Nicos Poulantzas: State, class and the transition to socialism

Click for more on Nicos Poulantzas and more by Doug Enaa Greene.

By Doug Enaa Greene

August 5, 2015 -- Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- We live in an era where too much of the left, both in the USA and abroad, remains stuck to old orthodoxies and failed strategies. Marxism is reduced to holy writ and rote, devoid of any ability to either interpret or change the world.

In order to win, the left desperately needs to break away from past habits and recover the ability to raise questions anew by using Marxist methodology to formulate strategy. In this endeavour, there are a number of thinkers we can profitably learn from; one of whom is Nicos Poulantzas. Despite the limitations and contradictions within Poulantzas' methods, he was not afraid to ask the right questions and to develop new strategies.

To that end, it is worth looking at Poulantzas' work in three areas: the state, class and the transition to socialism.

I. Biography

Nicos Poulantzas was born in Athens, Greece, on the September, 21, 1936, to a well-off family. A gifted student, Poulantzas studied law in Greece and became involved in leftist politics. He was a supporter of the United Democratic Left (EDA), the legal wing of the Communist Party of Greece (KKE). After completing his legal studies, Poulantzas moved to France where he received a doctorate in the philosophy of law and taught sociology at the University of Paris VIII from 1968 until his death.

It was in France that Poulantzas really began to politically mature. According to Bob Jessop, a scholar of Poulantzas, he was influenced principally by three strains of thought. One, French philosophy – Sartre, Althusser and Foucault. Second, Italian political theorists such as Antonio Gramsci and theories of hegemony. And last, Romano-German law.

His work developed in engagement with these three currents and produced a unique synthesis on topics ranging from the state, social classes, fascism, the collapse of the southern European dictatorships and political strategy.

Poulantzas moved politically from a existentialist-influenced Marxist in his student years to Marxism-Leninism with Maoist and Althusserian sympathies. However, by the end of his life, Poulantzas had broken with the KKE in the late 1960s, joining a Eurocommunist group known as the Greek Communist Party of the Interior (KKE-I) that was opposed to the dictatorship of the colonels.

The KKE-I would be one of the forerunners of Eurocommunism, a break with old orthodxies in the the hope of developing a democratic path to socialism. Despite the fact that the KKE-I received a poor showing in the 1977 elections, being eclipsed by the hardline KKE, and Eurocommunist formations would later flounder, Poulantzas remained within that orbit.

By the time he died tragically of suicide at the age of 43 in 1979, Poulantzas had moved politically away from Marxism-Leninism to a form of democratic socialism. Since his death, Poulantzas has remained an important theorist and reference point on political theory, strategy and state. Many currents and prominent leaders within SYRIZA in Greece take inspiration from him.[1]

II. Poulantzas' theory of the state

Poulantzas' first major work, Political Power and Social Classes (completed on the eve of May 1968), develops his regional theory of the capitalist state within a (largely) Althusserian theoretical framework. Poulantzas insists on a regional theory because he does not believe that there can be a general Marxist theory of the state. Rather, he argues that Marxists need to develop theories of the state corresponding to a particular mode of production (in his case, the capitalist mode of production or CMP):

a regional instance (specifically the political) can constitute an object of regional theory only in so far as it is “isolated” (decoupe) in a given mode of production. The possibility of constituting it as an object of science (i.e. constructing its proper concept) does not depend on its nature, but on its place and function in the particular combination which specifies this mode of production... The place assigned to the political in the CMP depends on the particular theory of this mode, on its specific type of articulation, and the index of dominance and overdetermination, as expounded by Marx is Capital.[2]

Poulantzas, following Althusser, defines a mode of production as consisting of three levels: the political, economic and the ideological, with their own structures and results, each level is autonomous, but only relatively, since there is a hierarchy among them and they are determined “in the last instance” by the economic.[3]

By mode of production we shall designate not what is generally marked out as the economic (i.e., relations of production in the strict sense), but a specific combination of various structures and practices which, in combination, appear as so many instances or levels, i.e., as so many regional structures of this mode... The type of unity which characterizes a mode of production is that of a complex whole dominated, in the last instance, by the economic. The term determination will be reserved for this dominance in the last instance.[4]

This method allows Poulantzas to undertake a separate investigation of the state within the capitalist mode of production.

The role of the state in the capitalist mode of production is thus relatively separate from the base. In contrast to the feudal mode of production, where the state is directly involved in extracting surplus from the peasantry, the capitalist state does not have to be. Rather, once the normal operations of the law of value have been established, they allow the capitalist mode of production to operate without direct extra-economic coercion. Thus, when I apply for a job or am fired by a business, the state is not directly involved in the process (although indirectly it establishes the legal framework for that process to take place):

The character of the economic in this mode of production, as a process of producing surplus value, results from this separation, which converts the labourer himself into an element of capital and his labour into a commodity. This combination determines the specific autonomy of the political and the economic. Marx perceives it in its two manifestations. (i) In its effects on the economic. For example, the process of production in the CMP works in a relatively autonomous way, with no need of the intervention of “extra-economic factors”, as is characteristic of other modes of production. The process of expanded reproduction, as Rosa Luxemburg rightly pointed out, is principally determined by the “economic factor” of production of surplus value; purely economic crises appear, etc. (ii) He also perceives this autonomy in its effects on the capitalist state.[5]

So if the economic is autonomous from the political, what exactly is the role of the state in the capitalist mode of production? According to Poulantzas, the state does not directly represent the economic interests of the dominant class, rather it represents their long-term political interests. “The capitalist state, characterised by hegemonic class leadership, does not directly represent the dominant classes' economic interests, but their political interests: it is the dominant classes' political power center, as the organising agent of their political struggle.”[6]

This means, that if an individual capitalist goes bankrupt, the state may not intervene directly to stave off that bankruptcy (even though they often do). Yet if large sections of the capitalist class are threatened with losing their wealth, as they were during the recession of 2008, the state will bail them out since this not only effects their economic interests but the long-term political survival of the system. Or take the example of the New Deal in the 1930s United States, in which concessions were granted to the labour movement at the expense of certain short-term economic interests of the capitalist class. In the long run that brought greater political stability to US capitalism.[7] “Thus economic concessions which further the immediate interests of the dominated classes can simultaneously advance the political interests of the dominant classes.”[8]

This raises the question of why does the capitalist state need to represent the “long-term political interests” of the dominant classes? Poulantzas argues that the state accomplishes this by using the

judicial and ideological structures (determined in the last instance by the structure of the labour process), which set up at their level agents of production distributed in social classes as juridico-ideological subjects, produce the following effect on the economic class struggle: the effect of concealing from these agents in a particular way the fact that their relations are class relations.[9]

The greater socialisation of the capitalist economy has the effect of bringing workers together in the labour process, but at the same time, the laws of competition pit them against each other. We can see this during a recession when employed workers may suffer from pay cuts or lose benefits rather than be laid off and replaced by the multitude of unemployed who are eager for work.

Poulantzas calls this, the “isolation effect” whereby class unity is forestalled and the working class is atomised and fragmented. The isolation effect doesn't just effect workers, but other classes as well – such as the capitalists. Due to the laws of competition, capitalists are fighting each other for profit and are segmented into different blocs or fractions with their own particular interests (finance capital, industrial capital, etc.). In the end, class unity cannot be forged at the level of the economic. And without some form of class unity by the dominant classes to regulate capitalism, society is subjected to the “normal' destructive effects of the system along with periodic economic crises that could get out of hand. Thus, to ensure the relatively smooth functioning of capitalism, some form of cohesion and class unity is needed. This is where the state comes in.

