Poulantzas’s State, Power, Socialism as a Modern Classic

Note: this is the long version of a chapter published in German as ‘Kapitalistischer Staatstyp und autoritärer Etatismus. Poulantzas’s Staatstheorie als moderner Klassik’, in L. Bretthauer et al., eds, Poulantzas Lesen: Zur Aktualität marxistischer Staatstheorie, Hamburg: VSA, 65-81; and retranslated in its short version in 2011 as ‘Poulantzas’s State, Power, Socialism as a modern classic’, in L. Bretthauer et al., eds, Reading Poulantzas, London: Merlin, 42-55.

Poulantzas claimed that State, Power, Socialism, his last major work, completed the theory of the capitalist type of state that Marx and Engels had left unfinished (1978a). While this immodest but provocative claim certainly merits discussion, it cannot be seriously evaluated in a short essay. Instead I will advance four main arguments. First, Poulantzas developed a major original contribution to the theory of the capitalist type of state that goes well beyond most conventional Marxist analyses and contrasts markedly with studies of the state in capitalist society. Second, he developed a broader approach to the state as a social relation that holds for the capitalist type of state, diverse states in capitalist social formations, and statehood more generally. Third, he adopted both approaches in his own theoretical and historical analyses. And, fourth, his analysis of the current form of the capitalist type of state was highly prescient, with ‘authoritarian statism’ far more evident now than when he noted this emerging trend in the 1970s. After I have advanced all four arguments, I will also note some basic limitations to Poulantzas’s approach to materialist state theory, concluding that State, Power, Socialism should be regarded as a modern classic.

The Capitalist Type of State

Even if it is not the final word on Marxist state theory, Poulantzas’s last book was certainly a successful culmination of his efforts to develop a form-analytical account of the capitalist type of state based on a careful reading of the Marxist classics. Both his first major text on the capitalist state (Political Power and Social Classes, hereafter PPSC, 1968/1974) and the last text (State, Power, Socialism, 1978b) seek to answer the crucial form-analytical question initially posed by Pashukanis: ‘why in order to assert its political domination, does the bourgeoisie dispose of the quite specific state apparatus which is the capitalist state – the modern representative State, the national-popular class state’ (explicitly 1978b: 49; cf. implicitly, 1968/1974: 123). In both cases, Poulantzas argued that, whereas direct class rule would be regarded as illegitimate even if it were possible (something excluded by the economic competition and political rivalry among individual capitals), the modern representative state offers a flexible framework to unify the long-term political interests of an otherwise fissiparous power bloc, disorganize the subaltern classes, and secure the consent of the popular masses.

In developing this approach in PPSC, Poulantzas examined the capitalist type of state in three main steps. First, inspired by Althusserian Marxism, he argued that the institutional separation between economics and politics typical of the capitalist mode of production (hereafter CMP) permitted and required an autonomous theory of the political region. Second, given this possibility and necessity, he drew on basic concepts of juridico-political theory to describe the institutional matrix of the capitalist type of state: a hierarchically organized, centrally-coordinated, sovereign territorial state based on the rule of law and, in its ideal-typical ‘normal’ form, combined with bourgeois democracy. This form of political regime is oriented to political subjects as individual citizens rather than as members of opposed classes and so disguises the objective reality of economic exploitation and class power. Third, reworking Gramsci’s analyses of hegemony, he argued that, given this institutional matrix and its individuated political subjects, political domination depends on the capacity of the dominant class to promote a hegemonic project that linked individual interests to a national-popular interest that also served the long-term interests of the capitalist class and its allies in the power bloc.

Staatstheorie also has a tripartite structure. It moves stepwise from general propositions about the state through a theory of the capitalist type of state to a more concrete-complex theory of this type of state in the current phase of capitalism – all carefully articulated in turn to general propositions on production in general, on the capitalist social division of labour, and on the current stage of capitalism. In this sense Poulantzas’s final work is a more general contribution to the critique of political economy that not only regards the state as an integral element in political class domination but also insists on its crucial role in securing important economic and extra-economic conditions for accumulation. At each step in his argument, he also stressed the centrality of class powers and struggles to the nature and development of the labour process, social relations of production, and the state. On this basis he also developed ‘applied theoretical-strategic’ analyses on the prospects for a democratic transition to democratic socialism (on which, see Jessop 1985).

