Nicos Poulantzas in Great Britain

This on-line version is the translated, pre-copyedited, preprint version. The published version can be found here:

‘Nicos Poulantzas en Grande-Bretagne’, in C. Buci-Glucksmann, ed., La gauche, le pouvoir, le socialisme, Paris: PUF, 1983.


How should we evaluate the enormous theoretical influence of Nicos Poulantzas on the left in Great Britain? For many of us, Nicos Poulantzas has been a constant and direct inspiration, for many others his central role has been mediated by the work of intellectuals who are familiar with his work. Even those who reject his positions are obliged to define themselves in relation to his arguments. Nonetheless, in contrast with the impression given by other interventions at this colloquium that focus on Nicos’s recent contributions on questions of political strategy, it is above all as a theoretician of politics and society that Poulantzas is known in Britain. Since 1969, his works on the state, politics, social classes, class struggle, ideology and imperialism have framed in a decisive manner the terrain of a generation of theorists, whether these involve the principal currents of bourgeois social sciences or, again, radical left intellectuals. It is only with the translation of Les classes dans le capitalisme contemporain (Classes in Contemporary Capitalism) that British scholars began to appreciate the substantial strategic implications of his work, an appreciation that the later publications, La crise des dictatures (Crisis of the Dictatorships) and L’Etat, le pouvoir, le socialisme (State, Power, Socialism) could only confirm.

The relations between Nicos Poulantzas and Marxist theory in Great Britain are reciprocal. Poulantzas himself has recalled that his intellectual formation was not only influenced by French theories and practices but also by reviews such as Critica Marxista in Italy and New Left Review in Britain. Indeed, one of his first contributions to political theory (as opposed to the philosophy and sociology of law) is a stark critique of Marxist political theory in Great Britain as it appeared in the pages of New Left Review[1].

 In turn, it is in the pages of New Left Review that Poulantzas drew the attention of mainstream scholars in the social sciences as well as left intellectuals in Great Britain and the Anglophone world more generally. Indeed it is in this review that Poulantzas published his important critique of the work of Ralph Miliband on The State in Capitalist Society and thus launched the “Poulantzas-Miliband” debate whose repercussions are still visible, despite the partial abandonment by its two protagonists of their initial positions.[2]

Although Poulantzas’s intervention was addressed directly to an Anglophone readership, it is well known that the debate has since been published in many languages and has framed discussion on the state for almost 20 years. One must recall in particular here that the emphasis currently paid to the “relative autonomy” of the state and the cognate concepts of power bloc and hegemonic fraction is indebted to Poulantzas’s pioneering work and his creative synthesis of the themes of Althusser and Gramsci in his early work, Pouvoir politique et classes socials (Political Power and Social Classes).

In certain respects, the very great importance of the Poulantzas-Miliband debate in the Anglophone world has distorted the more general influence of Poulantzas. For, even though it had made him in the most influential post-war Marxist theorist of politics Great Britain and elsewhere and enabled him to define the terms of the discussion on the state in capitalist societies, it had, in certain quarters, created the false impression that Poulantzas was a representative of the Althusserian structuralist school and of practically no other. Clearly, his first intervention in the debate had placed his own views in the in a more Althusserian light that does not do justice to the theoretical complexity and richness of his first studies; it is also well known (without needing further discussion here) that his later analyses went well beyond the Althusserian framework. The first intervention, in particular, has led many critics to ignore the importance of the Leninist and Gramscian elements in his first studies on the state and his emphasis on the importance of political class struggle in social transformation. From this viewpoint one can only regret that the review by Christine Buci-Glucksmann of Pouvoir politique et classes sociales was so little known in the Anglo-Saxon world because it very clearly situates this work in a Gramscian context.[3]

His second intervention in the Poulantzas-Miliband debate allowed him to clarify and elaborate his position in refuting the reproach of ‘structuralism’ and in making more precise the theoretical rupture involved in his analysis of the state as a social relation. It is in developing the thesis that this state is a form-determined (or material) condensation of the unstable equilibrium of opposing political class forces that Nicos Poulantzas made his major contribution to Marxist state theory and introduced a decisive theoretical innovation that must be acknowledged by all later Marxist analyses. This approach is clearly at the centre of L’Etat, le pouvoir, le socialisme, and informs his views on strategy as well as theoretical issues.

