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On the Originality, Legacy, and Actuality of Nicos


Article  in  Studies in Political Economy · January 1991

DOI: 10.1080/19187033.1991.11675461


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Bob Jessop
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On the Originality,
Legacy, and
Actuality of Nicos
t is now some twelve years since the tragic death of

I Nicos Poulantzas.' His name will be familiar to many

SPE readers for two main reasons. First, he was a major
contributor to the nee-Marxist rediscovery of the state
(notably through the much-cited debate which he began with
Ralph Miliband);2 and, second, he also provoked controver-
sy for his account of changes in postwar capitalism and
their implications for classes and the class struggle?
Curiously, while he is often praised for his agenda-setting
contribution in state theory, he is also 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 these debates has hindered a fuller,
more nuanced appreciation of Poulantzas 's overall contribu-
tion to modern social theory. For his interests and contribu-
tions actually went much beyond these two fields; and, even
with regard to state theory and class analysis, they also
revealed significant shifts in approach which have too often
passed unremarked. Thus this paper aims to reconsider the
significance of Poulantzas's work.
Elsewhere I have argued that Poulantzas is the single
most important Marxist political theorist of the postwar
period.S 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 distinc-

Studies In Political Economy 34, Spring 1991 75

Studies in Political Economy

tion derives from Niklas Luhmann. Luhmann suggests that

a theory can be seen as "classical" when it offers an inter-
connected set of claims that has been superseded by later
theoretical developments and is, therefore, no longer con-
vincing in its original form. Nonetheless it still survives as
a challenge 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.6
Such an approach is useful because it helps us to identify
problems in Poulantzas's work while at the same time treat-
ing it as a crucial source for a continuous theoretical tradi-
tion on the nature of the state, social classes, and political
mobilization in modern capitalism.
Here I will argue that Poulantzas's stature rests on his
intellectual originality, theoretical legacy, and political ac-
tuality or relevance. This needs to be qualified in three quite
different respects. First, while reaffirming a claim for his
importance, I 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 "clas-
sical" 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, third. 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 mar-
ginal. Overall I conclude that his work is still relevant and,
despite its obvious problems in many respects, in many
others it has not yet been superseded.
The Significance of Poulantzas Perry Anderson identifies
the following key questions as those which Western Mar-
xism has left unanswered:

J essoplPoulantzas

[W]hat 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.?

Whatever the validity of this last 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. Poulantzas was almost alone
among postwar Marxists to address and answer the really
crucial questions within Marxist politics. His first influential
book, Political Power and Social Classes published in 1968,
was concerned with the real nature and structure of bour-
geois democracy. Fascism and Dictatorship which appeared
in 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 (1976), Poulantzas related
problems of revolutionary strategy to democratic and ex-
ceptional regimes in both advanced and dependent capitalist
countries. And his final book, State, Power, Socialism,
which appeared in 1978, 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
which Anderson identifies as central to Marxist politics, he
was also increasingly interested in them "in their intercon-
Poulantzas also went beyond such concerns to other im-
portant issues in Marxist theory. Here again Anderson is
useful since he mentions four other failures of contemporary
Marxism: failure to tackle the meaning and position of the
nation as a social unit and its relationship to nationalism;

