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date: 11 November 2019

Critical Theory: International Relations' Engagement With the Frankfurt School and Marxism

Summary and Keywords

Critical international relations theory (CIRT) is not only an academic approach but also an emancipatory project committed to the formation of a more equal and just world. It seeks to explain the reasons why the realization of this goal is difficult to achieve. What is crucial here is not only the social explanation, but also politically motivated action to achieve an alternative set of social relations based on justice and equality. Critical theory in international relations (IR) is part of the post-positivist turn or the so-called “fourth debate,” which followed the inter-paradigm debate of the 1970s. Post-positivism consists of a plurality of theoretical and epistemological positions that opened up wide ranging criticisms of the neo-realist “orthodoxy” that has dominated IR theorizing since the beginning of 1980s. Critical theory has challenged the mainstream understanding of IR, and has spurred the development of alternative forms of analysis and approaches. Moreover, since the beginning of the 1980s, different types of CIRT have become the main alternative to mainstream IR. The general aim of CIRT can be summed up by Marx’s eleventh thesis on Feuerbach that “philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” A specific tradition of critical thought in IR, derived from Marx, comprises the normative Critical Theory (CT) of the Frankfurt School—termed the “structural critical theory”—since it focuses more on the sociological features and dynamics of capitalism.

Keywords: critical theory, critical international relations theory, Frankfurt School, structural critical theory, Karl Marx, justice, equality, normative critical theory, capitalism


This article presents an analysis and evaluation of critical international relations theory (CIRT). Critical theory has challenged the mainstream understanding of international relations (IR) and analyzes the alternative forms of analysis/approaches that have developed under the banner of critical theory. Since the beginning of the 1980s, different types of critical international relations theory (CIRT) have been the main alternative to mainstream IR. After reviewing Critical International Relations Theory after 25 Years, Rengger and Thirkell-White conclude that “various forms of ‘critical theory’ . . . constitute the main theoretical alternatives within the discipline” (Rengger & Thirkell-White, 2007b, pp. 4–5). They argue that even “a robust, analytical and still heavily ‘scientific’ U.S. academy now has strong elements of critical theory of various sorts lodged within it” (p. 9).

Critical international relations theory is not only an academic approach but also an emancipatory project committed to the formation of a more equal and just world. It seeks to explain the reasons why the realization of this goal is difficult to achieve. Therefore, what is crucial is not only the social explanation but also politically motivated action to achieve an alternative set of social relations based on justice and equality. The general aim of CIRT can be summed up by Marx’s eleventh thesis on Feuerbach that “philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it” (Marx, 1977b, p. 158). One of the most well-known definitions of CT in IR belongs to Robert Cox (1981) who defines critical theory in the context of his famous landmark distinction between problem-solving theories and critical theories. According to Cox, problem-solving theories are preoccupied with maintaining social power relationships and the reproduction of the existing system, attempting to ensure that “existing relationships and institutions work smoothly” (p. 129) Unlike ahistorical problem-solving theories which serve the existing social arrangements and support the interests of the hegemonic social forces, critical theory, according to Cox, is self-reflexive, criticizes the existing system of domination, and identifies processes and forces that will create an alternative world order (Cox, 1981, pp. 129–130). Linklater (2001), another key critical theorist in international relations, defines critical theory as a post-Marxist theory that “continues to evolve beyond the paradigm of production to a commitment to dialogic communities that are deeply sensitive about all forms of inclusion and exclusion-domestic, transnational and international” (p. 25). Similar definitions of critical theory emphasize one or more of its aspects. For instance, Steans et al. (2010) stress, “the express purpose of Critical Theory is to further the self-understanding of groups committed to transforming society” (p. 106). Alway (1995) defines critical theory as a “theory with practical intent” oriented to the emancipatory transformation of society. According to Neufeld, the defining feature of critical theory is its “negation of positivism” and “technical reason” dominant in mainstream IR (Neufeld, 1995, pp. 129–130). For Hutchings (2007), “[a]lthough critical theory takes many different forms, it always distinguishes itself from other forms of theorising in terms of its orientation towards change and the possibility of futures that do not reproduce the patterns of hegemonic power of the present” (p. 72). Levine (2012), who focuses on a more methodological reevaluation of critical theory, proposed the concept of sustainable critique, which he defines as “a practice, tied to a philosophical-normative sensibility” (p. 231) aimed at an “entente between positive theory building and critique” (p. 230), and a “practical and reflexive theory” (p. 211). Thus, critical theories constitute a very broad group of different approaches and are in a radical position vis-a-vis mainstream international relations theory.

In line with these different definitions, a heterogeneous group of theories has been labelled as critical in international relations, including feminism, poststructuralism, critical geopolitics, critical security studies, critical international political economy, postcolonialism, and international historical sociology. This article focuses on a more specific tradition of critical thought in international relations derived from Marx, which comprises the normative Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School. This structural critical theory focuses more on the sociological features and dynamics of capitalism.

This article contains six sections. The first briefly locates critical theory in the context of the development of international relations and provides an overview of the main strands of CIRT. The following two sections discuss the origins of Critical Theory in the Frankfurt School of Sociology and then present Habermas’ contribution. The fourth section outlines the main contributions from international relations scholars to the development of a normative CIRT in accordance with Habermas’ theory of communicative rationality. This section particularly focuses on the contributions of Richard Ashley and Andrew Linklater to CIRT. The fifth section discusses some of the key strands of structural critical theory incorporating Neogramscianism and Marxist historical sociology counterposed with the idealist normative critical theory originating from the Frankfurt School. The article concludes with an overview of the efforts to integrate critical theory into international relations and directions for future development.

