Capital, The State and War: Rethinking the Geopolitics of Capitalist Modernity in the Era of the Two World Wars

A guest post from Alex Anievas to inaugurate a brief symposium on his book anievasCapital, the State, and War: Class Conflict and Geopolitics in Thirty Years’ Crisis, 1914-1945 (Michigan University Press, 2014), which will unfold over the next few days. Alex is a Leverhume Early Career Researcher at the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge. He is editor or co-editor of numerous books (including Race and Racism in International Relations and The Longue Durée of the Far-Right, both of which have previously previewed at The Disorder). His work has also appeared in the European Journal of International Relations, the Cambridge Review of International Affairs, Millennium and the Review of International Studies.


The manuscript that would become Capital, the State, and War: Class Conflicts and Geopolitics in the Thirty Years’ Crisis, 1914-1945 developed, like so many first books, out of my PhD thesis[1] In its final form, Capital, the State, and War endeavours to offer nothing less than a systematic and radical reinterpretation and historical sociological reconceptualisation of some of the main geopolitical and socioeconomic fault-lines of the 1914-1945 period. It does so through the theoretical prism of uneven and combined development, demonstrating in the process the various problems with extant historiographical interpretations and IR theorisations of this crucial epoch in the development and remaking of modern world politics. But given the rather substantial differences between what I had originally envisioned the PhD thesis to be and what it became, it’s worth briefly discussing the origins of the project and how it changed in the process of researching and writing it.

I. Origins

My PhD project was originally conceived as an intervention into the contemporary debates on the ‘resurgence’ of US imperialism in the wake of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq – very much a radicalising moment in my own intellectual and political trajectory – and the concomitant return to Marxist theories of imperialism and empire. My aim then was to essentially rethink and ‘update’ the classical Marxist theories of imperialism and, in particular, Lenin and Bukharin’s theory of inter-imperial rivalry which, whatever its faults, still captured an essential aspect of contemporary imperialism. I was then heavily influenced by a number recent Marxist works on imperialism, particularly David Harvey’s 2003 The New Imperialism (along with his earlier, more theoretically sophisticated The Limits to Capital) and Alex Callinicos’ The New Mandarins of American Power.

Both studies, in their different ways, sought to retain the fundamental insights of the classical Marxist theories of imperialism (e.g. the persistence of historically-differentiated forms of inter-imperial rivalries rooted within the inherently competitive dynamics of capital accumulation), whilst dispensing with their more economically determinist and instrumentalist features. They did so, in particular, by reconceptualising imperialism as the intersection of two analytically distinct, but historically interconnected, ‘capitalist’ and ‘territorial’ logics of economic and geopolitical competition. While critical of certain aspects of this kind of approach – particularly, Harvey and Callinicos’ relatively undigested incorporation of a ‘proto-realist’ conception of ‘the international’ – my initial thought was that, if rooted in a stronger conception of the spatio-temporal dynamics of capitalist development and expansion that produced the somewhat porous but nonetheless identifiable ‘territorial logic of power’ – regionality – inherently arising out of the processes of capital accumulation in space and time, this perspective could provide a more adequate historical materialist theory of geopolitics.[2] At this stage in the development of the project, this is how I originally envisaged the role of Trotsky’s concept of ‘uneven and combined development’ – a kind of supplementary theory that could be employed in capturing the spatio-temporal dynamics of capitalist development in reconstructing a modified Marxist theory of imperialism. Add in a more attentive focus to the relations between capitalists and state managers and the role of ideology in structuring foreign policymaking processes and I thought this would do.

