Rethinking International Relations: An Interview with Benno Teschke

Pieter Snayers, Battle of Wimpfen, 1622
Pieter Snay­ers, Bat­tle of Wimpfen, 1622

In this inter­view, George Sou­vlis and Aurélie Andry talk with Ben­no Teschke, author of The Myth of 1648: Class, Geopol­i­tics and the Mak­ing of Mod­ern Inter­na­tion­al Rela­tions, about the rela­tion­ship between Marx­ism and inter­na­tion­al rela­tions the­o­ry. As Teschke notes, Karl Marx nev­er com­plet­ed a book on inter­na­tion­al rela­tions, and the lack of a coher­ent Marx­ist the­o­ry of inter­na­tion­al rela­tions has allowed dan­ger­ous assump­tions – such as instru­men­tal­ist ideas about the state, a stag­ist con­cep­tion of his­to­ry, or a uni­ver­sal­iz­ing cap­i­tal­ist world mar­ket – to take root with­in Marx­ism. Here, Teschke dis­cuss­es his intel­lec­tu­al tra­jec­to­ry, the main argu­ments of his work, and ways of under­stand­ing cap­i­tal­ist inter­na­tion­al­ist rela­tions, while also mak­ing some obser­va­tions about Polit­i­cal Marx­ism, the appro­pri­a­tion of Carl Schmitt, and the future of the Euro­pean Union.

George Sou­vlis and Aurélie Andry: How would you sit­u­ate your tra­jec­to­ry in the broad­er intel­lec­tu­al and polit­i­cal con­texts of West Ger­many?

Ben­no Teschke: I went to a Fran­cis­can Gym­na­si­um in small-town West­ern Ger­many and when you were born, like me, in the late 1960s and had some left-lean­ing incli­na­tions, your intel­lec­tu­al for­ma­tion and path to Marx­ism was like­ly to be strong­ly influ­enced by the Frank­furt School – as it was in my case. It was actu­al­ly the works of the ear­li­er Frank­furt School that fas­ci­nat­ed me, the books that were more his­tor­i­cal­ly and soci­o­log­i­cal­ly ground­ed doing more polit­i­cal analy­sis as clas­si­cal­ly under­stood rather than phi­los­o­phy or cul­tur­al the­o­ry: part­ly Franz Neu­mann and Otto Kirch­heimer on fas­cism, and part­ly Jür­gen Habermas’s ear­ly work on The Struc­tur­al Trans­for­ma­tion of the Pub­lic Sphere, even though I grew very quick­ly dis­sat­is­fied with Habermas’s lat­er work. To sus­tain and deep­en my inter­ests in polit­i­cal econ­o­my and his­tor­i­cal soci­ol­o­gy I turned then more direct­ly to Marx’s own work, but always felt that the the­o­ret­i­cal struc­ture of Das Kap­i­tal – the his­tor­i­cal chap­ters apart – and the body of lit­er­a­ture that goes by the name of Kap­i­tal-Logik or, more recent­ly, the “New Dialec­tics,” remained ulti­mate­ly ster­ile – an exer­cise in dialec­ti­cal abstrac­tions of a pure­ly con­cep­tu­al nature that had left real his­to­ry large­ly behind. Still, the engage­ment with the Frank­furt School and West­ern Marx­ism more broad­ly left me with strong anti-pos­i­tivis­tic con­vic­tions and, if you want, a dialec­ti­cal sen­si­tiv­i­ty as to my con­cep­tion of the con­duct of social sci­ence.

Sub­stan­tive­ly, much of the aca­d­e­m­ic debate in West­ern Ger­many – on the left and on the right – was still trans­fixed on the Ger­man cat­a­stro­phe and the Holo­caust, and this became also my first intel­lec­tu­al “prob­lem­at­ic.” But rather than look­ing at the cul­ture indus­try or grand philo­soph­i­cal nar­ra­tives of the “Dialec­tic of the Enlight­en­ment,” I felt ini­tial­ly more drawn towards the left-lib­er­al Biele­feld School – peo­ple like Hans-Ulrich Wehler and Jür­gen Koc­ka – who ground­ed the Nazi expe­ri­ence in Germany’s pecu­liar long-term tra­jec­to­ry of socio-eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment and state-for­ma­tion, anchor­ing its deviance from pre­sumed West­ern Euro­pean stan­dard paths in the “failed” 1848 “bour­geois rev­o­lu­tion.”1 The debate in the late 1980s between them and David Black­bourn and Geoff Eley’s posi­tion set out in The Pecu­liar­i­ties of Ger­man His­to­ry caught my inter­est and con­vinced me of the virtues of social his­to­ry and his­tor­i­cal soci­ol­o­gy.2 Against this nar­ra­tive, more con­ser­v­a­tive Neo-Rankeans kept insist­ing on Prussia-Germany’s unique geo­graph­i­cal posi­tion in the mid­dle of Europe, which alleged­ly forced a repres­sive author­i­tar­i­an­ism domes­ti­cal­ly and an aggres­sive mil­i­tarism abroad. In oth­er words, a deep ide­o­log­i­cal gulf opened up in this debate between social his­to­ri­ans who kept restrict­ing their explana­to­ry focus to the pri­ma­cy of domes­tic social rela­tions and more tra­di­tion­al his­to­ri­ans who kept insist­ing on the auton­o­my of the polit­i­cal, the pri­ma­cy of for­eign pol­i­cy, and ‘high pol­i­tics’ – a tra­di­tion that retained echoes not only of Leopold von Ranke’s con­cep­tion of world his­to­ry as the rival­ry between great pow­ers, but also the more sin­is­ter and intel­lec­tu­al­ly degrad­ed tra­di­tion of Ger­man Geopoli­tik, from Ratzel to Haushofer.  Still, I found this divide between inter­nal­ists and exter­nal­ists always forced and unpro­duc­tive, map­ping onto nor­ma­tive-polit­i­cal pre­dis­po­si­tions rather than tack­ling the prob­lem head-on. This was a strong bul­wark against the ide­o­log­i­cal gulfs and lim­it­ed points of empha­sis affect­ing social his­to­ri­ans at the time – divi­sions over the pri­ma­cy of domes­tic rela­tions or the pri­ma­cy of for­eign pol­i­cy – and led me to ask what Marx and the wider Marx­ist tra­di­tion had to say about polit­i­cal geog­ra­phy and inter­na­tion­al rela­tions so that exter­nal rela­tions could be inter­nal­ized into a revised Marx­ist per­spec­tive.

In this con­text – we are approach­ing the ear­ly 1990s – I became more and more aware that there was no dis­tinct tra­di­tion of his­tor­i­cal soci­ol­o­gy left in West­ern Ger­many, broad­ly defined, that could re-inform Marx­ism, part­ly because many Weimar his­tor­i­cal soci­ol­o­gists had emi­grat­ed, and per­haps part­ly because this genre of schol­ar­ship had become dis­cred­it­ed by the more ortho­dox East-Ger­man lit­er­a­ture. This was a very pecu­liar phe­nom­e­non, real­ly, giv­en that soci­ol­o­gy, his­tor­i­cal soci­ol­o­gy, is par excel­lence basi­cal­ly a Ger­man inven­tion, deriv­ing its great­est impuls­es from the great Ger­man and Aus­tri­an clas­sics: from the Ger­man His­tor­i­cal School and the Meth­o­d­en­stre­it of the 1880s to Weber, Schum­peter and Polanyi, and of course Marx and Engels them­selves. That dis­course, in a way, had with very few excep­tions – Hei­de Ger­sten­berg­er’s work springs to mind – migrat­ed out­side of Ger­many by the late 1980s, ear­ly 1990s. Simul­ta­ne­ous­ly, I was struck when I stud­ied in the 1990s in France and Britain that the very same aca­d­e­m­ic reg­is­ter that was on the verge of extinc­tion in Ger­many was here ful­ly alive – in France through the Annales School (Marc Bloch and Fer­nand Braudel) and in Britain through the great Marx­ist his­to­ri­ans (Eric Hob­s­bawm, E.P. Thomp­son, Per­ry Ander­son, etc.). In fact, the dis­ci­pline of his­tor­i­cal soci­ol­o­gy had been revived and reha­bil­i­tat­ed in Anglo-Amer­i­can acad­e­mia, if decid­ed­ly in a non-Marx­ist fash­ion, dur­ing the 1980s and 1990s in the writ­ings of Charles Tilly, The­da Skocpol, and Michael Mann. So, I would say that by the ear­ly 1990s a cer­tain prob­lem­at­ic was start­ing to crys­tal­lize which I would broad­ly call a search for a Marx­ist inter­na­tion­al his­tor­i­cal soci­ol­o­gy. I was look­ing for some­thing like that.

While I was doing my doc­tor­al work in the Depart­ment of Inter­na­tion­al Rela­tions at the LSE to pur­sue this theme, I came across the work of Robert Bren­ner and Ellen Meiksins Wood and in many ways this was an inspi­ra­tion. I con­sid­er this lit­er­a­ture a real break­through, in par­tic­u­lar the “Tran­si­tion Debate” on the rise of cap­i­tal­ism in late medieval Eng­land, because I think that it is rare to find Marx­ists that real­ly step out­side their com­fort zones, out­side the core cat­e­gories and assump­tions which derive often from more or less deeply held ortho­dox con­vic­tions, and to engage his­to­ry in open-mind­ed, inno­v­a­tive and rig­or­ous ways by tak­ing his­to­ri­o­graph­i­cal research seri­ous­ly.3 I want­ed to see how I could use Brenner’s work in order to think through and fur­ther his­tori­cize polit­i­cal geog­ra­phy and inter­na­tion­al rela­tions. So I think that is essen­tial­ly what brought me to my own work, i.e. draw­ing out the impli­ca­tions of the “Tran­si­tion Debate” for his­tori­ciz­ing inter­na­tion­al rela­tions and devel­op­ing Polit­i­cal Marx­ism for Inter­na­tion­al His­tor­i­cal Soci­ol­o­gy in the process.

GS and AA: You are one of the main ini­tia­tors of the Polit­i­cal Marx­ism Research Group at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Sus­sex. What are the aims of this research group and how do you posi­tion your­selves in rela­tion to the tra­di­tion of Polit­i­cal Marx­ism?

BT: The aim of the Polit­i­cal Marx­ism Work­ing Group is to pro­vide a plat­form to not only pas­sive­ly rely on the first gen­er­a­tion of Polit­i­cal Marx­ists, but also to try to devel­op the research pro­gram and the­o­ret­i­cal com­mit­ments in new direc­tions and in pro­duc­tive ways.