The Critical Tradition and the Meaning of Critique

The idea of critique is a product of the heritage of Enlightenment. Basically, it involves the use of reason and critical insight in relation to the liberation of human beings. It expresses the opposition between reason and dogma, the rational and the revealed. As Shapcott (2008) summarizes it, “in the language of Kant, this is termed Enlightenment, in the language of Hegel, it is spirit or history (Geist) and in the language of Marx, it is emancipation” (p. 327). Kant claimed in 1781 in his Preface to his Critique of Pure Reason that his era was the age of critique. Kant’s critique involved a reflection on the conditions and limits of knowledge. Later, Hegel, in the Phenomenology of Mind, reflected on the constraints on human autonomy and how humans can liberate themselves from these constraints. In his Preface to the Critique of Political Economy, Marx developed a critique of the social conditions for thinking about social reality. He argued that the categories used by classical political economists were in fact propositions, which led to the legitimation of existing power structures within the liberal capitalist economy (Connerton, 1976, pp. 23–24). This ideology-critique offered a reinterpretation of these categories producing a critique of actual social conditions thus linking analysis with the forms of practice that correspond to it. This Enlightenment heritage later produced different forms of critical theory under changed historical circumstances revising and reinterpreting the insights of these key critical philosophers, adapting its categories to a new historical reality. The meaning of critique itself, therefore, has altered as the historical conditions that informed its categories.

Critical theory in international relations is part of the post-positivist turn or the “fourth debate,” which followed the interparadigm debate (Banks, 1985) of the 1970s. Postpositivism consists of a plurality of theoretical and epistemological positions that opened wide-ranging criticisms of the neo-realist “orthodoxy” that has dominated international relations theorizing since the beginning of 1980s (Ashley, 1986; Smith, 1996). However, a distinction needs to be made between different forms of critical theory. The term critical theory in lower case letters refers to postpositivist theories such as feminism, historical sociology, poststructuralism, constructivism, and postcolonialism, which are united in their critique of the mainstream, and particularly, of Neo-Realism. Critical Theory (CT) with capital letters refers more directly to the critical theory originating from the Frankfurt School and mainly particularly from the work of Jürgen Habermas, which is elaborated in the third section of this article. Although most critical theories draw their insights from Marxism, the failure of classical Marxist works to explicitly deal with the impact of the state system on emancipatory politics has relegated Marxist critical theory in international relations to a more isolated position compared with the more normative forms of critical theory originating from the Frankfurt School. On the other hand, not all the post-positivist theories utilize the theoretical apparatus of Critical Theory originating from the Frankfurt School. For instance, poststructural critical thinkers are influenced by French philosophers such as Derrida or Foucault, who base their work on the critiques of structuralism, which were popular in the 1970s. Also, in contrast to the normative critical theory of the Habermasians, more structural forms of critical theory based on historical materialism have developed more recently, first in Neo-Gramscianism and later in international historical sociology, especially through political Marxism. Thus, there is a rich variety of critical scholarship and theorizing that alters the framework and substance of mainstream International Relations.

Despite the occasional sometimes intricate differences between them, all critical theories are united in their critique of the main research agenda and the positivist orientations in international relations questioning, above all, the idea of value free theoretical and social inquiry. During the first wave of critical theory in the 1980s, the main concern of international relations theorists was to develop a critique of the dominant realist/neorealist orthodoxy, which had failed to explain the end of the Cold War (George, 1989; Lapid, 1989). Andrew Linklater (1992), for instance, characterizes the discussions originating from critical theory as constituting the “next stage in international relations theory” (see also Hoffmann, 1987). In particular, the idea of a structurally determined, immutable anarchical system adopted by the Neorealists was heavily criticized. The first task of a critical theory of international relations was to expose the assumptions that formed the basis of mainstream theoretical and empirical inquiry. Neorealism reified and naturalized the existing structure of the international system taking it as given and immutable. This inevitably gave neorealism a problem-solving quality that sustained the existing asymmetries of power and equality. According to Cox, “Critical theory has relativized neorealism so as to perceive it as an ideology of the Cold War” (Cox, 2001, p. 46).

The pursuit of scientism and the emphasis on scientific objectivity, for a long time, prevented any reflection on the moral and normative side of international relations. Post-positivist scholars “brought back” the critical and the normative into international relations. Thus, the development of critical theory enabled those who were “exiled” or “excluded” from international relations to start speaking their own language (Ashley & Walker, 1990, p. 259). Instead of trying to explain social reality in terms of transhistorical regularities and making predictions on that basis, these scholars instead emphasized the reflexive nature of theorizing underscoring the social, historical, and contingent nature of knowledge claims, posing both an epistemological and ontological challenge to positivist social science. Critical theorists reject the objectivist conception of truth as a correspondence to the real world. Objects of knowledge are not given as the positivists assume but are constituted by different powers and interests. This is summarized in Cox’s famous comment that “theories are for someone and for some purpose” (Cox, 1981). As Cox later argued “there is no such thing as theory in itself, divorced from a standpoint in time and space. When any theory so represents itself, it is the more important to examine it as ideology, and to lay bare its concealed perspective” (Cox, 1986, p. 207). Critical theorists also indicate how objects of knowledge are intimately linked to theoretical practice itself. Theoretical activity is not only a methodological pursuit but also closely associated with the construction of political reality. Therefore, from this perspective, it is not possible to assess different knowledge claims from an Archimedean viewpoint to say which is true; thus, the politico-normative content is as much a criterion of theory assessment as empirical adequacy (Neufeld, 2001, p. 138; Eckersley, 2008, pp. 347–348). Truth for critical theorists is, therefore, more “normative rather than objective and scientific” (Fluck, 2010, p. 266) than the positivists assume, and the commitment to normative progressive change is an essential part of critical theory.

In short, critical theory has been very productive in developing alternative approaches and new areas of research in international relations. One of the most important theoretical starting points and sources of inspiration for this whole development has emanated from the views of the Frankfurt School adopted by international relations scholars.

