On the Originality, Legacy, and Actuality of Nicos Poulantzas

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

 ‘On the originality, legacy, and actuality of Nicos Poulantzas’, Studies in Political Economy, 34, 75-108, 1991.


It is now some eleven years (at the time of writing in 2000) since the tragic death of Nicos Poulantzas.[1] His name will be familiar to many readers of Studies in Political Economy for two main reasons. First, he was a major contributor to the neo-Marxist rediscovery of the state (notably through the much-cited debate that he began with Ralph Miliband).[2] And, second, he also provoked controversy for his account of changes in postwar capitalism and their implications for classes and the class struggle.[3] Curiously, whilst he is often praised for his agenda-setting contribution in state theory, he is often condemned for his role in demoting or even denying the primacy of the working class in the struggle for socialism.[4] Unfortunately his celebrity or notoriety (depending on one’s theoretical and political viewpoint) in the first two areas has hindered a fuller, more nuanced appreciation of Poulantzas’s overall contribution to modern social theory. For his interests and contributions actually went much beyond these two fields; and, even with regard to state theory and class analysis, they also revealed significant shifts in approach that have too often passed unremarked. Thus this paper aims to reconsider the significance of Poulantzas’s work.

Elsewhere I have claimed that Poulantzas has been the single most important Marxist political theorist of the postwar period (Jessop 1985). Here I want both to reaffirm and qualify this view by arguing that his studies are not so much “contemporary” as “classical” in their current standing. This useful distinction derives from Niklas Luhmann. Luhmann suggests that a theory can be seen as “classical” when it offers an interconnected set of claims that has been superseded by later theoretical developments and is, therefore, no longer convincing in its original form. None the less it still survives as a challenge, desideratum, or problem on a theoretical level as long as its way of posing problems can still be accepted. Thus its authoritative character is ambivalent: one can infer from such a theory what must be achieved, but no longer how to achieve it (Luhmann 1982: 4).

Such an approach to evaluating the originality, legacy, and actuality of Poulantzas’s work is provocative. It helps us to identify the problems in his work at the same time as we treat it as a crucial source for a continuous theoretical tradition on the nature of the state, social classes, and political mobilization in modern capitalism.

Before commencing this exercise, however, I will summarize Poulantzas’s overall theoretical development and consider his general significance in relation to Western Marxism itself. Poulantzas’s intellectual career began with studies in Marxist legal philosophy and legal theory written from a Sartrean perspective; he then turned towards political theory and began to develop a view of the capitalist type of state and political struggle that owed much to Gramsci and to postwar Italian Marxist thought; this view was soon integrated into a broader perspective on the role of the state in capitalist societies influenced (not always to the good) by the structural Marxism of Louis Althusser and Etienne Balibar. Shortly thereafter Poulantzas embarked on a slow retreat from the immobilizing implications of a structural Marxist view and showed increasing concern with strategically relevant theoretical issues – such as the nature of fascism and military dictatorships, the changing contours of imperialism and social class relations, and the role of parties and social movements in modern capitalism. In his final studies he increasingly addressed problems posed by the self-evident crisis in Marxism as social theory and as a guide to practice – taking on board some of the arguments about power advanced by Foucault and tackling some key issues in democratic socialism. Despite these many and varied concerns one could still claim that his major theoretical contribution was to develop a view of state power as a social relation that is reproduced in and through the interplay between the state’s institutional form and the changing nature of political forces. This was associated in turn with growing emphasis on the nature of the state as a system of strategic selectivity and on the nature of political struggle as a field of competing strategies to attain hegemony. I return to these basic arguments later.

Let us now review my claim about Poulantzas’s stature from the triple viewpoint of his intellectual originality, theoretical legacy, and political actuality or relevance. This claim now seems to need qualifying in three quite different respects. First, whilst reaffirming my claim for his importance, I should explain why he was so original. This I do in terms of the intellectual and the political sources of his breakthrough in Marxist theory. Second, since it is hard to compare the influence of a single theorist (whether “classical” or “contemporary”) with that of broader schools in which many theorists and researchers are involved, a few comments on Poulantzas’s relation to other currents would be appropriate. In this way I hope to establish his immediate legacy for state theory. And, thirdly, although Poulantzas remains a major figure within postwar Western Marxism, the overall influence of Marxist political theory has declined since his death. Thus, after citing some reasons for this, I also discuss whether other developments in state theory mean that Poulantzas’s work has since become more marginal. Overall I conclude that his work is still actual and, despite its obvious problems in many respects, in many others it has not yet been superseded.

I. The Significance of Poulantzas

Poulantzas’s significance can be seen from the fact that he was almost alone among postwar Marxists to address and answer the really crucial questions within Marxist politics. What the latter might be can be inferred from a critique of Western Marxism by one of its leading exponents. Perry Anderson argues that Western Marxism has left unanswered the following key questions:

What is the real nature and structure of bourgeois democracy as a type of State system, that has become the normal mode of capitalist power in the advanced countries? What type of revolutionary strategy is capable of overthrowing this historical form of State – so distinct from that of Tsarist Russia? What would be the institutional forms of socialist democracy in the West, beyond it? Marxist theory has scarcely touched these three subjects in their interconnection (Anderson 1976: 103).

Whatever the validity of this claim for other theorists (and things have certainly been changing), there can be no doubt that these three subjects preoccupied Poulantzas from 1964 until his death in 1979. His first influential book, Political Power and Social Classes (1968), was concerned with the real nature and structure of bourgeois democracy. Then Fascism and Dictatorship (1970) dealt with the nature of fascist regimes and the failure of the labour movement either to check their rise or to overthrow them. It was also directly concerned with the distinction between the ‘normal mode of capitalist power in the advanced countries’ and various ‘exceptional’ modes of bourgeois political domination. In his third and fourth books, Classes in Contemporary Capitalism (1974) and Crisis of the Dictatorships (1976a), Poulantzas related problems of revolutionary strategy to democratic and exceptional regimes in both advanced and dependent capitalist countries. And his final book, State, Power, Socialism (1978a) reviewed the current threats to bourgeois democracy and the institutional forms which socialist democracy might assume in the West. Moreover, not only did Poulantzas tackle each of the three subjects central to Marxist politics, he was also increasingly interested in them ‘in their interconnection’.

Poulantzas also went beyond such concerns to other important issues in Marxist theory. Here again Anderson is useful since he mentions four other failures of contemporary Marxism. It had not tackled the meaning and position of the nation as a social unit and its relationship to nationalism. It had ignored the contemporary laws of motion of capitalism as a mode of production and the forms of crisis specific to these laws. It had neglected the true configuration of imperialism as an international system of economic and political domination. And it had not confronted the nature of the bureaucratic states that arose in those backward countries where socialist revolutions had occurred. Clearly Poulantzas could not examine all these complex issues in the same detail and with the same rigour that he devoted to the capitalist state in the West. But he did deal with each of them to some extent. He was particularly concerned with the contemporary imperialism and with the nature of modern capitalism as a system of political economy. He also touched on the nation and nationalism, bureaucratic socialism and Stalinism. In short he was an unusual Western Marxist.