On the surface, the state seemingly reinforces the isolation effect by setting up an institutional framework that conceals class relations behind the veneer of individual citizens, which seemingly effects both the dominant and the dominated classes alike. Why? Class unity can only forged at the level of the political. According to Poulantzas, “the state has the particular function of constituting the factor of cohesion between the levels of a social formation."[10] It is at the level of the state where “we can decipher the unity and articulation of formation's structures.”[11] It is at the level of the state that unity and organisation among the dominant classes is forged (which we will discuss more below) and the dominated classes are disorganised. Despite the relative autonomy of the economic and the political under the CMP, state power is class power: “Class relations are relations of power.”[12] Since social cohesion is prevented at the economic level due to the isolation effect and the dominance of the law of value under the CMP, falls upon the state to regulate the system. The state not only sets up the legal and political framework that capitalism uses to function within a particular social formation (USA, UK, Japan, etc.), but it possesses its own economic, legislative and repressive functions:

the state's economic or ideological functions correspond to the political interests of the dominant class and constitute political functions, not simply in those cases where there is a direct and obvious relation between (a) the organisation of labour and education and (b) the political domination of a class, but also where the object of these functions is the maintenance of the unity of a formation, inside which this class is the politically dominant class. It is to the extent that the prime object of these functions is the maintenance of this unity that they correspond to the political interests of the dominant class.[13]

The state, in representing the political interests of the dominant classes, does not rely solely upon force, but also needs to illicit consent from the dominated classes. For one, as we mentioned above, the state hides its class nature by presenting itself as national-popular whereby (nearly) everyone is classified as citizens who are equal under the law. For instance, the US constitution grants everyone equal rights and is supposedly above classes. Despite the class cleavages in US society, it is also “common sense” among millions that everyone is equal in the United States.

Poulantzas and Gramsci

This leads to the question of how the dominant class is able to achieve and maintain hegemony. Before elaborating on this, it is necessary to briefly discuss what is “hegemony”. The term hegemony is mainly associated with the work of the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, who uses it in a number of ways, only one of which concerns us here.[14]

Gramsci was interested in the ways that the bourgeoisie preserved its rule (which is a continual and never finished process) by coercion and consent. According to Gramsci, while bourgeois rule may ultimately be based on force, it does not rely solely upon it. For the bourgeoisie to maintain its hegemony, it cannot always use the stick, but has to use the carrot as well. “The 'normal' exercise of hegemony on the now classical terrain of the parliamentary regime is characterised by the combination of force and consent, which balance each other reciprocally, without force predominating excessively over consent.”[15]

Although Gramsci never denies that the state ultimately rests upon armed force, he was perhaps the first Marxist theorist to emphasise the role that consent plays in allowing the bourgeoisie to maintain its hegemony. This is why Gramsci spends so much time dealing with the role of ideology and culture in bourgeois society and how that is transmitted through the various organs of civil society. Bourgeois ideology is promoted and accepted by the masses; so that their subordinate status and the over-all system is not in question (capitalism thus becomes “commonsense” to people).

However, Gramsci does not believe that the dominant ideology reigns supreme, but rather it can be challenged and itself be a site for revolutionary struggle.[16] Along with the strictly political level (the state), the ruling class also utilises the organs of civil society to maintain its rule. By civil society, Gramsci is referring to the “ensemble of organisms that are commonly called private”[17] such as political parties, trade unions, the media, churches, schools and other voluntary associations. These organs of civil society are the vehicles through which the capitalist class fosters consent due to the “spontaneous" consent given by the great masses of the population to the general direction imposed on social life by the dominant fundamental group; this consent is "historically" caused by the prestige (and consequent confidence) which the dominant group enjoys because of its position and function in the world of production.”[18]

In other words, the bourgeoisie, being the ruling class that controls the state and the means of production, is able to disseminate its ideas and ideology throughout society.

Thus, Poulantzas is interested in hegemony in regards to how “the politically practices of the dominant class of a capitalist formation, and not to its state, is used in two senses.” The first is how the political interests of the ruling class are “constituted, as representatives of the “general interest” of the body politic, i.e. the people/nation which is based on the effect of isolation from the economic.”[19]

We can see in the United States how the interests of the ruling class are made to appear as the “general interests of society”. Congressional representatives and the president speak and act as if the policies they enact, in say, cutting taxes or bailing out the wealthy during a recession, are for the good of “America” since we all “must make shared sacrifices” to ensure that the economy recovers.

Since the state is legitimised by popular sovereignty where all are equal before the law, supposedly its policies are above classes. Furthermore, consensual support for these policies is obtained from the population by way of the organs of civil society such as television such as Fox News, churches, political parties and trade unions, who propagate the dominant ideology.

Yet behind the carrot of consent, there is the stick of coercion. When protesters take to the street to protest the disadvantages and injustices inflicted by the “1%” they are met with brutal police violence.

Poulantzas is also interested in how the ruling class maintains hegemony by establishing its own unity through a power bloc. According to Poulantzas,

the concept of hegemony is also used in another sense, which is not actually pointed out by Gramsci. The capitalist state and the specific characteristics of the class struggle in a capitalist social formation make it possible for a “power bloc”, composed of several politically dominant classes or fractions to function. Amongst these dominant classes and fractions one of them holds a particular dominant role, which can be characterised as a hegemonic role. In this second sense, the concept of hegemony encompasses the particular domination of one of the dominant classes or fractions in a capitalist social formation.[20]

The need for the power bloc comes about due to the isolation effect, since the bourgeoisie is divided into different blocs and unable to forge unity among themselves. For example, take the different fractions in the dominant classes of the United States before the Civil War: the industrial bourgeoisie, financiers, merchants, plantation owners, etc. These fractions were internally divided by the plantation owners' defence of slavery (and economic ties with Britain) which stood diametrically opposed to the advance of capitalist social relations championed by the industrialists. During the Civil War, the industrial bourgeoisie (through the medium of the Republican Party) in the United States was able to establish hegemony by presenting their mission to restore the Union and abolish slavery as the general interests of the nation. The industrial bourgeoisie gained hegemony over the dominated classes, created a new power bloc with themselves in charge – subordinating other sections of the bourgeoisie and the old plantation class to their leadership, in order to develop capitalism and create a unified internal market within the United States.

Naturally, the exact make-up of the power bloc differs from state to state (whether in France, Japan, Saudi Arabia or the USA). And it is not only fractions of the dominant classes who are part of the power bloc, but the petty bourgeoisie and sections of the labour aristocracy.

To take the case of the labour aristocracy: following World War II, social-democratic parties in Europe entered governments and established welfare states that provided security for the working class. While capitalist social relations were not abolished in Europe, the integration of social democracy into the power bloc helped the ruling class to maintain hegemony.

Similarly, there were shifts in the power bloc in Europe with the onset of neoliberalism as the gains of labour were demolished and as power was reconstituted to the benefit of financial capital. Thus even within the power bloc there are still contradictory elements with their own divergent interests.

In order to unify the power bloc, the state must take an active role to ensure that such unity is maintained and that internal contradictions of the different fractions do not threaten the rule of the power bloc and the overall cohesion of the system.

