Uneven and combined ecological‑economic development

This is the seventh part of the series 'Ecosocialist Strategies in the Anthropocene' by Christian Zeller. Long Read.


If we understand the global interdependencies in the dynamics of the Earth system, the global economy and societies the world system, an ecosocialist strategy must advance transnational action. That is the conclusion of the previous articles in this series. But how can disparate developments at the regional, national and global levels be understood as mutually interwoven? In this article, I present a proposal for an expanded comprehension of globally uneven and combined development and summarise important issues and strategic proposals presented in the previous articles of this series as a coherent thesis.

Theory of uneven and combined development

Not only global warming but the capitalist world economy must be understood as a planetary totality, a totality with its almost innumerable spatially and socially disparate interrelationships. Hardly any significant phenomena can be analysed in detail without looking at the whole, the Earth system, the global economy and the world society.

Global warming is global, but its effects are uneven in space, time and society. A central dimension of this inequality is a politically disastrous tendency. The early industrialised, imperialist countries as well as the wealthy are responsible for most greenhouse gas emissions. At the same time, they are less affected by global warming. The post-colonial and dependent countries as well as the poor are responsible for a relatively small share of greenhouse gas emissions, but suffer much more from global heating.

The early industrialised imperialist countries are historically to blame for global heating. In the meantime, China has already reached a similar level of emissions per capita as some industrialised countries, but it is still not even half as high as that of the USA. Nevertheless, China also has a key responsibility to immediately reduce global greenhouse gas emissions.

The theory of uneven and combined development, going back to Leon Trotsky, helps us to analyse these current processes. However, it must be extended to include the physical component of the Earth system and planetary boundaries in the Anthropocene. It is a matter of connecting the totality of the Earth system with the totality of the global capitalist economy theoretically-analytically and politically-strategically. With the following explanations, I formulate some considerations for an ecological expansion of the understanding of uneven and combined development.

Our understanding of uneven development is derived from theories of classical imperialism and has the following three dimensions since the emergence of an imperialist-dominated capitalist world system.[1]

  1. Corporations in the imperialist countries’ structure the global division of labour and thus the inequality in the world system.
  2. Imperialist countries are rivals to each other. They carry out this rivalry in different ways. This led to two world wars. After World War II, the other powers accepted the hegemony of the USA, under whose “protective umbrella” they tried to assert their own and common interests.
  3. Imperialist countries jointly and in rivalry exercise their dominance over the colonial, post-colonial and countries woven in different relations of dependency. This enables transnationally operating capital to appropriate values through various channels on a global scale and to transfer them to the imperialist centres.

Leon Trotsky expanded these three relations of uneven development with three dimensions of combined development.[2]

  1. Due to the totality of the world economy, all developments at the national and regional level can only be understood in the context of global developments.
  2. Subsequently, countries do not necessarily follow the early industrialised imperialist countries in their development. They can, to an extent, leapfrog development constellations in their social relations, modes of production, institutions and technologies and thus take a specific development path.
  3. The societies of the dependent countries combine different developments and phenomena. Thus, the simplest forms of agricultural production, subsistence economies and feudal-like relations of personal subjugation can coincide with highly modern and spatially extraordinarily concentrated forms of industrial mass production and capitalist surplus value exploitation. The archaic and the modern, the sedentary and the disruptive overlap, merge and mix in all aspects of social formations. These processes led to the proletariat, which was already highly concentrated in some cities before World War I, acquiring a more pronounced consciousness of its own political capabilities than the much broader and bigger working class in the capitalist core countries. It was precisely this constellation that made it possible for the proletariat, in alliance with an impoverished and lawless peasantry under the leadership of the Russian Social Democratic Workers Party (Bolsheviks), to initiate a revolutionary takeover of power in October 1917.[3]

Trotsky developed his strategy of permanent revolution based on this understanding of uneven and combined development and his experience of the revolutionary uprising of 1905 and the revolution of 1917 towards the end of the 1920s. Therefrom he founded three strategic approaches.[4]

