Historicizing International Relations Theory:  Robert Cox Remembered


The discipline of International Relations (IR) has lost another outstanding scholar—Robert W. Cox (1926-2018)—who made a mark in its intellectual history in the last century, like Samir Amin. Canada-born IR theorist Cox had a long stint at the International Labour Organisation (ILO)—for over two decades—before he started teaching at Columbia University, New York.  He then proceeded to take up a professorship at York University, Toronto where he remained for a decade and half (1977-1992). In 2014 Cox was made a member of the Order of Canada.

A leading Critical Theorist in IR, Cox emerged as an indispensable scholar in International Political Economy (IPE) like Susan Strange. His writings displayed a distinctive historicist approach to IR studies with a focus on political economy. Though an independent scholar that he was, Cox never sought to bring in any particular school or tradition.

An erudite intellectual in every sense, Cox has to his credit several scholarly works and articles. Production, Power, and World Order: Social Forces in the Making of History (1987) became a well known treatise that analyzed power relations in production and its implications for the organization of society and international system. Among the articles that became very popular in the 1980s were “Social Forces, States and World Orders” (1981) and “Gramsci, Hegemony and International Relations” (1983), both appeared in Millennium: Journal of International Studies.   These two seminal papers set in motion a new wave at a time when the discipline was so entrenched in Realist/Structural Realist/Positivist traditions. His critical thinking offered several perspectives in IR theory beyond its problem-solving mode. Cox also became instrumental in applying the ideas of Antonio Gramsci in the studies of the IR.

Cox’s intellectual life was influenced by his passion for conceptualizing social conditions in historical terms. R.G. Collingwood was one of those who inspired him, as he told in an interview, and he inevitably fell in line with his “sense of historical materialism.” Collingwood, according to him, had a different sense about the ‘inside’ as well as the ‘outside’ of historical events. Even as positivists see at what happens (by classifying and collecting events and drawing inferences from them), Collingwood looks at the ‘outside.’ His emphasis on the ‘inside’ of events was “to understand the meaning of things in terms of the thought-processes of the people who were acting, and their understanding of the structure of relationships within which they lived. To understand history in those terms is what gives meaning to events.”

Cox said that though he was not a Marxist, he believed that a lot should be learned from Marxist thinking, particularly the “ideas on the tension between capital and labour, and the attempts to institutionalize these relations on state-level and the international level in order to advance material interests.” He identified his approach as ‘historical materialism,’ yet he had linked it not so much with Marx as with Giambattista Vico, the 18th-century critic of Descartes and later with Gramsci.

According to Cox, among the Marxists, Gramsci made a distinction between a deterministic and positivist historical economism and historical materialism, in which “the realm of ideas is an autonomous force.” Gramsci recognized the relative autonomy of cultures and ideas and their intimate relationship with material conditions.

Cox argued that Critical Theory is basically concerned with how the world may be changing while the problem solving theory has to take the basic existing power relationships as given. It will be biased towards perpetuating those relationships, thus tending to make the existing order hegemonic. What critical theory does, according to him, is “question these very structural conditions that are tacit assumptions for problem-solving theory, to ask whom and which purposes such theory serves. It looks at the facts that problem-solving theory presents from the inside, that is, as they are experienced by actors in a context which also consists of power relations. Critical theory thus historicizes world orders by uncovering the purposes problem solving theories within such an order serve to uphold.”

What Cox actually meant is that “there is no theory for itself; theory is always for someone, for some purpose.” According to him, there “is no neutral theory concerning human affairs, no theory of universal validity. Theory derives from practice and experience, and experience is related to time and place. Theory is a part of history. It addresses the problematic of the world of its time and place.” As such a scholar “has to aim to place himself above the historical circumstances in which a theory is propounded. One has to ask about the aims and purposes of those who construct theories in specific historical situations.”

Stephen Gill calls Cox as “an intellectual pioneer, a towering figure, a fugitive from orthodoxies and cliques: a “universal foreigner.  Andrew Linklater says that for more than three decades, Robert Cox’s of-quoted phrase that “theory is always for someone and some purpose” has been popularized as a “symbol of shifting disciplinary concerns.” Linklater reminds that critical theory “has diversified greatly over the last three decades and scholars continue to search for and draw on new sources and perspectives. But all who work within the critical theory perspective, broadly defined, remain indebted to Robert Cox’s pioneering investigation of the changing complexities of world politics.”  For Mustapha Kamal Pasha, Cox was “the original trailblazer in the unfinished critical project in International Relations.”  He says that “Cox’s humility and seriousness are virtues in short supply in a profession eager to idealize new stars and immediacy.”

In an interview Cox said that the neoliberal world order will be forced to change, sooner or later. He said that some change called “self-organization” at a global level is inevitable. In that sense, the world economic crisis is ‘a great advantage’ because it shows that global capitalism has failed, Cox noted. Like Samir Amin, Robert Cox continued to inspire new generation of both IR and IPE scholars across the world.

The author is Dean of Social Sciences and Professor, School of International Relations and Politics, Mahatma Gandhi University, Kerala.  The details of his profile are available @ http://kmseethi.com/ Prof Seethi can be reached at [email protected]


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