“The Myth of 1648: Class, Geopolitics and the Making of Modern International Relations” was written by Dr Benno Teschke in 2003. Teschke is a German-British IR theorist who focuses on the creation and emergence of the contemporary state system. He earned his PhD at the London School of Economics and Political Science and is currently a Reader in IR at the University of Sussex.
His book raises valid questions about a traditionally widely accepted view held by scholars of international relations, and creates long overdue debate around a key event in this field of study, which can be seen in the extensive response his book received following its publication. However, elements of his argument are simplistic and would benefit from more evidence.
Teschke begins his work by evaluating traditional influential interpretations of the development of the European states system to educate the reader on traditionally held views. His interpretation breaks from the traditional view held in IR theory which emphasises the importance of the Treaties of Westphalia of 1648. It is incontestable that the Treaties of Westphalia are a major landmark in the development of modern European states. However, building on the work of Robert Brenner, Karl Marx and Max Weber, Teschke elaborates his own theory and proposes an alternative interpretation of the development of the modern state system. He demonstrates convincingly that “international relations during this long period of transformation may be termed modernising, rather than modern” (p.266).
Teschke argues that The Treaties of Westphalia, whilst granting states certain rights including mutual recognition and non-intervention and the introduction of the sovereign state, did not mark the decisive shift towards the creation of the modern state. He believes that the Westphalian system was defined by non-modern relations between dynastic and other pre-modern political communities that were codified by pre-capitalist social property relations.
This theory of social property relations is the core concept. He argues that whilst feudalism and an absolutist state system were still in force, states could not make the transition to modernity. The transition required a change in social property relations; a change that was seen in Britain in the late 17th century.
This change led to the rise of capitalism, the transference of powers to Parliament, particularly following the Glorious Revolution of 1688, and the financial revolution. It was Britain, he then argues, that was the catalyst for the spread of the modern state system in continental Europe.
The final part looks at the case of England in detail, arguing that the rise of the modern state was bound to the rise of capitalism in early modern England. The newly modernised state used the process of “active-balancing” to control the combative continental states, and over a period of time forced them to modernise with it.
Teschke’s theory of social property relations has many persuasive elements. He factors in more detail than many traditional accounts of the rise of the modern state. In particular, the patterns he draws between England and subsequently continental Europe seem, at first sight, undeniably logical. However, it could be argued that the book overplays the revolutionary pressures emanating from Britain, for example, in terms of inciting the French Revolution of 1789, as there were many contributing factors to the upheaval the country experienced. In order to make his point, he excessively downplays the treaties’ role. He argues that the transition to modernity was a long, slow one, and cannot be pinpointed to any one year or event, yet he almost completely ignores that the Westphalian system was even a stepping stone on the road to the modern state. Finally, Teschke’s argument would benefit from deeper analysis of European states other than France, which he uses as the almost sole representative of a diverse group of states.