Nicos Poulantzas: Marxist Theory and Political Strategy

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Nicos Poulantzas
Marxist Theory and Political Strategy


The idea for this book first took shape in early 1979 and it has been some five years in coming to fruition. I have long been interested in theories of the capitalist state in general and the work of Poulantzas in particular. I was able to meet Poulantzas for the first time in April 1979 when he addressed the annual conference of the British Sociological Association at Coventry. There I participated in one of his final interviews (see 1979I.a) and mentioned that I had been approached to write a book on his life and work. With characteristic modesty Nicos thought that it was overdoing things to devote a book to such matters but a month later he wrote saying that he had changed his mind. He declared that no author was completely contemporary with his own intellectual development and that his own work was often hard to understand. Someone who could stand back from it and write a critical interpretation would probably discover hidden aspects and implications and draw out new lines of investigation. Nicos added that he would like to reach a wider audience and hoped that my critique would be less difficult than his own work. Thus encouraged I corresponded further with Poulantzas and we agreed that I should undertake a study with full critical freedom – this was in no way to be an ‘official’ or ‘authorised’ account and no punches were to be pulled. In turn Poulantzas promised every co-operation and offered to reply to any criticisms in an interview to be included at the end of the book.

Some months afterwards, Poulantzas took his own life. The hopes of many that he would continue to make an important contribution to theoretical and political debate on the left were shattered. But his example as a committed intellectual and political comrade still lives on. Although I was unable to proceed with this work as we had planned, I have received much help from Nicos’s wife, Annie Leclerc, and his father, Aristides Poulantzas. Many colleagues, friends, and comrades of Poulantzas also gave much support and encouragement. In particular I would like to thank Christine Buci-Glucksmann and Constantine Tsoucalas for their generous help and support. I also gained much from interviews and discussions with Etienne Balibar, Pierre Birnbaum, Isidoro Cheresky, Georgos Dimitrarkis, Angelos Elephantis, Emilio de Ipola, Kostas Filinis, Nicos Mouzelis, Theodoros Pangalos, Goran Therborn, and Henri Weber. Nonetheless, given the significant theoretical and political differences among them as well as the likely divergences between their views and mine, I take full responsibility for the interpretations and arguments presented below.

Choosing an approach to a theoretical and political work which is as rich and complex as that of Poulantzas is always difficult. As my studies proceeded it became increasingly apparent that many interpretations of his work were fundamentally misleading. Accordingly this book concentrates on presenting as full and accurate an account of Poulantzas’s theoretical and political development as possible. No account can really be theoretically and political innocent, of course; and I do write from the viewpoint of one who believes that Poulantzas has made a substantial contribution to postwar Marxist theory and whose own work has clearly been influenced by his various studies. It is for this reason that the substantive chapters first offer a reconstruction of Poulantzas’s views and then present my own criticisms of some, if not all, of these same arguments. Hopefully readers can then form their own judgements independently of my commentaries and take the opportunity to disagree with my criticisms.

The need to set the record straight explains why I have not dealt at length with the many commentaries and criticisms of Poulantzas’s work or the numerous studies which claim to apply it to specific case studies. For the account presented here is often at odds with the received wisdom about Poulantzas’s work. It would have extended this book inordinately to have replied to each and every critique and I have dealt only with criticisms which help to illuminate the present study. This means that I ignored the most famous critique of all. For the debate between Ralph Miliband and Nicos Poulantzas is fundamentally misleading about the theoretical issues and political implications at stake -largely because of the complicity between both protagonists in over-stating the structuralist character of Poulantzas’s arguments. Hopefully this claim will be justified in my comments on Political Power and Social Classes in subsequent chapters. Similar considerations apply to many other commentaries and I hope that, if the current work puts an end to some lines of criticism, it will stimulate many others. Poulantzas himself certainly welcomed ideological contestation as a key to theoretical and political progress and one can only commend this stance.

In writing this book I have received much support and advice from my own friends and colleagues as well as those of Poulantzas. For help with the documentation I would particularly like to thank Petros Stamoulis for his unstinting work in translating many articles, journalism, and interviews of Poulantzas from the Greek and for tracing some of them; George Anagnostopoulos and Grigoris Ananiadis for tracing and translating other pieces by Poulantzas; Annie Leclerc for lending me her archive of Nicos’s French articles, journalism, and interviews; Christine Buci-Glucksmann and Isidoro Cheresky for providing two worthwhile articles at a late stage; and Noelle Burgi for chasing references in France when all else seemed to have failed. For help with the argumentation I would particularly like to acknowledge the many comments received from Simon Bromley, who suggested — within one week — both how to start and to end the book; Steven Kennedy, who made several valuable comments on the penultimate draft and whose editorial patience I hope to have rewarded with the final version; and Ruthy Laniado, whose questioning sharpened the ideas on strategy in the concluding chapter. I have also gained much from discussions with Grigoris Ananiadis, Kevin Bonnett, Anthony Giddens, Joachim Hirsch, Ernesto Laclau, Tom Ling, Harold Wolpe, and Tony Woodiwiss. The students on my courses at the University of Essex probably also heard rather more about Poulantzas than they would always have liked and gave me the opportunity to try out ideas. For other kindnesses which have helped to sustain me during this study I would like to thank Kevin Bonnett for his friendship and encouragement over many years; Petros and Angeliki Stamoulis for guiding me round Athens, conducting the Greek interviews, and offering my family their parents’ hospitality; Grigoris Ananiadis and Blanca Muniz for many conversations about the Greek political conjuncture and much else besides; Noelle Burgi for hospitality whilst I was conducting interviews in Paris and Jean-Yves Pôtel for sharing her burden; and, last but not least, Suzanne Bailey for helping to see the book to completion at a crucial stage in my life.

Finally I would like to thank New Left Books and New Left Review for permission to quote from the English translations of Poulantzas’s books and his critical response to Miliband and Laclau (1976a) Pamela and Julian Jessop helped with the preparation of the final typescript and provide a constant source of inspiration. It is to them that I dedicate this book on the fifth anniversary of Poulantzas’s death and in the hope that they will one day see the better future for which he struggled.


Bob Jessop,


3 October, 1984

One thought on “Nicos Poulantzas: Marxist Theory and Political Strategy

  1. Pingback: Bob Jessop’s 1984 book on Nicos Poulantzas available as a free pdf | Progressive Geographies

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