Origins of International Relations

Phil Cunliffe
School of Politics and International Relations
University of Kent

As regards your paper (‘The Origins of International Relations’.) presented recently at Kent, there are several issues that come to my mind.

1) Political multiplicity may be a problem for classical social theory, but not, it seems to me, for Marxist social theory. For Marxism, the rise of industrial capitalism betokens a break in human history with which only the agricultural revolution is genuinely comparable in terms of its historic significance. More to the point, on the scale of the whole of human history, capitalism is the first genuinely universal social formation – free trade is the cannon that batters down all Chinese walls. From this viewpoint, political multiplicity is a phenomenon internal to capitalism, not a historic legacy – which would surely make it a fetter on genuine capitalist development. Another way to formulate this question is, why didn’t capitalism develop as a single universal empire or world state rather than as a set of competing states across the 16-17C? It seems to me that the existence of political multiplicity has to be established logically in relation to the internal development of capitalist social relations, and the historical mediations, vestigial remnants of prior social formations, etc., worked out subsequently.

This touches upon Jonathan Joseph’s point (raised in the Q&A session) that the ‘depth’ of the model should surely be conceptual rather than chronological. I think this means that your argument in the paper could be consistent with the emergence of different clusters of political communities centred around the rise of agriculture. But this would only explain political multiplicity prior to capitalism, and still leave political multiplicity under capitalism to be explained. It seems to me there are serious implications if we do not explain political multiplicity as internal to capitalism, for this would suggest either a) that political multiplicity was a vestigial phenomenon, or an anachronistic institution layered over capitalist social relations, which would take us back to globalisation theory; or (b) that capitalism is not properly capitalism at all, but rather a mixture of competing structural phenomena – a different kind of social formation entirely in fact, including independent geopolitical affects. But surely in this scenario, we have simply replicated the very problem we were trying to escape from – with different social phenomena being explicable in terms of entirely independent and differential logics?

2) Putting capitalism to one side, I still wonder whether the account you presented isn’t tautological in relation to the emergence of settled agricultural communities. If we take Marx’s description about the ‘metabolic’ interaction between man and nature as a starting point, it seems to me that you were saying that this allows us to theorise U&CD in the earliest formation of political communities. But isn’t this saying that the uneven and combined character of man’s interaction with nature leads to uneven and combined development in society? Isn’t this simply mapping social differentiation on to natural differentiation – not, properly speaking, a distinctively social account at all? And is not human interaction with nature a transhistoric phenomenon, given the very fact that we cannot transcend nature? In which case, where is the development across time that would allow it to function as a theory of development? I also wonder where this leaves Marxism, as Marx’s point about the interaction with nature is a clearly a materialist point but not a uniquely Marxist one (think of Montesquieu and others). For Marx, this point serves more as an anti-idealist staging post to get to his real concerns relating to modern capitalism.

3) Finally, I wonder whether a different context for the origins of the concept of U&CD sheds a different light on its usage … my understanding of Trotsky’s use of the idea was as a polemical concept in the struggle to establish intellectual independence from the rigid historical stagism of Kautsky’s Second International. As such, it was never intended to be a stand-alone, full-blown theory (even if there are occasional phrases pointing in the latter direction). From a viewpoint that grasps Marxism as a theory concerned with historical specificity and dialectical change (i.e. unlike Second International Marxism), doesn’t the idea of U&CD seem redundant? Trotsky did not have access to the Grundrisse but Marx’s formulation there that the ‘concrete is concrete as the unity of many determinations’ speaks to the idea that concrete social phenomena incorporate all sorts of contradictions, tensions, admixtures of novel and historic relations, institutions and practices, all organically inter-related? Wouldn’t this viewpoint simply leave U&CD as a restatement of this view, bringing no more conceptual heft to the discussion?

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One thought on “Origins of International Relations

  1. Justin Rosenberg, University of Sussex, replies:

    Many thanks for these comments. If I understand them correctly, you’ve raised three key questions:
    1.Whether political multiplicity should be seen as a phenomenon internal to capitalism;
    2.Whether it is tautological and/or unsociological to ground U&CD in an original unevenness of the natural world, and
    3.Whether U&CD is not better understood as part of a polemical intervention in a political struggle,
    a concept whose intellectual content can be equally well provided by the ‘method of abstraction‘
    set out by Marx in the Grundrisse.

    These are indeed key questions. The first was the centrepiece of the debate on U&CD in theCambridge Review of International Affairs. The second – the lurking issue of tautology – was what forced me to write this piece on political multiplicity in the first place. And the third touches the ultimate standing of the concept of U&CD itself: limited adjunct to ‘permanent revolution’; fundamental revision of historical materialism; or theory of ‘the international’. (In fact, we’re planning a Sussex Working Group session on ‘permanent revolution’ for next term. And we’re discussing the question of Marxian precursors to U&CD, specifically in relation to the Grundrisse, at our next meeting. You’d be very welcome to join us for either or both of these.)