Origins of Critical Theory: The Frankfurt School

Critical Theory is generally traced back to the Frankfurt School, whose origins lay in the establishment of the Institute for Sozialforschung (Institute for Social Research) at the University of Frankfurt in 1923 (Jay, 1973; Held, 1980; Alway, 1995). The members of the school were exiled to the United States during the Nazi Period and World War II but reestablished themselves in Germany in 1950. The Frankfurt School was part of the regeneration of critical thinking in social sciences due to the rise of fascism, the development of world economic crises, the New Deal, and the degeneration of the Russian revolution into Stalinism. The most well-known thinkers of the Frankfurt School include philosophers such as Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, Erich Fromm, and second-generation theorists such as Jürgen Habermas and a third-generation scholar, Axel Honneth.

The Frankfurt School theorists were concerned with “the dark side” of modernity and set themselves the task of understanding “why mankind, instead of entering into a truly human condition” is sinking into a “new kind of barbarism” (Horkheimer & Adorno, 1972). Reason, in which Enlightenment had placed all its hope for progress and emancipation, had become an instrument for dominating and destroying nature instead of liberating man.

Max Horkheimer (1895–1973) in his seminal 1937 essay “Traditional and Critical Theory” (Horkheimer & Adorno, 1972) outlined the main premises of critical theory. Horkheimer’s starting point was the inhibition of critical and independent thinking in contemporary society for which he blamed traditional Western thought and an instrumental understanding of reason inherent in the dominant positivist understanding of science and society. In his essay, Horkheimer contrasted traditional theory with critical theory. Traditional theory adopts the model of natural sciences and sees knowledge as an instrument of control rather than the basis for human happiness. Facts are separated from the activity of theorizing; science is separated from the world it studies. Traditional theory is not self-reflexive, as it does not question the social context of the activity of theorizing nor the social conditions with which it deals. By contrast, according to critical theory, theories and theoretical activity are socially conditioned. Therefore, inquiry into emancipation requires an immanent critique of social life to provide insight into existing social contradictions and act as a guide for the social conditions necessary for an emancipated future.

The Frankfurt School philosophers were particularly concerned with the proletariat’s declining and inhibited revolutionary consciousness and their support for right-wing movements in Germany. In different degrees, although still committed to Enlightenment ideals of emancipation, Horkheimer, Adorno, Marcuse, and Habermas questioned the capacity of the proletariat to be the agent of revolution and placed the human species as the historical subject of emancipation. Reason had become an instrument of domination rather than critique and reflexivity, a situation, which Horkheimer described as the “eclipse of reason.” Horkheimer and Adorno emphasized how the instrumental rationality of positivism interested in the technical control of nature had been more successful than practical reason that was interested in the achievement of a good life. Their later work was tainted by a “politics of despair” and a “negativistic” social philosophy concerning emancipation with the Dialectic of Enlightenment “heralding the end of the emancipatory vision that had previously animated the [Frankfurt School]” (Brincat, 2011, p. 232). Thus, an immanent critique was necessary to understand the underlying social relations and the inner contradictions of society to explain why the proletariat consciousness was “limited and corrupted by ideology” (Horkheimer, 1972, p. 242). Therefore, the “real social function of philosophy” was to develop a critique of itself and the prevailing social conditions not by a priori moral principles but by focusing on concrete relationships and contradictions in society for a “better order of things” (Horkheimer, 1972, p. 212).

Habermas and Critical Theory

Habermas (1972, 1979, 1984, 1985) is the most well-known of the second-generation critical theorists and his views have been the most influential in international relations. Habermas continues the critique of reason and rationality initiated by the Frankfurt School developing and remolding it into new dimensions. His theory of communicative action, discourse ethics, and analysis of the relation between knowledge and human interests have proven to be very productive in understanding and evolving alternative critical positions within international relations.

The ideas of Habermas center around the radical democratization of society. In line with his ultimate belief in the ideals of Enlightenment, he believes that universal moral principles can be the basis of the resolution of conflicting claims concerning social and political life (Griffiths, O’Callaghan, & Roach, 2008, p. 61). Unlike the negativistic philosophy of Horkheimer and Adorno, Habermas treats modernity as an unfinished project and wishes to find a way that the promises of modernity could once again be realized. According to Habermas, although modernity has achieved technological progress, it has not yet brought freedom, solidarity, and human emancipation. Therefore, he seeks a path whereby freedom and progress can once again be united under modern conditions. He believes that historical materialism should also be reconstructed in a way that emphasizes on the potential for social communication and expansion of mutual understanding rather than labor as the rational guiding element of social and political organization. Classical Marxism elevated the importance of labor but ignored the significance of the symbolic reproduction of capitalism through communication. Accordingly, Habermas developed a paradigm communication to complement the paradigm of production, which is the focus of historical materialism.

One of the most significant contributions of Habermas in terms of developing his theory of communicative rationality was the move he made from a philosophy of consciousness to a philosophy of language, thus changing the focus of Western philosophy for the first time since Descartes (Habermas, 1984, 1985; Fluck, 2012). This implies a shift of emphasis from the subject, the main agent of Enlightenment philosophy, to intersubjectivity in which the communication between language users is the fundamental cognition (Fluck, 2012, p. 7; Alway, 1995, p. 107). Therefore, in Habermas’s theory of communicative action, it is not the “relation of a solitary subject” to an objective world but the subject-subject relation that primarily enables the conceptualization of a form of interaction which is communicative rather than instrumental (Alway, 1995, p. 129). This theory thus expands the conditions of rational decision making to form more inclusive and just communities not only within societies but, eventually, also between societies and states. The subject in this conceptualization is no longer concerned only with pursuing his own private interests but also interacts with other subjects to further common interests. Thus, communication itself becomes “a source of praxis, and therefore a means of emancipation” (Fluck, 2012, p. 1) and rational progress. Because it allows for the communication and understanding of diverse identities and interests, this conception also facilitates a pluralist understanding of social reality, therefore rendering Habermas’s position compatible with some of the ideas of post-modern thinkers without sacrificing reason as the basis of social organization.