These ideas have not only shaped the terms of the theoretical debate on the capitalist state but also influenced many concrete and conjunctural analyses. Among these we can note the work of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at Birmingham University whose collaborators have pursued a sustained investigation of changes in the political conjuncture in Great Britain, with its tendencies to political crisis and crisis of the state. The collective works published by the Centre, directed by Stuart Hall, particularly the important volume Policing the Crisis,[4] bear witness to the influence of Nicos Poulantzas and the work of Gramsci on hegemony. The American political scientist, David Abraham, has likewise shown the power of Poulantzas’s approach in his magisterial work on the diverse crises of the power bloc in Weimar Germany and on the circulation of hegemony among different fractions of capital.[5] More generally there are many monographs which derive a greater or lesser part of their conceptual apparatus and their mode of analysis from Poulantzas.

A second domain where Nicos has been very influential is the analysis of the relations of class struggle. In a conference on classes and class structure, organised in 1976 by the Communist Party of Great Britain, the principal presenter was Nicos Poulantzas and the other participants defined their positions with reference to his book on Les classes sociales dans le capitalisme contemporain. On this occasion, Nicos outlined the essential strategic consequences of his analyses of the new petty bourgeoisie in contrasting his approach to the social democratic implications of the broad definition of the working class as salaried workers.[6] More generally, it is important to note how far Nicos Poulantzas has had a direct or indirect impact on the analysis of social classes through the debate that he initiated on the structural determination of classes and its contingent articulation with the position taken by social classes in specific conjunctures.

To cite the most important works in this continuing debate, we can mention the studies of Carchedi, Hindess and Hirst, Laclau, Olin Wright and Przeworski.[7] There are besides a plethora of secondary analyses concerned to develop and apply these conceptions to the class situation and class struggle. As he admitted several times, there are certainly some difficulties in Poulantzas’s analyses of class struggles, particularly regarding the problematic relation that he had begun to discuss between class forces and the new social movements and political parties. But, indicating the extent of his capacity to engage in self-criticism and innovate theoretically, Nicos was conscious of the stakes in this regard and resolved them in his later works.

What relation should we have now with the work of Nicos and his theoretical and political legacy? Poulantzas once told me that he knew that his work was difficult and that insofar as an author experienced various theoretical ruptures in his intellectual work, he could never be completely contemporary (aware and up-to-date) with his own theoretical development. Thus the first task for us would be to systematize and analysis his theoretical development and illuminate the permanent absences and unevenness of his work. This is particularly important because of the misunderstandings that persist, at least in certain quarters, regarding the theoretical position of Nicos and because, at the moment of his death, he had was still confronting unresolved theoretical issues. There is no question here of establishing a new cult of personality, it is more a question of continuing an incomplete work that introduced an immense theoretical revolution into Marxist analyses of the state. We should approach his work in the same critical spirit with which Poulantzas regarded his own writings as well as those of others, with a view to evaluating his significant theoretical ruptures, filling the voids, and developing it in new directions. But we must also avoid the sort of theoreticism that deforms much of Marxist analyses and influences in turn political strategy. It is well known that Nicos had fought long and hard for unity of the left in France and in Greece and that he sought to present the theoretical foundations of an effective political strategy oriented to a transition to democratic socialism in the conditions of contemporary capitalism. This must be another task of left intellectuals and militants in Great Britain. Above all this means developing the social bases of a political presence inside the state apparatus whilst keeping a distance from this apparatus in order to transform it too in ways more favourable to a democratic transition to democratic socialism. Poulantzas developed this complex strategic perspective in his last book. Despite its obvious risks, of which Poulantzas himself was perfectly aware (and preferred to the risks of an attempt at a dictatorial transition), it is essential for British democratic socialists to follow this strategy as a base for left unity and a means to mount a political challenge to the system of authoritarian system developing and crystallising in Great Britain. Success in this regard would represent a lasting monument to the stature of Nicos Poulantzas – not only in the eyes of left intellectuals.

