Karl Marx and International Relations Theories

Marxism is one of the fundamental theories of international relations. According to Marxists, both liberalism and realism are merely expedient theories started by capitalist regimes to protect and validate universal inequality. However, Marx disagrees that class is the basic unit of analysis of international relations (IR) and the global system has been created by the rich countries to safeguard their interests. The major contributions of Karl Marx to the field of IR relates to two significant theories: dependency theory and world-systems theory (Vogt, 2010, p.1).

Basic Principles Marxist Approach

According to Karl Marx, the world is separated by economically determined classes and not along political lines. As a result, economics takes precedence over politics. The different Marxist theories of IR concur that the global state system was created by capitalists and hence is used to protect the interests of the rich capitalist states and companies which seek to increase their wealth.

The world-system theory is an example of the most successful international relations theory developed directly from Marxism. According to this theory, the First World and Third World are simply constituents of a bigger world system that was introduced by European colonialism in the 16th century. In actual sense, the First World and Third World represent the core and periphery of the global system respectively.

In other words, the First World is made up of wealthy nations which possess and benefit mainly from the means of production. On the other hand, the Third World comprises of the impoverished nations that supply the bulk of natural resources and human labor exploited by the wealthy states. According to Marxism, semi-peripheral states are those countries that lie somewhere between the two classes (Vogt, 2010, p.3).

The core-periphery premise of the world-system theory is also well articulated under the dependency theory which postulates that the core wealthy nations (Western industrialized democracies) use international politics to acquire natural resources from the poor (peripheral) countries.

According to Marxism, the peripheral (poor) countries supply cheap human labor and capital whereas the core (wealthy) states create foreign policies to maintain the status quo-the system of inequality. Usually, rich states use global organizations such as the World Trade Organization (WTO) to achieve this goal.

According to Karl Marx, poor (peripheral) countries can combat the systems of global inequality by adopting economic control policies that can liberate them from exploitation by the rich states. For example, poor countries can mitigate international economical controls through import substitution-government aid to local manufacturers and barriers to rich global corporations that attempt to flood the domestic market with cheap imports (Vogt, 2010, p.4).

The major contribution of Karl Marx to international relations lies in the concept of ideology. For example, Marx states that the fabrication of ideas and concepts is directly intermingled with the material intercourse and activity of men. Ideology is, therefore, a twisted form of knowledge that offers its rationalization for replicating itself.

The historical abstraction employed by Marx enables a distinction to be made between things as they materialize to us and their position as fundamental mechanisms in explanation. This approach provides two contributions to the body of international relations. First, Marx stresses on the need for a critical ontological and epistemological investigation to divulge the ideological matrix that might enclose a particular idea.

The second contribution relates to the methodology which he explains as follows:

We have to start from a general abstract definition more or less applicable to all forms of society (Marx used the example of ‘a population’), proceed to less and less complex abstractions (in the case of Marx’s example, ‘classes’, ‘means of production’, etc.) until we arrive at the simplest determination. Then we start the journey back until we arrive at the real, concrete definition (a population), but now seen as a ‘rich aggregate of many determinations and relations (Burchill, 2001, p.7).

Marx’s assertion can be used to explain the IR concept. For example, it applies to the national interest concept. However, we need to decompose the term national interest to understand it. We can use Marx’s IR theories to explain what a nation is, then explain what the state is, its connection to the elite class and the means of production.

We may then attempt to explain the notion of national interest and discover that it simply denotes the interest of a particular social configuration characterized by the economic system of that nation. Growth is another critical concept within the sphere of international relations. Using Karl Marx theory, growth can be viewed as the sheer accumulation of goods and capital. A similar verdict would suffice by assessing the concepts of national wealth or Gross Domestic Product (Smith, 1994, p.9).

National sovereignty and non-intervention are two critical concepts addressed by Karl Marx. At first, it may appear that these concepts should be agreeable to Marxist scholars who detest external interventions. However, going by the historical and social framework within which they were structured, we can argue that national sovereignty and non-intervention are philosophical tools used by the elite class in society to exercise its power over the means of production.

The relevance of these concepts can also be seen from an external dimension. Sovereign and non-intervention became part of the international law during the Industrial Revolution when feudalism was replaced by the bourgeois order. Consequently, the elite classes of different countries were united under a common goal of preserving their domination over the means of production (Smith, 1994, p.10).