Habermas bases his analysis on what he calls a “pure communicative sociation” defined as an Ideal Speech Situation, in which the actors can freely and truthfully communicate (Habermas, 1984, 1985). In this situation, the “force of the better argument” prevails. “The only regulations and ways of acting that can claim legitimacy are those to which all who are possibly affected could assent as participants in rational discourses” (Habermas, 1996, p. 458). Thus, rationality is formulated so that it does not solely imply a universality of norms but a discursive but nevertheless formal and procedural context of an ideal speech situation. History itself is reconceptualized as a collective learning process whereby the species not only acquires technical knowledge oriented to the instrumental domination of nature but also develops new norms of communication in the moral-practical sphere, avoiding the “asocial universalism of more traditional accounts of reason and progress” (Habermas, 1985, p. 148; Fluck, 2012, pp. 6–7).

Habermas links his views on communicative rationality to what he calls knowledge constitutive interests (Habermas, 1972), which pertains to the role of knowledge in achieving different forms of social arrangements. He argues that knowledge generated by positivism is not the only type of knowledge oriented to fulfill the needs of social life. Positivism conceives of social problems as technical problems that require technical solutions. However, knowledge of the social world should be based not only on social control but also on communication and human emancipation. Recognizing this problem, Habermas (1972) makes a distinction between different technical cognitive interests in which knowledge interests as the basis for controlling one’s environment, practical cognitive interests that seek to further intersubjective communication between different subjects, and emancipatory cognitive interests, a guiding communication that deals with the conditions of distorted communication and the conditions necessary to achieve autonomy and freedom.

Due to the limitation on the length of this work, a thorough critique of Habermas’ complex arguments cannot be presented; however, some of the criticisms from international relations scholars concerning the application of Habermas’ theory are presented below. One objection to his arguments has been whether his interpretation of Marx and historical materialism is a correct starting point from which to develop a critical theory of IR. Anievas for instance has argued that Habermas’ philosophy “reconceptualizes production relations as a dimension of consensual, norm-governed social interaction” and subsumes relations of production under the concept of communicative action (2010, p. 151). However, capitalist relations of production refer to underlying structures of inequality and irreconcilable social struggles that cannot be conceptualized as part of consensual relations (2010, p. 151; also see Callinicos, 1989, pp. 114–115). Indeed, other scholars have also joined this criticism in arguing that without altering the objective conditions underlying capitalism, it would be futile to expect changes in social reality as a result of intersubjective consensus or what Habermas would later call discourse ethics (Fluck, 2010, p. 264).

Habermasian Critical International Relations Theory: From Ashley to Linklater

Habermas’ theory of communicative action and his description of knowledge constitutive interests have been very influential in developing a normative/critical theory of international relations (Diez & Steans, 2005). In one of the first attempts to formulate a Habermasian inspired IR scholarship, Ashley in his Political Realism and Human Interests (1981) has used Habermas’ concept of knowledge constitutive interests to understand different traditions of IR. Following Habermas, Ashley starts with the assumption that “knowledge is always constituted in reflection of interests” (Ashley, 1981, p. 207). Then he makes a distinction between technical realism, practical realism and what he calls a dialectical competence model as reflecting different interests embedded within different traditions. According to Ashley, technical realism is represented in international relations by Neorealism, and it is oriented to the control of the international system by the most powerful. Practical realism is associated with an interest in communication and cooperation and is best represented by classical Realism and the arguments of the English school. Ashley argues that although practical realism is an advance over structural realism, it still shares many of the assumptions of the realist understanding of IR. The dialectical competence model on the other hand incorporates both technical and practical realism but goes beyond them in favor of a more emancipated form of international relations. However, Ashley’s dialectical competence model has been criticized for not being well developed. As Hoffmann argues in his evaluation of Ashley’s alternative, “While it is possible to indicate to a dialectical element in Ashley’s model, it is questionable if there is a critical or emancipatory component” (Hoffmann, 1987, p. 233). However, this initial attempt to develop a CIRT did make a very important contribution to IR critical theory in general. As Brincat notes, “The work of CIRT . . . offer(s) a number of advances on the sociology of the early [Frankfurt School], which was problematically confined to the examination of Euro- and state centric possibilities for emancipation” (Brincat, 2011, p. 218). “Ashley’s dialectical competence model,” Brincat argues, “overcame the tendency of the [Frankfurt School] towards an endogeneous, state focused and Euro-centric form of critical theorizing and offered a way for CT to revitalize the project of emancipation by taking into account global forces in the dialectic of oppression and emancipation” (Brincat, 2011, p. 237).

The most developed form of critical theory in international relations is the normative theory of Andrew Linklater (1990, 1998, 2001, 2007). The importance of critical theory for Linklater is to “facilitate the extension of moral and political community in international affairs” beyond the state and to “institutionalize cosmopolitan principles of morality” (Griffiths, 2007, p. 61). The existing system is based on ethical particularism and intersocietal estrangement (Devetak, 2013, pp. 171–173); therefore, it is necessary to form a more inclusive and just system based on new moral principles that advance the civilizing process in international relations. Based on, but extending Habermas’s concept of an ideal communication community, Linklater attempts to outline the conditions for the criticism that Marxism overemphasizes production, and he wants to develop a theory that is “beyond the paradigm of production,” one that is “deeply sensitive about all forms of inclusion and unjustified exclusion-domestic, transnational, and international” (Linklater, 2001, p. 25). For the realization of this project, Linklater envisages a “triple transformation” of the political community that is more universal, less unequal, and more sensitive to differences (Linklater, 2001, p. 25) and to human beings fears about injury, vulnerability and suffering (Linklater, 2006; Linklater & Suganami, 2006, p. 277). The realization of such a political community implies questioning the moral significance of national boundaries and developing a post national and postsovereign or post-Westphalian forms of life (Linklater, 2001).

