Neo-Marxism (the Third Paradigm)


The third most popular paradigm in IR (after realism and liberalism) is neo-Marxism. This model is based on an anti-capitalist and anti-bourgeois approach to IR analysis, as is characteristic of Marxism, and for this reason it is excluded from mainstream political discourse in capitalist states. A genuine cognitive dissonance divides the liberal-capitalist axiom (whether national for the realists or transnational for the liberals) and Marxism when it comes to fundamental philosophical approaches to modern society and the assessment of its main political, economic, and social processes. At the same time, Marxist approaches of IR wield highly developed concepts and theories based on scientific and rational discourse which lend it a degree of scientific relevance regardless of whether it is considered according to the analytical methodology of Marxists or by the supporters of bourgeois ideology. Thus, neo-Marxist IR could theoretically be utilized in an ideologically neutral context and be included into understandings of the structure of IR by the liberal ruling class.

Immanuel Wallerstein: World-System

The “World-System” theory of I. Wallerstein is considered to be the classic example of this neo-Marxist model of IR.

Wallerstein bases his theory on the following sources:

  • Marxism

  • the ideas of Fernand Braudel

  • Dependency theory (Singer – Prebisch)

According to Wallerstein, the capitalist system was originally established as a global phenomenon and globalism has thus existed for approximately 500 years. The division of European countries into nation-states, in this model, was only a transitional stage. On all levels, the bourgeois class is drawn towards integrating into a unified entity transcending national borders and forms the core of the international bourgeoisie. The logic of capitalism, the principle of free trade, and the research of new markets turn this into a reality. Thus, capitalism was originally and essentially transnational, a fact which explains why globalization and the weakening of states’ borders is not something unique, but rather the formation of a common spatial structure of the capitalist system on a global scale.

The bourgeois class is accordingly the “globalist class,” which nowadays controls the spatial-geographic location of the “Rich North” (the “Global West” or the “core” of the World-System). The center of the global bourgeoisie is the West, where capital, advanced technology, and the beneficiaries of the main economic processes in the global economy and global political power are concentrated. The fact that nation-states and their corresponding administrations still exist does not fundamentally affect the functions of the World-System, as the main decisions on international relations are made not by governments or the state, but by the global, cosmopolitan capitalist elite consisting of the representatives of different nations - from the classic American fantasists to European entrepreneurs, oil sheikhs, New Russian oligarchs, and the nouveau riches of the Third World. This is the “core” of the new framework of governance.

The other side of this “World-System” is the zone of the global periphery, the Third World, where the global proletariat is concentrated. Here are found the miserable, abjectly impoverished and disempowered populations of the world’s poorest countries. This periphery is the spatial location of the global proletariat, the “Misérables.” The peoples of this realm, moreover, are kept under the strong influence of national and regional political structures and, in contrast to the global bourgeoisie and its regional representatives, they still do not quite yet understand their class nature and are in need of class solidarity. While globalization forms the legal model of world order, more and more portions of the global proletariat are drawn into the migration processes. Under the pressure of dire material circumstances, they are compelled to move to new spaces and mix with other sections and other nations and ethnic groups. It is over the course of this migration that the Third World global proletariat is “internationalized” and begins to realize its historical role as the future revolutionary class. The more developed countries integrate these representatives of the “lower” sections into developed society, thus raising them to a higher level of historical and social self-reflection. Thus, on a global scale, the World-System gradually creates the precondition for the world revolution that will be possible at the next, final stage of globalization at which the whole capitalist system, reaching the end of expanding its natural and geographical borders, will be faced with a range of economic, financial, and political crises that will collapse it.     

Another important element of the global structure in neo-Marxist theory is composed of the semi-periphery countries. Some of the “great powers” are included in this list which, although having greater potential than Third World societies, are nonetheless still in a position of subservience to the “Rich North” region. The typical countries of this type are the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa). These countries have enormous economic resources and military and technological potential, but simultaneously are dependent on the Western countries for technology, logistics, and the organization of the economy on various levels from politics to social, legal, and cultural norms. These semi-peripheral countries form the so-called “Second World” where the bourgeoisie has not yet been integrated into the global bourgeois class, and where proletarians do not suffer as miserable conditions as in the Third World. According to Wallerstein, this semi-periphery is not an alternative to global capitalism, but is only a temporary phenomenon. In line with globalization processes, they are compelled to follow the “Rich North” countries which means that their bourgeois elite will integrate into the global class and world government sooner or later, and migration will mix their proletarians with those of the Third World, causing the internationalization of the proletariat. As a result, the semi-periphery countries will collapse and their remnants will be integrated into the World-System on a class basis - the bourgeoisie will integrate with the “Global West” and the lower classes will fall among the cosmopolitan mass of migrants and quickly lose its national and cultural characteristics. According to the neo-Marxists, the “World-System” will thus be completed following the dissolution of the semi-periphery countries, only then to face crisis and collapse at the hands of the global proletarian revolution.   

According to I. Wallerstein, the World-System is today reaching the limits of its development. The economic, social, cultural, informational, and technological codes of globalization are deeply penetrating the periphery and have no more space for further expansion. This means that global capitalism is nearing its historical disappearance, having appeared under certain historical circumstances only to later meet the apogee of its realized model. Nowadays, the entire “World-System” is in the throes of a dangerous crisis and the liberal ideology forming its base has disappeared along with other ideological alternatives (represented in the past by communism).

