In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Marxist Approaches to International Law

  • Introduction

International Law Marxist Approaches to International Law
Robert Knox
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 February 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 March 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199796953-0163


Ever since the 2008 financial crisis, Marxism has made something of a comeback in both the public and scholarly spheres. That crisis—and the austerity that followed in its wake—has highlighted capitalism’s volatile nature, its stark class division and, perhaps, pointed to its limits. Yet, arguably, the “resurgence” in Marxist approaches to international law began earlier, with the 2003 Iraq War. That war—occurring in the wake of the 1999 Kosovo intervention and the 2001 “war on terror”—triggered a wave of theorizing about “empire” and “imperialism.” Crucially, given the importance of international law in justifying and opposing the war, questions increasingly came to be asked about international law’s own relationship to imperialism. This was the “classic” Marxist question, and it invited a reexamination of the Marxist tradition. Although Marxism has never been especially well represented in international law, these scholars were nonetheless able to draw on a wider Marxist tradition—encompassing specifically Marxist works in international law, as well as more general Marxist reflections about the nature of capitalism and its relationship to other social forms. Thus, although the Marxist tradition is one filled with disagreement, there are several common aspects to it. Above all, Marxist approaches are committed to grounding the law in its wider material context: understanding the ways in which political-economic relationships—and their attendant conflicts—shape and are manifested within (international) law. Moreover, the Marxist tradition has a number of canonical works—beginning of course with those of Marx and Engels—that serve as theoretical and political lodestars. This bibliography aims to map out some of the most important Marxist scholarship in international law. It begins with a more general account of “classical Marxist” theory—in both its more general and specifically legal variants. It then details some of the different theoretical approaches that have been drawn from the Marxist tradition. Following on from this, it picks out some of the key themes that have animated Marxist thinking about the law. Finally, it looks at how Marxists have engaged with specific areas of international law.

“Classical Marxism” and (International) Law

The Marxist tradition has never been simply a scholarly pursuit. It is rooted in the great political struggles of the 19th and 20th centuries and the political figures that played a role in those struggles. As such, the work of figures associated with this period and with these movements is of particular importance. The most important figures in this regard are undoubtedly Marx and Engels, the “founding fathers” of historical materialism and the Marxist tradition. They are closely followed by those associated with the 1917 Russian Revolution (although—inevitably—Marxists differ over the importance and nature of that revolution). Although many of these figures did not write about international law as such, their general theoretical and political commitments form an important background for understanding Marxist legal interventions in the international legal field.

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