Marxism, neo-Marxism and critical theory

Marxist theory derives from the thought of Karl Marx (1818–83) and his close collaborator, Friedrich Engels (1820–95). It aims to provide a radical critique of capitalist society and, indeed, of earlier modes of social, economic and political organization, primarily through the analysis of class relations. The themes of power, ideology, and hegemony, and especially the way in which ruling classes maintain control and promote the legitimacy of capitalism, are central to Marxist thought. Marxist ideas have had a major influence on critical approaches to virtually all aspects of politics in both domestic and global spheres. In this chapter we examine several major strands of Marxist-influenced theory of direct relevance to global politics, including Gramscian theory (after its founding theorist, Antonio Gramsci) and Frankfurt School theory (after its home base in Germany) which constitute distinctive approaches to contemporary Critical Theory (CT).

The strands discussed here are all variants of or draw from ‘Western Marxism’. This distinguishes the legacy of Marx and Engels from the way in which their thought has been theorized in authoritarian communist regimes, especially in China and the former USSR where it underpinned distinctive revolutionary traditions (see Chan, 2003; Marik, 2008). In both cases, however, it was also transformed into a version of authoritarianism, although it was never inevitable that implementing Marxist ideas in practice would necessarily entail an authoritarian political system. As one commentator has noted, Marx has not always been well served by his followers (Rockmore, 2018: p. 2). Dependency and world-systems theory are also related to the Marxist tradition while historical sociology, although not necessarily Marxist, at least shares with that tradition a critical approach to large-scale patterns of social, political, and economic development over time.

The core of Marxism is a philosophy of history that outlines why capitalism is doomed and why socialism and eventually communism are destined to replace it. This philosophy is based on the ‘materialist conception of history’, the belief that economic factors are the ultimately determining force in human history. In Marx’s view, history is driven forward through a dialectical process in which internal contradictions within each ‘mode of production’, reflected in class conflict, lead to social revolution and the construction of a new and higher mode of production. This process was characterized by a series of historical stages (slavery, feudalism, capitalism and so on) and would only end with the establishment of a classless communist society. For Marx, capitalist development nevertheless always had a marked transnational character, leading some to regard him as an early ‘hyperglobalist’ theorist. The desire for profit would drive capitalism to ‘strive to tear down every barrier to intercourse’ and to ‘conquer the whole earth for its market’ (Marx 1973). However, the implications of viewing capitalism as an international system were not fully explored until V. I. Lenin’s Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism ([1916] 1970). Lenin portrayed imperialism as an essentially economic phenomenon, reflecting domestic capitalism’s quest to maintain profit levels through the export of surplus capital. This, in turn, would bring major capitalist powers into conflict with one another, the resulting war (WWI) being essentially an imperialist war in the sense that it was fought for the control of colonies in Africa, Asia and elsewhere. Such thinking was further developed by later Marxists, who focused on the ‘uneven development’ of global capitalism. Interest in Marxism was revived during the 1970s through the use of neoMarxist theories to explain patterns of global poverty and inequality. Dependency theory, for example, highlighted the extent to which, in the post1945 period, traditional imperialism had given way to neo-colonialism, sometimes viewed as ‘economic imperialism’ or, more specifically,‘dollar imperialism’. World-systems theory (see p. 367) suggested that the world economy is best understood as an interlocking capitalist system which exemplifies, at international level, many of the features that characterize national capitalism; that is, structural inequalities based on exploitation and a tendency towards instability and crisis that is rooted in economic contradictions. The world-system consists of interrelationships between the ‘core’, the ‘periphery’ and the ‘semi-periphery’. Core areas such as the developed North are distinguished by the concentration of capital, high wages and high-skilled manufacturing production They therefore benefit from technological innovation and high and sustained levels of investment. Peripheral areas such as the less developed South are exploited by the core through their dependency on the export of raw materials, subsistence wages and weak frameworks of state protection. Semi-peripheral areas are economically subordinate to the core but in turn take advantage of the periphery, thereby constituting a buffer between the core and the periphery. Such thinking about the inherent inequalities and injustices of global capitalism was one of the influences on the anti-globalization, or ‘anti-capitalist’, movement that emerged from the late 1990s onwards

