Marxism and international relations

Image: Javier Gonzales


Five theoretical propositions

At least five themes were developed by the Marxist intellectual tradition with relevance to International Relations and are our object here (a) the worldwide expansion of capitalism, (b) imperialism, (c) dependency, (d) the capitalist State and ( e) the socialist revolution. As a second objective, a non-exhaustive bibliography on these and other themes is indicated.[I]

Before addressing them, it is necessary to briefly discuss a conception that permeates the mentioned themes, the social class, which is ontologically the social agent in Marxist theory.

We will indicate what we consider most important in this conception, since Marx and Engels did not develop a theory of social classes, but left notions about the phenomenon[ii] which were appropriated in different ways by Marxist theories.[iii] It is widely known in the social and human sciences that Marxism identifies the fundamental contradiction of modern society as the antagonism between two large social groups, the bourgeoisie as the dominant and exploiting class and the proletariat as the dominated and exploited mass. What is sometimes unknown is that social class is a formation process, that is, it is not an exclusively economic data, but the result of political mobilization and organization of social agents.

However, this formation process differs between these groups. On the one hand, in the capitalist mode of production, the bourgeoisie is already formed as a social class, since its class formation process is intertwined with the very birth, development and support of capitalism. Political mobilization and organization of the bourgeoisie – and its fractions – means that it lives in constant struggle (which can revert to association and conciliation): against old dominant classes, between the different fractions within the bourgeoisie itself, against the bourgeoisies of other countries and against the proletariat. On the other hand, the proletariat may or may not be formed as a class, going through different stages of development.

The formation of the working class is an irregular, cumulative, reversible process marked by ruptures and leaps in quality. The process of formation of the proletariat as a class is a more arduous path than the formation of the bourgeois class, but it is the path that leads to revolutionary processes.

Having made this consideration, let's look at the five themes mentioned in the book Marxism and international relations.

The worldwide expansion of capitalism[iv], or what Marx called world market formation[v], means that the capitalist mode of production has a tendency to spread throughout the world. This capitalist mode of production is, in short, the process of capital accumulation through the relations of exploitation and domination of the bourgeoisie over the proletariat. These relationships are legitimized and legalized by the capitalist State, by bourgeois law and by the dominant culture and ideology. Capital accumulation goes beyond national spaces in search of more advantageous market conditions, which ends up linking the entire world in a transnational economic system and – as a kind of side effect – establishing this mode of production in different places. It is important to say that, given the peculiarities of the places where capitalism is installed, it tends to become the dominant mode of production, subjecting other modes to its dynamics or even eliminating them. The growing centralization of property, production, wealth and population, parallel and concomitantly, gave rise to unitary and centralized political organizations, the nation states. The advent and functioning of capitalism imply a transnational system, a global market, within the framework of new forms of organization of production and, at the same time, an interstate system, of sovereign States (some more sovereign than others[vi]). This contradictory articulation between the global and national dimensions is at the origin of capitalist modernity and is the Marxist key to understanding the international system, a system that we can call global capitalism.

Marx and Engels already indicated, but the international system marked by the unequal distribution of power and wealth was later problematized by the Marxist theory of imperialism[vii] (and, equally and in connection with this, by the theory of uneven and combined development[viii]). The theory of imperialism investigates, in general, the processes of capital accumulation on a world scale, in the so-called phase of monopoly capitalism. That is, when capitalist companies that previously competed in relative equality in pursuit of profits (competitive capitalism) give way to large business conglomerates (monopoly/monopoly capitalism) which control various sectors of the national and international economy and directly interfere in the State. The theory of imperialism specifically investigates the location and dynamics of the phenomenon in the context of the political division of the world into central and peripheral countries. This dynamic consists of the accumulation and export of capital from the central capitalist states and their bourgeoisies to other central and peripheral countries, which implies economic exploitation and political conflicts (we can also speak of ideological subordination). Accumulation and export of capital form the basis for the spread and maintenance of the capitalist mode of production around the world and the formation of the political division of global capitalism into center and periphery. The political struggle, above all by the ruling classes of different States, to implement an autonomous development of capitalism in national spaces is equally decisive for the country's international insertion, since imperialism is a power relation. In this sense, the theory of imperialism finds that the relationship between center and peripheries is one of exploitation and subordination, but admits – in its different variants within Marxism – that the great capitalist powers can maintain relations of cooperation or conflict, which can be the prelude to war.

