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Marxism is an economic and sociopolitical worldview and method of socioeconomic analysis based on a materialist interpretation of historical development, a dialectical view of social change, and an analysis of class-relations within society and their application in the analysis and critique of the development of capitalism.
Marxism is based on a materialist understanding of societal development, taking at its starting point the necessary economic activities required by human society to provide for its material needs.
These social relations form the superstructure, for which the economic system forms the base.
According to Marxist analysis, class conflict within capitalism arises because of the contradictions between highly-productive mechanized and socialized production performed by the proletariat, and private ownership and private appropriation of the surplus product in the form of surplus valueby a small minority of private owners called the bourgeoisie.
The long-term outcome of this revolution would be the establishment of socialism - a socioeconomic system based on common ownership of the means of production, distribution based on one's contribution, and production organized directly for use.
Marxismhas traditionally been seen as the principal critical or radical alternative to mainstream realist and liberal thinking.
Marxists view the international system as an integrated capitalist system in pursuit of capital accumulation.
This philosophy is based on the ‘materialist conception of history’, the belief that economic factors are the ultimately determining force in human history.
Historical materialism has focused its attention oncapitalism as a material way of life, a groupof social relations .
Historical materialism suggests that states and systems of interstate and transnational power relations are embedded in and (re-)produced through systems of relations that encompass (among other things) the social organization of production. The latter is itself structured according to relations of class, and is an object of contestation among social classes, state managers, and other historically situated political agents.
Thus politics is not limitedwiththe formally public sphere of the modern state, but infusesthe economic sphere as well.
The main theme in Marx’s materialist conception of history is that individuals must first satisfy their most basic physical or material needs before they can do anything else.
Given the basic reality of property relations, the dominant classes throughout history have been able to exploit the subordinate classes but this had always led to class conflict.
The history of the development of the human species could be understood only by tracing the development of the dominant modes of production which, in the West, included primitive communism, slave societies, feudalism and capitalism which would soon be replaced by socialism on an international scale.
In line with his belief that history revolves around the labour process, Marx observed that freedom and equality under capitalism mean that bourgeois and proletarian enter into a labour contract as legal equals, but massive social inequalities place workers at the mercy of the bourgeoisie and reduce their freedom and equality.
For Marx, global capitalist crisis was the recurrent danger. Consequently, the idea of ‘socialism in one country’ was irrelevant in his view in the context of capitalist globalization.
Realists have argued that members of the proletariat concluded during the First World War that they had more in common with their own national bourgeoisie than with the working classes of other countries.
For realists, the failure to anticipate this outcome demonstrates the central flaw in Marxism – its economic reductionism, as manifested in the belief that understanding capitalism would explain the mysteries of the modern world and its unprecedented political opportunities.
According to this view of the world, capitalism provides an illusion created by geographical boundaries separating peoples governed by different political systems. It has been argued that the relatively peaceful nature of the international system in the middle of the nineteenth century encouraged such beliefs; the theory of the state gave way to theories of society and the economy.
Marx also argued that relations between states were important but ‘secondary’ forces in human affairs when compared with modes of production and their laws of development.
Second, Marx and Engels were forced to reconsider their ideas about the nation because of the importance of nationalism in the 1848 revolutions and its growing political influence later in the century.
Third, as Gallie has noted, those interesting comments about nationalism, the state and war did not lead Marx and Engels to rework their early statements about the explanatory power of historical materialism.
However, Marxism is a very broad field, which encompasses, as far as international theory is concerned, two contrasting tendencies. The first of these gives primary attention to economic analysis, and is mainly concerned with exposing capitalism as a system of class oppression that operates on national and international levels. This applies to classical Marxism and to most forms of neo-Marxism.
The second tendency places greater emphasis on the ideological and cultural dimension of oppression, and has come to embrace a post-positivist, and therefore post-Marxist, mode of theorizing. This applies to what has been called ‘critical theory’, as influenced by the ideas of Gramsci and the so-called Frankfurt School.
The most successful IR theory derived directly from Marxism is Immanuel Wallersten's world-systems theory. According to Wallerstein, the "First World" and "Third World" are merely components of a larger world system which originated in 16th-century European colonialism.
World-systems theory suggested that the world economy is best understood as an interlocking capitalist system which exemplifies, at international level, many of the features that characterize national capitalism; that is, structural inequalities based on exploitation and a tendency towards instability and crisis that is rooted in economic contradictions. The world-system consists of interrelationships between the ‘core’, the ‘periphery’ and the ‘semi-periphery’.
Core areas such as the developed North are distinguished by the concentration of capital, high wages and high-skilled manufacturing production.
Semi-peripheral areas are economically subordinate to the core but in turn take advantage of the periphery, thereby constituting a buffer between the core and the periphery. Such thinking about the inherent inequalities and injustices of global capitalism was one of the influences on the anti-globalization, or ‘anti-capitalist’, movement that emerged from the late 1990s onwards.
The core-periphery thesis of world-systems theory is based on another body of work, dependency theory, which argues that the basis of international politics is the transfer of natural resources from peripheral developing countries to core wealthy states, mostly the Western industrialized democracies.
International economic law (such as the World Trade Organization) and other such systems are seen as means by which this is done.
Dependency theory was crucial for two reasons: it forced students of International Relations to analyse material inequalities which are at least partly the result of the organization of the capitalist world economy, and it argued for a moral engagement with the problem of global inequality.
The study of global inequality was the vehicle which brought the Marxist tradition more directly into contact with the study of international relations. Robert Cox’s analysis of social forces, states and world order remains one of the most ambitious attempts to use historical materialism to escape the limitations of state-centric international relations theory.