A key figure in the Marxist tradition is Rosa Luxemburg (1871–1919), both an activist and a philosopher. She was notable, among other things, for her sharp criticism of fellow socialists who adopted positions that constrained individual freedom. She wrote extensively on political theory, social history, sociology, cultural theory, and ethnography, contributing to a range of issues from feminism to nationalism and the idea of self-determination (Nettl, 2019: pp. ix–xi). With respect to the latter, Luxemburg argued that the ‘formula of the right of nations’ is a cliché which failed to take into account ‘the wide range of historical conditions (place and time) existing in each given case’ as well as ‘the general current of the development of global conditions’. In addition, she said, this formula takes ‘nations’ to be homogeneous socio-political entities when they are clearly no such thing. Quite apart from the highly diverse ethnic heritage of most ‘nations’, Luxemburg argued that within each nation, there exist ‘classes with antagonistic interests and “rights”’ which undermines any case for conceiving of them as a ‘consolidated “national” entity’

Gramscian Critical Theory

The Italian intellectual Antonio Gramsci (1891–1937) is often described as the leading European Marxist thinker of the twentieth century. He was both an activist and an intellectual who believed strongly in praxis, which links ‘thinking’ with ‘doing’ (see Box 4.2). One of Gramsci’s most significant intellectual contributions was in highlighting the phenomenon of the naturalization of power in the creation of hegemony by elites. He argued that ruling classes maintained power and control, even in the absence of constant coercive force, because they make prevailing inequalities seem natural, inevitable, and even right.

‘Critical theory’ (often called ‘Frankfurt School critical theory’, to distinguish it from the wider category of critical theories or perspectives) has developed into one of the most influential currents of Marxist-inspired international theory A major influence on critical theory has been the ideas of Antonio Gramsci. Gramsci (1970) argued that the capitalist class system is upheld not simply by unequal economic and political power, but by what he termed the ‘hegemony’ of bourgeois ideas and theories. Hegemony means leadership or domination and, in the sense of ideological hegemony, it refers to the capacity of bourgeois ideas to displace rival views and become, in effect, the ‘common sense’ of the age. Gramsci’s ideas have influenced modern thinking about the nature of world or global hegemony. Instead of viewing hegemony in conventional terms, as the domination of one military power over another, modern neo-Gramscians have emphasized the extent to which hegemony operates through a mixture of coercion and consent, highlighting the interplay between economic, political, military and ideological forces, as well as interaction between states and international organizations. Robert Cox (see p. 120) thus analyzed the hegemonic power of the USA not only in terms of its military ascendancy, but also in terms of its ability to generate broad consent for the ‘world order’ that it represents

Gramsci was born in 1891 on the Italian island of Sardinia, growing up in impoverished circumstances. He won a scholarship to the University of Turin where he studied literature and linguistics and became acquainted with history and philosophy. He became a founding member of the Italian Communist Party, served as its secretary, and was elected a member of parliament in 1924. Despite having parliamentary immunity from prosecution, Gramsci was imprisoned in 1926 under the fascist regime of Benito Mussolini which had outlawed the Communist Party. Gramsci’s impressive intellect had prompted his prosecutor to argue for a substantial prison sentence in order ‘to stop this brain from functioning for twenty years’ (quoted in He died in prison in 1937. Despite very poor health and adverse conditions, Gramsci produced a fragmented but nonetheless impressive corpus of writings published posthumously under the title Prison Notebooks (see Gramsci, 1971). He is widely regarded as a founding theorist of the links between power, economics, and culture, including the power of cultural institutions such as the mass media (see, generally, Davidson, 2018)

Far from being ‘natural’, however, Gramsci pointed out that inequalities are the product of specific social, political, and economic circumstances. They are made to seem natural by those who have the cultural power to control ‘hearts and minds’. These insights resonate with the Marxist conception of ideology as false consciousness, but the Gramscian approach focuses more on the consensual nature of support for hegemony. If people consider a particular social order to be natural, they are far less inclined to oppose it and will even effectively consent to it. Although Gramsci wrote mainly about domestic politics, he recognized that the dynamics of hegemony extended to the global sphere ‘between complexes of national and continental civilisations’ (Gramsci quoted in Schwarzmantel, 2009: p. 8).

Later figures, such as Canadian theorist Robert W. Cox (1926–2018), found Gramsci’s insights highly pertinent in explaining the hegemony of theories and ideas in the global sphere. This differs from conceptions of hegemony which focus only on material (mainly economic and military) capabilities. Cox (1981: p. 128) is well known for declaring that ‘theory is always for some one, and for some purpose’. Put another way, theories are never neutral in the selection and interpretation of facts—they are reflections of the subjective values and interests of those who devise them and, therefore, tend strongly to support those values and interests. It follows that facts and values do not exist independently of each other, so the idea that any theory can be ‘value-free’, or that knowledge can be totally objective, is insupportable.