In an intense dialogue with the theory of imperialism, the Marxist theory of dependency[ix], originally from Latin America, deals with the socioeconomic and political development of capitalism on the periphery of the international system as a process conditioned by foreign forces. In general, the problem pointed out is the extraction of wealth/surplus from peripheral countries by central countries, leading to their impoverishment and preventing them from reaching their capitalist development standards. Historically, colonialism played an intense role in this process, as does imperialism today. Fundamentally, dependency is not seen as a transitory phase that countries have to go through, but rather as a structural condition in the uneven development of global capitalism.

The mechanisms for extracting wealth are varied, such as unequal trade, remittances of profits abroad, payments of debt services, capital flight, among others. However, we highlight here that peculiar social structures are established in the periphery, notably the formation of a fraction of the bourgeoisie that is associated with foreign forces. Sometimes called the surrendering bourgeoisie, this fraction of the ruling class mobilizes and organizes itself to serve foreign interests to the detriment of the dispossessed population, even obtaining a portion of the extraction of wealth that allows it to be classified as a bourgeoisie. The existence and strength of this fraction are decisive for the autonomous development of capitalism in a country. This means that the greater its strength in a national state, the more intense the dependency relationships. On the other hand, its weakness may be a reflection of a certain degree of autonomous development of capitalism in a country, led by fractions of the national bourgeoisie, national class coalitions or state forces, and of international insertion relatively independent of the State. Development and insertion that cause friction with the capitalist powers, without, however, breaking the global structure of dependency. This perspective of redefining dependency ties is linked to the theses of Cardoso and Faletto ([1970] 2004), who admit that dependency entails development. The elimination of this bourgeois fraction may be related to a broad process of radical economic and political change with a view to overcoming capitalism, thus destroying dependency relationships. This perspective, according to which the bonds of dependence can only be broken in a revolutionary way, is linked to Marini's theses (1969).

For Marxism, there is an institution that is key in the processes of world expansion of capitalism, imperialism and dependency, in addition to playing a fundamental role in the socialist revolution: the capitalist state[X]. This, as well as other pre-capitalist political organizations, is a cohesion factor of a society traversed by class struggle. The State is the factor of order and regulator of the overall balance of the social system, whose purpose is to maintain the unity of a society, its functioning and its reproduction. It contains social contradictions, which can be summarized in the antagonism between social classes. Ultimately, the State prevents the annihilation of social classes, which means that it prevents the destruction of a country. Specifically, the capitalist state is the institution that organizes bourgeois class domination. The permanent struggles of the bourgeoisie form it as a class, a process that materializes with its insertion in and transformation of the State, perpetuating itself as the dominant class. In this way, it manages to subordinate state policy to its interests. The State then establishes and legitimizes the private ownership of the means of production, the exploitation of salaried work and the other necessary conditions for the capitalist mode of production to sustain itself, whether through ideology, law or violence. In this way, in addition to organizing the domination of the bourgeois class, the State corresponds to capitalist production relations, which is why we can call it a capitalist or bourgeois State. In the context of international relations, the capitalist State acts as a figurehead for the accumulation/export of capital (but at certain times with relative autonomy[xi]), acting as an indispensable force in the processes mentioned above, through diplomacy and/or war. It is worth mentioning that the Marxist theory of the State has a secular intellectual trajectory, which dates back to Hegel and finds a sophisticated development in contemporary authors.

