A Critical Evaluation of Marxist IR Theories

Essay 2014 19 Pages

Politics - International Politics - General and Theories


A critical evaluation of how Marxist IR theorists ’ use the concept of ‘structure’ in the global capitalist economy to explain developments in international relations.

Marxist International Relations (IR) theory is fundamental to the discipline. Its distinct approaches are neither strictly positivist, nor post-positivist but derive insights from both methodologies. Common elements in the Marxist tradition are imperialism, exploitation, capital accumulation and expansion, as well as hegemony. Materialist approaches, i.e. those which privilege how natural resource endowment, geography, military capability, or technology influence the structure of international relations (Baylis et al. 2008:583) are prevalent. Neo-Gramscian Marxism, however, recognizes the force ideas have on forming concepts like national interest, and consequently world order. It nevertheless does not dismiss the importance of materialist characteristics, thus neo-Gramscianism can be claimed an idealist approach (Baylis et al. 2008:581).

This essay critically evaluates how theorists of both materialist and idealist strands conceptualize ‘structure’ in order to explain developments in international relations. Due to space restrictions four Marxist approaches have been selected. They exert heavy impact on the discipline and represent Marxist philosophy quite broadly. The theorists and their approaches discussed are Lenin and finance imperialism, Kautsky’s ultra-imperialism, Wallerstein’s world-system theory (WST), and Coxian neo-Gramscianism. In order to evaluate them, they will be pitched against neorealism and Liberalism, which are current IR orthodoxy; and interpretivism and social constructivism, which have a particular conception of structure.

The essay first introduces foundations of Marxist IR which are to be found in Karl Marx’s (and Friedrich Engels’) Das Kommunistische Manifest, Das Kapital, and Der 18te Brumaire des Louis Bonaparte. The second section introduces how Marxist theorists’ conception of ‘structure’, and the succeeding main section critically evaluates the explanatory power derived from such conceptions. Due to their distinct epistemologies the paper focuses on evaluating positivist/materialist theories and post-positivist/idealist theories. There is however, considerable overlap between all of them, which will also be reflected throughout the work. The conclusion will show that Marxist IR theories are foundational for IR’s ability to explain international relations. Lenin’s and Kautsky’s theories are closely resembled by contemporary orthodxy, i.e. neorealism and Liberalism; Wallerstein shows convincingly that too much diversification inhibits social science, and Cox’s neo-Gramscianism provides a powerful account of why not only the Marxist materialists have failed, but he also shows that imperialism is not only a materialistic endeavor . Their preoccupation with economy limits them sometimes; their is, for example, great value in focusing on how military capability is perceived. Exploiting this weakness saves orthodox theories from falling into irrelevance or propaganda.

Definitive judgment on which approach provides the best account will therefore have to be foregone.

Foundations of Marxist IR theories

The foundational text of Marxist IR theory is clearly Marx’s and Engels’ ‘ Das Kommunistische Manifest’. In their work, Marx and Engels laid the groundwork for globalization theory, and what would later become International Relations theory. They put forward economic explanations for the intensification of capital flows, transnational communications and spatial diminution. In Das Kapital Vol. III Marx analyzes one of the root causes of these phenomena, which is the law of the tendency of the rate of profit (ROP) to fall. As productivity rises, states Marx, variable capital (labor) falls relative to constant capital (machines, tools etc.), leading to a higher degree of the organic composition of total capital and related decreasing return on investment (Marx 1894:223). In other words, less workers have less spending power. This very same mechanism, on the other hand, is vital for the essence of the capitalist economy: the accumulation of capital. Counter-acting measures to alleviate the consequences of the falling ROP are to increase exploitation, to cheapen constant capital, and market expansion via foreign trade (ibid, 242-249). Trade backfires at the system as a whole, because it develops the productive powers domestically, but also causes overproduction in relation to foreign countries (ibid, 249). This means, the higher capitalism is developed in one country, the less trading partners are able to resist an onslaught of cheap foreign produce, battering down even “Chinese walls” (Marx und Engels (1848) 2012:no page). The initial profiteer of this process is the capitalist class (bourgeoisie) because it owns the means of production with which to extract surplus value (profit) from the labor power supplied by the proletarian class; proletarians are forced to sell their labor power in order to survive in the capitalist system (Marx 1890:287). Yet, crucially, even capitalists are trapped inside the system, for to sustain accumulation, exploitation, and consequent profit, investment has to rise steadily. These laws are forced upon capitalists via competition (ibid:618).

