Capital, the State and War: The Risks of Method

CraigA forum contribution from Campbell Craig, the first in our series responding to Alex Anievas’ new book, Capital, the State and War. Campbell is Professor in International Politics at Aberystwyth University, and the author of several books, including Glimmer of a New Leviathan: Total War in the thought of Niebuhr, Morgenthau and Waltz (2003), The Atomic Bomb and the Origins of the Cold War (2008, with Sergey Radchenko), and more recently America’s Cold War: the Politics of Insecurity (2012, with Fredrik Logevall). Campbell’s work has appeared in World Politics, Ethics & International Affairs and the Review of International Studies. He is also currently finishing an article on the nuclear revolution and neo-Trotskyism.

Woodrow Wilson 17c Stamp

In 1959 Kenneth Waltz published Man, the State and War, a study of three different levels of analysing international relations and their attempts to answer the question why war recurs. Waltz tackled his subject by demonstrating how the two most common levels of analysis – human nature, and regime type – ran into insuperable logical obstacles, and especially the problem of reductionism that social theorists such as Durkheim and Lakatos identified. His solution was to posit a third level – anarchy, or, as his title suggested, war – that could explain the recurrence of war without succumbing to the reductionist fallacy. The result was a study that has shaped the field of modern international relations more than any other single volume.

Anievas, as the title suggests, seeks to build upon Waltz’s ambition in his new book. He argues that the Marxian theory of uneven and combined development (UCD), a concept invented by Trotsky which explains international conflict by pointing to the uneven economic competition among more and less developed states whose economies are intertwined, can be used to theorise contemporary IR. This is a project being undertaken by other scholars, most notably Justin Rosenberg, but Anievas’s book is the most ambitious and thorough attempt yet to deploy Trotsky’s idea in a systematic way. However, Anievas’s method is quite different from the one used by Waltz (and Rosenberg). Rather than developing a logical or epistemological case for UCD, Anievas tries to use it as a means of shaping a detailed historical explanation of the two world wars of the twentieth century. What he is trying to do, as far as I can see, is to use UCD as a tool to explain and revise a key historical problem, as theorists in other schools of IR have done, rather than put forward an abstract case for the theory in the first place—a necessary move, for Anievas, because extant work on UCD suffers from “unsustainably high levels of analytical abstraction” (57). He concludes that the pressures of UCD upon capitalist states (particularly Germany, Great Britain, and the US) effectively explain the two world wars, and that they paved the way for a ‘proto-Cold War’ between the West and the USSR that began basically with the formation of the Soviet state in 1917.

In many ways the book is an impressive work. The narrative chapters on German, British, and American foreign relations are rich with historical detail and focused, often polemical argumentation. The engagement with competing theories is intensive and Anievas’s mastery of the debates among the neo-Marxian left is evident. Yet I was in the end not convinced by some of the main historical claims of the book nor by the method Anievas has deployed. In the spirit of Anievas’s blend of historical and theoretical inquiry, I will now present two critiques of the work from the respective points of view of the historian and the IR theorist.

Anievas advances, in the narrative body of the work, revisionist historical claims about the policies of Western states leading up to both world wars. His rationale for doing so is not because he has found new documentation that gives him the opportunity to challenge existing historical interpretations, but rather, as we have suggested, because his model of UCD permits him to perceive underlying economic origins of the foreign relations of these states and a common thread among them. Thus his narratives rely fundamentally upon secondary sources (though he does use some primary archival material) and are driven by a relentless determination to question and challenge existing scholarship, especially that informed by either Realist or Liberal IR theory.

There is nothing wrong with such a method, but it is a risky one. If one relies primarily upon the historical investigations of other scholars, the historiography of the narratives must be airtight; otherwise, one has little to fall back upon. On the case of US policy and the First World War, the historical subject I know best here, I think that Anievas does not meet this standard: his treatment of the policies of President Woodrow Wilson, in both the run-up to US intervention in the War, and the diplomacy in its aftermath, is vulnerable to some basic historiographical criticism. For one thing, there is the question of originality. Anievas claims that Wilson was ultimately motivated by capitalist imperatives both to push for intervention in 1917 and to advance his famous agenda for a new world order at Versailles. This is a plausible claim, but he needed to show more explicitly how his case differs from existing scholarship making the same argument, especially N. Gordon Levin’s pathbreaking 1967 study Woodrow Wilson and World Politics. I did not detect in the book a clear demarcation between the two studies or a clear mastery of the vast historiography on Wilson and US participation in the Great War in general.

Furthermore, Anievas’s attack on Realist interpretations of Wilson’s policies is cursory and ill-informed. He argues that ‘Classical Realists’ like George Kennan and Hans Morgenthau see Wilson as an aberration in an otherwise seamless course of Realist US foreign policy, but this is simply incorrect. Morgenthau did not write systematically or originally about US foreign policy before the Second World War, and indeed his corpus of work in the 1940s and 1950s was driven precisely by the objective of persuading US policymakers to adopt a more Realist approach to the world, something he did not believe was inevitable at all; indeed, his early and outspoken attacks on the Vietnam War in the 1960s reflected precisely this concern. As for Kennan, he believed that US foreign policy rarely met his Realist standards at any time, and was severely critical of non-Realist US behaviour both before and after Wilson. For both Morgenthau and Kennan, non-Realist politics was more the norm in US foreign policy than the exception. Moreover, Anievas seems unfamiliar with contemporary Classical Realist scholarship that does not resemble his critique of it at all (see pp. 111-13). There is far more of an affinity between Classical Realism and Left critiques of US foreign policy than Anievas acknowledges.

