In the series of International Relations Theories, In this article you are going to learn about the Marxist theory of International Relations. It is also one of the important contributions to the field of International Relations. This article will cover the key premises of Marx and the Marxist viewpoint regarding the functioning of the state. Additionally you will also learn about the Marxist and Theorists contributions in International Relations

If we compare Marxist understanding of international relations with realism and liberalism, it presents a rather unfamiliar view of international relations. It resonates with those presented in the foreign news pages of our newspapers and magazines, meaning what Marxists have seen is the underlying currents, not what is visibly seen or heard from newspapers, magazines, etc. It is something different.

Marxism focuses not only on how a state is actually behaving, but also on the structures of international relations and the underlying forces that are determining the structure or conditioning states to act in a particular manner within the structure.

Marxist theories aim to expose the deeper, indeed hidden truth of international relations and some of the unfamiliar events of world politics that are not common.

For example, when we think about international relations, we usually see it from the perspective of wars, treaties, international aid operations, etc. According to Marxism, they all occur within certain structures that have an enormous influence on all those items. So, what we see and hear about international relations or what we know about it is just the outward picture.

Marxist Viewpoint Regarding the Functioning of the State

1. Global Capitalist System Shapes the Structure of International Relations

Internally, there are certain structures that have a lot of influence on the events that take place within them; these are the structures of the global capitalist system. Marxist scholars believe that the global capitalist system largely determines the structure of international relations.

Any attempt to understand world politics must be based on a broader understanding of the processes that operate within global capitalism. To understand the functioning of the international system, one must understand the processes within global capitalism.

Without understanding capitalism, one cannot understand international structures and without understanding international structures, one cannot understand why and how states behave in a particular manner.

Marxist theorists also argue that the effects of global capitalism are to ensure that the powerful and wealthy continue to prosper at the expense of the powerless and poor.

2. Great Inequality in the World

They emphasize that the world is not equal, and countries are divided, with some countries being more resource-rich and economically powerful, while others are either developing or underdeveloped. The rich and powerful countries actually prosper at the expense of the powerless countries, leading to an unequal relationship at the international level.

Marxist scholars also argue that there is a great inequality in the world. In fact, the world is hierarchically structured, and all its structures and the countries or units within them share unequal relationships, with unequal powers, influence, and treatment. This can be seen from various angles if we analyze the world.

3. Wealth of a Few is Built on the Poverty of Many

Marxist theorists argue that the wealth of a few is built on the poverty of many. As Marx himself stated, “the accumulation of wealth at one pole results in the accumulation of misery, oppression, toil, ignorance, and brutality at the other pole.”

Therefore, when some countries are prosperous and their people are living a high quality of life, it is only because other countries are poor, and this poverty is not due to their own reasons but rather due to the structure of international relations.

Analysing Data on World Inequality

World Inequality Report 2022

To understand global inequalities, need to examine data

  • World Inequality Report published by IMF in 2022 provides insight
  • Poorest half of world’s population holds only 2% of global wealth
  • Richest 10% of people control 76% of world’s wealth
  • Wealthiest 10% receive over 50% of global income

Report highlights regional disparities in income inequality

  • Europe comparatively more equal than Middle East and North Africa
  • East Asia top 10% income share of 43%
  • Latin America top 10% income share of 55%
  • Findings demonstrate unequal distribution of wealth and income across regions and countries
  • Gross inequalities exist at both national and international levels.

Key Premises of Marx

1] Marx’s writings on International Affairs

Marx wrote extensively about international affairs, although his focus was not specifically on the topic. Instead, his primary focus was on the theorization of Marxism.

Although Marx was a prolific writer, his ideas evolved and changed over time. Thus, it is not surprising that his legacy has been open to numerous interpretations, leading to the emergence of various schools of thought that claim to be inspired by Marx or are linked to his legacy. Over time, these different interpretations have arisen under different circumstances and at different points in time.

Marxist theorists argue that the behavior of a state should be analyzed by considering both internal and external factors.

2] Marx’s Emphasis on Totality

According to Marx, the social world should be analyzed as a whole, rather than being divided into separate academic disciplines such as history, philosophy, economics, political science, sociology, and international relations.

This division, Marx argues, is arbitrary and unhelpful because all disciplines are interrelated and to fully understand the dynamics of any one discipline, a comprehensive understanding of all the disciplines is necessary.

The primary focus of Marxism is to analyze the social world as a totality.