Wallerstein says that “the structural constraints of endless capital accumulation processes which control our world have reached their end and are now acting as functional brakes…They now create a chaotic situation…Fifty years later, this chaos is to create a new world order.”

Thus, modern globalization is not the beginning of a new process, but the end and termination of an old one whose end will inaugurate a “transitional era” which Wallerstein does not specify, admitting that we are faced with uncertainty.

This “World-System” analysis accurately describes and interprets certain processes underway in the modern world. Even from a purely pragmatic view, IR experts increasingly often rely on it or draw from it for analyzing certain individual phenomena. Since 1960, in the field of scientific theoretical research, this approach has shown itself to be a useful theory along with realism and liberalism. Today, textbooks on this discipline describe it as the third paradigm of IR that should be studied by all specialists. However, political debate and the declarations of politicians and experts addressed to the general public almost completely exclude any recognition of this analysis.

The Alter-globalism Paradoxes (Trotskyism and Anarchism in IR)

It should be the added that, just as how capitalism was, according to Marx, an evil that must be fought, but nevertheless a progressive phenomenon in comparison to the caste society of feudalism, so is globalization, according to Wallerstein’s perspective, a necessary evil. The adherents of neo-Marxism call themselves “anti-globalists” insofar as they point to the bourgeois nature of this process and derive their ideological positions in opposition to the global bourgeoisie. However, they believe that globalization is inevitable and an historically technologically, and materialistically predetermined development which is even “better” or “progressive” in comparison to the nation-state of the “semi-periphery” countries. Modern neo-Marxists understand world proletarian revolution as being possible only after the victory of globalization, and not before it. To emphasize this, they call themselves “alter-globalists,” i.e., “alternative globalists.” They act not against globalization itself, but against the global bourgeois elite, as they assume that the internationalization of the global proletariat accompanying globalization is a positive, inevitably correlating process. This explains the reluctance of alter-globalists to accept forces into their ranks which, despite being radically anti-globalization and anti-globalist, act as such from the standpoint of preserving national sovereignty or religious identity. The alter-globalists believe that nation-states must be abolished in the three zones of the world-system and thus repeat Marx’s criticism of anti-bourgeois movements bearing a feudal or clerical orientation. The distinguishing of factors and actors being anti-bourgeois yet non-communist are discussed in part of the Manifesto of the Communist Party. In turn, alter-globalists historically agree with their enemy, the world bourgeoisie, against the “anti-globalization” forces considered by neo-Marxists to be “reactionary.”

Without globalization, the internationalization of the planetary classes and world government, proletarian revolution is impossible. This understanding determines the approach of this IR paradigm to globalization as an historically inevitable and even necessary process. Until the internationalization of the bourgeoisie is completed on a global scale, the global proletariat all not, in its turn as an international and global force, be able to realize its real historical destiny in the world. This formation of global proletarian consciousness is deemed impossible without intense global migration, the racial and cultural mixing of the world’s deprived masses, and the parallel loss of mankind’s ethnic, cultural, religious, and national identities. The global cosmopolitan bourgeoisie can only be faced by a global cosmopolitan proletariat - this is the only way to realize a real proletarian revolution according to the neo-Marxists.

It is easy to distinguish in all of this the continuity of the Trotskyist version of Marxism to which neo-Marxists sometimes openly appeal. Trotsky criticized the Stalin regime’s theory of the possibility of building socialism in one country as formulated by Stalin in 1924. Together with Lenin, Trotsky believed that the victory of the proletarian revolution in one country is possible only as a prelude to the launch of world revolution. If this is not realized, then socialism necessarily degenerates into bureaucracy and only hinders the world revolution rather than contributing to it. This is the essence of the Trotskyist critique of the Stalinist system. Neo-Marxists in IR base their theories on this logic and insist that the proletarian revolution can only be radically international and global, i.e., world-wide. Any attempt to build socialism in one country (or a few) is seen as restricting class contradiction to a national context and slowing processes down rather than accelerating the desired historical moment. Hence the attitude of neo-Marxists to certain countries of the semi-periphery. The fact that the internationalization of classes is artificially slowed down and partially blocked by national policies in these countries is seen as inhibiting the implicit and explicit designs of the world-system. Accordingly, such countries contribute to a slowdown of the historical process and pointless delay.

This concept is explored in great detail in the books of the leading theoreticians of alter-globalism, A. Negri and M. Hardt. In their terminology, they comprehend the World-System as the “Empire” with the US and the global bourgeois class at its center. The latter are opposed to the “multitude,” the fragmented and atomized individuals deprived of their social status and any social characteristics by the world elite. These “multitudes” are conceived as the revolutionary class of the future capable of sabotaging the global “Empire.” But this is viable only after the “Empire” has already won. Thus, according to the neo-Marxist and alter-globalist logic of this school of IR, the “Empire” must be allowed to win as soon as possible in order to render complete the establishment of the “World-System” with a one-world government at its head. Only then does the moment of the multitudes’ insurrection arrive.