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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