For example, the Weimar Republic in Germany was threatened during the Great Depression with the breakdown of its ruling power bloc which lost popular support in the midst of an economic calamity, opening the door to a possible revolutionary challenge from the Communist Party. The Social Democrat Party (SPD) had been willing to forgo any attempt at socialism in order to integrate the working class into Weimar's democratic capitalism, in return for various social welfare provisions. The dominant factions of the bourgeoisie accepted this compromise in order to protect their interests and to use the SPD to maintain control over the working class.

However, with the outbreak of the Depression, the ruling power bloc in the Weimar Republic needed to restore profitability and labour discipline, but its traditional parties had lost nearly all the popular support needed to carry out the required policies. Furthermore, the ruling class was divided, with industrial and financial sectors opposed to the Junkers or landed property owners; manufacturing sectors opposed heavy industry; mid-level employers wanted to negotiate a compromise with the working class and large employers were desirous of crushing the working class and gaining total power. Ultimately, the power bloc was reconstituted by the state under the control of the Nazis, who possessed a substantial popular base. The Nazi state proceeded to crush the far left and labour movement, re-establish profitability for the bourgeoisie and to establish their own dominance within the power bloc.[21]

Ultimately, due to the divergent interests within the power bloc, one class or fraction needs to be in charge of the state to assume political and strategic responsibility:

The power bloc can in the end only operate under the hegemony and leadership of the component that cements it together in the face of the class enemy. The strategic organisation of the State destines it to function under the hegemony of a class or fraction located within it. At the same time, the privileged position of this class or fraction is a constitutive element of its hegemony within the constellation of the relationship of forces.[22]

The capitalist state is able to forge a power bloc, establish hegemony over the dominated class (and disorganise them), and secure the long-term political interests of the dominant classes due to its relative autonomy from the economic level. When using the terms “relative autonomy” we should be careful to note that both terms are equally important. Perhaps the best analogy to explain the "relative autonomy" of the state is that of a tether for a dog. The tether can be either long or short, giving the dog room for maneuver, but ultimately it is firmly implanted in the ground. The same is true of the state. The state is a class state, repressing the dominated classes, maintaining social control and representing the interests of the dominant classes as a whole. However, the state needs its own room to move and cannot be tied to the momentary passions or the interests of a small group of capitalists. If it is to rule for the interests of the ruling class as a whole, then it has to be able to maneuver against any group or individual capitalists that get out of line (e.g. Richard Nixon) and thereby threaten its long-term interests.

None of this denies that the state is still a repressive apparatus, but it does say that the state is not a simple reflection of the economic base and needs its own room to moveif it is to successfully fulfill its function.

As Bob Jessop argues:

Only when the state has a certain autonomy from all fractions can it act against the long-term economic interests of one or other fraction of the dominant class and/or arrange compromises vis-à-vis the dominated classes. Without such economic sacrifices and compromises, however, it would not be possible to secure the political class interests of the power bloc... Relative autonomy often depends on support from the dominated classes.[23]

Yet, we should not forget that while the state is relatively autonomous and the fractions of the ruling class contain their own particular interests and strategies (some may offer concessions), they all remain the enemy. No matter which one of them is power, it is their goal to maintain the overall system of exploitation. While there can be fissures in the state apparatus, Jessop says “that the state personnel can sometimes become an independent social force and disrupt the smooth operation of hegemonic class leadership. Nonetheless, even when acting as an authentic social force, the bureaucracy more often supports an exceptional form of the capitalist state rather than a transition to socialism.”[24]

When the dominant classes are threatened with revolutionary upheaval, if they are not overthrown, then the different fractions will come together (perhaps with a different fraction playing the leading role) to either crush or buy off any challenges. In Political Power and Social Classes, Poulantzas does not believe that there is a parliamentary road to socialism: "In fact, as far as the conquest of parliament by the dominated classes is concerned, class domination has its disposal a whole gamut of defences to protect itself from such misadventures."[25]

He argues that the relative autonomous nature of the state does not mean that it is a neutral instrument which can just be seised by the working class:

This relative autonomy has nothing to do with a state in transition or with a state with an equilibrium of forces. In other words, it does not call into question the profound relations between the contemporary state and the hegemonic fraction of the monopolies: on the contrary, it presupposes them...The effect of constant isolation presented by the working class's economic struggle necessitates the political organisation of this class into an autonomous party which will realize this unity. But the state's function is to maintain this isolation (which is its own effect) by presenting itself as the representative of the political unity of the people-nation: this contributes to its relative autonomy vis-a-vis the dominant classes....In other words, this autonomy vis-a-vis the politically dominant classes, inscribed in the institutional play of the capitalist state, neither authorizes the dominant classes effectively to participate in political power nor cedes 'parcels' of institutionalised power to them. State power is not a machine or an instrument, a simple object coveted by the various classes; nor is it divided into parts which, if not in the hands of some, must automatically be in the hands of others: rather it is an ensemble of structures.[26]

Ultimately, it is the task of communists to smash the state, not to seize it. For whatever the contradictions among the dominant class, it will come together to smash the dominated classes from ever taking power peacefully. To put a twist on Mao's famous saying:

Within the exploiting classes, the contradictions among the exploiters are non-antagonistic, while those between the exploited and the exploiting classes have a non-antagonistic as well as an antagonistic aspect.

This means that in advanced capitalist countries like the USA, there is no section of the power bloc that socialists and communists can ally with. Since whatever may be the differences in policy and strategy between say the Democrat or the Republican parties or the financial and industrial sections of the ruling class, they remain united against us and in favour of capitalist rule. Now these sections of the ruling class do need to build hegemony, so they draw upon “popular” movements such as the Tea Party or the Bernie Sanders campaign, giving them broader appeal than they would otherwise possess.

In the case of the Sanders' campaign, his “socialist” credentials seem to promise reform concessions from above to draw those who might otherwise seek an anti-system alternative into the Democratic Party. The Sanders' campaign may have the appearance of independence, but that is all part of how hegemony is established. Yet hegemony is precisely about iliciting voluntarily consent from those it seeks to dominate. In the end, if Sanders were to win, he would simply give greater cohesion to the power bloc by placating those from below.

Ultimately, our goal is not to ally with one or another section of the power bloc since they are our enemies - but to overthrow them all by forming our own counter-hegemonic revolutionary alliance of the dominated classes.

Althusserian framework

Poulantzas' Political Power and Social Classes, despite its extremely difficult Althusserian language (a perspective he subsequently abandoned), managed to develop a regional theory of the contemporary capitalist state that had been neglected by “orthodox” Marxists who were more interested in repeating old stale formulas. The work shows a profound loyalty to revolutionary Leninism (influenced by Maoism) in contrast to theorists in both the Moscow-line Communist parties and social democracy.

