Robert W. Cox was born in Montreal Canada in 1926. Following a Master’s degree in history from McGill University, he worked in the International Labor Organisation (ILO) for over 20 years. Cox then turned to academia and taught at Columbia University, New York, before taking up a Professorship at York University, Toronto, between 1977 and 1992. He was made a member of the Order of Canada in 2014.
Along with Susan Strange, Cox is considered one of the leading figures in International Political Economy (IPE) and a leading critical theorist in International Relations (IR) theory. His work is marked by a unique historicist approach to world order and political economy. His historical mode of thought always remained heterodox and independent of any specific school or tradition.
His academic work spans over five major single authored books, perhaps the most widely read is Production, Power, and World Order: Social Forces in the Making of History (1987) that examined power relations in production and its effect on the organisation of society and world politics. His two articles, published in Millennium: Journal of International Studies, ‘Social Forces, States and World Orders’ (1981) and ‘Gramsci, Hegemony and International Relations’ (1983), were pivotal in turning the discipline toward critical thinking: the former offering a new critical theory beyond problem-solving, and the other introducing the ideas of Antonio Gramsci to the discipline. His later work remained historicist in its approach and was concerned with civilisations, coexistence and the importance of plurality in the future of humanity.
We welcome any further tributes to the legacy of Robert W. Cox here. Please email me: firstname.lastname@example.org
It is with great sadness that I write of the passing of one of the Global North leading intellectual luminaries, whose work offers a transformational framework for our times. I write this tribute from York University, his former place of work.
As a graduate student I was thrilled beyond words that Bob articulated for us critical theory, problematising both the orthodoxy of the world order and the dominant approach of problem-solving. More so, and years later, I discovered that beyond “eccentric”—the word that Susan Strange used to describe him—Bob was a seeker of insight, an intellectual whose politics pushed him to innovate the problem-solving approach to thinking IPE and IR as well as world order. Even during the worst of times, he did not shy away from taking unique positions, such as refusing to accept the disciplinary divisions and instead pushing for a broader intellectual sensitivity to dialogue, differences, and the materiality of the world.
Bob was a champion of a multiple worlds’ understanding. He believed that critical theory and history were lenses for seeking insight about how people, international organisations, civilisations and hegemonies work. In operation that meant he understood that the world is an assemblage of multiple communities and different peoples in distinct places who are to be respected for their differences. The state, for instance, he told us, is “made up of combinations of ethnic/religious and social forces, which more often than not have conflicting interests and aspirations.” Rejecting the notion of sameness that dominates Eurocentric and Western theories, he pointed out early on that there exist shared interests and solidarities with different groups in the world that cross borders.
Though Bob was widely recognised as a great scholar and critical thinker, more than anything else he was a visionary who imagined another future beyond the one laid out before us by dominant/hegemonic powers. Critical politics permeated his work. He embodied his independence, and singular voice, openly and proudly. He stood firm, unshakeable, when many of his contemporaries and younger scholars sought refuge in the building up of territorial schools of thought and embedded themselves in the trappings of intellectual fashion and fetish in order to receive funding and achieve celebrity status.
Ultimately, Bob dedicated himself to something unknown in most of the social sciences: world transformation. His purpose for articulating critical theory was to open the way for all of us to recognise that rigid disciplinary boundaries, ahistorical perspectives and linear notions of change are not inevitable. His work on international organisations, social forces, Gramsci, and historical materialism meant developing a vision of an otherwise future, and a more just world.
Bob, your body of work and unique voice set a standard for every one of us in making a better world. You have touched minds, hearts and spirits, including my own.
Farewell, humble giant!
‘During the early years of my studies as an undergraduate and postgraduate student, I often felt lost. Coming from a critical political position, concepts such as ‘party system cleavages’ or ‘consociationalism’, applied to the analysis of West European Politics, as well as the general positivist, or problem-solving understanding, in Robert Cox’s words, which underpins much of Political Science, did not offer much room for critical thinking. This was to change during an MA module on International Political Economy at the University of Manchester in 1993. Being introduced to Robert Cox’s two seminal articles of 1981 and 1983 as well as his 1987 book Production, Power and World Order was electrifying and opened up completely new avenues for theorising about global capitalism. I am very much indebted to his path-breaking scholarship!’
