Marxism: International Relations Theory in Brief

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Marxism is one of the basic theories of international relations. According to Marxists, both realism and liberalism/idealism are simply self-serving ideologies introduced by the economic elites to defend and justify global inequality. Instead, Marxists argue, class is the fundamental unit of analysis of international relations, and the international system has been constructed by the upper classes and the wealthiest nations in order to protect and defend their interests. Two of the most important Marxist-derived bodies of theory in international relations are world-systems theory (led by Immanuel Wallerstein) and dependency theory (a Latin American school which such proponents as Andre Gunder Frank). More recent neo-Marxist work in international relations is led by scholars such as Robert Cox, but is classified separately as Critical Theory or neo-Gramscianism.

Basic Principles

The basic tenet of Marxism is that the world is divided not into politically determined nations but into economically determined classes. Consequently, politics does not supercede economics, but rather economics trumps politics. The various Marxist theories of international relations agree that the international state system was constructed by capitalists and therefore serves the interests of wealthy states and corporations, which seek to protect and expand their wealth.

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 systemwhich originated in 16th-century European colonialism. Instead, these states actually make up the “core” and “periphery” of the world system — respectively, the central wealthy states which own and chiefly benefit from the mechanisms of production, and the impoverished “developing” countries which supply most of the human labour and natural resources exploited by the rich. States which do not fit either class, but lie somewhere in the middle of the model, are referred to as “semi-peripheral.”

The core-periphery thesis of world-systems theory is based upon 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. The poor countries of the world, like the poor classes of the world, are said to provide inexpensive human and natural capital, while the wealthy countries’ foreign policies are devoted to creating and maintaining this system of inequality. International economic law (such as the World Trade Organization) and other such systems are seen as means by which this is done.

To combat these systems of inequality, traditional Marxists and dependency theorists have argued that poor countries should adopt economic control policies that can break them out of the prison of international economic controls, such as import substitution (government assistance to domestic producers and barriers to wealthy international corporations attempting to flood the market with mass-produced imports) rather than the export-based models usually favoured by international economic organizations such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

In most fields, a body of social constructivist theory known as neo-Marxism is included within the general canon of Marxist literature. While also true in international relations, the neo-Marxists generally identify as Critical Theorists and as neo-Gramscians, and their ideas, while related, should be studied separately.

Strengths and Weaknesses

World-systems theory and dependency theory, in particular, offer useful analyses for those who perceive the world as principally and perpetually a sphere of economic conflict between the rich and the poor. In its simplest form, Wallerstein’s theory may be viewed as an application of the core concepts to Marxism to international relations, in which poor countries are analogous to poor workers and wealthy Western countries are analogous to property and factory owners within the upper classes. Moreover, the Marxist studies of international relations easily preceded free-trade liberal scholars in perceiving the existence of an international market system, today dominated by liberal theorists and known by the moniker “globalization.”

Since the end of the Cold War, theories associated with communism have fallen into academic disrepute, seen as obsolete. More significantly, Wallerstein’s theory may be seen as both excessively concerned with the role of economics in determining all aspects of social and political relations, as well as excessively pessimistic, offering few means of genuine escape from the capitalist system. (This is true of most contemporary academic Marxist theories.)

Important Scholars

The basic Marxist canon is well known outside international relations, beginning with Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (Communist Manifesto). Other relevant sources for the study of Marxism and international relations include the classic studies of imperialism and capitalism by Russian Communist leader Vladimir Lenin (Imperialism andThe State and the Revolution), and the neo-Marxist turn initiated by Italian political dissident Antonio Gramsci (Prison Notebooks).

World-systems theory is principally the creation of Immanuel Wallerstein (The Modern World-System). Wallerstein began his work in postcolonial African politics, but during the 1970s began to unite the theories of Karl Marx, French historian Fernand Braudel, and Latin American dependency theorists. Associated theorists include Giovanni Arrighi (The Long Twentieth Century). In addition to the Marxist tradition, Wallerstein draws upon the Annales School in the French historical tradition, and particularly upon the work of Fernand Braudel (Civilization and Capitalism).

Dependency theory is principally Latin American in its origin and its focus; see, for example, Andre Gunder Frank (Capitalism and Underdevelopment in Latin America). There are some similar theorists elsewhere, for example, such as Egyptian economist Samir Amin (Imperialism and Unequal Development). It draws its inspiration from Marxist sources as well as economists Hans Singer and Raul Prebisch.


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