Iwould like to express my thanks to the Deutscher Committee for the great honour of this award.footnote1 The Isaac and Tamara Deutscher memorial prize is a uniquely valuable institution in many ways but the most valuable aspect is surely the legacy of Deutscher himself. For Isaac Deutscher was not just another Marxist. He was one of the most eloquent of those who kept alive the critical spirit of classical Marxism at a time when in different ways that spirit was being stifled on both sides in the Cold War. For this alone the present generation of socialists is indebted to him. But Deutscher also did this with real personal and intellectual flair. And for that reason, his memorial lecture, by recalling the spirit of the man, also presents a great annual opportunity—to restate, in the confident tones of Deutscher himself the enormous, enduring strengths of the Marxist understanding of the contemporary world. And it is this opportunity which I would like to take up tonight by discussing my own field—namely the theory of international relations—for which, as I will argue, the legacy of Deutscher has a special relevance.

There is something very peculiar about international relations theory as a branch of intellectual learning. In the entire period of its existence, the systematic reflection on the nature of relations between states seems to have produced no great books, to have inspired no classics of the political or historical imagination. In moral terms, it has appeared to be unable to rise to a positive, progressive statement of human existence. And as a field of theoretical endeavour, it has proved again and again to be an intellectual dead-end. In short, as a body of writings ‘international theory is marked not only by paucity but also by intellectual and moral poverty’.footnote2

These are the ruminations not of an embittered dissident, but of one of the discipline’s most celebrated exponents, namely Martin Wight. Writing in the late 1950s, Wight concluded that after four centuries of the existence of the states system, there was still what he described as ‘a vacuum in international theory’,footnote3 a vacuum which contrasted strikingly with the wealth of domestic political theories of the state which had grown up over this period.

How had such a peculiar state of affairs come about? Wight had his own explanation for this. It was a consequence, he argued, not of the deficiencies of individual writers, but rather of the nature of the subject-matter itself. Making a famous distinction, he asserted that ‘Political theory and law. . .are the theory of the good life. International theory is the theory of survival.’footnote4What he meant was that within its national borders a society has some freedom to choose its own path of development—a choice which a political theory of the good life might help to frame. But beyond those borders, in its relations with other societies, the need to survive in a potentially hostile environment imposes its own imperatives which must ultimately override the moral requirements of any political theory. What then are these imperatives—which determine the actual behaviour of states—and where do they come from? Wight’s answer echoes the premise of all orthodox international relations theory: ‘So long as the absence of international government means that Powers are primarily preoccupied with their survival, so long will they seek to maintain some kind of balance between them.’footnote5 And it is this necessary pursuit of the balance of power which produces both the evacuation of moral choice and the drastic descriptive simplification of the behaviour of states. For, as he put it, international politics is consequently ‘the realm of recurrence and repetition; it is the field in which political action is most regularly necessitous.’ All in all, if the balance of power was ‘the masterpiece of international politics’ in a practical sense, it was nonetheless also the root cause of ‘a kind of recalcitrance of international politics to being theorised about’.footnote6 And the moral and intellectual poverty of international theory was therefore a necessary and an irremediable poverty.

Is that it, then? Should we just give up hope of anyone ever writing great works of international theory? Those of us who work in this field need, I think, to keep reminding ourselves of what a curious outcome for our discipline this represents. If, as Wight argued, international theory has had an impoverished imagination, can this really be the consequence of its subject matter?

After all, it is at the international level that the extraordinary drama of modernity rises up to its full height. It is at this level, and this level alone, that we can glimpse the process of the capitalist transformation of humanity as a whole: the rise of the West, the engulfing of the non-European world, the globalizing of the sovereign-states system and the world market, and the mighty world wars and revolutionary struggles which this development has brought in its train. How could a discipline which in this sense occupies the terrain of world history as its home ground fail to rise to such a stirring theme?

In fact, faced with this epic character of its subject matter, I think one is forced to ask whether the cause of the stunted development of international theory in fact lies elsewhere. What if Martin Wight had it the wrong way round? What if the problem lies not with the subject matter, but rather with the intellectual shape of the discipline itself, and with the ideas through which it wrestles with what Deutscher called ‘this heaving chaos of a world’?footnote7 Above all, one would have to ask whether the intellectual centrality of the balance of power itself—which for Wight was simply the result of a brutal reality—has in fact been the major cause of the theoretical underdevelopment of international theory. It is this proposition—and more importantly the question of an alternative framework—which I want to explore this evening.