In this issue, we are publishing an essay by Nicos Poulantzas,footnote1 a young Greek philosopher working in Paris, on the analysis of English history and society pursued by Tom Nairn and Perry Anderson in New Left Review, and contested by Edward Thompson in The Socialist Register, in the past three years. The debate which followed Thompson’s attack focused on the empirical problems of interpreting and periodizing English social structure from the 17th century to this day.
Poulantzas takes this historiographic discussion as his point of departure. But his own study is concerned with the theoretical infrastructure of the debate. As such, it represents an important advance over previous discussion, allowing the reader to assess the fundamental conceptual issues posed by the analyses attempted in nlr. Poulantzas’s essay may be seen both as a continuation of the debate on English society initiated in the review, and as a development of the series of essays on Marxist theory which we have been publishing for the past year. It unites the two areas of exploration very concretely, by bringing to bear an Althusserian critique on the Nairn-Anderson theses.
In nlr 41, we published Althusser’s essay ‘Contradiction and Over-Determination’, in which he makes his famous criticism of the Hegelian totality and Hegelian historicism, distinguishing them from the Marxist totality—always complex and over-determined, never simple and circular—and from Marxist sociology, which becomes a comparative structuralism. Using these distinctions, Poulantzas criticizes the Anderson-Nairn theses for historicism in this sense (which has nothing to do, of course, with the use of the notion by Popper). In doing so, he raises some crucial questions for Marxist theory generally. In particular, is ‘class consciousness’ a Marxist concept, as Lukács believed—or is an illegitimate intrusion into Marxism, as Poulantzas claims? What are the modal relationships between State and social classes in a capitalist society? What did Gramsci mean by the concept of ‘hegemony’? In what sense is it possible to speak of a class as an ‘agent’ of history? Poulantzas subjects the Anderson-Nairn theses to searching criticism in the light of Althusser’s categorial system, and thus provides one of the first tests of its application to a concrete historical problem.
But it should be said that he himself is not an uncritical disciple of Althusser. His first work was a Lukácsian theory of bourgeois law. He then wrote a long essay on Hegemony and the State,footnote2 and has more recently published one of the most serious and original assessments of Althusser to have appeared,footnote3 in which he points out the difficulty, within Althusser’s ‘de-historicized’ system, of critically founding the dominance in the last instance of the economy which distinguishes the Marxist from the Hegelian social unity—a problem to which Sartre’s ‘historicist’ concept of scarcity, by contrast, is one solution. Later this year his book Le Politique et la Lutte des Classes—perhaps the first systematic work of Marxist theory since the war—will be published in Althussers’ collection in Paris.
There is a further reason why Poulantzas’s essay is a significant contribution to contemporary Marxist debate. Since the 1920’s, Marxist discussion has unfolded within provincial national boundaries, virtually never crossing them in a genuine international confrontation. Criticism in France of an English debate on English history thus represents a welcome development—a renewal of the internationalist traditions of the classic socialist movement. Poulantzas succeeds in unifying an extremely wide theoretical area in his conceptual analysis itself. Thus he shows the links between Weber, Lukács and Parsons; he traces in passing the development of Marcuse’s thought; and he discusses the relationship between Lenin and Gramsci. This freedom of movement has been all too rare in the past. The transcendence of national provincialism is an absolute precondition of theoretical work in Marxism today. Poulantzas’s essay is an example for the debates of the future. New Left Review will publish a reply in a forthcoming issue.