Lastly, it is important to emphasise the growing interest, in the British context, stimulated by the strategic implications of Poulantzas’s work. Until the publication of Fascisme et dictature these implications were unclear beyond a vague perception of his commitment to Marxism-Leninism, the leading role of the working class and the importance of the vanguard party. Later they were understood better thanks to his new theoretical and political evaluation of the Greek military dictatorship and to his preoccupation with the growth of authoritarian statism in France and elsewhere. This holds not only for Les classes sociales dans le capitalisme contemporain, with its interest in imperialism and the problems of class alliances, but also for La crise des dictatures and L’Etat, le pouvoir, le socialisme. It is in this last work that we find a full expansion of his strategic analysis in relation to his new theory of the state as a social relation. In these terms, the impact of Poulantzas on political strategy in Great Britain is closely tied to the more general influence of French and Italian Eurocommunism. Given the political weakness of communism in Great Britain as well as the power of social democracy, however, the practical influence of his analyses was limited despite their enormous political and theoretical significance. This is becoming very clear with the crisis of social democracy in Britain, the irresistible rise of the state administration and authoritarian statism, and the intensifying political crisis. In this sense, we still have much to learn in Britain from Nicos Poulantzas in strategic as well as theoretical terms.



[1] N. Poulantzas (1966), La théorie politique marxiste en Grande-Bretagne, Le Temps modernes, 238, 1683-1707; translated as idem, (1967) Marxist Political Theory in Great Britain, New Left Review, 43, 57-74.

[2] The principal contributions to the debate comprise: N. Poulantzas (1969), The Problem of the Capitalist State, New Left Review, 58, 67-78; R. Miliband (1970), The Capitalist State. Reply to Nicos Poulantzas, New Left Review, 59; 53-60; R. Miliband (1973) Poulantzas and the Capitalist State, New Left Review, 82; 83-92; E. Laclau (1975), The Specificity of the Political: the Poulantzas-Miliband Debate, Economy and Society, 4 (2), 87-110; and N. Poulantzas (1976), The Capitalist State: a Reply to Miliband and Laclau, New Left Review, 95, 63-83.

[3] C. Buci-Glucksmann (1969), A propos de la théorie  marxiste de l’Etat capitaliste: vers une conception nouvelle de la politique, L’Homme et la Société, 11, 199-207.

[4] S. Hall, C. Critcher, T. Jefferson, J. Clarke, and B. Roberts (1978), Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State, and Law and Order, London: Macmillan.

[5] D. Abraham (1981), The Collapse of the Weimar Republic: Political Economy and Crisis, Princeton, Princeton University Press.

[6] N. Poulantzas (1977), The New Petty Bourgeoisie, in A. Hunt, ed., Class and Class Structure, London, Lawrence & Wishart, 113-124.

[7] See G. Carchedi (1977), On the Economic ldentification of the New Middle Class, London, Routledge & Kegan Paul; A. Cutler, B. Hindess, P.Q. Hirst and A. Hussain (1987), Marx’s ‘Capital’ and Capitalism Today, vol. 2, London, Routledge & Kegan Paul; E. Laclau (1977), Politics and ldeology in Marxist Theory, London, New Left Books; A.  Przeworski (1977), Proletariat into Class: the Process of Class Formation from Karl Kautsky’s The Class Struggle to Recent Controversies, Politics and Society, 7(4), 343-67; and E. Olin Wright (1978), Class, Crisis, and the State, London, New Left Books.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s