True, there was a set of conservative theorists – e.g. the German Romantic school who ‘introduced into German political thought a note of irrationalism’ and rejected Kant’s political cosmopolitanism.[14] For them, the state and the nation coincided in an ‘organic community’.[15] But these theorists represented, in reality, what we might term an ‘irrationalist rationalization’ of an already divided world.

Mostly, the relations between states were not treated as a theoretical problem. There were, however, theories of how they ought to be handled. Grotius, for example, offered a doctrine in which, internally, states could do as they liked – within very broad limits determined by ‘natural law’; they were indisputably sovereign bodies. Their relations between themselves were such that they could do much as they wished, so long as they did not infringe the sovereignty of other states. In the field of international relations, states were the only relevant and legitimate actors. A state may launch a ‘just war’ when it is defending its own sovereignty and property against assault, and when it does this with ‘right intentions’ (i.e. when it is not pretending self-defence and in practice invading the property and sovereignty rights of another state).[16] Grotius treats the state as an individual property-owner defending its rights in a basically anarchic world rather akin to Hobbes’ state of nature. In the early seventeenth century, when he was writing, the state could fairly easily be treated as a ‘person’, for the state was, in important senses, still encompassed by the notion of ‘The Prince’. But this was also the period when a new notion was coming to dominance in political theory, and reflecting a shifting reality: a doctrine of ‘The King’s Two Bodies’ that both proposed and foreshadowed the development of the state as a corporate body which was much more than a single royal individual.[17]

Grotius’ theory assumed that the state (or prince) had property rights in territory and in population, and thus also legitimized the division of total territory and people into discrete blocks of ‘state property’. How, then, did it legitimize this division? In the case of individual private property, we have efforts like that of Locke to provide a general philosophical underpinning for it – in terms of the individual gaining ‘rights’ by ‘mixing his labour’ with nature. But what of states? Their ‘right’ can hardly be founded in this way.

There is a rational kernel in Grotius: in the world emerging in his period, states were becoming exclusive property owners, with the boundaries of their estates being demarcated more clearly, and with each being compelled – by the force of the relations among themselves – to respect others’ boundaries (more or less, of course). As a general justification of a situation, Grotius is hopeless; as an empirical description of an emerging operative set of rules and procedures, he has it about right.

However, the interest of ‘political theory’ in these questions tended to be rather limited.[18] Liberalism has sometimes protested at war, but it has not provided any adequate or interesting explanation. One reason is that it has never, really, critically assessed the nature of the states-system or the very existence of ‘nations’ and their conflicts. There is a long line of conservative national thinkers who have certainly taken serious note of the existence of the modern system of states, and of the conflicts between them. Their heritage is the modern academic theory of ‘Realism’ in the study of international relations. States have their interests, and those interests collide: indeed, they insist on the profundity of that truth. ‘Realism’ in politics begins with the recognition of that elementary wisdom. But as to why states populate a special inter-state world akin to Hobbes’ state of nature, they have either no answers or (at best) historically unsatisfactory ones. They are prone to take the existence of states in conflict for granted, on the principle that ‘that is just how it is’. Since their ‘political science’ has usually been developed under the aegis of a particular one of these states, they have commonly concerned themselves with practical doctrines, often of a Machiavellian kind, for advancing the taken-for-granted interests of ‘their’ state in its confrontations with others. Not uncommonly, they have taken the existence of ‘nations’ as some naturally given phenomenon, with two corollaries: first, that ‘states’ somehow represent these ‘nations’ and, second, that these ‘nations’ are for some reason naturally prone to closure and to conflict with other such ‘nations’.

Thus, if political philosophy might try to prescribe broad rules of moral behaviour as between states, it seems to have been much less successful in developing any adequate theory of the primary existence of these states and their ‘property’ and ‘sovereignty’, and of the lines of division between them. Indeed, this is not surprising: in practice it would be difficult to find a rational justification for any particular state. The boundaries between states are historically contingent and accidental, the creation of contests of force. Here, certainly, the basic doctrine has indeed been ‘Might Is Right’, or Marx’s ‘club-law’.

No theory that attributes the existence of states to the prior existence of ‘nations’ can satisfy us: for it was precisely the business of states to construct ‘nations’ beneath themselves, as a basis for winning support and legitimacy from their own citizen-subjects. Nations were made, not born, and they were made, not least, in an antagonism with each other that reflected the antagonism of their makers and organizers, the ‘nation-states’.

Marxist state theory since the 1960s

Our review of state theory the centuries preceding Marx shows a common theoretical weakness, in a failure to theorise the division of the world into a system of nation-states. This is a weakness that has affected Marxism as much as liberalism, conservativism or disciplines such as International Relations.

The revival of Marxist writing from the later 1960s never really grappled with the ‘many states’ question. Thus, solutions to a basic question – ‘what makes the modern state capitalist?’ – tended to be unsatisfactory, so far as they were limited to the domestic-national relations between particular states and (capitalist) classes. In some cases, the form of theorizing left the question of the ‘capitalist’ character of the state essentially contingent: in Miliband’s best-selling The State in Capitalist Society, for example, most of the argumentation concerns social linkages between business and state elites via education, shared culture and wealth-holding, leaving the way open for essentially ‘reformist’ conclusions to be drawn. More generally, Marxism came to be associated, in a variety of settings, with a ‘statist’ vision of socialism that could not be squared with the profound anti-state impulse in Marx and Engels.

It was in part this particular theoretical lapse in the Marxist debates of the 1960s and 1970s which opened the door to a revival of neo-Weberian arguments. These, at least, had the merit of discussing and theorizing the existence of the modern states system, although – because they saw that system as theoretically ‘autonomous’ – the implications of their case were also ‘reformist’. First, in their accounts, there was nothing especially ‘capitalist’ about the modern state system, and, second, conflicts over state policy (especially with respect to matters of war and militarism) were seen as distinct from those over capitalism. Thus their theorizing led to a loss of the sense of ‘totality’ which Lukaćs, for example, saw as absolutely central to Marxism.[19]

To sum up, with reference to part of my earlier argument, the weaknesses in Marxist writing can be seen as having several roots. First, the foundations of exclusion and force within commodity production were insufficiently explored. Second, the closely connected issue of competition appears to have attracted little attention. Third, the ‘many states’ problem was never properly addressed. Fourth, as noted above, Marxist theorists have insufficiently explored the implications of the systematically unfinished character of Marx’s own critique of political economy.[20] The result was a ‘one-sidedness’ in the development of the Marxist critique of capitalism, with more theoretical attention given to matters of class struggle, domination and division, and less to the other – and – simultaneous central fault-line within capitalism, the division of society into competing and estranged individual and collective subjects.[21] Marx’s followers stayed too close to his actual texts and to the problems explored therein, and did not go on to ask with sufficient firmness what questions remain to be addressed within the same overarching system of concepts – nor, therefore, how such further explorations might feed back into an enriched understanding of what Marx did achieve.[22]

Re-thinking the multiplicity of states

In the light of all this sense of lack, where might we begin again?

Let me come at the issue a little crab-wise, by considering a presentational question: how should the matter of ‘many states’ be introduced into a systematic account of capitalism? What is clear is that the multiplicity of states cannot be ‘derived’ from the concept of capital. By processes of ‘derivation’ it is perfectly possible to ‘derive’ an empirical absurdity: namely, a capitalism with a single state.[23] Marx’s aim for theory was to represent the world adequately in theoretical concepts. His presentational method was not, actually, one in which he derived concept from concept – even if he sometimes, in the name of art, made it look as if he did. Rather, his method of presentation involved struggling to find a way of ordering observations about the real world, by introducing each of them at an appropriate point in the overall elaboration of his conceptual system. Marx, in practice, moves between different levels of abstraction in the course of his exposition, from more general to more specific concepts. As he does so, he changes the angle of focus, gradually enriching what has gone before and filling it with additional content.