However, the Althusserian framework that Poulantzas adapted presents a number of problems for him. According to Bob Jessop, while Poulantzas says that the political, economic and ideological levels of a mode of production are relatively autonomous, “it is quite another thing to claim that each region can be analysed entirely in its own terms. Poulantzas does not really advance this claim and actually insists on the ultimately determining role of the economic. But, in concentrating on a distinct regional political theory and neglecting the regional economic theory and the particular theory of the CMP as a whole, Poulantzas certainly runs the risk of ignoring the economic and ideological determinants of politics.”[27]

And in ignoring the ideological and economic levels for a focus on the political, Poulantzas ends up making that level the dominant force in a mode of production (despite his claims to the contrary):

in the global role of the state, the dominance of its economic function indicates that, as a general rule, the dominant role in the articulation of a formation's instances reverts to the political; and this is so not simply in the strict sense of the state's direct function in the strictly political class struggle, but rather in the sense indicated here. In this case, the dominance of the state's economic function over its other functions is coupled with its dominant role, in that its function of being the cohesive factor necessitates its specific intervention in that instance which maintains the determinant role of a formation, namely, the economic.[28]

According to Ellen Meiksins Wood, in a critique of Poulantzas, this means that he is arguing that because the relations of exploitation lie in the “economic” and not the “political”, “he is in effect arguing that the relations of exploitation (though no doubt 'determinant in the last instance') no longer 'reign supreme'.”[29] Poulantzas tends to focus on the political to the detriment of other levels of a mode of production and thus unable to adequately explain the linkages between these different levels.[30]

III. Social classes

By the time Poulantzas completed Classes in Contemporary Capitalism in 1974, he was moving away from structuralist Marxism (although such themes still appear in this work) and was engaged with debating (from the left) the Communist Party of France's theories and strategy for an anti-monopoly alliance.[31] In comparison to Political Power and Social Classes, economic themes are much more prominent in this work. Poulantzas is also concerned with developing a revolutionary strategy for imperialist countries, which means developing the necessary class alliances. However, Poulantzas believes that socialist strategy has been deficient in understanding the class structure of contemporary capitalism.

In this section, we will be concerned with three questions: (1) what criteria does Poulantzas use to determine social classes? (2) What are the strategic and political implications of Poulantzas' definition of social class, particularly in regard to the petty bourgeoisie and the working class? (3) What are some problems with Poulantzas' understanding of class?

Poulantzas follows his earlier methodological approach by stating that the capitalist mode of production has three distinct layers: the political, economic and the ideological. While Poulantzas argues that social classes are characterised mainly by their place in the production process, but not this is not sufficient to fully define them. Rather, Poulantzas argues that “the economic does indeed have the determinant role in a mode of production or a social formation; but the political and the ideological (the superstructure) also have a very important role.”[32] Thus, while the economic is primary, class has to be defined at all three levels.

By economic, Poulantzas identifies it as a space determined by two things: “the process of production, and the place of the agents, their distribution into social classes, is determined by the relations of production.”[33] The production process primarily concerns the labour process, which is a historically determined relation. The labour process, in a class divided society, encompass a double relation of humanity to nature in terms of production. This double relation includes the relation “between the agents of production and the object and means of labour (the productive forces); second, and through this, relations between men and other men, class relations.”[34] These relations involve two aspects: one being ownership, which is the real power of the bourgeoisie to use economic resources and dispose of their products. Secondly, possession which is the ability to operate the means of production (or the labour process). It is chiefly in the realm of economic exploitation, that surplus labour is appropriated from the direct producers and that class is determined.

Yet Poulantzas hastens to add that while “every worker is a wage-earner, every wage-earner is certainly not a worker, for not every wage-earner is engaged in productive labor.”[35] Thus, it is not the wage relation that determines a worker, but whether that person is engaged in productive labour. By productive labour, Poulantzas means labour that gives rise to the dominant mode of production and its corresponding relations of exploitation and “that which directly produces surplus-value.”[36] This has profound implications for Poulantzas' definition of class, the formulation of revolutionary strategy and alliances (which we will return to), since those deemed “unproductive labourers” in banking, insurance, the service industry, etc are not considered part of the working class.[37]

Poulantzas also introduces the important distinct between class determination and class position. Class determination “designates certain objective places occupied by the social agents in the social division of labour: places which are independent of the will of these agents.”[38] By contrast, class position is more subjective and can involve a class taking the position that coincides with that of another class. For example, workers who support the parties of the ruling class: Republican or Democratic (Poulantzas uses the example of the labour aristocracy). However, it is possible for members of other classes to adopt the standpoint of the working class such as intellectuals or petty bourgeoisie who support socialism and communism. This distinction will have important bearing on the development of class alliances by the proletariat since it means other classes can adopt a working-class position.

This brings us to the question of the petty bourgeoisie, where Poulantzas makes the bold claim that “the definition of the class nature of the petty bourgeoisie is the focal point of the Marxist theory of social classes.”[39] Poulantzas says that one cannot rely on the relationship of the petty bourgeoisie to the relations of production or economic criteria, but that “it is absolutely indispensable to refer to ideological and political relations."[40]

When discussing the petty bourgeoisie, Poulantzas distinguishes between the “old” and the “new” petty bourgeoisie. The “old” or traditional petty bourgeoisie are small property owners, artisans, small traders, etc who are both owners and workers. The “new” petty bourgeoisie are mental labourers, supervisors and white-collar workers as opposed to manual workers. However, based on the understanding that only those performing productive labour under capitalism count as members of the working class, Poulantzas argues, that the new petty-bourgeoisie consists of “non-productive wage-earning workers [and]civil servants employed by the state and its various apparatuses.”[41]

Poulantzas insists that the old and new bourgeoisie both belong to the same class, even though the former “does not belong to the capitalist mode of production, but to the simple commodity form which was historically the form of transition from the feudal to the capitalist mode”, while the latter, developed with modern capitalism.[42]

Whereas the traditional petty bourgeoisie is not fundamental to the CMP, but is polarised between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, who are the main antagonistic classes. On the other hand, the new bourgeoisie is polarised ideologically between the class positions of the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. Ideologically, the petty-bourgeoisie has three traits: status-quo anti-capitalism , belief in upward mobility and in the neutrality of the state.[43] Politically, the petty bourgeoisie can have no class position of its own since it is not a fundamental class to capitalism.

According to his own definition of class, Poulantzas believes that since the working class formed only a minority in contemporary capitalism, it was imperative for them to form a class alliance with both old and new sections of the petty bourgeoisie. While Poulantzas did not argue that the petty-bourgeoisie were workers, he did say that they were part of the people and the popular masses. It was important for socialist strategy that the interests of the workers and the petty-bourgeoisie not be confused or conflated since “recognition of their class membership, which differentiates them from the working class, is nevertheless essential in order to establish a correct basis for the popular alliance, under the leadership and hegemony of the working class.”[44]

The working class needed to be able to articulate its own interests and not confuse them with other classes, but they had to take seriously the contradictions that would arise with other forces in order to create a durable alliance. In contrast, the PCF in conflating the interests of the petty bourgeoisie with thoseof the working class damaged the long term interests of the latter. When different class interests are confused, the working class winds up capitulating to the interests of alien class forces that possess social democratic and reformist illusions.

According to Ellen Wood, while Poulantzas was arguing to the left of the PCF's anti-monopoly strategy, he still remains largely within the popular front and reformist foundation of the party. Far from offering an alternative, Poulantzas did not want “to undermine Communist strategy but to set it on a sounder foundation.”[45] Wood accuses Poulantzas of reformulating Marxist theory and practice in a rightward direction by shifting the “principal opposition from the class relations between labour and capital to the political relations between the 'people' and a dominant force or power bloc organised by the state.”[46] And the criticisms are not unfounded, since Poulantzas was arguing for concessions to other class forces in the interests of developing an anti-monopoly alliance.

Part of the weakness of Poulantzas' theoretical and strategic perspective can be found in his understanding of class. According to his own criteria, Poulantzas said that the economic was primary, but when stating that the old and new petty bourgeoisie are part of the same class, even though both have different places in the relations of production, they are united by ideology. In running away from economistic definitions of class, Poulantzas ended up running away from economics and putting the emphasis on politics and ideas.

