‘Class, States and International Relations: A Critical Appraisal of Robert Cox and Neo-Gramscian Theory’ reviewed by Paul Blackledge

Reviewed by Paul Blackledge

About the reviewer

Paul Blackledge is professor of political theory and UCU Branch Secretary at Leeds Beckett …


Over the last three decades Robert Cox has elaborated a sophisticated challenge to the essentialist and transhistorical assumptions that underpin the academically dominant Realist theory of International Relations. In two seminal essays, “Social Forces, States and World Orders: Beyond International Relations theory” (Cox 1981) and “Gramsci, Hegemony and International Relations: An Essay in Method” (Cox 1983) he successfully extended insights from Gramsci to argue that IR could not be understood by reference to the actions of states alone. More substantively, he claimed that Realism, or more properly post-war American neo-Realism (Cox was always much more sympathetic to the Realism of earlier theorists such as E H Carr), was fundamentally flawed because it embraced an atomistic methodology that had at its core a reified conception of the state whose power was naturalised and whose inner workings and tensions remained mystified.

As Cox and other neo-Gramscians extended these insights over subsequent decades they produced a body of work that demands serious critical consideration by anyone interested in modern world politics. This is precisely what Adrian Budd delivers in this important new study of their works. In it he argues that though the neo-Gramscians have made a welcome and powerful critique of Realism, they have failed to realise their early promise of providing a fully coherent alternative to its model of global politics. Indeed, he argues that for all their insights the neo-Gramscians tend to produce descriptively rich but analytically weak accounts of social reality. In an attempt to point beyond these limitations Budd has produced an immanent critique of Cox’s work within which he contends that Cox and the neo-Gramscians have not taken their engagement with Gramsci far enough. To do so would entail a more substantial analysis of the moment of force in modern world politics and through it a more serious engagement with Gramsci’s classical Marxist exploration of the material determination of hegemony.

Looking beyond Realism’s tacit black box conception of the state, Cox deployed Gramsci’s idea of hegemony to examine states as complex terrains of conflict. According to Cox, Gramsci extended Lenin’s use of the concept of hegemony from a method for analysing relations between subaltern classes in the class struggle to a mechanism for making sense of relations between ruling and subordinate classes. Cox aimed to extend further this important insight into the field of IR.

However, whereas Gramsci used the concept of hegemony to denote the unity of force and consent within such relations, Cox’s approach to IR paralleled the work of those influential centrist and left-reformist theorists who one-sidedly focused on the moment of consent in Gramsci’s theory of hegemony. As we shall see, this approach fundamentally weakened his alternative to Realism. Nonetheless, his approach has the strength of at least partially illuminating the inner workings of modern states. More generally, it opened a space within which, as Peter Burnham argued, IR could be recast on a wider inter-disciplinary footing. Indeed, Cox’s approach has inspired a series of new and interesting contributions to the study of IR.

From a Marxist point of view, Cox is doubly interesting because he deploys the Marxist derived concept of social relations of production as part of his attempt to open the black box at the core of Realist accounts of inter-state relations. This is not to say that he uses Marx uncritically. As Budd points out, Cox believes that Marx’s concept of social relations of production is too general and abstract to make sense of capitalist states in their concrete specificity. The neo-Gramscian alternative, by contrast, aims to analyse precise forms of consent in a way that is intended to move beyond discussions of the state as such to illuminate definite state forms.

Similarly, Cox and the neo-Gramscians examine not capitalism in the abstract but the concrete manifestation of capitalism as realised through the interaction of differentially determined states at a global level. This approach opened the door to a far more sophisticated and historically concrete analysis of IR than that associated with Realism. Specifically, Cox traced the path taken from nineteenth-century Pax Britannica through the epochs of imperialism and Pax Americana before moving onto an analysis of the contemporary era of “transnationalisation”.

In regard to this most recent moment in the history of the international system, whereas traditional Realists have difficulties integrating an account of the process of globalisation into their model of global politics, neo-Gramscians made important contributions towards the analysis of what Cox regards as emergent “complex transnational networks of production”. Budd points out that, among those IR scholars influenced by Gramsci, Kees van der Pijl has outlined the “most rigorous and historically informed analysis of transnational class formation” which complements what Cox sees as a new and distinctly class conscious “transnational managerial class”.

In the early 1990s Cox tended to view transationalisation one-sidedly as a process involving the transformation of states from instruments for defending welfare provision into transmission belts for pushing the needs of global markets. Though his critics pushed him to mediate this perspective over the following decade, Budd is nonetheless right to view much of what Cox and the neo-Gramscians have written about transnationalisation as being somewhat economistic, and he is doubly right that this weakness illuminates more profound problems with their understanding of contemporary political and military realities.

Budd gets to the heart of these problems in chapter four of his book – effectively its core and the focal point of his critique of Cox and the neo-Gramscians. Against Cox’s view that Marx’s concept of mode of production lends itself to an “abstract, reductionist and static argument”, Budd insists that properly understood Marx’s analysis of modes of production “is absolute historicism”. In a concrete development of this argument, he explores both the limitations of neo-Gramscian engagements with contemporary imperialism and the strengths and weaknesses of their approaches to the problem of hegemony.

With regard to the first of these points, Budd follows Peter Burnham’s argument that Cox’s focus on the conjunctural acts to obscure the most important aspect of contemporary social reality – the fact that the world in which we live is capitalist. The most significant consequence of this lacuna is that Cox tends to displace discussions of capitalist crises from an account of the essence of the system towards a model that focuses on more specific modes of regulation. As Budd points out, this is a potentially fruitful avenue of enquiry that is compatible with classical Marxism – indeed no less an orthodox Marxist than Lenin famously insisted that Marxism was characterised by concrete analyses of concrete situations. The problem with Cox and the neo-Gramscians is that by skating over capitalism’s essential characteristics they tend to produce more or less superficial analyses of the concrete. By contrast, Marx’s method of moving from the abstract to the concrete is intended to allow theorists to maintain a link to the underlying essence of a system even as they explore its concrete complexity.