    Political Multiplicity

    So let me try and go through each of these questions in turn. Political multiplicity, (the defining core of ‘the international’), is, you say, not a problem for Marxists. And this is because we can derive it from the nature of capitalist world development – specifically from the latter’s character as a universal social formation. But can we? I see a couple of difficulties in what you say about this. First, yes, capitalism ‘batters down all Chinese walls’. But exactly how does this claim entail that ‘political multiplicity is a phenomenon internal to capitalism’? As you yourself go on to say, if capital universalises itself, we’re rather faced with the question of why it hasn’t dissolved political multiplicity into a world state/empire.

    But even if you could establish a logical derivation of political multiplicity from ‘the internal development of capitalist social relations’, you’d then be faced with a second difficulty: namely that the co-existence of multiple political entities, (states, empires etc.), long, long antedates capitalism – something which you recognise in your reference to ‘clusters of political communities centred around the rise of agriculture’. This means (as discussed in the exchange of letters with Alex Callinicos) that while a given mode of production may well explain much about the differential character of geopolitics within a particular period, it cannot account for what is general to the existence of a geopolitical dimension across periods. And from that, finally, it also follows that key aspects of geopolitics will escape derivation from the logic of capital even within the capitalist period.

    Now, as you further imply, this line of argument does indeed point problematically to either (a) a re-affirmation of realism which views geopolitics as supra-social or (b) a chaotic multi-factor account, ungoverned by any unifying general theory. In fact, I’d say there’s only one way that it can avoid ending up at one of these two destinations. And that’s if it could be shown that geopolitics is an emergent phenomenon arising from features intrinsic to socio-historical development itself. (Then the existence of geopolitics long before capitalism would cease to be a problem.) But Marx’s historical materialism does not do this.


    Moving on to your second question, does my attempt to show this in the case of early state-formation end up in a tautology? Well, it certainly would be tautological if the argument somehow resolved into the claim that the phenomenon of interactive multiplicity is explained by the fact that development is uneven and combined – i.e. if explanans and explanandum were fundamentally identical. In fact, however, the core argument of the piece is that political multiplicity (‘the international’) arose out of a process of uneven and combined development – one which at first did not exhibit a specifically political aspect. Here explanans and explanandum are clearly not the same thing. But in order to get to that result, I had to show that uneven and combined development pre-existed political multiplicity, (which I couldn’t work out how to do before reading Buzan and Little). Without that disentangling, tautology would indeed have been the result. With it, the logical form of the explanation is one of ‘emergence’.

    Still, does this ‘emergence’ argument reduce in turn to a (non-sociological) eco-determinism, because of the central role in it of the unevenness of the natural world? I would say: only on a very un-Marxian reading. After all, for Marx, the productive interaction with nature is always (a) a transformative social practice, carried out by a (human) species which is (b) uniquely capable ofconscious alteration of its social and natural conditions of existence. This is why the process gives rise to change – development over time. It’s how history arises out of natural history (‘emergence’ again). And it is why I made a point in this article of re-working the Marxian concept of development back into U&CD. But the obverse corollary of that re-working is no less important: with unevenness and combination also re-worked into Marx’s concept of development, we won’t be driven back endlessly to the fruitless task of trying to derive political multiplicity from capitalism. That was the intention anyway.

    U&CD Redundant?

    Finally, you ask ‘whether a different context [i.e. the original political context] for the origins of U&CD sheds a different light on its usage’. Yes, it does. I think it explains why the idea has been neglected for so long: because its primary carriers – the Trotskyist movements – have (for perhaps understandable reasons) been far more interested in keeping alive the associated idea of ‘permanent revolution’. In this effort, the wider meaning of U&CD has remained unexplored. The concept has functioned as a latent, subordinate presupposition of the idea of ‘permanent revolution’.

    This would be harmless if, as you suggest, the operative contents of U&CD could be independently derived from Marx’s writings. But are you sure that they can? The Grundrisse, it’s true, contains some scattered remarks on unevenness. But it’s not the same concept as in Trotsky’s writings. It refers mostly to different rates of development among different aspects of historical change. Sometimes it also refers to geographical unevenness. But it never brings into focus the interactive multiplicity of societal entities. It can’t theoretically ‘see’ this most elemental and consequential feature of ‘the international’. And the same applies to the idea of a ‘unity of many determinations’.

    To cut a long story short, I think that ‘the international’ (political multiplicity) really is a big problem for Marxism, just as it is for the rest of classical social theory. I also think that if we release U&CD from the cramped, subordinate role it has played in Marxist politics so far, then ‘permanent revolution’ will turn out to have been only one strategic conclusion which can be drawn from it – and one which has carried into the 21st century quite a lot of assumptions from an earlier conjuncture which now need to be transcended. But that perhaps would lead us into a quite different debate to the one raised by your three very pertinent questions.

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