Guide to International Relations II: Marxism and Constructivism

Our series on International Relations (I.R.) ends here with the last two essential approaches. They are alternative theories which have developed during the end are useful instruments in the toolkit of any student of I.R. because they offer both new, radical explanations of international politics and bring complementary ideas. This brief paper sets out to discuss two of these alternative theories, Marxism and Constructivism.

Marxism

In the 19th century, Marx and Engels wrote that the main source of instability in the international system would be capitalist globalization, more specifically the conflict between two classes: the national bourgeoisie and the cosmopolitan proletariat. Historical materialism was going to be Marxism’s  guideline in understanding the processes both in domestic and international affairs. Thus, for Marx human history has been a struggle to satisfy material needs and to resists class domination and exploitation.

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Karl Marx Source: [email protected]

Despite ideological criticism, Marxism has strong empirical advantages on its side. Firstly, by emphasizing injustice and inequality it is very relevant to every period of time, as these two failures of the human society have never been absent. Marxism is a structural theory just like neorealism, but it focuses on the economic sector instead of the military-political one. Its analysis reflects the relation between the base (the modes of production) and the superstructure (political institutions). The source of structural effects is not anarchy, but the capitalist mode of production which defines unjust political institutions and state relations.

This economic reductionism is considered also to be a central flaw. As a solution, the neo-Gramscian school proposed a further development. By combining global capitalism, state structure, and political-economic institutions they managed to create a theory of global hegemony (ideological domination). According to this theory, hegemony is maintained through close cooperation between powerful elites inside and outside the core regions of the world system. Global governance is constituted by political and economic institutions that put pressure on the less developed and unstable peripheral countries.

From an epistemological point of view, Marxism created the foundations for critical theory, and it is superior in this sense to the dominant approaches of  Anglo-American I.R., that are problem-solving theories. Marxism, as any other critical theory, has a normative interest in identifying possibilities for social transformation and how theory is instrumental to power. This is why Marx wrote about capitalism with an interest in the social forces that would bring about its downfall hoping that humanity would be free from domination and exploitation. Realists in particular see this to be politically motivated and not objective and neutral. The normative disadvantage of Marxism is that it can be seen as Eurocentric by promoting the Enlightenment ideal of cosmopolitanism.

Constructivism

Another challenging alternative approach is Constructivism which rose as a school of thought with the end of the Cold War. It can be seen as the continuation of critical international theory, even though it differs from the first wave of critical theory due to its emphasis on empirical analysis instead of philosophical contemplation.

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The main purpose of constructivism was to challenge rationalism by proposing a radically different ontological perspective based on three main propositions. Firstly, ideational structure is just as important as the realist material structure in shaping the identity and ultimately the actions of the actors. Second, as opposed to the rationalist conception of a priori interests, constructivists are interested in how self-perceived identity determines interest-formation. Thirdly, agent and structure are mutually constituted (a structurationalist theory, not a structuralist one). Therefore, the core of constructivism is its contrast with rationalism.

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Source: Hafiz [email protected]

Nevertheless, this approach can be perceived as complementary to rationalism. The former focuses on how norms shape identities and interests (interest-formation) and the latter on how actors pursue the given interests (interest-satisfaction). Based on a scholarly division of labour, constructivism would try to explain how actors gain their preferences, while rationalism would explore how they realize those preferences. This would be a process of bridge-building between the two.

One of its admitted limitations is that constructivism is not actually a theory : these scholars’ main aim is to interpret and explain different aspects of world politics, not to create a general theory of international affairs. It is more of an analytical framework. Constructivists think that there is no such thing as a universal, transhistorical, culturally autonomous idea or identity. Everything is socially constructed, hence the name of the approach.

Finally, despite this limitation, the undeniable contribution of constructivism to I.R. theory is that it brought back into discussion the social, historical and normative aspects of political thinking. This way it succeeded in further develop the English School approach and in better explaining the mainstream theories’ problematic issues like for example, the fall of the Soviet Union.

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For a detailed study of IR theories the following sources and scholars are recommended:

Books:

  • Burchill S., Linklater A., Devetak R., Donnelly J., Paterson M., Reus-Smit C. and True J., Theories of International
  • Relations, Third edition, 2005, Palgrave Macmillan;
  • E.H. Carr, The Twenty Years’ Crisis 1919-1939. An Introduction to the Study of International Relations, 1946;

Scholars:
Mearsheimer J., Waltz K., Keohane R., Morgenthau H., Buzan B., Wendt A., Bull H.,  – articles, books, interviews.

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Why Do We Need International Relations?

Guide to International Relations: Realism

Claudiu Sonda
Passionate student of IR and European politics with an interest in developing a high-level expertise in International Security and geopolitics.