Thus, in the first two volumes of Capital Marx explores the concept of ‘capital in general’ in order to discover what it is that distinguishes capitalist production from other modes of exploitation, and indeed to show both that capitalist production is founded on exploitation and that the production and circulation of capital form a unity. In volume 3 he shifts to a different level of abstraction. Up to now, for the purposes of exposition, he has assumed that capital is a unity, differentiated only by ‘Departments’; now he introduces the fact that, actually, capital is multiple, and that between capitals competition reigns – both within ‘branches’ and across the whole economy. There are several effects on the theoretical presentation.

First, concepts which were developed at the more abstract level of ‘capital in general’ now have to be translated to more concrete concepts, closer to the everyday world. Where, in the first two volumes, Marx spoke of ‘value’ and ‘surplus value’, now he must shift register to the language of ‘price’ and ‘profit’. The earlier concepts are not simply abandoned, but ‘transformed’. The new concepts are ‘surface’ versions of the earlier ones, and rooted in their assumptions.

Second, the introduction of competition between capitals involves not only a progress forward ‘from the abstract to the concrete’, but also a return to the most abstract starting point, the discussion of commodity production, the division of social production into many producers all entangled with each other in a single system of value-regulated social production. Only now that starting point itself has a new concreteness, as ‘social necessity’ now appears in the form of all-round competition among capitals and the formation of a general rate of profit among them.

Third, if initially capital appears as a unified interest, now its bearers, the capitalist class, appear as unified vis-à-vis labour but divided internally among its various parts and members: it is a band of ‘hostile brothers’.

As Marx then progresses through volume 3, he elucidates the nature of capital further, by turning to the fact that capitals are not simply ‘many’ (and equivalent) but also heterogeneous in size and in form. First, their organic compositions are quantitatively different. But, second, they are also qualitatively distinguished into industrial and commercial capitals, into profit-receiving and interest-receiving (finance) capitals, into profit-and-interest receiving capitals and rent-receiving landed property, itself a form of capital. Each of these different forms has its own particularities, and each its own place in the overall reproduction of capitalist production as a whole. On the one hand, the inner complexity and diversity of capitalist property is shown; on the other, all the different forms are shown as rooted in the same essential process: the production and distribution of surplus value.

The forms of capital which Marx discusses, once he has left the initial, and relatively simple ground of ‘production capital’, have historical origins and forms which long predate the dominance of capitalist production relations: mercantile capital receiving ‘commercial profit’, banking capital receiving ‘interest’ and of course landed property receiving ‘rent’. Within modern capitalism, these apparently ancient forms are now transfigured by the new roles that they play within the total process of capitalist production, once their movements are shown as dominated by and subordinated to the essential movements of ‘production capital’. They have been incorporated and transformed in their functioning by the growing dominance of capitalist production. Together with production capital proper, they represent different forms in which surplus value is distributed, and contribute to the apparent complexity of the social differentiation of the capitalist class.[24]

Marx’s manuscript breaks off at this point, as he is about to begin a formal discussion of ‘classes’ – to the disappointment of modern sociology! However, in terms of the logic of Marx’s presentation, a further step must surely have followed. Some approach to the question of the state would seem to be the apparent next step. For, as noted earlier, Marx has not yet discussed one final, and crucial, form in which surplus value is distributed: taxation, collected by states from the ongoing capitalist production and circulation process.[25]

How Marx himself might have developed his account of the state we can only guess. My own interpretation (above) is that its examination would, among other things, have driven Marx back to consider the legal and political aspects of commodity production, the ‘exclusionist’ nature of modern property, and questions of ‘property defence’. However, the proper introduction of the question of the state in relation to capitalism[26] necessarily must involve a further shift in the level of abstraction. If, in the first two volumes of Capital Marx discussed ‘capital in general’, and then in volume 3 he differentiated that concept, he still remained throughout on the ground of what we might term ‘capitalist society in general’. However, in order to give an adequately theorized account of the modern state, a further move towards the concrete is required.

Towards the concrete

To be clear what that move is, consider a well-known passage from Capital volume 3, which Engels edited into Marx’s discussion of landed property. Marx is discussing in general terms how to differentiate modes of production:

The specific economic form, in which unpaid surplus-labour is pumped out of direct producers, determines the relationship of rulers and ruled, as it grows directly out of production itself and, in turn, reacts upon it as a determining element. Upon this, however, is founded the entire formation of the economic community which grows up out of the production relations themselves, thereby simultaneously its specific political form. It is always the direct relationship of the owners of the conditions of production to the direct producers – a relation always naturally corresponding to a definite stage in the development of the methods of labour and thereby its social productivity – which reveals the innermost secret, the hidden basis of the entire social structure, and with it the political form of the relation of sovereignty and dependence, in short, the corresponding form of the state.[27]

Let us ask: what is ‘the entire formation of the economic community’ which grows out of the production relations of capitalism, and what is ‘simultaneously its specific political form’? The ‘economic community’ is, surely, the modern world economy, that is, the entire developed and inter-related system of global production and exchange, of international investment, trade and movements of people, of financial transactions and so forth. And what is the corresponding political form? That must be modern system of nation-states, that is, the modern condition of ‘many states’ and their ‘international relations’.

That is, rather than arriving, almost as an embarrassed after-thought, at a recognition of the multiplicity of states in the modern world, once the serious business of discussing the nature of ‘the state’ is completed, a possible theoretical procedure would be to begin with that multiplicity, or at least to introduce it at a suitably early stage in any theoretical development. Once this vital move has been made, it is then possible to make some essential points about ‘modern states’ and their significance as ‘the specific political form’ of the world economy.

Once we shift our angle of vision to the world, it becomes apparent that a whole series of variously theorized claims and justifications for the state are bankrupt and empty. In particular, the notion that the state represents the ‘common interest’ as against the ‘private interests’ of civil society, the idea on which in their different ways thinkers from Hobbes to Hegel actually agreed, collapses. Each state is only local, merely ‘national’, is limited. All idolatry of ‘the state’, whether from Right or Left, turns out to be worship of a merely partial, petty thing with no sustainable claims to generality or universality. Each state is merely a ‘part’ of a larger totality, one element among many, dominated in its very definition by its relation to other such parts and by its relation to the whole. In the same way that the very nature of a commodity can only be defined by its relation to other commodities, so too with a state.

In his early writings, Marx doubted the pretensions of the state, by revealing its connections with private property. Shifting our angle of attention to the world, and thus recognizing the merely local nature of every separate state among other states, suggests that Marx was right, but only in a one-sided fashion. His insistence that the state could not provide the key to the solution of major social problems, and that the greatest contribution it could make to human welfare was ‘suicide’, takes on a whole new meaning once we recognize its mere localism.

The world of capitalism is characterized, not by the superimposition of ‘a state’ but rather by a condition of political ‘anarchy’. Only anarchy is not here linked with a condition of statelessness, but by a condition of having many states. To that old question – Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? (Who will guard the guards themselves?)- the answer is: Nobody. There is no universal sovereign, making law impartially for all, enjoying a Weberian ‘monopoly of the means of the legitimate violence’. States acknowledge no supreme ruler, no magistrate of magistrates, no supreme court. Earlier, I identified two potential solutions to the problem of the organization of force in society – ‘club law’ and ‘state’. In the modern world, ‘the state’ turns out to offer only a partial solution to that problem, and one that is itself dominated by the other possibility. Between states, nothing but club law, or the principle that Might is Right, holds sway. Each state’s relations with other states are mediated by armed force, by war and diplomacy, by power and wealth.

The ‘modern state’, as merely one state among many, is ‘Janus-faced’ – it faces simultaneously outwards at the world of other states, and inwards and downwards at its own subjects. In this sense, the system of states mirrors the political relations that Marx decoded within the essential structures of capitalist production relations: states stand in a hierarchical and despotic relation to those they rule, while between their many units there is anarchy. The rivalry between states, and the formal equality between them that is involved in their mutual recognition, is matched by their exploitative relations with their subjects.

States and property

One of the claims made for states in a variety of political theories is that they transcend the limits of private property, standing above the separate and selfish interests constituted within civil society. Not only that, but ‘state property’ is presented as the negation, the very opposite of ‘private property’ and – in ‘leftist’ versions – the solution to its problems. This idea unites the ‘socialism’ of classical social democracy and of Stalinist communism alike. But in a world perspective, such a notion appears thin and ridiculous. Rather, we should see the state and its property, not as a negation of private property, but as merely one of its contemporary forms.