One prob­lem that dis­tin­guish­es dif­fer­ent ten­den­cies with­in Polit­i­cal Marx­ism – what may be called PM 1 and PM 2 – is the need to explore the unre­solved ten­sion between a resid­ual struc­tural­ism encap­su­lat­ed in the cat­e­go­ry of social prop­er­ty rela­tions and its log­i­cal­ly derived “rules of repro­duc­tion,” and the simul­ta­ne­ous adher­ence to a strong his­tori­cism, which cen­ters social con­flict, class agency, and unin­tend­ed con­se­quences. Samuel Knafo and I speak to this prob­lem in our paper, “The Rules of Repro­duc­tion of Cap­i­tal­ism: A His­tori­cist Cri­tique.” This ten­sion, we think, has led over time to an ide­al-typ­i­fied con­cep­tion of cap­i­tal­ism in PM 1, defined as “mar­ket-depen­den­cy,” in which mar­ket imper­a­tives seem to pre­scribe and auto-gen­er­ate class agency – a read­ing also present in Charles Post and Vivek Chibbers’s work.4

Over­com­ing this relapse into a func­tion­al­ist con­cep­tion of class agency and an econ­o­mistic under­stand­ing of the oper­a­tion of cap­i­tal­ism (even when ground­ed in a dis­tinct set of cap­i­tal­ist social prop­er­ty rela­tions) requires what we call a stronger com­mit­ment to a rad­i­cal his­tori­cism. This fore­grounds agency, sit­u­at­ed and con­tex­tu­al­ized, at all lev­els to retrieve a sense of the more open-end­ed con­flicts and insti­tu­tion­al inno­va­tions that char­ac­ter­ize diverse tra­jec­to­ries of cap­i­tal­ism. The ele­men­tary insight is sim­ple: if cap­i­tal­ism is con­ceived as a polit­i­cal­ly con­test­ed social rela­tion, then we can­not con­cep­tu­al­ize agents as act­ing out a pre-ordained script or log­ic. We need to turn our think­ing around and estab­lish what peo­ple do in the face of “imper­a­tives” or pres­sures to pin­point the dif­fer­ence they make as they go along repro­duc­ing them­selves – often inno­vat­ing in the process. We can­not con­ceive of agents as pas­sive rule-fol­low­ers, but as active­ly devis­ing strate­gies of repro­duc­tion in spe­cif­ic con­texts.

The prob­lem, in oth­er words, is how to con­ceive of cap­i­tal­ism not as a the­o­ret­i­cal­ly closed cat­e­go­ry, but as a his­tor­i­cal­ly open prax­is. This requires a move away from gen­er­al mod­el-build­ing towards his­tor­i­cal spec­i­fi­ca­tion. For me, this per­tains par­tic­u­lar­ly to the issue of devel­op­ing an approach to IR that does not sub­sume for­eign pol­i­cy mak­ing and diplo­ma­cy under wider struc­tur­al and sys­temic pres­sures, whether ground­ed in rei­fied “log­ics” of cap­i­tal­ism or rei­fied “log­ics” of state ratio­nal­i­ty, but that accords effi­ca­cy to polit­i­cal agency on its own terms. This is not to argue for some rad­i­cal state auton­o­my, but to take seri­ous­ly the fact that agency can rarely be ful­ly resolved back into con­tex­tu­al imper­a­tives or antecedent con­di­tions, as peo­ple tend to inno­vate in unpre­dictable ways to respond to, cir­cum­vent, and escape from such pres­sures. His­to­ry is then not con­ceived as a man­i­fes­ta­tion of over­ar­ch­ing log­ics or laws – a sec­ondary reg­is­ter meant to con­firm apri­or­is­tic abstrac­tions and pre-con­ceived axioms – but itself the first-order ter­rain of inquiry, as peo­ple make their own his­to­ry.

This type of think­ing is also dis­tinct from David Harvey’s Marx­ist geog­ra­phy, which ulti­mate­ly grounds the dynam­ics of “cap­i­tal out­bound” in deeply root­ed sys­temic pres­sures, which require “spa­tial fix­es” at the infra-struc­tur­al lev­el and suc­ces­sive rounds of “accu­mu­la­tion by dis­pos­ses­sion.” But this is essen­tial­ly an econ­o­mistic and total­iz­ing con­cep­tion of the transna­tion­al­iza­tion of cap­i­tal­ism with­out inter­na­tion­al pol­i­tics, which is then re-cap­tured ex post through the prob­lem­at­ic and rei­fied addi­tion of a log­ic of pow­er, appar­ent­ly pur­sued by state-man­agers. Immanuel Wallerstein’s world-sys­tem the­o­ry, at least when it was ini­tial­ly formed, is anoth­er exam­ple of sub­ject­ing his­to­ry to grand cycles – the cycles of hege­mo­ny – and the sys­temic pres­sures of the rela­tions between core, semi-periph­er­al and periph­er­al states. Rosenberg’s cur­rent work, in turn, seems to embrace a pos­i­tivis­tic and nomo­log­i­cal con­cep­tion of uneven and com­bined devel­op­ment as yet anoth­er over­ar­ch­ing mas­ter con­cept and cov­er­ing law for world his­to­ry as a whole.5 Here, his­to­ry and agency are ulti­mate­ly down­grad­ed to man­i­fes­ta­tions of a sub­ject­less law that impos­es its imper­a­tives regard­less of what peo­ple do, so that his­to­ry is slot­ted into a few a pri­ori omnibus cat­e­gories.

I will add that Clas­si­cal Marx­ist the­o­ries of impe­ri­al­ism also fell into the struc­tur­al-func­tion­al­ist trap, as monop­oly cap­i­tal­ism was con­ceived as a sys­tem-wide stage, at least in the core Euro­pean cap­i­tal­ist coun­tries, which imposed its require­ments on states and their for­eign poli­cies. This dras­ti­cal­ly reduced the effi­ca­cy of diplo­ma­cy and the active con­duct of inter­na­tion­al pol­i­tics. These the­o­ries all suf­fer from advanc­ing the­o­ries of inter­na­tion­al rela­tions with­out inter­na­tion­al pol­i­tics and, what I come think is key, the active for­mu­la­tion of “grand strate­gies” that tell us much more about the link between domes­tic pol­i­tics and for­eign pol­i­cy for­ma­tion – and, ulti­mate­ly, inter­na­tion­al order­ing. It is this com­mit­ment to an anti-for­mal­is­tic rad­i­cal his­tori­cism that, to my mind, is the dif­fer­en­tia speci­fi­ca of our under­stand­ing of Polit­i­cal Marx­ism.

So, this is essen­tial­ly our goal: try­ing to go beyond the orig­i­nal “Tran­si­tion Debate” to more ful­ly his­tori­cize cap­i­tal­ism and “cap­i­tal­ist” inter­na­tion­al rela­tions. I am look­ing now more at what I want to call the polit­i­cal geo­gra­phies of his­tor­i­cal cap­i­tal­ism: how you can think about for­eign pol­i­cy informed by a PM approach, empha­siz­ing the uni­lat­er­al or mul­ti­lat­er­al con­struc­tion and clash­es of state strate­gies, whose inter­ac­tions often lead to unin­tend­ed con­se­quences. What I have in mind here is to take seri­ous­ly the fact that the his­tor­i­cal record of “cap­i­tal­ist” for­eign pol­i­cy – the struc­tur­ing and man­age­ment of spaces of cap­i­tal – is so incred­i­bly diverse: from the Peace of Utrecht that left a spe­cif­ic polit­i­cal geog­ra­phy on the Con­ti­nent reg­u­lat­ed by British pow­er-bal­anc­ing, via the Vien­na Set­tle­ment and the Con­cert of Europe, the con­struc­tion of the West­ern Hemi­sphere through the Mon­roe Doc­trine, for­mal and infor­mal impe­ri­alisms in the late 19th cen­tu­ry, the Amer­i­can inter­war strat­e­gy to break up the old empires and replace them at Ver­sailles by push­ing mini-state pro­lif­er­a­tions through the prin­ci­ple of “nation­al self-deter­mi­na­tion,” based on lib­er­al and repub­li­can state forms and tied into notions of col­lec­tive secu­ri­ty, Ger­man and Japan­ese notions of autarchic region­al orders – Carl Schmitt’s “greater spaces” – to US hege­mo­ny and the Euro­pean Inte­gra­tion Project. The polit­i­cal geo­gra­phies of his­tor­i­cal cap­i­tal­ism can­not be derived from a par­tic­u­lar “log­ic of cap­i­tal,” either with recourse to the gener­ic con­cept itself, or par­tic­u­lar phas­es of cap­i­tal­ist devel­op­ment, but require a much more fine-tuned his­tori­cist approach that empha­sizes their con­struc­tion – rather than sub­sump­tion under some sub specie aeter­ni­tatis prin­ci­ple – be it the clas­si­cal IR trope of pow­er pol­i­tics and states as secu­ri­ty accu­mu­la­tors in a con­di­tion of anar­chy or the clas­si­cal Marx­ist trope of cap­i­tal­ist geopol­i­tics. For what is a cap­i­tal­ist for­eign pol­i­cy sup­posed to be, in the abstract? So we are broad­en­ing out into oth­er fields, into oth­er areas while try­ing to the­o­ret­i­cal­ly refine or refor­mu­late the ear­ly bril­liant, but the­o­ret­i­cal­ly some­what prob­lem­at­ic, work of Bren­ner and Wood.

GS and AA: Can you explain the argu­ment of your work, The Myth of 1648, and how it chal­lenges the reifi­ca­tion of the Treaty of West­phalia as the found­ing moment of mod­ern inter­na­tion­al rela­tions? If West­phalia was not the found­ing moment of mod­ern inter­na­tion­al rela­tions, what does that imply in polit­i­cal and his­tor­i­cal terms? What were some of the crit­i­cisms you received?

BT: This work came at a very pro­pi­tious moment, speak­ing to the “his­tor­i­cal and post-pos­i­tivis­tic turns” in the field of IR, which, as men­tioned, was at the time a very an unusu­al aca­d­e­m­ic dis­ci­pline, and very much focused on the Unit­ed States. It pro­vid­ed – and still does in the U.S. and else­where – essen­tial­ly strate­gic advice for the pow­ers that be: advice for the Prince on mat­ters of state­craft, or Herrschaftswis­sen (knowl­edge of dom­i­na­tion) as Frank­furt School the­o­rists would call it. Here was a whole field of aca­d­e­m­ic inquiry that makes no bones about being direct­ly sub­servient to state pow­er, in which schol­ars moved effort­less­ly between uni­ver­si­ty depart­ments, think tanks, and gov­ern­men­tal posi­tions – all unit­ed in sug­gest­ing ways of how the Unit­ed States could main­tain or enhance its posi­tion at the apex of the inter­state hier­ar­chy – whether through con­flict or coop­er­a­tion. The result was an intel­lec­tu­al shal­low­ness that struck me from the start as scan­dalous­ly out of sync with all the stan­dards of social-sci­en­tif­ic and his­to­ri­o­graph­i­cal inquiry.

