Does Marxism still provide a useful way of thinking about the international system?
Marx’s work particularly focussed on an analysis of capitalism rather than with the formation of states, he provided little in terms of an analysis of IR political theory leaving his ideas to be interpreted in a number of different ways. The lack of a particular focus on political theory in Marxist IR has been identified as “a long-standing deficiency that remains profoundly debilitating for Marxist theory in IR” (Davenport, 2011, p. 28).
Classical Marxist theories that emerged in the early 20th century marked the first examination of imperialism in the shadow of WWI led by notable figures such as Vladimir Lenin. (Pal, 2017). As capitalism became a major driving force, classical Marxist theories examined its relation to imperialism. This marked the emergence of the viewpoint of “imperialism as part of the dynamic of monopoly capitalism (Davenport, 2011).
Neo-Gramscian theory paints a picture of a state system which is a site of contestation for a range of conflicting social forces of production. This was an extension of the Gramscian concept of homogeny by Professor Cox. Neo-Gramscian theory envisions the replacement of a homogenous state by the idea of a “global civil society”. (Pal, 2017) an almost transnational approach where “a dominant class co-opts subaltern classes to its project of national development and maintains their support more by consent than coercion” (Davenport, 2011, p. 34).
The Washington consensus is an example of Neo-Gramscian theory, where key global powers who are seen as the champions of neoliberal economic policies, use their influence through institutions such as the IMF and World Bank. To promote policies of privatisation and free market capitalism in a dogmatic belief that developing countries should adapt market-led development strategies that will result in economic growth that will ‘trickle down’ for the benefit of all. Adoption of these neoliberal economic policies by the 4 tiger economies of: Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea highlighted a turning point and a shift away from the classical imperialism argument of violence and colonisation to a more coercive and consensual approach that is theorised in Neo-Gramscianism, that saw the four economies undergo rapid industrialisation and growth (Pal, 2017).
Another key Marxist theory is the world systems theory by Immanuel Wallerstein which emerged in the 1970’s which examines the development of relations between states. The theory distinguishes the emergence of three groups of states with the aim of understanding how states have developed and the subsequent creation of a system of dependency between each other. These relations of dependency and groups “required that we understand the world through broader units than states” (Pal, 2017, p. 44). The three groups in which he identified saw core states sit at the apex, this was a group of states that were democratic, had high wages and encouraged high level of investment and had welfare services (i.e. Western Europe and North America). Second on the list were semi-periphery sates which had authoritarian governments, low wages and poor welfare services (i.e. Latin America) and finally at the bottom were periphery states which had undemocratic governments, provided low wages and no welfare(i.e. Sub-Saharan and Central Africa). (Pal, 2017).
The dependency theory that arose in the world systems theory meant that in order for a capitalist society to flourish and succeed. The core states and some semi periphery states had to seize the means of productions and exploit the cheap labour and raw materials from the periphery sates in order to produce high profit consumption for all three groups of states. A cycle of exploitation and a reiteration of the Marxist argument of exploitation under capitalism. (Pal, 2017).
It can be argued that Imperialist theory is a constant motif in Marxism IR, from the first interpretation of classical imperialism to Neo-Gramscian theory and the world systems theory it is clear that in some way or another the theories explore the evolution of imperialism more so in an economic sense than in a political sense. (Davenport, 2011). Classical imperialism sought to understand how capitalism expanded and adapted to a world in the shadows of inter-imperial rivalry that was WWI, whilst Ian Wallerstein’s world systems theory updated the classical theories and challenged imperialism as a state led process and finally Neo-Gramscian theory redefining the concept of one state hegemonic imperialism.
Despite the contribution of Marxism in IR in the economic sphere and its criticism of the capitalism. It is quite limited as a political theory and fails to acknowledge some vital aspects of IR such as: Nationalism, Security, sovereignty and diplomacy. At its core is class struggle.
Davenport, A 2011, ‘Marxism in IR: Condemned to a Realist fate?’, European Journal of International Relations, vol. 19 no. 1, pp. 27-48.
Pal, M 2017, ‘Marxism’, International Relations Theory, 1st edn, E-International relations publishing, Bristol, England, part. 1 chap. 5 pp. 42-48.