The property of the modern state consists, first, in the exclusive claim it lays to territory,[28] and everything thereon – people, means of production, natural resources in the shape of minerals and other raw materials, and so on. Outside the iced wastes of Antarctica – and there only because of inter-state treaties – there is no part of the whole land-area of the globe that is not the property of a state. Indeed, the seas too on every coastline are jealously divided. In the same way that the boundaries of private property are marked about by fences, actual and symbolic, so too with the territory of the modern state, whose borders are carefully delimited and guarded. The political and economic geography of the whole world system is marked by frontiers and borders, whose maintenance by force and the threat of force is a permanent and necessary cost of the operations of that system. Like all boundaries around private property, these borders have nothing ‘natural’ about them, but are the product of war and diplomacy. They are marked with a host of symbols and delimiters, celebrated with songs and flags and rituals, and legitimized with ‘invented traditions’.[29]

Within their bounds, fictitious communities – ‘nations’ or ‘imagined communities’[30] – are formed, each marked by its distinction and separation from others. The ‘nation’ is, alongside territory, a second form of property of the modern state, itself consisting of a population – another distinctive category of the modern world – itself made up of the subjects of the particular state. Those constituting the population enjoy whatever equal or unequal political rights the local state permits them, and are the immediate sources of its collection both of tax-tribute and of the personnel for its military and civil apparatuses. It is their productive activity which constitutes the ‘wealth of nations’, and of the relative power of each state to others. Their quantitative and qualitative characteristics are vital properties of every state, and their statistical numbering and classification become an essential branch of state activity.[31]

Every state, I suggested earlier, must ‘manage’ its property in territory, population and productive power. It does so, however, as a merely local power, its managerial activities shaped by its relations of interdependence and antagonism to other local powers, within the context of a world society and economy whose movements it can no more control than King Cnut could rule the tides. The transactions between states – their mutual recognition as subjects with powers and rights, their exchanges, alliances and so forth – are as much governed by a ‘social necessity’ external to them as are the values of commodities. The maintenance of their physical and symbolic borders against transgression, too, demands the regular application of forceful assertion of ‘right’. Social necessity, the product of their mutual interdependence, imposes tasks upon each of them which are inherently ‘unproductive’, but which are inherent necessities of the protection of their ‘national interests’. Justin Rosenberg rightly notes that the ‘balance of power’ in inter-state relations is the political correlate of the ‘invisible hand’ in the market.[32]

In a world economy and society which is capitalist, the system of states, their mutual inter-relations and their separate existence, the different local structures and their distinct particular policies, cannot but be shaped by their own capitalist form too. The capitalistic nature of the modern state is not, first and foremost, a function of the biases in social relations and attachments between its personnel and those of capitalist business, as a certain kind of ‘radical sociology’ proposes; it is, rather a function of the fact that the system of states is itself the ‘specific political form’ of the global capitalist economic community. The imperatives of capital accumulation impose themselves upon each state as social necessity.

Historically, those imperatives were perhaps first felt most powerfully in the field of the military relations between states. Here the same logic which compels capitals to innovate endlessly, in order to survive in competition, also appears: in the shape of arms races. Here, given the restless inventiveness and expanded productivity of modern capitalist industry, arms races no longer take the form of mere quantitative piling up of soldiers and means of war. Rather, they involve endless technological development, the work of massive military-industrial research and development complexes which absorb an economically significant element of total surplus-value. Just as the Ford Motor Company must match the styling innovations of Volkswagen in the peaceful competition of the world market-place, so rival states and coalitions of states must match the firepower innovations of their competitors. The law of value, as I noted earlier, operates with equal power in the ‘unproductive’ world of ‘defence’. The very core of modern state business, the defence of the artificial integrity of the nation-state, is in the modern world indissolubly tied to the assumptions and procedures of capitalist production.

But the growth of a world market as an intrinsic element of capitalist development also imposes tasks on each state which are equally competitive and accumulation-driven. The most obvious field in which this is true is the management of the national money-currency, itself dependent on such other factors as ‘balance of trade’, balance of investment’, ‘relative growth’, ‘share of total production’, etc. The relative value of the national currency to ‘world money’ – a physically non-existent yet powerful moderator of all economic transactions, sometimes partially represented by the currency of one of other especially powerful state (English sterling in the nineteenth century, the American dollar in the twentieth) – sets moving targets and limits for every state, each with its own National Bank.[33] Every state, in its manifold forms of rivalry with other states, must involve itself with the matter of the productivity of its labour, the effectiveness of local capital investment, and so on. All significant indicators of state performance are inherently relational measures of the relative and shifting power of states with respect to each other.

The ‘laws of motion’ of capital shape the behaviour of states quite as much as they shape the behaviour of the directors of companies, even if the field of their influence and operation is shaped by their distinct institutional structures. The very content of the laws which modern states promulgate and adjudicate, and of the immense administrative interventions which they make into the everyday functioning of the local fragments of world ‘civil society’ which fall under their command, are permeated with the assumptions of capitalist production, accumulation, competition.

In short, and in contra-position to the neo-Weberian case that the system of states is ‘autonomous’ from the system of world economy, the two are but different faces of the same reality, the modern capitalist system. The modern state has become as much subordinated to the imperatives of the underlying drives of modern society, the competitive accumulation of capital, as any trader, factory owner or proletarian.

Specificities of the capitalist state

There has been a recent, and very welcome, revival of interest within ‘Marxist political economy’ in the ‘many states’ question.[34] One question posed by that debate concerns whether the ‘many states system’ is an inherent part of capitalist world economy, or whether it is merely ‘historically contingent’ and thus open to being replaced, by some means or another, by a single world state. The latter position has been proffered by Benno Teschke and Hannes Lacher;[35] a stronger version, affirming the ‘autonomy’ of the inter-state system from capitalist world economy, is argued by several ‘neo-Weberian’ theorists including Anthony Giddens, Michael Mann, and Theda Skocpol.[36] Part of their argument is that the birth of the ‘many states’ system pre-dates the emergence of capitalism, being in essence a feudal heritage.

However, this supposes more continuity between late European ‘feudal’ politics and modern ‘capitalist’ politics than can be easily sustained. At the end of the 15th century – a conventional starting date – Europe’s political system was certainly characterized by a multiplicity of partly autonomous, partly overlapping political units. Charles Tilly suggests that in 1492 there were 200-odd ‘state-like units’, many overlapping in territory and comprising patchworks of semi-autonomous governments. By 1992, despite the disintegration of USSR, there were only 35, with only a few (Andorra, Liechtenstein, Monaco, San Marino, Vatican) recalling the enclave micro-states so common in the 1490s.[37] In the earlier period, the boundaries between ‘states’ were fluid and overlapping. By the latter period, they were carefully mapped, defined, and policed. In the earlier period, ‘states’ were largely personalized systems of rule with little capacity for direct intervention into the lives of subjects; much ‘administration’ (if that is not a misnomer), taxation and judicial control was undertaken through extensively autonomous intermediaries. By the latter time, states had become largely disconnected from the persons of their immediate rulers, they had developed extensive bureaucratic machines of intervention and surveillance into the everyday lives of a carefully enumerated, classified and delimited ‘citizenry’. That system of state control relied less and less on ‘local’ and above all autonomous intermediaries, and more and more a direct and centrally coordinated machineries of state rule and exploitation.

Much of this work of ‘state building’ was undertaken in Europe in the 19th century, sometimes through or in response to revolution (France, Prussia), sometimes not (England). Especially in the 20th century, although foreshadowed earlier, they took on roles in the direction of capital investment and production, and of course in the construction’ of ‘welfare’ apparatuses for the management of wage-labour. As for the ‘states system’, it is argued that this was given a first formal recognition in the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. The question of dates is less important. What matters is that there is a profound discontinuity between the nature of ‘the state’ in the period before the rise of capitalism, and the nature of ‘the state’ in developed capitalist society; there is likewise a profound discontinuity, in terms of organization, form, and significance, between the ‘feudal order’ of (late) medieval Europe and the modern system of rival sovereign states. True, the ‘parcellated’ and ‘tesselated’ feudal order[38] provided a historical launching pad for the development of the modern system of states (and likewise for the development of capitalist relations of production) which ‘world empires’ like China did not and perhaps could not. But the only element in common between medieval Europe and the modern world is a formal negative: neither is an all-embracing empire. Between the late 15th century and today what needs to be stressed are the profound processes of transformation of the political structure.