In ret­ro­spect, I would say that I start­ed the project with three big ques­tions in mind: First, how could I show the his­toric­i­ty of polit­i­cal geog­ra­phy, the poli­ties that com­pose geopo­lit­i­cal orders, and their “inter­na­tion­al rela­tions” by ground­ing this in con­test­ed social rela­tions? Hence the return to medieval his­to­ry. This was designed to dis­lodge the pre­vail­ing state-cen­trism and his­tor­i­cal­ly incred­i­bly myopic and mis­lead­ing attempts of tran­shis­tor­i­cal gen­er­al-the­o­ry-build­ing in main­stream Anglo-Amer­i­can IR, built around anar­chy, pow­er-max­i­miza­tion, and pow­er-bal­anc­ing, as if for­eign pol­i­cy had been played out since time immemo­r­i­al accord­ing to the same tune.

Sec­ond, why – and this is a more gen­uine­ly inter­est­ing ques­tion – does cap­i­tal­ism exist with­in a sys­tem of plur­al states and what is the his­tor­i­cal rela­tion between the two? This was designed to query and desta­bi­lize the assump­tion, held for exam­ple by Wallerstein’s World-Sys­tems-The­o­ry, that the inter­state sys­tem, the mul­ti­ple polit­i­cal juris­dic­tion that splin­ter a cap­i­tal­ist space co-exten­sive with the world-mar­ket, is some­how the “nat­ur­al” or “nec­es­sary” (geo-)political form of cap­i­tal­ism, causal­ly con­nect­ed to cap­i­tal­ist require­ments – hence the need to go back to the Car­olin­gian Empire and to track the chang­ing polit­i­cal geo­gra­phies of medieval and ear­ly mod­ern Europe. The aim was to show the socio-polit­i­cal and geopo­lit­i­cal con­struc­tion of the inter­state sys­tem dur­ing the abso­lutist-dynas­tic peri­od as a his­tor­i­cal out­come, pre­ced­ing the rise of cap­i­tal­ism.

Third, what effect had the rise of cap­i­tal­ism in ear­ly mod­ern Eng­land, as set out by Bren­ner, on British state-for­ma­tion and grand strat­e­gy for the order­ing and, ulti­mate­ly, trans­for­ma­tion of pre-cap­i­tal­ist geopo­lit­i­cal rela­tions in the rest of the world? In a sense, 1648 was a casu­al­ty of this research pro­gram, and not the prime tar­get – part­ly because it seemed obvi­ous to me that any­body semi-lit­er­ate in ear­ly mod­ern his­to­ry and peace treaties would not take IR’s claims on the West­phalian Settlement’s “moder­ni­ty” seri­ous­ly – though it turned out that I had under­es­ti­mat­ed how deeply ingrained this idée fixe was in the col­lec­tive dis­ci­pli­nary mind­set. So, The Myth of 1648 and the sub­se­quent Deutsch­er Memo­r­i­al Lec­ture had a wide recep­tion, inside and out­side IR, and inside and out­side Marx­ism.

The response from with­in the field of IR cen­tered less on these ana­lyt­i­cal ques­tions – which were more pro­duc­tive­ly tak­en up from with­in the Marx­ist dis­course – and more on the revi­sion of the sta­tus of 1648. While few quib­bled with the empir­i­cal verac­i­ty of my inter­pre­ta­tion of the Set­tle­ment, three stan­dard respons­es emerged, apart from those, very few, that under­stood my account as a plau­si­ble alter­na­tive the­o­riza­tion.

The nor­mal tac­ti­cal move was first to say that while the notion of “West­phalia” was indeed wide­ly accept­ed as a start­ing point for mod­ern inter­na­tion­al rela­tions, it was nev­er meant to be a seri­ous his­to­ri­o­graph­i­cal the­sis in IR as a sci­en­tif­ic field. The anar­chy-assump­tion asso­ci­at­ed with West­phalia was just a con­ve­nient Polit­i­cal Sci­ence mod­el, whose his­tor­i­cal verac­i­ty is real­ly by the by. It is just a mod­el of how to visu­al­ize inter­state rela­tions in an anar­chi­cal envi­ron­ment. The rea­son­ing was that there is no need to wor­ry much about the spe­cif­ic ori­gins of the inter­state order, as his­to­ry was in IR a sec­ondary con­cern that can be neglect­ed.

The sec­ond answer was that there was some truth to my argu­men­ta­tion but that IR had nev­er real­ly main­tained that the mod­ern inter­state sys­tem fell overnight ful­ly-fledged from the sky, that it was sud­den­ly insti­tu­tion­al­ized after the Thir­ty Years’ War, so that 1648 was a mere step­ping-stone in a much longer and drawn-out grad­ual process..

The third response, com­ing often from post-struc­tural­ists, was to say maybe you are right, but it is still a myth, a dis­cur­sive myth, and thus still a pow­er­ful per­for­ma­tive dis­course con­sti­tu­tive not only for the dis­ci­pline but also for real­i­ty to the degree that pol­i­cy mak­ers more or less use West­phalia as a rhetor­i­cal device or per­for­ma­tive prax­is, so that the idea has tak­en on a his­tor­i­cal effi­ca­cy of its own. And in that sense 1648 still needs to be tak­en seri­ous­ly. This kind of argu­ment is, of course in a way true – if peo­ple start believ­ing in false claims then they become ide­ol­o­gy. But this does not real­ly con­sti­tute an account οf how else to think about West­phalia, espe­cial­ly from a crit­i­cal point of view.

GS and AA: How do you now assess the gen­er­al effects of this work and your his­tor­i­cal approach for under­stand­ing cap­i­tal­ist inter­na­tion­al rela­tions? How has it affect­ed the course of your cur­rent research?

BT: Ulti­mate­ly, the debate over iden­ti­fy­ing a deter­mi­nate moment in time – a sys­tem-wide tip­ping-point for the arrival of mod­ern or cap­i­tal­ist inter­state rela­tions – leads into an intel­lec­tu­al impasse, charged with tele­o­log­i­cal assump­tions. The his­tor­i­cal impli­ca­tion of my research is sim­ply that the search for sud­den “sys­temic” changes across inter­na­tion­al orders is futile. It grates with the idea of his­to­ry as a process aller­gic to sys­tem-wide peri­odiza­tions of clear-cut “befor­es” and “afters,” giv­en dif­fer­ent tem­po­ral­i­ties of devel­op­ment in dif­fer­ent regions. It also imputes that we know what “mod­ern” or “cap­i­tal­ist” inter­na­tion­al rela­tions are sup­posed to look like, once that imag­i­nary thresh­old had been crossed. We don’t! What does it mean to say this or that is a dis­tinct­ly cap­i­tal­ist for­eign pol­i­cy, if cap­i­tal­ist for­eign poli­cies take on dis­tinct forms in con­crete cas­es? As we know, these can range from defen­sive pos­tures, to alliance-for­ma­tions and con­cert-sys­tems, for­mal to infor­mal impe­ri­al­ism, attempts to estab­lish dis­tinct region­al spheres of influ­ence, as for exam­ple insti­tu­tion­al­ized in the U.S. Mon­roe Doc­trine or fas­cist Gross­raum-build­ing, to types of qua­si-con­sen­su­al hege­mo­ny, decol­o­niza­tion, or region­al inte­gra­tion, as in the case of the EU. Nobody in his or her right mind could deny that cap­i­tal accu­mu­la­tion is a pow­er­ful motive in the for­eign pol­i­cy cal­cu­la­tions of cap­i­tal­ist states, but this doesn’t tell us much about the spe­cif­ic con­struc­tion of spe­cif­ic for­eign pol­i­cy strate­gies, polit­i­cal geo­gra­phies, and their chances of real­iza­tion.

The whole point of my argu­ment is less about find­ing a moment in time where mod­ern or cap­i­tal­ist inter­na­tion­al rela­tions were enact­ed, but to think a lit­tle bit more about the vari­abil­i­ty in the con­struc­tion of for­eign pol­i­cy strate­gies for the geopo­lit­i­cal man­age­ment of inter­state rela­tions over time, even with­in a cap­i­tal­ist con­text. Now, this type of his­tori­cism is often quick­ly dis­missed by more pos­i­tivis­ti­cal­ly-mind­ed IR the­o­rists who equate IR as a social sci­ence with a con­cep­tion of the­o­ry that val­i­dates deter­minisms and gen­er­al­iza­tions, so that my work is some­times referred to as belong­ing more to his­to­ri­og­ra­phy or to inter­pre­ta­tion or to some­thing else. My epis­te­mo­log­i­cal strat­e­gy is then down­played and down­grad­ed as some­thing that it is not sci­en­tif­ic, maybe con­struc­tivist, inter­pre­tivist, or hermeneu­tic or so but con­sid­ered as being out­side the essen­tial field def­i­n­i­tion of IR – and this comes also from Marx­ists who assign struc­tur­al effi­ca­cy to cap­i­tal­ism and its expan­sion­ary ten­den­cies. But the key point for me is sim­ply to keep demon­strat­ing that it is mis­lead­ing to cen­ter a pre­con­ceived and ide­al-typ­i­fied notion of cap­i­tal­ism as being struc­tural­ly effi­ca­cious for inter­na­tion­al rela­tions in deter­min­is­tic ways. Rather what we need to do is to con­stant­ly his­tori­cize and when we do that we will start to see that the link, the medi­a­tion between the pres­ence of cap­i­tal­ism and for­eign pol­i­cy for­ma­tion is very var­ie­gat­ed, often inde­ter­mi­nate, not only in terms of for­eign pol­i­cy for­ma­tion, but also in terms of polit­i­cal geog­ra­phy as such. So, this is to react against the com­mon idea that we have to start from firm axioms or firm expec­ta­tions derived from capitalism’s sys­temic pres­sures.

I say that some­where in the ear­ly work of mine where I sug­gest that from the 17th cen­tu­ry onwards cap­i­tal­ism emerged and start­ed to expand, but not as an organ­ic process that could be rig­or­ous­ly the­o­rized. Rather, what we see is an incred­i­ble diver­si­ty in the con­struc­tion of for­eign poli­cies and spa­tial orders from the ear­ly 18th cen­tu­ry onwards up to now. So this for­ma­tive peri­od is look­ing obvi­ous­ly very dif­fer­ent from the ear­ly 19th cen­tu­ry after the enact­ment of the insti­tu­tion­al, geo­graph­i­cal and prac­ti­cal inno­va­tions in inter­na­tion­al rela­tions – the Con­cert Sys­tem and the “Holy Alliance” after the Napoleon­ic Wars in the Vien­na Con­gress, in which, inci­den­tal­ly, Britain was unable and unwill­ing to impose any­thing like the hege­mon­ic designs the­o­rized by Neo-Gram­s­cians in rela­tion to con­ti­nen­tal Europe; and this looks again very dif­fer­ent­ly from the estab­lish­ment of the more for­mal­ized alliance-sys­tems and pow­er-bal­anc­ing after the turn of the cen­tu­ry in the run-up to World War I. Post-1945 Unit­ed States hege­mo­ny is again a very, very dif­fer­ent way to order cap­i­tal­ist inter­state rela­tions, then post-9/11 rela­tion, and so on and so forth. We all know this, of course, but Marx­ists still want to reduce this often to either some essence of cap­i­tal­ism or some stage of cap­i­tal­ism or some oth­er grand explana­to­ry for­mu­la. I think the his­tor­i­cal record just shows how prob­lem­at­ic is to do a short­cut between cap­i­tal­ism, a par­tic­u­lar type of for­eign pol­i­cy, and a par­tic­u­lar type of geopo­lit­i­cal order. So, in short, I mean the research pro­gram that derives from this con­cep­tion is to do much more detailed work, his­to­ri­o­graph­i­cal work.