Linklater utilizes the distinction that Wight (1991) made between realism, rationalism, and revolutionism to locate his arguments in the context of different Habermasian cognitive interests. For Linklater, and Ashley, realism is associated with technical interest, rationalism is associated with practical interest, and revolutionism is associated with emancipatory interests (Linklater, 1990, pp. 21–22; Linklater & Suganami, 2006; Devetak, 2013, p. 171). Linklater considers that globalization has significantly intensified the instances and possibilities of “transnational harm,” rendering nation states incapable of providing citizens with their basic needs of justice, social welfare, and physical security. Hence, there is an immanent possibility for the creation of a post- Westphalian community as represented by the European Union (Linklater, 1998).

Linklater’s critical project presents difficulties both at the theoretical and practical level, which are equally problematic in relation to the perspective taken by Habermas. One difficulty is the commitment to a form of rationality that assumes a universal subject committed to universal values. A central objection to this assumption is the totalizing nature of this reasoning bringing together diverse identities under one universal totality (Diez & Steans, 2005, pp. 134–136). This raises the issue of whether it is possible to conceive of a form of intersubjectivity that is sensitive to different voices leading to a common understanding.

A more crucial critique relates to the idealist conception of social change in Linklater’s normative project. The transformation of the political community toward more cosmopolitan forms of association is made possible through a learning process that has results, which are inevitably indeterminate (Linklater, 1998, p. 86). As Anievas indicates, “The material conditions necessary for any functioning dialogic community within and between political communities would necessitate some form of social struggle forcibly translating the existing social order. A forceless ‘force of the better argument’ is not much help achieving universal human emancipation” (Anievas, 2010, p. 154). Shilliam (2002, p. 3) also suggests that Linklater takes an “essentially metaphysical” conception of social struggle and resistance where the primary force for the resolution of conflicts is attributed to “moral capital.” These observations can be linked to an overall lack of sociological sensitivity in analyzing historical change in Linklater’s work. According to Avienas, Linklater’s arguments fail to specifically address the “material prerequisites” (e.g., the substantive levels of political, economic, racial, and gender equality) for “the force of the better argument” to be effective in a dialogic community and “detaches” emancipatory practices from the “material and social” relations of capitalism (2010, p. 154). In a similar vein, Norman Geras argues that social structures of capitalism do not make the participation of all classes possible in the discursive construction of norms (Geras, 1999, p. 163; Fluck, 2012, p. 11).

An unresolved tension exists between universality and difference in the foundation of the claims of discourse ethics. Theoretically, the arguments for communicative rationality aim to discover the universal conditions of communication to avoid the morally relativist posture of the postpositivist approaches. Poststructuralists have been particularly critical of attempts to reach consensus because they see this diversity as the basis of freedom and emancipation. Linklater has also been quite attentive to the way in which the standpoint of the “others” should be considered, arguing thus for a “historically self-conscious universalism” sensitive to differences (Diez & Steans, 2005, p. 135). However, as Shapcott argues, “The notion of emancipation is too culturally specific, reflecting only the values of the European enlightenment” and this leads “to a problematic universalism that threatens to assimilate and legislate out of existence all significant differences” (Shapcott, 2008, p. 336; see also Inayatullah & Blaney, 2004).

Another issue is the way different cultures or communities come to interact with each other to arrive at a common ground or consensus and how this interaction is to be conceptualized. Historical sociologists have for some time argued that this interaction is not between equal social circumstances but takes the form of an uneven and combined development. Furthermore, it is not possible to imagine a dialogue that does not take this structural unevenness as its initial premise. Allison and Anievas consider that concept—the uneven, multilinear, and interactive nature of social development—to have been neglected by Linklater (Allison & Anievas, 2010; see also Rosenberg, 2006). In other words, there is a Eurocentric bias in Linklater’s arguments, which “merely states a Euro-centric ‘inside-out’ bias by attributing the West’s development of higher levels of rationalization and morality to its own unique ability to learn and borrow from other cultures” (Anievas, 2010, p. 153). This results in a “rather ‘uncritical’ political project, often difficult to distinguish from ‘liberal’ IR analyses” (2010, p. 155).

Eckersley, in contrast, offers a critique on the Habermasian applications of Critical Theory from the perspective of green theory. Arguing that Habermas’ Critical Theory is “ultimately based on respect for the relative autonomy of the human subject,” she maintains that “the treatment of the other as moral subjects should be extended to nature, regardless of its level of communicative competence” (Eckersley, 1999, pp. 44–45).

At the practical level, the most obvious related difficulty is the various power differential in international society that makes negotiation and consensus difficult to achieve. In addition, the type of political activity required for the formation of a universal communication community is abstract and vague. Therefore, as Eckersley comments, it is not clear whether “the discourse ethic” is “always the best, or only, means for achieving transformation, or emancipation in general” (2008, p. 353).

Given the fact that historically universalistic discourses have been used as justifications for hegemonic projects, it is natural that universalistic aspirations are treated cautiously. As Shapcott states, “the necessity for state survival in an uncertain anarchic environment . . . provides a brake on universalizing forces that emerged from modernity, the Enlightenment and later globalization” (Shapcott, 2010, p. 66).

Structural Critical Theory

Structural critical theory is the other well-known line of critical thinking in IR that provides a more materialist and social-structural understanding of critical theory compared to those approaches influenced by the normative idealism of Habermasian critical theory. It is also different from other forms of critical IR approaches which define the social in intersubjective terms (such as constructivism). Structural critical theory in IR is generally associated with different forms of neo-Gramscian analysis (Cox, 1983; Burnham, 1991; Gill, 1993; Bieler, 2005; Bieler & Morton, 2003, p. 200; Morton, 2007) as well as with some recent historical sociological approaches that adopt different forms of Marxian historical materialism emphasizing the importance of production processes and of relations of production (van der Pijl, 1984; Rosenberg, 1994, 2006; van Apeldoorn, 2002, 2004; Teschke, 2003; Morton, 2013). Generally, these works are united in their critique of capitalism and the different forms of class, race, or gender inequality that it creates. Different works take different stances on the relation between structures and ideology and place different weights on the determinacy of structures versus ideas. What I call structural critical theory here is also particularly compatible with many of the assumptions of critical realism as a philosophy of science and differs in its assumptions both from the positivism of mainstream international relations as well as post positivist normative idealist positions such as those held by Linklater (Joseph, 2007; Joseph & Wight, 2010; Yalvaç, 2010; Apeldoorn, 2004).

