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
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.
What is significant is the way in which these highly theoretical and often abstract debates progressively become politicized. If one looks, for example, at the way Poulantzas returns to the discussion of the ‘new petty-bourgeoisie’ three or four years laters—in his contribution to Class and Class Structure
footnote2—it is clear that the problem of ‘specifying the boundary of the working class’ is ‘not simply a theoretical question; it involves a political question of the greatest general importance concerning the role of the working class and of alliances in the transition to socialism’ (p. 113). This theme gives this latter piece a clarity of formulation and a thrust sometimes missing from his earlier work. From this point forwards, he begins to work on the theory/practice nexus in a more direct and pertinent way. In part, this marks his response to conjunctural developments—the break-up of the old dictatorships, the Chilean experience, the emergence of ‘Eurocommunist’ currents in Europe, his closer involvement with the opening and the dilemmas of a ‘Common Programme’ in France, the contradictory evolution of the Italian Communist Party’s ‘historic compromise’. Significantly, these also engage, in different ways, others of the original Althusser ‘group’—Althusser himself, Balibar, Rancière, Debray. But in Poulantzas’s case (perhaps also in others) it must also be regarded as symptomatic of a deeper ‘turn’ in his work. The crisis of the capitalist state becomes more pressing; simultaneously, openings to the left appear as real historical alternatives; there is, however, the shadow of Stalinism and the Gulag. Socialism returns to the agenda: correspondingly, so does the ‘crisis of socialism’/‘Crisis of Marxism’. The critical interview with Poulantzas by Henri Weber, which deals with the State and democracy in the context of ‘the transition to socialism’, indicates a shift of perspective, a new agenda and strikes a new note of political urgency.footnote3 There is also a clear dissolution of some of the certainties which underpinned the ‘orthodoxy’ of his previous work. This ‘openness’ to new themes is sustained in the interview in Marxism Today referred to above. The capitalist state is defined, not only in terms of contradictions but of ‘crisis’. But some of the fixed
‘Openness’ and ‘orthodoxy’ are terms which require a little more elucidation. The first is a value which—in the context of the sectarian climate which disfigures Marxist intellectual culture in Britain—is hard to over-rate. But, if one takes theoretical issues seriously, as Poulantzas always did, it is not a self-evident or self-validating ‘good’. At a time when anything and everything claims the fashionable mantle of ‘materialism’, a touch of orthodoxy remarkably concentrates the mind. These are not minor matters : they bear directly on the formation and deformation of a Marxist culture and the politics of intellectual work. The different kinds of ‘openness’ which State, Power, Socialism evidences are not difficult to specify, at a simple level. He takes on and engages with a whole series of new positions and arguments—of which Foucault’s contradictory appearance in the text is only the most significant example. Some of these new concepts begin to inflect his own discourse. He is open to reformulations of his earlier positions. He is ‘open’ on some of the central issues in ‘the transition to socialism’. The effect of giving way to these profound uncertainties about questions which the ‘older’ Poulantzas would have regarded as settled, must have been, in itself, a profoundly unsettling experience, personally and intellectually. In sum, this leads, in State, Power, Socialism, on the one hand, to the opening up of a rich, new seam of concepts and ideas, not subject to his normal tendency to orthodox closure; on the other hand, it leads to certain fluctuations of tone and address, to a continuous discursive movement of advance and retreat, which gives the marked impression of—tragically—unfinished business.