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Historical Materialism, Dependency Theory, and Traditional International Relations Theory.

By Nathan - Posted on 05 August 2009


Although the theories of realism and liberalism still dominate the field of International Relations theory, there are a growing number of alternative theories through which an analyst may gain a more complete understanding of world politics.1 It must be kept in mind that these alternative theories come in all shapes and sizes. Some theories are designed to present empirical challenges to theoretical orthodoxy in international relations by providing “alternative lenses” for viewing world politics. These theories are labeled “radical” theories. Other theories are concerned with “shattering” the concept of lenses by challenging the epistemological foundations of traditional international relations thought. These theories are known as “critical” theories. The two theories that we will explore in this essay, one “critical” and one “radical”, have common roots in Marxist thought. Whether seeking to provide “alternative lenses” for viewing world politics, or trying to “shatter” the very concept of lenses these theories provide a challenge that should not be ignored. 

The first theory that we will look at is a critical theory called historical materialism. As mentioned above, critical theories challenge the epistemological foundation of traditional international relations thought. This epistemological foundation is known as positivism. Positivism, in the social sciences, sees that knowledge of the social world is attainable through the scientific inquiry of detached observers.2 For critical theorists, the data of politics are not “…externally perceived events brought about by the interaction of actors in a field.” They deny that the framework of action is systemic and that the actions of the alleged “units of the international system” are determined by the structure of the system.3 There are different strands in critical theory, but they all see world politics as socially constructed.4
In Social Forces, States and World Orders, Robert W. Cox puts forth a clear explanation of the distinctive principles that make up historical materialism. Historical materialism is committed to a materialist conception of knowledge, and this places it squarely within the Marxist tradition of thought. A materialist conception of knowledge views concepts and ideas as reflecting class interests and the perspectives of the thinkers who promote them.5 Facts are seen as meaningless for human action without the structure of shared knowledge in which they are embedded.6 Knowledge about society must come from a perspective that sees human institution as made by people, and that these institutions should be understood through the changing mental processes of their makers. Humans and human institutions are subject to change, and history is the process of that change. 

The fundamental critique by historical materialism of realism and liberalism is that these theories refuse to allow for change. The debate between realists and liberals is the same old “…seventeenth-century challenge presented by the civil philosophy of Hobbes to the natural-law theory of Grotius,” only with new social realities.7 Realists and liberals still bicker over the nature of man, the state, and the state system, but historical materialism, by its recognition that human nature and the structures of human interaction change, claims to transcend this debate. They reject the imposition of a priori categories on human activity, and refuse to recognize laws or structures that transcend historical eras.8 This historical materialism “rejects the notion of objective laws of history and focuses upon class struggle as the heuristic model for the understanding of structural change.”9

Fundamental to this “openness” to change is the concept of dialectic. Cox uses dialectic on two different levels, the level of logic and the level of real history. Using dialectic on the level of logic means having a “dialogue seeking truth through the explorations of contradictions.”10 There is a constant confrontation of concepts with reality. Confrontation requires concepts to adjust their representations so that they can continually align themselves with reality. Each assertion and its opposite must be recognized as containing a measure of truth, and that truth cannot be fully encapsulated in any definite form.11 Using dialectic at the level of “real history” is recognizing the “potential for alternative forms of development arising from the confrontation of opposed social forces in any concrete historical situation.”12  Dialectic, on both levels, sees change as resulting from conflict and the response it elicits. Hence, conflict is a reflection of the “…process of a continual remaking of human nature and the creation of new patterns of social relations…”13
Throughout, Social Forces, States, and World Orders, Cox is particularly interested in giving a powerful critique of realism, the dominant theory in international relations. He recognizes that realism shares with historical materialism a common origin in a historical mode of thought. Realism, however, has strayed from its origins and developed into a problem-solving theory that takes the status quo and puts it forth as the given framework for action.14 This is especially evident in the post-World War II branch of realism called neorealism. In his critique, Cox points out that neorealism cannot allow for change in its understanding of the basic nature of the actors (which is power-seeking) or in their mode of interaction (power-balancing).  History becomes a collection of data that must be mined for “…permutations and combinations that are possible within an essentially unchanging human story.”15

Cox is willing to recognize that “scientific” theories, like neorealism, may be useful within defined historical limits because “regularities in human activities may indeed be observed within particular eras…”16 Theories built on positivistic assumptions can occasionally work well as a problem-solving theories, but that should not hide the reality that they fail to “reveal the historical structures characteristic of particular eras within which such regularities prevail.”17 Because of this, they can never reach the universal pretensions they aspire to.18 A neat and trim theory doesn’t guarantee correct analysis.