By innumerable ways can the human mind arrive at very similar ways of thought. This is true of individuals, just as it is of civilisations throughout history. Cox showed me the truth of both. The Frankfurt School was never part of his canon, yet he arrived at the similar place of their critique of late capitalism and instrumental reason. Similarly, he showed how the same ripping away of social relations under capitalism can be lamented by both the conservative and historical materialist, alike. The key to critical thought, however, was to be undogmatic: both at the level of the individual theorist and the society in which she or he speaks to. The challenge for the scholar was to retain this commitment to reflexivity on oneself. The challenge for society was to be open to ideas, to plurality. We have lost a giant in our field – and a scholar so giving to others, especially to my own knowledge. I will forever remember as a PhD student listening to his patient responses to my array of questions at his chalet in Barboleuse.
I am deeply saddened by Robert Cox’s passing. The extent of his influence on my thinking may have subsided over time, but I shall always be indebted to his pioneering contribution. Great scholars rarely conform to received categories and labels, not even to the ones they construct. Their thought is too subtle and too supple for that. The late great Susan Strange was first to note Cox’s eccentricity. And she was right. Cox never conformed to orthodox theories or modes of thought. His influences were too diverse, his intellectual instincts undogmatic. He helped transform International Relations by recovering forgotten and marginalised thinkers and modes of thought, yet he remained eternally humble, respectful, and generous. Literally and figuratively, Cox was a giant of the field. His intellectual legacy and exemplary comportment should be an inspiration to future students and scholars. They remain so to me.
The death of Robert W. Cox is a double source of great sadness: the loss of a fine person of impeccable character and the passing of the leading critical voice in contemporary international relations theory. Whether at the International Labor Organisation where he worked for 25 years as an influential civil servant or as a Professor at York University Bob left legacies of professional excellence, humane fellowship, and an abiding preoccupation with how to reduce mass misery and the suffering of the weak and vulnerable. He possessed a quiet passion whose flame never flickered throughout his long life. In my own case, I benefited greatly from Bob’s incisive critique of neoliberal globalisation as depicted by the mainstream IR literature. Although self-styled as a classical realist Bob never lost that quality of empathy that cannot turn a blind eye to the oppressive features of world order, and hence, for me he was always and also a normative thinker, not even averse to utopian conjectures. My hope is that today’s IR students will be exposed to the work and approach of Bob Cox, and apply his illuminating insights to the dangerous circumstances of this era.
Robert W. Cox was a major influence on my life, both intellectually and as a model of the ‘gentleman-scholar’. He was gracious and generous and always for me an exemplar of how to conduct oneself with students, colleagues and friends. His intellectual contribution to how we understand the world continues to hold fast our imagination. I teach his work at both the graduate and undergraduate level every year, and I am continually amazed at how it speaks so directly and powerfully to our students today. His legacy is proof that a life lived well casts a long and brilliant arc.
Robert Cox played a huge part in my life. He was an intellectual pioneer, a towering figure, a fugitive from orthodoxies and cliques: a “universal foreigner”. He was an inspiring teacher and world-leading thinker. I met him in 1988 when introduced by Susan Strange. He later invited me to consider moving to Canada from the UK and apply for a job at York University. I was lucky enough to be appointed and arrived in 1990 at Toronto Pearson Airport. Bob met me with the words “Welcome home!” We became good friends and intellectual collaborators. His memory lives on deep inside of me.
Bob Cox was not only an ever-present inspiration for any scholar who prizes an inclusive, critical and interdisciplinary approach to international relations. Thanks to the regular stays he made in his chalet at La Barboleusaz in the Swiss Alps, I met him regularly outside of any academic events to share thoughts more broadly, not only on world orders and change, but the life of an intellectual who defined himself as a ‘universal foreigner’ and life itself. I am sure that the modesty and friendliness of his sharp mind could explain to a great deal the influence he had on people who had the chance to know him. Such a mix of joyful irony, resolutely critical state of mind and a sort of covert subversive demeanour was quite unique indeed!