The following two sections first outline neo-Gramscian theory and then consider the main issues involved in Marxist historical sociology. Viewed from the perspective of IR theory, the most important aspect of neo-Gramscianism is its understanding of state and hegemony. The way neo-Gramscians see these concepts provide alternative starting points for developing a CIRT (Cox, 1981, 1983, 1986; Joseph, 2000, 2008). In contrast to the mainstream, which has an abstract and ahistorical understanding of the state, the state is understood as a form of social (class) relation. In the mainstream, an ontological exteriority (Morton, 2013) is assumed in terms of its analysis of the relation of the state to the society ignoring the internal relation between the two. However, in the historical materialist analysis, the separation of the public from the private or the state from civil society is a structural aspect of the capitalist mode of production. Therefore, the state is not taken only in its institutional aspect but also in terms of its relations with other social forces in society and the way they influence the functioning of the state (Gramsci, 1971, p. 261). Thus, the class nature of the state can be understood from the way that the state maintains and supports the conditions necessary for the reproduction of the capitalist relations of production. Gramsci labels this unity of the political and civil society as the integral state “through which ruling classes organize their hegemony and moral superiority” (Gramsci, 1971, p. 258, 271).

The Gramscian understanding of hegemony is also different from its use in the mainstream. In contrast to the accounts proffered by (neo) realists, which define hegemony as the concentration of material power in one dominant state, hegemony is defined with reference to the social relations of production and the way dominant social classes organize their domination. Furthermore, hegemony is conceived not only in terms of force but also as consenting to the legitimacy of existing institutions with respect to the reproduction of the existing social relations of production (see Joseph, 2000, 2008 for a critical realist interpretation).

Neo-Gramscian thought entered international relations primarily through the work of Robert Cox (1981, 1983, 1986) who extended the Gramscian categories of analysis to international relations to develop an emancipatory approach to world politics. As opposed to the ‘deterministic and ahistorical’ analysis of the mainstream, the concern of Cox is to “provide . . . a non-deterministic yet structurally grounded explanation of change” (Germain & Kenny, 1998, p. 5). Cox also shares the concerns of the CT held by the Frankfurt School theorists about the way knowledge has been conditioned by the social, political, and historical context. Knowledge of international relations has become instrumental to furthering the interests of the dominant states that reflect the interests of their hegemonic classes. Cox generalizes the Gramscian concept of hegemony to cover not only systems of domination in domestic societies but also those in the international. Similar to Gramsci, he is more interested in the “social basis of hegemony” and “its inherent points or moments of contradiction” (Germain & Kenny, 1998, p. 6). According to Cox, world hegemonies are based on the universalization of the state-society complexes of a hegemonic state. Hegemony at the international level links the dominant mode of production within the world economy with “subordinate modes of production” thus connecting “the social classes of different countries” (Cox & Sinclair, 1996, p. 137). Like the domestic hegemony of a social class, world hegemony of a state is not only based on force but also on consent and its acceptance as legitimate by those participating in the system. Hegemony within a world order is consequently “based on a coherent conjunction or fit between a configuration of material power, the prevalent collective image of world order (including certain norms) and a set of institutions which administer the order with a certain semblance of universality” (Cox, 1981, p. 139).

Cox developed what he calls a world structures approach to analyze different world orders (1981, 1989). To overcome the limitations of a state centric approach, he applies this method to the following three levels or spheres of activity: (a) organization of production, more particularly with regard to the social forces engendered by the production process; (b) forms of states, which are derived from the study of different state/society complexes; and (c) world orders, that is, the particular configurations of forces. The dialectical relation between these three different levels of activity constitutes different historical structures. Each of these structures, in turn, is affected by a configuration between dominant ideas, institutions, and material capabilities. These elements are irreducible and dialectically related and concretized in each of the elements of the historical structures (social forces, forms of states and world orders) forming different world hegemonies.

At the core of these different world hegemonies is a dominant structure of accumulation, which is then projected outside state boundaries by a hegemonic class with the help of an increasingly internationalizing state apparatus. The hegemonic class disseminates and consolidates its ideology through different international organizations (e.g., the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, G8, and United Nations), this leads to the formation of a nascent global civil society (also see van der Pijl, 1984; Gill & Law, 1988; Gill, 1993). Together, these transnational forces exert pressure on other states to adopt the accumulation strategies of the hegemonic state. These states become “transmission belts” (Cox, 1981, 1989) between the hegemon and their domestic societies and become part of the hegemonic structure of the world system. Modern world history is then periodized with respect to different hegemonies such as Pax Britannica and Pax Americana. The internationalization of production has led to the formation of a new class of transnational labor, thus creating new forces for antihegemonic struggles. However, according to Cox, as the working classes are still nationally organized, antihegemonic struggles are bound to begin within national societies.

Cox’s approach has attracted a variety of criticism. For example, Teschke (2008, p. 174) argues that there is a problem with Cox’s concept of structures of accumulation, which he uses instead of Marx’s concept of mode of production. These structures of accumulation, the starting point of Cox’s analysis, are actually “historical variations” within the capitalist mode of production but these are taken as given by Cox and not properly theorized. Teschke, therefore, criticizes Cox for taking the development of capitalism in a preconstituted state system without questioning its formation. Cox is also criticized for emphasizing interruling class relations and ideology formation rather than class conflict as the primary contradiction of capitalism leading to a lack of understanding of its main dynamics (Teschke, 2008, pp. 173–175). Another criticism is related to the presence of an inherent Eurocentrism in Cox’s approach in his explanation of the geographical expansion of capitalism from the West to the East (Hobson, 2007).