II. The Originality of Poulantzas

It is often said that Marx’s originality lies in his unique synthesis of the ‘three sources of Marxism’: German philosophy, French politics, and English economics. As he worked at synthesizing these different currents, however, both his theoretical focus and his philosophical position underwent several changes. He was also influenced by quite specific political conditions and objectives. Thus, although he started out as a radical liberal democrat, his major theoretical breakthroughs occurred after he became a communist. Nor was he just concerned to interpret the world from his seat in the British Museum – albeit from the viewpoint of one who identified strongly with the interests of the proletariat – but also to make various practical interventions to advance the cause of the international socialist movement. Thus a full account of Marx’s originality would require us to look not only at the intellectual shifts involved in his theoretical development but also at the impact of changing political commitments and conditions.

Here we are not concerned with Marx himself but with someone bold enough to have claimed that he had completed Marx’s theory of the state (Poulantzas 1978b). Even if one rejects this particular claim, Poulantzas certainly made major contributions to Marxist political analysis. Curiously his work involved shifts in theoretical object that are remarkably similar to those of Marx himself. Both men moved from legal philosophy to the state and then to political economy. The shifts in Poulantzas’s political position might seem less radical but they are nonetheless important. From an existentialomarxiste approach he tried to combine Althusserian philosophical positions and Gramscian political positions within an essentially Marxist-Leninist outlook and then went on to adopt a left Eurocommunist position. Naturally Marx and Poulantzas also undertook rather different shifts in their respective philosophical positions. Poulantzas moved from a Sartrean approach through Althusserian structuralism to a revolutionary materialism different in several respects from that of Marx. Nonetheless his theoretical and political shifts were more or less closely associated with shifts in philosophical position.

1. The Three Sources of Poulantzas

Poulantzas also found himself at the confluence of three rather contrasting theoretical streams and his originality also lies in the unique synthesis he produced from them. But his sources were somewhat different from those that inspired Marx. For Poulantzas they were French – not German – philosophy; Italian – not French – politics; and, not English economics, not any economics, but Romano-German law. More specifically, he drew successively on three French philosophical traditions: first, Sartre and existentialism, then Althusser and structuralism, and, finally, Foucault and the micro-physics of power and strategy. In the field of Italian politics he was influenced above all by Gramsci and, later, the Ingrao left (a left Eurocommunist tendency in the Italian Communist Party). And, third, in relation to Romano-German law, the key influences were the Vienna school associated with Hans Kelsen and, more generally, the constitutional and administrative law that he had acquired at Law Schools in Athens, Munich, Heidelberg, and Paris. Poulantzas went on to synthesize these sources in a unique manner within the overarching framework of Marxist political economy. He was, of course, influenced by other theoretical sources but they were always filtered through the three main traditions. Thus Maoist themes were taken up from an Althusserian perspective. Certain Austro-Marxist themes (notably the need to combine direct democracy with representative democracy) were likewise appropriated through their role in Italian political debate (cf. Jessop 1985).

These different streams were combined and developed in a quite specific manner within the context of Marxist political economy. For Poulantzas firmly opposed the traditions of the Second International and the Comintern. Both allegedly reduced the nature of the state to a simple reflection of the economic base and/or suggested that political class struggles followed the course of economic development. More generally Poulantzas noted that orthodox Marxism had systematically neglected the question of the state. He tried to remedy this. In particular he stressed the sui generis nature of political class struggle and the relative autonomy of the state. This is especially clear in capitalist societies with their characteristic institutional separation between market and state, bourgeois and citizen, private and public. Initially Poulantzas justified this emphasis through a Sartrean approach to structural analysis. Thus he used the ‘internal-external’ dialectic to explore the complex internal organization of different institutional orders and their differential determination by external factors. Later Poulantzas justified his focus on the political in terms of Althusser’s account of the relative autonomy of the political sphere within a complex ‘structure in dominance’ (sic) determined in the last instance by the economic. Eventually he developed his own distinctive approach to the state as a social relation, i.e., to state power as an institutionally-mediated condensation of the balance of forces in political class struggle.

As his work developed Poulantzas connected these arguments more closely and coherently with traditional Marxist economic themes. These had largely been ignored in his early work and only became prominent in his work on Classes in Contemporary Capitalism. With his last major work on state theory, however, Poulantzas had synthesized the three sources of his approach firmly within the framework of classical Marxist political economy. But he had also brought new insights to this framework. In particular he analyzed the labour process in terms of a complex economic, political, and intellectual division of labour and examined social classes from the viewpoint of their extended reproduction (sic) rather than in restricted economic terms. Thus, although sometimes criticized for giving too much weight to ideological factors in defining the class position of the new middle classes (e.g., Wood 1985: 30-31).[5] Poulantzas always placed the social relations of production in their integral sense[6] at the heart of his analysis of class struggle. Indeed his problem was not so much a retreat from the primacy of the economic and the crucial role of class analysis as it was a continuing commitment to some of the more deterministic and class reductionist versions of these principles. For he remained trapped within classical Marxist political economy. At a time when there was a general hue and cry about the ‘crisis of Marxism’, Poulantzas remained committed to the ultimately determining role of the mode of production for the whole of societal organization and to the primacy of proletarian class struggle in the transition to socialism. Only in his last year (1979) did he begin seriously to question these fundamental tenets of Marxism and try to move beyond them.

2. The Philosophical Preconditions of Poulantzas’s Theory

In his Sartrean phase Poulantzas’s main philosophical concern was to establish the unity of fact and value. But he also drew on Sartre’s method of dialectical reasoning to establish the complex ‘internal-external’ determinations of bourgeois law in terms of its own, sui generis properties and its overall position in capitalist societies. In turning to an Althusserian approach Poulantzas was mainly seeking to justify a separate political theory against more conventional base-superstructure arguments. Thus he drew heavily on Althusser’s arguments about the movement from abstract to concrete, the overdetermination of concrete conjunctures, and the notion of relative autonomy. But there was little mileage to be derived from Althusser’s philosophical position in developing the substantive concepts for a theory of the state. Here Poulantzas needed to supplement Althusserian concepts with others drawn from Italian Marxism and legal theory.

In his last theoretical phase Poulantzas used a relational approach. When he claimed to have discovered at last the Marxist theory of the state, he was alluding to his thesis that the state is a social relation. This did entail a fundamental philosophical shift and a return to the revolutionary materialism of Marx. For it was Marx who elaborated the paradigmatic thesis that capital is a social relation. In steadily abandoning structuralism, Poulantzas was influenced by Foucault. But this relational turn was essentially rooted in the dynamic of his own thought and political involvements and its germs can already be seen in his first work on state theory.