Studies in Political Economy

ignoring the contemporary laws of motion of capitalism as

a mode of production and the forms of crisis specific to
these laws; neglecting the true configuration of imperialism
as an international system of economic and political domina-
tion; and failure to confront the nature of the bureaucratic
states which 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 which 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 contem-
porary 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 among Western Marxists, he was unusual.
The Originality of Poulantzas It is often said that Marx's
originality lies in his unique synthesis of three different
sources: German philosophy, French politics, and English
economics. As he worked at synthesizing these different
currents, however, both his theoretical focus and his phil-
osophical position underwent several changes. He was also
influenced by quite specific political conditions and objec-
tives. Thus, although he started out as a radical liberal
democrat, his major theoretical breakthroughs occurred after
he became a communist. Nor was he content to interpret
the world from his seat in the British Museum. He made
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.I
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.? Even if one rejects this par-
ticular claim, Poulantzas certainly made major contributions
to Marxist political analysis. Curiously his work involved
shifts in theoretical object which 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 radi-
cal but they are nonetheless important. From an existen-
tial-marxist 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 Thought 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 specifi-
cally, 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 In-
grao left (a left Eurocommunist tendency in the Italian Com-
munist 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 which he had acquired at Law
Schools in Athens, Munich, Heidelberg, and Paris.
Poulantzas went on to synthesise these sources in a unique
manner within the overarching framework of Marxist politi-
cal 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 through an Althusserian perspective. Certain Austro-Mar-
xist themes (notably the need to combine direct democracy

Studies in Political Economy

with representative democracy) were likewise appropriated

through their influence in Italian political debate."
These different streams were combined and developed
in a quite specific manner within the context of Marxist
political economy. For Poulantzas firmly opposed the tradi-
tions of the Second International and the Comintern. Both
allegedly reduced the nature of the state to a simple reflec-
tion of the economic base and/or suggested that political
class struggles followed the course of economic develop-
ment. More generally Poulantzas noted that orthodox Mar-
xism 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 be-
tween 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 dif-
ferential 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" 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 conden-
sation of the balance of forces in political class struggle.
As his work developed Poulantzas connected these ar-
guments more closely and coherently with traditional Mar-
xist 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 synthesised
the three sources of his approach firmly within the
framework of classical Marxist political economy. 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 "ex-

J essop/Poulantzas

tended reproduction" 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.l! Poulantzas always
placed the social relations of production in their integral
sense at the heart of his analysis of class struggle.12 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 deter-
ministic 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 com-
mitted 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 con-
cern 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 mainly sought to jus-
tify 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 posi-
tion in developing the substantive concepts for a theory of
the state. Here Poulantzas needed to supplement Althus-
serian 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 the Marxist
theory of the state, he was alluding to his thesis that the

Studies in Political Economy

state is a social relation. This did entail a fundamental philo-

sophical 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 ap-
proach. 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 So-
cial Classes, for example, his crucial theoretical innovations
would have been unthinkable without the influence of AI-
thusserian 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 ele-
ments were located at different levels in the movement from
abstract to concrete, 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-struc-
turalist, 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 as-
sociated with a move towards Foucauldian positions, the


latter are nonetheless best interpreted as means through

which new ideas were expressed rather than as their essen-
tial precondition. Poulantzas certainly acknowledged the in-
fluence 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 epis-
temologist 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 writ-
ten from the perspective of 'existential-marxism' to a hybrid
Althusserian and Gramscian account of the state and thence
to a leftwing Eurocommunist position. The key to this move-
ment appears to be his involvement in Greek and French
politics. Otherwise nothing would have happened. 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. At the
same time they presuppose changes in his philosophical
The political involvements that provided the motor force
here were the result 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 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 posttion.P The
latter characterised his Marxist-Leninist phase and
prevented him from understanding the nature of politics in
modern societies. Thus Poulantzas had to await the collapse

Studies in Political Economy

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 work-
ing class in the struggle for socialism. Only then did he
seriously consider popular-democratic struggles and the ac-
tivities 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
Thus Poulantzas's originality also depended on his at-
tempts to understand and influence leftwing policy towards
political events in Greece and France. For Greece his prin-
cipal concern was to understand its military dictatorship,
the conditions leading to its overthrow, the absence of work-
ing 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 con-
tradictions 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 his rapidly grow-
ing 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 mobilising the popular masses outside the state
could prepare the ground for the eventual democratic trans-
formation 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 person-
nel of the state at the expense of mass struggle, and the
ultra-left's equally misguided belief that socialism had ar-
rived and that the state would simply wither away and could

