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5.1: The Basics of Marxism

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  • Marxist concepts are all connected by the common goal to contribute to what they perceive as the greater good of humankind and its environment. To borrow the words of Adrienne Rich (2002, 65), theory is the seeing of patterns, showing the forest as well as the trees – theory can be a dew that rises from the earth and collects in the rain cloud and returns to earth over and over. But if it doesn’t smell of the earth, it isn’t good for the earth.

    In other words, Marxists must remain informed and reflective of the basic and most common aspects of societies and their environment. This also means that if the industrial revolution (and capitalism in general) smells of burning coal, overcrowded factories and petrol fumes, the smells of the next revolution should be less deadly, less polluting and more protective of the earth. To understand Marxism, we need to grasp the basic elements of Marx’s innovations regarding the origins and functioning of capitalism. In addition, we must understand that those origins and functioning can simultaneously happen at the domestic and international level. Combining these tasks leads to arguably the most important contribution Marxism offers to IR: that the capitalist mode of production and the modern sovereign states system (that emerged roughly at the same time) are not natural or inevitable events. They are interdependent products of particular historical conditions and social relations. The work of Marxists is to map and retrace those conditions and social relations and to figure out how the capitalist mode of production and the sovereign states system emerged – as two sides of the same coin, as different coins or maybe as different currencies. Debates on the degree of interdependence between these two major historical phenomena may be ongoing, but Marxism’s achievement in IR has been to stop us from thinking about them separately. Marxism also advises that concepts are not just meant to help us understand the world – they should also help us change it.

    To explain Marxism in IR, we need to start with Marx’s main theory for the development of capitalism: historical materialism. Most simply, historical materialism asserts that human beings – including their relations with each other and their environment – are determined by the material conditions in which they can survive and reproduce. Therefore, Marxism asserts that material conditions can be changed by the actions of human beings as well as by events – think of climate change for example, which depends on physical phenomena as well as human behaviour. In other words, these material conditions are historical, they change over space and time. But they are also always dependent on – and often hampered by – the processes and ideas that preceded them, as the past weighs on the present. A Marxist would stress that IR is not just about states’ foreign policy or the behaviour of politicians, but more about survival (or more broadly, life), reproduction, technologies and labour. If this is correct then the separation between the political and economic, or public and private, is problematic because those categories hide the ways in which states and foreign policies are determined by the social relations and structures of the global economy – such as multinational corporations or international financial institutions. Put differently, Marxism fundamentally questions what ‘the international’ is in IR. Whether it is anarchy for realists or international society for the English school, Marxists argue that such concepts are problematic because they make us believe in illusions or myths about the world. For example, the concept of anarchy creates the mirage that states are autonomous agents whose rational behaviour can be predicted. However, this ignores the endurance of regional inequalities and the structural and historical links between states, violence and the key actors of the global political economy.

    The first application of Marxist ideas to explain international processes was by communists and revolutionaries of the early twentieth century such as Rosa Luxemburg, Rudolf Hilferding and Vladimir Lenin. These authors developed what we now call the classical theories of imperialism to understand how capitalism expanded and adapted to a world of inter-imperial rivalry leading to the First World War and the slow disintegration of the European empires.

    In 1974, Immanuel Wallerstein developed ‘world systems theory’ to incorporate the changes of the late twentieth century and counter the way traditional approaches tended to understand imperialism as a state-led process. Wallerstein’s approach used different units of analysis and took a much longer-term view of the history of states and their interactions. He distinguished three groups of states or regions: the core, the semi-periphery and the periphery. The aim was to understand how states have developed since the sixteenth century in relation to each other, thereby creating relations of dependency between different groups of states depending on the specific types of economies and industries they specialised in. Therefore, these relations of dependency and groups required that we understand the world through broader units than states. These units – or world systems – helped to address the dilemma of why states all became capitalist, albeit in very unequal and different ways. The core group of states (e.g. in Western Europe and North America) refers to democratic governments providing high wages and encouraging high levels of investment and welfare services. The semiperiphery states (e.g. in Latin America) are authoritarian governments that provide low wages and poor welfare services for their citizens. Periphery states (e.g. sub-Saharan and Central Africa, South Asia) refer to nondemocratic governments where workers can mostly expect wages below subsistence levels and where there are no welfare services.

    The core is able to produce high-profit consumption goods for itself as well as for the semi-periphery and periphery markets because the periphery provides the cheap labour and raw materials to the core and semi-periphery necessary to make these high-profit consumption goods. In other words, although historically some states have changed their group (e.g. from periphery to semi-periphery), capitalism always needs a peripheral region that provides the means for the core to sustain a high level of consumption and security. Thus, relations of dependency and inequality are essential to capitalism and cannot be significantly reduced.

    Another influential update of the classical theories of imperialism is the neoGramscian strand of Marxism. Antonio Gramsci’s (1891–1937) concept of hegemony is thought by some to be more useful today than the concept of imperialism. It emphasises two things. First, the domination of some groups of individuals (or groups of states) over other groups also depends on ideological factors. In other words, capitalism is experienced in different ways historically and across the globe because people understand it – and therefore agree to or resist it – in different ways. Second, the relations of dependency and types of groups (or units) used to understand those relations are more varied and fluid than world systems theory. Therefore, capitalism dominates our social relations because it is reproduced through coercive and consensual means. The concept was used to explain why educated and organised workers in Western Europe did not ‘unite’ to ‘lose their chains’, as Marx and Engels had predicted. A neo-Gramscian concept of hegemony focuses on the consensual ways in which transnational classes, organisations and international law reproduce capitalism and its inequalities. The transnational capitalist class – dominated by great powers – forms a ‘global civil society’ that universalises liberal ideals rather than imposing itself through more coercive processes of classical imperialism and colonisation, as was the case in earlier times.

    For example, Singapore, Hong-Kong, South Korea and Taiwan were known as the Four Asian Tigers because of their rapid industrialisation and high growth rates from the 1960s to the 1990s. In these countries, a strong ruling elite consented to a specific type of financial economy – often called a ‘neoliberal’ model – which also took hold across the world to varying degrees as other states sought to emulate this ‘success’. However, vast inequalities and human rights violations are increasing across and within many societies despite the dominance of neoliberalism globally. This shows that although neoliberal hegemony is far from producing the success it originally projected, this perceived success remains one of the main drivers of capitalism because it convinces people to consent to capitalism without the threat of force.

    A more recent trend of Marxism in IR – historical sociology – returns to some of the more classical problems of IR. Specifically, it looks at the development of the modern state system in relation to the transition(s) to capitalism and to the different moments of colonial and imperial expansion. It looks more closely at what happened inside Europe but also beyond Europe. More specifically, it contests the birth of the sovereign states system following the treaties of Westphalia in 1648 and instead focuses on more socio-economic processes in the nineteenth century to define key shifts in modern international relations. This underlines how scholars are taking history beyond Europe in order to address the Eurocentric assumptions found in Marxism and in the wider discipline of IR itself.

    In sum, Marxism is characterised by interdependence. The Marxist term for this is dialectics, which underpins the way in which all the previous concepts explored in this chapter relate to each other. For Marxism, all concepts reflect social relations, but categories take on a life of their own and often hide those social relations. It is easy to overcomplicate or abuse this concept. However, it is a crucial starting point for understanding the world as a whole, rather than just its individual parts, since ‘dialectics is a way of thinking that brings into focus the full range of changes and interactions that occur in the world’ (Ollman 2003, 12).