Poulantzas’s changing theoretical and political positions were clearly linked to changes in his philosophical approach. In turn, although Poulantzas was mainly concerned with political rather than philosophical questions, changes in his ontological and/or methodological assumptions were clearly vital mediating links in his changing views of the state and political strategy. In the specific conjuncture in which Poulantzas was working on Political Power and Social Classes, for example, his crucial theoretical innovations would have been unthinkable without the influence of Althusserian structuralism. Some institutional elements of his new approach occur in his earlier work on law, some ‘class-theoretical’ aspects in his preliminary remarks on hegemony. But they could only be adequately brought together and combined with other arguments when these different elements were located at different levels in the movement from abstract to concrete in juridico-political analysis as well as in relation to the overall structure of the capitalist system as an economic, juridico-political, and ideological whole. In the intellectual and political conjuncture of France in the mid-sixties this framework could only be provided by Althusser. In this sense, just as Marx needed Feuerbach to move beyond Hegel, Poulantzas needed Althusser to move beyond Sartre. But Althusserianism in its initial form also blocked further theoretical and political advance. Thus Poulantzas needed to go beyond Althusser and to rediscover Marx’s non-structuralist, revolutionary materialism (or at least its ‘relational’ kernel) to develop his mature theory of the state.

I think that this stress on revolutionary materialism is correct. For, if Poulantzas’s subsequent shift towards a relational theory of the state and a left Eurocommunist politics were associated with a move towards Foucauldian positions, the latter are none the less best interpreted as means through which new ideas were expressed rather than as their essential precondition. Poulantzas certainly acknowledged the influence of Foucauldian language and ideas as he thought through new problems. But he also stressed that it was Foucault as an analyst of power – not Foucault as an epistemologist or methodologist – who inspired him. His philosophical breakthrough was his own. It involved both a fundamental return to Marx and a partial movement beyond him.

3. The Motor-force of Political Involvements

We must also ask what drove Poulantzas beyond a philosophy of law written from the perspective of ‘existentialo-marxisme’ to a hybrid Althusserian and Gramscian account of the state and thence to a leftwing Eurocommunist position. The key to this movement appears to be his involvement in Greek and French politics. Otherwise nothing would have happened. But it is equally clear that not all those involved in Greek or French politics developed Poulantzas’s theoretical framework. His innovations assume both his involvement in three distinctive theoretical traditions and his commitment to a particular, Marxist method of theoretical and political analysis. Likewise they presuppose changes in his philosophical position.

But what prompted these changes? I suggest that it was his political involvements that provided the real motor force here and that these depended on the course of political events well beyond Poulantzas’s control. Marx had to await the Paris Commune before he was finally able to work out his views on the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’. Likewise Poulantzas had to await the collapse of the Greek junta in 1974 before he could finally develop his views on the ‘dictatorship of the bourgeoisie’ and its implications for socialist strategy. Moreover, even if it were true, as Althusser for one has suggested, that it was only by adopting proletarian political positions that Marx could make his major scientific breakthrough, a crucial factor for Poulantzas’s break was surely his partial abandonment of a ‘pure’ proletarian class position. The latter characterized his Marxist-Leninist phase and prevented him from understanding the nature of politics in modern societies. Thus Poulantzas had to await the collapse of the Union de la Gauche at the prompting of the French Communist Party in 1977 before he could re-evaluate the leading role of the vanguard communist party and the working class in the struggle for socialism. Only then did he seriously consider popular-democratic struggles and the activities of the new social movements with their cross-class character. And not until then did he develop the full force of his strategy for a democratic transition to democratic socialism.

Thus Poulantzas’s originality also depended on his attempts to understand and influence leftwing policy towards political events in Greece and France. For Greece his principal concern was to understand its military dictatorship, the conditions leading to its overthrow, the absence of working class hegemony in the democratization process, and the prospects for moving from an anti-dictatorial alliance to an anti-imperialist, anti-monopoly alliance. Two key turning points for him were the Greek coup in April 1967 and its eventual collapse under the weight of its own internal contradictions in May 1974. The coup itself posed starkly the fundamental difference between democracy and dictatorship and also led him to a more active political role. The way in which the dictatorship collapsed, especially the absence of mass struggles directly concerned to confront the state, posed equally stark problems. It confirmed Poulantzas in his rapidly growing suspicion that the state was far from monolithic and that class struggle penetrated deep within the state itself. In turn this implied that a left Eurocommunist strategy aimed at intensifying the contradictions internal to the state as well as mobilizing the popular masses outside the state could prepare the ground for the eventual democratic transformation of the state system as a whole.

This view was reinforced by the failure of the so-called Portuguese Revolution despite the more favourable position of left-wing forces in the initial struggle for power. For Poulantzas was particularly scathing about the reformists’ attempts in Portugal simply to infiltrate the leading personnel of the state at the expense of mass struggle and the ultra-left’s equally misguided belief that socialism had arrived and that the state would simply wither away and could therefore safely be ignored. Instead Poulantzas called for a strategy that would democratize the state and permit it to be used in defense of autonomous rank-and-file movements at a distance from the state.

In relation to France Poulantzas’s concerns ranged from the rise of authoritarian statism to the problems of left unity around an anti-monopoly, democratic socialist programme. May 1968 was a crucial moment for Poulantzas as for other intellectuals in Paris. In subsequent years he became active in the ideological struggle for left unity. Much of his work can be seen as an attempt to provide the theoretical justification for class alliances (especially between proletariat and new petty bourgeoisie rather than between worker and peasant); and, later, the theoretical justification for combining class struggles with those of social movements. If the Greek coup and its eventual collapse proved significant in some respects, the struggle for left unity in France and its temporary collapse in 1977 proved significant in others. It was this latter event that led Poulantzas to turn away from a simple faith in proletarian struggles and the leading role of the vanguard communist party and towards a more complex and more problematic alliance strategy that was not only pluriclassiste but also pluripartiste, which denied any a priori privilege to the working class or communist party, and which emphasized the autonomous role of non-class forces and social movements in the struggle for democratic socialism.

In this way Poulantzas arrived at his final political position. He called for a combination of struggles at a distance from the state, within the state, and to transform the state; and he advocated a combination of representative and direct democracy as the best means to avoid the statist degeneration of socialism that had occurred in the Soviet bloc. This final position was achieved because Poulantzas adopted positions in the political class struggle in both Greece and France. The surprises that events in these countries presented for him caused a continual re-appraisal of his political and theoretical positions and their interrelations. His continued efforts to understand these surprises led him to effect a new synthesis among his three theoretical traditions as well as to advocate a new political strategy.

III. The Legacy of Poulantzas

My response to the first question – concerning the nature and preconditions of his originality – might well seem to have answered my second question too: what was Poulantzas’s theoretical legacy? But suggesting that he left behind some rich and original theoretical work does not really address this question. For the legacy of a theorist does not consist as such in his/her literary remains: instead it comprises the ways in which these remains are taken up and used by contemporaries and successors. In this sense the legacy comes to include far more than the original literary remains (and may well, paradoxically, marginalize or exclude even some of these). For it comes to include the uses, often unintended or perverse, often synthetic or eclectic, often as controversial or negative reference points, often secondary or marginal, which are made of these remains by subsequent generations. Or, as Prezzolini put it, ‘the real life of an author emanates from his readers, disciples, commentators, opponents, critics. An author has no other existence’ (1967: 190). In short, the influence of theorists, for good or ill, continues as long as their work leaves identifiable traces on the work of others.