Finally, the socialist revolution[xii], or the socialist transition to the communist mode of production. Marxism presents the contradiction between the development of productive forces (machinery, technology, etc.) and the current production relations (capital x labor relation) as the generating element of a systemic imbalance that would be up to the class struggle to resolve. The structural transformation of capitalism takes place when the development of the productive forces is truncated, and no longer stimulated, by the existing relations of production. In this context, the social classes as organized and struggling collectives represent, on the one hand, the “expired” production relations, fighting for the preservation of the current social structure and, on the other, the productive forces on the rise, fighting for historical change. This change, that is, the process of revolution (structural transformation of a mode of production; cataclysmic leap from one mode of production to another) is the agency of a political collective that starts to print previous changes in the State (a factor of cohesion of the divided society into classes), that is, a political revolution that sets in motion the formation of a new type of State, even before the revolution in the economy, the clash between productive forces and relations of production[xiii]. It is through the taking over (peaceful or otherwise) of the State and the new type of State being led by the working classes that it is possible to resolve the capitalist contradiction between the relations of production and the productive forces. It is not, therefore, a question of any economic or political conflict, but of a particular confrontation in a well-defined phase of the historical process, a period of revolution. This revolutionary process is not limited to the national space, but has an international tendency. That is, just as bourgeois cosmopolitanism tends to transform the whole world in its image and likeness through the expansion of capitalist relations, proletarian internationalism – solidarity and organization between workers from different countries– seeks to spread the revolution.

About the process of transition to communism, Marx, Engels and other Marxists refrained from any detailed description, since its characteristics would be in the historical process yet to come.[xiv]. However, on the one hand, they were clear about the political struggle to be waged by the proletariat organized into a class. On the other hand, they had no doubts about the international character of the revolution, which, in order to succeed, could not take place in isolation in a country, and far from each other, but would be the work of a decisive set of proletarian social forces acting simultaneously in the national States. The (unpredictable) process of transition is configured as a creative destruction: at the same time that the political agency via the State eliminates the elements that preserve the capitalist mode of production, develops its productive forces and creates new relations of production and society, elements of a communist mode of production.

We sought in this text to present the themes and/or theories in a way in which the order of the exhibitions would become a theoretical body that was minimally articulated and coherent. In this way, those who intend to refer to Marxist theory can already have an idea about what to take into account when carrying out a materialist-historical analysis. We hope that these lines bring clarity about the richness of Marxism, even if presented in a summarized way, as a scientific social theory to analyze international relations. Certainly by following our objectives and the contents of the book Marxism and International Relations We fail to address important Marxist theories here, such as the theory of uneven and combined development, theories dealing with hegemony, supremacy and empire worldwide, neoliberalism and proletarian internationalism. However, other contributions are yet to come to fill gaps in an undertaking, in which this book is one of the first steps towards thinking about the international from a Marxist point of view in Brazil. A perspective that, while being Brazilian, is also Latin American, peripheral and international.

* Caio Bugiato Professor of Political Science and International Relations at the Federal Rural University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRRJ) and at the Graduate Program in International Relations at UFABC.

Originally posted on the blog wandering, the International out of place [].


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[I] We wrote these lines referenced in the recently released book Marxism and International Relations (BUGIATO, 2021). This book was conceived a few years ago by students, professors and researchers from Brazilian universities who asked themselves – with some discomfort – something in common: where is Marxism in International Relations (IR)? Our main objective with this text is to present, in a synthetic way, to the reader some themes and/or theories that the book brings up and, obviously, make an invitation to read.

The book can be downloaded from the Phillos publishing house website:

Indications of the chapters of the book, as well as other bibliographical indications, which deal with a certain theme, can be found in the following footnotes.

[ii]Important notions are in the communist manifesto (MARX and ENGELS, [1848] 2010), in part VII d' The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte(MARX, [1852], 2011b) and in chapter II, 5, of The misery of philosophy (MARX, [1847] 2017).

