- The Myth of 1648: Class, Geopolitics and the Making of Modern International Relations
Benno Teschke has written a groundbreaking book, a veritable tour de force, which will change the way scholars think about international relations. Historians will especially appreciate the book, for Teschke breaks with the Realist school of political science, which holds that anarchy has presided over international relations since the dawn of civilization, to offer an historical account. Teschke draws on Robert Brenner’s work on European history to ascertain that international relations have changed in accordance with the evolution of social property relations between the Carolingian Empire and twentieth-century Europe. This finding is the basis for Teschke’s thesis that the Treaty of Westphalia, marking the end of the Thirty Years’ War, was not an epochal event inaugurating modern international relations. Political scientists have legitimized International Relations as a discipline on the premise that Westphalia legally inscribed territorially bound states, each with its own sovereign, and thus put an end to crisscrossing jurisdictions of medieval Europe. Scholars have long believed that 1648 forever divided politics into domestic and international spheres. Results for international relations were legal equality between states, secular politics, non-intervention, standing diplomacy, international law, and multilateral congresses. The problem with this belief is that the major signatories of the treaty were pre-modern, absolutist states. Their international policies were different from those of contemporary capitalist states.
Teschke sustains this thesis through an analysis of France, the archetypical absolutist state, and victor of the Thirty Years’ War. He refutes the neo-Weberian argument that financial demands of warfare obliged monarchies to develop modern bureaucracies. Teschke shows that French absolutism arose out of conflict between peasants and lords during the medieval period. Peasant communities [End Page 213] took advantage of competition for their resources, between different instances of the feudal hierarchy, to establish inheritable tenures owing fixed dues, which subsequently lost value with inflation. The monarchy was the only institution capable of coercing revenue out of communities. One by one, duchies, earldoms, and other feudal authorities signed treaties placing them under royal sovereignty and integrating them into the monarchy’s revenue generating institutions. The realm was a patrimonial, pre-modern state, which actually belonged to the royal family. Kings could sell portions of the state for revenue. The administration, fiscal establishments, and army belonged to wealthy subjects all the way up to the Revolution. Kings also raised revenue through mercantilism. They sold monopoly rights over commodities and markets to wealthy subjects in trading companies. Hence, great fortunes did not come from productive enterprises, but from advantageous relationships to the coercive capacity of the state.
The French monarchy, like other absolutist states, was inherently predatory. Neither peasants, who had unmediated access to subsistence, nor the upper classes, who relied on the state for revenue, were subject to systematic pressure to compete, specialize, and cut costs by replacing labor with capital and relentlessly reinvesting. Absolutist states did not have this capitalist mechanism to continually expand the tax base. They therefore had to acquire territory and subjects to build up their treasuries. They endeavored to control foreign markets for which trading companies would pay large sums. Teschke argues that the manifestation of these predispositions in international affairs was the dynastic strategy. Monarchs disputed successions and made political marriages in a relentless campaign for empire. They provoked continuous warfare. Europe experienced 48 major battles between 1480 and 1550, 48 between 1550 and 1600, 116 between 1600 and 1650, 119 between 1650 and 1700, 276 between 1700 and 1750, and 509 between 1750 and 1800. Modern Europe has experienced terrible wars, but not such unremitting confrontation.
Teschke shows that the transition to modern international relations between the seventeenth century and World War I was the result of a transformation in England. The gentry, unlike their peers across the channel, dislodged peasants from the soil in struggles dating from Middle Ages into the eighteenth century. They actually became suspicious of rulers capable of threatening their interests as proprietors. Political conflict...