Two questions then suggest themselves. First, can any general pattern be discovered in these transformations, which might be rooted in the underlying character of capitalist production and circulation? Second, are there reasons, internal to the capitalist mode of production, that suggest why the many-states system might be maintained?

Combined and uneven development

One of capitalism’s achievements is its unification of the whole globe into a single interactive productive system, under the dominance of capital. Capitalist industry creates a world economy. Expanding productivity creates a rapidly growing flow of commodities whose value must be urgently realized, pressing capital to seek markets beyond any national limits. In its money form, capital seeks profitable investment outlets across the globe. Its cheapened commodities ‘batter down Chinese walls’, undermining pre-capitalist production systems and dislocating national economies. Mutual competition between capitals within a single ‘domestic’ market translates and scales up into ‘international’ pressure on the nations and industries of the entire world.

Pre-capitalist ‘uneven development’ between different regions of the world became universally ‘combined development’, complexly integrated by historically new mechanisms, a core topic of Marx’s Capital. No part of the world was now exempt from their increasingly direct influence. The ‘combined’ character of capitalist development consists in a form of social interchange that imposes itself on producers who are formally autonomous, yet necessarily interdependent, bound together, through the movement of their products, in competitive antagonism.

If one single ‘law’ expresses the capitalist form of combined and uneven development in summary manner, it is ‘the law of value’. That law has two main clauses: ‘competition forces all producers to produce with the minimum input of concrete labour time, and forces a tendency toward a normal rate of profit in all industries’.[39] Existing levels of development of the productive forces shape the validation of products via socially necessary labour time, a measure given by the whole level of societal development. Producers are compelled to try to match the latest technique, under a definite threat of punishment for non-compliance – in the form of non-validation of their productive activity and thus economic failure. The law of value is, to repeat, not merely a ‘description of regularities’ but a prescriptive command, more generally powerful in its real effects on behaviour than any edict or fatwa. It subordinates not only workers and employers, but the mightiest governments. Yet its forces derive, not from any powerful deliberative agency, but from the impersonal workings of the capitalist form of social cooperation.

The law of value expresses and engenders a developmental pattern within capitalism for which I know no better term than ‘combined and uneven development’.[40] That governs not only the movement of capitals, but also the development of nations and states, through the force of ‘coercive comparison’.

We have already seen Marx noting the political differences between nation-states among the advanced capitalist powers of the nineteenth century, and – in the conceptual development within Capital­ – introducing the quantitative and qualitative distinctions among forms of capital. Of course, difference, unevenness and inequality goes much further than this. No account of twentieth century capitalism can fail to observe the vast differences in levels of productive capacity between, say, the United States and Afghanistan, Sweden and Burundi. The capitalist world is marked by widening inequalities and deepening unevenness as between its nations, peoples, regions, parts as well as classes. In different parts of the world, capitalism and its states system take on very varied aspects and colours.

Every modern theory recognizes ‘difference’ and ‘uneven development’. However, this simple observation is, by itself, insufficient. The unevenness of development within capitalism is not a set of simple differences among parallel, disconnected and distinct systems, as one might say that shirts are different in their size and colour. For unevenness in world capitalism exists between elements of a single system of interacting parts. Difference is ‘difference within a unity’; unevenness is combined. Unevenness in development as between different human societies across the globe has a very ancient lineage, but ‘combined and uneven development’ is peculiarly an antagonistic property of the modern world. For where, in the past, uneven development reflected the separation of social worlds, seen at its most extreme in the total social isolation for whole millennia of Eurasia and the Americas and Australasia, in the modern epoch all areas of the world are linked together in a single complex of cultural, economic and political interchanges. Differences between the different elements making up the modern world system are significant, both because they affect the behaviour and internal organization of each part and because they are the product of the mutual interactions between the parts, which are all defined by their particular locations within the overall world system. With their singular differences and particularities, each nation-state forms an element in a totality comprised by its internal inter-dependencies. There is thus a form of ‘unity in difference’ marking the global system of capitalism. The idea of ‘combined and uneven development’ is a necessary element in any theory of capitalism as an organic whole.

Trotsky’s theory of ‘combined development’ was first formulated to account for the particular pattern of revolutionary possibilities appearing in Russia in 1905, and more decisively in 1917, and forms an integral element of his theory of permanent revolution. As a theory about backward countries, it is immediately generalizable. Backwardness is, of course, a comparative, relational measure. Backwardness appears as a practical problem only in a world in which coercive comparisons are made between countries, and where backwardness imposes direct costs and pains on those who experience it. These may be felt in military, economic or other competitive struggles. As I argued elsewhere:

Only from the angle of world economy, of the combined development of the different countries within it, do words like ‘advanced’ and ‘archaic’ have any meaning, as measures of coercive comparison within a larger system of competitive interactions. Nothing intrinsic makes a thing ‘backward’. We can turn a horse-drawn gun carriage every way up, subject it to all manner of chemical and other tests, and nothing ‘backward’ will appear in its make-up. But set it against a motorized tank, and its backwardness soon appears. Trotsky’s specific usage of ‘combined development’ assumes a wider field of combined and uneven development, in the ‘extended’ sense.[41]

The impact of uneven development is felt, in the shape of unequal power in direct contests and in resistance to domination, as ‘traumatic’ shock in backward countries.[42] It compels them to adopt new forms and conditions of production; it undermines existing hierarchies and transforms the situation of ruling elites; it initiates new patterns of thought and sets up new standards of evaluation, not least those drawn from the external arena; it induces a consciousness of backwardness. The way a collision between the advanced and the backward is experienced is differentiated by various circumstances, of which one of the most significant concerns the ‘independence’ of the backward country’s state. In an imperial-colonial encounter, the terms of the backward area’s responses are determined in the metropolis, externally. But the independent state has the opportunity, if it can so organize its forces and muster its resources, to adopt new methods, within a setting where older social forms, assumptions and standards of evaluation are challenged.

In some circumstances, therefore, the experience of backwardness can itself be a propellant of change. Here, external needs are ‘internalized’. New standards of evaluation imported along with the coercive shocks of encounter contribute to the formation, within particular groups, of new aspirations, new goals, new grievances. Such internalization, however, depends on the inter-relation between external pressures and internal conditions, on the capacity of social forces within the backward country to so re-shape the mobilization of internal and external resources that a competitive response is organized. This depends on the nature of existing internal structures, and on struggles among classes and groups in the backward country. Not infrequently, a more or less revolutionary transformation of internal relations is a precondition of deploying the ‘privilege of backwardness’. In the 1860s, for example, the pattern of the countries which would join Britain in dominating world political and economic struggles during most of the 20th century was set through a series of ‘revolutions from above’, in each case taking a particular form: the deployment of state power in France under Louis Bonaparte to promote industrial development, the unification through internal wars of Germany, Italy and the USA, the serf-emancipation in Russia, the Meiji Restoration in Japan. The disadvantage faced by colonies, both formal and informal, was that political forces within them had first to establish their ‘national independence’ before ever they could begin to re-shape their relation to the world economy – and the major wave of de-colonization would not begin for another eighty years, when the ‘privilege of backwardness’ had become decidedly less apparent.

Backward countries which are in this position can, as Trotsky noted, append or add on elements of advanced development learned elsewhere, mixing them into their existing socio-political and economic domestic structures without having to go through the long travail of actually developing them for the first time. It is not necessary to re-invent the wheel to use it.[43]

In the process, such states do not repeat the forms of organization, nor the tempos of development, of those they emulate and compete with. Rather, development out of backwardness regularly involves both emulation and innovation in political and economic forms. One common pattern, apparent from the later nineteenth century onwards, involved greater reliance on more centralized modes of economic and political coordination, whether through banking systems which were more directly involved in industrial investment (as for example in the USA, Germany and Japan) or through the direct use of the central state to mobilize and shape the pattern of industrial investment (as for example in Japan and Tsarist Russia).