In these terms the legacy of Poulantzas is ambivalent. In certain respects Poulantzas made a major contribution to the theoretical agenda in state theory in the 197Os: in particular, its concern with the so-called ‘relative autonomy’ of the state is strongly imprinted by his own theoretical work. In creating a space for a ‘relatively autonomous’ Marxist political science as well as in defining the more general concern with the capacities of the state and the nature of state power, Poulantzas was clearly influential. This can also be seen in his contributions to debates on the middle classes and productive and unproductive labour, on imperialism and the changing forms of internationalization and fractionation of capital, and, for a time, on the problems involved in a democratic transition to democratic socialism. In other respects Poulantzas had limited influence. Thus his invariably interesting and often incisive comments on the specificity of capitalist law, the issues posed by the nature and dynamic of exceptional regimes, the forms of ideological class struggle, or the difficulties involved in a Foucauldian ‘micro-physics’ of power – all these appear to have fallen largely on deaf ears. Indeed, even where he did help to set the theoretical agenda, it was not his particular solutions to these problems that came to be accepted as the conventional wisdom in state theory or class analysis or to define the terms of debate in political strategy. Moreover, if he was once influential, it is clear that this influence has been much reduced in recent years.

Three general points are worth making in this context. The first will be painfully self-evident to many readers. It is not easy to follow Poulantzas’s work; nor are its political and strategic implications very evident from his books as opposed to his many interviews. Now this has not stopped equally or even more obscure thinkers achieving an impact – readers will probably nominate different candidates for this dubious honor – but it does prove an initial hurdle to be surmounted. It is possibly for this reason that so much of Poulantzas’s immediate legacy stems from the Miliband-Poulantzas debate in which the issues at stake were relatively clear-cut and arguments were simplified to the point of distortion for the sake of polemic. Poulantzas’s book-length studies were more difficult to read and follow. Moreover, with the subsequent decline of structuralism and related intellectual currents that had provided such an important context for his approach, it is even harder for modern readers to follow his often tortuous lines of argument.

Second, precisely because Poulantzas first won real attention in the Anglophone world through his debate with Miliband, his later work has usually been unjustifiably read (or, perhaps, more accurately, remained unread) as structuralist. This is still the dominant interpretation within the Anglophone world – with his work either being explicit charged with ‘structuralism’ or else subsumed under the more qualified label of ‘structural Marxism’. With this stigma attached, it is hardly surprising that Poulantzas’s work is often cited gesturally; and that it is all too infrequently read thoroughly.

Third, since Poulantzas followed Marx in presenting his theoretical arguments in terms of the movement from abstract to concrete, a certain familiarity with this mode of presentation (Darstellung) and its underlying methodological assumptions is needed to make sense of the gradual unfolding of his analyses. This method of analysis is rather uncommon in the anglophone social sciences with their penchant for positivist theories and systematic empiricism and for hermeneutic, interpretive traditions that are unsympathetic to arguments rooted in a realist epistemology that stresses the ontological depth of the social world (cf. Bhaskar 1989). Indeed, in the same year that Poulantzas’s last book appeared in English, Gerry Cohen’s path-breaking work in analytical marxism, Karl Marx’s Theory of History was also published. This used ‘state of the art methods of analytical philosophy and “positivist” social science’ (Roemer 1986: 1-2); and it came to define Anglo-Marxism as the centre of gravity of 1980s marxist theory (cf. Anderson 1983; Callinicos 1989: 1-6; Hindess 1988). Certainly, in contrast with so-called ‘standards of clarity and rigour that distinguish twentieth-century analytical philosophy’ (Cohen 1978: ix), Poulantzas’s works are not books that can be dipped into for a good read or for a quick insight into a specific problem.

For all three reasons, therefore, Poulantzas’s work faced an up-hill struggle in reaching a sympathetic and appreciative readership even when the overall theoretical and political conjuncture was favourable. In turn this helps explain why there is no identifiable Poulantzasian school to act as the bearer of his theoretical and political approach.

1. Poulantzas’s Impact in the Seventies

Even during his own life time, Poulantzas’s work encountered a complex theoretical and political environment that varied from country to country. It is clearly impossible to provide an account of his overall impact in different fields and different theoretical contexts. Thus we must remain content here with a few comments on his contemporary and posthumous impact in Europe and the Americas.

One might expect Poulantzas to have been influential in Germany. Law and the state are both key fields of enquiry there and the state was rethematized by the West German Marxists at more or less the same time as Poulantzas was rediscovering it in France. However, although his early work on legal philosophy and Marxist legal theory was well received, his work on state theory had but little impact. This can partly be explained by the overall strength of the postwar Marxist-Leninist ‘state monopoly capitalism’ approach among those who were aligned to communist parties[7] and, more importantly, by the vitality of the home-grown West German Ableitungsdebatte (state derivation debate) concerned with more abstract features of the capitalist state and their derivation from the basic features of capitalism. In short, as far as most contemporary German state theorists were concerned, Poulantzas was not enough concerned with developing the critique of political economy; and he was also too concerned with just one form of capitalist state, the bourgeois democratic republic. In this respect Poulantzas has suffered the same fate in West Berlin and West Germany as Gramsci, whose studies have yet to gain even a ‘selected works’ series there. Conversely, it is precisely the importance and vitality of the Gramscian tradition in Italy that seems to have limited Poulantzas’s impact there. Indeed, as noted above, it was not so much Poulantzas who influenced Italian politics, as ‘Italian politics’ that influenced Poulantzas.

By contrast it was the relative weakness of state theory in the anglophone world that made it easier for Poulantzas’s work to penetrate there once interest began to develop in the 1960s and 1970s. Indeed one of his earlier papers on political theory (as opposed to the philosophy and sociology of law) was a critique of Marxist political theory in Great Britain as evidenced in the pages of New Left Review during the mid-60s (Poulantzas 1967). In turn it was a controversy in this same journal between two Marxist scholars, Poulantzas and Miliband, which did much to stimulate anglophone interest in the 1970s. Once this interest was awoken, however, Poulantzas’s work proved an important (if sometimes negative) reference point not only in state theory and analysis but also in theoretical and empirical work on social class. Indeed its impact has probably been stronger in the latter area than it has been in state theory. It has had a direct and indirect impact through the debate he initiated on the structural determination of class and its contingent articulation with the position adopted by class forces in specific conjunctures. To single out only the most important works within the continuing debate we can mention studies by Carchedi, Hindess and Hirst, Laclau, E.O. Wright, and Przeworski. There is also a host of secondary analyses concerned with developing and applying these and related concepts of class location and struggle.

In France, on the other hand, his influence was more directly related to his initial identification with structural Marxism. And in both France and Greece his involvements in political debate and ideological struggles were also crucial in mediating his role in theoretical developments. Finally, for a time in the 1970s, Poulantzas had some influence in the Iberian Peninsula as both Portugal and Spain experienced political renewal. Likewise, throughout his most productive period of work on state theory, it seems that Poulantzas was widely read and discussed in Latin America. Here his works on Fascism and Dictatorship and on the current forms of imperialism were as influential as his more general work on the state. Thus, without retracting my judgement on the individual influence of Poulantzas as a postwar Marxist state theorist, it is important to note how this influence was mediated in different ways in different countries.

