Continent, Peninsula, Islands: notes on the theory of uneven and combined development and its possible application to northeast Asian history

A few weeks ago I attended the conference organised by Historical Materialism journal at SOAS on the theme ‘Towards a Cosmopolitan Marxism’. There was one session in particular that I wanted to attend: one of my favourite historians, Neil Davidson, discussing the theory of uneven and combined development with Colin Barker. The session didn’t disappoint. Neil Davidson’s paper looked at the intellectual history of the idea of uneven development going back to enlightenment thinkers such as Leibniz and tracing it through to its more developed form in the writings of Trotsky, such as his History of the Russian Revolution (although even here it is not really systematically developed as a theory). Here is the classic passage from the introduction to that book, quoted by Davidson:

The privilege of historic backwardness – and such a privilege exists – permits, or rather compels, the adoption of whatever is ready in advance of any specified date, skipping a whole series of intermediate stages.

And here is Trotsky’s passage on combined development:

From the universal law of unevenness thus derives another law which for want of a better name, we may call the law of combined development – by which we mean a drawing together of the different stages of the journey, a combining of separate steps, an amalgam of archaic with more contemporary forms.

Colin Barker on the other hand asked whether it might be possible to extend the theory in two directions: into the study of pre-capitalist history and beyond the national level to an understanding of global combined development. I won’t deal with the latter idea here, but the idea of the application to the history of pre-capitalist societies did give rise to some thoughts that I’d like to jot down here.

Specifically, it made me think about the interesting question of the divergence of the Korean and Japanese states/polities in two radically different directions over the last two millennia. If we can, as Colin Barker suggests, extend the usefulness of this theory into the pre-capitalist past, then could uneven and combined development be helpful in understanding this particular historical trajectory? Clearly, one of the central ideas of uneven development applies to the situation of the Korean peninsula and the Japanese archipelago at the time of their respective reception of ‘continental’ influence in the form of institutions, language, politico-religious thought and so on. In other words, both the early Korean states and the early Japanese states did not have to go through the same long process of development of centralised bureaucratic state institutions, the development of ideological systems to back them up (Buddhism, Confucianism) or the development of a writing system that was indispensable to such states. They could instead adopt these things wholesale (of course with some adaptations and some traumas too) from the continent, without many of the intervening processes, taking advantage of their backwardsness (as Trotsky might put it).

Plenty of arguments have been put forward for the divergence between Japan and Korea, for example, John Duncan provides a good list of factors that inhibited the fragmentation of political power on the Korean peninsula in his book The Origins of the Chosŏn Dynasty. And at our recent SOAS seminar on the history and culture of premodern Korea, James Lewis provided a sweeping overview of Korean-Japanese history in which he also dealt with some of these issues (his paper was quite mind-blowing in its scope, perhaps I will have to deal with it in another post). I also think that Samir Amin’s idea of tributary centres and their peripheries in the premodern world could be very useful here. He places the Korean peninsula within the Chinese/continental tributary centre and the Japan islands on its periphery, somewhat like the relationship of Europe to the Mediterranean/Middle Eastern tributary centre. This is really a way of systematising factors such as the earlier introduction of continental culture to the Korean peninsula and the closer geographical proximity of Korea to the Chinese states, it certainly shouldn’t be read as making Korea politically part of ‘Chinese’ history.

I’m not proposing to supersede these arguments – I just wonder whether the idea of combined development might help here on a more theoretical level, in synthesising and systematising these factors and analyses? What were the specific ways in which the new institutional and ideological technologies from the continental culture combined with the ‘archaic’ forms already in existence on the peninsula and the archipelago?

I don’t want to offer any real hypothesis here, mainly because I’m too ignorant about the actual facts of history (particularly Japanese). All I can say is that every time there was a dynastic-political crisis on the Korean peninsula it was resolved toward greater centralisation and a firmer embedding of the continental institutions, whereas in the Japanese islands the story seems to have been one of successive fragmentation, at least until the Tokugawa regime imposed a sort of compromise between centralised authority and political fragmentation. Can we achieve a more theoretical, analytical and less contingent explanation for this process?

As an afterthought, I also wonder about Colin Barker’s idea of theorising inter-societal development (he borrows heavily here from the work of Justin Rosenberg) and its application to ancient East Asia. I think some Korean historians have recently been talking about a sort of maritime polity around the peninsula and Japanese islands and there has been much talk of ‘interaction spheres’ too (for example in Hyung Il Pai’s book Constructing “Korean” Origins). But perhaps this is material for another post.


  1. It looks anyway that there is something we may call “the peripheral appropriation” – when the societal/political forms developed in the civilizational centres are being adapted, with some mutations, by their
    respective peripheries and often help to jumpstart the high-speed development there. And it looks like some forms, once adapted successfully by the peripheries, survive there much longer than in their central
    cradles. ChosOn dynasty system, for example, was avowedly oriented towards Tang-Song model (semi-legal acknowledgement of the heriditary aristocracy, harsh control over market exchange system resembling even rather Tang than Song, etr
    etc.) – and it survived for improbably long time for a Chinese dynasty, although abviously changing seriously towards the end. Or look at the typical early 18th C. absolutism, introduced to Russia by the Peter the 1st
    and artificially kept there almost intact until 1905. I wonder, by the way, whether the long-term survival of the soc.-dem. welfare system in Scandinavia in the times the “central” capital actively takes away what it
    partially had ceded before the 1970s, may be thought to belong to the same category. May be, the elites in the smaller peripheral entities tend to be more cohesive, with relative lack of the “counter-elite” element
    in comparison with the “centers” and the tendency to resolve the conflicts inside the existing systemic frameworks? Of course, such things are possible until the tensions develop into a genuine popular protest movement –
    like in Korea in 1894 and in Russia ten-eleven years later.

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