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Two Key Ways in Which Liberalism and Marxism Differ and the Implications of These Differences for Our Understanding of International Relations

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Liberalism suggests in fact states can peacefully co-exist, and that states aren’t always on the brink of war. Liberal scholars point to the fact that despite the persistence of armed conflict, most nations are not at war most of the time. Most people around the world don’t get up and start chanting “Death to America!” and trying to figure out who they can bomb today. Liberalism argues that relations between nations are not always a zero-sum game. A zero-sum game is one in which any gain by one player is automatically a loss by another player. My gains in security, for example, don’t make you worse off, and your gains in anything don’t make me worse off. Liberal theory also points to the fact that despite the condition of anarchy in the world, most nations are not at war, most of the time. So the idea that international relations must be conducted as though one were always under the threat of attack isn’t necessarily indicative of reality.

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Marxism is both a critical approach that wants to always question the mainstream policy-driven approaches to IR theory and a classical approach via the philosophical and sociological tradition of its namesake, the philosopher Karl Marx (1818–1883). In fact, Marxism is the only theoretical perspective in IR that is named after a person. Of the range of great thinkers available to us, Marx may not automatically qualify as being the most ‘internationalist’. In fact, most of Marx’s (and his sometimes co-author Friedrich Engels’) work was not primarily concerned with the formation of states or even the interactions between them. What connected their interests to IR was the industrial revolution, as this event was ultimately what Marx was witnessing and trying to understand. He, with Engels, developed a revolutionary approach and outlined a set of concepts that transcended national differences while also providing practical advice on how to build a transnational movement of people. Workers from factories across the world – the proletariat – were to organise themselves into a politically revolutionary movement to counter the exploitative and unequal effects of capitalism, which were accelerated and expanded by the industrial revolution. This vision of a potential link between the bulk of humanity as a global proletariat is where, and how, Marxism enters IR from a different vantage point to other theories. In other words, Marxists must remain informed and reflective of the basic and most common aspects of societies and their environment. This also means that if the industrial revolution (and capitalism in general) smells of burning coal, overcrowded factories and petrol fumes, the smells of the next revolution should be less deadly, less polluting and more protective of the earth.

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Liberalism is based under the idea that giving people maximum freedom and liberty would help eliminate authoritarian political regimes, achieve higher levels of democracies, reduce civil wars and civil unrests and as result achieve global peace and prosperity. In Liberalism the government applies little control over freedom

It is also leveled at the same degree of moral standards as its citizens. Liberalism is aims to achieve democracy, peace, free trade as well as international integration. Liberalism calls for commitment to tolerance as well as giving opportunity for right self-determination by citizens. It favors constitutional government which expresses the people’s democracy and that which applies collective rule of law. Liberalism requires that citizens in a state be given the opportunity to realise intellectual and economic liberty; this should form the basis for political order which applies minimal government regulation. In this case, the government’s role is to protect and promote the citizens economic and intellectual liberty. Liberalism also gives individuals the opportunity to follow their own initiatives (Evans and Newnham 1998, p.46). According to Evans & Newnham (1998 p.61) liberalism is founded on four core beliefs in international relations. Liberalism believes that peace can be best achieved by developing and strengthening democratic institutions on a global basis.

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All in all, we need to be aware of this and subject theory to a range of critiques. Understanding Marxism would be the indispensable precondition of this. Doing this would be impossible if we were to deny theory-as-ideologies exist, or if we overlook how deeply implicated in ideological structures our modern way of living and thinking are. Nothing is gained by rejecting the isms unless we at first understand the complexity of what it is we are rejecting. The isms may be evil, but we must pay due homage to them in order to develop the critical reflection we need to move beyond them.

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Evans, G., & Newnham, J., 1998, The Penguin dictionary of international relations. New York: Penguin.

Garrett, G., 2000, Shrinking states? Globalization and national autonomy. In the political economy of globalization. ed. Ngaire Woods, 107-46. London: Macmillan.

Harvey, D., 1999, Limits to Capital. London: Verso. Pp. 239-324.

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