Marxist international historical sociology has revised some of the unfinished themes in Marx’s work and incorporated the dynamics of the interstate system in the analysis of the reproduction and contradictions of capitalism (Wallerstein, 1974; Lacher, 2002, 2006; Morton, 2007a, 2007b; Teschke & Lacher, 2007). Indeed, the relation between capitalism, the state, and the state system is an extremely dynamic topic for discussion in international historical sociology. This topic contains an echo of some of the controversies of 1970s concerning the connection between the economic and the political—Althusserian totality. The focus of the current discussions is, however, an expanded understanding of the concept of totality, which now covers the whole world system rather than one nation state or society. Inevitably, this raised the relative autonomy versus determinism discussion that had previously been analyzed in the context of one state or society and elevated this discussion to a new context of an internationalized capitalism and its relation with geographical multiplicity.

In his early work, Justin Rosenberg (1994) developed an alternative Marxist analysis that argues for a structural correspondence between different geopolitical systems and different modes of production and/or social structures. According to Rosenberg, despite the presence of anarchy in most geopolitical systems, there is a “structural discontinuity” between pre- and modern capitalist systems. Both sovereignty and anarchy are “social forms arising out of the distinctive configuration of capitalist social relations” (1994, p. 172). Following Wood (1981, 2003), Rosenberg argues that, whereas precapitalist modes of production are based on personalized domination, the capitalist mode of production is characterized by an impersonal form of sovereignty resulting from the separation between the economic and the political in capitalism. It is this generalized differentiation between these two spheres within capitalism that creates an abstract understanding of the state and a realist discourse and makes independent power politics possible.

In his later work, rather than a structural analysis of the development of different state systems, Rosenberg (2006, 2010) altered his focus, attempting to integrate the international into social theory by developing Leon Trotsky’s concept of uneven and combined development (UCD). Rosenberg’s aim here is to develop an international dimension of social theorizing while at the same time advancing a social theory of the international (2006, p. 312, 313). Rosenberg utilizes UCD as a general transhistorical abstraction to explain the development of world history through the interactive dynamics of a multiplicity of political units and their uneven and combined development across time and space (2006, p. 312). The emphasis on “interactive multiplicity” allegedly avoids the universalist and essential assumptions of stadial conceptions of international development. Other scholars have joined Rosenberg in outlining different aspects of international development through the concept of UCD. For instance, Kamran Matin applied this concept to the process of state formation in premodern Iran (Matin, 2007) arguing that UCD provides “a deeper theoretical foundation for a non-Eurocentric international historical materialism . . . highlighting the constitutiveness of the international both to the emergence and the expansion of capitalism” (Matin, 2013, p. 370).

Political Marxists, in their effort to avoid accusations of developing transhistorical abstractions in their explanations of international relations, have advanced more historicist accounts of international development that focus on class and particularly on social property relations and the conflicts they create (Tecshke, 2014). The key thinker of Political Marxism in IR is Benno Teschke. In developing his views, Teschke starts from a philosophical divide within Marxist discussions between Critical Marxism and Scientific Marxism (Teschke, 2002, 2003, 2014). On one hand, the Scientific Marxists believe that Marxism is a science, and their paradigm is the mature political economy of Capital (Marx, 1977a). They look for objective and structural determinations, stable ontologies, and theoretical generalizations, and they seek to formulate transhistorical laws (2014, p. 2). Critical Marxists (Hegelianizers), on the other hand, “conceive of Marxism as critique rather than science” and they are more “historicist, looking for the historicisation of ontologies and study contextualised rationalities and intersubjectivities” (2014, pp. 46–47). According to Teschke when considered in the context of international relations theorizing, Neo-Realism, rationalist Neo-Weberian historical sociology, and the concept of UCD recently developed as a transhistorical explanation of international relations shares a structuralist and positivist meta-theoretical orientation, whereas Political Marxism, hermeneutic forms of Weberianism, constructivism, and other IR/HS approaches abide by nonpositivist meta-theoretical premises.

The backbone of the argument of Political Marxism has been the way the development of capitalism affects the dynamics of the international system (Teschke, 2002, 2003; Lacher, 2002, 2006; Teschke & Lacher, 2007). For instance, unlike the world systems perspective (Wallerstein, 1974), in their analysis of the link between geopolitical dynamics and the development of capitalism, Teschke and Lacher avoid any direct association between political multiplicity and the development of capitalism. According to them, capitalism developed in the context of a pre-existing state system, which then remolded and internalized it to its own dynamics. The diachronic process of development between capitalism and the interstate system shows that the 17th-century Westphalian international system did not represent the beginning of modern international relations because it was based on the dynamics of “geopolitical accumulation” between dynastic states. Only after the formation of fully developed capitalist states and “after the European wide spread of capitalism” (Teschke, 2002, p. 37) was the dynamics of geopolitical accumulation replaced by the dynamics of capital accumulation linking the global process of capitalist development with imperialism and colonialism. Therefore, according to Teschke, the idea that the Westphalian system of states was the beginning of the modern international system is one of the most persistent myths of international relations (Teschke, 2003).

Criticisms and Prospects

This article charts the development of critical theory in international relations since the 1980s, highlighting the intellectual roots of critical international relations theory (CIRT) and its expansion into different strands in international relations. The dialectical, materialist, and critical methods of the early Frankfurt School (Brincat, 2011, pp. 219–233) as well as second-generation thinkers such as Habermas, have been adopted in different ways in the context of the Fourth Debate, the normative turn and the critique of positivism in international relations by such scholars as Cox, Ashley and Linklater (see Brincat, 2011, pp. 219–233). CIRT has been very successful at directing criticism at the rationalist, structuralist, and positivist forms of international relations theorizing and in demonstrating how dominant discourses serve the interests of the powerful. Indeed, CIRT has made it possible to “rethink” international relations by enabling a “broader thinking space” (George, 1989), making it possible to develop alternative conceptions of the international that are sensitive to history and to a sociological understanding of the international.

