Louis Althusser

Structural Marxism in international relations analyzes global politics through class struggle, capitalist exploitation, and unequal power dynamics, advocating for revolutionary change.

Louis Althusser
Louis Althusser

Structural Marxism in the International Arena


Within the realm of international relations, Structural Marxism provides a distinctive analytical framework that views global politics through the prism of class struggle and the dynamics of capitalist structures. Rooted in the foundational ideas of Karl Marx and further developed by influential scholars like Louis Althusser, Structural Marxism offers a critical perspective on the complexities of power, inequality, and conflict in the international system.

At its core, Structural Marxism asserts that the international order is fundamentally shaped by the capitalist mode of production and its inherent contradictions. This perspective contends that the global capitalist system perpetuates inequalities both between states and within societies, as well as exploitation of the working class by the capitalist elite. These structural inequalities are considered central to understanding the dynamics of international politics.

A key concept within Structural Marxism is the notion of class struggle, which extends beyond the domestic sphere to encompass interactions between states and non-state actors on the global stage. Structural Marxists argue that economic interests and class dynamics drive competition and conflict among nations, with imperialism and colonialism seen as manifestations of capitalist exploitation at an international level.

Furthermore, Structural Marxism emphasizes the importance of analyzing the economic structures of capitalism and their impact on international relations. Scholars within this framework highlight the unequal distribution of wealth and resources among states, the dominance of multinational corporations, and the role of international financial institutions in perpetuating capitalist relations of production.

Building on the insights of Louis Althusser, Structural Marxists also underscore the significance of ideology in maintaining the capitalist system. They argue that dominant ideologies, disseminated through various institutions such as the media and education systems, serve to legitimize capitalist exploitation and reinforce existing power structures. Additionally, the concept of hegemony, developed by Antonio Gramsci, is central to understanding how ruling elites maintain control over society through consent rather than coercion.

Overall, Structural Marxism offers a critical lens through which to analyze international relations, highlighting the interconnectedness of capitalist structures, class struggle, and ideological hegemony in shaping global dynamics of power and inequality. While subject to critiques and debates, this framework continues to inform scholarly analyses and discussions of contemporary international politics.

Key Scholars of Structural Marxism

Key scholars of Structural Marxism have played significant roles in shaping our understanding of the global political economy and the dynamics of international relations. Here’s an explanation of each scholar’s contributions:

  1. Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937):
    • Gramsci, an Italian Marxist thinker, introduced the concept of Cultural Hegemony through his ‘Prison Notebooks.’ He argued that the ruling class maintains its dominance not only through force but also by controlling cultural institutions and shaping the dominant ideology. Gramsci’s ideas highlight the importance of ideology and culture in maintaining and challenging power structures.
  2. Justin Rosenberg:
    • As an English scholar adopting a Neo-Marxist approach to International Relations, Rosenberg’s works like ‘The Follies of Globalization’ and ‘The Empire of Civil Society’ explore the contemporary relevance of Marxist thought in understanding global politics. His analysis focuses on the ways in which capitalism shapes and is shaped by global governance structures and processes.
  3. Immanuel Wallerstein (1930-2019):
    • Wallerstein, a senior research scholar at Yale University, is known for formulating the ‘World-System Theory’ in 1974. This theory offers a comprehensive framework for understanding the development and dynamics of the global capitalist system. It emphasizes the importance of analyzing the world economy as a single unit, with core, semi-peripheral, and peripheral regions, and how these regions interact and influence each other.
  4. Andrew Linklater (1949):
    • Hailing from Wales, Linklater specializes in the critical theory paradigm within International Relations. His works, such as ‘Beyond Realism and Marxism’ and ‘The Transformation of Political Community,’ explore the intersection of critical theory and global politics. Linklater emphasizes the significance of norms, values, and identity in shaping international relations, alongside material factors.
  5. Andre Gunder Frank (1929-2005):
    • Frank, a German American sociologist and economic historian, played a crucial role in advancing Dependency theory. His work focuses on the economic relationships between developed and developing nations, highlighting the exploitative nature of these relationships and advocating for structural changes to achieve genuine development and autonomy.
  6. Robert Warburton Cox (1926-2018):
    • Cox, a distinguished Canadian scholar of political science, made significant contributions to understanding the connections between production, power dynamics, and the evolving world order. His works, including ‘Production, Power and World Order’ and ‘Political Economy of Plural World,’ shed light on how economic structures and political institutions reflect the interests of dominant actors and shape global politics.

These scholars collectively contribute to a nuanced understanding of Structural Marxism, providing insights into the complexities of the global political economy and its implications for international relations. Their works emphasize the interplay between economic structures, power dynamics, ideology, and culture in shaping the world order.

Core Elements of Marxist Theory:

Social World as a Totality:

Marxist theory views the social world as an interconnected whole, emphasizing the intricate relationships and dependencies among various elements.

Historical Materialism:

Central to Marxism is the concept of historical materialism, which posits that historical development is fundamentally driven by changes in the material conditions of production.

Base Superstructure Scheme:

Marxist theory introduces the concept of a base superstructure scheme, suggesting that the economic base of society (production forces and relations) determines the superstructure (institutions, culture, and ideology).

Exploitative Nature of Capitalism:

Marxism highlights the inherent exploitative nature of capitalism, where the bourgeoisie exploit the proletariat for economic gain.

Class Struggle:

The perpetual conflict between social classes, particularly the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, constitutes the driving force behind historical change in Marxist theory.

Concept of State as the Instrument of Class Exploitation:

According to Marxists, the state functions as an instrument that upholds and perpetuates class exploitation, serving the interests of the ruling class.