J essop/Poulantzas

therefore safely be ignored. Instead Poulantzas called for

a strategy which would democratise the state and permit it
to be used in defense of autonomous rank-and-file move-
ments at a distance from it.
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 jus-
tification for class alliances (especially between proletariat
and new petty bourgeoisie rather than between worker and
peasant); and, later, the theoretical justification for combin-
ing 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 com-
plex and more problematic alliance strategy, both pluriclas-
siste and pluripartiste, which denied any a priori privilege
to the working class or communist party, and which em-
phasised 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 posi-
tion. 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 degenera-
tion of socialism which 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 which events in these countries
presented for him caused a continual reappraisal 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 tradi-
tions as well as to advocate a new political strategy.

Studies in Political Economy

The Legacy of Poulantzas Suggesting that Poulantzas left

behind some rich and original theoretical work, does not
really address the question of his legacy. For the legacy of
a theorist does not consist in his/her literary remains: instead
it comprises the ways in which these remains are taken up
and used by contemporaries and successors, and encompas-
ses the marginalisation, or exclusion of certain works, or
their use as controversial or negative reference points. 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. "14 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 1970s. This
is particularly apparent in the concern with the so-called
"relative autonomy" of the state. 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 un-
productive 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 dif-
ficulties 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
which 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.

J essop/Poulantzas

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 honour - 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 rela-
tively 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 which had provided such an im-
portant 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 at-
tention in the anglophone world through his debate with
Miliband, his later work usually has been read as struc-
turalist. This unjustifiable interpretation is still the dominant
one within the anglophone world - with his work either
being explicitly charged with 'structuralism' or else sub-
sumed under the more qualified label of 'structural
Marxism'. With this stigma attached, it is hardly surprising
that Poulantzas's work is often cited gesturally; or that all
too frequently it remains unread.
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 methodologi-
cal assumptions is needed to make sense of the gradual
unfolding of his analyses. This method is rather uncommon
in the anglophone social sciences with their penchant for
positivist theories and systematic empiricism and for her-
meneutic, interpretive traditions which are unsympathetic
to arguments rooted in a realist epistemology which stresses
the ontological depth of the social world. 15 Indeed, in the
same year that Poulantzas's last book appeared in English,

Studies in Political Economy

Gerry Cohen's pathbreaking 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;"16 and it came to define anglo-
Marxism as the centre of gravity of 1980s marxist theory.!?
Certainly, in contrast with so-called "standards of clarity
and rigour which distinguish twentieth-century analytical
philosophy,"18 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 apprecia-
tive readership even when the overall theoretical and politi-
cal 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 theoreti-
cal and political environment which varied from country to
country. For example, 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. Yet, though
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 over-all strength
of the postwar Marxist-Leninist "state monopoly capitalism"
approach among those who were aligned to communist par-
ties;19 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 too little con-
cerned with developing the critique of political economy,
and too much 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 tradi-
tion in Italy which seems to have limited Poulantzas's im-
pact there. Indeed, as noted above, it was not so much
Poulantzas who influenced Italian politics, as 'Italian
politics' which influenced Poulantzas.
By contrast it was the relative weakness of state theory
in the anglophone world which 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 in the mid-60s.20 In turn it was a
controversy in the pages of New Left Review between two
Marxist scholars, Poulantzas and Miliband, which did much
to stimulate anglophone interest in the 1970s. Once this
interest was aroused, 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 men-
tion studies by Carchedi, Hindess and Hirst, Laclau, Wright,
and Przeworski.U 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 cru-
cial in mediating his role in theoretical developments. Final-
ly, for a time in the 1970s, Poulantzas had some influence
in the Iberian peninsula as both Portugal and Spain ex-
perienced 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.