Furthermore, Poulantzas' separation of productive and unproductive labour is based on a misunderstanding of Marx. Poulantzas argues that Marx, in distinguishing productive and unproductive labourers, excludes the latter from the ranks of the working class. This winds up artificially reducing the working class to a minority of the population even in the most advanced capitalist societies such as the United States. Poulantzas also overstates the difference between productive and non-productive labour as criteria for determining who is a proletarian and petty bourgeoisie. For the capitalist, it doesn't matter whether someone is a steel worker, a janitor or a technician, rather what matters according to the US Marxist Harry Braverman

is not the determinate form of the labour, but whether it has been drawn into the network of capitalist social relations, whether the worker who carries it on has been transformed into a wage-worker, and whether the labour of the worker has been transformed into productive labour-that is, labour which produces a profit for capital....Labour which is put to work in the production of goods is not thereby sharply divided from labour applied to the production of services, since both are forms of production of commodities, and of production on a capitalist basis, the object of which is the production not only of value-in-exchanve but of surplus value for the capitalist. The variety of determinate forms of labour may affect the consciousness, cohesiveness or economic and political activity of the working class, but they do not effect its existence as a class. The various forms of labour which produce commodities for the capitalist are all to be counted as productive labour. The worker who builds an office building and the worker who cleans it every night alike produce value and surplus value. Because they are productive for the capitalist, the capitalist allows them to work and produce; insofar as such workers are productive, society lives at their expense.[47]

In other words, surplus value is not just extracted from manual workers in mining, but from service workers in call centers or grocery stores, since all of them contribute to the accumulation of profit by the capitalists. Whatever differences may exist between a boilermaker and a cashier, they all belong to the same class. Thus when we abandon Poulantzas' conception of the petty bourgeoisie as non-productive labourers, we can see the working class is far larger in advanced capitalist societies than he was willing to allow.

Lastly, objection can be made to Poulantzas' definition of class for including three levels: the economic, political and the ideological (with the first being determinant). Rather, it is only the economic that determines the objective existence of a class. At the time Poulantzas was writing, a great deal of Marxist historical writing such as E.P. Thompson, had looked upon class as a subjective “making” with its own political perspectives and culture. Instead class should be looked upon primarily as an objective category defined by the social relations of exploitation that extract surplus labour from the immediate producers. And while the class struggle can have a subjective factor, this is not necessarily so and the development of collective unity or class consciousness may or may not emerge. Yet even without a sense of collective identity, resistance by the dominated classes still occurs, since that is still produced by the very nature of exploitation. Otherwise, if we are to look at class and class struggles which are defined by political or ideological factors, we would have to discount most of the class struggles which have occurred throughout history.[48]

IV. The transition to socialism

Poulantzas' last major work, State, Power and Socialism (SPS), was completed in 1978, by which time he had moved politically to the left edge of Eurocommunism. Poulantzas had shed Leninist notions of smashing the state and establishing a regime of dual power. In summing up the lessons from the Portuguese Revolution of 1974-5, Poulantzas explicitly declared that the existing state apparatus “must however be able to continue to function as an operational unity. Not only can there be no question of 'smashing' it at this stage, but its 'democratisation' must not involve its dismantling.”[49]

Instead, he argued that it was imperative for the left to abandon the view that the state was “a monolithic bloc without cracks of any kind.”[50] Therefore, Poulantzas argued that a path to democratic socialism had to recognise that the class struggle does not just take place external to the state, but within it as well: “For state power to be taken, a mass struggle must have unfolded in such a way as to modify the relationship of forces within the state apparatuses, themselves the strategic site of political struggle.”[51]

Poulantzas also said that his proposed strategy was different from those of reformist social democracy because it was not premised on winning “successive reforms in an unbroken chain, to conquer the state machinery piece by piece, or simply to occupy the positions of government. It denotes nothing other than a stage of real breaks, the climax of which - and there has to be one - is reached when the relationship of forces on the strategic terrain of the state swings over to the side of the popular masses.”[52] Therefore, Poulantzas distinguished himself not only from Leninism, but from reformism, arguing for struggle both inside and outside of the state apparatus.

The perspectives elaborated by Poulantzas' last writings are far from academic or just confined to theory. Significant political currents and individuals within the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA), who currently hold governmental office in Greece, take their inspiration from Poulantzas. SYRIZA faces the challenges, problems and opportunities of carrying out not only an anti-austerity program, but potentially more radical social changes in Greece. At the same time, SYRIZA has to deal with resistance from their own native bourgeoisie and the Troika composed of the European Commission (EC), European Central Bank (ECB) and International Monetary Fund (IMF) who remain determine to cripple the country.

According to Stathis Kouvelakis, a member of the Central Committee of SYRIZA and a leading member of the Left Platform, both Gramsci (with his notion of organic crisis and war of position) and Poulantzas have been important for understanding the nature of the crisis in Greece. In regards to Poulantzas, Kouvelakis says that his thinking has helped SYRIZA to conceive of a strategy of “seising power by elections, but combining that with social mobilisations and breaking with the notion of a dual power as an insurrectionary attack on the state from the outside — the state has to seised from the inside and from the outside, from above and from below.”[53] According to Kouvelakis' reading of Poulantzas SYRIZA also needs to “understand specifically the risks of Syriza’s evolution as a party form and more particularly the need to avoid the “state-isation” of Syriza. The risk of this type of strategy is that, before reaching power, or immediately after reaching power, you have already been absorbed by the state.”[54] If SYRIZA doesn't understand those risks and neglects to purse a strategy of 'real breaks,' they will wind up as just another reformist party within the existing state.

So with all that in mind, we will ask ourselves the following questions: (1) how did Poulantzas' theory of the state change to allow him to say that it was traversed by internal contradictions? (2) Based on this, what strategy does Poulantzas propose for socialists to employ? (3) What pitfalls and problems confront his proposed strategy?

Although State, Power and Socialism continues many of the arguments and themes found in his earlier work, Poulantzas moves beyond his earlier Althusserianism. Now, in place of stressing the relative autonomy of the state in regards to the economic level, he states that the economy has never “formed a hermetically sealed level, capable of self-reproduction and possessing its own 'laws' of internal functioning. The political field of the State (as well as the sphere of ideology) has always, in different forms, been present in the constitution and reproduction of the relations of production.”[55]

Yet the role of the state in relation to the economy has changed as capitalism developed. In the shift from competitive to monopoly capitalism, the state's “strictly economic functions were subordinated, though not reduced, especially, to its repressive and ideological functions.”[56]

The onset of crises in the 1970s that saw European welfare states suffer from declining profitability and sharpening class struggles, meant that the state needed to manage these contradictions by increasing its economic functions. This led to the development of neoliberalism that slashed the social safety net and increased the power of finance, which was facilitated by the state. According to Poulantzas, “the dominant place of economic functions within the state has given rise to new forms of specialisation in certain state bodies charged with carrying out these functions. Unless we break with the analogical image according to which the state apparatuses are divided into watertight fields, we cannot grasp the reorganisation, extension and consolidation of the state economic apparatus as the restructuring principle of state space.”[57] In other words, the Althusserian paradigm of a regional theory with its separate levels needed to be abandoned by looking at the state in the current phase of capitalism.