2. The Crisis and Decline of Marxist State Theory

We must also note that, in the years since Poulantzas’s death, Marxist state theory itself has declined in importance. This decline has four main causes: two internal to Marxism itself and two concerning the relation between Marxism and other theories.

First, as Poulantzas himself recognized, Marxism experienced a political and theoretical crisis in the ‘seventies: this has been particularly strong in France but can also be seen in other countries that once had a strong communist movement. Second, both for Marxism in particular and for the left in general, there have been significant shifts of interest. In political theory old problems (such as democracy) have been rediscovered and new issues have emerged (such as new social movements, ecology, and feminism). Although these have a state-theoretical dimension they are not always directly related to state theory as such. This can be seen in the growing interest in discourse theory and its implications for Marxism and socialist politics (e.g., Laclau and Mouffe 1985). In addition, the crisis in capitalism over the last decade or so has also provoked a resurgence of interest in Marxist political economy (long wave theory, the labour process, economic crisis theory, regulation theory, etc) at the expense of state theoretical concerns as such. Neither its internal crisis nor the shift of interest within Marxism implies that state theory is no longer relevant. They do require state theorists to show that it can address these new issues and problems in a fruitful manner.

A third reason for the decline of Marxist state theory is rooted in theoretical developments elsewhere. For many other disciplines have become interested in questions of legal and state theory. They have drawn on and/or developed many different theoretical perspectives besides those embodied in Marxism. This has made the pioneering work of Marxist political theory in the ‘sixties and ‘seventies more marginal for contemporary theoretical work and has forced Marxist theories to compete with other approaches for continued attention. Among those who would have been interested in Poulantzas’s later work, the growing vogue for the work of Foucault (as well as deconstructionist and ‘post-modern’ theorists such as Derrida) has clearly reduced his impact. This occurred not just because of changing fashion among the more fickle aficionados of French theory (although this has clearly played a role) but also because Foucauldian disciplinary analyses and Derridean deconstruction inevitably displace the focus of attention from the state and class struggle to the micro-physics of power and the problem of identity formation. Yet, although Poulantzas himself acknowledged the influence of Foucault, he could still show that the latter’s emphasis on the micro-physics of power provided no theoretical or practical purchase on the complexities of political class domination and its mediation in and through the strategic selectivity of the state and the development of more global political projects (see Poulantzas 1978a; Jessop 1985a, 1990). Likewise, although he did not directly address the issues raised by deconstruction, Poulantzas was well aware of the problematic unity of the state and the ambiguity and instability of its boundaries with other institutional orders in society. In both respects measured appreciation of his work has been hindered by an ill-judged emphasis on his commitments to Althusserian structuralism. Indeed, as I have argued elsewhere, Foucault’s account of power relations involves a number of problems that can be resolved by resorting to the arguments of the mature Poulantzas (Jessop 1990).

Finally, within state research itself, a challenge has been mounted from what one might call a  position that is opposed to the ‘capital-theoretical’ and/or ‘class-theoretical’ traditions embodied in Marxism as well as to the pluralist and behaviouralist traditions in orthodox political science. This so-called ‘state-centred’ approach deserves attention here less because of its coherence as an alternative account of the state (on the absence of which, see Jessop 1990) than because it is often presented in the form of a critique of Poulantzas’s alleged ‘society-centred’ approach.

In this specific theoretical context Poulantzas’s work has been marginalized. This is not only because he is no longer around to engage in new debates and controversies as forcefully as he did in earlier matters for theoretical and political contestation. It is also because he left no school behind to continue his work and because the continuing relevance of his work to such issues has been lost to view. The initial success of the Miliband-Poulantzas debate surely has something to do with this. For the apparently structuralist position he adopted therein has given rise to the impression that his work was, in currently fashionable jargon, ‘society-centred’ as well as rigidly structurally determinist. It is certainly in this context that his work is largely cited today by the opposing supporters of the state-centred approach.

There is much to be said for ‘bringing the state back in’. There is little to be said for the ‘state-centred’ theorists account of the work of Poulantzas. For Poulantzas did actually address, directly or indirectly, many of the key issues raised by ‘state-centred’ studies. Thus he always stressed the impact of state forms and juridico-political ideology in shaping the nature of social and political forces (the so-called ‘isolation effect’, on which see chapters two and seven) and emphasized the role of state structures and capacities in maintaining the cohesion of society. This is particularly clear in his account of its unique incarnation of mental labour within the overall division between mental and manual labour and in his more general discussion of the specificity of the legal and institutional form of the modern state. In turn he related this to the decisive role of struggles for hegemony in capitalist societies. He also traced the potential autonomy of state managers or bureaucrats to its roots in the institutional separation of the state and the distinctive state identities and ideologies that emerged within different branches of the state apparatus. And, in describing the creative capacities of the state in constituting and reproducing the capitalist social order, Poulantzas also touched on the issue of what Michael Mann has termed its ‘infrastructural power’ (cf. Mann 1983). Indeed, in his last book, State, Power, Socialism, Poulantzas offered many observations on the state’s role in shaping the overall spatial, temporal, corporeal, and social order of capitalist societies.

None of this should be taken to mean that Poulantzas came to abandon his earlier claim that the state as such did not (and could not) exercise a ‘state power’ independent from ‘class power’ (Poulantzas 1968). Instead he refined this argument in two ways: first, by delineating the various potential structural powers (or state capacities) inscribed in the state as institutional ensemble; and, second, by insisting that they ways in which such powers (as well as any associated liabilities) are realized depends on the action, reaction, and interaction of specific social forces located both within and beyond this complex ensemble. In short, the state does not exercise power: its powers (in the plural) are activated through the agency of definite political forces in specific conjunctures. It is not the state that acts – whether in an ‘infrastructural’ or a ‘despotic’ mode – but specific sets of politicians and state officials located in specific parts of the state system and confronting specific resistances from specific forces beyond the state. It is the interplay between them that both activates and limits specific powers and state capacities inscribed in particular institutions and agencies. This confirms the point made by Poulantzas that the state is a social relation, i.e., that state power is an institutionally-mediated condensation of the changing balance of forces. The balance of forces in turn can never be class- neutral so that state power is always already selective in class terms by virtue both of its structural selectivity and of the class character of the balance of forces (Jessop 1990).

Furthermore, these structural powers or capacities and their realization cannot be understood by focusing on the state alone – even assuming one could precisely define its institutional boundaries. For, considered as an institutional ensemble rather than a real (or fictive) subject, the state comprises an ensemble of centres that offer unequal chances to different forces within and outside the state to act for different political purposes. This is what it means to talk about the strategic selectivity of the state system. Moreover, although the state system does have its own distinctive resources and powers, it also has distinctive liabilities as well as needs for resources that are produced elsewhere in its environment. This means that the powers of the state are always conditional and relational. Poulantzas’s final account of the state often stressed this and thereby superseded his earlier, more structuralist analyses. In so doing it also offered a superior alternative to more orthodox, state-centred studies.