This said, Poulantzas typically combined two types of analysis of the capitalist state in his theoretical and historical studies. For, as early as PPSC, he implicitly distinguished a theoretical account of the capitalist type of state from theoretical reflections on the state in capitalist societies (1974: Pt II, chs 2-4). The former begins with a more abstract-simple analysis of the formal adequacy of a given type of state in a pure capitalist social formation, argues that its form typically problematize its functionality, and examines how and to what extent political practices may overcome such problems in specific periods and conjunctures (Jessop 1982, 1990). In contrast, the latter focuses in relatively concrete-complex terms on ‘actually existing states’ in societies that are dominated by capitalist relations of production, examines whether their activities are functionally adequate for capital accumulation and political class domination, and investigates how this functional adequacy is achieved (or not) in specific conjunctures through specific strategies and policies promoted by particular social forces. In his theoretical studies, Poulantzas tended to privilege strategic-relational form analysis in order to identify the historical specificity of the capitalist type of state and establish a typology and periodization of its various forms. This approach is exemplified by PPSC, Classes in Contemporary Capitalism, and State, Power, Socialism. In his historical work, however, he prioritized a strategic-relational analysis of the changing balance of forces in order to show how political class struggles and their outcomes are mediated and condensed through specific institutional forms in particular periods, stages, and conjunctures regardless of whether these forms corresponded to the capitalist type of state. This approach is illustrated by the analyses of absolutism and three contrasting historical models of capitalist state development in PPSC, by his heavily periodized analyses of exceptional regimes, their rise, consolidation, crisis-tendencies, and collapse in Fascism and Dictatorship and Crisis of the Dictatorships, and by various comments on the structural disjunctions and temporal discontinuities in actually existing capitalist states throughout his work.

While both approaches proved productive for their specific purposes, it is not clear whether Poulantzas intended to bring them together them to produce a complete and coherent relational account of the capitalist state or whether they simply reflect different approaches to different analytical objects without being fully reconcilable. While both approaches are clearly compatible with his claim that the state is a social relation, the former prioritizes form-analysis and the latter privileges work on social forces. Moreover, missing in all of his theoretical and historical work, are more detailed studies of the crucial mediating role of the institutional and organizational forms of politics and their strategic-relational implications for the balance of forces. If he had delivered these it would be easier to assess whether the two approaches can, as I suspect, be adequately reconciled.

The state as a social relation

In exploring these issues in State, Power, Socialism and earlier studies, Poulantzas elaborated the foundation of his distinctive version of Marxist theory of the state, i.e., the claim that the state is a social relation. He explicitly rejected the view that the state is an entity in its own right – whether docile instrument or rational subject. Instead, ‘like “capital”, it is … a relationship of forces, or more precisely the material condensation of such a relationship among classes and class fractions, such as this is expressed within the State in a necessarily specific form’ (SPS II:1). By analogy with Marx’s analysis of capital as a social relation, this claim can be reformulated as follows: the state is not a thing but a social relation between people mediated through their relation to things (cf. Marx, Capital I, ch 23); or, again, the state is not a subject but a social relation between subjects mediated through their relation to state capacities. More precisely, this approach interprets and explains state power (not the state apparatus) as a form-determined condensation of the changing balance of forces in political and politically-relevant struggle.

To translate this intuitively plausible account into concrete-complex analyses of specific political periods, stages, or conjunctures requires the study of three interrelated moments: (1) the state’s historical and/or formal constitution as a complex institutional ensemble with a spatio-temporally specific pattern of ‘structurally-inscribed ‘strategic selectivity’; (2) the historical and substantive organization and configuration of political forces in specific conjunctures and their strategies, including their capacity to reflect on and respond to the strategic selectivities inscribed in the state apparatus as a whole; and (3) the interaction of these forces on this strategically-selective terrain and/or at a distance therefrom as they pursue immediate goals or seek to alter the balance of forces and/or to transform the state and its basic strategic selectivities. In adopting this strategic-relational approach to state power, Poulantzas implicitly rejected a general theory of the state in favour of form-analytical historical analyses of the agency-mediated expanded reproduction (or transformation) of the capital relation. He recognized that the state’s historical and formal constitution is not pregiven but results from past struggles and is also reproduced (or transformed) in and through struggle. He also refused to treat the balance of forces as fixed and explores how it is modified through shifts in the strategic-relational terrain of the state, economy, and wider social formation as well as by changes in organization, strategy, and tactics.

This analysis of the institutional materiality of the state in SPS highlights its specificity as a terrain of political struggle vis-à-vis that of economic class struggle. Yet Poulantzas also linked this novel relational account of the state to a broader and equally original Marxist critique of political economy. In particular he analyzed the labour process in terms of a complex economic, political and intellectual division of labour and examined social classes in terms of their extended reproduction rather than from the ‘narrow’ economic perspective of their place in production, distribution, and consumption. The extended reproduction of social classes involves economic, political, and ideological relations and entails the state and the mental-manual division of labour as well as the circuit of capital and non-capitalist relations of production. Poulantzas always put the social relations of production in this expanded sense and the state’s constitutive presence-absence in these relations at the heart of his analysis of the class struggle. This is also why he analyzed social reproduction in terms of the reproduction of the inter-related economic, political, and ideological conditions for accumulation (1973, 1975, and SPS).