What I am doing right now is to look at the Peace Treaty of Utrecht, which sounds again very anti­quar­i­an, but this was a big peace set­tle­ment, much under-stud­ied in IR, that con­clud­ed the Span­ish Wars of Suc­ces­sion in 1713 and changed the rules of the game. It is sig­nif­i­cant for me because Utrecht allows me to draw out the dis­tinc­tions between the old regime char­ac­ter of 1648 and the first attempt by post-1688 Britain to devel­op a new and very dis­tinct type of grand strat­e­gy, call it cap­i­tal­ist if you want, pre­cise­ly with­out pro­mot­ing cap­i­tal­ism on the Con­ti­nent. So, after the Glo­ri­ous Rev­o­lu­tion in 1688, Britain starts to make its dis­tinct for­eign pol­i­cy designs felt inter­na­tion­al­ly, enforced and accept­ed mul­ti­lat­er­al­ly at Utrecht. What is inno­v­a­tive here, a point allud­ed to at the end of my book, but now fleshed out much more clear­ly, is that Britain devel­oped a new and unique insti­tu­tion­al basis for con­duct­ing for­eign pol­i­cy, as for­eign pol­i­cy is hence­forth answer­able to Par­lia­ment. This allows for the artic­u­la­tion of for­eign pol­i­cy in terms of a much more sober and sec­u­lar cal­cu­lus of the “nation­al inter­est,” no longer con­nect­ed to the whims of the Kabi­nettspoli­tik of abso­lutist rulers. This involves the attempt to re-order Euro­pean polit­i­cal geog­ra­phy in line with British secu­ri­ty inter­ests and, on that new geo­graph­i­cal basis, to engage in pow­er bal­anc­ing to avoid the re-emer­gence of a con­ti­nen­tal hege­mon­ic rival.

Pow­er-bal­anc­ing is there­fore not a law of world pol­i­tics, but a very spe­cif­ic con­scious prac­tice – a con­scious con­struc­tion of a grand strat­e­gy devel­oped by sit­u­at­ed actors. Daniel Baugh wrote in the 1980s a great arti­cle on this, show­ing the emer­gence of the “blue-water strat­e­gy,” which had a dual aspect: the estab­lish­ment of uni­lat­er­al mar­itime-com­mer­cial suprema­cy over­seas, while being much more defen­sive in rela­tion to Europe.6 But this was not a func­tion­al out­come of a cap­i­tal­ist con­sti­tu­tion­al monar­chy in which sov­er­eign­ty lay now with Par­lia­ment, but required the con­struc­tion of a very spe­cif­ic wartime strat­e­gy and peace plan con­test­ed between the Whigs and the Tories, enact­ed at Utrecht, and nego­ti­at­ed with oth­er peace par­ties. So, if you push this kind of work con­cep­tu­al­ly then you start very quick­ly to real­ize that notions like “mod­ern” in inter­na­tion­al rela­tions do not mean much, they do not give you much, because they imply com­mon­al­i­ties, rather than dif­fer­ences. The rise of cap­i­tal­ism in Britain and how this led to new for­eign pol­i­cy ven­tures and, lat­er, the trans­for­ma­tion of Euro­pean and over­seas pol­i­tics is cer­tain­ly not a pat­tern­less process, but these broad pat­terns them­selves do not give you much in terms of the way that state politi­cians actu­al­ly inno­vate at the for­eign pol­i­cy lev­el. So his­to­ry is a process – an inter­ac­tive con­struc­tion that is the obvi­ous point, the big point that I would like to make against any temp­ta­tion of relaps­ing into struc­tur­al expla­na­tions.

GS and AA: Could you explain how your work shows how Marx­ist the­o­ry, and in par­tic­u­lar the Polit­i­cal Marx­ist notion of “social prop­er­ty rela­tions,” can help chal­lenge and rede­fine some of the core assump­tions of IR the­o­ry and his­tor­i­cal soci­ol­o­gy? Do you think that, vice ver­sa, IR can be used to help improv­ing Marx­ist the­o­ry?

BT: You have to under­stand that main­stream Anglo-Amer­i­can IR was, until very recent­ly, built on the assump­tion that the­o­riz­ing departs from the exis­tence of the inter­state sys­tem as a nat­ur­al giv­en, rather than some­thing that requires expla­na­tion in the first place. It posits the polit­i­cal as an autonomous sphere in which states are gener­i­cal­ly endowed with a uni­tary ratio­nal­i­ty and ascribed cer­tain attrib­ut­es, fore­most sur­vival, secu­ri­ty, and hence pow­er-max­i­miza­tion. Once these axioms are in place, you can then estab­lish by means of a series of log­i­cal deduc­tions how ratio­nal state action in a con­di­tion of inter­na­tion­al anar­chy leads to cer­tain like­ly out­comes, includ­ing pow­er-bal­anc­ing, lead­ing to some kind of self-equi­li­brat­ing sys­temic log­ic. This is a nice lit­tle exer­cise in abstract log­ic, actu­al­ly mod­eled, by Ken­neth Waltz, in anal­o­gy to the work­ings of the anar­chy of com­pet­i­tive mar­kets self-reg­u­lat­ed by the invis­i­ble hand. It is also said to be ground­ed in ancient wis­doms – si vis pacem para bel­lum – but bears hard­ly any rela­tion to real­i­ty. So the works of Hans Mor­gen­thau and lat­er of Ken­neth Waltz are real­ly premised on draw­ing an ana­lyt­i­cal Rubi­con between the state and sys­temic inter­state rela­tions and any­thing that goes on with­in soci­eties with­in these states. So the domes­tic and the social are excised from the remit of what could count as pos­si­ble influ­ences on state­craft and for­eign pol­i­cy – par­ty pol­i­tics, busi­ness and sec­tor inter­ests, social crises and so on.

This is of course an incred­i­bly nar­row, impov­er­ished and ide­o­log­i­cal way to think about inter­na­tion­al rela­tions as a social sci­ence. More inter­est­ing than crit­i­ciz­ing these kinds of mod­el-build­ing, which is often ped­dled as “hard sci­ence,” is the intel­lec­tu­al geneal­o­gy that trans­posed right-wing and sta­tist Weimar think­ing, often through Ger­man schol­ars, to the post-WWII and ear­ly Cold War US-Amer­i­can scene, dis­plac­ing an old­er “lib­er­al” approach to IR asso­ci­at­ed with Wilso­ni­an­ism. Mor­gen­thau, for exam­ple, was not only influ­enced by Max Weber but also by Carl Schmitt’s con­cept of the polit­i­cal, which con­ceives of the polit­i­cal as an autonomous sphere, acti­vat­ed by “us” ver­sus “them” bina­ries. This was not so much a ref­er­ence to Schmitt’s def­i­n­i­tion of sov­er­eign­ty in terms of who holds the pow­er to declare state emer­gen­cies that sus­pend the rou­tine work­ings of par­lia­men­tary sov­er­eign­ty in lib­er­al poli­ties, but rather to his infa­mous idea that a dif­fer­ent, pure­ly polit­i­cal, log­ic kicks in as soon as cer­tain pre-polit­i­cal dif­fer­ences reach a state of inten­si­ty that have a poten­tial­ly lethal antag­o­nis­tic qual­i­ty. Appar­ent­ly, Mor­gen­thau advised Schmitt to insert this idea of “inten­si­fi­ca­tion” of non-polit­i­cal issues into his tract on Der Begriff des Poli­tis­chen. So, a con­ser­v­a­tive and semi-fas­cist notion of the polit­i­cal, forged in the Weimar sit­u­a­tion to quar­an­tine class con­flict, was trans­posed into an altered US con­text, now char­ac­ter­ized by a Cold War log­ic.

Today, the field of IR is, of course, much rich­er, espe­cial­ly out­side the Unit­ed States, but it is hard to dis­lodge the preva­lence of Real­ism, Neo-real­ism and what is called Neo-lib­er­al Insti­tu­tion­al­ism – anoth­er ver­sion of ratio­nal­ist think­ing about strate­gic state behav­ior. So, these tra­di­tions were direct­ly tar­get­ed by my book by bring­ing his­tor­i­cal soci­ol­o­gy back.

His­tor­i­cal soci­ol­o­gy, in turn, is dom­i­nat­ed by Neo-Webe­ri­an­ism and the tau­to­log­i­cal argu­ment that “war-made-states and states-made-war” – and this is the pre­vail­ing con­sen­sus as to how the mod­ern state and the inter­state sys­tem at large emerged in ear­ly mod­ern Europe. Many his­to­ri­ans use John Brewer’s notion of the “fis­cal-mil­i­tary state” that ratio­nal­izes state struc­tures to pro­cure state rev­enues to con­duct war to say the same thing. Very few peo­ple con­nect these devel­op­ments with changes in social rela­tions, and, in par­tic­u­lar, with how social con­flict, in spite of sim­i­lar mil­i­tary rival­ries, divert­ed tra­jec­to­ries of state-build­ing into dif­fer­en­tial direc­tions – abso­lutism, con­sti­tu­tion­al monar­chies, republics, etc. This is why Brenner’s work was so sem­i­nal for me.

I would, today, stress though, as I said ear­li­er, that I no longer ful­ly sub­scribe to the con­cept of “social prop­er­ty rela­tions,” at least in the way it is styl­ized in more rig­or­ous ana­lyt­i­cal fash­ion by Bren­ner. Bren­ner sug­gest­ed that prop­er­ty rela­tions gen­er­ate – almost auto-gen­er­ate – deter­mi­nate rules of repro­duc­tion on both sides of the class rela­tion, whether in feu­dal or cap­i­tal­ist “soci­eties.”7 These then lead either to “non-devel­op­ment” in feu­dal soci­ety or “devel­op­ment” in cap­i­tal­ist soci­eties. This was use­ful to draw the con­trast, stark­ly, between two dif­fer­ent sets of social rela­tions for ana­lyt­i­cal pur­pos­es, but this con­cep­tion also relaps­es into reifi­ca­tions and rigidi­ties that do not square with the his­tor­i­cal record (cer­tain­ly not for “cap­i­tal­ism”) and sup­press the “lived agency” of peo­ple.