  1. In dependent and peripheral countries, proletarian revolutions based on an alliance with the peasantry must both take on the historical tasks of the bourgeois revolution (including creating democratic institutions and carrying out agrarian reform) and proceed uninterruptedly, in a sense permanently, to measures that bring about a socialist transformation of societies.
  2. Because the imperialist powers already dominate the world capitalist system, an independent, democratic capitalist path of development is barred to the dependent countries. These countries will not be able to transform themselves into rich countries under capitalist conditions.
  3. Revolutions in individual countries can only hold their ground if the revolutionary processes expand and take hold above all in the imperialist centre countries. Otherwise, they remain isolated and cannot carry out a socialist transformation. Without a material basis and socialist democracy, state and party bureaucracies assert themselves in a counterrevolutionary process. These block socialist transformation and will sooner or later reintroduce capitalist relations.[5]

This understanding of uneven and combined development extends my explanations about non-linear historical development and the need for a revolutionary perspective in Article 4 of this series. The phases of empty time, as well as the phases of condensed time with their abrupt turns and historical leaps into new social constellations, happen in the context of uneven and combined development. That is, empty, condensed and leaping times happen unevenly around the globe on the one hand, but combined and intertwined on the other.

Ecological-economic uneven and combined development

These theoretical considerations must now be expanded with the material and ecological foundations of the capitalist mode of production in mind. I only add two selected aspects here.

Uneven and combined causation and the concern of global heating

Global heating happens in a socially disastrous and politically challenging concatenation. The early industrialised and imperialist countries bear the greatest responsibility for global heating but are more able to adapt to its consequences because of their social wealth, infrastructure and, to some extent, geographical location. This gives the ruling discourse of “climate impact adaptation” a material basis and a certain appeal in the imperialist countries.

The societies of post-colonial and dependent countries have made a small contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions so far, but they are disproportionately more affected by global heating and experience a concatenation of social catastrophes. This dynamic aggravates global dependency relations and further exacerbates social contradictions making them irresolvable.

The same uneven and combined causation and concern exists between social classes. The wealthy and the owners of capital have driven the fossilisation of society and thus global heating through their control of the processes of production, circulation and consumption. They have disproportionately better possibilities to adapt to the changed physical conditions than the workers and the poor, especially in the dependent and postcolonial countries. This means that defossilisation is a central component of the class struggle and anti-imperialist resistance, regardless of whether the corresponding social forces and movements recognise it.

Uneven and combined fossil development until the questioning of society

Capitalist development is fossil development. The early industrialised imperialist countries used fossil fuels to facilitate their industrialisation. Increasing mechanisation and automation relied on fossil fuels. Living labour and biotic energy were replaced by machines powered by fossil energy. [6] Through the emission of greenhouse gases, they forced the heating of the earth. They are thus primarily responsible for the social catastrophes associated with global heating, which, however, disproportionately affect poor countries.

In the history of the social democratic and communist workers’ movement, the orthodox doctrine dominated for a long time that a certain level of productive forces, thus material and intellectual development, was the prerequisite for a socialist society. Now we see that the productive force of fossil energy has long since turned into a destructive force. The comprehensive fossil development of world society also heralds the end of society.

Emerging countries, the dependent and post-colonial countries, are following the fossil development path. Imperialist countries, now including Russia and China, have also pushed the rest of the world onto the fossil development path through their investments, trade and international treaties. But as greenhouse gas emissions must be abruptly reduced, the emerging and poor countries are also blocked from following the fossil development path. Since the imperialist countries are unwilling to reduce their emission budgets according to their historical debt, the rest of the world is left with no room to continue or expand its fossil infrastructure.

A particular irony of combined development is that China, based on its earlier, specific non-capitalist development and its current state-capitalist dynamics, may potentially be able to outstrip the early industrialised countries in applying mitigation and adaptation strategies, but without taking the necessary steps towards defossilisation in a timely and sufficient manner.

The historical implications of uneven and combined fossil development are becoming apparent. Because the early industrialised imperialist countries, as well as the countries with bureaucratic dictatorships, have driven fossil development, development is now threatening to break off worldwide and give way to regression.

Green modernised capitalism is imperialist

The project of green-modernised capitalism expresses another dimension of uneven and combined development. The hugely increased demand for non-fossil energy resources will lead to a massive expansion of the extraction of raw materials. To depress the prices of these input factors, imperialist countries will resort to neo-colonial methods, maybe leading as far as indirect or even direct military control of “interesting” territories. This means that green-modernised imperialism will not improve the development opportunities of dependent countries, but limit them. Green capitalism is necessarily imperialist.