The Cause of Emancipation:

Marxist theory identifies the liberation of the proletariat from the shackles of capitalism as the ultimate goal, emphasizing the pursuit of social and economic equality.

Vision of a Communist Society:

Marxists envision a communist society as the culmination of historical development, characterized by the absence of class distinctions and communal ownership of the means of production.

Main Principles of Marxism in International Relations:

  1. The International System in the Capitalist World Order

Marxist principles applied to IR assert that the international system primarily serves the interests of the dominant class in the global capitalist framework.

  1. Main Actor in IR is Class:

In the Marxist perspective, social classes emerge as the primary actors shaping international relations, with class interests guiding state actions.

  1. Dominant Class Interest in Global Economic System:

States, multinational corporations, and international organizations are seen as instruments representing the dominant class’s interests in the global economic system.

  1. Structure of Global Capitalist System:

The global capitalist system is categorized into core, periphery, and semi-periphery, where elites from core areas collaborate with periphery elites to exploit the masses in peripheral regions.

  1. International Relations as a Reflection of Global Mode of Production:

Marxist IR theory posits that international relations are not merely an interplay of interests and power but rather a reflection of the global mode of production and resulting state relations.

  1. Globalization as Capitalist Expansion:

Marxism interprets globalization as the worldwide expansion of capitalism, often referred to as new capitalist imperialism.

  1. Soft Power or Cultural Hegemony:

The dominant class/state exercises not only coercive force but also cultural hegemony, shaping mainstream ideas and ideologies accepted by subordinate classes/states in the form of soft power.

In applying these core elements and principles, Marxist theory provides a comprehensive framework for understanding and analyzing the intricate dynamics of both societal structures and international relations.

Four Strands of the Marxist Approach in International Relations

Marxist theory, a multifaceted lens through which to analyze global dynamics, unfolds into distinct strands, each contributing to a comprehensive understanding of the international system. These strands, namely World System, Dependency Theory, Gramscianism, and the associated insights of scholars such as Immanuel Wallerstein, Andre Gunder Frank, and Antonio Gramsci, intricately weave together to elucidate the complexities of global power dynamics.

World System:

  • Developed by Immanuel Wallerstein, the World System strand scrutinizes the structure of the global capitalist system, delineating it into core, periphery, and semi-periphery areas.
  • Closely intertwined with imperialism and dependency theory, Wallerstein contends that social institutions are in a perpetual state of creation and recreation within any world system.
  • Introducing the notion of the semi-periphery, a transitional zone between the core and periphery, Wallerstein highlights its dual role as both exploited and exploiter, stabilizing the global political structure.

Dependency Theory:

  • Andre Gunder Frank postulated Dependency Theory, ideologically linked to World System Theory, positing that underdeveloped nations are satellites of the dominant economic power or ‘Core.’
  • According to this theory, satellites depend on the Core for technology, capital, raw materials, and markets, resulting in development that is perceived as ‘development of underdevelopment.’


  • Gramsci’s concept of Hegemony, based on his ‘Prison Notebooks,’ revolves around the cultural, moral, and ideological leadership exerted by one group over allied and subaltern groups.
  • Cultural hegemony, as explained by Gramsci, is the bourgeoisie’s strategy in capitalist societies to maintain power through cultural institutions. It involves developing a hegemonic culture using ideology, not force, to shape “common sense” values that sustain the existing order.
  • Hegemony, considered the third dimension of power, is the manufacture of consent, wherein the dominant class’s moral, political, and cultural values are embraced by the exploited class as their own.
  • In International Relations, Hegemony is manifested when the dominant capitalist power/state controls the global superstructure, influencing financial markets, global trade, and other aspects of the international system.

Robert W. Cox’s Insight:

  • Robert W. Cox adds depth to Gramscianism by asserting that a state’s ability to produce and maintain hegemony serves as an indicator of its power in international relations.

Critical Theory:

  • Originating from the Frankfurt School, Critical Theory, championed by figures like Herbert Marcuse, Jurgen Habermas, and Andrew Linklater, diverges from positivism, adopting a reflective and interpretive approach to question the structure of the world order.
  • Critical theorists, focusing on the superstructure phenomenon, express skepticism towards the traditional proletarian revolution, highlighting the absorption of individuals into a ‘one-dimensional society.’
  • Emphasizing emancipation, they advocate for a more equitable and just world order, rejecting domination in favor of ‘dialogue’ and understanding. Habermas particularly emphasizes emancipation through broad participation in discourse and action, promoting a vision of radical democracy.
  • The concept of cosmopolitanism, central to Critical Theory, advocates for the expansion of moral boundaries beyond individual political communities.


  • Justin Rosenberg emerges as a major contributor to Neo-Marxist thought within international relations.
  • Neo-Marxists assert that international relations are embedded in broader global social relations, contending that shifts in social relations drive changes in international relations.
  • The contemporary wave of globalization, according to Neo-Marxism, must be understood through Marx’s ideas of the global expansion of capitalism following the collapse of the USSR.
  • Rosenberg criticizes realist theories of international relations and globalization, focusing on how the international system reacts to evolving social relations. Understanding historical changes in politics becomes crucial in this perspective.


From a Marxist standpoint, the global inter-state system is seen as an extension of capitalism and class exploitation on a global scale. While the realization of Marxist ideals may be perceived as unrealized and utopian, the Marxist perspective on International Relations remains relevant and compelling. Amidst the overpowering influence of capitalism, it brings forth foundational issues of inequality, exploitation, and contradictions inherent in prevailing notions of development and modernization. The critical and Neo-Marxist perspectives, with their emphasis on dialogue, emancipation, and understanding, contribute valuable insights to ongoing discussions in the realm of international relations.

Latest articles

Leave a Comment

You cannot copy content of this page