Budd rejects the view that this is an irredeemably reductionist method by insisting that Marx’s base-superstructure metaphor need not be interpreted in this way. Unfortunately, many who reject Marx’s metaphor tend merely to invert Stalin’s reification of the base as the real agency of history in a way that leads them to effectively ignore the unifying nature of capitalism as a global mode of production that determines (in a Hegelian not a positivist manner) the nature of the superstructure. On this point, Budd argues that it is the essential capitalist characteristic of the value form which gives rise to the existence of many capitals on the one hand and the formal separation between economics and politics on the other. Together these underpin the relative autonomy of the state and the ways in which states act to foster the interests of “their” chunk of capital at the expense of competitors.

Counter-intuitively this process informs the imperialist tendency towards the fusion of state and capital – a point explored by Gramsci through the concept of the “integral state”. Because this process can only adequately be understood against the backdrop of a conceptualisation of the dynamism of the capitalist mode of production, and because neo-Gramscians tend to dismiss this approach as reductive, they tend to produce what are effectively neo-pluralist models of social reality. Thus, for instance, Budd contrasts Hannes Lacher’s and Benno Teschke’s utterly implausible claims that inter-state rivalry is merely a legacy of feudal fragmentation of the polity with the classical Marxist arguments of Lenin, Trotsky and Bukharin that locate these rivalries as a manifestation of the uneven and combined development of capitalism. And though, as Budd points out, “some of Lenin and Bukharin’s detailed arguments were inaccurate or not equally applicable across all the imperialist countries …. the general argument that imperialism expressed a new monopoly phase of capitalism is persuasive”.

One strength of the classical Marxist approach is that it integrates analyses of economics, politics, law and ideology into a total conception of social reality. Cox and the neo-Gramscians, by contrast, tend to focus on the ideological aspect of hegemony at the expense of its other facets in a one-sided and ultimately inadequate manner. If this leads them to lose sight of the aspect of force within the integral hegemonic state, the classical Marxist alternative does not involve the denial of the importance of ideas in history. Rather, it opens the door to integrating ideas about modern social reality with what Marx called the “dull compulsion” to work. Budd points out that by unhinging their analysis from force generally and the compulsion to work more specifically the neo-Gramscians tend to overplay the positive embrace of ruling class ideas amongst subaltern groups in contrast to what Perry Anderson once argued was the more usual “passive resignation” experienced by many of these groups. Moreover, by unhinging ideas from the labour process neo-Gramscians – Budd notes that Mark Rupert is an exception to this rule – tend to overlook the role of trade unions generally and union leaders more specifically in playing what Rosa Luxemburg long ago recognised as a conservative mediating role between capitalists and the working class. The point is not to reject the neo-Gramscian insights about the role of ideas within hegemonic systems – this is a profound improvement on Realism. Rather it is to integrate ideas with the material base in a non-reductive way.

Thus, for instance, Budd highlights weaknesses with Cox’s discussion of the transition from Pax Britannica to Pax Americana through the period of classical inter-imperialist rivalry. He argues that Cox’s analysis is not so much wrong as superficial. With regard to Pax Britannica he argues that Cox lays too much weight on Britain’s moral and intellectual leadership while underplaying the role of underlying causal mechanisms, including force. Similarly, his discussion of Pax Americana is weakened by an almost total disregard of the Cold War and thus of the military moment of American hegemony in the West. Indeed, by downplaying the Cold War, Cox is able to make an all too simplistic contrast between the period of imperialism that ended in 1945 and the subsequent Pax Americana. But if the Cold War, and with it the stabilising force of military spending, clearly mark a break with the epoch of classical imperialism, there are also fundamentally important continuities across this divide. Cox’s descriptive account of these changes does not rise to the challenge of providing an adequate theoretical analysis of them.

The weaknesses of this descriptive methodology are similarly apparent in Cox’s discussion of the present era of “transnationalism”. Though the processes of globalisation that he describes are undoubtedly important, because he underplays their unevenness he too quickly treats reality as if the kind of state power associated with the age of imperialism is simply a thing of the past. This approach clearly underestimates the persistence of national colouration of capital as realised through distinct national forms of capital, and of the way that globalisation is not simply a process that eats away at state power but is to a large extent a state led process.

These lacunae in Cox’s arguments lend themselves to a misunderstanding both of the resilience of state spending and the nature of contemporary imperialism. This latter issue in particular marks the point at which the positive side of the neo-Gramscian correction of Realism goes too far in the direction of overlooking the role of force in their model of modern global politics.

All this means that though neo-Gramscians have made important contributions to our understanding of the modern world system their approaches fall short of the kind of explanatory model required to adequately comprehend the historical specificity of modern imperialism. It is a great strength of Budd’s book that he shows how these limitations with Cox’s work specifically and neo-Gramscianism more generally can be overcome by extending their engagement with Gramsci into a deeper engagement with the kind of non-technologically deterministic interpretation of classical Marxism that Gramsci found in the works of Marx, Engels and Lenin.

10 July 2014


  • Cox, Robert 1981 Social Forces, States and World Orders: Beyond International Relations theory Millennium: Journal of International Studies 10(2)
  • Cox, Robert 1983 “Gramsci, Hegemony and International Relations: An Essay in Method” Millennium: Journal of International Studies 12(2)

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