My aim then was to reconstruct the premises of Harvey and Callinicos’ theories and then ‘apply’ this reformulated approach to some kind of theoretically-engaged historical analysis of one or more specific ‘case studies’. In the very early stages, for example, I had proposed to investigate US imperialism in the post-Cold War; then, I switched gears to a more ambitious project entailing a comparative historical sociology of different forms of imperialism in different historical conjunctures (specifically, pre-WWI British imperialism, German and Japanese imperialism during the interwar years, and US imperialism after the Second World War); before finally settling on, at the advice of my supervisor, an examination of the clashing imperialist drives leading to the Second World War.[3] The great benefit of this latter project was that I could then directly engage with a formative period in the history of both Marxist and International Relations (IR) theory and, in so doing, undertake the kind of historically focused work that I felt was sorely lacking in the recent Marxist debates on imperialism, particularly through the use of primary and archival research.

Anievas - Capital, the State and War

II. Reconfigurations

With the general subject of my PhD project finally set, I began more deeply exploring the main theoretical and historical questions I was going to address. But, almost immediately after having settled on this topic, I quickly realised that both the original classical Marxist theories of imperialism (again, specifically those offered by Bukharin and Lenin) as well as the more contemporary versions furnished by Harvey, Callinicos and others were much more problematic that I had originally thought. A fundamental dilemma with Lenin and Bukharin’s theory was that it assumed but never explained why inter-capitalist competition took the geopolitical form of territorialised inter-state conflicts thus eliding the whole question of why capitalism is structured along the lines of a multiplicity of territorialised sovereign states – see Lacher on the critique of state-centrism here.[4]

More problematically still, the theory essentially subsumed the very different forms and trajectories of capitalist development in various states under the homogenisang category of ‘monopoly capitalism’. Yet, in the process of researching the different forms of capitalist development and imperialism in the run-up to the two World Wars, the most interesting feature about them was their striking developmental differences. Hence, while Bukharin and Lenin’s category of ‘monopoly capitalism’ captured significant features of late industrialising states, such as Germany, Austria and Japan, it really didn’t fit the ‘model’ of capitalist development and imperialism befitting the early industrialising states of Britain and France. This led the theories to a number of empirical difficulties: to take just one example, both Bukharin and Lenin saw the tendency to export capital over trade as a feature of the monopoly ‘stage’ of capitalism that, in their different ways, all the advanced capitalist states (from Britain to France to Germany) were supposedly experiencing. However, this was only a tendency found in the earlier industrialisers (again, notably Britain and France) and, in the very paradigm of ‘monopoly capitalism’, Imperial Germany, the economy actually suffered from a continual shortage rather than surplus of money capital, which in fact largely explained the limited economic means through which the Wilhelmstraße’s could entice potential geopolitical allies such as Tsarist Russia in the run-up to the First World War (see pp. 31-32, 84-87).

So here was a striking example of how the differentiated trajectories of different imperialist states’ development fed directly into the strategic line-ups that went to war in 1914 – arguably, then, a causal condition in the development of such conflict. Similarly, while Callinicos and Harvey’s approaches were arguably more attuned to such developmental differences, I was coming to see the problem of ‘proto-realism’ mentioned above as more debilitating than I had originally thought. In other words, without first ‘cracking’ the reificatory shell encasing their conceptions of ‘the international’ – meaning somehow analytically and theoretically penetrating what was ‘the international’ rendered in substantive historical and sociological terms – the theoretical-cum-empirical problems would continue to cascade. Luckily, it was around this time that I came across a piece by Justin Rosenberg [5] that pushed me – sometimes kicking and screaming – in a somewhat different theoretical direction. It seemed I had greatly underestimated the potential of Trotsky’s idea of uneven and combined development that I had been thus far employing as a kind of ‘mid-level’ concept capturing the spatio-temporally differentiated and geopolitically-conditioned nature of capitalist development.