[iii] Our indication is in accordance with the definitions of Nicos Poulantzas in Political power and social classes ([1968] 1977) part 1, chapter 2, which diverge from the conception of Georg Lukács in History and class consciousness ([1923]2018), particularly exposed in the chapter entitled class consciousness. For Lukács, class is already a fact of reality and the acquisition of class consciousness, as a perception of its social conditions and the complexity of society (historical totality) and political organization to fight for its interests, is a spontaneous development of collective ideas . However, only the proletariat could concretely know the historical totality, as its class situation (exploitation of wage labor) is the basis of the entire existence of capitalism and would lead to such knowledge. For other classes, such as the petty bourgeoisie, this would not be possible, since they would have a residual insertion in the capitalist economic structure. Neither does the bourgeoisie, since it would be interested in perpetuating the present and not in facing the problems of capitalism and its overcoming. The proletariat would pass, with the acquisition of class consciousness, from class-in-itself to class-for-itself, becoming the historical subject capable of questioning and transcending the falsifying immediacy of capitalism. It is a process very similar to the movement of the Idea in Phenomenology of Spirit of Hegel (2014), in which the protagonism is with the ideas.

[iv] Chapter 1 of the book deals with the theme, as well as chapter 2, albeit partially, when addressing a related theme, free trade. Other nominations: Chapter 3 of the book The politics of change: globalization, ideology and critique, entitled The specter of globalization: on the form and content of the World Market (BONEFELD, 2000); the works of Alex Fiuza de Mello, particularly the book World mode of production and civilizing process(MELLO (2001); Franklin's article (2017)The world market in the thought of Karl Marx (FRANKLIN, 2017); and chapter 16 of the book The Marx Revival entitled Globalization (JEONG, 2020).

[v]Franklin's article (2017) brings together and indicates passages about the world market scattered throughout Marx's work.

[vi] On the unequal exercise of sovereignty between central and peripheral States, we indicate the book by Jaime Osório (2014), The State at the center of globalization.

[vii] Chapters 3, 4 and 5 deal with this theme. The pioneering theories, at the time of World War I, are in Vladimir Lenin ([1916] 1982), Nicolai Bukharin ([1915] 1986), Karl Kautsky ([1914] 2008) and Rosa Luxemburg ([1913] 1985). Post-World War II theories are in Harry Magdoff ([1969] 1972; [1978] 1979), Ernest Mandel, (1967; [1970] 2009; [1972] 1982) and Nicos Poulantzas (1974; [1974] 1978). Contemporary theories are in Harvey (2004), Callinicos (2009), Panitch and Gindin (2012) and Wood (2014) A synthesis of these three moments can be found in the article Imperialist cooperation and conflict: a secular theoretical debate (BUGIATO and BERRINGER, 2021).

[viii] The inaugural reflections on uneven and combined development were made by Leon Trotsky in the permanent revolution (TROTSKY, [1930] 1979), chapters 1 and 2, and in History of the Russian Revolution (TROTSKY, [1930] 1977), volume 1, chapter 1. Ernest Mandel sought to develop them in the article The laws of uneven development (MANDEL, 1970) and in the book late capitalism (MANDEL [1972] 1982). Contemporary authors such as Alex Callinicos, Justin Rosemberg, Sam Ashman and Alexander Anievas seek to bring this perspective to International Relations. His studies can be found in the chapters of the book Marxism and world politics: contesting global capitalism, organized by Anievas (2010).

[ix] Chapter 10 of the book deals with addiction. Other studies by the author of this chapter, Maira Machado Bichir, help us to understand the intellectual trajectory, the trends and the convergences and divergences of the dependentistas/authors (Andre Gunder Frank, Theotonio dos Santos, Vania Bambirra, Ruy Mauro Marini, Fernando Henrique Cardoso and Enzo Faletto, and others). See her article, as well as others in the same dossier, Contributions by Ruy Mauro Marini to the debate on the State in dependent countries (BICHIR, 2018). Other indications: chapters 1 and 2 of Angelita Matos Souza's Habilitation Thesis,Dependency and PT governments(SOUZA, 2019); the book Dialogues on development – ​​volume 1: On Dependency (KUFAKURINANI et. al., 2017); and the book by Theotonio dos Santos, Dependency Theory: balance and perspectives (SANTOS, 2015), chapters 1, 2 and 3.

