Think of the isms and a broad understanding of them in three ways: The ‘Isms’ Are Evil. All Hail the ‘Isms’! 152 First, isms are ideologies and IR theories are ideologically saturated too. This is not a bad thing per se. Once we know this we should be able to both interrogate the internal coherence of the ideology and compare its virtues with others.
Second, ideologies themselves shape the society we live in. So, we ought to be able to understand our society and world politics better by exploring the ways in which ideologies shape and structure the ways in which people live and act. In many respects, then, IR theory reflects these ways of living and acting too. Thus, we can think of IR theory as itself an ideological reflection of the world around us. R. B. J. Walker (1993, 6) has made the contentious suggestion that ‘theories of international relations are more interesting as aspects of contemporary world politics that need to be explained than as explanations of world politics.’ You might not want to go that far, but there is no doubt that there is nothing politically or ideologically neutral about IR theory – and locating IR theories in their historical and intellectual context exposes this irreversibly.
Third, ideologies can be wrong, their values reprehensible or odious, their core assumptions preposterous. This is because they are used by people whose practices and politics we might disagree with. For Robert Cox (1981, 128), theory is not only always ‘for someone and for some purpose’, but it also inevitably reflects class biases. We need to be aware of this and subject theory to a range of critiques. Understanding Marxism would be the indispensable precondition of this. Doing this would be impossible if we were to deny theory-as-ideologies exist, or if we overlook how deeply implicated in ideological structures our modern way of living and thinking are.
Nothing is gained by rejecting the isms unless we at first understand the complexity of what it is we are rejecting. The isms may be evil, but we must pay due homage to them in order to develop the critical reflection we need to move beyond them.