Here the very need to mobilize resources in a different way for the forcibly shared project of competitive capital accumulation induces a change in the nature of the directing agents of capitalist development. Where in England small capitalist tenant-farmers and manufacturers, including former artisans, played a fundamental role in setting English political economy on the road to industrial capitalism, now other kinds of social figures adapt their positions to play a similar functional part. Bankers, state bureaucrats, military personnel, former ‘feudal’ samurai, Saint-Simonian socialists, nationalists, fascists, communists, Islamic ideologues and others were all, over the later nineteenth century and the twentieth century, to play the role of ‘capitalist’ in different local circumstances.[44] That role involves, at its heart, subordinating their national societies and economies to the imperatives of world competition, organizing the exploitation of local labour forces and directing the fruits of that exploitation into industrial and military investment.

What becomes apparent is that different relationships between states and capital develop in different national and regional settings. There is no single formula which can catch these varying inter-relations, considered by themselves, in isolation from the onward development of the world economy as a whole. The very existence of ‘national peculiarities’, as this appears within the framework of expanding and developing capitalism across the globe, is not simply a function of inherited differences in starting points, but, is  a product of the workings of the world system itself, as these are inflected within each separate national state. These peculiarities include not simply varying structural relations among local states, local capitals and local labour forces, but also the whole political and cultural webs of social relations in which these are implicated and the corresponding local forms of ‘civil society’.

These national differences cannot be understood adequately by the simple methods of a ‘comparative sociology’ which lays its units for comparison side by side, each on its own, without attention to the inter-relations between them. Nor can it be understood by beginning with some ‘norm’ of development, based on the experience of one or a few countries, and then finding other patterns to be somehow ‘deviations’ or demonstrations’ of ‘incompleteness’ or backwardness.[45] For each country is part of a larger whole, standing in a particular, and shifting, nexus of relations with the other parts and with the whole, shaped simultaneously both by the development of social relations within its borders and by the multiple forms of economic, political, military and cultural traffic across those same borders. Indeed, as suggested above, the very borders themselves are the historic products of forceful interactions with other states, requiring the deployment of external force to maintain the very ‘integrity’ of the country itself as a distinct unit. ‘National economy’ is itself something fashioned by division of the world, an achievement as well as a starting point. ‘Unevenness’ is not merely an inherited problem, which further development will tend to smooth out and homogenize (as in the projective ideologies of ‘modernization’ theory), but, is itself a dynamically produced effect of the very interactions and interdependencies that drive the whole capitalist world development process.

Differentiation thus begins with inherited differences, including variable ‘natural advantage’, and with the variable location and timing of the incorporation of different parts of the globe into the modern world system, but the very inheritance is itself subject to further transformations and the natural advantage pattern shifts with additional development. If at one stage the sectoral map of world capitalism appears relatively simple, with some regions playing the part of ‘agricultural outposts’ of the industrial metropolitan centres, so that inequalities correlate quite simply with sectoral economic roles, further development complicates this pattern. (The history of Australia, or more recently of the ‘Asian Tigers’, will suffice by way of example.) If there is learning, copying and emulating among the backward in their dealing with the advanced, the outcome is not a mechanical process of repetition of ‘stages’ of development in each separate country, but the elaboration of differences in modes of being a ‘capitalist state’.

If the idea of combined and uneven development was first developed to account for the peculiarities of development in backward countries, and to explain the systematic nature of national differences, a shift of angle of perception suggests that it also offers a way of conceptualizing world capitalist development as a totality. The very accumulation of differences, and the self-transformation of the parts of the world system in their mutual competition with each other, reveal themselves in larger, overall patterns of development at the level of the world as a whole.

One ‘sub-clause’ of the law of value deals with the law of the ‘tendency of the rate of profit to decline, and its counteracting tendencies’. The interaction of capitals, through the circuit of production and circulation, involves unevenly advantaged capitals which differentially invest in new means of production, thus tending to cheapen commodities at the point of sale. They act this way because of competition between them, and because, in any case, technical change does not occur evenly. Those capitalists who advance their productive technique and thereby reduce the value of the relevant commodities deliver a nasty shock to those who stick with old methods of production. For now, these find, when they come to market, that the general price has fallen and their output of commodities (and thus their capital) has been devalued. The antagonistic process of combined development that defines the relations between the ‘enemy brothers’ (Marx) who constitute the capitalist class not only assumes a starting point of unevenness but, more to the point, generates uneven development among them, in the shape of what Weeks terms a ‘stratification of capitals’ within the industry, and a redistribution of capital among participating capitalists. As Weeks comments, ‘The law as such and the counteracting tendencies… come into play as a result of a dynamic process of uneven development…. the process of accumulation has within it the devaluation of existing capitals’.[46]

Here is a neat dialectic indeed, where one process, accumulation, engenders through its very logic its opposite, devaluation. In its combined capitalistic form, uneven development generates new forms out of itself.

There are other directly contradictory tendencies arising from the form of combined and uneven development we find within capitalism. Let me draw attention to just two. First, there is the contradiction noted vividly by Trotsky, between a tendency to ‘equalization’ and a counter-acting tendency to ‘differentiation’ within the very expansiveness of capitalism:

By drawing the countries economically closer to one another and levelling out their stages of development, capitalism… operates by methods of its own, that is to say, by anarchistic methods which constantly undermine its own work, set one country against another, and one branch of industry against another, developing some parts of world economy, while hampering and throwing back the development of others. Only the correlation of these two fundamental tendencies – both of which arise from the nature of capitalism – explains to us the living texture of the historical process.[47]

And, Trotsky continues, imperialism – itself, of course, the outgrowth of the workings of capitalism’s inner tendencies to expansion and centralization – ‘lends vigour to both these tendencies’. In linking the world together, it both makes its methods and forms more identical and, simultaneously,

…it attains this ‘goal’ by such antagonistic methods, such tiger-leaps, and such raids upon backward countries and areas that the unification and levelling of the world economy which it has effected, is upset by it even more violently and convulsively than in the preceding epochs.[48]

Second, Bukharin is the author who, most sharply, records a second contradictory tendency in world economy and imperialism.[49] First, capital tends to spill over national borders and to ‘internationalize’ its circuits of production and circulation. But, second, that very tendency generates a counter-tendency to ‘nationalization’ of capital and the formation of ‘state capitals’. Actual historical development consists in the continual contradictory interplay of these two tendencies; in no sense does one of them render the other ineffectual.

In all of this, of course, force plays an intrinsic part. It was not only through cheapening of commodities that Britain in the 1840s ‘battered down Chinese walls’. Japan was forcibly ‘opened’ to the world by the simple American naval expedient of threatening to bombard Edo (modern Tokyo) in the 1850s. Wars for and against ‘expansion’ of markets, borders, territories, populations have marked and continue to mark the onward development of capitalism. The exercise and threat of state force is quite as intrinsic to capitalism as market competition; it is its other face.

In turn, military competition reacts back on the internal organization of states and their national economies, compelling the same constant revolutionization of the means of destruction that is apparent as an effect of capitalist market competition. As Bukharin recorded: ‘Every improvement in military technique entails a reorganization and reconstruction of the military mechanism; every innovation, every expansion of the military power of one state, stimulates all the others’.[50] Here, too, as noted above, the law of value exercises its effects through threat of and defence against ‘crime’. To repeat my earlier quotation from Marx’s economic manuscripts: ‘if one leaves the sphere of private crime: would the world-market ever have come into being but for national crime?  Indeed, would even the nations have arisen?’

War played a major role in shrinking the number of states in Europe, but also in re-shaping them internally. Until the later 19th century, military spending constituted the largest part of states’ budgets. The political shape of the world system was thus formed by the exercise of ‘club-law’, by crystallized violence.