In place of the regional theory, Poulantzas now posited that the state was a social relation: “the (capitalist) State should not be regarded as an intrinsic entity: like 'capital,' it is rather a relationship of forces, or more precisely the material condensation of such a relationship among classes and class fractions, such as expressed within the State in a necessarily specific form.”[58] The state is, like capital, is a social relation where state power is a “form-determined condensation of the changing balance of forces in political and politically-relevant struggle.”[59] The various struggles between classes and fractions are arbitrated by the state apparatus, which does not have a fixed character, but is itself the product of struggles. The state ensures the political unity of the ruling class through all of its apparatuses (not just the repressive ones and political parties). And this is accomplished since the state possesses relative autonomy.

The state constitutes the political unity of the dominant classes, thereby establishing their dominance. Moreover, the fundamental role of organisation does not involve just one apparatus or branch of the State (political parties), but concerns, in varying degrees and manners, the totality of its apparatuses - including pre-eminently repressive ones such as the military police.

Further, “The state apparatuses consecrate and reproduce hegemony by bringing the power bloc and certain dominated classes into a (variable) game of provisional compromises. The state apparatuses organise-unify the power bloc by permanently disorganising-dividing the dominated classes, polarising them towards the power bloc, and short-circuiting their own political organisations.”[60]

However, Poulantzas does not believe that the balance of class and political forces are fixed, rather it is the result of past struggles that can be modified due to changes in the power bloc and/or the dominant classes. This leads Poulantzas to modify his earlier understanding of the distinction between the repressive and ideological state apparatuses found in Althusserian theory, by stating that “the basic error of this conception was the fact that it restricted the State to the exercise of repression and reproduction of the dominant ideology. In reality, there are a number of state apparatuses that pre-eminently fulfill functions other than repression and reproduction of the dominant ideology.”[61]

The state needs to produce a material substratum of mass consent in order to ensure hegemony, such as by creating a social safety net, alleviating unemployment and providing education.

Poulantzas goes further and theorises the state as “a strategic field and process power networks, which both articulate and exhibit and displacements.”[62]

In looking at the strategic field, British Marxist Richard Seymour states that Poulantzas views the strategic field quite broadly. For instance, while institutions such as hospitals and asylums that are normally not included within the strategic field of the state state, Poulantzas includes them along with all sorts of formally private institutions such as paramilitaries or charities.[63]

In conceptualising the state as a social relation, itself the product of past struggles, this means that Poulantzas views the state not as a single undifferentiated bloc, but itself traversed by class struggle. He believed that it was possible for the dominated classes to establish beach-heads or influence within the state apparatus. In terms of political strategy, Poulantzas argues that the left and social movements should not ignore state power, but rather,

In the democratic road to socialism, the long process of taking power essentially consists in the spreading, development, reinforcement, coordination and direction of those diffuse centres of resistance which the masses always possess within the state networks, in such a way that they become the real centres of power on the strategic terrain of the state.[64]

It would be the task of popular movements that have established beach-heads to intensify the existing contradictions inside the state, while at the same time, mobilising the masses outside of the state to develop new forms of self-government in order to challenge the existing state in order to begin the transition to socialism.

While Poulantzas, rejects a parliamentary road to socialism (to be found among right Eurocommunists or social democrats) he also eschews an insurrectionist strategy.

A number of objections can be raised to Poulantzas' strategy for socialist transition of establishing beach-heads within the state and intensifying their contradictions alongside popular struggles on the outside. At this point, Poulantzas had abandoned the theory of the leading role of a communist party, but provided no adequate substitute.

Furthermore, the then-Trotskyist Henri Weber notes that Poulantzas' own work provides a number of number of objections to his strategy. For one, the dominated classes are unlikely to hold more than peripheral positions within the state. The major organs of repressive power -- such as the courts, army and the police will be in the hands of the ruling class and remain committed to the defence of the existing order.

Second, since the state is a strategic field, power can be shifted within it. For instance, in Chile when Allende and a socialist government was elected, the old order took steps to ensure that radical measures could not be passed through parliament.

Third, if the balance of power within the state goes against the ruling class, they will fight it by any means necessary (see the example of Chile in 1973).

Fourth, the majority of the state apparatus remain committed to maintaining the existing system. And lastly, owing to the growth of authoritarianism, all of these tendencies have been accentuated and not diminished.[65]

Thus, Poulantzas' strategy does not appear to be promising and in fact the objections raised point toward the necessity of both a communist party and a dictatorship of the proletariat.

Poulantzas explicitly rejected the need to smash the state, stating that there will not be a single rupture, but rather a long transitional process that will pass through the existing state.[66] For him, this meant abandoning the Marxist idea of a dictatorship of the proletariat and its replacement by a state modelled on the Paris Commune. What Poulantzas argues for instead is to democratise the institutions of representative democracy in order to ensure and extend the political freedoms and institutions of representative democracy (both of which were the result of popular struggle).[67]

Poulantzas rejects reliance on organs of direct democracy such as Soviets, saying,

as far as I know, it's never worked. Direct democracy, by which I mean direct democracy in the soviet sense only, has always and everywhere been accompanied by the suppression of the plurality of parties and then the suppression of political and formal liberties. Now, to say that that's merely Stalinism seems to me to be going a bit far.[68]

Beyond what Poulantzas views as the undemocratic nature of dual power and direct democracy, he also believes that such a Leninist strategy is unrealistic: the existing state would not allow the creation of a counter-power.[69]

Ultimately, Poulantzas believes that the Leninist theory of revolution, dual power and soviet power was based on four misconceptions: 1. the struggle is “a frontal struggle of manoeuvre or encirclement, taking place outside the fortress-state and principally aiming at the creation of a situation of dual power.” Second, it is a misreading of means and strategy that reduced the revolution to the seizure of power, that “clearly lacks the strategic vision of a process of transition to socialism -- that is, of a long stage during which the masses will act to conquer power and transform the state apparatuses.” Third, Leninism can't conceive of how to intervene in the current state. Last, Leninism leaves unresolved the question of how to transform the state apparatus during the transition to socialism.[70]

For Poulantzas, who was basing himself on Rosa Luxemburg's critical 1918 essay on the Russian Revolution, the Bolshevik conception of revolution led to the denial of political freedom, the suppression of the masses and the birth of Stalinist statism.

There are a number of objections that can be made to Poulantzas' understanding of Lenin and Bolshevik strategy, a few of which will be mentioned here. For one, Poulantzas draws a rather straight line between the October Revolution and the worst crimes that occurred under Stalin. He seems to assume that the abuses of Stalin were contained in the original Bolshevik conception of power, but forgets that the Russian Revolution faced economic breakdown, counterrevolution, invasion, civil war and a number of contingent factors that they had to contend with.

However, just because the USSR underwent that particular development, does not mean all similar attempts will meet the same fate. Nor is it explained how representative democracy could have changed the outcome of the Bolshevik Revolution. Furthermore, Poulantzas condemns the Bolshevik decision to abolish the Constituent Assembly in 1918 as an undemocratic act. Yet Poulantzas never asks how representative that assembly was (or how it served as the rallying cry of every counterrevolutionary force in Russia) and that it refused to recognise Soviet Power.

In comparison to the purely formal democracy which could, arguably be said to exist in the Constituent Assembly, we can say that Soviet power greatly expanded the rights of the vast majority in Russia by overthrowing the old order and striving to put in place a new society. Last, Poulantzas makes the error of posing a sharp dichotomy between direct and representative democracy, which in fact politics involves elements that are both direct and representational.

