global politics, relationally

The International Origins of Social and Political Theory


This is a post by Tarak Barkawi and George Lawson, introducing their edited collection, The International Origins of Social and Political Theory 

What is the relationship between history and theory? Most of the time, theory stands outside history. Social scientists tend to apply theories to historical events, seeing history as a testing bed or as a site of “operationalization” for their theoretical schemas. Others, among them historians of thought, see theory as speech acts either rooted in their particular time and place, or, alternately, as reflections of broader social forces. On either account, theory (as intellectual systems) and history (as events, experiences and practices) appear as distinct domains.

Our opening into the wider project that Relations International is exploring is the idea that the relations between history and theory are better conceived as co-constitutive. Theory is made in history, and it helps to make history. Understanding theory, and understanding history, requires inquiry attuned to the entwinement of theory and history.

But what does it mean to say that theory is made in history, and that it helps to make history? It means that theories arise historically, formed amid encounters between theorists and the events and practices they experience and take part in.

To cite just a few examples: Haiti’s revolutionary slaves informed Hegel’s thinking on masters and slaves. Napoleon’s France schooled Clausewitz by defeating him in battle and making him a prisoner. Marx studied in the hothouse of Europe’s 1848 uprisings. Historical ‘happenings’—often unexpected and even shocking to contemporaries—help to generate, frame and shape theory.

Theories are not only formed historically, they are also refracted through ongoing encounters; theories are reconceived in different times and places. In his contribution to the special issue that we have co-edited, Jeppe Mulich shows how political theorists have wrongly interpreted the postcolonial order in the New World at the turn of the nineteenth century as a radical break from the past, laying the groundwork for an international order centered on nation-states. If we take seriously the context of the time, the Western Hemisphere was mainly the site of creative but limited experimentation in existing notions of divided sovereignty and composite polities. The one radical experiment—in Haiti—was more or less suppressed by political theorists for nearly two centuries.

Theory is not, therefore, something “out there,” removed from history, even retrospectively. Rather, theories are assessed and reassessed, made and remade through ongoing encounters with history.

At the same time, theory informs practice, shaping events and processes, governments and economies, wars and revolutions. Thinkers immersed in practice have often produced the theories that helped to make history. The boundaries between theory and practice characteristic of the contemporary professionalized academy have obscured their co-constitutive interaction.

David Ricardo, to take one example, brokered stocks and manipulated markets while developing ideas that continue to shape economies. Clausewitz was an officer and commander, a staff college lecturer and an instructor of princes. In her contribution to the special issue, Helen Kinsella shows how former guerrilla fighters became legal theorists at the meetings leading to the 1977 Additional Protocols to the Geneva Conventions, forcing alterations in the laws of war that accorded with their experiences in anti-colonial, nationalist struggles.

Neither Kinsella’s guerrilla fighters, nor figures like Ricardo and Clausewitz, much less Marx, Freud, Hayek, and Keynes, can be restricted to realms of either ‘thought’ or ‘practice;’ rather, their work arose from the conjoining of thought with practice. Much of this work went on to inform both theorizing and action in ways that vastly exceed both the achievements of the specialized scholarship of the academy and of contemporary ‘policy relevant’ knowledge. The point is not that theory should be more practice – or policy – oriented. Rather, we want to stress the cortical relationship between theory and practice that has been lost in the valorization and, from other quarters, condemnation, of theory as a realm distinct from practice.

What makes these relations between history, theory, and practice specifically international is the role of transboundary encounters in generating and shaping them. By transboundary we refer to the histories that interconnect people across borders, whether these are of groups, states, regions, empires, or other entities.

Social and political theorizing owes profound debts to such encounters. Historiography begins with Herodotus as the stories of wars and travels. Thinking about government, society and economy arises from, and is shaped by, encounters with others. The discovery and conquest of the Americas, and contemporary representations of its peoples, provided Hobbes his most vivid embodiment of the “condition of warre” in the state of nature. Grotius generated his ideas about the law of the sea from the practices of the Indian Ocean system, just as trade between Britain and India helped to form Adam Smith’s ideas about free trade, and utilitarian and liberal thought took form around Britain’s Indian empire. The tradition of ‘reason of state,’ thinking about strategy and war, and treatises on diplomacy and the education of princes, take as premise a world of competing sovereigns and other armed entities, their conflicting (and common) interests and policies, and their often violent encounters with one another. One of the most extreme transboundary encounters of all – war – casts a shadow over many systems of thought.

In sum, theory arises in and through historical encounters. These encounters are iterative and, often, international. The relationship between history and theory is not something that can be reduced to a footnote, introductory note or biographical detail. Rather, establishing the generative relationship between history and theory should be the starting point for any assessment of theoretical systems. And it should also be the starting point for analyses of the histories that theoretical systems help to shape. History is an archive of events and experiences that leads to theorizing, often by practitioners participating in those very events.

Most significantly for IR, our account of the relations between history and social and political theory suggests that ‘the international’ is the central, generative site for theorizing. Political and social theory should be subfields of IR.

  • Matt

    Maybe you clarify this in your introductory chapter (or the book itself) — but I wanted to ask about the location of theory within history. On one hand, you claim that theory does not happen “out there” but through these refracting colonial flows of nation-states and other polities. If theory cannot remain outside history, are the origins not produced at historical moments that intersect with past (conflicting, superseding, converging, erasing) origin claims? The way the post reads — and this owes partly to the limits of space, perhaps — you place these theorists “out there” into a past history that is delineated from the present. Secondly, how is colonialism conceptualized within these moments of theory creation? Is it conceptualized in the singular?

  • George Lawson

    Thanks for this Matt.

    We don’t mean to sharply differentiate past and present – we see theories as crafted and recrafted in history. In other words, the relationship between history and theory is dynamic and ongoing. What people often do, we think, is see theory as abstract systems that have no history. We want to make the opposite point – that theories are both forged in particular events and experiences, and reworked as they are put to work to explain new events and experiences.

    On your second point, imperialism and colonialism are central to the ways in which theories are made and remade historically. Just think of the relationship between liberalism and imperialism, or the development of various strands of anti-colonial thought. So no – this isn’t a singular conception of colonialism, but one that examines the particular ways in which colonial experiences shape theory development.

    Thanks again for your comment!