Other Important Contribution of Marxism

1. Centrality of Economics

Marxist scholars have given a lot of importance to economics because they believe that economics determines the character of many other disciplines and the discourses within those disciplines.

According to them, none can be understood without the knowledge of others. In the current academic discourse, there is sometimes a demand for an interdisciplinary approach when trying to understand the disciplines of social sciences, as these disciplines are interrelated.

This idea was highlighted by Marx and other Marxist theorists, who argued that the disciplinary boundaries that characterize contemporary social sciences need to be transcended for a proper understanding of the dynamics of world politics.

2. Historical Materialism

Marxism’s important contribution is the materialist conception of history or Historical Materialism, where the central contention is that the processes of historical change are ultimately a reflection of economic development of society.

Marx gave a materialist interpretation of history, and he and his followers acknowledged that it is the material forces that determine the historical character.

According to them, material production is the main driving force of history. If one wants to analyze a particular society or its political systems, they will find that they are all connected to the material forces. Who owns or controls the material forces in society largely determines its history.

Marx identified the tension between the means of production and relations of production as the central dynamic, which together form the economic base of a given society.

The nature of the means of production and the relationship they generate with the rest of society largely determine the economic base. As the means of production develop, for example, through technological advancement, previous relations of production become outdated and lead to a process of social change, transforming the relations of production.

3. Base-Supertructure Theory

Marxism also gave rise to the base-superstructure theory, which helps to understand the behavior of states in international politics. According to this theory, developments in the economic base act as a catalyst for broader transformation of society as a whole, as Marx argued that the mode of production of material life conditions the social, political, and intellectual process in general. Whosoever dominates the economic base in a society will determine the character of its political institutions, social institutions, culture, etc.

In any society, the economic class that dominates the base will determine the character of its politics, political parties, ideologies, ruling class, political structure, institutions, art, religion, social relations, and culture. The rich and economically influential class determine the overall character of a state.

Marx argued that there is a mechanical causality between the base and superstructure, and changes in society, culture, art, and institutions emerge because of the changing relationships and nature of the forces dominating the base.

The transition from feudalism to capitalism in medieval Europe is an example of this causality. The global civil society, which emerged in the 18th century as a part of capitalistic modernity, is also a result of the changing relationships and nature of the forces dominating the base.

Important Contributions by Marxists to International Relations Theory

1. World Systems Theory

The first significant contribution of Marxists to international relations theory is World Systems Theory. The first attempt to apply Marxist ideas to the international sphere was made by Lenin in his 1917 pamphlet, “Imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism.”

Lenin accepted much of Marx’s basic thesis, but he argued that the character of capitalism had changed since the publication of the first volume of “Capital” in 1867. He believed that capitalism had entered a new stage, which he called its highest and final stage, with the development of Monopoly capitalism.

Under Monopoly capitalism, a two-tier structure had developed in the world economy, with dominant core countries exploiting peripheral countries. This division had led to a lack of automatic harmony of interest between all workers.

Lenin’s views were developed by Latin American dependency school scholars, particularly Raul Prebisch. Prebisch argued that countries in the periphery were suffering as a result of the declining terms of trade.

He suggested that the price of manufactured goods increased more rapidly than that of raw materials, creating a dependency relationship between certain countries around the world. This relationship was unequal, biased, and exploitative in nature.

Prebisch’s arguments were later developed by writers such as Andre Gunder Frank, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, and Wallerstein. These views further extended and developed the Marxist contributions to international relations theory.

2. Gramscianism

The second significant contribution of Marxist scholars is Gramscianism. This Marxist theory emerged from the works of Italian Marxist scholar Antonio Gramsci. Gramsci played a crucial role in making Marxism relevant to changing circumstances.

In his “Prison Notebooks” written in 1971, Gramsci tried to understand why it was so difficult to promote revolution in Western Europe. Despite Marx’s prediction that revolution and the transition to socialism would occur first in the most advanced capitalist societies, it was the Bolsheviks of comparatively backward Russia that made the first breakthrough. This led Gramsci to study the conditions and reasons behind this phenomenon.

He analyzed the reasons for the failure of subsequent efforts by revolutionaries in Western Europe and Central Europe to emulate the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia.

Gramsci’s answer to this issue revolved around his concept of hegemony, which was his conceptualization of power. He argued that power in Western European countries was not only maintained through coercion, as most Marxist thinking at the time focused on, but also through consent. The ruling class creates and recreates hegemony by allowing the moral, political, and cultural values of the dominant group to be widely accepted and internalized by subordinate groups and classes as their own. This is achieved through institutions of civil society such as the media, education system, churches, and voluntary organizations.

