Poulantzas, Nicos 1936-1979
Famous for his concept of the “relative-autonomy of the state” as well as for his debate with Ralph Miliband (1924–1994), Nicos Poulantzas was a formative neo-Marxist theorist of politics. Born into a prominent family in Greece, Poulantzas studied law at the University of Athens before moving to France, where he completed his doctoral studies in the philosophy of law. During this time, he was closely aligned with the existential Marxism of Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–1980) and Simone de Beauvoir (1908–1986), and he was a contributor to their journal Les Temps modernes (Modern Times). Poulantzas, however, began moving away from existentialism in 1966 and increasingly came to be influenced by the “structuralist” Marxism of Louis Althusser (1918–1990); it is largely in this context, as an Althusserian or structuralist, that Poulantzas has come to be known.
In 1969 the New Left Review published Poulantzas’s critical review of Miliband’s book The State in Capitalist Society (1969). This review was the first volley in what came to be known as the Miliband-Poulantzas debate. The debate largely hinged on whether the class bias of the state was a product of the class origins and affiliations of those individuals who occupied the top positions within state institutions (Miliband) or whether the class bias of the state was more a product of its structures and functions (Poulantzas). Beyond separating Marxists into what may have been an overstated divide of “instrumentalist” and “structuralist” camps, the debate highlighted a renewed Marxist interest in the theory of politics, and it foreshadowed and provoked an intense growth of research on the state, a still ongoing body of inquiry often referred to as state theory.
Poulantzas’s most import work in this context was Political Power and Social Classes (1968). It is in this work that he first developed the idea of the relative autonomy of the state. According to Poulantzas, for the state to properly function as a capitalist state it must be able to go against the individual and particular interests of capitalists in order to act in their general/class interests; the state must be “relatively autonomous” from the interests and demands of capitalists. This also implied that the state could not be reduced to some reflection of economic relations or interests, as more orthodox Marxists had often done. Poulantzas argued that, as economic agents, capitalists tend to be divided and competitive. The state provides the institutional space for various factions of the capitalist class, as well as other powerful classes, to come together and form long-term strategies and alliances; this is what Poulantzas termed the power-bloc. At the same time, the state disorganizes the working class by dividing them into individuals/citizens, what he termed the isolation effect.
Poulantzas’s Fascism and Dictatorship (1970) was an empirical case study based on his theoretical work. He examined the class foundations of fascism and understood the fascist state as an exceptional form of the capitalist state. He argued that fascism was not inevitable or some natural stage in the development of capitalism and thus that it, as a type of response to a crisis of politics, could be repeated in the future. Poulantzas applied similar ideas in one of the first Marxist studies of democratization, The Crisis of the Dictatorships: Spain, Portugal, Greece (1975). There he argued that the rise of democracy in each country was the outcome of a political conflict between two key factions of the capitalist class, the domestic and comprador bourgeoisie.
In Poulantzas’s subsequent theoretical work, he made a key contribution to class theory when he argued against traditional “in itself” and “for itself” definitions and contended that classes do not exist outside of conflict and struggle, that classes only exist as an ensemble of practices. In Classes in Contemporary Capitalism (1974), he also examined the political implications of the growing transnationalization of capital (one of the first Marxist examinations of globalization), and he examined the growth of the “new” petite bourgeoisie.
In his last book, State, Power, Socialism (1978), he critiqued the theories of Michel Foucault (1926–1984) and Giles Deleuze (1925–1995), among many others, and refined his previous theories. Poulantzas now defined the state as a social relationship and argued that the question of its relative autonomy was a function of class struggle. Since the state was a condensation of the class struggle it was always in flux and contested; no one class had complete control, and the state always had to take the interests of the dominated classes into consideration. The degree of this relative autonomy would thus be a historical variable and would change in accordance with the content and intensity of the political struggles of the day.
Poulantzas’s theoretical positions were also reflected in his political affinities and activities. His emphasis against economic determinism was an anti-Stalinist stance and reflected Poulantzas’s support of democratic socialism and the radical democratic positions of Rosa Luxemburg (1870–1919), Antonio Gramsci (1891–1937), and the Eurocommunist movements of the time. Poulantzas was an active member of many leftist organizations, such as the Communist Party of the Interior in Greece and of the CFDT (Confédération française démocratique du travail; French Democratic Confederation of Labor) in France, and he often contributed to the newspapers and journals of these organizations as well as to the popular press. Given his emphasis on questions of political strategy and his support of a democratic transition to socialism (as well as the appropriation of his ideas by radical democratic currents in France, Italy, and especially Portugal, Spain, and Greece), Poulantzas is often considered to be a key theorist of Eurocommunism. Despite his untimely death at the age of forty-three, Poulantzas’s conceptual contributions and political sensibilities continue to be relevant to a wide range of concerns within contemporary social science.
Poulantzas, Nicos. 1973. Political Power and Social Classes. Trans. Timothy O’Hagan. London: New Left Books.
Poulantzas, Nicos. 1978. State, Power, Socialism. Trans. Patrick Camiller. London: New Left Books.
In the years that followed, Poulantzas devoted himself to purely theoretical matters, and in 1974 published his Classes in Contemporary Capitalism, which was an extensive elaboration of the anti-humanist concept of class that he had first mooted in 1968. His last two books were a study of the collapses of the Iberian dictatorships (The Crisis of the Dictatorships, 1975), and an intervention into several then contemporary disputes in sociological theory (State, Power, Socialism, 1978). The latter is noteworthy for its trenchant critique of Michel Foucault's conception of power in capitalist societies.
Poulantzas made a significant contribution to the reconstruction of Marxism and (some have argued) to sociology generally, although it has also been suggested that the latter has yet to be fully appreciated, thanks to the combination of his own early death and changes in academic fashion (see R. Jessop 's Nicos Poulantzas: Marxist Theory and Political Strategy, 1985
). For a more sceptical assessment see David Lockwood 's discussion of ‘The Problem of Class Action’ in his Solidarity and Schism (1992)