Studies in Political Economy

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 Poulantzas's 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
First, as Poulantzas himself recognised, Marxism ex-
perienced a political and theoretical crisis in the seventies:
this has been particularly strong in France but can also be
seen in other countries which 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 dimen-
sion 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.22 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
imply 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 em-
bodied 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

J essoplPoulantzas

Marxist theories to compete with other approaches for con-

tinued attention. Among those who would have been inter-
ested 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 (al-
though this has clearly played a role) but also because
Foucauldian disciplinary analyses and Derridean de-
construction 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 pur-
chase 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.23 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 or-
ders 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 rela-
tions involves a number of problems which can be resolved
by resorting to the arguments of the mature Poulantzas.24
Finally, within state research itself, a challenge has been
mounted from what one might call a 'state-theoretical' posi-
tion which 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 de-
serves attention here less because of its coherence as an
alternative account of the state,25 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

Studies in Political Economy

around to engage in new debates and controversies as for-

cefully as he did in earlier matters for theoretical and politi-
cal 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 some-
thing 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 op-
posing supporters of the state-centred approach.
While 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
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 the
institutional separation of the state and the distinctive state
identities and ideologies which emerged within different
branches of the state apparatus. And, in describing the crea-
tive 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."26 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. "27 Instead he refined this argument in
two ways: first, by delineating the various potential struc-
tural powers (or state capacities) inscribed in the state as
institutional ensemble; and, second, by insisting that the
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 which 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 which both activates and limits specific powers and
state capacities inscribed in particular institutions and agen-
cies. This confirms the point made by Poulantzas that the
state is a social relation, i.e., that state power is an institu-
tionally-mediated condensation of the changing balance of
forces. The balance of forces in turn can never be class-
neutral. 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.28
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 which offer unequal chan-
ces 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 dis-
tinctive resources and powers, it also has distinctive
liabilities as well as needs for resources which are produced
elsewhere in its environment. This means that the powers
of th~state are alwa)'s conditional and relational. Poulantzas's
final account of the state often stressed this and thereby

Studies in Political Economy

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 criticised 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 emer-
gent '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
which 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.
The Actuality of Poulantzas Despite his declining in-
fluence, Poulantzas's work is still relevant to contemporary
concerns. This continuing 'actuality' rests on his contribu-
tions 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
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 produc-
tion. It was certainly not the state's role in reproducing
itself or the more general system of nation-states. Rather

J essop/Poulantzas

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.
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 their 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-cor-
porate interests as a social category, which 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 ac-
tivities 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 em-
phasising the need to calculate the class-relevance of even
the independent actions of state managers. 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 which is required to reproduce the
dominance of capital in a given conjuncture. One can follow
the spirit of his emerging approach to the state without
embracing all of his often class-reductionist conclusions.
Without this approach, there is a clear danger that a pure-
ly 'state-centred' approach would merely invert 'society-
centred' approaches.s? 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.

Studies in Political Economy

A 'state-centred' approach would then focus more on the

state's role in the "form-determination" of social reproduc-
tion 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) which is condensed in and through the dis-
tinct structures and functions of the state. But neither ap-
proach can be properly developed without detailed studies
of how the state's own institutional forms, with their specific
capacities and vulnerabilities, condition the changing char-
acter of the political forces (at a distance as well as inside
the state).
2. A New State Form in Modern Capitalism Second,
Poulantzas was particularly concerned with the political im-
plications 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.30

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 sur-
vives 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."31 All this might seem alarmist. Cer-
tainly one should neither over-estimate the capacities of the
state and its technologies of power nor underestimate


capacities for resistance. But this is no reason to ignore the

general tendencies which 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 be-
tween the three branches of the state - legislature, execu-
tive, 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 ad-
ministration itself assumes the legitimation functions tradi-
tionally 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 agen-
da and symbolism from the administration and also ex-
perience 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
neoliberal forms of legitimation; 7) parallel power networks
cross-cutting the formal organization of the state have also
grown - networks which exercise a decisive share in its
activities, promote a growing material and ideological com-
munity of interest between key civil servants and the
dominant mass party, and consolidate policy communities
which 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, paral-