Gramsci argued that Marxist theory should take into account the importance of superstructural phenomena, including the cultural, political, and moral values that are popularized and perpetuated by these institutions. He used the term “historical block” to describe the mutually reinforcing and reciprocal relationships between the social and economic relationships at the base level and the political and cultural practices at the superstructural level that together underpin a given order.

To counter this prevailing hegemony in Western democratic societies, Gramsci suggested a counter-hegemonic struggle in civil society. This involves undermining the prevailing hegemony and constructing an alternative historical block, thereby changing the conditions and value preferences in the society and making a revolution or larger transformation possible.

3. Robert Cox’s Analysis of World Order

Another important contribution by Marxist scholars to the field of International Relations is by Robert Cox and his unique analysis of the World Order. Robert Cox was a Canadian scholar who developed a gramscian approach that combined a critique of prevailing theories of international relations and international political economy, and also attempted to develop an alternative framework for the analysis of world politics.

In his seminal 1981 article, “Social Forces, State, and World Orders: Beyond International Relations Theory,” Cox famously stated, “Theory is always for someone and for some purpose.” This means that theories are not neutral or objective, but rather serve a purpose and are constructed to serve a specific objective.

According to Cox, knowledge cannot be objective and timeless, as contemporary realist scholars would like to claim. Instead, knowledge is specific to a particular time, place, and context. Cox argued that all theories of international relations, including realism and neo-realism, serve the interests of the ruling elites in developed states who wish to maintain the status quo. These theories play an important role in legitimizing the status quo, thereby handling any demand for change.

Cox presented an alternative to the problem-solving theories that accept the parameters of the present order by offering a critical theory. Critical theory seeks to challenge the prevailing order by analyzing and supporting social processes that could potentially lead to emancipatory changes.

According to Cox, successive dominant powers in the international system have shaped the world order to suit their interests, not only through their coercive capabilities but also by generating broad consent for the order, even among those who are disadvantaged by it.

For example, Western countries have popularized certain values, such as free trade, and convinced the entire world population that they are in the common interest of all. This hegemonic idea has been popularized so widely that it has been accepted as common sense. However, Cox argued that free trade is actually only in the interest of the hegemonic powers, such as the United Kingdom and the United States.

4. Development of Critical Theory

Another important contribution by Marxist scholars to the field of international relations is critical theory. Both Gramscianism and critical theory have their roots in Western Europe in the 1920s and 1930s, a time and place in which Marxism was forced to come to terms with the failure of several attempted revolutionary uprisings and the rise of fascism.

During the 1920s and 30s, a number of changes occurred in Europe, including the emergence and popularity of fascism and the failure of socialist uprisings to achieve success. This gap in Marxist theory led to a difference in focus between the two strands, with those influenced by Gramsci tending to be more concerned with issues related to the subfield of international political economy, while critical theorists focused on questions regarding international society, international ethics, and international security.

The development of critical theory can be traced back to the work of the Frankfurt School, a group of left-wing German Jews who were forced into exile by the Nazi rise to power in the early 1930s. Much of their most influential work was produced in the United States.

The leading lights of the first generation of the Frankfurt School included Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, and Herbert Marcuse. A subsequent generation has taken up their legacy and developed it in innovative ways, with Jürgen Habermas regarded by many as the most influential contemporary social theorist.

5. Critical Security Studies

Another contribution by Marxist scholars in international relations is critical security studies. This trend in the study of security issues has gained prominence in recent years, particularly through the work of Keith Krause, Mike Williams, Richard Wyn Jones, and others.

Critical security studies combines the influence of Gramscianism and critical theory with elements of peace research and alternative defense thinking. It provides a new perspective on the study of international relations, rejecting the dominant arguments presented by liberal and realist scholars.

Critical security studies places individual human beings at the center of its analysis and argues that states are part of the security problem rather than a provider of security.

New Marxism, as developed by Justin Rosenberg and Benoît Dubreuil, has used key elements of Marx’s writing to critique other theoretical approaches to international relations and globalization theory. There is a long list of Marxist scholars and their contributions to the field that have attempted to address contemporary problems with unique insights. Their analysis is not superficial and focuses on the forces operating behind state actions and behavior.

In conclusion, Marxist scholars and theorists have contributed immensely to the field of international relations and their contributions are ongoing.

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