In some respects, then, Poulantzas moved toward a state-centred account. Indeed his work is often criticized for being heavily ‘politicist’ in character and for treating capitalist reproduction from a statist perspective. Nonetheless Poulantzas was clearly not a ‘state-centred’ theorist in the sense attached to this label by its own partisans. For not only did he neglect many issues central to the newly emergent ‘state-theoretical’ approach (such as the constitution of nation-states in and through the international state system or the role of military organization and warfare in the making and remaking of states) but he also rejected the assumption that seems to underpin much of this recent ‘state-theoretical’ work, namely, that the state system is in some sense a subject and not merely a specific site or strategic field of action with distinctive properties. It is in this context above all that I would defend the superiority of Poulantzas’s approach over that of many accounts currently jostling for buyers in the academic market place (see section IV below).

IV. The Actuality of Poulantzas

Here I discuss the actuality of Poulantzas. Although his impact has been declining (as I have noted in the preceding section), this does not mean that his work is irrelevant to contemporary concerns. Indeed I would argue that it is still highly germane both to current political events and to current theoretical concerns. However, for reasons to do with the wholesale rejection of Marxism in France and the ill-conceived labelling of Poulantzas himself as a structuralist, its continuing relevance has been overlooked. Accordingly I now want to argue for the continuing ‘actuality’ of Poulantzas in four areas: his theory of the state as a social relation, his analysis of changing forms of the state (under the rubric of ‘authoritarian statism’), his views on political parties and new social movements, and his discussion of the problems of the democratic transition to democratic socialism.

1. Bringing the State Back In

First, one could well argue that the concept of the state as a social relation offers a middle way between ‘state-centred’ and ‘society-centred’ approaches. Poulantzas himself certainly did not develop all the implications of a ‘state-centred’ approach. His primary point of reference was, after all, the state’s role in reproducing the dominance of the capitalist mode of production. It was certainly not the state’s role in reproducing the state itself or the more general system of nation-states. But I would argue that the strategic-theoretical approach adumbrated in his notion of the state as a social relation provides the theoretical means to relate both state- and society-centred analyses.

For, in arguing that the state is a social relation (or, somewhat less elliptically, that state power is an institutionally-mediated expression of the changing balance of forces), Poulantzas clearly treated the form of the state as sui generis and as having a distinctive impact on social and political organization. It is its strategic selectivity and distinctive capacities that enable state systems to determine (in part) the outcome of political actions. But the capacities of the state cannot be separated from the overall balance of forces in a given social formation. Nor can one treat state managers as a unitary social category that can be isolated from social forces more generally. Even their distinct economic-corporate interests as a social category that lives off the state or politics could be differentiated, according to Poulantzas, in terms of the overall structure and functions of the state apparatus. Thus Poulantzas often stressed the links between the activities of state managers and specific class or fractional interests in society and their mediation through the changing balance of forces. There are obvious class reductionist dangers in this approach but it does have the merit of emphasizing the need to calculate the class-relevance of even the independent actions of state managers. But this does not mean that one should follow Poulantzas to the letter in his insistence that the relative autonomy of the state is always that degree of autonomy that is required to reproduce the dominance of capital in a given conjuncture. Rather one should follow the spirit of his emerging approach to the state rather than embrace all of his often class-reductionist conclusions.

Without this approach, there is a clear danger that a purely ‘state-centred’ approach would merely invert ‘society-centred’ approaches (see, for example, Skocpol 1985). One should not substitute the logic of the state and the interests of state managers for the logic of capital and the interests of antagonistic classes. We should reject the false dilemma which requires one to argue either that the state or society is primary: instead one should follow Poulantzas in treating the state as a social relation. A ‘state-centred’ approach would then focus more on the state’s role in the ‘form-determination’ of social reproduction through its ‘infrastructural power’ and its strategic selectivity, a ‘society-centred’ approach would focus more on the changing balance of forces (including the role of state managers) that is condensed in and through the distinct structures and functions of the state. But neither approach can be properly developed without detailed studies of how the state’s own institutional forms (with their specific capacities and vulnerabilities) condition the changing character of the political forces (at a distance from as well as inside the state) concerned to activate those capacities and vulnerabilities interact and are transformed in turn by the outcome of conflicts over the exercise of state powers and the transformation of the state itself.

2. A New State Form in Modern Capitalism

Second, Poulantzas was particularly concerned with the political implications of recent trends in advanced capitalist states. He argued that a new form of state was emerging (‘authoritarian statism’) and his discussion is even more pertinent today than when it was first conceived. He argued that the basic developmental tendency in this new state form is ‘intensified state control over every sphere of socio-economic life combined with radical decline of the institutions of political democracy and with draconian and multi-form curtailment of so-called ‘formal’ liberties’ (Poulantzas 1978a: 203-4).

In general authoritarian statism involves enhanced roles for the executive branch, its dominant ‘state party’ (whose function is to act as a transmission belt from the state to the people rather than from the people to the state), and a new, anti-democratic ideology. This further undermines the already limited involvement of the masses in political decision-making, severely weakens the organic functioning of the party system (even where a plurality of parties survives intact), and saps the vitality of democratic forms of political discourse. Accordingly there are fewer obstacles to the continuing penetration of authoritarian-statist forms into all areas of social life. Indeed Poulantzas actually claims that “all contemporary power is functional to authoritarian statism” (1978a: 239). All this might seem alarmist. Certainly one should neither over-estimate the capacities of the state and its technologies of power nor under-estimate capacities for resistance. But this is no reason to ignore the general tendencies that Poulantzas identified.

To give flesh to this bare description we can identify nine, more specific features of this state form: 1) power is transferred from the legislature to the executive and the concentration of power within the latter – typically within the office of prime minister or executive president with the resultant appearance of personalistic rule; 2) the fusion between the three branches of the state – legislature, executive, and judiciary – accelerates and is accompanied by a decline in the rule of law in favour of particularistic and discretionary regulation; 3) as their ties to the power bloc and the popular masses are weakened, political parties tend to lose their functions as the privileged interlocutors of the administration and as the leading forces in organizing hegemony; 4) this is reflected in a shift in the political significance of parties away from their traditional functions in elaborating policy through compromise and alliances around a party programme and in legitimating state power through electoral competition towards a more restricted role as the transmission belts for executive decisions as the administration itself assumes the legitimation functions traditionally performed by political parties; 5) dominance within the ideological state apparatuses is displaced from the school, university, and publishing house to the mass media, which now play a key role in political legitimation and mobilization and, indeed, increasingly draw both their agenda and symbolism from the administration and also experience a growing and multiform control at its hands; 6) linked to these shifts is the growth of new plebiscitary and populist forms of consent alongside new technocratic and/or neo-liberal forms of legitimation; 7) parallel power networks cross-cutting the formal organization of the state have also grown – networks that exercise a decisive share in its activities, promote a growing material and ideological community of interest between key civil servants and the dominant mass party, and consolidate policy communities that cement dominant interests outside the state apparatus with forces inside at the expense of popular forces; 8) a reserve repressive para-state apparatus has grown too, parallel to the main organs of the state and serving in a pre-emptive capacity to police popular struggles and other threats to bourgeois hegemony; and 9) and the dominant ideology has been reorganized by integrating certain liberal and libertarian themes from the ‘sixties as well as displacement of notions such as the general will and democracy in favour of instrumental rationality and technocratic logic (cf. Poulantzas 1978a, 1979a-d, 1980).