 Rather than being a “universal” theory, critical theory seeks out the developmental potential within the particular.19 “Developmental potential signifies a possible change of structure. It can be grasped by understanding the contradictions and sources of conflict within existing structures…” Cox believes that neorealism is incapable of considering and explaining structural disjuncture like that between the medieval and modern world system,20 and that it is an “ideological form abstracted from the real historical framework imposed by the Cold War….”21 
The second theory that presents an effective critique of traditional international relation’s theory is dependency theory.22 The foundational idea of this theory is that the economic growth and political development of Third World countries is controlled by wealthier economies. This theory was developed between the 1950s-1970s and its critique is directed against the empirical conclusions of realism and liberalism rather than their epistemological foundations. Because this theory breaks from traditional analytical norms and simultaneously demands fundamental and even violent change in the global political system,23 it is classifies as belonging to the “radical” group of theories. Unlike other radical theories, like terrorism, anarchism, or nihilism, it aims at providing a “…comprehensive approach toward reforming the international economic system.”24

Dependency theory is strongly rooted in Marxist/Leninist thought.25 After the occurrence of World War I, Marxism faced a crisis, not only was the proletariat not joining in international revolution against the bourgeoisie oppressors, they fought each other to protect their oppressor’s interests. Lenin met this dilemma head on when he introduced the “Imperialist Phase” in his revision of Marxism. Marx saw capitalism as the final stage in the process of dialectic materialism before the revolution of the proletariat. Lenin, in Imperialism, The Highest Stage of Capitalism, pointed out that Marx failed to recognize an immensely critical seventh phase of economic evolution, the “Imperialist Phase”.

 The "Imperialist Phase" was one in which the bourgeoisie exported finance capital and finished products to colonies overseas, while in turn extracting cheap resources and material wealth from these poorer colonies.”26  This exploitation of colonies bought the time that the bourgeoisie needed to stave off the “revolution of the proletariat.””27 Because of the immense importance that colonies played in the bourgeoisie retaining the reigns of power, the leadership of Europe was willing to go through a death-struggle (World War I) with each other in order to retain their colonies.28 

 “Lenin’s theory of Imperialism, therefore, extended the Marxist notion of “class” into a form appealing to modern Third World international relations theorists…”29 Dependency theory, in its analysis of world history, sees imperialism as creating an entire class of “have not” states in the international economy.30 The entire system is built upon and maintained by the continuance of ex-colonies being dominated by ex-colonists.  “Any future development of ex-colonies under the international capitalist system must remain uneven, distorted, and, at the very best, partial.”31 Dependency theory agrees with the Marxist-Leninist notion that, “the inequality of economic status exhibited between states in the international political economy is a permanent feature of the capitalist world economy that causes tension and armed conflict…”32

Because the capitalistic system is fundamentally flawed, it must be overthrown by violent revolution. The elites in the system will always act as parasites on the lesser-developed members of the international system. Dependency theory, therefore, is both a social critique and a call to action.  It continues the tradition of appealing to the necessity of revolution by the oppressed classes, but this time, the oppressed “classes” are post-colonial states. Though dependency theory is rooted in Leninist thought, it disagrees with Lenin’s belief that developed capitalist states will fight to the death in order to keep their colonies.  It sees, rather, that developed states will cooperate with one another in order to keep the lesser states from reaching competitive levels of development.33 This international cooperation among the solidified “core” of developed states keeps the “periphery” dependent on itself for technology and investment capital. The post-colonial states are in the unenviable position of being dependent on a “world capitalist economy that is stacked against them.”34

The fundamental ideas of dependency theory, as mentioned above, present an interesting critique of traditional international relations thought. It does not deny that a system exists but it denies that this system is beneficial to all its units. In response to this critique, liberals have traditionally seen the failure of economic development in the “have not” states as due more to the ignorant and greedy policies of the leaders of periphery states than to any inherent fault in the world capitalist system.35 Also, it may be pointed out, that many post-colonial states are further along the road to development than they would have been without imperialism.
Dependency theory can be helpful in shedding light on “vicious cycles” of dependence between First World states and Third World countries. When money is the motivating force behind international aid, it should not be a surprise that those with the most leverage will assure that they profit significantly from their position. However, there is a vast difference between recognizing the occurrence of unfair business practices and saying that the international system is fundamentally unfair.

1. “Introduction to Shattering Lenses,” Understanding International Relations, ed. Daniel J. Kaufman, Jay M. Parker, Patrick V. Howell, and Grant R. Doty, (McGraw Hill, 2004) 725.
2. Kaufman 725.
3. Robert W. Cox, “Social Forces, States and World Orders: Beyond International Relations Theory,” Understanding International Relations, ed. Daniel J. Kaufman, Jay M. Parker, Patrick V. Howell, and Grant R. Doty, (McGraw Hill, 2004) 779.
4. Kaufman 725.
5. Paula Wiley, “Lecture 9: Liberalism,” Seminar 1 GD510 Theory and the International System, Norwich University, Northfield, VT, 3.
6. Kaufman 725.
7. Cox 757.
8. Cox 781.
9. Cox 784.
10. Cox 758.
11. Cox 758.
12. Cox 758.
13. Cox 758.
14. Cox 753-755.
15. Cox 780.
16. Cox 781.
17. Cox 781.
18. Cox 781.
19. Cox 781.
20. Cox 781.
21. Cox 756.
22. Thomas F. Lynch III, “Foundations of Radicalism,” Understanding International Relations, ed. Daniel J. Kaufman, Jay M. Parker, Patrick V. Howell, and Grant R. Doty, (McGraw Hill, 2004) 535.
23. Lynch 535.
24. Lynch 535.
25. Lynch 536.
26. Lynch 542.
27. Lynch 544.
28. Lynch 544.
29. Lynch 546.
30. Lynch 547.
31. Lynch 547.
32. Lynch 546.
33. Lynch 547.
34. Lynch 548.
35. Lynch 549.