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International Relations: Marx(ism) a ghost unwilling to disappear?

Essay 2006 20 Seiten

Politik - Internationale Politik - Allgemeines und Theorien


I. Introduction

In the midst of the turbulent political and economic transformation during 1989, Francis Fukuyama declared the “end of history” in his [infamous article, intending to seal the coffin of communist ideology once and for all, declaring the western camp as the winner of the cold war and more importantly of liberal capitalism over communism.[1] However, a peculiar question remains for students of International Relations.[2] Is it still worth studying Marxist theory today since the former communist Soviet Union and its satellites, no longer practice a [certain and often-incoherent] version of Marxist ideology?

This paper does not attempt to advocate a utopian klassenlose society in conjunction with radical and totalitarian outgrowths that had been developed during the 20th century from Stalinist gulags to the Maoist Cultural Revolution. Despite this, this paper aims to show the merits of Marxist theory, especially the concept of historical materialism, and how, in at least three respects, it adds to the study of International Relations. First and foremost, historical materialism offers “a counter-weight to realist theories”, as it is a vertical approach explaining dominance and inequality “with its emphasis on production, property relations and class” opposed to the horizontal preoccupation of realist structuralism to explain “the struggle for power and security” in world politics. Secondly, Marxist theory offers an explanatory dimension, as it underlines, with its critical-practical approach, an understanding that theorising is never value-free, but always political. Thirdly, Marxist line of thought is normative and aims to emancipate those members of international society, whom are dominated.[3]

This paper explains the nature and development of the Marxist school of thought in International Relations (IR) theory, emphasizing its prevailing relevance to the discipline after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Firstly, “real existing socialism” and the disintegration of the Soviet bloc will be dissociated from the conceptual framework of Marxism using a set of historical dialectics. Secondly, the relevance of Marxism to the study of IR is outlined looking at developments in critical theory in relation to classical Marxism. This part of the paper challenges mainstream theoretical assumptions, while showing the merits of historical materialism to the study of IR. Thirdly, a closer look at World System Analysis will further strengthen Marxist theory as a structural approach of IR. Fourthly, the limitations and shortcomings of the theory in the realm of international study will be discussed. Finally, a conclusion of the preceding chapters will summarise the findings and position Marxist tradition as an indispensable conceptual framework, in the diverse discipline of International Relations.

II. Divorcing Soviet ideology from Marxist theory

Marxist theory, as mentioned, is an attempt to emancipate society in its present form at the same time it explains the interplay of history and society. The backbone of Marxist theory is historical materialism, which will be applied to the “socialist project” of the former Soviet bloc.[4] Prior to its application the theoretical concept is defined and put into historical context below.

Marx’s reversal of Hegel’s dialectics was to supersede idealist materialism and introduced the theory of historical materialism.5 Marx used the dialectical set of thesis, antithesis and synthesis to explain human society and its evolution: As humans are social beings (gesellschaftliche Wesen) they inevitably enter into definite relations of production within their historical-bound society. These relations of production are independent of individual will, and are appropriate to the specific stage in the development of the means of production (Produktionsmittel). Through this basic infrastructure a superstructure arises, that is legal and political, which in return relates to definite forms of social consciousness. The aggregation of these relations of production constitutes the economic superstructure of its society - the mode of production (Produktionsverhaeltnisse). It is the mode of production, which constructs and conditions the general processes of social, political and intellectual life and the interaction amongst its members.[5] [6] The emphasis here lies in how social development of any society lies within the inherent contradiction of material life and the social superstructure that encompasses it, which in return determines the consciousness of its members. Later an exploration of how the concept has been used by a number of IR scholars to critique positivist in particular realist theories, is accounted for. But first historical materialism is abstracted in order to reject the assumption that the Soviet Union collapse renders Marxist theory insignificant.

The basic truths that, on the one hand “real socialism” has never existed as its theory has diverged from its classical Marxian form by Lenin and others, and on the other that it has been bastardised by Stalin’s regime and the ongoing incapability of his successors to return to the path of establishing pure socialism are compelling, however, they are in themselves, not convincing enough. Cox poignantly described this phenomenon as “inconsistent with a socialist view of history and a socialist mode of reasoning”.[7]

Four historical stages are proposed, they are not exhaustive, but demonstrate how IR theory benefits from this level of analysis as an explanatory and emancipative approach to account for the downfall of one of the two major powers of the cold war. It further shows that the Soviet ideology claiming to be Marxist based (Thesis), diverged and contradicted the theory in a number of aspects (Antithesis). The identified stages are (Synthesis): First, the Soviet Union had to ensure its survival in the international system of states, reacting to the prevalent domestic conditions of the post revolution hardship and the external threat from capitalist states fearing the spread of communism. Secondly, the transformation into a totalitarian regime and economic central planning under Stalin choked the socialist project to death. Thirdly, Stalin’s successors did not address political and economic contradictions in the Soviet Union resulting in increasing resentment of the citizens and in an economic dead end. Fourthly, the people of the Soviet bloc peacefully revolted and brought the Soviet bloc to its final collapse. The dependency for survival in the state system of the communist bloc upon the Soviet Union became apparent.