What a year this has turned out to be, first Nick Rengger, then Lily Ling and now Robert Cox. Unlike some of the others providing tributes I did not personally know him, and met him only once and even then in passing. In my own writings during my career I have provided various critiques of his work. But that’s in large part because I have always valued his work and rated him as one of the very best and most important of critical IR/IPE theorists. As we are all well aware, though it deserves reiterating, Cox’s 1981 Millennium article (which remains the most read Millennium piece almost every single month even today) and which introduced the distinction between critical and problem-solving theory launched a flotilla of critical theory ships that ventured out in all directions — poststructuralist, postcolonial and feminist in particular. Although he was best known for his earlier Gramscian work on hegemony, it is notable that in his later work he turned his focus to civilisational analysis which has also been really important. In essence, he has provided a colossal intellectual service to IR and IPE and he is a huge loss for us all in our discipline.
Robert Cox was an outstanding figure in International Relations and International Political Economy. His work on the concept of critical theory was directly inspirational for many, including myself. For me he opened up the direct relationship between concerns about knowledge production in 1980’s social science and philosophical debates in the Marxist tradition. His distinction between ‘problem-solving’ and ‘critical’ theory, like all major insights, was flawed but enormously productive for IR scholarship. He was a major influence in transforming an intellectually conservative field into one in which critical thought is now incredibly rich and diverse. He will be greatly missed.
Robert Cox remains a giant in the study of world order and Gramsci scholarship. He also remains one of my favourite professors. I had the great privilege of taking two courses with Professor Cox at York University: Production Relations (1991) and Advanced Topics in IPE (1993). He was incredibly erudite, humble and generous all at the same time. Listening to him, one realised that behind every footnote in his texts, there was at least one additional book waiting to be written. Model seminars, his courses provided intellectual sustenance for years following the class. Every once in a while, comments or text fragments jump to my mind. One of them: his fondness of Ibn Khaldun’s analysis of Maghreb and the Arab world in the fourteenth-century, which he took as a suggestion to develop a comparison with Gramsci’s take on the longue durée of Italian history, a comparison that would link state, production and world order to the relationship between city and country. I also continue to think that his take on the relationship between ‘critical’ and ‘problem-solving’ theory is full of insights. I use it all the time to open conversations with my many practice-oriented graduate students.
In a discipline of IR, now globalised and changing, R.W. Cox is one of very few IR scholars who will continue to be relevant into the future. Why? The late Susan Strange called him a “loner” for his ability to work alone, mostly oblivious to “mainstream” disciplinary concerns and thus unconstrained by them. R.W. Cox was never stuck in any approach or for that matter in any discipline, changing and developing with the real world. His famous 1981 article defined a generation of IR scholarship; he is leaving behind his vision of—once again—the bigger picture, centered on inter-civilisational dialogue, prescient and transcending his and our time. His legacy obliges us all.
Requiescat in pace.
It is with a heavy heart that I learned about the passing of Robert W. Cox. During the writing of my 2008 book on his intellectual genealogy I had a long and rewarding correspondence with him. I came to know him and understand the nuances of his approach and seminal works. His considered responses and his intellectual humility remain with me to date. I am convinced that Production, Power, and World Order: Social Forces in the Making of History continues to be relevant and has the theoretical flexibility to engage with contemporary transformational and emancipatory challenges; the essential element of a classic work. May you rest in peace, fugitive.
Academic disciplines often develop very slowly, almost imperceptibly to those involved. But at times the pace quickens unexpectedly and new movements emerge—and not least where particular statements and standpoints capture an emerging mood and give shape and direction to new sensibilities and to a new intellectual ethos.
For more than three decades, Robert Cox’s memorable phrase that ‘theory is always for someone and some purpose’ has been celebrated as a symbol of shifting disciplinary concerns. That brief statement captured the distinction between ‘traditional theory’ with its focus on working within existing social parameters and ‘critical theory’ with its interest in neglected immanent possibilities for change.