Consideration of ‘the system as a whole’ poses various methodological difficulties, not least because – as noted – the relevant data are collected not for the world but separately, country by country, as national statistics. World society, as an object of study, remains elusive.[51] It is, however, possible to argue that, if each country does not separately go through the same set of ‘stages of development’ as those found in the first nations to industrialize, there are still ‘stages of development’ – only these are stages or broad periods of global development which are marked by the predominance of particular forms of capital and of state and of competitive strategies.[52] Equally, there are phases and conditions of world society, which include variations between periods when peaceful development and warfare dominate, or between periods of overall boom and overall slump. These world conditions, of course, set the parameters of possibility for each separate national and local unit.

The notion of combined and uneven development thus offers a potential perspective, not simply on the elaboration of differences across the globe, but also on the inner dynamics of the whole of capitalist civilization, on modern world history considered as a complex unity. The change in angle of vision permits us to see that development within any one element of the system cannot be treated in isolation, and not simply under the impulse of its own inner tendencies and forces, but occurs under the influence, indeed the vital pressure, of the external milieu, which itself has its own overall shape and pattern of movement. The movements of parts and wholes are inextricably interconnected. In this sense, the idea of combined and uneven development represents an elaboration on and a concretization of Marx’s ‘law of value’.

At the same time, consideration of combined and uneven development involves a methodological step beyond the bounds of Marx’s extant critique of political economy. It brings us to a new level of concreteness in the study of capitalism, its classes and its states. Where, in Capital, the actors on Marx’s stage are still wearing ‘character masks’, lacking subjectivity except in the most formal sense, we have now taken a step closer to the actual historical process, where classes and states and their representatives face concrete and complex opportunities and barriers to their action, and where their responses and decisions begin to make their mark in theory. Here the mechanisms of transmission in competition and exploitation involve learning, emulating, copying, showing initiative, seizing the time – and succeeding and failing. Here the balance between the elements of the classic analytical problem of ‘structure and agency’ begins to change, as it becomes possible to consider the actual history and geography of capitalist development, and the responsible actions and ideas of real human beings in actual settings.

Abolishing the many states?

Is it likely, or even possible, that within the framework of capitalism the present ‘many- states’ system might be done away with in favour of a single world state? Karl Kautsky, of course, argued in the run-up to the First World War that ‘ultra-imperialism’ could involve peaceful organization of the world under the slogan Capitalists of all lands, unite! More recently, similar ideas have been floated with respect to the possible effects of ‘globalization’.

The dissolution and transcendence of the ‘nation-state’, however, seems unimaginable, at least without a process of world war compared with which the traumas of 1914-18 and 1939-45 would appear mere ‘cabinet wars’. In any case, as Chris Harman has argued most powerfully, to suppose that modern nation-states could be simply done away with is to argue that the inner differentiations between forms of capital are of little significance.[53] Capital can only be understood as a process of endless transformations, as it moves between three constantly altering forms, through the circuits of money, commodities and production. As money, to be sure, capital is immensely mobile. Billions can be transferred across the globe at the touch of a button. If capital were only money, we could easily argue that it has no country. But commodities possess a physical form, as material use-values. Although their mobility – their capacity to be transferred from hand to hand – is a condition of their existence, it takes more than a computer message to transport them around the world. Their actual material transfers form part of the chains of social production, and not simply of exchange. They require ships, lorries, planes, trains – and the roads and railway lines, the ports and marshalling yards and warehouses, etc., between which they circulate. And when we turn to production, it has the most territorial requirements of all: fixed capital, land, a readily available workforce, etc. Capitalist production can never leave the earth or leave people behind.

In practice, capitals do not only compete with each other, but form what Claudia von Braunmühl terms ‘bounded complexes of production and circulation’.[54] These involve supply chains of material and financial inputs and outputs, tied to specific territorial locations and physical environments, to specific labour forces, and to shared language and culture, all dependent on the development of ongoing social relations among themselves and with local state personnel. Capitals in one environment grow up differently from those in another. As between one state and another, and with ongoing changes over time, there are different degrees of monopolization of industry, commercial and finance capital, different degrees of state ownership and control over investment, differently organized sources of finance, different roles for states and private sectors in training labour and providing ‘welfare’, etc. For particular capitals, securing credit, the essential lubricant of capitalist reproduction, depends on the development of local patterns of ‘contacts, ‘trust’ and ‘reputation’, developed within ongoing social networks involving companies, banks and states.[55]

Nowhere is this more apparent than in crises, when capitals turn predominantly to national banks and states for aid and sustenance as a condition of their very survival. ‘National economies’ and nation-states, formed around such bounded complexes, are the other face of world economy as a differentiated totality.



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Peter Gowan, ‘The Gulf War, Iraq and western liberalism’, New Left Review, 187 (1991).

Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, trans. Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell-Smith (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1971).

Peter Green, ‘Review essay: The Culmination of Capital: Essays on Volume III of Marx’s ‘Capital’, edited by Martha Campbell and Geert Reuten (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001)’, Historical Materialism 12.2 (2004): 249-67.

Jürgen Habermas, Legitimation Crisis (London: Heinemann, 1976).

Chris Harman, ‘The state and capitalism today’, International Socialism, second series, 51 (1991): 3-54.

— ‘Analysing imperialism’, International Socialism, Second series, 99 (2003):3-81.

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Michael Haynes, Nikolai Bukharin and the Transition from Capitalism to Socialism (London: Croom Helm, 1985).

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Michael Heinrich, ‘Ambivalences of Marx’s critique of political economy as obstacles for the analysis of contemporary capitalism’, Paper delivered at Historical Materialism Conference, London, October 2004.

Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger (eds.), The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge: CUP, 1992).

John Holloway and Sol Picciotto (eds.), State and Capital: A Marxist Debate (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1978).

Bob Jessop, ‘Statism’, Historical Materialism: Research in Critical Marxist Theory, 15.2 (2007): 233-42.

Ernst Kantorowicz, The King’s Two Bodies: A Study in Medieval Political Theology (Princeton: PUP, 1957).

Geoffrey Kay, ‘Right and force: a Marxist critique of contract and the state’, in: Michael Williams (ed.), Value, Social Form and the State (London: Macmillan, 1988), pp. 115-33.

Geoffrey Kay and James Mott, Political Order and the Law of Labour (Houndmills: Macmillan, 1982).

Baruch Knei-Paz, The Social and Political Thought of Leon Trotsky (Oxford: OUP, 1978).

Joel Kovel, The Enemy of Nature: The End of Capitalism or the End of the World? (London: Zed, 2007).

John Lambert, ‘Europe: the nation dies hard’, Capital & Class, 43 (1991).

Costas Lapavitsas, ‘Relations of power and trust in contemporary finance’, Historical Materialism: Research in Critical Marxist Theory, 14.1 (2006): 129-54.

Jorge Larrain, Marxism and Ideology (Houndmills: Macmillan, 1983).

Michael Lebowitz, Beyond Capital: Marx’s Political Economy of the Working Class (London: Macmillan, 1992).

György Lukaćs, A Defence of History and Class Consciousness [1924], trans. Esther Leslie (London: Verso, 2000).

C.B. Macpherson, The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke (Oxford: OUP, 1962).

Michael Mann, States, War, Capitalism: Studies in Political Sociology (Oxford: Blackwell, 1988).

Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy [1859], trans. Nahum Isaac Stone (Chicago: Charles H. Kerr, 1904).

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—‘Critique of the Gotha Programme’ [1875], in: Karl Marx, The First International and After. Political Writings, ed. David Fernbach, vol. 3 (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1974), pp. 339-59.

—‘Critique of Hegel’s doctrine of the state’ [1843-4], in: Karl Marx, Early Writings, trans. Rodney Livingstone and Gregor Benton (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1975), pp. 57-198.

—‘Excerpts from James Mill’s Elements of Political Economy’ [1844], in: Karl Marx, Early Writings, trans. Rodney Livingstone and Gregor Benton (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1975), pp. 259-78.

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Capital. A Critique of Political Economy [1863-83], vol. 3, ed. Friedrich Engels, trans. David Fernbach (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1981).