While I remained sceptical of some of the ways Rosenberg was seeking to use uneven and combined development as a transhistorical ‘general abstraction’,[6] what his approach did offer was a coherent means to overcome the persistent separation or dichotomisation between ‘sociological’ and ‘geopolitical’ modes of explanation so commonly found in the historiographical and theoretical debates on the origins of the two World Wars. For what Rosenberg demonstrated was that the concept of uneven and combined development uniquely incorporated a distinctly international dimension of causality as intrinsic to the historical process of social development itself. This then rendered ‘the international’ historically and sociologically intelligible overcoming both realist reifications of the international system as an absolutely autonomous ‘supra-social’ sphere and the classical sociological tradition’s tendency to falsely subsume its distinctive causal dynamics and behavioural patterns to unisocietal abstractions (see Capital, the State, and War, pp. 49-55). It thereby allowed for the organic – rather than contingent or external – integration of ‘geopolitical’ and ‘sociological’ determinations into a single unified theory of sociohistorical change, interstate conflict and war. It also provided an approach adequately sensitive to developmental differences so sorely lacking in the classical Marxist theories of imperialism, thus capturing the interactively-generated multilinear nature of all social development. So this is where my theoretical journey had taken me.

III. Results 

The primary aim of Capital, the State, and War is then to offer a radically revisionist interpretation and theorisation of the origins, nature, and dynamics of the Thirty Years’ Crisis of 1914-1945 firmly rooted in a historical materialist sociology. In doing so, the study centres around four key intersecting axes of inquiry.

1. To provide a historical materialist reconceptualisation of the relations between capitalism, interstate competition, and war that overcame the dual pitfalls of reification and reductionism besetting most extant theoretical approaches (Marxist and otherwise) to IR: that is, the problem of either conceiving the international system as an absolutely autonomous sphere of ahistorical geopolitical interactions or the collapsing of its distinctive causal properties into a pre-formed theory of domestic society (Hedley Bull’s ‘domestic analogy’ trap). In other words, the study seeks to provide a historical materialist answer to the ‘problematic of the international’ through a theoretically-informed historical investigation into one of the most significant periods of geopolitical discord and war in modern world politics. This then endeavours to sublate both ‘externalist’ (geopolitical) and ‘internalist’ (sociological) modes of explanations of the origins and dynamics of the two World Wars through a theoretical reconstruction of the classical Marxist concept of ‘uneven and combined development’ which, as argued above, uniquely integrates a specifically international dimension of causality into its basic premises of sociohistorical development.

2. To offer a historical and theoretical analysis of the coevolution and transformation of the modern states system and world capitalism leading to the Thirty Years’ Crisis that is sensitive to the interconnected, co-constitutive and thus differentiated, non-linear nature of sociohistorical development. This ‘interactionist’, non-linear conception of sociohistorical development, refashioned from the perspective of uneven and combined development, thus seeks to provide a unified framework for understanding how societies interact, change, and the constitutive relations between these historically dynamic processes. It also aims to advance a more holistic conception of the interactively-generative relationship between ‘agents’ and ‘structures’ in a non-determinist way.

3. It aims to provide a causal inquiry into the fundamental determinants – both structural and conjunctural; geopolitical and sociological – explaining the international tumult of the 1914-45 period. This in turn required the fashioning of an international historical materialist sociology of development over the longue durée that could adequately interweave the interaction of structural and conjunctural forces into a single, unified explanatory whole without collapsing one of these dimensions or ‘moments’ of analysis into the other. To this end, the book seeks to develop a distinctive methodological approach that could avoid the dual dilemmas of either falling back on a historically underspecified conception of causality (the subsumption of conjunctural phenomenon under unmediated, abstract sociological laws) or the no less problematic radically contingent historicism that treats conjunctures as hermetically-sealed temporalities constituted by entirely contingently determined, self-contained causes.