Cox argued that realism is an ideology of the status quo, supporting the existing global order and therefore the interests of those who prosper under it. Furthermore, by presenting it as natural, the existing order is perceived as inevitable and unchanging in its essentials. Any difficulties that arise within the order are seen as problems to be solved within the parameters of that order. The order itself is never challenged. Rather, we are enjoined to accept it on the basis (to use a contemporary catchphrase) that it is what it is.

Cox and other Critical Theorists have insisted that no order is ‘natural’ or immune from change. All political orders, from that of the smallest community to the world at large, are humanly constructed and can in principle be reconstructed in a more just and equitable manner. CT aims to provide the intellectual framework for emancipation from unfair and unjust social, political, and economic arrangements that benefit the few at the expense of the many. To the extent that liberalism participates in the perpetuation of injustices, especially through capitalism, it is subject to a similar critique. Cox became a key critic of globalization, arguing that the phenomenon is not simply the inevitable outcome of major, ongoing technical advances but is underpinned by a hegemonic ideology promoting deregulation of both capital and labour, to the considerable disadvantage of the latter (see Griffiths, Roach, and Sullivan,

The Frankfurt School

The Frankfurt School, a group of Marxist-influenced theorists who worked at the Institute of Social Research, which was established in Frankfurt in 1923, relocated to the USA in the 1930s, and was re-established in Frankfurt in the early 1950s (the Institute was dissolved in 1969). The defining theme of critical theory is the attempt to extend the notion of critique to all social practices by linking substantive social research to philosophy. Leading ‘first generation’ Frankfurt thinkers included Theodor Adorno (1903–69), Max Horkheimer (1895–1973) and Herbert Marcuse (1989–1979); the leading exponent of the ‘second generation’ of the Frankfurt School was Jürgen Habermas (born 1929). While early Frankfurt thinkers were primarily concerned with the analysis of discrete societies, later theorists, such as Cox (1981, 1987) and Andrew Linklater (1990, 1998), have applied critical theory to the study of international politics, in at least three ways. In the first place, critical theory underlines the linkage between knowledge and politics, emphasizing the extent to which theories and understandings are embedded in a framework of values and interests. This implies that, as all theorizing is normative, those who seek to understand the world should adopt greater theoretical reflexivity. Second, critical theorists have adopted an explicit commitment to emancipatory politics: they are concerned to uncover structures of oppression and injustice in global politics in order to advance the cause of individual or collective freedom. Third, critical theorists have questioned the conventional association within international theory between political community and the state, in so doing opening up the possibility of a more inclusive, and maybe even cosmopolitan, notion of political identity

The Frankfurt School included figures such as Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, and Max Horkheimer, shared with Gramsci a concern for cultural and social factors, therefore placing less emphasis on economics. A more recent figure, Jürgen Habermas, has continued the Frankfurt School’s tradition of critical enquiry through new forms of social theory. Habermas’s theory of communicative action holds that, under the right conditions, a consensus about ‘truth’ may be reached. This relies on an epistemology which sees knowledge about the social world emerging through a process of continuous dialogue. Because the social sciences cannot proceed as the natural sciences do, they must instead see all action from the perspective of the actors involved (see Smith, 1996: pp. 27–8). Habermas rejects the notion of objective ethical truths that exist independently of any social world. They are made within a social world, but one which is wide enough to embrace everyone. This provides the basis for universally valid ethics and so Habermas’s normative theory is clearly cosmopolitan.

Contemporary writers such as Andrew Linklater have extended Habermas’s emancipatory concerns to the global sphere, especially with respect to how state boundaries tend to denote the limits of ethical concerns. The most creative Critical Theorists go beyond mere critique of existing theories and practices and put forward alternative visions of how the world could be (and should be). Linklater’s ideas about transformative potentials for the way in which political communities are conceived and structured, for example, set out such a vision. Although modernity has a dark side, he argues that it still carries within it the seeds of the original aims of the Enlightenment which are, in the final analysis, about the emancipation of people from a range of constraints, prejudices, and exploitative practices. And while modernity gave us the Westphalian state system, the ‘unfinished project of modernity’ envisages a post-Westphalian world in which states as political communities no longer operate in the service of inclusion and exclusion. This transformation, he suggests, seems most likely to occur in the very region which gave rise to that system in the first place and which has since produced the EU, itself a project with considerable normative potential (see Linklater, 1998). Habermas too sees very similar possibilities in the European project (see Box 4.3). In light of more recent developments with Brexit and the rise of right-wing nationalist populism throughout the continent, however, it seems that the project has a very long way to go, and may well stall for some considerable time (see, generally, Martill and Staiger, eds, 2018).