16 July, 2006

Theorising International Relations: Marxism

Some time ago I said that I would take you all on a journey through the world of International Relations theory. Sadly, the train had barely left the station when it faced a long delay in its second stop, but now let’s get things moving again. And look, we are pulling in at the third stop, which is called Marxism. This is the third of International Relations’ big three theories, though it is very much the poor relation of Liberalism and Realism.

In broad outline you probably know what Marxism is all about. In some ways it is reducible to a string of buzzwords - class struggle, dialectics, historical materialism, modes of production, relations of production, alienation, base & superstructure, surplus value, and so on. The interesting question is how applicable all this is to world politics. In his own writings, Karl Marx largely confined himself to analysing power structures within countries, saying very little about how the workings of capitalism work internationally.

Still, Marx says more than nothing about the world as a whole - there is a fascinating passage in The Communist Manifesto of 1848 where he talk presciently of globalisation, and of capitalism’s insatiable urge to spread itself throughout the world, transforming all traditional societies it touches through the introduction of the cash nexus and capitalist relations of production. Nevertheless, the argument is somewhat unsophisticated in the light of later developments - capitalism is seen as turning the whole world into a simulacrum of the advanced industrial societies. The division of the world into a developed core and a (seemingly) permanently underdeveloped periphery does not look like something he envisaged.

After Marx’s death, others tried to develop his ideas and more complex Marxist ideas of relevance to International Relations began to develop. V.I. Lenin, in works such as Imperialism - The Highest Stage of Capitalism, talked about how through colonialism and overseas investment capitalism had become transnational, that in a sense entire countries had become bourgeois or proletarian. Lenin’s grasp of economics was much weaker than Marx’s, and his belief that colonialism was driving the world into world war seems a bit simplistic when you look at how the First World War actually started. Nevertheless, Lenin was in retrospect correct in identifying Russia as capitalism’s weakest link, in so far as it was both an imperial state and (through extensive inward investment) a de facto colony, thus making it the place where world revolution was most likely to begin.

Lenin’s legacy for Marxism was ultimately malign - by achieving his revolution and identifying Marxism (or Marxism-Leninism) as the state ideology, Marxism was tied to the USSR’s fortunes and forced through conceptual hoops to support whatever twist in policy the country’s leadership felt like espousing. The USSR’s quarter century rule by a psychopath also did not help. That end of Marxism gradually lost any intellectual credibility, and I doubt anyone in the world now seriously reads Marxist scholarship originating in the USSR.

In the west, however, a separate Marxist tradition developed in academia, divorced from the rough and tumble of actual politics. Marx himself would probably have been appalled by this development, given that he devoted as much effort to organising socialist movements as he did to research and writing, but the ivory tower academics have kept his ideas alive. Unfortunately for the International Relations student, the ideas of these intellectual Marxists have gone in many different directions. Some of these roads have produced lines of thought relevant to our discipline, such as Dependency Theory or various strands of Critical Theory. However, these have either evolved so far from original Marxist orthodoxy as to be essentially post-Marxist, or they have been almost completely discredited by the passage of time (or both). I would therefore question whether one could still talk of a "pure" Marxism as having any great relevance to International Relations.

Nevertheless, Marxism has one major contribution to our subject. When you look at writings in the Realist or Liberal tradition, the focus is all on diplomacy, states, armies, treaties, statesmen, and high politics. When you look at what Marxist writers talk about, you see stuff about economics, companies, exploitation, class, and so on. In some ways that makes Marxism look like it is from a completely different discipline to "true" International Relations. However, the question can be turned on its head by asking whether it is actually the old-school theories that are missing the point and ignoring what is actually relevant to the way the world works. Marxism is also important in that it explodes the idea that states are unitary actors working for the good of all their citizens - rather we see conflict within states which in turn is bound to affect how they operate internationally.

In the end, Marxism is probably more relevant to International Relations because of the questions it asks rather than the answers it provides. Others have taken those questions and answered them in ways that go beyond anything Marx would have envisaged.


jennifer said...

Thanks for that! It was very informative.

ian said...

It's probably also wrong or misleading on many points.

jennifer said...

That's ok. I'd rather be initially misled by you rather than some twat I don't like.

Paul said...

I've got two responses to your post on Marxism. This is the first, and it's basically about the goals of theory.

The main contribution of Marxism to International Relations (IR) is that is is the only mainstream theory to have emacipation at its heart. There is a lot of overlap between the various theories, but in the final analysis they are often incompatible because of their focus. The Marxist focus is on the emancipation of the worker.

For me, the question of theory comes down to the question - why are we bothering to study the world? Why is International Relations interesting? What are the important things that we want to address in studying IR? And of the mainstream theories, only Marxism has the question of fairness and justice at its core. The Marxist understanding of the world is of a world which is unfair, and it seeks to unearth the processes which sustain this basic unfairness. It is the only mainstream theory to find this unfairness to be systematic, and to attempt to directly address it.

In this sense, the Marxist theory of IR was the progenitor of an emancipatory theory of international relations. So even modern theories which have totally rejected the precepts of Marxism can be called 'post-Marxist' because of the fact that emancipation is at their core.

IR (Critical) theorist Andrew Linklater has said that three of the major themes of IR are power, order, and emancipation, because each of the three main theories of IR has one of these concepts at its heart. Realism is all about the power and the big guns, Liberalism is all about creating order through institutions, and Marxism is all about the emancipation of the working class.

An understanding of Marxism helps to demonstrate how a critical analysis first became developed in an IR context.