The international division of labour remains highly unequal and hierarchical even with “green modernisation”. Corporations from the metropolitan countries were able to escape the pressure on their profitability through a massive expansion of direct and portfolio investments, as well as through a vertical decomposition of their value chains and the enforcement of hierarchical supply relations. In this way, they took advantage of the global pool of available labour while exerting additional pressure on wages.[7]

Any (left) Green New Deal faces a fundamental dilemma in this context. To avoid the flight into direct and portfolio investments, which are neither ecologically sound nor less exploitative but more profitable, the profits from investments in domestic green assets would have to be higher than those from foreign direct and portfolio investments abroad. However, profitability in the renewable energy and large-scale energy storage sectors depends on the extent to which it is possible to depress the prices of raw materials, thus, to maintain hierarchical imperialist relations. This would contradict any global perspective of solidarity. This means that even reform-oriented Green New Deals and ideas of socio-ecological transition are ultimately part of the imperialist world order, if they do not initiate a break with the accumulation of capital.

Ecosocialist strategy in uneven and combined development

To paraphrase Rosa Luxemburg’s sharpened statement during World War I, the current alternative is “ecosocialism or barbarism”.[8] There is neither an “eternal” capitalism nor an objective development trend towards socialism. The development is open. It is up to us to shape it. Organised social forces can intervene and change society. Based on the processes described above, elements of a transnational ecosocialist strategy in financially dominated Anthropocene capitalism (cf. Article 3 of this series) can be outlined.

Socio-ecological conversion and dismantling

Defossilisation is urgent globally. Individual countries, as well as regions and cities, must start taking effective measures immediately. However, the corresponding social and industrial conversion can only be successful on a continental and global scale.

In imperialist countries, comprehensive industrial conversion and dismantling programmes must be implemented at once. This also applies to Russia and China. At the same time, the imperialist countries must pay their ecological debt with reparations to the dependent and post-colonial countries. The fossil development path must be abandoned in a short time. This process requires the social appropriation of key industries and the financial sector, the building of counter-power up to dual power and finally the disempowerment of the bourgeois class.

This revolutionary process opens the opportunity to break with the capitalist mode of production and shape an ecosocialist path of development. In the face of capitalist competition and rivalry between states, defossilisation under capitalist auspices is impossible. Therefore an effective conversion policy must at the same time have an anti-capitalist dynamic and proceed “uninterruptedly” or “permanently” in the direction of ecosocialist transformation.

In the previous understanding of uneven and combined development as well as permanent revolution, either no attention was paid to technological paths or it was assumed that a socialist upheaval of society would lead to an increase in the development of productive forces and that technological development, inhibited under capitalist conditions, would finally unfold more freely in the service of society. Even Trotsky adhered very much to this productivist idea. [9]

Technologies and technological development are not neutral, but an expression of social conditions and competitive structures. The conversion of the energy system, as well as industrial conversion and dismantling, can only be successful if energy, production and transportation technologies can be brought onto a non-fossil development path. An ecosocialist transformation of society thus also includes a far-reaching technological path change. But this path change can only succeed if technological development is subjected to social debate, design and control.

In contrast to previous revolutionary attempts, an ecosocialist transformation involves not only political, social and economic reorganisation, but also the transformation of the entire productive apparatus of society, including reproduction. What revolutionary theorists in the early 20th century and until the 1970s still denied, but Marx to some extent already recognised is now obvious: productive forces can also be destructive forces.

Without an anti-capitalist break, socio-ecological transformation remains impossible in the peripheral countries

It is not for the imperialist countries to deny or impede independent fossil-based development in the emerging and dependent countries. At the same time, it is ecologically unsustainable for these countries to continue the fossil development path. It is necessary for them to abandon or skip this path for ecological reasons. In the case of Russia, Lenin opposed the idea of letting the bourgeoisie play the leading role in capitalist modernisation. [10] Trotsky, in his strategy of permanent revolution elaborated in the late 1920s, argued that under the leadership of the bourgeoisie and capitalist conditions, the democratic and social tasks in the peripheral countries were insoluble.[11]

Similarly, it can be said today that under capitalist conditions, the social-ecological transformation remains blocked for peripheral countries. In the same way, the bourgeoisie is not in a position to lead a socio-ecological transformation. To break off or leapfrog fossil fuel development, an anti-capitalist revolution is necessary in these countries, which opens up the chance of ecosocialist development for them.