Addressing point one, the teleological impetus of Marx was stimulated by his demanding followers to transform the critic of heaven into the critic of earth, thus giving rise to ambitious thinkers and revolutionary politicians.[8]


[1] Francis Fukuyama, “The end of history? ”, The National Interest, 1989, accessed online 08th of May 2006, http : //www .unc.e du/~rlstev/Te xt/Fukuyama%2 0 End%2 0of%2 0History.pdf Note: The origins of the term “end of history” are found both in Hegel and Marx writings, which both believed that history as we know it will come to an end once emancipation of the whole of human kind would have been achieved.

[2] Note: Ongoing interest with Marxist Theory can be found in many areas of the Social Sciences.

[3] Scott Burchill, Andrew Linklater, “Theories of International Relations ”, Palgrave Mcmillian, 2005, page 135 Note: The description of vertical (relations between classes) and horizontal (relations between states) dimensions, were cited in Graham Evans, Jeffrey Newnham, “The Penguin Dictionary of International Relations”, Penguin Books, 1998, page 317

[4] Note: Most of the uprising and peaceful revolutions, resulting in the collapse of the Soviet Union, flared off in its satellites i.e. GDR (East Germany), Czechoslovakia and Hungary in 1989. The Soviet bloc is here seen (in practice it also was) a mere extension of the Soviet Union. Attempts of governments to disassociate from the regime in Moscow by Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland etc. started as early as the 1950’s.

[5] Note: The term was never used by Marx himself, but coined by Friedrich Engels later. Historical materialism is commonly used today, to describe Marx dialectical approach to explain the relationship between history and society. Marx noted that the ideology of humans as that of idealist materialism, need to be “turned on their head, like in a camera obscura”, since he argued it is not consciousness that guides life, but life determines consciousness. See in Karl Marx, “Thesen ueber Feuerbach”, from Marx Notebook of 1844-1847 cited in Marx/Engels, “Ausgewaehlte Werke”, Institut fuer Marxismus-Leninismus beim ZK der SED, Dietz Verlag Berlin, 1975, Volume I, page 196 and in David McLellan, “Young Hegelians and Karl Marx - Modern Rivals in Philosophy”, Ashgate Publishing, 1993

[6] Karl Marx, “Introduction [zur Kritik der politischen Oekonomie], “Ausgewaehlte Werke”, Institut fuer Marxismus-Leninismus beim ZK der SED, Dietz Verlag Berlin, 1975, Volume II, page 466-497 Note: Marx, main theme was the materialist concept of history, in which individuals priority is to satisfy the most fundamental physical needs (food, shelter, etc.) and secondary the emancipation or progress of their societal life. This as his historical materialism aimed to account for, meant that the majority of people had to give up their control of their labour power in order to survive, to those that own the instruments of production. Thus he believed that class struggle has been the main theme of conflict in the entire history of mankind. See in Scott Burchill, Andrew Linklater “Theories of International Relations”, palgrave macmillian, New York, 2005, page 114

[7] Robert W. Cox, Timothy J. Sinclair, “Approaches to World Order”, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1996, page 209

[8] Karl Marx, “Zur Kritik der Hegelschen Rechtsphilosphie”, “Ausgewaehlte Werke”, Institut fuer Marxismus-Leninismus beim ZK der SED, Dietz Verlag Berlin, 1975, Volume I, page 10 Note: Marx demanded: “Philosophers have only interpreted the world in different ways, the point is, however, to change it. ” in Karl Marx, “Thesen ueber Feuerbach”, from Marx Notebook of 1844-1847 cited in Marx/Engels, “Ausgewaehlte Werke”, Institut fuer Marxismus-Leninismus beim ZK der SED, Dietz Verlag Berlin, 1975, Volume I, page 200


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The Australian National University
International Relations Marx(ism)




Titel: International Relations: Marx(ism) a ghost unwilling to disappear?