Nevertheless, CIRT is not without its problems raising questions as to whether the “promise of critical theory” is only “partially kept” (Murphy, 2007). One of the significant criticisms raised in recent years has been the inherently Euro/Western centric nature of CIRT (Hobson, 2004, 2007, 2009, 2011, 2012). On the liberal side, ideas of linear historical progress have been used to justify the Western domination of non-European societies. The universal cosmopolitan moralities put forward to alleviate the problems of the world have been as exclusionary as the particularistic loyalties and sentiments which they purport to leave behind. As Jabri argues, a different kind of cosmopolitanism needs to be developed that is based on the oppressed rather than on the powerful and rich (Jabri, 2013).

Even when it has been critical of the West and Western imperialism, most Marxist analyses of international relations, including political Marxism, uneven and combined development (UCD)-based explanations, and neo-Gramscianism, also suffer from a Eurocentric bias (Hobson, 2007). These works attribute an “inevitability to the rise of the West” “as the motor of economic and political development through its self-generated logic of immanance” before it is universalized though imperialism/hegemony and globalisation (Hobson, 2007, p. 95, 99). Thus, the introductions of ahistorical abstractions and structural-functionalist modes of explanation have in a different way resembled the positivism of Neo-Realism (Teschke, 2014, p. 28). Therefore, CIRT needs to be rethought in the context of attempts to develop a post-Western international relations that is more open and inclusive.

Despite these criticisms, CIRT is very dynamic and still developing in different directions. Even Habermas (1996) attempted to develop a cosmopolitan theory of international law revising Kant’s conception of cosmopolitan right. Habermas’s ideas about discourse ethics, uncoerced dialogue and communicative action have been extended to analyze the decision-making process and the conditions of the consensus formation of international institutions (Risse, 2000). Although second-generation thinkers such as Habermas had a much greater influence on international relations, the views of the third-generation Frankfurt School theorists such as Axel Honneth (1995, 2012) have also inspired new discussions on Habermasian CIRT (Brincat, 2010, 2013). In Honneth’s theory of the struggle for recognition, the moral conflicts, which the lack of recognition may create and have an effect on the process of uncoerced dialogue, has led to discussions on the effectiveness of the functioning of global institutions (Haacke, 2005). The methodological achievements of the first-generation Frankfurt School philosophers as well as the earlier views of Adorno and Horkheimer are subject to new interpretations in relation to the development of CIRT. Based on Adorno’s methodological contributions, Levine (2012), for instance, has developed the concept of sustainable critique attempting to operationalize Adorno’s thoughts on identitarian thinking, negative dialectical critique, and nonidentity for the development of CIRT. While the later works of Adorno and Horkheimer are more pessimistic concerning the possibilities of emancipation, their early work “express[ed] considerable hope of the eventual emancipation of humankind” and has important contributions concerning the development of CIRT. As Brincat argues, “The initial programme of [the Frankfurt School] FS and the dialectical, materialist and critical methods pioneered by Horkheimer and Adorno illustrate the continued relevance for the study of world politics” (Brincat, 2011, p. 219). CIRT has indeed developed the initial Frankfurt School philosophy to incorporate an international dimension of emancipation. As Brincat notes, “CIRT has, infact, adapted the methodologies of the FS to engage with the cosmopolitan dimensions of human emancipation in ways that have advanced the sociological remit of the FS to include global emancipatory forces ” (Brincat, 2011, p. 238).

Despite having encouraged meta-theoretical discussions and having made theoretical contributions, it is hard to say that the development of critical theory has led to the development of more ethical international politics. Neither has it brought about the necessary institutional transformation to achieve this aim. The reasons for this include the absence of enforcement mechanisms for norm compliance that makes good faith the only instrument for promoting more inclusive forms of a dialogical community (Roach, 2013, pp. 178–179). The power structure within the international system and conflict of interests between the powerful have not paved the way for a more free, just, and ethical world system.

Most scholars admit the importance of the dialectical relation between the subject and object. Enlightenment philosophy elevated the subject to the status of a “dictator” over social reality (Adorno & Horkheimer, 2002). Questioning this idea of the rational subject, critics of enlightenment, such as Habermas, have returned to intersubjectivity and communicative interaction as the route to emancipatory politics. However, if human reason is only communicative, then a total detachment from the objective and the particular inevitably occurs (for discussion, see Knafo, 2010). The problem with most accounts of intersubjective formulation of emancipation is that although they adopt a critical outlook, it is not sufficiently critical because they take for granted the objective structures that impose limits on human action. If the term immanent critique refers to the identification of existing societal contradictions and the possibilities of emancipatory transformation, this term also needs to take into account the power structures and ideological mechanisms of capitalism in restricting the development of an emancipatory imagination in as much as they function to conceal underlying inequalities and forms of oppression. The greater issue is the anarchical imagination of international relations that has placed limits on emancipatory consciousness and political action by fixing our representations and meanings of international society. Such consciousness can change only if it is considered in connection with the structures which gives rise to them Thus, the dialogical consensus envisaged by those participating in communicative interaction is bound to be limited due to the effects of structures on human action. As Joseph argues, “We must move beyond intersubjective practices to look at how these themselves are grounded in deeper structural relations” (2008, p. 128). In contrast, structural critical theorists have given primacy to the structural relations of capitalism and the necessity to change those structures if emancipatory politics is to succeed. As Linklater asserts, suffering and harm, “corporeality and embodiment” are sufficiently universal to be the subject of a dialogical discourse (2007, p. 239; Linklater, 2006). However, the need to overcome suffering and harm has to be related to the objective underlying structures that generate them.

CIRT by nature is dynamic, as its focus is the analysis of the historical conditions, which shape its own conceptual categories. While CIRT tries to adapt these categories to historical reality, it revises them according to new historical circumstances. Indeed, it has precisely been the ahistorical nature of mainstream international relations studies that CIRT has demonstrated to be the main shortcoming of the positivist period of international relations. The more we know about the depth of the ontological conditions that give rise to our conceptual categories, the greater will be our efforts for emancipation.


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