Is Marx still relevant to IR theory?


Rizwan Asghar

One of the major debates in the study of international relations (IR) during the Cold War period was between Liberalism, Realism and Marxism as different theoretical approaches to world politics. However, the relevance of Marxism as a theory has been put under question after the fall of the Soviet Union by a number of neo-liberal and neo-realist theorists.
Some have argued that Marx’s conception of the international system, as a global capital structure that allows for unlimited capital accumulation, is outdated from the present perspective. While others believe that the rise of the ‘new anti-capitalism’ in recent years has, once again, renewed intellectual interest in Marxism as a relevant approach to interpreting global politics.
From a Marxist perspective, an array of global problems related to the vagaries of neo-liberalism and current globalisation trends has underlined the development of the class conflict between developed and developing countries. The decade of the 1990s witnessed a huge rise in income inequality especially between the top 10 percent of population and everybody else.
The situation has gotten further aggravated in the 21st century due to pro-capitalist growth policies of international economic institutions like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. These institutions have forced many developing countries to adopt policies of privatisation. and open up their markets to the plunder of transnational corporations. This led some observers to call the 1990s “lost decade of development” for most people in the developing world.
According to Karl Marx, all history is the history of class struggle between the ruling bourgeoisie and the oppressed proletariats. Class struggle refers to a particular type of social relationship between ‘owners of capital’ and ‘providers of labour’. Yet, class struggle is not only economic but also political in nature. The conflict assumes wider political dimensions once bourgeoisie resort to acquiring power in order to ensure their control over means of production.
In Marx’s view, war is also the result of class conflict and not because of the anarchical structure of the international system. It is the development of productive forces like labour-power and the means of production that determine the structure of society. And changes in the forces of production also end up changing the organisation of human society. But, ironically, under the capitalist system, a world market gives rise to proletariats as a revolutionary class that cannot be the source of exploitation for too long.
According to this narrative, the emergence of capitalism as a dominant economic system has caused all the problems being faced by developing nations today. More alarmingly, the capitalist class uses the war to further advance its economic and social agenda across the globe. The long-term conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan bear witness to the hidden goals of punishing states that refuse to follow the neo-liberal policies.
Some Marxist scholars believe that the ultimate goal of all capitalist states is to gain military and political control of sources of raw material. In their view, even the primary goal of the Second Gulf War was to ensure the access of American corporations to the oil resources in the Gulf region. The theory also predicts the possible emergence of military conflicts among capitalist states in their rivalry for world markets. And the only solution to all these problems is the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism worldwide. Marxist scholars argue that proletarian revolutions will happen in all capitalist states, resulting in the triumph of the exploited masses of the developing countries.
However, despite some novel contributions to the study of economic forces, experts still doubt the existence of a Marxist theory of international politics because of its inability to recognise the dominant global role of states as principal actors in the international system. Martin Wight, a famous British scholar, said: “Neither Marx, Lenin nor Stalin made any systematic contributions to international relations theory.” Another British sociologist, Ralph Miliband, highlighted Marx’s failure to analyse the state methodically.
Marx’s view of the state was that of a “great organism in which must be realised juridical, moral, and political freedom and where the individual citizen, in obeying the laws of the state only obeys the natural laws of his reason, of human reason.” Thus, he seems to be making no attempt to explain how nation-states interact with one another in the absence of a central or superordinate authority. For realist and constructivist scholars, it is hard to believe that state is merely a political manifestation of socio-economic relations because the unstated assumptions behind this argument are normative at best.
Andrew Linklater was right in pointing out that Marx and Lenin totally failed to realise that nationalism has always been one of the most important forces shaping global politics. The fact that Marx was an immigrant, lacking any deep sense of patriotism, could explain why he could not recognise the importance of states’ sovereignty. This inability to realise the importance of states further led him to underestimate the importance of some other political elements of international politics, such as the balance of power, military alliances, and diplomacy.
Marx predicted in the mid-1840s that capitalism would ultimately destroy the Westphalian nation-state system and replace it with a world capitalist society. But somehow this does not seem to be happening. Nation-states continue to perform a vital role for the stability of international order because their collapse would usher in anarchy.
Unlike other theories of IR that draw a theoretical picture of the underlying patterns in world politics, Marxism has been criticised for solely focusing on the achievement of power. The view that international institutions have diminished the importance of states also does not carry a lot of weight. These global institutions reflect rather than affect global politics. States still enjoy supreme importance because of their monopoly of military power and the legitimate use of force. In fact, it would not be wrong to say that Marx’s focus on historical materialism made him unable to conceptualise other forms of domination.