The question of the social basis of this revolution is crucial. For Trotsky and Lenin, the revolutionary subject was the workers in alliance with the poor peasants. The global expansion of capital has caused the working class in peripheral and dependent countries to grow enormously and is now potentially stronger than ever before. However, in many places, it is peasants, landless and indigenous people who are leading ecological struggles, without these always being declared as ecological or climate-political.[12] Thus, an unresolved challenge remains the question of how the huge class of workers in the megacities of, for example, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Iran, Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, Nigeria, South Africa and Egypt, form themselves as revolutionary subjects capable of leading and sustaining an ecosocialist transformation.[13]

However, the diverse and heterogeneous class of workers can only mature into a political subject that can successfully win the test of power against national and international capital in alliance with peasants, landless and indigenous people. In many countries, informal workers, mainly women, make up a large part of the working class. This raises the question of how these segments of working people can develop their struggles as effective subjects and connect with other movements.

Uneven and combined development of consciousness

In both the imperialist and the emerging and peripheral countries, there is a gigantic gap between the measures that need to be taken to limit global heating to 1.5°C and consciousness about the need for these measures. There is a lack of awareness among members of the working class about the effectiveness of their own social activities.

Where is it most likely that a socially broad-based consciousness for an anti-capitalist rupture and ecosocialist transition can be formed? The understanding of uneven and combined development presented here and the experiences of the past decades suggest that more people in the peripheral countries are conscious that an anti-capitalist rupture is needed and possible. Therefore, such revolutionary awakenings are more likely in these countries to occur.[14] However, the material possibilities for an ecosocialist overcoming of the capitalist relations of domination are incomparably better in the metropolitan countries, although the fossil development path has dug itself deeper into these societies.

Another question derives from this: how is ecological consciousness mediated with the consciousness around necessary answers to everyday concerns that at first seem immediate? How do workers develop an ecosocialist consciousness from concerns about job security, working conditions, the meaning of work, everyday mobility needs and constraints, housing conditions, the quality of free time?

It is expected that people with experience in reproductive and caring work are more likely to develop an ecological consciousness than the majority of male workers in the bastions of fossil industries. How do we deal with this disparity of consciousness and how can we merge social, ecological and feminist concerns both remain a major challenge for ecosocialist organisations.

Consciousness can also take leaps backwards, going through a regression. Many people in the imperialist centres, especially in the richest countries, cling to illusions and illusory worlds and ignore the socially produced global heating or even the Corona pandemic. They rely on maintaining their (imperial) lifestyle as long as possible and turn against those who they assume endanger this lifestyle, for example, migrants, as well as environmentalist and feminist movements.

One of the biggest problems is the continuing ignorance, or at least massive underestimation, of the ecological challenges by the remnants of the classical labour movement in the imperialist centres. The trade union bureaucracies subordinate themselves to competition policies of the big capital fractions in their countries, which amounts to opening up markets at the expense of others. This is why in many cases they oppose socio-ecological transformation. They are partly responsible for the insufficient awareness among workers of environmental destruction.

Revolutionary ecosocialist movements in the imperialist states must resolutely oppose these tendencies. Global solidarity is to be built urgently. The resistance of small farmers and the landless in the dependent regions and countries against land grabbing is an important component of a global climate justice strategy. The climate justice movement in the imperialist countries must show solidarity with the movements in the global South that oppose the extractive looting of their habitats or fight for the local population to control the extractive and processing industries themselves and operate them according to ecological criteria. This underlines how important it is to also look at the material composition of production processes.

Closing the gap: social appropriation

The prominent task of ecosocialist organisations is to develop political proposals, demands and strategies that contribute to closing the gap between necessary measures and consciousness of their necessity. Ecosocialists must promote processes that enable the working class constituting itself as the subject of an anti-capitalist rupture in alliance with other exploited and oppressed classes.