—‘Economic Manuscripts of 1861-3’, in: Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works, vol. 30 (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1988).

Karl Marx, and Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology [1846], trans. Salomea Ryazanskaya (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1965).

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Geert Reuten and Michael Williams, Value-form and the State: The Tendencies of Accumulation and the Determination of Economic Policy in Capitalist Society (London: Routledge, 1989).

Justin Rosenberg, The Empire of Civil Society: A Critique of the Realist Theory of International Relations (London: Verso, 1994).

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Derek Sayer, The Violence of Abstraction: The Analytical Foundations of Historic Materialism (Oxford: Blackwell, 1987).

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Martin Shaw (ed.), War, State and Society (London: Macmillan, 1984).

Felton Shortall, The Incomplete Marx (Aldershot: Avebury, 1994).

Benno Teschke, The Myth of 1648: Class, Geopolitics and the Making of Modern International Relations (London: Verso, 2003).

Benno Teschke and Hannes Lacher ‘The changing “logics” of capitalist competition’, Cambridge Review of International Affairs, 20.4 (2007): 565-80.

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Footnotes to part 3

[1] Colin Barker, ‘Industrialism, capitalism, value, force and states: some theoretical remarks’, Anglo-Bulgarian Comparative History Seminar, Wolverhampton University (1997); Colin Barker, ‘Industrialism, capitalism, force and states: some theoretical and historical issues’, International Journal of Management Concepts and Philosophy, 3.4 (2009): 313-31.

[2] Colin Barker, ‘A note on the theory of capitalist states’, Capital and Class 4 (1978): 118-126;  reprinted in: Simon Clarke, (ed.) The State Debate (London: Macmillan, 1991), pp. 204-13; available at; Colin Barker, ‘The state as capital’, International Socialism, Second Series, 1 (1978): 16-42; available at

[3] Some of the best of that work was published in English in two collections: John Holloway and Sol Picciotto (eds.), State and Capital: A Marxist Debate (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1978); Simon Clarke (ed.), The State Debate (London: Macmillan, 1991). Other notable contributions include: Geoffrey Kay and James Mott, Political Order and the Law of Labour (Houndmills: Macmillan, 1982); Geert Reuten and Michael Williams, Value-form and the State: The Tendencies of Accumulation and the Determination of Economic Policy in Capitalist Society (London: Routledge, 1989).

[4] The major exception was Claudia von Braunmühl: Claudia von Braunmühl, ‘On the analysis of the bourgeois nation state within the world market context’ in: John Holloway and Sol Piccioott (eds.), State and Capital. A Marxist Debate (London: Arnold, 1978).

[5] Karl Marx, Capital. A Critique of Political Economy [1867], vol, 1, trans. David Fernbach (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976), pp. 90-1.

[6] Marx himself did not treat this as his last word on the subject. In a letter to Mikhailovsky, he protested against any attempt to turn an analysis of the historical development of Western Europe into a unilinear philosophy of history which set out a uniform sequence that all countries must follow. He thought that the development of India might result from the impact of British capital, but as likely from the efforts of the ‘Hindoos’ to expel the British (see references to Shanin below). In the preface to the 1882 edition of the Manifesto, he alluded to the possibility (which he was considering urgently) that Russia might leap across capitalism directly to communism, if world conditions were favourable. Various discussions of Ireland reveal a concern with the question of uneven development and its impact on working-class consciousness and politics.

[7] Some of Marx’s followers also drew political conclusions from what they read Marx to be saying, among them the Austro-Marxists and the Russian Mensheviks, and later the Stalinist Communist Parties. They argued that, since development must go through the stages Marx identified in England, and since capitalism was as yet under-developed in backward countries, the role of Marxists there must be to aid the future development of capitalism before ever thinking about socialism. A ‘revolutionary bourgeoisie’ must be identified, and supported in its efforts to carry through a progressive bourgeois-democratic revolution. Socialists should act as second-string cheerleaders for progressive bourgeoisies in backward countries, leaving until ‘later’ any independent role for the working class. This led them to ignore and contradict the very different lessons which Marx drew as the result of his experiences in the 1848 revolutions. See, e.g.: Trotsky’s sharp critical remarks about the Mensheviks’ reading of Marx: A History of the Russian Revolution [1930], trans. Max Eastman (London: Gollancz, 1965).

[8] Karl Marx, ‘Critique of the Gotha Programme’ [1875], in: Karl Marx, The First International and After. Political Writings, ed. David Fernbach, vol. 3 (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1974), pp. 354-5.

[9] Teodor Shanin points to evidence that in his last years Marx was moving well beyond the schematics of the ‘Preface’. Through his reflections on the Russian peasant commune, Marx appears to have been moving towards a more complex assessment of the problem of ‘uneven development’ and simultaneously of the role of the world market in the shaping of national paths of described at work in the English case. Thus, he refers, in discussion of late Tsarist Russia, to a specific ‘type of capitalism generated by the state on the account of the peasants’. Marx, comments Shanin, ‘had come to assume a multiplicity of roads of social transformation not only for precapitalist societies, as in the Grundrisse, but also for the capitalist epoch’:  ‘Late Marx and the Russian “periphery of capitalism”’, Monthly Review 35.2 (1983); Late Marx and the Russian Road: Marx and ‘The Peripheries of Capitalism’ (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1983).

[10] In the first full English translation of this work, the following sentence appears: ‘Empirically, communism is only possible as the act of the dominant peoples “all at once” and simultaneously, which presupposes the universal development of productive forces and the world intercourse bound up with communism’: (Marx and Engels 1846 (1965): 46- Karl Marx, and Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology [1846], trans. Salomea Ryazanskaya (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1965), pp. 46-7. The normally reverential Moscow editors here felt impelled – given their state’s founding doctrine of ‘socialism in one country’ – to add a note (pp. 671-2). A better documented source for Lenin’s views can be found in: Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, Appendix II: pp. 1219-57.

[11] Hans Reiss (ed.), Kant’s Political Writings (Cambridge: CUP, 1970).

[12] G.W.F. Hegel, Elements of the Philosophy of Right, trans. Allen W. Wood (Cambridge: CUP, 1991), p. 368, §333.

[13] Hegel, Elements of the Philosophy of Right, p. 371, §§339-40.

[14] Reiss (ed.), Kant’s Political Writings, p. 13.

[15] There are elements of continuity and complementarity between these ideas and what Martin Barker has termed ‘the new racism’: Martin Barker, The New Racism: Conservatives and the Ideology of the Tribe (London: Junction Books, 1978).

[16] See Peter Gowan’s account of Grotius and Kant in his useful critique of liberal approaches to the 1991 Gulf War: ‘The Gulf War, Iraq and western liberalism’, New Left Review, 187 (1991).

[17] Ernst Kantorowicz, The King’s Two Bodies: A Study in Medieval Political Theology (Princeton: PUP, 1957).

[18] It is interesting to note that these matters occupy almost no space or attention in: J.H. Burns and Mark Goldie (eds.), Cambridge History of Political Thought 1450-1700 (Cambridge: CUP, 1991). The chapter on Grotius, for instance, has hardly anything to say about his theory of the conduct of international relations. Here, it seems, the classic academic division between mainstream Political Theory, which focuses on the relations between states and their subjects, and International Relations, specializing in relations between states, is still very much maintained.

[19] György Lukaćs, A Defence of History and Class Consciousness [1924], trans. Esther Leslie (London: Verso, 2000), ch. 1.

[20] Though some work in the 1990s did begin addressing these questions: Michael Lebowitz, Beyond Capital: Marx’s Political Economy of the Working Class (London: Macmillan, 1992); Felton Shortall, The Incomplete Marx (Aldershot: Avebury, 1994).

[21] This one-sidedness in materialist critique, among other things, facilitated the slide among former socialists in the later 1980s and the 1990s towards an uncritical adulation of ‘the market and its principles, and thus back towards mere liberalism. But for a corrective see e.g.: David McNally, Against the Market: Political Economy, Market Socialism and the Marxist Critique (London: Verso, 1993).

