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  • Print publication year: 2017
  • Online publication date: June 2018

4 - Marxism and critical theory

from Part I - Theories of international relations
    • By Jim George, Senior Lecturer in International Relations in the School of Politics and International Relations at the Australian National University, Richard Devetak, Associate Professor in International Relations in the School of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Queensland, Martin Weber, Senior Lecturer in the School of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Queensland
  • Edited by Richard Devetak, University of Queensland, Jim George, Australian National University, Canberra, Sarah Percy, University of Queensland
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press
  • DOI:
  • pp 64-78



This chapter introduces students to the rich and controversial legacy of Marxism and one of its major offshoots in the twentieth century, critical theory. The chapter is presented in two parts. The first touches on the historical and intellectual context that ‘created’ Marxism; Marx's notion of historical materialism and the issue of how Marx's ideas have been received in IR. The second part concentrates on the two strands of critical theory that have emerged within IR: one derived from the so-called Frankfurt School and the other from Italian thinker Antonio Gramsci.

Historical and intellectual context: Marx and the critique of capitalism

During the nineteenth century, European societies underwent dramatic and sometimes traumatic changes internally while expanding their colonial rule to almost every corner of the world. Importantly, this expansion of European imperialism and the global consolidation of what is often referred to as the ‘Westphalian states-system’ occurred simultaneously with the comprehensive shift to industrialised production (known as the Industrial Revolution), significant changes in the ownership and control of property and large-scale population transfers, both internally and externally towards parts of the colonised world. By the nineteenth century economic affairs were also changing significantly, with the gradual demise of mercantilism and the rise of capitalism. Victorian Britain (England, specifically) had emerged as the hotbed of these developments, with its extraordinary innovations in industrial production and technology, and in the capitalist production process. It also provided many of the conceptual principles for understanding and legitimising the socio-economic transformations inaugurated by capitalism.

At the intellectuall core of this major historical transformation were philosophers such as Adam Smith (1723–90) in the eighteenth century and David Ricardo (1772– 1823) in the nineteenth century, who helped develop what became known as the liberal ‘political economy’. An outgrowth of moral philosophy, this field of inquiry was concerned primarily with the political and economic conditions of social change. It also became the basis for the discipline of (neoclassical) economics.

The new political economists advanced more stringent conceptions of ‘efficiency’ under capitalism. Arguing against the accumulated wealth and land ownership of the traditional aristocracy, they insisted wealth must be circulated and invested across the whole society. In this regard, they were advocates for an ‘entrepreneurial’ shift from subsistence economies to industrial production, and for social progress guided by scientific reason.