I think that Ellen Wood’s sem­i­nal New Left Review arti­cle on “The Sep­a­ra­tion of the Eco­nom­ic and the Polit­i­cal in Cap­i­tal­ism,” when read care­ful­ly, points to a dif­fer­ent under­stand­ing, name­ly one cen­tered around the socio-polit­i­cal and non-econ­o­mistic char­ac­ter of cap­i­tal­ism.8 This was inspired much more by E.P. Thompson’s work at the time, and I feel much more com­fort­able with this his­tori­cist, rather than log­i­cal-ana­lyt­i­cal, con­cep­tion of cap­i­tal­ism. This real­ly leads us back to very fun­da­men­tal and long-stand­ing con­tro­ver­sies that reach right back to Marx’s work, when he declares in the pref­ace to Das Kap­i­tal that it treats “indi­vid­u­als only as per­son­i­fi­ca­tions of eco­nom­ic cat­e­gories, the bear­ers of par­tic­u­lar class-rela­tions and inter­ests,” rather than as his­tor­i­cal actors.9 To my mind, Brenner’s work, at least in the orig­i­nal Tran­si­tion Debate, is the­o­ret­i­cal­ly sus­pend­ed between these two con­tra­dic­to­ry ori­en­ta­tions: class con­flict and his­toric­i­ty ver­sus abstract rules of repro­duc­tion and dynam­ics of devel­op­ment and non-devel­op­ment.

Inverse­ly the ques­tion is: does Marx­ism need IR – less the sub­stan­tial body of IR schol­ar­ship, but more the prob­lem­at­ic of space and inter­spa­tial rela­tions for the Marx­ist con­cep­tion of his­to­ry, for Marx­ist his­to­ri­og­ra­phy and social sci­ence? I have been say­ing for a long time that inter­na­tion­al rela­tions are a big chal­lenge for Marx­ism, and this, again, goes right back to Marx’s own work. Marx nev­er real­ly sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly thought about inter­na­tion­al rela­tions as a dis­tinct object of inquiry. Of course, we can look at his jour­nal­is­tic writ­ings, notes, and let­ters, and they are full of inter­est­ing insights on this or that con­tem­po­rary inter­na­tion­al cri­sis, though this nev­er crys­tal­lized into some­thing that he took seri­ous­ly, the­o­ret­i­cal­ly speak­ing. He grew more inter­est­ed in inter­na­tion­al affairs dur­ing the 1850s at the time of the Crimean War, and then wrote exten­sive­ly on the Amer­i­can Civ­il War, the “East­ern Ques­tion,” and India. Kevin Ander­son sets this all out nice­ly in his book.10 But the tone was set by the Com­mu­nist Man­i­festo, which is full of love­ly metaphors on inter­na­tion­al issues – and pow­er­ful great metaphors – but, here, the key cat­e­go­ry that is doing all the work is the world mar­ket or “bour­geois world soci­ety.” And the world mar­ket keeps expand­ing, but it is expand­ing basi­cal­ly along transna­tion­al lines “cre­at­ing a world after its own image.” Mean­ing it is, to quote, “not the heavy artillery that is bat­ter­ing down Chi­nese walls, but the cheap prices of com­modi­ties” that force all “bar­bar­ian” nations to capit­u­late and adopt the bour­geois mode of pro­duc­tion. And as we all know, of course, that’s not true: in each and every case cap­i­tal­ism had to force its way into non-cap­i­tal­ist ter­ri­to­ries by state force, and nor­mal­ly through war – in this case the Opi­um Wars and the Unequal Treaties.

So, even where Marx spoke about inter­na­tion­al rela­tions, fleet­ing­ly or in this sec­ondary aspect, he seemed to under-prob­lema­tize the effect of inter­na­tion­al rela­tions on the course and devel­op­ment of cap­i­tal­ism. Now, The Com­mu­nist Man­i­festo and the Ger­man Ide­ol­o­gy belong of course to the ear­ly phase of Marx, still very much influ­enced by Adam Smith, still a very lib­er­al con­cep­tion, real­ly, of how cap­i­tal­ism basi­cal­ly uni­ver­sal­izes in pacif­ic ways due to the grow­ing divi­sion of labor, rather than in terms of geopol­i­tics and con­flict­ual changes in prop­er­ty rela­tions. The world mar­ket appears as an agency to ren­der mul­ti­ple regions homo­ge­neous by sub­ject­ing them to a com­mon world mar­ket log­ic. So the Welt­markt becomes his mega-sub­ject and this sup­press­es how world-mar­ket pres­sures are medi­at­ed by states, includ­ing how affect­ed states and social class­es with­in them respond to the encroach­ment of mar­ket imper­a­tives. How was this process man­aged geopo­lit­i­cal­ly and how did lat­er devel­op­ers insti­tu­tion­al­ize mar­ket rela­tions in very dif­fer­ent ways?

So the big point is that, as we know, Marx nev­er wrote a dis­tinct tome on either inter­na­tion­al trade or on war and geopol­i­tics – a tome that would have prob­lema­tized the space­less assump­tions of either a stag­ist con­cep­tion of world his­to­ry or a uni­ver­sal­iz­ing cap­i­tal­ist world mar­ket. And in that sense IR – less as a dis­ci­pline but more as a prob­lem­at­ic – remains very press­ing and urgent for Marx­ists to reap­pro­pri­ate, notwith­stand­ing of course the work that was done by the clas­si­cal the­o­rists of impe­ri­al­ism: V. I. Lenin, Niko­lai Bukharin, and to some degree Rosa Lux­em­burg. But there the prob­lem was that they end­ed up with a func­tion­al­ist and instru­men­tal­ist account of states, and many peo­ple have shown how empir­i­cal­ly prob­lem­at­ic it was to ground the scram­ble for Africa and the repar­ti­tion of the world in the tran­si­tion from mid-19th cen­tu­ry com­pet­i­tive cap­i­tal­ism to turn-of-the-cen­tu­ry monop­oly cap­i­tal­ism.

So how­ev­er pow­er­ful an inter­ven­tion the­o­ries of impe­ri­al­ism were at the time, I think what real­ly stands out as the most sys­tem­at­ic attempt to con­cep­tu­al­ize inter­na­tion­al rela­tions can be found in the anti-Marx­ist – Neo-Rankean and Neo-Weber­ian – tra­di­tion. While this is, in the end, dis­ap­point­ing, it forces us to open up IR to a much more com­pre­hen­sive need to rethink and to reclaim it for Marx­ism.

GS and AA: The recent cri­sis and the present-day era of aus­ter­i­ty have led to increas­ing ques­tion­ing about the legit­i­ma­cy and via­bil­i­ty of the EU project. There are dis­agree­ments with­in the new Euro­pean left par­ties (Syriza, Podemos) about the pos­si­bil­i­ty of using the EU as a polit­i­cal vehi­cle to pro­pose pro­gres­sive social reform. What is your posi­tion on this issue?

BT: The sit­u­a­tion for a pro­gres­sive left pol­i­tics in Europe is invid­i­ous, yet not with­out hope. It seems to me that the con­tra­dic­tions of a pro­gres­sive pop­ulism, inspired by a Laclauian read­ing of Carl Schmitt, that revolves around an antag­o­nis­tic strat­e­gy of nation­al mass mobi­liza­tion feed­ing on the raw dis­tinc­tion between “them” and “us,” and a left-lean­ing Euro­pean reformism are cur­rent­ly play­ing out across Europe, par­tic­u­lar­ly in Greece. Tac­ti­cal­ly, it seems to me that this con­fronta­tion­al pop­ulism has gen­er­at­ed a much harsh­er response from the Troi­ka than ever imag­in­able, and we are fac­ing a real prospect of the inter­nal self-destruc­tion of Syriza because of that. Worse, we may even see the right-wing coali­tion part­ner gain from this fail­ure of Alex Tsipras’s lead­er­ship, includ­ing the pos­si­bil­i­ty of a right-wing mil­i­tary coup in Greece. A pro­gres­sive pop­ulism may be the right tac­tic domes­ti­cal­ly, but it is the wrong strat­e­gy in for­eign pol­i­cy, as it hard­ens divi­sions with­out any real prospect of over­com­ing them. I am, of course, livid with Germany’s reac­tion to the Greek Cri­sis, mount­ing effec­tive­ly an eco­nom­ic occu­pa­tion of Greece, an infor­mal coup d’état, rid­ing roughshod across all fun­da­men­tal prin­ci­ples of the Euro­pean Union and the whole dri­v­el of Euro­pean sol­i­dar­i­ty. The EU, for sure, stands exposed!

But we need to ask our­selves whether this con­fronta­tion­al-pop­ulist rhetoric, how­ev­er much war­rant­ed on fac­tu­al grounds, has not gen­er­at­ed its own hyper-con­fronta­tion­al response from with­in the Troi­ka, both at the polit­i­cal and at the pub­lic-rela­tion­al lev­el. It’s invid­i­ous, because rather than pre­sent­ing the cri­sis as a con­flict between transna­tion­al cap­i­tal and transna­tion­al labor – the tax­pay­er – it can be dis­cur­sive­ly fab­ri­cat­ed as an antag­o­nism between thrifty Ger­mans – or North­ern Euro­peans – and sloth­ful Greeks, rather than what it real­ly is: Euro­pean tax­pay­ers – the low­er and mid­dle class­es – bail­ing out Euro­pean banks, investors, and pub­lic cred­i­tors who mis­lend in reck­less ways, while flee­ing Greek cap­i­tal is dri­ving up hous­ing prices in Berlin and Lon­don. And this is not even men­tion­ing the role of Gold­man Sachs in cook­ing the books upon Greece’s entry into the Euro­zone, mas­sive tax-eva­sions by and cor­rup­tion with­in Greece’s elite, the ben­e­fits of debt-financed invest­ments in sil­ly Greek infra­struc­tur­al projects for Euro­pean, par­tic­u­lar­ly Ger­man, busi­ness, and so on.

Now, of course, EU states are locked into that arrange­ment and giv­en what has hap­pened to Greece, we see that there is not even a vel­vet glove around the hard fist of the Ger­man gov­ern­ment. It is direct impo­si­tion of restruc­tura­tion and adjust­ment pro­grams that are not even par­tic­u­lar­ly effec­tive either; they’ve just pushed Greece and oth­er states ever deep­er into cri­sis with­out resolv­ing their under­ly­ing debt prob­lem in any cred­i­ble way. So, pop­ulism feeds both ways, as the Ger­man press – from the Frank­furter All­ge­meine Zeitung to the gut­ter press of Bild Zeitung and the like – is por­tray­ing this prob­lem by play­ing very much on nation­al sen­ti­ments, and that’s the wrong ana­lyt­ic, serv­ing stereo­types of the worst kind, with­out, of course, look­ing at what Ger­man and French banks actu­al­ly did in dri­ving Greece and oth­er EU states into debt – and their agency in recov­er­ing these debts through their social­iza­tion. So the Euro­pean tax­pay­ers are essen­tial­ly bail­ing out Greece and, in the same process, bail­ing out Ger­man, French, and British banks. But this is not rhetor­i­cal­ly con­nect­ed to neolib­er­al cap­i­tal­ism, but to Greek lazi­ness. Now there are forces in Ger­many – like the AfD [Alter­na­tive for Ger­many, a new Euro­pho­bic far-right con­ser­v­a­tive Ger­man par­ty] – that cap­i­tal­ize on this dis­course, ask­ing for a shrink­ing of the EU, that just the hard core states sur­vive in a recon­sti­tut­ed and ful­ly neolib­er­al­ized Euro­zone and the rest can be cut free and cut loose: a prospect that would demote the Mediter­ranean EU states to an unsus­tain­able periph­er­al sta­tus for the fore­see­able future.