[22] For reasons of space, I have not directly considered the work of the generation of Marxists who did begin to address at least part of these tasks, in the period around the First World War and the Russian Revolution. In particular, the work of Luxemburg, Lenin, Bukharin and Trotsky requires its own critical examination, along with those who have extended their analytical principles in the post-war years – notably Cliff, Harman and others. The revolutionary Marxists of the early decades of the 20th century were very bold theorists, although they were characteristically less interested, on the whole, in the implications of their own theorizing for the fundamentals of Marxist thought. For useful critical evaluation, as these theorists touched on problems of the state system, war and imperialism, see work by Callinicos, Harman, Haynes and Shaw: Alex Callinicos, Imperialism and Global Political Economy (Cambridge: Polity, 2009); Chris Harman, Zombie Capitalism. Global Crisis and the Relevance of Marx (London: Bookmarks, 2009); Michael Haynes, Nikolai Bukharin and the Transition from Capitalism to Socialism (London: Croom Helm, 1985); Martin Shaw (ed.), War, State and Society (London: Macmillan, 1984). Neil Davidson suggests that one source of weakness in the theorists of that period was their tendency to treat inter-state relations – not, as we’ve seen a problem that occupied Marx in the 19th century – as if it were a specific problem of a recent ‘stage’ in capitalist development, rather than a problem concerning capitalism per se: ‘Many capitals, many states: contingency, logic or mediation?’ in: Alex Anievas (ed.), Marxism and World Politics: Contesting Global Capitalism (London: Routledge, 2009).

[23] Another strategy, termed ‘form-analytic’, is followed by Eldred and by Reuten and Williams. The difficulty with their work is that, while they can arrive, to their own satisfaction, at an account of the ‘bourgeois state’ and the ‘bourgeois-democratic state’, they offer no means of theorizing forms of state that undermine private property and citizenship rights while still providing a framework in which capital accumulation  occurs: fascism, authoritarian and ‘communist’ states lie beyond their theoretical horizons: Michael Eldred, Critique of Competitive Freedom and the Bourgeois-Democratic State: Outline of a Form-Analytic Extension of Marx’s Uncompleted System (København: KURASJE, 1984);  Reuten and Williams, Value-form and the State.

[24] Indeed, that complexity contributes to the promotion of illusions as to the nature of the class relations of capitalist society, in particular the ‘Trinity formula’ within classical political economy which placed landed property, production and merchant capital, and labour all on the same theoretical level, as ‘sources of revenue’, thereby obscuring the key process which both unifies and divides them, the generation of surplus value.

[25] Ricardo, whose writings Marx very carefully dissected in the notebooks published as Theories of Surplus Value, entitled his major theoretical work Principles of Political Economy and Taxation.

[26] This question, it might be noted, Marx thought was the major theoretical difficulty which still needed to be surmounted.

[27] Karl Marx, Capital. A Critique of Political Economy [1863-83], vol. 3, ed. Friedrich Engels, trans. David Fernbach (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1981), p. 927.

[28] Michael Mann, States, War, Capitalism: Studies in Political Sociology (Oxford: Blackwell, 1988).

[29] Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger (eds.), The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge: CUP, 1992).

[30] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 1991)

[31] Geoffrey Kay and James Mott, Political Order and the Law of Labour (Houndmills: Macmillan, 1982).

[32] Justin Rosenberg, The Empire of Civil Society: A Critique of the Realist Theory of International Relations (London: Verso, 1994), p. 139.

[33] John Lambert suggests that every nation-state, as those who unified Germany and Italy in the 19th century knew well, needs at minimum a National Bank and an Army: John Lambert, ‘Europe: the nation dies hard’, Capital & Class, 43 (1991).

[34] Notably in the pages of the Cambridge Review of International Affairs, and also in some significant books (Harman 2009; Harvey, The New Imperialism, 2003; Wood, Empire of Capital, 2005).

[35] Benno Teschke, The Myth of 1648: Class, Geopolitics and the Making of Modern International Relations (London: Verso, 2003); Benno Teschke and Hannes Lacher ‘The changing “logics” of capitalist competition’, Cambridge Review of International Affairs, 20.4 (2007): 565-80.

[36]  They have been latterly joined by Nigel Harris.

[37] Charles Tilly, European Revolutions 1492-1992 (Oxford: Blackwell, 1993), p. 26.

[38] Perry Anderson, Lineages of the Absolutist State (London: New Left Books, 1979).

[39] John Weeks, Capital and Exploitation (Princeton: PUP, 1981), p. 40.

[40]  I am aware that this is not precisely the same usage as that introduced by Leon Trotsky (Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution), who used it to refer to the ways that uneven development in world economy generates the conditions for combined development within various nations, as an essential element in the theory of permanent revolution: Neil Davidson, ‘From uneven to combined development’, in:  Bill Dunn and Hugo Radice (eds.), 100 Years of Permanent Revolution (London: Pluto, 2006), pp. 10-26.  My ‘extended’ usage is, I believe, implicit in Trotsky’s own position, and deserves further development: Colin Barker, ‘Beyond Trotsky: extending combined and uneven development’, in: Dunn and Radice (eds.), 100 Years, pp. 72-87.

[41] Barker, ‘Beyond Trotsky’, p. 78. Perhaps it is possible to substitute the term subaltern, as a way of avoiding any lingering evolutionist assumptions in ‘backwardness’, but the relation holds.

[42] Baruch Knei-Paz, The Social and Political Thought of Leon Trotsky (Oxford: OUP, 1978), p. 95.

[43] The example of the young Meiji bureaucrats who seized power from the Tokugawa clan in 1868 is instructive: they sent embassies to the major European powers to cherry-pick suitable elements of legal and constitutional practice and technique for their new state.

[44] Gerschenkron is correct to draw attention to the changing ideologies under which national economic development is pursued: Alexander Gerschenkron, Economic Backwardness in Comparative Perspective (Cambridge, Mass.: HUP, 1972),

[45]  David Blackbourn and Geoff Eley offers some very pertinent observations with regard to this flawed method in relation to the understanding of German history: David Blackbourn and Geoff Eley The Peculiarities of German History: Bourgeois Society and Politics in Nineteenth-Century Germany (Oxford: OUP, 1984). More generally, see: Colin Barker, ‘Muscular reformism’, International Socialism, First Series, 102 (1977).

[46] Weeks, Capital and Exploitation, pp. 204-5. As Pete Green remarks, ‘In practice, capitalism simultaneously sets in play tendencies towards the equalization of profit and tendencies towards their differentiation, between and across sectors’: Peter Green, ‘Review essay: The Culmination of Capital: Essays on Volume III of Marx’s ‘Capital’, edited by Martha Campbell and Geert Reuten (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001)’, Historical Materialism 12.2 (2004), 256.

[47] Leon Trotsky, The Third International after Lenin, trans. John G. Wright (New York: Pioneer, 1957), p. 19.

[48] Leon Trotsky, ‘The draft program of the Communist International – a criticism of fundamentals’, in: The Third International after Lenin, pp. 19-20.

[49] Nikolai Bukharin, Economics of the Transformation Period, with Lenin’s Critical Remarks (New York: Bergman, 1971); Nikolai Buhkarin, Imperialism and World Economy (London: Merlin, 1972).

[50] Bukharin, Imperialism and World Economy, p. 127.

[51] On some of the methodological difficulties, see: Charles Tilly, Big Structures, Large Processes, Huge Comparisons (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1984).

[52] Thus, for various purposes, distinctions may be made, for example, between periods in which mercantile rather than industrial capital was dominant, in which ‘imperialism’ and ‘state capitalism’ seemed to represent ‘the highest stage of capitalism’ (Lenin), and in which ‘trans-national capitalism’ and ‘finance’ appeared to be gaining a new dominance.

[53] Chris Harman, ‘The state and capitalism today’, International Socialism, second series, 51 (1991): 3-54; Harman, Zombie Capitalism, ch. 4.

[54] von Braunmühl, ‘On the analysis’.

[55] Costas Lapavitsas, ‘Relations of power and trust in contemporary finance’, Historical Materialism: Research in Critical Marxist Theory, 14.1 (2006): 129-54.