Against the ecological destruction and everyday life of capitalist exploitation, movements may increasingly emerge and revolts break out, putting life before profit in very different ways. Resistance to fossil fuels, road projects, environmentally destructive industries, land grabs as well as privatisation raise the same basic question: life or profit? These mobilisations can appeal in broad alliances, including as part of trade unions, to broad sections of the population. The health of workers is a central concern here.

How can production processes and work procedures be organised in a way that does not endanger the health of workers and residents in the surrounding regions? This is a central ecological concern that trade unions forget too often because they are more concerned about the competitiveness of companies than the health of their members and workers.

The crucial question is: how can we succeed not only in spreading the right messages but also in encouraging people to empower themselves and thus really shift the social balance of power? A key problem is the articulation and organisation of workers in workplaces. Only they have the potential power to stop production and push through an ecological conversion from below.

The perspective of democratic social appropriation offers a conceptual and practical bridge. It places the property question at the centre of these struggles. The struggle for public housing, for the expropriation of real estate corporations, for liveable neighbourhoods, for public space, for a good social infrastructure with care and welfare facilities, for the expansion of public transport, for the control and socio-ecological reorganisation of production processes, for public control of energy corporations and the phase-out of fossil fuels; all these struggles include the concern for democratic design and social appropriation.

Social appropriation ranges from small disputes at the level of neighbourhoods and workplaces to the democratic socialisation of the automobile, railway, steel and financial corporations. It is a method, political strategy and real practice all at the same time. The central concern of this approach is to do everything that supports and strengthens the self-activity and self-empowerment of affected people.

From dual power in one country to transnational and continental dual power

The crisis that results in dual power is not limited to an economic crisis or an immediate conflict between labour and capital. The revolutionary crisis is thus not only a social crisis, but a comprehensive crisis of the system of domination in one or more countries. Compatible with the previous understanding of unequal and combined development and permanent revolution is the insight that an ecosocialist upheaval in one or more countries must immediately internationalise when social conflicts come to a head in order to succeed.

But what are the geographical scales of a revolutionary crisis? In Marx’s, Engels’s, Luxemburg’s, Lenin’s and Trotsky’s understanding, a revolutionary crisis arises in the national arena, which forms the framework for the struggle for hegemony, and is then to develop in the context of a world revolutionary process. Today, the question is more complex. On the one hand, capitalist globalisation, with its intertwined value chains, innovation systems and communication spaces, has interwoven national, continental and global spaces. On the other hand, the ecological rift and fractures in the Earth system require swift global responses.

A revolutionary crisis in one country would instantaneously take on an international dimension and demand economic, social, political and ecological responses. But in Europe, it is questionable whether dual power constellations and revolutionary crises can arise at all within a national framework. Due to the close interconnection of production systems, the common institutional order of the EU, including the common currency, as well as the media connections, it is conceivable that the global disputes about the appropriate fight against global warming will arise on a continental level into situations not only of dual power but of multiple poles of power.

This can lead to confusing or even chaotic situations. There is no historical experience of this. This possibility, however, would present ecosocialist organisations, social movements, trade unions and the self-organised organs of counter-power with completely new challenges, but at the same time it would also open up hitherto unknown opportunities.

The decisive factor is how ecosocialists organise themselves and prepare for future conflicts. This is the topic of the next and last article in this series.


[1] (Lenin 1917a; Mandel 1972: 307ff; Davidson 2018a: 33)

[2] (Trotzki 1931/1973: 15-23; Löwy 1987: 86; Davidson 2006; 2018b: 303ff)

[3] (u.a. Trotzki 1931/1973: 38)

[4] (Trotzki 1930)

[5] I refrain from a more precise theoretical determination of the bureaucratic dictatorships and authoritarian command economies in the Soviet Union, China and the other countries that underwent a change in the property order after World War II. This is not necessary for further argumentation. This differentiation would be relevant if it comes to explaining the specific fossil-based growth regime in these societies.

[6] (Altvater 2006: 79f; 2010: 138f; Malm 2016: 11f, 16)

[7] (Durand und Gueuder 2018)

[8] (Luxemburg 1916)

[9] See my critique of Trotsky's remarks (1924) in Zeller (2020: 50f)

[10] (Lenin 1917b)

[11] (Trotzki 1930)

[12] (Löwy 2016: 141-149; Vierte Internationale 2019: 20-24)

[13] Siehe hierzu das neue Buch (Dale, et al. 2021).