So, we have reached a cri­sis point, but this needs to be exploit­ed. Tac­ti­cal­ly, I would say that the argu­ment needs to be won – won with­in the EU – and it can be won, giv­en the evi­dent facts on the ground, par­tic­u­lar­ly as I am cer­tain that there is a numer­i­cal left-of-cen­ter major­i­ty in EU states, even in Ger­many and France. And the demo­graph­ics of the most affect­ed – the young – could play in this direc­tion. But left pol­i­tics, to my mind, can­not rely on nation­al­ist projects or nation­al­is­tic antag­on­i­za­tion, but needs to build strong inter­na­tion­al alliances. This will require mas­sive extra-par­lia­men­tar­i­an and intra-par­lia­men­tar­i­an mobi­liza­tion, ori­ent­ed towards a com­plete rebuild­ing of the EU’s insti­tu­tion­al set-up. In this, oppor­tunis­ti­cal­ly or abstract­ly call­ing for a break with the EU, espe­cial­ly in cas­es where such a demand is monop­o­lized by the right and where the left pos­sess­es no coher­ent strat­e­gy, is a dead end. The option of strate­gi­cal­ly work­ing through Euro­pean insti­tu­tions – even when these are undoubt­ed­ly unde­mo­c­ra­t­ic – should not, there­fore, be dis­card­ed out of hand.

GS and AA: Let’s return to the work of Carl Schmitt. His thought has received increas­ing atten­tion from left-wing intel­lec­tu­als dur­ing the past two decades (Chan­tal Mouffe, Gopal Bal­akr­ish­nan, Ernesto Laclau). Do you think that the con­tem­po­rary intel­lec­tu­al and polit­i­cal left should engage with the dilem­mas that Carl Schmitt pos­es? Or is this trend a sign of polit­i­cal defeat?

BT: Schmitt’s work is poly­va­lent and can be read in mul­ti­ple ways. I can under­stand why schol­ars engage with his analy­sis and cri­tique of U.S. impe­ri­al­ism, par­tic­u­lar­ly in rela­tion to his acute insights about changes in inter­na­tion­al law relat­ing to the abo­li­tion of clas­si­cal inter­state war­fare and its replace­ment by a dis­crim­i­na­to­ry con­cept of war, human­i­tar­i­an pan-inter­ven­tion­ism, and con­di­tion­al forms of lib­er­al sov­er­eign­ty stretch­ing back to the Treaty of Ver­sailles and the League of Nations. So, the left can cer­tain­ly engage with the dilem­mas he iden­ti­fied, but I would not rec­om­mend the polit­i­cal solu­tions he pre­scribed. An abstract re-asser­tion of the polit­i­cal, orga­nized in sov­er­eign states, or a retreat into par­ti­san-war­fare, are clear­ly not cred­i­ble and sus­tain­able alter­na­tives for a left pro­gres­sive pol­i­tics. A left nation­al pop­ulism, feed­ing on a crude dis­tinc­tion between “them” and “us” may be appro­pri­ate for some coun­tries, but not for deeply inte­grat­ed and small states with­in Europe. If any­thing, Schmitt advo­cat­ed high­ly author­i­tar­i­an solu­tions to social crises in lib­er­al-con­sti­tu­tion­al states – in his case the Weimar cri­sis – premised on the invo­ca­tion of the state of emer­gency by the state exec­u­tive, sus­pend­ing con­sti­tu­tions. Inter­na­tion­al­ly, he argued for the divi­sion of the world among four or five great pow­ers, each cre­at­ing their own region­al spheres of influ­ence, what he called Gross­raeume or pan-regions.

Thus, I was sur­prised how uncrit­i­cal­ly he was remo­bi­lized dur­ing the last decade or so in the Anglo-Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture, includ­ing in IR, as an appar­ent­ly rad­i­cal and crit­i­cal thinker. Now, to some degree I can see why that is the case. But there is some­thing like a col­lec­tive amne­sia going on around Schmitt, and non-Ger­mans don’t nec­es­sar­i­ly asso­ciate his thought with his role dur­ing the Nazi peri­od, how con­tex­tu­al­ly polit­i­cal his work was, and how com­plic­it he was intel­lec­tu­al­ly in launch­ing a blue­print for Nazi for­eign pol­i­cy. His cri­tique of U.S. impe­ri­al­ism does not mean that his pol­i­tics has much to offer for the left – quite the con­trary!

He was not one of the clas­si­cal geo-politi­cians, but through first admir­ing the Mon­roe Doc­trine in the West­ern hemi­sphere, and then resist­ing its infla­tion to glob­al pro­por­tions through Wilso­ni­an­ism, he pro­vid­ed essen­tial­ly a tem­plate and jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for a Ger­man con­quest in the East, which he por­trayed as being more or less with­in the nor­mal pow­er-polit­i­cal log­ic of world his­to­ry. Vic­to­ri­ous pow­ers basi­cal­ly artic­u­late after con­quests the rules for inter­na­tion­al law, so that law fol­lows con­quest, gen­er­at­ing a “nomos” – a com­bi­na­tion of ter­ri­to­r­i­al sov­er­eign­ty and law. This may be an accu­rate, if de-soci­ol­o­gized, descrip­tion of the rela­tion between law and inter­na­tion­al pow­er, but do we real­ly want to renege on the pos­si­bil­i­ty of intel­lec­tu­al, rather than just pow­er-polit­i­cal, prin­ci­ples of inter­na­tion­al law and order?

So I do two things with Schmitt in my work: on the one hand I decon­struct his his­to­ry of inter­na­tion­al law and order, as out­lined in his Nomos of the Earth, and show how the attempt to pro­vide an ide­o­log­i­cal counter-nar­ra­tive to lib­er­al sto­ries of inter­na­tion­al law is actu­al­ly his­tor­i­cal­ly defec­tive and sim­ply not accu­rate.11 And sec­ond­ly, I’m try­ing to chal­lenge what is a very thin the­o­ret­i­cal vocab­u­lary – “con­crete order think­ing” and his con­cept of the “polit­i­cal” (the friend/foe dis­tinc­tion) – that is meant to hold and to ground this his­tor­i­cal anti-lib­er­al counter-nar­ra­tive. At the same time, I think it is symp­to­matic that left thinkers, includ­ing Gopal Bal­akr­ish­nan and Chan­tal Mouffe and so on, have turned to Schmitt to pro­vide the miss­ing Marx­ist geopol­i­tics, par­tic­u­lar­ly of the inter­war peri­od.12 So, in that sense, this relates back to my ear­li­er point: because IR is still a rel­a­tive absence in the Marx­ist lit­er­a­ture, peo­ple are grop­ing around to find con­cepts, to find sto­ries that could help us to make sense of the cri­sis of law and inter­na­tion­al order from the late 19th cen­tu­ry onwards, through the Thir­ty Years Cri­sis, and into the 20th and ear­ly 21st cen­tu­ry with­out hav­ing ful­ly explored the intel­lec­tu­al archi­tec­ture of Schmitt’s thought as a whole. Strange bed­fel­lows indeed!

What I hope to have done is to show how mis­guid­ed and how prob­lem­at­ic it is to use Schmit­t­ian cat­e­gories and tack them onto notions of cap­i­tal­ism and class con­flict. Par­tic­u­lar­ly because Schmitt con­ceived him­self from the start as a decid­ed­ly anti-soci­o­log­i­cal thinker, and this con­nects him much more with the real­ist and author­i­tar­i­an tra­di­tion than with any­thing else. Just remind your­self that his def­i­n­i­tion of sov­er­eign­ty derives from polit­i­cal the­ol­o­gy, the papal plen­i­tu­do potes­ta­tis and abso­lutism, and val­i­dates exec­u­tive pow­er as some­thing out­side and above social con­flicts and social strug­gles. So he is attempt­ing to iso­late and insu­late pol­i­tics and the polit­i­cal from any form of social con­tes­ta­tion and account­abil­i­ty. Sov­er­eign is he who decides over the state of excep­tion. And the invo­ca­tion of his con­cept of the polit­i­cal revolves around a crude notion of volk­ish homo­gene­ity dri­ven by an exis­ten­tial­ized pol­i­tics of fear designed to drown out soci­o­log­i­cal fault-lines with­in socio-polit­i­cal­ly het­ero­ge­neous and class-con­flict riv­en civ­il soci­eties.

How that can be com­pat­i­ble with Marx­ism – either the­o­ret­i­cal­ly or polit­i­cal­ly – requires a big leap of faith because the min­i­mum that you have to think about in rela­tion to sov­er­eign­ty is two things: first, sov­er­eign­ty is a social rela­tion. This may sound broad, but any­body who is invok­ing the state of excep­tion has to have thought pri­or to its dec­la­ra­tion about its like­ly chances of imple­men­ta­tion. What is the social sit­u­a­tion on the ground? What kind of resources do we actu­al­ly have in place – mil­i­tary, polit­i­cal, admin­is­tra­tive – to imple­ment that state of excep­tion? The state of excep­tion is always a deeply social­ized rela­tion, quite the con­trary of what Schmitt was try­ing to argue. Sec­ond­ly, what kind of cri­sis calls forth the like­li­hood of emer­gency pow­ers? Since polit­i­cal the­ol­o­gy is not inter­est­ed in an expla­na­tion of cri­sis, in con­trast to his­tor­i­cal soci­ol­o­gy or polit­i­cal econ­o­my, Schmit­t­ian think­ing does not pro­vide the cat­e­gories to under­stand socio-polit­i­cal crises – thus the crude relapse into an abstract notion of “the polit­i­cal”: prim­i­tive group-think­ing of “them” ver­sus “us.” And of course in rela­tion to ter­ri­to­r­i­al con­quests – land grabs – again, Schmitt held to a deeply de-social­ized affir­ma­tion of a real­ist log­ic of geo-polit­i­cal dynam­ics and pow­ers that are con­scious­ly dis­so­ci­at­ed from every­thing that is going on with­in soci­eties. States, by nature, he insist­ed, expand and com­pete for space! So whether you go back to the dis­cov­er­ies of 1492 or the late 19th cen­tu­ry peri­od of impe­r­i­al rival­ry, Schmitt would always read this as an affir­ma­tion of the law of the stronger. That this is sim­ply what states do: self-preser­va­tion through expan­sion, cre­at­ing a nomos, rather than a cos­mos or a logos.