Studies in Political Economy

lel 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) the dominant ideol-
ogy has been reorganised by integrating certain liberal and
libertarian themes from the sixties as well as displacing
notions such as the general will and democracy in favour
of instrumental rationality and technocratic 10gic.32
In this context we should recall that Poulantzas distin-
guished among levels of analysis. He treated authoritarian
statism as a new form of the capitalist state, one which
characterised metropolitan and dependent capitalist states
alike. It could be associated with different forms of regime:
more neoliberal in France, for example, more authoritarian
in Germany.V Thus, while drawing attention to these
general tendencies, he was also well aware that their realiza-
tion and impact could vary. To what degree authoritarian
statism could be 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 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 organiza-
tion and its associated inability to forge links with new
class forces and new social movements - a form which he
himself rejected and whose resulting incapacities he
regretted. Thus he argued that communist and socialist par-
ties 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 which characterized it
during the industrial revolution and the Fordist era. In tum
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 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

J essoplPoutantzas

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, in-
ternal 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 result in the latter's absorption into the party organiza-
tion) 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 some-
times concluded that such a tension is an integral element
in the dynamic of a democratic transition to democratic
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 char-
acter of state power, Poulantzas did reveal aspects of these
problems which are often neglected.
4. Democratic Socialism and Eastern Europe 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 in-

Studies in Political Economy

elude recommendations for institutional change as well as

for political strategy. In relation to institutional design he
advocated a 'third way', rejecting any exclusive reliance
on parliamentary change or on direct democracy. He iden-
tified 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 popular front should pursue a
threefold strategy: a) rank-and-file movements should link
together at the base, 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, par-
liamentary 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 in-
stitutional 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."
In commenting both on issues of institutional design and
political strategy Poulantzas continually emphasised 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
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 acknow-
ledge this affinity - probably because he shares the same
dismissive view of Poulantzas as so many of our contem-
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 which 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 un-
expected. There can be few, if any, 'actually existing'
theories in the social sciences which 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 decom-
position or collapse of the military dictatorships in Southern
Europe.38 Obviously the form and pace of decomposition
or collapse have proved even greater in the Central and
Eastern European states which 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 reintroduction of international and domes-
tic 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 frame-
work for sensitizing us to relevant factors and mechanisms
and indicating possible strategies. This is not to argue that
Poulantzas himself anticipated - let alone successfully the-
orized - the events in Eastern Europe. It is simply to argue

Studies in Political Economy

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 strug-
gles - 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 assume 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 strug-
gles intensified the internal conflicts within the state ap-
paratus - causing it to decompose, destabilising and
immobilising its repressive apparatus,39 polarising 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 con-
flicts 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) con-
junctures in each country is, of course, needed to show how
these factors interacted from case to case.
Likewise, regarding the turn towards neoliberalism 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, Por-
tugal, and Spain stemmed from the Left's failure to hege-
monize 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 de-


mocratic socialist forces in the Eastern European countries

are even greater since their repressive, bureaucratic statism
had seriously weakened civil society. Thus, while weak so-
cial 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 ab-
sorption 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 neoliberal
forces. All the dilemmas and difficulties anticipated by
Poulantzas in the attempts to link social movements and
party organization, direct democracy and representative in-
stitutions, are evident in Eastern Europe. And they are fur-
ther 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.
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. This fact
is reflected in his theoretical and political legacy. Although
Poulantzas had a significant impact on the 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

Studies in Political Economy

also argued that Poulantzas's work should still be treated

with respect and serious consideration because the problems
which 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. I am not of course ad-
vocating a passive acceptance of his work. 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
which has been steadily deconstructed under the impact of
discourse analysis) are relatively underdeveloped. But we
can consider his work as a crucial source in 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
There is no question here of instituting a cult of per-
sonality. It is more an issue of continuing the unfinished
work of a basic theoretical revolution in Marxist analyses
of the state. We should approach Poulantzas's work in the
same critical spirit as he himself tackled his own studies
and 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 direc-
tions. But we should also try to avoid that theoreticism
which deforms and stultifies so much Marxist analysis, and
consciously aim to 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 Poulantzas legacy is


valid and vital. It would be wrong to ascribe this legacy

solely to Poulantzas. He 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 con-
tributed and from which he drew so much.


