An excerpt from the Introduction of Trotsky in the Bronze Age by Dominic Alexander
New technology, we are constantly told, is about to transform the world around us. This goes beyond the boosterism of specific business interests, which insert themselves insidiously into journalistic discussion. It has for a long time been a pervasive assumption. This is not unsurprising given that industrial capitalism places a premium on introducing new ways of producing goods cheaply, in order that one firm may undercut another. The result is the appearance that new technologies themselves drive constant change and development.
Technological determinism, therefore, is a kind of common sense for the capitalist era that reaches across all shades of opinion. It naturally includes the Left, often with little hesitation, and frequently with enormous enthusiasm. Most recently, a range of writers, Paul Mason or Aaron Bastani, for example, optimistically see the new waves of digital technology as bringing to bear forces which will transform capitalism into something else, and even make an egalitarian future an imminent likelihood. Conversely, those on the pessimistic end of the spectrum fear a social hell where labour loses any leverage on capital due to the same spread of robotics, AI and other digital technology that underpin the utopias of the optimists.
The purpose here is not to intervene directly in those particular debates, but to take a step back and look into the deep past to gain a better perspective on how new technology has in fact affected the pace and nature of human social development. It is important to realise just how deeply the technological determinist assumption is built into our understanding of history, which in its modern form, as an intellectual discipline, developed alongside capitalism, and has therefore been fundamentally marked by pre-occupations arising from the industrial revolution.
Technological determinism has shaped our whole understanding of the narrative of human development. From the first tool making and the discovery of fire, the human story passes through phases of the Old Stone Age (the Palaeolithic, in technical language), before the invention of agriculture inaugurated a bright New Stone Age (the Neolithic). Humanity (usually, this was presented as just ‘Man’) then progresses through technological stages, starting with copper, then the Bronze Age, the Iron Age, and so on through to the Industrial Age. A few decades ago, the future was to be the Space Age, but this has now metastasized into the Digital Age. Modern pre-history and archaeology offer many more complex approaches to the past than this bald progression of technologies, but as background conceptualisation, it remains current in much general understanding, particularly outside specialist research.
There is no denying the importance of technology, but its role is very often taken simplistically as the dominant factor, even among very many Marxists. The one-time Marxist philosopher, G. A. Cohen, in Karl Marx’s Theory of History: A Defence (1978), saw Marx’s historical analysis in terms of the pre-eminence of the forces of production in creating a forward motion of development. Other significant parts of the Marxist tradition, however, offer much richer and more mediated understandings of technology and development. These should enable socialists to take an approach to the prospects of development which is neither hampered by starry-eyed optimism, nor crushed by pessimistic despair. Such a view could foreground the class struggle as the means by which humanity can arrive at a truly international and democratic control of development, that is to say to liberate itself from class rule.
Trotsky, history and technology
Trotsky’s name is not normally associated with the discussion of anything but modern history and modern capitalism, but his central theory of ‘uneven and combined development’ was in fact concerned precisely with the collision of the most modern form of capitalism with the much older social forms of his native Russia. The essence of the theory lay in the attempt to account for the different patterns of development found in that country as a result of its late development.
Specifically ‘uneven’ development can be found anywhere and everywhere, but as a phenomenon it appeared in a particularly acute form in nineteenth-century Russia. The most advanced technological forms in industry were abruptly introduced from the 1880s alongside the already existing, basic forms of household craft production. At the same time, away from the larger towns and cities, a largely subsistence orientated agriculture dominated the countryside. Even in the less remote parts, peasant farming still often relied on a very basic level of equipment and capital, compared to market orientated agriculture elsewhere, particularly in Western Europe. These contrasts set up the ‘combined’ part of Trotsky’s analysis; development in Russia was not to be a simple matter of the new technology replacing what had become outdated. Rather, social and economic conflicts and problems that arose from both the ‘old’ society and the ‘new’ society existed simultaneously, creating extreme contrasts and revolutionary social effects that would not have been found where such distinct forms of social organisation were not ‘combined’ together.
Russia was not the only country in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries where advanced forms of capitalism created extreme economic dislocation and social crisis when crashing into societies that had not organically developed into capitalist economies over a long period of time. It was clear that in analysing recent Russian economic history, Trotsky was looking at a more general problem, with capitalism rapidly spreading ever more widely and deeply across the world. The theory of ‘uneven and combined development’ was therefore, in fact, generalised first by Trotsky himself, as well as his followers subsequently, to apply beyond Russia, for dealing with the unpredictable impacts of capitalism upon other non-European societies.
The purpose of the present essay is to take the insights that can be generated through the application of ‘uneven and combined development’, and extend the analysis further back in time, well before capitalism and the relatively developed world of the early-modern period. The argument here is that, in fact, the dynamics of uneven and combined development can be seen from the very beginning of settled economies. That is to say, the collision of new technology with social relations developed at an earlier stage of technology is a phenomenon reaching into the deep past of history.
These processes can be traced most clearly in the region where a variety of cultures were established in close proximity at the dawn of agriculture, around the Nile, Tigris and Euphrates rivers of the Fertile Crescent. Agriculture spread outwards from here, and its impact westwards shows different patterns in the periphery than in the core. As city based class societies established themselves in the latter region, their influence in turn was felt across the succeeding peripheries.
Various differential patterns of development can be traced through the Bronze and Iron ages as class relations extended and reproduced themselves away from the original core. Finally, the apogee of ancient class society in the western periphery came with the Roman Empire, but its demise was rooted in the same processes of uneven and combined development that can be discerned in the whole history of expanding civilisation that preceded it. Before tackling that long process, however, the forms in which history has been understood, and the importance of Trotsky’s insights to grasping the shape of history, need to be explored.
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Dominic Alexander is a member of Counterfire, for which he is the book review editor. He is a longstanding activist in north London. He is a historian whose work includes the book Saints and Animals in the Middle Ages (2008), a social history of medieval wonder tales, and articles on London’s first revolutionary, William Longbeard, and the revolt of 1196, in Viator 48:3 (2017), and Science and Society 84:3 (July 2020). He is also the author of the Counterfire books, The Limits of Keynesianism (2018) and Trotsky in the Bronze Age (2020).
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