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.

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