Critical theory has diversified greatly over the last three decades and scholars continue to search for and draw on new sources and perspectives. But all who work within the critical theory perspective, broadly defined, remain indebted to Robert Cox’s pioneering investigation of the changing complexities of world politics.
I write this tribute now as a grateful acknowledgment of the values and commitments that Robert Cox represented in a remarkable manner: social justice, empathy for marginalised peoples, tolerance of different views, and a commitment to emancipatory politics. Personally, he exemplified humility, unbending integrity, and an uncommon kindheartedness. Beyond Bob’s lasting impact on the intellectual formation of scores of students and colleagues, he made a special mark in the hearts of friends. Critical thinking is enriched by this legacy. With that, his eminence will grow.
My first exposure to the ideas of Robert W. Cox was nearly three decades ago as a doctoral candidate. But the definitive meeting ground came when I was asked to teach a course entitled “Global Governance and African Political Economy” at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. The course was designed by one of the students of Professor Cox and the Coxian imprint was in it. His writings show a high degree of interdisciplinary orientation, non-dogmatic approach and influence by non-Western thinkers, although he is better known for his Gramscian analysis. In some of his recent works, I have found a strong resemblance with Gandhian ideas. The IR academic community worldwide will surely miss him.
In 1997 I wrote a graduate paper in the first year of my PhD at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth entitled ‘The Affinities of Robert W. Cox: A Critical Decade?’. It specifically assessed Cox’s pioneering contribution to political economy, in and beyond his 1987 book Production, Power and World Order, along the way casting attention towards his focus on modes of social relations of production and how it was attuned to household reproduction; the role of nature and capital accumulation; and his method of historical structures. Critical consideration also involved honing in on wider issues of gender, the biosphere, and Eurocentrism, attending to Lily Ling’s pivotal post-colonial intervention on hegemony debates. I also raised the issue of eclecticism, through the notion of bricolage, in his construction of a method based on divergent thinkers. On the basis of encouragement from Randall Germain, I plucked up the nerve to send the paper to Cox, or our ‘friendly neighbourhood Marxist-Leninist subversive’, as he self-identified in Approaches to World Order. The level of response astounded me. In a detailed personal letter of commentary and feedback, he displayed all the character traits of a great individual: affability, humility, perspicacity and humanity. Meeting him years later at the LSE Millennium: Journal of International Studies conference on ‘Theory of “the international” today’, in 2006, reinforced all these features. In 1989 the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science carried a review of PPWO that said, ‘Cox’s economic pronouncements are not acceptable to most economists’. That was the point. As a political economist there can be no better epitaph for this great thinker than to be unacceptable to most economists. His own production and power will be sorely missed.
Robert W. Cox contributed more to our understanding of international relations than any other scholar of his generation. He explained the sources and limits of the autonomous powers of the heads of global intergovernmental organizations and, by the example of his own career as much as through his research, inspired others to identify the autonomous powers of all international civil servants. With Jeffrey Harrod, he developed his generation’s most comprehensive understanding of the global political economy, one rooted in the condition of the least-privileged classes in all parts of the world. His theory of hegemony and its link to the globalization of industrial capitalism that was more coherent and accurate than those developed by his realist and liberal contemporaries. Cox also developed our deepest historical understanding of the interactions of the largest human communities, civilizations. That work allowed us to anticipate the horror and promise of this moment, with climate change’s threat to all civilizations, the reactionary response of part of US society to its decline, and the unifying challenge that both problems pose to all of humanity. Beyond that, Cox was even a better teacher, mentor, role-model, friend, and all-around human being than he was a scholar.
The simplest ideas are the truest. Since I started studying international politics, the idea that knowledge should have a purpose and should serve the most vulnerable has been a guidance, an inspiration and a motivation. It changed my perspective on research, teaching and my engagement with social actors. Robert Cox helped shape the way I approach my work and how I relate to others. I am very thankful and will remember him fondly.