The state, according to Marx and Engels, assisted the bourgeoisie with capital expansion via colonization. Capitalists were thus able to reap historically unprecedented profits (Marx and Engels (1848) 2012:no page). This way a cosmopolitanization of the globe set in that included a web of trade and production networks, land conquests and the integration of ancient lifestyles into the capitalist mode of production (ibid, no page), a global capitalist economy. Only the abolition of capitalism can and will bring world peace because its inherent labor-capital antagonism is the very foundation of exploitation and expansion (ibid, no page).

This global economy is hard, if not impossible, to change though, because as Marx claims, although humans make their own history, they can do so only within the confines of the material relations they find themselves in (Marx (1885) 1972:115).

Lenin accepts most of Marx’s (and Engels’) conclusions. He does, however, transpose them into the international and so builds a rich materialist theory of imperialism.

Marxist IR theories

Lenin-rigid structure

Lenin refines Marx’s notion of capitalism by arguing that a gap between money capital and finance capital, or the rentier and the entrepreneur exists (Lenin (1916) 2011:238). This leads to a form of imperialism that is historically unprecedented, namely finance imperialism (ibid, 260). In this form free-market competition has been replaced by countries which rule almost unhindered and have formed strong interest groups. It furthermore is marked by an abundance of accumulated capital (ibid, 241). Exports are primarily in the form of capital, not goods. Capital export then foments monopolies creation in foreign lands (ibid, 241). Capital exporting, imperialist nations, are able to co-operate in the form of cartels, in steel or railway industries for example. Cartels, argues Lenin, are expressions of imperialists spheres of influence (ibid, 250-252). Yet, co-operation within cartels is only momentarily because relative power changes are inevitable with continuing accumulations. Moments of peace are therefore moments of preparation for war (ibid, 295). War, specifically World War I, according to Lenin, is always conflict over the distribution of territory and consequently labor power to exploit. It is an endeavor only imperialists are able to engage in, hence Lenin’s term inter-imperialist rivalry (ibid, 191).

For Lenin, the imperialist-capitalist structure is essentially a zero-sum one; wage rises lead to reduced profits and loss of power for the capitalist class (ibid, 260). As Marx, Lenin recognizes the closed nature of the capitalist economy, in which also capitalists are forced into particular patterns of behavior (ibid, 253). Lenin’s contemporary, Karl Kautsky, sees an opportunity for co-operation within this rigid structure and so explains why the capitalist world economy endures.

Kautsky – rigid structure and co-operation

Kautsky’s theory is built on Marx’s and Lenin’s, with the difference that he thinks co-operation instead of competition is the normal state of the international structure. For him, capitalist industrialization reaches a point where it overpowers agrarian zones. Key, in agreement with Lenin, is the export of capital, and resulting imperialism. Former agrarian zones of the British colonies in America protected themselves with tariffs against the English industry. In light of such protection they progressed, but instead of competition, co-operation ensued. They agreed to divide the non-industrialized world among them. The players who are able to co-operate though are only the strongest, as they survived fierce competition indeed. Their agreement then leads to “the translation of cartelization into foreign policy: a phase of ultra-imperialism”, in which rival imperialist powers agree expend with arms races and focus on peace for the sake of exploitation and accumulation (Kautsky 1914: no page).



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Marxist IR theory neorealism liberalism class exploitation rate of profit structure agency interpretivism social constructivism Waltz Wallerstein Cox Gramsci capitalism economy



Title: A Critical Evaluation of Marxist IR Theories