Six years ago, the publication of Ralph Miliband’s The State in Capitalist Society gave rise to a debate between the author and myself in the columns of New Left Review. footnote1 I reviewed the book and Miliband responded, presenting in the process a critique of my own Pouvoir politique et classes sociales. footnote2 I did not reply to this critique at the time; nor did I do so when Miliband subsequently published a full-length review of my book, on the occasion of its appearance in English. footnote3 However, now that English-speaking readers are in a position to refer to both my second book, Fascism and Dictatorship, and my more recent Classes in Contemporary Capitalism, I feel that the moment has come to continue the debate. footnote4 For if discussion is to be useful and not run in circles, it should draw its strength from new evidence; this new evidence in my case being the writings I have published since Political Power.

Before entering into the discussion proper, I feel I should make a number of preliminary remarks. Although the discussion involves primarily Miliband and myself, it does not stop there. A good many others, in Europe, the United States, Latin America and elsewhere, have joined in, in articles and books. I cannot hope to take into consideration all these contributions to the discussion. I shall attempt, however, to show that the way in which the differences between Miliband and myself have sometimes been perceived, especially in England and in the United States, as a controversy between ‘instrumentalism’ and ‘structuralism’, is an utterly mistaken way of situating the discussion, at least with respect to the application of the latter term to Political Power. Moreover, I shall be taking into consideration one of the more recent contributions to the debate, namely Ernesto Laclau’s ‘The Specificity of the Political: around the Poulantzas-Miliband debate’. footnote5 Though far from sharing all of Laclau’s views, I believe his article helps to place the debate on its true terrain, and especially it touches upon some of the real questions to which Political Power gave rise.

The following text will thus be more of a contribution to the general discussion than a reply to Miliband’s articles, for two fundamental reasons. In the first place, one can only hope to carry on a far-reaching debate with the aid of a precise language, and one that is also, necessarily, situated on a specific theoretical terrain, in the sense that the participants in this debate manage, from within their respective problematics, to attach precise definitions to the concepts, terms or notions they are using. Miliband’s writings, however, are marked by the absence of any theoretical problematic. It is this absence above all that lies behind his repeated criticisms of my work for its lack of ‘concrete analyses’. This reference to concrete analyses is certainly valid, but only when made from within another theoretical problematic, one showing that it is capable of providing a better explanation of historical facts. Thus I do not at all say that Miliband is wrong to discuss ‘facts’ with me or to quote them against me. All I am saying is that one can only begin to counter a theory by citing the ‘proof’ of facts, the proof of ‘practice’, when this approach—which is a perfectly valid one—can be said to flow from a different theoretical position. This is an elementary principle of epistemology. Such a position is lacking in Miliband’s writings. As a result, as Laclau has correctly observed, our respective texts are situated on disparate terrains, i.e. they often deal with different matters. Furthermore, this means that the critical terms Miliband uses with reference to me, such as ‘abstractionism’, ‘structuralism’ or ‘super-determinism’, remain extremely vague and imprecise in his usage.

In the second place, on the subject of Miliband’s own work, I have nothing to add to what I wrote in my original review of his book. And while I do have something to say about the evolution of my own positions and analyses since the publication of Political Power, in particular concerning a series of rectifications I have felt it necessary to make (I embarked on this process in Fascism and Dictatorship, and the rectifications have now crystallized in Classes in Contemporary Society), this aspect of the present article can in no way be seen as a reply to Miliband. For Miliband has failed to see the real problems, the real lacunae, ambiguities and debatable points in my first book—the shortcomings which have in fact led me to make the rectifications in question. A large part of the following text is, therefore, a reply to Laclau and a clarification of the criticisms I myself am now in a position to make concerning Political Power, rather than a reply to Miliband.

I shall nevertheless begin by returning to the above-mentioned reproach, made repeatedly by Miliband, concerning the characteristic absence in my writings of concrete analyses or reference to concrete historical and empirical facts. This is the chief meaning, as I understand it, of the term ‘abstractionism’ which he employs when writing about my work.

First of all, I do not think this reproach is in any way justified. Constant and precise references to the state of the class struggle and to the historical transformations of the State are abundantly present in Political Power, ranging from analyses of the absolutist State to others which concern the historical models of the bourgeois revolution, the transformations of blocs in power and of the bourgeoisie, the forms of the capitalist State and of capitalist régimes, etc. I could easily go on citing examples. But I doubt whether this would be worthwhile, for I think that the real reason why Miliband makes this criticism of my work lies in the difference in our respective approaches to ‘concrete facts’. For me, as against any empiricist or neo-positivist approach such as that of Miliband, these facts can only be rigorously—that is, demonstrably—comprehended if they are explicitly analysed with the aid of a theoretical apparatus constantly employed throughout the length of the text. This presupposes, as Durkheim already pointed out in his time, that one resolutely eschews the demagogy of the ‘palpitating fact’, of ‘common sense’ and the ‘illusions of the evident’. Failing this, one can pile up as many concrete analyses as one likes, they will prove nothing whatsoever. I fear that Miliband has confused my eschewal of the illusion of the evident with what he calls ‘total lack’ of concrete analyses in my work. Miliband himself certainly does not reject, as I have already shown in my first article, the demagogy of common sense—in which, moreover, he is assisted by the dominant ‘Anglo-Saxon culture’ as a whole. As Perry Anderson clearly demonstrated some time ago, this dominant Anglo-Saxon culture is constitutively imbued, and not by accident, with a prodigious degree of empiricism. footnote6

That said, I nonetheless think that the first criticism one can make of Political Power concerns not the absence of concrete analyses, but the way they operate within the text, involving a certain theoreticism. To some extent this is attributable to an over-rigid epistemological position, one that I shared with Althusser at the time. By concentrating the main weight of our attack against empiricism and neo-positivism, whose condensates, in the Marxist tradition, are economism and historicism, we rightly insisted on the specificity of the theoretical process, that of the production of knowledge which, with its own specific structures, occurs in the thought process. In our view, the ‘real fact’ or ‘practice’ was situated both prior to the engaging of the thought process (prior to Generalities I, which already constituted a ‘thought fact’, upon which Generalities II would get to work, the latter being concepts which in turn produced ‘concrete knowledge’, Generalities III) and after the conclusion of the thought process, i.e. Generalities III, at which point the question of ‘experimentation’ and of the adequacy of the theory to the facts and of theory to practice would arise. footnote7 In Althusser’s case this even created the highly dubious impression that the theoretical process, or ‘discourse’, would itself contain the criteria for its own validation or ‘scientificity’: this much is clear in the term he used, with Balibar, and which he has since abandoned, namely theoretical practice. This term conjured away the problem of the ‘theory-practice’ relation by situating this relation entirely within theory itself. What we failed to see at the time was that, while firmly upholding the specificity of the theoretical process in relation to the ‘concrete real’, we should have perceived the particular way in which this ‘real’ intervenes, and the way in which the theory-practice relation functions throughout the entire theoretical process.