Poulantzas also extended his criticism of Lenin to Gramsci, stating that despite the latter's insights, his ideas such as the war of position were “essentially conceived as the application of Lenin's model/strategy to the 'different concrete conditions' of the West.”[71] According to Poulantzas, Gramsci conceives of the war of position as surrounding “the strong castle of the state from outside with the structures of popular power. But in the end it's always the same story. It's a strong castle, right? So either you launch an assault on it -- war of movement; or you besiege it -- war of position. In any case, there is no conception in Gramsci's work that a real revolutionary rupture, linked to an internal struggle, can occur at this or that point of the state apparatus.”[72]

Peter Thomas has argued that Poulantzas's critique of Gramsci was based on a mistaken view of the state and the war of position. According to Thomas, Poulantzas argued that Gramsci had “remained a prisoner to the topographical metaphors of the Leninist tradition”[73] with dual power, and their separation between the state and civil society. Yet Poulantzas misunderstands Gramsci's theory of the state and hegemony by believing that he separates the state and civil society.

Gramsci did not view the relation of the state and civil society in advanced capitalist societies of the west as the same as Russia. Rather, Gramsci argued:

In Russia the State was everything, civil society was primordial and gelatinous; in the West, there was a proper relation between State and civil society, and when the State trembled a sturdy structure of civil society was at once revealed. The State was only an outer ditch, behind which there stood a powerful system of fortresses and earthworks: more or less numerous from one State to the next, it goes without saying-but this precisely necessitated an accurate reconnaissance of each individual country.[74]

By contrast, Thomas says that Gramsci believed that in the West, both the state and civil society were interrelated and unified parts of an “integral state”. According to Thomas, what emerges from Gramsci's theory of the integral state is

a new “consensual” political practice distinct from mere coercion (a dominant means of previous ruling classes) on this new terrain of civil society; but, like civil society, integrally linked to the state, hegemony’s full meaning only becomes apparent when it is related to its dialectical distinction of coercion. Hegemony in civil society functions as the social basis of the dominant class’s political power in the state apparatus, which in turn reinforces its initiatives in civil society. The integral state, understood in this broader sense, is the process of the condensation and transformation of these class relations into institutional form.[75]

While coercion and consent are separate with different functions, they operate as part of a single integrated whole. Therefore, Poulantzas' criticism that for Gramsci the class struggle takes place outside of the state is false when read in light of the theory of the “integral state.”

For Gramsci, a strategy of dual power is not external to the state, but rather builds hegemony throughout civil society in order to launch a war of maneuver within the state. Thomas sums up Gramsci's strategy as follows:

The path to political power for the proletariat would involve, in the first instance, modifying the relation of forces within the integral state, dislocating the mutual reinforcement of coercion and consent exploited by the bourgeoisie in order to further its own class domination…The state apparatuses of the bourgeoisie could be neutralised only when the proletariat had deprived it of its ‘social basis’ through the elaboration of an alternative hegemonic project. Gramsci conceived this project in concrete terms, as “hegemonic apparatuses”... and by means of which a class and its allies could engage its opponent in a struggle for political power, or leadership over the society as a whole. Such a movement would eventually lead to moment in which these forces would have to institutionalize themselves in power in the state apparatus ... in a specific and distinctive way.[76]

Despite the difference that separates Gramsci and Poulantzas in terms of Leninism and the dictatorship of the proletariat, when it comes to their understanding of the war of position, the creation of a counter-hegemonic socialist project, and a relational theory of the state, both actually converge a great deal.

Rather than use Poulantzas' rejection of a vanguard party, the dictatorship of the proletariat and the strong objections to his strategy of a transition to simply dismiss his ideas as reformist or centrist, let us say instead say: he asked the right questions about how the contemporary capitalist state operates and the need for socialists and communists to develop the appropriate strategies to confront it.

Let us return to the example of SYRIZA (one could also add Venezuela). Arguably, SYRIZA is bound to succumb to either the Troika, or to its own internal contradictions, but that doesn't take away from what they did accomplish: developing links with social movements and taking governmental power. SYRIZA developed a sober and sincere strategy that avoided the nonsense of “changing the world without taking power” or sectarian irrelevance.

The questions that SYRIZA in office has to confront deepening social changes, carrying out their anti-austerity program and possibly going further, will no doubt be faced by similar formations elsewhere. The resistance of existing state institutions inside and outside of Greece to any of SYRIZA's proposed changes or breaks may in fact reveal the limits of Poulantzas' ideas.

V. Conclusion

Despite the limitations of Nicos Poulantzas in regards to his theory of the state, social class and the transition to socialism, we should commend him for asking the right questions in regards to theory and strategy. Poulantzas was willing to confront the difficult questions of how the state functioned and what revolutionaries needed to do.

In contrast to many on the left, both in his time and ours, he took strategy seriously. Even if we choose not to accept Poulantzas' political conclusion, his work and methodology deserves serious and critical engagement.


[1]Bob Jessop, Nicos Poulantzas: Marxist Theory and Political Strategy (London: Macmillan 1985), 3-25.

[2]Nicos Poulantzas, Political Power and Social Classes (London: New Left Books, 1973), 16-7.

[3]See Jessop 1985, 130.

[4]Poulantzas 1973, 13-4.

[5]Ibid. 32.

[6]Ibid. 190.

[7]See David Milton, The Politics of US Labor: From the Great Depression to the New Deal (New York: Monthly Review, 1982).

[8]Jessop 1985, 66.

[9]Poulantzas 1973, 130.

[10]Ibid. 44.

[11]Ibid. 45.

[12]Ibid. 104.

[13]Ibid. 54.

[14]For more, see my “Gramsci for Communists”, Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal.

[15]Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks (New York: International Publishers, 1971), 80. Henceforth SPN.

[16]See also my “Marxist View of the State,” Kasama Project.

[17]SPN 12.

[18]Ibid. 238.

[19]Poulantzas 1973, 140.

[20]Ibid. 141.

[21]Poulantzas also deals with the rise of fascist exceptional regimes in Germany and Italy at length in Fascism and Dictatorship (1974). See also David Abraham, The Collapse of the Weimar Republic: Politics, Economy and Crisis (New York: Holmes and Meier, 1986) and my “Communist Resistance in Nazi Germany,” Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal.

Bob Jessop offers the following summary of Poulantzas' views of the exception state in Jessop, Bob 2011, Poulantzas’s State, Power, Socialism as a Modern Classic. In Reading Poulantzas, ed. Alexander Gallas, Lars Bretthauer, John Kannankulam, and Ingo Stutzle, 46-7. Pontypool: Merlin Press.

“Poulantzas’s analysis of the exceptional state derives from his view that the definitive features of the normal form of the capitalist type of state are democratic institutions and hegemonic class leadership. Normal states correspond to conjunctures in which bourgeois hegemony is stable and secure; and exceptional states are responses to a crisis of hegemony.... Thus, while consent predominates over constitutionalised violence in normal states, exceptional states intensify physical repression and conduct an ‘open war’ against dominated classes...This basic contrast is reflected in four sets of institutional and operational differences between the two forms of state.

Whereas the normal state has representative democratic institutions with universal suffrage and competing political parties, exceptional states suspend the electoral principle (apart from plebiscites and/or referenda closely controlled from above) and end the plural party system ... The transfer of power in normal states follows constitutional and legal rules and occurs in stable and predictable ways. Exceptional states suspend the rule of law, however, to facilitate constitutional and administrative changes allegedly required to help solve the hegemonic crisis... Ideological state apparatuses in normal states typically have "private" legal status and enjoy significant autonomy from official government control. In contrast, ISAs in exceptional states are generally subordinated to the repressive state apparatus and lack real independence. This subordination serves to legitimate the increased resort to coercion and helps overcome the ideological crisis that accompanies a crisis of hegemony... The formal separation of powers within the RSA is also reduced through the infiltration of subordinate branches and power centres by the dominant branch and/or through the expansion of parallel power networks and transmission belts cutting across and linking different branches and centres. This produces greater centralisation of political control and multiplies its points of application in the state. This serves to reorganise hegemony, to counteract internal divisions and short-circuit internal resistances, and to secure flexibility in the face of bureaucratic inertia...”