So I keep being sur­prised about attempts to reap­pro­pri­ate par­tic­u­lar­ly the his­tor­i­cal Schmitt but also the con­cep­tu­al and polit­i­cal Schmitt by Marx­ists. To me, that’s a cul-de-sac – intel­lec­tu­al­ly and polit­i­cal­ly, it’s self-defeat­ing. Yes, it is uncan­ny how the con­tem­po­rary sit­u­a­tion resem­bles the inter­war cri­sis and Schmitt’s Weimar sit­u­a­tion. We have a mas­sive cap­i­tal­ist cri­sis on our hands with right-wing nation­al­ist forces in most EU coun­tries, absorb­ing social dis­con­tent, and a col­laps­ing lib­er­al cen­ter. To advo­cate in this sce­nario, as Stef­fan Wyn-Jones remind­ed me, a left-wing pop­ulism and nation­al­ism that often over­laps with right-wing polit­i­cal recipes – even find­ing a tem­po­rary, if ambigu­ous, com­mon ground (whether Gold­en Dawn in Greece, AfD in Ger­many, the Front Nation­al in France, or UKIP in Britain) – by invok­ing Schmitt seems to me dis­as­trous. After all, Nation­al Social­ism thrived on the same amal­ga­ma­tion of left and right motives and con­stituen­cies dur­ing its rise to pow­er, before any dreams of pop­ulist social­ism were end­ed in the “night of the long knives” once the Nazis were in pow­er. It may be naïve, but a broad-based transna­tion­al alliance of pro­gres­sive forces seems to me the only remote­ly accept­able and real­is­tic way for­ward.

GS and AA: It seems that focus­ing on the “inter­na­tion­al” also requires us to rethink the state. Although some have done this by look­ing to non-Marx­ist thinkers, what val­ue do you see in return­ing to trends with­in Marx­ism – such as the Ger­man “state debate,” which tried to pair an under­stand­ing of the form of the cap­i­tal­ist state with an analy­sis of its entan­gle­ment in rela­tions of cap­i­tal­ist com­pe­ti­tion and the world-mar­ket, or the debate between Ralph Miliband and Nicos Poulan­tazs, which in part tried to con­nect a the­o­ry of the state to ques­tions of rev­o­lu­tion­ary strat­e­gy and orga­ni­za­tion? How might these cur­rents of specif­i­cal­ly Marx­ist state the­o­ry help us think about the “inter­na­tion­al” today? And con­verse­ly, how might your renewed atten­tion on the “inter­na­tion­al” help us bet­ter under­stand state pow­er and polit­i­cal strat­e­gy?

BT: The notion of ‘the inter­na­tion­al’ is, for me, a trou­bling inven­tion that keeps buy­ing into the same lan­guage of trag­ic neces­si­ty and time­less imper­a­tives advo­cat­ed by Real­ists and Neo-real­ists in IR. I sug­gest replac­ing it with an aware­ness of how dif­fer­ent­ly polit­i­cal geog­ra­phy and rela­tions between poli­ties were organ­ised his­tor­i­cal­ly. Oth­er­wise, we keep on think­ing under the sway of a sta­t­ic mega-abstrac­tion that can­not be removed. It freezes cre­ative thought and pro­gres­sive strate­gies for eman­ci­pa­to­ry change and action. That is way his­to­ry mat­ters. It is, for exam­ple, not true - or, at least: one-sided - to say that rev­o­lu­tion­ary states, what­ev­er there inter­nal make-up and for­eign pol­i­cy strate­gies, become over time socialised into the con­ven­tions of its sur­round­ing state-sys­tem, char­ac­terised by the remorse­less log­ic of pow­er pol­i­tics and self-help, as Neo­re­al­ist keep on say­ing and as Neo-Weber­ian his­tor­i­cal soci­ol­o­gists, like The­da Skocpol argue, when she looked at the French, Russ­ian, and Iran­ian cas­es. It is truer to the his­tor­i­cal record to say that rev­o­lu­tion­ary states, 17th cen­tu­ry Britain, 18th cen­tu­ry France and the US, the 20th cen­tu­ry Sovi­et Union, and, per­haps, even con­tem­po­rary Ger­many, have fun­da­men­tal­ly changed the ‘rules of the game’ in which inter­na­tion­al pol­i­tics is being played out. This lead also, in many cas­es, to domes­tic adap­ta­tions to the inno­va­tions - con­sti­tu­tion­al­ly, mil­i­tar­i­ly, strate­gi­cal­ly, finan­cial­ly, social­ly - that rev­o­lu­tion­ary states pio­neered with­out cre­at­ing exact repli­cas. This is not an argu­ment for the pacif­ic char­ac­ter of for­eign poli­cies of lib­er­al or social­ist states, or a gen­er­al tele­o­log­i­cal argu­ment about ‘progress’ in world his­to­ry, but much more an argu­ment about the vari­abil­i­ty of for­eign poli­cies and strate­gies of con­flict and co-oper­a­tion that can­not be derived from either sys­temic inter-state log­ics or domes­tic ‘modes of pro­duc­tion’. Why does the US pur­sue mul­ti­lat­er­al hege­mo­ny after WWII, rather than either iso­la­tion­ism or impe­ri­al­ism, when it did the for­mer in the inter­war peri­od and the lat­ter under Theodore Roo­sevelt? Can we answer this with ref­er­ence to either inter-state imper­a­tives or the log­ic of cap­i­tal? Why did ear­ly 18th Cen­tu­ry Britain adopt bal­anc­ing and non-inter­ven­tion ver­sus the Con­ti­nent and impe­r­i­al expan­sion over­seas, rather than mere­ly pow­er pol­i­tics and impe­ri­al­ism in all the­atres simul­ta­ne­ous­ly? Why does con­tem­po­rary Ger­many pur­sue region­al hege­mo­ny with­in a frame­work of mul­ti­lat­er­al atlanti­cism, rather than resort­ing to region­al autarchy designs?  Cap­i­tal­ism and the inter-state order may, but only may, pro­vide cer­tain pres­sures, but the answers states devel­op to cope with these pres­sures, an essen­tial PM argu­ment, can­not be ‘derived’ from these con­texts. What, then, is log­i­cal­ly or con­cep­tu­al­ly a dis­tinct­ly cap­i­tal­ist state and cap­i­tal­ist for­eign pol­i­cy - out­side his­to­ry?

It seems to me that it is pre­cise­ly this kind of argu­ment that makes me scep­ti­cal towards the Ger­man State Deriva­tion School that devel­oped in the 1970s. If I recall cor­rect­ly, Staatsableit­er, tried to make log­i­cal argu­ments about how the ‘bour­geois state form’ and ‘bour­geois law’ and its func­tions were a nec­es­sary result of the require­ments of the cap­i­tal­ist mode of pro­duc­tion, or even com­mod­i­ty-exchange. Its ‘rel­a­tive auton­o­my’ - the fact that the rul­ing class did not rule - con­cealed the fact that it had to car­ry out struc­tural­ly, but not instru­men­tal­ly, the require­ments of cap­i­tal accu­mu­la­tion. Rel­a­tive auton­o­my was derived from the idea that the state func­tioned in the gen­er­al inter­est of cap­i­tal to co-ordi­nate the will of may cap­i­tals. While ‘rel­a­tive auton­o­my’ was con­ced­ed, the state was not neu­tral, but did struc­tural­ly the bid­ding for gen­er­al cap­i­tal­ist repro­duc­tion. This debate was not only high­ly abstract and the­o­reti­cist, I found it always deeply un-his­tor­i­cal and un-spe­cif­ic, as argu­ments were made about the ‘cap­i­tal­ist state’ in the abstract and in gen­er­al. Hei­de Gerstenberger’s writ­ings pro­vid­ed for me bet­ter insights into the his­tor­i­cal ori­gins and growth of the ‘bour­geois state’ as tied up with spe­cif­ic social and polit­i­cal con­flicts, show­ing its diverse ‘man­i­fes­ta­tions’ and tra­jec­to­ries, even though she large­ly excised the for­eign pol­i­cy dimen­sion from her stud­ies. And this neglect of for­eign pol­i­cy was also preva­lent in the Marx­ist debates of the 1970s.

GS and AA: What do you see as the lim­its of tra­di­tion­al Marx­ist the­o­ries of impe­ri­al­ism, and how might your work allow us to rethink the his­to­ry of impe­ri­al­ism, espe­cial­ly impe­ri­al­ism today?

BT: I’ve already men­tioned that tra­di­tion­al Marx­ist the­o­ries of impe­ri­al­ism were already prob­lem­at­ic at the time, main­ly because they over-gen­er­alised across the key cap­i­tal­ist states that com­posed the inter-state sys­tem dur­ing the belle époque, and pro­vid­ed struc­tural­ist-func­tion­al­ist expla­na­tions of state pol­i­cy and inter­na­tion­al pol­i­tics. They assumed an imme­di­ate iden­ti­ty between state and monop­oly-cap­i­tal. Spe­cif­ic ‘stages’ of cap­i­tal­ism, in this case: monop­oly cap­i­tal­ism, were regard­ed as pro­vid­ing the deep expla­na­tion for how inter­na­tion­al rela­tions, in this case: inter-cap­i­tal­ist rival­ry and the descent into World War I, played out. Dif­fer­ent state strate­gies of how to organ­ise inter­na­tion­al rela­tions, and diplo­ma­cy did not mat­ter! Yet, Marx­ist the­o­ries of impe­ri­al­ism remain admirable in so far as they, for the first time, forced peo­ple to think more sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly about for­eign pol­i­cy influ­ences oth­er than those that were iden­ti­fied either with a rei­fied state ratio­nal­i­ty and the pri­ma­cy of for­eign pol­i­cy, or prim­i­tive relaps­es into bio­log­i­cal analo­gies which saw states, from the late 19th cen­tu­ry onwards, being trapped into neo-Dar­win­ian zero-sum strug­gles of sur­vival on a ter­ri­to­ri­al­ly finite plan­et in which Leben­sraum was at a pre­mi­um. This kind of think­ing was not only con­fined to Ger­many, in which Friedrich Ratzel’s polit­i­cal geog­ra­phy and Karl Haushofer’s Geopoli­tik became dom­i­nant, but also alive in the UK, where the for­mer direc­tor of the LSE, a geo­g­ra­ph­er, called Hal­ford Mackinder, wrote in 1904 an influ­en­tial arti­cle called ‘The Geo­graph­i­cal Piv­ot of His­to­ry’, whose heart­land the­o­ry informed British geopo­lit­i­cal strat­e­gy and the declin­ing Empire. Sim­i­lar things hap­pened in the US through Admi­ral Thay­er Mahan’s naval­ism and the strate­gic pri­ma­cy of sea pow­er. Rudolf Kjellen, who coined the term ‘geopol­i­tics’, was a Swedish polit­i­cal sci­en­tist. Italy and Japan had their own designs for supra-nation­al region­al order.