Cox claimed that production shapes other realms such as the nature of state power and strategic interaction to a far greater extent than traditional international relations theory has realized but it is also shaped by them.
Developing a theme which was introduced by the Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci in the 1920s and 1930s, Cox focused on the hegemonic nature of world order – that is, on how the political architecture of global capitalism helps to maintain material inequalities through a combination of coercion and efforts to win consent.
During the Cold War, Marxists and their sympathisers were critical of realist arguments that strategic competition could be considered apart from the struggle between two radically different social systems and ideological perspectives, although this view had few adherents in the mainstream study of international relations.
Marxism may appear less relevant given the revival of national security politics since 9/11, but its analysis of the relationship between capitalism and the state can still contribute to the study of global governance in a period when the subordination of many states to the dictates of global capitalism is so evident.
Marxism has been influential in the development of approaches to international political economy which have a critical or emancipatory intent.
Neo-Gramscian approaches work in the same spirit by focusing on the role of counter-hegemonic political forces in the global order – that is, on the various groups which are opposed to a world system which produces among other things massive global inequalities and damage to the natural environment.
The distinction between problem-solving and critical theory was made by Cox in conjunction with his much-quoted remark that ‘knowledge is always for someone and for some purpose’.
Marxist-inspired political inquiry is only one strand of contemporary critical theory. Approaches such as feminism, postmodernism and postcolonialism have been concerned with patriarchyand with constructions of identity and otherness in national and global politics which have not been central dimensions of Marxist studies of world politics.
Somewhat simplistic assumptions about how capitalist internationalization would be followed by socialist internationalism had to be rethought in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries because of the revival of nationalism and the increased danger of major war. The theory of capitalist imperialism should be viewed in this context.
Lenin and Bukharin developed the theory of imperialism to explain the causes of the First World War.
The theory of imperialism developed Marx and Engels’ analysis of the relationship between nationalism and internationalism, and globalization and fragmentation. In so doing, it highlighted the tension between forces promoting the expansion and forces promoting the contraction of the sense of community.
Lenin and Bukharin claimed the dominant tendency of the age was the emergence of new mercantilist states ever more willing to use force to achieve their economic and political objectives.
Lenin and Bukharin maintained that nationalist and militarist ideologies had blurred class loyalties and stymied class conflict in this changing international environment.
Instead of ‘clinging to the narrowness of the national state’ and submittingto the patriotic ideal of ‘defending or extending the boundaries of the bourgeois state’ the proletariat would return to the main project of ‘abolishing state boundaries and merging all the peoples into one Socialist family’.
Marx and Engels believed that capitalism created the preconditions for extending human loyalty from the nation to the species – and Lenin and Bukharin thought the destruction of national community and the return to cosmopolitanism would resume after a brief detour down the disastrous path of militarism and war.
Marxist writings on nationalism dealt with the boundaries of loyalty and community in greater detail. Recent claims about how the contemporary world is shaped by globalization and fragmentation have an interesting parallel in Lenin’s thought:
This theme was central to Trotsky’s analysis of the ‘combined and uneven development’ of capitalism and to the later phenomenon of Third World Marxism.
Lenin and many other Marxists believed that national fragmentation was an inevitable consequence of the global spread of capitalism, but with the exception of Austro-Marxism they believed it was essential to avoid a socialist compromise with nationalism.
Theories of imperialism shared Marx’s belief that capitalism was a progressive force because it would bring industrial development and the basis for material prosperity to all peoples.
It was noted earlier that several Third World Marxists argued that the proletariat in the industrial world is one of the beneficiaries of neoimperialism;they supported the national revolt of the periphery rather than the Western socialist ideal of proletarian internationalism .
The fact that Marxism is a Western doctrine with its roots in the European Enlightenment is the crucial point here. Marxist cosmopolitanism was developed in the era of European dominance – in the colonial era which Marx greatly admired – and at a time when it was reasonable to assume that the non-European world would become more similar to the West in most ways.
The rise of Third World Marxism in the 1960s and 1970s was a powerful reminder that the modern world was gradually entering the post-European age. Its emergence might be regarded as an illustration of ‘the cultural revolt against the West’ or as an attempt to adapt European ideas to very different circumstances.
The main problem is not that classical Marxism underestimated the importance of nationalism, the state and geopolitics but, many would argue, that it expressed a culture-bound view of the world which was inherited from the European Enlightenment.
Despite its weaknesses, Marxism contributes to the theory of international relations in at least four respects.
This leads to two further points which are that Marxism has long been centrally concerned with capitalist globalization and international inequalities and that, for Marxism, the global spread of capitalism is the backdrop to the development of modern societies and the organization of their international relations.
Dominant strands of Marxist thought have taken the view that one of the main functions of scholarship is to understand the principal forms of domination and to imagine a world order which is committed to reducing material inequalities.
But it can nevertheless remain true to the ‘spirit of Marxism’ by combining the empirical analysis of the dominant forms of power and inequality with a moral vision of a more just world order.
Marxists had underestimated the crucial importance of nationalism, the state and war, and the significance of the balance of power, international law and diplomacy for the structure of world politics.
Its impact on the critical theory of international relations has been immense.
Marxist analyses of capitalist globalization and fragmentation invite reconsideration of Waltz and Wight’s argument that Marxism may not be regarded as a serious contribution to the study of international politics or is clearly inferior to conventional approaches in the field.
It might also be argued that its project of developing a critical theory of world society is one respect in which Marxism supersedes the dominant approaches in the Anglo-American study of international politics. If so, the question is how to build on its foundations, how to preserve its strengths and how to move beyond its errors and weaknesses.