[14] (Dale, et al. 2021)


Altvater, Elmar (2006): Das Ende des Kapitalismus, wie wir ihn kennen. Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik (2), S. 171-182

Altvater, Elmar (2010): Der große Krach oder die Jahrhundertkrise von Wirtschaft und Finanzen von Politik und Natur. Münster: Verlag Westfälisches Dampfboot, 262 S.

Dale, Gareth; Barker, Colin und Davidson, Neil (Hrsg) (2021): Revolutionary Rehearsals in the Neoliberal Age. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 448 S.

Davidson, Neil (2006): From Uneven to Combined Development. In: B. Dunn und H. Radice (Hrsg.): 100 Years of Permanent Revolution. London: Pluto Press. S. 10-26.

Davidson, Neil (2018a): The “Law” of Uneven and Combined Development: Part 1. East Central Europe 45 (1), S. 13. https://brill.com/view/journals/eceu/45/1/article-p13_13.xml

Davidson, Neil (2018b): The “Law” of Uneven and Combined Development: Part 2. East Central Europe 45 (2-3), S. 301. https://brill.com/view/journals/eceu/45/2-3/article-p301_301.xml

Durand, Cédric und Gueuder, Maxime (2018): The Profit–Investment Nexus in an Era of Financialisation, Globalisation and Monopolisation: A Profit-Centred Perspective. Review of Political Economy 30 (2) 2018/04/03, S. 126-153. https://doi.org/10.1080/09538259.2018.1457211

Lenin, Wladimir Ilitsch (1917a): Der Imperialismus als höchstes Stadium des Kapitalismus. Werke, Band 22. 15. Auflage, 1975. Berlin/DRR: Dietz Verlag, 191-309 S.

Lenin, Wladimir Ilitsch (1917b): Über die Aufgaben des Proletariats in der gegenwärtigen Revolution (Aprilthesen). In: W. I. Lenin (Hrsg.): Werke Band 24. Ausgabe 1959. Berlin/DDR: Dietz Verlag. S. 1-8. Originalpublikation: Prawda, Nr. 26, 7. (20.) April 1917.

Löwy, Michael (1987): Revolution ohne Grenzen. Frankfurt a. M.: isp-Verlag, 240 S.

Löwy, Michael (2016): Ökosozialismus: Die radikale Alternative zur ökologischen und kapitalistischen Katastrophe. Hamburg: Laika Verlag, 192 S.

Luxemburg, Rosa (1916): Die Krise der Sozialdemokratie. Gesammelte Werke (Band 4). Berlin: Dietz Verlag (1979). Originalpublikation: verfasst 1915 im Gefängnis, ursprünglich publiziert durch Verlagsdruckerei Union, Zürich.

Malm, Andreas (2016): Fossil Capital. The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming. London: Verso, 496 S.

Mandel, Ernest (1972): Der Spätkapitalismus. Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp Verlag, 544 S.

Trotzki, Leo (1924): Literatur und Revolution. Wien: Verlag für Literatur und Politik (Mehring Verlag GmbH, 1994, 517 S.). Originalpublikation: 1923.

Trotzki, Leo (1930): Die permanente Revolution. Berlin: Verlag der Zeitschrift Die Aktion (Ergebnisse und Perspektive. Die permanente Revolution. Europäische Verlagsanstalt, 1971), 164 S. Originalpublikation: November 1929.

Trotzki, Leo (1931/1973): Geschichte der russischen Revolution. Erster Teil: Februarrevolution 1. Frankfurt am Main: Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, 1-400 S. Originalpublikation: S. Fischer Verlag, Berlin, 1931.

Vierte Internationale (2019): Die kapitalistische Zerstörung der Umwelt und die ökosozialistische Alternative“ , Resolution des 17. Weltkongresses der Vierten Internationale. Köln: Internationale Sozialistische Organisation (IS0), Sozialistische Alternative (SOAL), 40 S.

Zeller, Christian (2020): Revolution für das Klima. Warum wir eine ökosozialistische Alternative brauchen. München: Oekom Verlag, 248 S.

Join the discussion