To me, as I said, there is no way back to a Neo-Lenin­ist or a Neo-Kaut­skyan analy­sis, even if refor­mu­lat­ed in terms of two ‘log­ics of pow­er’ - one reify­ing state pow­er and ter­ri­to­ri­al­ism, the oth­er reify­ing cap­i­tal­ism and de-ter­ri­to­ri­al­i­sa­tions - to under­stand the his­tor­i­cal­ly diverse ways in which ‘the spaces of cap­i­tal accu­mu­la­tion’ were con­struct­ed and con­nect to con­cerns about state secu­ri­ty. In the Marx­ist dis­course we see the return to argu­ments about deep log­ics ema­nat­ing from cap­i­tal­ist ‘require­ments’ and ‘imper­a­tives’ from which ‘for­eign pol­i­cy’ is sim­ply ‘derived’. This also leads to con­cep­tu­al over-stretch, where notions of impe­ri­al­ism, whether for­mal or infor­mal, abound rather indis­crim­i­nate­ly. Are the Iraq and Afghanistan fias­cos impe­ri­al­is­tic in the way the late 19th cen­tu­ry scram­ble for Africa or the Viet­nam dis­as­ter was? Obvi­ous­ly not! It is hard to for­malise some essence of how a Marx­ist analy­sis of geopol­i­tics is sup­posed to look, but the first require­ment is to get away from the struc­tural­ist-func­tion­al­ist trap by focussing on the process­es of for­eign strat­e­gy for­ma­tion and the often unat­tend­ed out­comes of these strate­gies, as we have seen in the Mid­dle East, where democ­ra­cy and the ‘rule of law’ did not mush­room mirac­u­lous­ly as soon as the dic­ta­tors were removed, as the Neo-Con­ser­v­a­tives believed, but rather lead to state fail­ures, dis­place­ments, migra­tions, and the regroup­ing of ter­ror­ists on a tran­si­tion­al basis, that is now stronger as before ‘the war on ter­ror’. One good exam­ple of how to con­duct such an analy­sis is Neil Smith’s study ‘Amer­i­can Empire’ that shows in much more detail how strat­e­gy and pol­i­cy are being shaped by plan­ners - the fig­ure of Isa­iah Bow­man stands at the cen­tre - in ways that are actu­al­ly much less ‘planned’ and ‘coher­ent’ then we tend to assume when we re-impose in hind­sight cer­tain ‘log­ics’ that are sim­ply car­ried out as if politi­cians mere­ly enact a pre­de­ter­mined script. Is this still Marx­ist? I would say, yes, and I would like to refer the read­er back to Marx’s cri­tique in the Grun­drisse of abstract and gen­er­al­is­ing think­ing sub specie aeter­ni­tatis in favour of iden­ti­fy­ing and recon­struct­ing sui gener­is cas­es. It is this pro­ce­dure of con­duct­ing empir­i­cal­ly rich and case-spe­cif­ic inquiries, immune to gen­er­al­i­sa­tions and log­ics, that I think recon­nects back to my read­ing of Polit­i­cal Marx­ism - or Geopo­lit­i­cal Marx­ism - so as to recov­er the effi­ca­cy of mul­ti­ple agents in the shap­ing of for­eign pol­i­cy and the unpre­dictable respons­es it pro­vokes by oth­er coun­tries.

GS and AA: How do we explain the resur­gence of right-wing nation­alisms in Europe and the Unit­ed States, but also oth­er parts of the world? The mat­ter of inter­na­tion­al trade and inter­state com­pe­ti­tion is cru­cial here, with many par­ties and move­ments posi­tion­ing them­selves accord­ing to anti-glob­al­ist or pro-glob­al­ist stances.

BT: It is clear that the term glob­al­i­sa­tion was always an ide­o­log­i­cal con­struc­tion that sup­pressed the dif­fer­en­tial social con­se­quences of lib­er­al­i­sa­tion and neo-lib­er­al­ism in dis­tinct region­al and nation­al locales. As even neolib­er­als admit now, there are a few win­ners and many more losers, with­in and between cap­i­tal­ist states. We are fac­ing obscene lev­els of wealth and income inequal­i­ties and life-chances, espe­cial­ly amongst the younger gen­er­a­tions, cor­rup­tion and fraud on a gar­gan­tu­an scale from Brazil to Turkey, Spain to Greece, and also with­in the cap­i­tal­ist core, the destruc­tion of the wel­fare state, wage repres­sion for most, and the accen­tu­a­tion of pre­car­i­ous work­ing con­di­tions. In the process, the Mid­dle Class­es that pro­vid­ed the social bedrock for the post-WWII con­sen­sus, are almost every­where squeezed in OECD coun­tries. Addi­tion­al­ly, there is a wide-spread feel­ing that the bankers and their ‘neo-lib­er­al pol­i­cy experts’ that caused the finan­cial cri­sis of 2008 got large­ly away with impuni­ty and keep preach­ing the same failed reme­dies while lin­ing their pock­ets: more easy cred­it, a loose mon­e­tary pol­i­cy and liq­uid­i­ty, which simul­ta­ne­ous­ly erodes and depletes the sav­ings of the pop­u­lace, while Tax Havens pro­lif­er­ate. As a result, rep­re­sen­ta­tive democ­ra­cy is often regard­ed as pow­er­less by dis­af­fect­ed and alien­at­ed vot­ers, and soci­eties are deeply polarised. In this con­text, left­wing and rightwing protest against the estab­lish­ment and elites is sus­cep­ti­ble to pop­ulist and nation­al­ist options. As I men­tioned ear­li­er, the left is ill-advised to fol­low a nation­al­ist strat­e­gy, as this risks being swal­lowed by neo-nation­al­is­tic move­ments. The choice is not between a retreat into anti-glob­al­i­sa­tion and neo-lib­er­al pro-glob­al­i­sa­tion, but between regres­sive nation­alisms and pro­gres­sive inter­na­tion­al­ism. This requires some­thing like a region­al and, per­haps, glob­al ‘New Deal’. We had this before, so why not now? Yes, social democ­ra­cy, wel­farism, and ‘embed­ded lib­er­al­ism’ was admit­ted­ly learned the hard way after two World Wars and arguably only pos­si­ble in the pres­ence of a rad­i­cal alter­na­tive, the Sovi­et Union. The world-his­tor­i­cal con­text today is dif­fer­ent, but if polit­i­cal lead­er­ship, con­cert­ed and inter­na­tion­al, flanked by mass protest, is to mean any­thing, then we require this now! Any­body can see the like­ly inter­na­tion­al con­se­quences if we keep spi­ralling towards a new Weimar Sit­u­a­tion, which will seal the decline of the West.


  1. See Hans-Ulrich Wehler, The Ger­man Empire, 1871-1918 (Dover, NH: Berg Pub­lish­ers, 1985). 

  2. David Black­bourn and Geoff Eley, The Pecu­liar­i­ties of Ger­man His­to­ry: Bour­geois Soci­ety and Pol­i­tics in Nine­teenth-Cen­tu­ry Ger­many (Oxford: Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1984). 

  3. The Bren­ner Debate: Agrar­i­an Class Struc­ture and Eco­nom­ic Devel­op­ment in Pre-indus­tri­al Europe, ed. T.H. Ash­ton and C.H.E. Philbin (Cam­bridge: Cam­bridge Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1987); Ellen Meiksins Wood, “Marx­ism and the Course of His­to­ry I/147 (Sep­tem­ber-Octo­ber, 1984): 95-107. 

  4. Cf. Charles Post, The Amer­i­can Road to Cap­i­tal­ism: Stud­ies in Class Struc­ture, Eco­nom­ic Devel­op­ment and Polit­i­cal Con­flict 1620-1877 (Lei­den: Brill, 2011); Viviek Chib­ber, Post­colo­nial The­o­ry and the Specter of Cap­i­tal (Lon­don: Ver­so, 2013). 

  5. See Justin Rosen­berg, “The ‘Philo­soph­i­cal Premis­es’ of Uneven and Com­bined Devel­op­ment,” Review of Inter­na­tion­al Stud­ies 39, no. 3 (2013): 569-97; also his “Uneven and Com­bined Devel­op­ment: The­o­riz­ing the “Inter­na­tion­al” in The­o­ry and His­to­ry,” in His­tor­i­cal Soci­ol­o­gy and World His­to­ry: Uneven and Com­bined Devel­oped in the Longue Durée, ed. Alexan­der Anievas and Kam­ran Matin (Lan­ham: Row­man & Lit­tle­field Inter­na­tion­al, 2016). For a detailed dis­cus­sion, see Ben­no Teschke, “IR The­o­ry, His­tor­i­cal Mate­ri­al­ism, and the False Promise of Inter­na­tion­al His­tor­i­cal Soci­ol­o­gy, Spec­trum: Jour­nal of Glob­al Stud­ies, 6, no. 1 (2014): 1-66.  

  6. Daniel A. Baugh, “Great Britain’s ‘Blue-Water’ Pol­i­cy, 1689-1815,” The Inter­na­tion­al His­to­ry Review 10 no. 1 (Feb­ru­ary 1988): 33-58. 

  7. Robert Bren­ner, “The Social Basis of Eco­nom­ic Devel­op­ment, in Ana­lyt­i­cal Marx­ism, ed. John Roe­mer (Cam­bridge: Cam­bridge Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1985), 23-53. 

  8. Ellen Meiksins Wood, “The Sep­a­ra­tion of the Eco­nom­ic and the Polit­i­cal in Cap­i­tal­ism,New Left ReviewI/127 (May-June 1981). 

  9. See Karl Marx, Cap­i­tal, Vol­ume One, trans. Ben Fowkes (Lon­don: Pen­guin, 1976), 92. 

  10. Kevin Ander­son, Marx at the Mar­gins: On Nation­al­ism, Eth­nic­i­ty, and Non-West­ern Soci­eties (Chica­go: Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go Press, 2010). 

  11. See Carl Schmitt, The Nomos of the Earth in the Inter­na­tion­al Law of the Jus Pub­licum Europaeum, trans. G.L. Ulmen (Can­dor, NY: Telos Press, 2006). For crit­i­cisms, cf. Ben­no Teschke, “Deci­sions and Inde­ci­sions: Polit­i­cal and Intel­lec­tu­al Recep­tions of Carl Schmitt,” New Left Review II/67 (Jan­u­ary-Feb­ru­ary 2011); and Teschke, “‘The Fetish of Geopol­i­tics; Reply to Gopal Bal­akr­ish­nan,” New Left Review II/69 (May-June 2011); and final­ly, Teschke, “Fatal Attrac­tion: A Cri­tique of Carl Schmitt’s Inter­na­tion­al Polit­i­cal and Legal The­o­ry,” Inter­na­tion­al The­o­ry 3 no. 2 (2011); 179-227. 

  12. Cf. Gopal Bal­akr­ish­nan, The Ene­my: An Intel­lec­tu­al Por­trait of Carl Schmitt (Lon­don: Ver­so, 2002), and his “The Geopol­i­tics of Sep­a­ra­tion: Response to Teschke’s ‘Deci­sions and Inde­ci­sions,’” New Left Review II/68 (March-April 2011); Chan­tal Mouffe, The Return of the Polit­i­cal (Lon­don: Ver­so, 1993). 

Author of the article

is a Reader in the IR Department at the University of Sussex. His research interests comprise IR Theory, Historical Sociology, Marxism, and the Philosophy of Social Science. He is the author of The Myth of 1648: Class, Geopolitics and the Making of Modern International Relations (London: Verso, 2009).