4. To provide a novel interpretative approach to and reconceptualisation of the era of the two World Wars as a multidimensional crisis constituted by three distinct, but intertwining, conflictual axes: a ‘vertical’ axis represented by the class conflicts between labour and capital; a ‘horizontal’ axis capturing the relations of competition and rivalry among ‘many capitals’; and, a third, ‘lateral’ axis constituted by the geopolitical and military rivalries among states within the Global North and the multiple relations of domination and exploitation of the Global North over the Global South. From this perspective, Capital, the State, and War aims to offer a historical sociological re-interpretation of the origins, nature and dynamics of the epoch of the two World Wars in terms of Gramsci’s concept of ‘organic crisis’: that is, the combination of a structural and conjunctural crisis of the hegemony of capitalism simultaneously taking socioeconomic (‘material’) and ideo-political (‘ideational’) forms and expressed along national, international, and transnational lines – the latter being experienced during the interwar years in the form of a ‘class war’ waged from both above and below traversing the nation-state totalities making up the modern international system. As I argue in the book, this ‘early’ Cold War of the interwar period essentially laid the geopolitical and ideological conditions directly leading to the Second World War (see especially, pp. 11-12, 138, 211-212, 214, 218). From this perspective, the book seeks to infuse the theory of uneven and combined development with a much stronger ontology of class conflict than has been hitherto on offer in the more recent IR debates concerning the utility of the concept in providing a theory of ‘the international’ (see, for example, the contributions in Marxism and World Politics).

In these ways, Capital, the State, and War aims to offer a multilateral engagement with a number of different, and sometimes disconnected, disciplinary literatures and debates. For IR, it addresses the perennial problematic of anarchy and its many theoretical corollaries by providing a theoretically-informed historicisation of IR’s core concept in the capitalist epoch. For the Marxist and historical sociology literatures, the book addresses – both theoretically and empirically – the long-standing debate regarding the place of ‘the international’ or intersocietal relations in our conceptions of development, inter-imperial rivalry and war while seeking to better conceptualise the interrelations between capitalists and state managers in explaining foreign policies and concrete conjunctures of war. Engaging some of the key historiographical debates of the era of the two world wars, the work also aims to provide historians with new interpretative frameworks that were nonetheless adequately rooted in the extant historiographical literatures while drawing on some primary source materials.

One final point about the book is worth stressing. While my aim in it was to flag the problem of Eurocentrism in approaching the origins of the two World Wars, this unfortunately remains something of an after-thought that was never properly integrated into the broader narrative of the book. Indeed, I only really realised how pervasive and significant the problem of Eurocentrism was in understanding the Thirty Years’ Crisis rather late in the day when I was completing the manuscript for the publisher. So, while I did offer some analysis of the ‘peripheral’ origins of the First World War (see pp. 88-100), the issue really didn’t receive the full attention it deserves.


[1] The PhD was prepared under the supervision of Tarak Barkawi to whom I owe a great intellectual debt.

[2] At this stage in the development of my PhD, I was also influenced and in dialogue with Gonzalo Pozo-Martin – my former undergraduate seminar teacher and later friend – who was developing a similar materialist approach to geopolitics in his still unfortunately unpublished dissertation on Russian imperialism in the post-Cold War era. For his critique of the theories of the ‘new imperialism’ and a provisional statement of his alternative approach, see respectively, Pozo-Martin (2007) and Pozo-Martin and Colás (2011).

[3] In the course of researching the causes of the Second World War, however, I ended up being led down the path of examining the origins of the First World War (what became Chapter 3 of Capital, the State, and War) as the causes of the two conflicts were so intertwined.

[4] This was an issue identified by Colin Barker (1978) and David Harvey (1982: 326), among others, quite some time ago, though neither arguably provided a satisfactory answer at the time.

[5] This was, I believe, a conference paper entitled ‘The Concept of Uneven and Combined Development’ presented at the 2005 International Studies Association Conference which would form the basis of Rosenberg’s European Journal of International Relations article published the following year.

[6] See my earlier sympathetic criticisms of Rosenberg’s use of uneven and combined development in a piece cowritten with Jamie Allinson in 2009. While this piece raised some of the issues and potential problems with extending uneven and combined development beyond the capitalist epoch, my own dissertation topic examining the two World Wars sat firmly within the era of capitalism, so I didn’t yet need to fully engage those issues there. This is taken up in the forthcoming How the West Came to Rule: The Geopolitical Origins of Capitalism (with Kerem Nisancioglu).

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