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 revised in the intervening year to take account of recent develop-
ments in Eastern Europe and in the light of friendly criticisms from the
editors of SPE. Panicular thanks to Rianne Mahon for steering the article
to its final publication.
1. The following is a chronologically ordered list of works by Nicos
Poulantzas discussed or cited in this article: "Marxist Political
Theory in Great Britain," New Left Review, 43 (1967), pp. 57-74.
Political Power and Social Classes (London: NLB, 1973 [orig.
1968]). "The Problem of the Capitalist State," New Left Review 58
(1969), pp. 67-78. Fascism and Dictatorship (London: NLB, 1974
[orig. 1970]). Classes in Contemporary Capitalism (London: NLB,
1975 [orig. 1974]). Crisis of the Dictatorships (London: NLB, 1976
[2nd edn.]). "The capitalist state," New Left Review 95 (1976), pp.
63-83. State, Power, Socialism (London: Verso, 1978). "Les
theoriciens doivent retourner sur terre," Les nouvelles litteraires 26
June 1978. "L'etat, les mouvements sociaux, le parti," Dialectiques
28 (1979). "La crise des partis," Le Monde Diplomatique 26 Sep-
tember 1979. "Interview with Nicos Poulantzas," Marxism Today
May 1979, pp. 198-205. "Es geht darum mit derStalinistischen Tradi-
tion zu brechen,' Prokla 37 (1979), pp. 127-40. "Is there a Crisis
in Marxism?" Journal of the Hellenic Diaspora 6/iii (1979), pp 7-16.
"La deplacement des procedures de legitimation," in Universite de
Vincennes, Le nouvel ordre interieur (Paris: Moreau, 1980) pp. 138-
2. See especially Poulantzas, "The Problem of the Capitalist State"
(1969) and "The capitalist state" (1976); R. Miliband, "The Capitalist
State - Reply to Poulantzas," New Left Review 59 (1970), pp. 53-60,
and idem "Poulantzas and the Capitalist State," New Left Review
82 (1973), pp. 83-92.
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 E.M. Woods, The Retreat from Class: a
New Trae' Sodalism (London: Verso, 19&5) pp. 15-46.