In this context we should note that Poulantzas distinguished among levels of analysis. He treated authoritarian statism as a new form of the capitalist state in the current period of capitalism that characterized metropolitan and dependent capitalist states alike. It could be associated with different forms of regime: more neo-liberal in France, for example, more authoritarian in Germany (cf. Poulantzas 1979c). Thus, whilst drawing attention to these general tendencies, he was also well aware that their realization and impact could vary and that how far authoritarian statism was consolidated depended on measures taken to combat and resist it as much as to further it. Both the theoretical arguments and the political implications would merit further study.

3. Crises in Communist Politics and its Party Form

Third, in reflecting on the political and state crises of his time, Poulantzas clearly identified the problems inherent in the dominant form of socialist and communist party organization and its associated inability to forge links with new class forces and new social movements – a form that he himself rejected and whose resulting incapacities he regretted. Thus he argued that communist and socialist parties in Europe had for too long been organized primarily as workers’ parties and had focused on the contradictions of the productive apparatus (the factory) and the relatively homogeneous working conditions that characterized it during the industrial revolution and the Fordist era. In turn this prompted a twofold division between parties and unions, state and enterprise. But the growing penetration of the state into all areas of everyday life and the radical shifts in economic organization and activity provoked new forms of economic crisis, new movements opposed to the impact of statism in civil society, and cross-class struggles located far from the site of production. Thus, at the very time when their presence seemed to be necessary to guide political action, the mass workers’ parties were themselves weakened and thrown into crisis by these very same conditions. Poulantzas concluded that only new forms of party organization, internal democratization, new links between the party and mass organizations, and new types of linkage with the new social movements would resolve these crises.

This new strategy clearly posed dilemmas. For, as Poulantzas repeatedly stressed, such changes could lead workers’ parties down the populist road just as surely as refusing to change would isolate them in a few declining proletarian ghettoes. Likewise he noted the dangers of too close a link between the party and social movements (which could mean that they lost their individuality and were absorbed into the party organization) as well as the risks of encouraging single micro-revolts, scattered resistances, and isolated experiments (which could result in their degeneration into fragmented, de-politicized, and egoistic organizations). The only feasible solution seemed to be to permit a certain irreducible tension between social movements and parties, direct democracy and representative institutions. Indeed Poulantzas sometimes concluded that such a tension is an integral element in the dynamic of a democratic transition to democratic socialism (cf. Poulantzas 1979d-e).

It is no part of my argument to claim that Poulantzas solved these problems in practical terms nor that he was alone in identifying them on a theoretical plane. Nor would I want to disguise the fact that his own conversion to this new strategic approach came late in the day and was not worked through in a full and consistent manner. But I do want to highlight the currency of these issues and to note how they merit continued attention. Moreover, by locating them in a more general ‘strategic-theoretical’ framework and relating them to his arguments about the relational character of state power, Poulantzas did reveal aspects of these problems that remain vital and are often neglected.

4. Democratic Socialism and Eastern Europe

Fourth, given the renewed interest in the problems of a democratic transition to democratic socialism, it is worth looking again at Poulantzas’s work. His guidelines for such a transition include recommendations for institutional change as well as for political strategy. In relation to institutional design he advocated a ‘third way’ that rejected any exclusive reliance on parliamentary change or on direct democracy. For he identified clear and present dangers in both representative democracy (with its statist tendencies) and direct democracy (with its tendencies towards egoism and fragmentation and thence to the dictatorship of the experts or statist despotism). This was coupled with support for a supra-class popular front embracing new social movements as well as two or more political parties. This should pursue a threefold strategy: a) rank-and-file movements should link together at the base in united and popular fronts, build their own self-help and subsidiary organizations, and engage in struggles and campaigns at a distance from the state in order to increase leftward pressure on it; b) parties should engage in electoral politics, parliamentary politics, and administration in order to influence the exercise of its undoubted capacities and to help intensify the internal contradictions of the state so that its internal balance of forces was polarized leftward – without, however, so weakening or paralyzing it that it could not intervene to protect and provide infrastructural support for popular movements, organizations, and initiatives; and c) the institutional structures of the state should be changed so that it loses many of its bureaucratic, centralizing features and becomes progressively more accountable to the people (Poulantzas 1978, 1979a-d). In commenting both on issues of institutional design and political strategy Poulantzas continually emphasized the dilemmas and contradictions involved. Indeed, as I have noted elsewhere, he was far better at noting these dilemmas and contradictions than he was at proposing solutions to them (cf. Jessop 1985).

Although his analyses (presented not only in books and articles but also in many interviews) have been neglected, I would claim that they are still very pertinent. Although there has recently been a spate of interest in detailed plans for socialism and how to get there, the details are often stressed to the detriment of the dilemmas and contradictions they involve. Poulantzas may well have been less concerned with the details but he did bring out the dangers of one-sided political solutions. Many of his ideas are advocated (often without recognition that he ever worked on such themes) in the current literature on democracy and civil society. To take just one recent illustration from many, John Keane, in a fine historical, philosophical, and theoretical work on democratic socialism presents many arguments reminiscent of those developed by Poulantzas. But he does not acknowledge this affinity – probably because he shares the same dismissive view of Poulantzas as so many of our contemporaries (Keane 1988: 101-151).

To restrict our discussion to the West in this context, however, is to belittle Poulantzas’s actuality. For it is recent (and continuing) events in the East that demonstrate beyond a shadow of doubt that Poulantzas still has much to teach us. The timing, rhythms, and pace of change in Eastern Europe in 1989 and 1990 as well as its nature and direction have been truly astounding and almost wholly unexpected. There can be few, if any, ‘actually existing’ theories in the social sciences that fare well in the face of such rapid and disconcerting patterns of change. Thus it is not inappropriate to recall here that Poulantzas developed his relational approach to the state because his earlier theories were quite unable to explain the sudden decomposition or collapse of the military dictatorships in Southern Europe.[8] Obviously the form and pace of decomposition or collapse have proved even greater in the Central and Eastern European states that were once in the iron grip of the Soviet (or simply Russian?) empire. And, even more self-evidently, they have already had much more radical implications for the resurgence of market ideologies and proposals for the re-introduction of international and domestic market forces. Yet in both respects the approach adumbrated by Poulantzas would seem useful – not as a simple grid to be imposed for the purpose of mechanically deciphering past and future events but as a heuristic framework for sensitizing us to relevant factors and mechanisms and indicating possible strategies. This is not to argue that Poulantzas himself anticipated – let alone successfully theorized – the events in Eastern Europe. It is simply to argue that employing his strategic-relational approach provides an excellent starting point for such a theorization.

Thus, regarding the collapse or decomposition of these regimes, we might note that the character of state power as a social relation and the importance of all political struggles – at a distance from the state, within the existing state, and to transform the state – are as relevant to the democratic revolution in the East as they are in the West. In particular the role of struggles at a distance from the state (even when they assumed essentially peaceful forms and involve little more than – and what a lot this little word ‘little’ implies – mass demonstrations or symbolic general strikes) in the collapse of state socialist regimes reveals how far the state apparatus and its personnel had become internally fissured and at odds with each other. Such struggles intensified the internal conflicts within the state apparatus – causing it to decompose, destabilizing and immobilizing its repressive apparatus[9] polarizing its petty bureaucrats and communist party officials for and against mass demands, and forcing the whole system on to the defensive. Obviously the mass movements had to have conflicts to work on and the chronic economic crisis and the ageing of the party leaderships played a key role here. A fuller analysis of the concrete (and rapidly changing) conjunctures in each country is, of course, needed to show how these factors interacted from case to case.

