Anarchy Is What It Is Made Up Of: Reappraising Kenneth Waltz’s Grand Concept Through a Marxian Lens

Published date01 October 2022
Date01 October 2022
Subject MatterResearch Articles
International Studies
59(4) 336 –363, 2022
© 2022 Jawaharlal Nehru University
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DOI: 10.1177/00208817221137228
Research Article
Anarchy Is What It Is
Made Up Of:
Reappraising Kenneth
Waltz’s Grand Concept
Through a Marxian Lens
Shubham Sharma1,2
In this article, I attempt to critically assess Kenneth Waltz’s deployment of the
idea of anarchy to erect a ‘scientific theory of international politics’. First, I argue
that the formation of a concept requires comprehension of the object from
the standpoint of historical development, not a narrow reading of it. Second,
I subject the thinner abstractions of self-help, balance of power and bandwagoning
to the test of history. Third, I argue about mainstream international relations’
disdain for revolutions. I would posit that revolutions are fine templates which
store rich agential history of structural transformation, a theme subject to
much chagrin by realists of all hues, particularly neorealists. In doing so, I take
the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 as my benchmark. I elucidate that through
the occlusion of first and second images, man and state, in the favour of third
image, that is, structural anarchy, Waltz tends to ignore the role of agency as a
conscious collective which could be best captured by the Bolshevik Revolution.
In doing so, I rely on Perry Anderson’s three modes of agency in history. As a
corrective to Waltz’s theorization, I make a strong case for class transcending
both man and state as an organic category with immense potential of becoming
a level of analysis which both acts upon the structure and refracts through it.
I finally conclude by saying that anarchy was a condition and not a ‘social relation’
of any sort which could claim to constitute the ‘international’.
Agency, anarchy, class, international relations, Marxism, revolution
2 South Asian University, New Delhi, India
Corresponding author:
Shubham Sharma, South Asian University, New Delhi, India.
1 Department of Political Science, University of Connecticut, Storrs, Connecticut, United States
Sharma 337
There are few concepts in the realm of political philosophy or theory which make
for an unadulterated usage. Anarchy is one of them. It found a happy home in the
discipline of international relations which emerged after the First World War. The
creation of the discipline as a separate field of enquiry was a signal of the larger
malaise affecting modern knowledge systems or sciences which hitherto failed to
provide answers to the phenomenon of war and pestilence caused principally by
aggressive interaction among states (Jahn, 2017). The reference to the modern
knowledge system’s malaise underpins the principal weakness of political science
or what Justin Rosenberg more aptly refers to as the ‘prison of political science’
(Rosenberg, 2017, p. 219) which the emerging discipline tended to break free
from. The failure of the former lies in the fact that the human world comprises a
multiplicity of coexisting societies (Rosenberg, 2017) or what could be referred to
as the failure to come to terms with the idea of an ‘international’ operating,
effecting and shaping the conduct of various national units, albeit inadvertently.
Generally speaking, the theoretical rendition of anarchy would stand as the
absence of a central governing body in international politics which allows for no
agency above the individual states with the authority to make laws and settle
disputes. The political scientists who were interested in the study of international
politics soon came to terms with the fact that ‘their subject matter directly dealt
with issues arising from the existence of sovereign states in the absence of a
higher central authority’ (Schmidt, 1998, p. 41).
However, the notion of the ordering principle of the international came only
with Kenneth Waltz’s attempt to theorize the international in his Theory of
International Politics published in 1979. Waltz could well be credited for
accounting for the presence of anarchy as the ordering principle of the
‘international’ since the ancient Greek city states when he claimed that
‘Thucydides’ history represented an early recognition of the anarchic character of
international politics which accounts for the striking sameness of the quality of
international life throughout the millennia’ (Schmidt, 1998, p. 40). In doing so, he
elegantly accorded it bounded particularities which came directly from the
ordering principle of anarchy. Self-help, he wrote, ‘is necessarily the principle of
action in an anarchic order’ (Waltz, 1979, p. 111).
Self-help was to be construed along the lines of uncertainty and immense risks
but at the same time subject to lower costs of maintenance (Waltz, 1979, p. 111).
With the fact that states like organizations are often committed to maintaining
themselves in their original forms rather than getting things done, the idea of self-
help becomes the guiding mode of action (Waltz, 1979, p. 111). Extolling the
virtue of anarchy-generated self-help, Waltz argues that in critical situations,
organizations and nations must resort to the use of force against dissident elements
(Waltz, 1979, pp. 111–112). Doing this in hierarchical systems or an incoherent
‘society of states’ would stumble in the face of the inability of the central authority
to mobilize the resources needed in times of crisis and maintain ‘the unity of
system by regulating and managing its parts’ (Waltz, 1979, p. 112). Any action
intended to manage parts, which Waltz assumes to be sovereign nation-states,

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