The unexpected and tragic death of Nicos Poulantzas, in Paris, in October of this year has robbed Marxist theory and the socialist movement of one of its most distinguished comrades. Though only 43 at his death, he had already established for himself a just reputation as a theoretician of exceptional and original stature. He was also, to those privileged to know him, a person who commanded respect and affection, above all for the depth of his commitment to practical and theoretical struggle. Born in Greece, he was active in the Greek student movement in the 1950’s, when he joined the Greek Democratic Alliance (eda) a broad, legal form of the then proscribed Communist Party. After his law studies, he came to France, and at that time joined the Greek Communist Party. In 1968, after the internal split, in the wake of the Colonel’s coup, he joined, and remained, a member of the Greek Communist Party of the Interior. In an interview which Alan Hunt and I conducted with him shortly before his death, he told us that it was virtually impossible in the early days even to acquire the classicals texts of Marx and Engels, and he came to Marxism largely through
Between 1968 and 1979, in a series of major interventions which established his international reputation as a Marxist scholar, Poulantzas set his distinctive mark on some of the most advanced and intractable debates within Marxist theory: particularly those concerning social classes, the State and the analysis of ‘the political’. Through the range of his treatment of these themes, and the analytic rigour of his thinking, he imposed himself, not only on debates within Marxism and between Marxists, but also on the more recalcitrant territory of ‘conventional’ political science. The ‘Miliband/Poulantzas’ debate, first initiated in these pages, has become an obligatory reference-point for all subsequent theorizing on the modern capitalist State. Poulantzas made this topic—at once of the utmost political and theoretical resonance—his own. It is appropriate, then, that the most recent of his books to be translated into English is one which returns, centrally, to this topic; also, that it should be a book as striking for its opening up of new questions as it is for securing and developing well-established positions.
This is not the appropriate time or place for a comprehensive assessment of his work. But it is necessary, briefly, to set State, Power, Socialism (nlb, 1978) in the context of that earlier work, partly to identify its distinctiveness, partly to situate the evolution and ‘turns’ in his thinking which the new book represents. Political Power and Social Classes was his most studiously ‘Althusserean’ text: Reading Capital is footnoted on the very first page of the Introduction. This book situated itself firmly within the Althusserean schema, as a ‘regional’ study of the political instance. In its opening chapter, it worked through a discussion of classes and the State within the strict framework of Althusser’s theory of ‘instances’ and of structuralist causality. It attempted to substantiate the definition of classes as the complex and over-determined ‘effects of the unity of the levels of the structure’ (p. 75). At the same time, it attempted to give a primacy, within this framework, to the constitutive effect of ‘the class struggle’. This was already a sort of correction for the hyper-structuralism of Reading Capital and the integral functionalism of some aspects of ‘Ideological State Apparatuses’, (where the ‘class struggle’, though constantly invoked, is not integrated into the structure of the argument, and thus remains largely ‘gestural’). Many would argue that this set up a tension in Poulantzas’s work, between ‘structure’ and ‘practice’, which was not resolved there, and which continued to haunt his later work. In Political Power and Social Classes there is a double-framework to every question—each element appearing twice, once as the ‘effect of the structure’, once as the ‘effect of a practice’. This tension may, in part, account for another aspect of that work—its tendency towards a formalism of exposition—from which his work as a whole cannot be exempted. This tendency is also present in his later book, Classes in Contemporary Capitalism which starts from a very different point—the imperialist chain—but then attempts to work formally through from that global level to its intersecting effects on the dominant classes of particular social formations. The problem of ‘formalism’ recurs in the more explicitly political book, Crisis of the Dictatorships, which is an application of the same schema to the particular conjunctural crises in Greece, Spain and Portugal which resulted in the overthrow of the dictatorships. Here, too, what is gained in clarity—for example, in explaining the fractioning of the Portuguese bourgeoisie from the level of the global ‘crisis of valorization’—is lost when one approaches the more conjectural elements which played a decisive effect both in the generation of the ‘crisis of the dictatorships’ and in the limited nature of the ‘settlements’ which replaced them.
Despite these weaknesses, both Political Power and Social Classes and Classes in Contemporary Capitalism were, in their different ways, major theoretical interventions. Political Power and Social Classes was especially innovatory. It is interesting that ‘the State’ does not appear in its title, since it is now—rightly—thought of as making its most significant contribution in this area. The substantive sections on ‘Fundamental Characteristics’ and ‘Relative Autonomy’ of the State are the chapters most frequently referred to. Already, Poulantzas marked himself off from both an ‘instrumentalist’ and a ‘technico-economic’ conception of the State. He took his stand on a particular reading of what he called, ambiguously, ‘the Marxist scientific problematic’ (p. 127). In a series of challenging exegeses, he developed a conception of the capitalist state grounded in Marx, Engels, Lenin and Gramsci. In his arguments concerning the separation of the ‘economic’ and the ‘political’, the role of the State in organizing the power bloc and disorganizing the dominated classes, and in displacing the class struggle through the construction of a ‘general interest’ and the isolation-effect (the constitution of the legal-individual citizen), Poulantzas clearly attempted to give Gramsci’s concept of ‘hegemony’ a more theoreticized and systematic formulation—though his manifest debt to Gramsci (handsomely acknowledged elsewhere) always awakens in him an extended ambiguity: Gramsci is nowhere praised without being, also, criticized. This signals a problem, concerning Poulantzas’s search for consistency and ‘orthodoxy’, and his retrospective construction of an impeccable Marxist lineage which reappears, in a different form, in the new book, and on which we comment more extensively below. ‘Exceptional’ forms of the state then provided the basis for the volume on Fascism and Dictatorship, with its more detailed historical cases, and its delineation of the distinctions between ‘fascism’, ‘Caesarism’ and ‘Bonapartism’.
Both Political Power and Social Classes and Fascism and Dictatorship were criticized at the time for their tendency to ‘overpoliticize’ the State.