The second response will follow later if/ when I feel like it...

ian said...

Are you not still saying that Marxism is important, not because it is in and of itself "true", but because it gave rise to post-Marxist Critical Theory?

I feel that maybe Linklater is being disingenuous in his definitions of the other perspectives, and using the old trick of defining your enemy's ideas in ways that make them look bad - whatever about Realism, Liberalism is as much about justice as order, though it probably sees these as somewhat interchangeable.

ian said...

Jennifer, I may have to change the title of this blog to Twat-U-Like.

Paul said...

I think Marxism is important in itself because elements of it still exist within Critical Theory. In its original form it also does have a contribution to make. You can certainly reject parts of it, for example, the historicism (i.e the prediction that capitalism would inevitably be replaced). But this doesn't mean it has morphed into something else or that it should be renamed or dismissed.

I believe that the only appropriate theoretical approach is a synthetic one - i.e one that takes bits of theory from different places and applies them according to the local context. This is a rejecting of any Grand Narrative. But it doesn't render Marxism obselete - it just means that you won't find all the answers in any one theory – there’s no universal theory.

As to Linklater, Liberalism, and order, certainly Liberalism is about achieving justice THROUGH order. Linklater doesn't dispute this so it's a bit harsh to call him disingenuous. But the focus ends up being on the institutions rather than the concept of justice.

So, for example, Liberals would now look to the UN in regard to the current conflict between the state of Israel and Lebanese non-state actors. If their true focus was justice, they may be more likely to look at the underlying reasons for the problem. They are likely to look to the UN to act, despite huge conflicts of interest in terms of UN decision making. Examples: democratic defecit – primacy of Security Council over General Assembly – five permanent members of SC – bureaucratic.

It is true that some Liberals would be in favour of institutional reform, but I still think this is a very macro approach that does not have emancipation at its core. Emancipation may be a goal of Liberalism, but it doesn't have the same prominence as in the Marxist framework.

Re: Marxism being “in and of itself ‘true’ ”
I don't think any theory is true in and of itself - situations need to be taken on their own terms (an immanent critique) rather than approaching them with your mind locked onto an idea. Of course you can prepare an understanding of the world before you approach an issue but you need to be wary of universalism - of believing in hard and fast truths that can be pinned down. Let’s take the concept of

There are different types of democracy and these issues must be seen in context. For example, the introduction of democracy in Iraq has led to the introduction of many new actors in the region with a destabilising effect, and has suddenly sidelined many other actors. It has also been a vehicle for the involvement of Western private enterprise in the local economy. This may be viewed as a good thing by many, but this position is contested and democracy is not necessarily a positive force in itself, from the point of view of a major set of people.

Even those who appear to act within the Realist paradigm, such as Israel, only recognise democracy as positive in certain contexts. For example, despite their supposed democratisation project, the US, with Israel, are rejecting Hamas as a legitimate actor in the Middle East.

Must post all this on helicopter view… Looking forward to your response.

ian said...

I'm not really interested in political perspectives that do not see democracy as being a fundamentally good thing. The one thing worse than being ruled by an elected cockfarmer is being ruled by an unelected one. That's not to say that a global jihad for democracy is a good idea, as it serves to discredit the idea, but I feel that in general the world has seen enough of elitist and authoritarian regimes.

Helicopterview seems to be dead. Maybe you should have posted your comments there as well as here.

Paul said...

My idea of democracy is that it’s a fundamentally good thing, but other concepts of democracy might not be so good. The danger is that the term ‘democracy’ will be used to designate a certain country as being in good shape without taking a closer look at what’s going on there. You can’t label something as a democracy and then take it for granted that all is well.

Of course I am pro-democracy, but that doesn’t mean that democracy should be fetishised (I could stray into post-modernism here, but I’ll resist).

Democracy is only a good thing if/when it delivers what it is supposed to be delivering i.e access of citizens to decision making. There are issues with the practical delivery of this aim in advanced representative democracies as well as in non-democratic regimes.

The ultimate goal of Marxism (the original theory as opposed to state Marxism-Leninism) is to implement an advanced form of democracy. I think this also holds true with the IR theory of Marxism. The point I was making in my post above was that everything should be seen in context, and talking about a given regime as a democracy is meaningless unless the context is taken into account. To me, this is something that comes directly from Marxism.

The issue isn’t whether democracy is a fundamentally good thing, but how we understand democracy. Marxism gives a good set of tools for understanding issues like democracy with its economic focus. But I don’t think the Marxist IR theory is the final solution to everything – but I do think it has a valid contribution.

This is getting very serious – should probably throw in a cockfarmer or two… Haven’t posted on heli-view cos I can’t get onto gmail at the mo’ – I’ll throw it up at some other time.

Louise said...

Ian, do you know of specific scholars that have written on Marxism & IR theory? Are there purely non-Western scholars who have contributed to IR discourse?

ian said...

Louise, I can't remember any specifically marxist IR theorists off the top of my head. The surnames Linklater and Devetak spring to mind, but they might be more critical theorists (of whom more later). The thing with Marxism, I feel, is that it does not really exist anymore as a school of thought in IR, but it informs much of the thinking in other schools, notably the aforementioned critical theory but also the post postivist approaches generally (which I should really have covered by now).

You probably would get some names of marxist or marxist-inspired IR theorists from any introductory textbook.

As to non-Western IR theorists - I don't know where most IR theorists come from, so some of them could be non-Western, although I suspect they are all part of the academic community of the Western world, even if some of them react against the Western tradition bequeathed to us by The Enlightenment.