[22]Poulantzas 1973, 136-137. See also Chris Walsh, “Nicos Poulantzas and the Capitalist State,” International Socialist Group.

[23]Jessop 1985, 68, who also cites Poulantzas 1973, 255-7, 275-9, 282-5, and 287-9.

[24]Jessop 1985, 71.

[25]Poulantzas 1973, 313.

[26]Ibid. 274 and 288.

[27]Jessop 1985, 72.

[28]See Poulantzas 1973, 55 and for commentary see Ellen Meiksins Wood, The Retreat from Class: A New 'True' Socialism (New York: Verso, 1986), 29.

[29]Wood 1986, 31.

[30]See also Jessop 1985, 79.

[31]Wood 1986, 33.

[32]Nicos Poulantzas, Classes in Contemporary Capitalism (London: New Left Books, 1975), 14.

[33]Ibid. 17-8.

[34]Ibid. 18.

[35]Ibid. 20.

[36]Ibid. 211.

[37]Ibid. 211-2.

[38]Ibid. 14.

[39]Nicos Poulantzas, Fascism and Dictatorship: The Third International and the Problem of Fascism (London: New Left Books, 1974) 237.


[41]Nicos Poulantzas, On Social Classes, in The Poulantzas Reader: Marxism, Law and the State, James Martin, ed. (New York: Verso, 2008a), 208.

[42]Poulantzas 1975, 285-6.

[43]See Poulantzas 1974, 240-2; Jessop 1985, 170; Poulantzas 1975, 295-7.

[44]Poulantzas 1975, 204.

[45]Wood 1986, 33.


[47]Harry Braverman, Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1974), 254 and 284.

[48]The Marxist historian of antiquity G.E.M. de Ste Croix offers a rigorous discussion of class in The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World: from the Archaic Age to the Arab Conquests (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1981). See chapter 2 which is devoted to class and especially pp. 43-4 and 57.

[49]Nicos Poulantzas, Crisis of the Dictatorships (London: Verso, 1976), 152.

[50]Nicos Poulantzas, State, Power and Socialism (New York: Verso, 1980), 254.

[51]Ibid. 258.

[52]Ibid. 258-9.

[53]Sebastian Budgen & Stathis Kouvelakis, “Greece: Phase One,” Jacobin.


[55]Poulantzas 1980, 17.

[56]Ibid. 167. See also Barrow, Clyde W. 2011, (Re)Reading Poulantzas: State Theory and the Epistemologies of Structuralism. In Reading Poulantzas, ed. Alexander Gallas, Lars Bretthauer, John Kannankulam, and Ingo Stutzle, 37-8. Pontypool: Merlin Press.

[57]Poulantzas 1980, 170.

[58]Poulantzas 1980, 128-9.

[59]Jessop 2011, 43. Italics in original.

[60]Poulantzas 1980, 127 and 140.

[61]Ibid. 170.

[62]Ibid. 136.

[63]See Richard Seymour, “Terrifyingly real: Poulantzas and the capitalist state,” Lenin's Tomb. The engagement between Poulantzas and Foucault is beyond the scope of this essay, for some fruitful insights see Linder, Urs T. State, domination and politics: on the relationship between Poulantzas and Focucalt and Stutzle, Ingo. The Order of Knowledge: The State as a Knowledge Apparatus. Both in Reading Poulantzas 2011.

[64]Poulantzas 1980, 258.

[65]Drawn from Jessop 1985, 307-8.

[66]Nicos Poulantzas, The State and the Transition to Socialism, in The Poulantzas Reader: Marxism, Law and the State, James Martin, ed. (New York: Verso, 2008b), 340-1.

[67]Poulantzas 1980, 256 and Poulantzas 2008b, 345.

[68]Poulantzas 2008b, 345.

[69]Ibid. 355.

[70]Poulantzas 1980, 254-5.

[71]Ibid. 256.

[72] Poulantzas 2008b, 341.

[73]Thomas, Peter. 2011, Conjuncture of the Integral State? Poulantzas's Reading of Gramsci. In Reading Poulantzas, ed. Alexander Gallas, Lars Bretthauer, John Kannankulam and Ingo Stutzle, 279. Pontypool: Merlin Press. See also Chris Walsh, “Poulantzas and Gramsci: State and Strategy,” International Socialist Group.

[74]SPN 238.

[75]Peter D. Thomas, The Gramscian Moment: Philosophy, Hegemony and Marxism (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2009), 144.

[76]Thomas 2011, 289. Thomas argues that Poulantzas' criticism of Gramsci for not developing a relational theory of the state is mistaken, since the integral state is in fact a relational theory. Ibid. 285.

Submitted by Laurence Goodchild (not verified) on Sat, 08/08/2015 - 01:47


Thanks for this thought-provoking piece. I have only read Poulantzas's later work (State, Power, Socialism), and so it is interesting to see how starkly it contrasts with his earlier positions, especially in terms of strategy.

While reading SPS I was also struck by the similarities with Gramsci, and surprised by the manner in which Poulantzas seems to only recognize this convergence as quite limited. For example, his statements on the way in which the state goes beyond "repression and reproduction of dominant ideology", providing a material base for consent via compromises/concessions, is actually already prominent in Gramsci's concept of hegemony (and the thought of numerous neo-Gramscian intellectuals who came later).

Furthermore, his concept of a "power bloc" is surely very similar in function to Gramsci's concept of a "historic bloc", and links in with the issue of consent within hegemony, which Gramsci also suggested is achieved partly via compromises with certain sections of the dominated classes (who are therefore included in the bloc).

In terms of strategy, you make some good points on the risks/limitations of trying to struggle within and outside (against?) the state. These problems are wholly valid, and although I have reservations about a strategy of making "real breaks" or "non-reformist reforms"(Gorz), I still remain unconvinced by a Leninist strategy which involves "smashing the state". Although you address your grievances with Poulantzas's characterization of Bolshevism well, you don't fully address his concern that the state would simply not allow the creation of a counter-power.

In the case of Chile 1973, there are two issues. Firstly, I don't doubt that it is a pertinent example of the pitfalls of a strategy suggested by latter-day Poulantzas. However, wouldn't the full power of the state, capitalists, imperialists, also of been bought to bear against a counter-power built outside the state (if the MIR had expanded significantly for example)? Secondly, just as you say that the negative outcomes/aspects of Bolshevik strategy in the USSR cannot be used to write off a Leninist strategy as a whole, does this same line of thinking not also apply to the case of Chile?

I am not convinced either way, but one thing I am sure of is that we can't rely on a general all-encompassing strategy. Every revolution is heterodox, and strategy needs to be established according to the particularities of the context.

There are many other interesting aspects of this article but I don't want to ramble on excessively. For example, if "it is only the economic that determines the objective existence of a class", and you disagree with Poulantzas's separation of value-producing and non-value producing labour, then how do you define the 'labour aristocracy'?

Anyway, brilliant article, I'll be sure to check out your video.