Likewise, regarding the turn towards neo-liberalism in the aftermath of the collapse (at least outside the Soviet Union), we might recall that Poulantzas stressed that the equally disappointing outcome of the revolutions in Greece, Portugal, and Spain stemmed from the left’s failure to hegemonize the struggle for democratization. Since it was the transition to liberal democracy that defined the immediate horizon of action in Southern Europe and not the transition to socialism, Poulantzas had emphasized the need for left forces to take the lead in formulating democratic demands. Failure on this score would mean that rightwing and statist forces would hegemonize the democratization process and thereby weaken the chances of later movement towards a democratic socialist future. The problems confronting democratic socialist forces in the Eastern European countries are even greater since their repressive, bureaucratic statism had seriously weakened civil society. Thus, whilst weak social movements could topple the internally fissured state socialist regimes, they lacked the organizational and strategic capacities to hegemonize the struggle over democratization. This is particularly clear in the rapid absorption of GDR into a unified Germany under the hegemony of West German capitalism; but the same story is unfolding in other East European countries as capitalist interests throw their weight behind rightwing and neo-liberal forces. All the dilemmas and difficulties anticipated by Poulantzas in the attempts to link social movements and party organization, direct democracy and representative institutions, are evident in Eastern Europe. And they are further complicated by the decomposition of the state apparatus as a possible source of support for rank-and-file initiatives and struggles at a distance from the state to maintain the leftward momentum of the transition process. Thus, just as in the Southern European states studied by Poulantzas, political conditions are ripe for a gradual reimposition of bureaucratic, authoritarian forms of government.

IV. Concluding Remarks

In this article I have tried to assess the originality, the legacy, and the actuality of Poulantzas. I believe that he was the most original postwar Western Marxist state theorist and I have suggested some reasons for this originality both in his location at the confluence of three very different theoretical currents and in quite specific political struggles. I have also noted with regret that this originality has largely gone unrecognized and, if recognized, has faded into oblivion. This fact is reflected in his theoretical and political legacy. Although Poulantzas had a significant impact on the theoretical agenda of state theory in the 1970s his particular solutions to the problems he identified were far less often accepted. Since his tragic death in 1979, his legacy has become marginal in many areas. Notwithstanding this decline (which is closely linked, of course, to the more general crisis of Marxist theory and communist political parties and, more recently still, to the collapse of the Stalinist regimes in the Soviet Bloc), I have also argued that Poulantzas’s work should still be treated with respect and serious consideration because the problems that he addressed are still actual and the arguments and ideas he proposed are still pertinent.

This is why I would conclude that Poulantzas’s theory is both classical and contemporary. Clearly we cannot simply accept what Poulantzas wrote and treat it as gospel in an uncritical, passive manner. This is especially clear in the relative underdevelopment of his approach on issues of political economy (as tackled more recently, for example, in regulation theory) or on issues of ideology (a distinct theoretical object in Althusserian structuralism that has been steadily deconstructed under the impact of discourse analysis). But we can consider his work as a crucial source for a continuous theoretical tradition concerned with the state. Approached critically it can help us to make theoretical advances not only in terms of the more traditional ‘society-centred’ analyses but also in terms of the newer ‘state-centred’ analyses. And, as a source of political inspiration, it remains vital.

There is no question here of instituting a cult of personality. It is more an issue of continuing the unfinished work of a basic theoretical revolution in Marxist analyses of the state. We should approach his work in the same critical spirit as Poulantzas himself tackled his own studies as well as those of others: to appreciate its significant theoretical ruptures, to fill its gaps, to assess its relevance to new problems and theoretical currents, to develop it in new directions. But we should also try to avoid that theoreticism that deforms and stultifies so much Marxist analysis and link theoretical analysis with issues of political strategy. Poulantzas himself fought long and hard for left unity in France and Greece and tried to provide the theoretical foundations for an effective strategy oriented to a democratic transition to democratic socialism under the conditions of contemporary capitalism. This was certainly a struggle worth fighting.

In conclusion, although his theoretical work is sadly neglected today (apart from gestural references to the Miliband-Poulantzas debate, whose current relevance is close to zero), I would still claim that it repays continued study and elaboration. For, when one looks at contemporary political trends, who could doubt the continued relevance of his strategy when one looks at events in the modern world? In this respect Poulantzas’s legacy is still valid and still vital. But it would be wrong to ascribe this legacy solely to Poulantzas. He merely participated, after all, in a more general movement towards left Eurocommunist political positions. Perhaps one can continue it in other ways by participating in the general movement to which he contributed and from which he drew so much.


[1] This article was written for a conference held in Berlin, November 1989, to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the death of Nicos Poulantzas. It has been lightly revised in the intervening year to take account of recent developments in Eastern Europe and in the light of friendly criticisms from the editors of SPE. Particular thanks to Rianne Mahon for steering the article to its final publication.

[2] See especially Poulantzas 1969 and 1976b; Miliband 1970 and 1973.

[3]This was especially true regarding the exact boundaries, size, and continuing primacy of the working class as well as the nature and political significance of the new middle classes.

[4]For a particularly scathing onslaught on Poulantzas for his alleged contribution to the demotion of the working class and the rise of a new ‘true’ socialism, see Woods 1985: 25-46.

[5] Wood also falsely accuses Poulantzas of suggesting that the state had acquired the dominant role in economic exploitation (Wood 1985: 40-41). But she overlooks the fact that Poulantzas used the concept of ‘economic’ in two senses: liberal market forces and the organization of production. Thus his analysis of displacement referred only to the relative demotion of free market forces in favour of the state’s role in mediating the relations among private capitals in late capitalism. On this see Jessop 1985: 84-87.

[6] This phrase derives, of course, from Gramsci’s analysis of the state: he defined the state in its integral sense as ‘political society + civil society’ (Gramsci 1971). Likewise Poulantzas analysed classes from the viewpoint of their expanded reproduction (1974, 1978). Indeed, with the exception of his overly politicized and ideologistic view of the petty bourgeoisie in Fascism and Dictatorship (1970), he always defined classes in terms of the social relations of economic exploitation, ownership, and control. At the same time, however, he stressed that other institutional orders (notably the state) were deeply involved in reproducing the social relations of production.

[7] This tradition emphasized the fusion of the state and monopoly capital into a single mechanism of economic exploitation and political domination to the detriment not only of the popular masses but also of non-monopoly capital.

[8] This is not the place to discuss whether these regimes are best described as ‘military’ dictatorships: the point is, rather, to stress the unexpected nature of their collapse. For a critique of Poulantzas’s views on these regimes, see Jessop 1985.

[9] To the extent, indeed, that unarmed civilians can storm secret police headquarters in search of evidence of corruption.



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