Theorists of international relations in the West have for long maintained that orthodox Marxist theory contains anything of relevance on international relations. In terms of a theoretical analysis of international relations, they are of the view that Marx himself had little to contribute. Such assertions may not be totally unfounded given Marx’s preoccupation with the analysis of the structures of national capitalism, but it would be patently wrong to assume that he never reflected on issues relevant to international relations.
Although Marx was primarily concerned with analyzing the structures of national capitalism, and particularly the antagonistic relationship between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, an internationalist perspective was nevertheless implicit in his work. This was evident in Marx’s recognition that class loyalties cut across national divisions, which enabled him to proclaim, at the end of the Communist Manifesto, “Workers of the world! Unite!”In other words, where as liberal and Realist theories hold that power is organized vertically, reflecting the division of the world into independent states, Marxism advances a theory of horizontal organization based on international class.
However, the implications of viewing capitalism as an international system were not fully explored until Lenin’s Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism. Lenin argued that imperial expansion reflected domestic capitalism’s quest to maintain profit levels through the export of surplus capital, and that this, in turn, brought major capitalist powers into conflict with one another, the resulting war (the First World War) being essentially an imperialist war in the sense that it was fought for the control of colonies in Africa, Asia and elsewhere.
We must be clear in our minds that Marx’s ideas have been interpreted and appropriated in a number of different and contradictory ways resulting in a number of competing schools of Marxism. Underlying these different schools are several common elements that can be traced back to Marx’s writings.