Studies in Political Economy

5. B. Jessop, Nicos Poulantzas: Marxist Theory and Political Strategy

(London: Macmillan, 1985); See also B. Jessop, "The non-struc-
turalist legacy of Nicos Poulantzas,' in L. Appignanesi (00.), Ideas
from France: the Legacy of French Theory (London: Institute of
Contemporary Arts, 1985) pp. 38-41.
6. N. Luhmann, The Differentiation of Society (New York: Columbia
University Press, 1982).
7. P. Anderson, Considerations on Western Marxism (London: Verso,
1976) p. 103.
8. For a fuller account, see Jessop, Nicos Poulantzas: Marxist Theory ...
9. Poulantzas, "Les theoriciens doivent retoumer sur terre" (1978).
10. Cf. Jessop, Nicos Poulantzas: Marxist Theory ...
11. E.g., Wood, The Retreat from Class ... pp. 30-31. Wood also falsely
accuses Poulantzas of suggesting that the state had acquired the
dominant role in economic exploitation (pp, 40-41). But she over-
looks 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 demo-
tion 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, Nicos Poulantzas: Marxist Theory ... pp. 84-87.
12. This phrase derives, of course, from Gramsci's analysis of the state:
he defined the state in its integral sense as political society plus
civil society. Likewise Poulantzas analyzes classes from the view-
point of their expanded reproduction. Classes in Contemporary
Capitalism (1975 [orig, 1974]); State, Power, Socialism (1978). In-
deed. with the exception of his overly politicized and ideologistic
view of the petty bourgeoisie in Fascism and Dictatorship (1974
[orig. 1970]), he always defined classes in terms of the social rela-
tions 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.
13. See L. Althusser, For Marx (London: Allen Lane, 1969).
14. C. Prezzolini, Machiavelli (London: Robert Hale, 1967) p, 190.
15. Cf. R. Bhaskar, Reclaiming Reality (London: Verso, 1989).
16. J. Roemer, Analytical Marxism (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press 1986) pp. 1-2.
17. Cf. P. Anderson. In the Tracks of Historical Materialism (London:
Verso 1983); A. Callinicos (ed.), Marxist Theory (Oxford: Oxford
University Press. 1989) pp. 1-6; B. Hindess, Rationality, Choice,
and Action (London: Unwin Hyman, 1988).
18. G.A. Cohen, Karl Marx's Theory of History (London: Oxford Univer-
sity Press, 1978) p, ix.
19. This tradition emphasized the fusion ofthe state and monopoly capi-
tal 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.
20. Poulantzas, "Marxist Political Theory in Great Britain" (1967).
21. G. Carchedi, "On the Economic Identification of the New Middle
Class," Economy Qnd Society 411 (1915); Hindess, Rationality,


-- - - ---------------------------------

Choice. and Action; E. Laclau, Politics and Ideology in Marxist

Theory (London: NLB, 1978); A. Przeworski, "Proletariat into a
Class: the process of class formation from Karl Kautsky's The Class
Struggle to recent controversies," Politics and Society 7/4 (1977),
pp 343-402; E.O. Wright, Class. Crisis, and the State (London: Verso,
22. E.g. E. Laclau and C. Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Politics (Lon-
don: Verso, 1985).
23. See Poulantzas, State, Power. Socialism (1978); Jessop, Nlcos
Poulantzas: Marxist Theory ...; and idem, State Theory: Putting
Capitalist States in Their Place (Cambridge: Polity, 1990).
24. Jessop, State Theory ...
25. On the absence of which, see ibid.
26. Cf. M. Mann, "The Autonomous Power of the State," Archives
Europeennes de Sociologie 25 (1983), pp. 187-213.
27. Poulantzas, Political Power and Social Classes (1968).
28. Jessop, State Theory ...
29. See, for example, T. Skocpol, "Bringing the State Back In: Strategies
of Analysis in Current Research," in P.B. Evans et al. (eds.), Bringing
the State Back In (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985)
pp. 3-37.
30. Poulantzas, State, Power, Socialism (1978), pp. 203-4.
31. Ibid, p. 239.
32. Cf. ibid; idem, "L'etat, les mouvements sociaux, le parti" (1979);
"La crise des partis" (1979); "Interview with Nicos Poulantzas"
(1979); "Es geht darum mit der Stalinistischen Tradition zu brechen"
(1979); "La deplacemem des procedures de legitimation" (1980).
33. Cf, idem, "Interview with Nicos Poulantzas" (1979).
34. Cf. idem, "Es geht darum mit der Stalinistischen Tradition zu
brechen" (1979); "Is there a Crisis in Marxism?" (1979).
35. Idem, State, Power, Socialism (1978); "L'etat, les mouvements
sociaux, le parti" (1979); "La crise des partis" (1979); "Interview
with Nicos Poulantzas" (1979); "Es geht darum mit der Stalinistis-
chen Tradition zu brechen" (1979).
36. cf. Jessop, Nicos Poulantzas: Marxist Theory ...
37. J. Keane, Democracy and Civil Society (London: Verso, 1988) pp.
38. 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, Nicos Poulantzas: Marxist
Theory ...
39. To the extent, indeed, that unarmed civilians can storm secret police
headquarters in search of evidence of corruption.


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