[X] Chapter 7 of the book deals with the theory of the State. Despite the absence of a theory of the State in Marx and Engels, the State occupies an important place in the communist manifesto (MARX and ENGELS [1848] 2010) and mainly in historical works: Class struggles in France from 1848 to 1850 (MARX, [1850] 2012a); The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (MARX, [1852], 2011b); It is The Civil War in France (MARX, 1871], 2011a). Codato and Perissinoto (2011) write about this in The State as an institution: a reading of Marx's "historical works".Engels devoted himself to the theme of the State in Anti-Duhring (ENGELS, [1878] 2015) and The origin of the family, private property and the state(ENGELS, [1884] 2019), especially in Chapter IX. Two books are essential for an introductory study on the subject: State and political theory (CARNOY, 1988) and State and Marxism: a siglo and medium of debates(THWAITES, 2007). Both books trace an intellectual trajectory from the Marxist theory of the State, from Marx and Engels, through Lenin, Gramsci, Miliband, Poulantzas, among others, to contemporary authors. Among these, we indicate the article by Bob Jessop, Accumulation strategy, state forms and hegemonic projects (JESSOP, 2007) and his book The future of the capitalist state (JESSOP, 2002). On the State in Latin American critical thought: The question of the State in Latin American critical social thinking (MEJÍA and GRANATO, 2021).

[xi] The relative autonomy of the State means that, despite the domination of the bourgeoisie over it, in certain conjunctures, State policies can go against the immediate interests of the ruling class as a whole. Measures to increase wages and strengthen the workers' political organization or diplomatic measures to get closer to a certain State can displease the bourgeoisie. However, they are carried out as non-immediate objectives, with the aim of maintaining both the balance of the social system crossed by the class struggle and the necessary conditions to sustain capital accumulation and the bourgeoisie as the ruling class. On the relative autonomy of the State: State autonomy and development in democratic capitalism (IONNI, 2013).

[xii]Chapter 9 by Paulo Visentini deals with the revolution. It is important to mention his inspiration in Fred Halliday (whose references are in the chapter itself) to approach the theme. Halliday (1999) points to the absence of studies on revolutions in International Relations and suggests tools for theoretical reflection and empirical research. On socialist experiments: Marxist revolutions and regimes: ruptures, experiences and international impact (VISENTINI et al., 2013). On the conception of (international) revolution in Marx and Engels and in the Marxists: the book by Hal Drapper and E. Haberkern ([1990] 2005), Karl Marx´s theory of revolution – volume V: war and revolution and the chapter Revolution de Löwy (2020) in the book The Marx Revival. On world socialism: World socialism in the twenty-first century: new structure, new features and new trends (HUI, 2017).

[xiii] About this process, see: The role of politics in the Marxist theory of history (BOITO JR, 2007). The book that contains this text is recommended for understanding Marxist political theory. On this, see also: Marx's views on politics: an introduction (BUGIATO, 2018).

[xiv] But there are a number of passages by Marx and Engels about revolutionary processes that would lead to the end of capitalism. Very well known are section II of the communist manifesto (MARX and ENGELS, [1848] 2010) and the Marginal Glosses to the Program of the German Workers' Party, section I, of Gotha program critique (MARX, [1875] 2012b), in which Marx indicates the difference between socialism, a transitional society, and communism, a new mode of production. In particular, an annotation on the german ideology (MARX and ENGELS [1845-1846] 2007) calls our attention. Faced with the tendency of worldwide expansion of capitalism, they indicate that communism would only be viable as a worldwide phenomenon: “[…] the mass of simple workers […] presupposes the world trade […]. The proletariat […] can therefore only exist historically-worldwide, as well as communism; its action can only take place as a “world-historical” existence; world-historical existence of individuals, that is, existence of individuals directly linked to world history (authors' emphasis, p. 39).

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