The contribution of Karl Marx to the field of International relations is grounded to the concept of ideology. However, Marx’s contributions are disjointed, and most of his ideas assume the form of specific conjectures. Nevertheless, Marx’s contributions are heavily grounded on the notion of the duality of being and appearance. In essence, they all make implicit or explicit reference to Karl Marx’s notion of ideology.

Take for example the area of development studies. The passions of political activism in the 1960s have led to the birth of novel dependency and core/periphery theories. For example, the post-war accomplishment of Western capitalism (the core) was attributed to the fact that the Western nations were able to exploit cheap labor and natural resources from the poor countries (the periphery).

It is worth to note that the multinational and transnational corporations played a major role in the relocation of natural resources from the periphery to the core (Smith, 1994, p.12). Nonetheless, there are certain distinctive aspects of Marxist theory to international relations. For example, his theory is not systematic but rather is fragmented.

The dependency theory and world-system theory provide helpful analyses for those who view the world as predominantly a sphere of economic conflict between the wealthy and the deprived. In other words, these theories may be perceived as an application of the main concepts of Marxism to IR in which peripheral (poor) states are synonymous to deprived workers whereas the rich Western states are synonymous property owners within the elite class.

Also, the Marxist approach to IR simply led liberal trade academicians in viewing the existence of global market system-which is currently controlled by liberal theorists- as globalization (Rosenberg, 1994, p.14).

Criticism of Marxist Approach

There are three main criticisms of the Marxist approach. The first one is known as excessive determinism. Several scholars argue that the state or political actors cannot be viewed as simple expressions of the fundamental socio-economic system of a society. This accusation of excessive determinism has brought afore another common censure of the Marxist approach, which is accused of intolerance, orthodoxy, and dogmatism.

The second criticism leveled against the Marxist approach is that it only focuses on issues relevant to IR, for example, finance and trade. However, if Marxism is criticized in this manner, it is because IR and politics have been synthetically detached from economics by modernity.

Hence, this criticism is only relevant if international economics is separated from international politics. The third criticism claims that Marxist approach is unsuitable for the international arena. For example, the realists postulate that the state is the only legal unit of analysis of international relation (Halliday, 1994, p.14).

Several academicians have proposed explanations for the scantiness of Karl Marx’s writing on International Relations theory. According to Halliday, Marxism failed to address three fundamental issues of international theory: world-system theory versus state-centrism, traditionalism versus behavioralism, and realism versus utopianism. Karl Marx employed a bit of these debate and hence failed to address the ideological spectrum.

Nonetheless, according to MacLean, the deficiency of Karl Marx’s contribution on IR theory is evidenced by the division of labor in the social sciences which has led to the disconnection of economics from politics and lends credence to the systematic study of the latter within the broad structure of positivism.

On the same note, Rosenberg asserts that scantiness (manifested in Marxist theory on IR) is the main outcome of the apparent disconnection between the domestic and foreign fields which are at the center of the prevailing ideological structure in international relations theory (Burchill, 2001, p.8).

As stated above, Marxism approach has plenty to offer to the field of international relations. Marxism approach entails a dominant methodology and a vital epistemology, including theories concerning particular issues. It can be argued that Marxism is a rational approach to international relations.

However, we must make this assortment of fragments rational and explain the relevance of Marxism to international relations. Since the culmination of the Cold War, theories related to communism have been subjected to academic disgrace and viewed as archaic.

More importantly, world-system theory is perceived as being vitally concerned with the function of economics in establishing all elements of political and social relations, in addition to being extremely pessimistic, providing few avenues of real escape from the capitalist system. The current academic Marxist theories seem to reflect this assertion (Halliday, 1994, p16).


Burchill, S. et al. 2001. Theories of International Relations. Basingstoke, Palgrave.

Halliday, F. 1994. Rethinking International Relations. Basingstoke, Macmillan.

Rosenberg, J. 1994. The Empire of Civil Society. London, Verso.

Smith, H. 1994. Marxism and International Relations theory, in A.J.R. Groom and M. Light, Contemporary International Relations: A Guide to Theory. London, Pinter.

Vogt, A. 2010. Marxism: International Relations Theory in Brief. Retrieved from web.

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