Bob Cox remains the original trailblaser in the unfinished critical project in International Relations. It was in Denver—thanks to Jim Mittleman—that several of us got to know the man and the mind that kicked the door ajar. Normal science continues to dream of having its own Cox ever since. Cox’s humility and seriousness are virtues in short supply in a profession eager to idealise new stars and immediacy. Bob taught us that the critical project is an arduous struggle with many detours and setbacks. The deserved fame that eventually came to Bob offered no incentives to reshape his labors. His ecumenical mind sought critical answers in distant places—recall his path-breaking interventions on Ibn Khaldun or on civilisations. In the Northern academy, the expansion in international theory began with Cox. Perhaps, the best tribute we can offer is to acknowledge that the work to create a pluriverse he inaugurated has only begun.
I have a very deep admiration for many dimensions of Robert Cox’s thinking. I would like to emphasise two of them. The first is his iconoclastic attitude. In Cox’s 1979 piece on ideologies and the new international economic order, he sided with radical neo-mercantilists and historical materialists, but defined himself as a conservative. ‘My conservatism is in the first place historicism […] – what I understand Machiavelli to have meant by necessità. My conservatism is also a commitment to a certain sense of right and equity for the underdog and a suspicion of the most recently established wealth and power – a pre-capitalist, Jacobite, anti-Whig conservatism’. The second dimension I respect deeply is his foresight. In the 1990s, Cox analysed the current era in terms of social forces, world order models and a global double movement. He anticipated that market globalisation will lose legitimacy. Segmented polarisation will lead to identity politics, where nationalism rises and ‘Islam, for instance can become a metaphor for Third World revolt against Western capitalist domination’. Cox also foresaw a tendency toward a world of economic blocs, competing for shares in world markets and raw materials. And finally he argued that ‘a financial crisis is the most likely way in which the existing world order could begin to collapse’.
Professor Robert W. Cox was my mentor and I will always be grateful to him for all he taught me, both in and out of the classroom. I studied international political economy with Cox as an undergrad, and must say how stunned I was that he began the course with Frantz Fanon. Cox was also on my M.A. Committee for a Major Research Paper on the state in Mexico (supervised by Professor Liisa L. North). I still have his brilliant comments on the importance of thinking in terms of forms of state, rather than the state only as an institutional materiality, or as ‘the executive committee of the bourgeoisie’. I stayed at York University for the PhD and had the enormous privilege of having Cox as the supervisor. Years of discussion and debate allowed me to move race into theorising hegemony and also to understand and explain the constitutivity of counterhegemony in the reproduction of the social at the domestic level, and the practices of hegemony at the level of world order. I am especially grateful that Bob introduced me to think critically about critical theory. Robert W. Cox had a number of outstanding students with whom he worked and with whom I continue to draw on his incredible intellectual legacy. They include: Sandra Whitworth, Randall Germain, Eric Helliner, Laura McDonald, Tim Sinclair, Hélène Pellerin, Michael C. Williams, W. Andy Knight, Samantha Arnold, William Walters, Robert O’Brien, Walter Persaud, Kirk Atkinson, and Nazim Baksh, among others. I suppose we were all (unknowingly) part of a new historical knowledge structure, led by an indefatigable ‘eccentric’ – this last, being the construction of Susan Strange, a friend and co-conspirator in a new emancipatory project in the longue durée.
It has become almost a cliché to say that Robert W. Cox influenced a generation of scholars in his lifetime, and will surely continue to influence many more generations, but it remains worth saying. What better possible tribute could there be to any academic colleague and how rarely are we able meaningfully to say that about any individual scholar? Of course, Cox himself would dismiss the notion that any individual can fully lay claim to their scholarly impact; instead, one was always struck by the homage he paid to the vast influences on his work of other thinkers, both past and present. He was always prepared both to defend his intellectual positions with rigour and great learning, and, often even more vigorously and always with great humility, to acknowledge their shortcomings, the limits of his knowledge, and the ways in which his own background, experience and characteristics influenced his perspective on the world. In our academic world, sadly too often lacking in his kind of intellectual generosity and human kindness, his legacy will remain precious to us for a very long time to come.
