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Passive revolution: a universal concept with geographical seats

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  07 March 2017

Chris Hesketh*
Senior Lecturer, International Political Economy, Oxford Brookes University
* Correspondence to: Chris Hesketh, Oxford Brookes University, Department of Social Sciences, 422a Gibbs Building, Gipsy Lane, Oxford, OX3 0BP. Author’s email:


In this article, I argue that Antonio Gramsci’s concept of passive revolution makes a foundational contribution to International Relations (IR), yet has been relatively under appreciated by the broader discipline. Within the Historical Sociology of International Relations, uneven and combined development has recently been postulated as a key trans-historical law that provides a social theory of the ‘international’. Drawing from, but moving beyond these debates, I will argue that passive revolution is a key conditioning factor of capitalist modernity. I will demonstrate how the concept of passive revolution is the element that explains the connection between the universal process of uneven development and the manner in which specific combinations occur within the capitalist era as geopolitical pressures, in tandem with domestic social forces become internalised into geographically specific state forms. It therefore offers a corrective to the frequently aspatial view that is found in much of the literature in IR regarding uneven and combined development. Additionally, passive revolution provides a more politicised understanding of the present as well as an important theoretical lesson in relation to what needs to be done to affect alternative trajectories of development.

© British International Studies Association 2017 

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1 Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, trans. and ed. Quentin Hoare and Graham Nowell-Smith (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1971), p. 117, Q10II§61. I have followed the international standard for referring to Gramsci’s work using the notebook (Q) as well as the note number (§). The concordance table for this can be found of the International Gramsci Society website, available at: {}.

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27 Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, p. 192, Q1§30.

28 Matin, ‘Redeeming the universal’, p. 355.

29 Gramsci, Prison Notebooks I, p. 128, Q1§43.

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51 Rioux, ‘Mind the (theoretical) gap’, p. 499.

52 Rosenberg, ‘Philosophical premises’, p. 586.

53 Van der Pijl, ‘Uneven and combined development’, p. 47 takes issue with this mode of inquiry and claims that: ‘A Marxist critique must always relate to the present.’

54 Callinicos and Rosenberg, ‘Uneven and combined development’, p. 94.

55 Neil Smith, Uneven Development: Nature, Capital and the Production of Space (3rd edn, London: Verso, 2010), p. 135.

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58 Neil Smith, ‘The geography of uneven development’, pp. 181–4.

59 Van der Pijl, ‘Uneven and combined development’, pp. 69–70.

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73 Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, p. 115, Q10II §61.

74 Gramsci, Prison Notebooks II, p. 180, Q4§38, emphasis added.

75 Morton, Unravelling Gramsci, p. 63.

76 Gramsci, Prison Notebooks III, p. 60, Q6§78, emphasis added.

77 Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, pp. 84–5, Q19§28.

78 Antonio Gramsci, ‘Some aspects of the southern question’, in Selections from Political Writings (1921–1926), trans. and ed. Quentin Hoare (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1978); Gramsci, Prison Notebooks I, p. 143, Q1§44.

79 Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, p. 90, Q19§28.

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89 Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, p. 58, Q19§24.

90 Ibid., pp. 106–8, Q15§59, 17.

91 Ibid., pp. 108–9, Q15§11.

92 Ibid., p. 118, Q10I§9.

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94 Morton, ‘Continuum’, p. 330.

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