Finally, and most important, Anievas does not reckon with a clear anomaly in his account: the decision by the US Congress to reject US membership in the League of Nations and turn America’s back on world power politics after 1920. If the overriding goal of US policy after 1917 was, as Anievas claims, to ‘make the world safe from Bolshevism,’ it does not follow, to say the least, that it would have abruptly refused to take part in an international organisation which Wilson developed (so Anievas argues) for that very purpose. It could be argued that the focus of Anievas’s argumentation is on Wilson, not on US politics, and that we should focus on that president’s ideology in explaining US policy. But this threatens to undermine the whole logic of UCD, which, like any structural theory, seeks to explain the conflict among capitalist states and their foreign policy behaviour irrespective of their particular leaders. According both to any reasonable definition, and the argumentation Anievas sets out, the United States simply failed to act after the Great War in the manner UCD theory would expect. If one then argues that it did so because Wilson failed to sell his ideology to the American body politic, or for other contingent historical reasons, the theoretical architecture begins to crumble. If one argues, alternatively, that US rejection of the League somehow fits within the theory’s expectations, one had better make that case clearly. Otherwise, the spectre of unfalsifiability looms.

From the theoretical point of view, I think Anievas’s use of historical case studies to demonstrate the nomothetic power of UCD does not work as well as it could have done. The narrative chapters delve at length into detailed, and often very conventional, accounts, in which the driving logic of UCD is at times hard to discern. Anievas seems so concerned to provide thorough historical treatment of his subjects—his research into them is simply awe-inspiring—that the overriding conceptual thread often gets lost. An alternative approach, and one that I think would have worked better, would have been to focus more upon distinct historiographical questions, zeroing in on a few discrete events, and show how UCD deductively answers historical puzzles in ways that other interpretations have not. A more heuristic approach, in other words, in which there is no attempt to write definitive history but rather to show how a theory allows us to see a familiar episode in a new way, would have, in my opinion, allowed Anievas to make the case for UCD in a more convincing fashion.

Along the same lines, Anievas does not sufficiently distinguish between his conception of UCD and that of Justin Rosenberg. He argues, in my view correctly, that Rosenberg’s utilisation of UCD is excessively abstract and depoliticised, but I believe that this point could have been pressed further not by developing detailed historical narratives in order to address the charge of abstraction, but by hammering Rosenberg on the political side. As others have argued (including, most recently and effectively, Andrew Davenport), the theory of UCD as currently articulated by Rosenberg seems to lack any kind of political Marxism; in its current form, it is a structural alternative to neo-Realism that seems to be devoid of agency or praexeology. By sharpening his own theorisation of UCD, Anievas would have been in the position to utilise his historical case studies in a more rigorous and deductive fashion. I think that would have made for a more persuasive book.

According to Marxian analysis, as Anievas writes (54), the overriding external objective of capitalist states is to “expand into areas where capitalist relations do not prevail”. Trotsky theorised that this eternal aim is intensified and made more convulsive by the fact that capitalist nations compete in this objective from different levels of development, and that their economies are integrated with one another. I believe that the global economy of the post-Cold War order comes closer to Trotsky’s conception than any other order in modern history. This provides theorists of UCD with a unique opportunity to develop an overarching treatment of the international that can rival and even outpace their Realist and Liberal rivals.

However, Trotsky argued that this convulsive competition is aggravated further by the ‘whip of external necessity’: the inexorable and often extreme pressure upon these states to develop their economies not just to accumulate wealth for its own sake, but to pay for the arms and technologies necessary to survive in a world of acute geopolitical competition. As Anievas argues, the two world wars serve as vivid testaments to what happens when this kind of competition gets out of hand. He focuses on war because we regard it as the problematique of our discipline, as did, effectively, Trotsky himself.

Yet there has been no war among major capitalist powers since then: moreover, we have seen the amazing spectacle of the USSR becoming a status-quo superpower and then committing suicide, the emergence of a nominally communist regime as an uber-capitalist hegemon (China), and the effective opting out by many capitalist states from the whole game of power politics (Europe). Trotsky would recognise much about our contemporary world, but these developments would have absolutely befuddled him. What Capital, the State, and War shows, in places with great effectiveness, is how UCD, intensified by the whip of external necessity, unleashed a thirty-years crisis of unparalleled destruction and misery. The challenge remains to explain what has happened since.


3 thoughts on “Capital, the State and War: The Risks of Method

  1. Reblogged this on Security, Conflict and International Development (SCID) and commented:
    This is a re-blog of an excellent discussion by Campbell Craig of Alex Anievas’ new book, Capital, the State and War (2014). This book builds upon Kenneth Waltz’s 1959 publication of the same name, which aims to explore the recurrence of war; looking beyond reasons of human nature and regime type, which were considered to be inadequate explanations alone. Anjevas builds upon the Marxian theory of uneven and combined development to theorise contemporary international relations. This theory was developed by Trotsky to explain how uneven economic competition between counties whose economies are intertwined leads to interstate conflict. Craig provides a detailed analysis of the relevance of Anievas’ wok in explaining the ‘thirty year crisis’ of 1915-45. He draws attention, however, to the weaknesses of the theory of uneven and combined development in explaining international relations post ’45.While, however, as Craig argues, ‘there has been no war among major capitalist powers’ since the end of WW2 there have, of course, been various intrastate wars where the interests and agendas of major capitalist countries have been – and continue to be – played out.


    • Anievas’s title (Capital, the State and War) and the title of Waltz 1959 (Man, the State and War) are, of course, different. So your reference to “Waltz’s publication of the same name” is a mistake.


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