Robert Cox, that true pioneer of critical theory in International Relations, the one who so many of us know introduced a Gramsci-inspired critique of structure to a field that at the time, saw little need to critique itself. His writings now mark the critical turn in IR theory. But they will always be remembered for their pure sensibility and deep humanity, qualities that only make his passing harder to accept….
My great teacher Robert W. Cox has passed on. We had not been in contact for many years. I also found myself citing him less frequently, not because I thought any less of his work but because of changing research concerns. I am sure he would have approved of this as he eschewed orthodoxy and hero worship. At a fundamental level though, his influence on me remains profound. He deserves to be remembered as one of the towering figures of twentieth-century IR scholarship, and generations of critical IR scholars have him to thank for the spaces he created for them in the field. He was also generous in giving students opportunities at rarefied forums. I owe one of my first publications to him and Stephen Gill – a product of the UNU Multilateralism and United Nations System project that Cox directed in the early 1990s. We should also remember that he was once seen as a future ILO Director-General, but paid a heavy price in terms of his career because of principles and integrity. Robert W. Cox, Rest in Peace and may your name live forever.
Robert Cox is a scholar-extraordinary in the discipline of IR His writings continued to inspire scholars in both Global North and Global South. Cox’s deeply entrenched historicist position, in fact, set in motion shock waves across the positivist-realist traditions which dominated the discipline for decades. When I started teaching IR at Mahatma Gandhi University, in the South Indian state of Kerala, way back in early 1980s, not many had heard about him. In fact, the Kottayam School of IR made a departure by incorporating new trends in diverse areas of social sciences and, obviously, the post-positivist and critical theory traditions attracted our immediate attention. That was the period when Structral Realism was the subject of discussion everywhere. Cox’s writings stimulated our thinking in different ways. When I wrote a paper on “Sluice Model under Neoliberal Siege” (a critical study on Habermas) a decade and a half ago, Cox’s writings were the real inspiration. Undoubtedly, Cox is a compulsory reading for serious IR scholars across the world. He will be remembered for an intellectual subversion in the traditional scholarship of IR.
Robert Cox was an enormous inspiration to me, even before I had the great privilege of knowing him. It was of course through his work that I, and so many other students of International Relations, first encountered Gramsci. Meeting him in person for the first time – having followed that interest to York University, an institution to and at which he contributed so much – I was a bit awestruck. I need not have been: he was a truly kind and generous spirit who treated the most junior colleagues with great encouragement and respect. Though he was already retired by that time, he had showed no signs of slowing down, in life or research, both of which he seemed to engage with inexhaustible intellectual curiosity and enthusiasm. His ground-breaking intellect, infectious wit and, it must be said, iconoclastic style, are an enormous loss; he will be greatly missed.
One of the reasons why I stuck it out in the IR field has to do with Robert W. Cox. Finding his essay ‘Social Forces…’ in my second year of university, which I could barely understand but felt compelled to grapple with, was a revelation. I am ever grateful for his mind-opening, world-shattering scholarship. In a letter to me from 2002, he wrote:
I am very conscious of the affinity of approaches between feminist scholarship and my own. I agree, in particular, with your observation that feminist scholarship has made an epistemological contribution as well as an ontological one to IR theory. It is not just a matter of uncovering something that has been forgotten or obscured; it is a matter of how to think about the world.
Our lives straddle the ever-present change that Cox goaded us to theorise – knowing that while working toward general theory we must always keep improvising and evolving our understandings. And in that same letter from 2002 he reminds, “continuing reflexive critique is indispensable”. Cox hoped for a network of empathetic people capable of inter-civilisational understanding. He helped us find one another, in a field called ‘IR’. What a loss and what a legacy…
There will have only ever been very few whose profoundly benign influence on analysing, understanding, and explaining social change in the frame of world politics could hope to match the contributions Robert W. Cox has been making. All of us who research and think about politics, political economy, world history, and social change in and along the fields of IR/IPE owe a deep debt of gratitude to a unique scholar, mentor and critical interlocutor. That his work is particularly relevant in the present conjuncture merely underlines the sheer quality and richness of what has become available to us through his work, his wit, and his incessant curiosity.