The Contribution of SPS

Poulantzas gained this crucial insight about the state’s relational nature in his critique of fascism, refined it in his reflections on the crisis of the military dictatorships in Southern Europe, and developed it most fully in SPS. Part One of this text presents a sophisticated account of the institutional materiality of the capitalist type of state that highlights its most basic features and their strategically selective impact on the forms and possibilities of class struggle. Poulantzas first shows that all of the state apparatuses (including the economic and repressive apparatuses and not just the ideological apparatuses) are the quintessential expression of the separation of mental from manual labour and he then traces the consequences of this for political struggle. Next he explores the significance of individualization for the forms of political struggle and the possibilities of totalitarianism. He derives this in part from Gramsci, who noted how the modern democratic state, with its foundations in individual citizenship and a national sovereign state, encouraged normal politics to take the form of a struggle for national-popular hegemony. But Poulantzas developed this theme in a deeper and more encompassing manner through critical engagement with Foucault’s ideas on the disciplinary normalization of the body and other techniques of power. He also developed powerful arguments on the roles of force and law in shaping the strategic terrain of the capitalist type of state and on how resort to them is shaped in turn by class struggles. The discussion of strategic selectivity concludes with an innovative analysis of the modern nation, its role in state formation, its overdetermination by class struggles, and the significance of the spatio-temporal matrices that circumscribe and segment national territory economically and politically and shape its economic and political rhythms.

Having sketched this basic framework for analysing the institutional materiality of the state, Poulantzas showed how it operates to modify and condense the balance of forces in political struggles in the capitalist type of state. This analysis builds on PPSC but provides a much firmer and deeper basis for his arguments in the spatial, temporal, and institutional matrices of the capitalist type of state. Thus he continued to argue that this state serves to organize the dominant classes and to disorganize the dominated classes; but he also put greater emphasis on the necessarily fractured, disunified nature of the state apparatus and how this problematizes the imposition of an overall strategic line on the exercise of state power. This is particularly important as he now recognized that the dominated classes and their struggles are present in the state system itself as well as at a distance from it. This meant that he could provide a better account of the relational nature of power whilst still grounding it in the social relations of production and the institutional materiality of the state – thereby rejecting a generalized theory of power and resistance in favour of a revolutionary materialist account of class power and its overdetermination.

In a third analytical step, moving towards the concrete-complex in a particular period, Poulantzas analyzes the changing relationship between the economic and extra-economic conditions of capital accumulation in the contemporary phase of capitalism. Here he built on arguments from Classes in Contemporary Capitalism (1975, hereafter CCC) to develop four themes: first, the state’s economic functions now occupy the dominant place among its functions (with inevitable repercussions on its structures and the possibility of maintaining its hegemony); second, the boundaries between the economic and the extra-economic have been redrawn, with previously extra-economic elements now being seen as directly relevant to valorization and competitiveness; third, this means that the state’s economic interventions are increasingly focused on the social relations of production themselves and on the attempt to increase labour productivity, especially through increased relative surplus-value; and, fourth, even those policies most directly concerned with economic reproduction nonetheless have an essentially political character and must be carried through in the light of their broader political significance for maintaining social cohesion in a class-divided society. This extension in state intervention intensifies tensions and fissures among different fractions of capital and also accentuates inequalities and disparities between the subordinate and dominant classes. The state is therefore assuming some of the features of an exceptional state but on a continuing basis and, in this sense, it must be seen as the new ‘democratic’ form of the bourgeois republic in contemporary capitalism. This is why, according to Poulantzas, ‘intensified state control over every sphere of socio-economic life combined with radical decline of the institutions of political democracy and with draconian and multiform curtailment of so-called “formal” liberties, whose reality is being discovered now that they are going overboard’ (1978b: 203-4).

Exceptional Regimes

Poulantzas’s early work largely ignored two issues that would become important for his later studies: the periodization of the capitalist state and the distinction between normal and exceptional regimes. PPSC focused on the capitalist type of state in its generic normal form (liberal bourgeois democracy); and offered limited remarks on absolutism, Bonapartism, Bismarckism, fascism, and totalitarianism. Later studies investigated exceptional forms of the capitalist state, particularly fascism and military dictatorships, and the interventionist state. SPS combined these concerns in the claim that the capitalist type of state is now ‘permanently and structurally characterized by a peculiar sharpening of the generic elements of political crisis and state crisis’ rather than showing intermittent signs of short-term, conjunctural crisis. The basis of this claim was elaborated in an essay on ‘The Crisis of the State’ (1976), which rejected the alternative views that (a) crises in capitalism are accidental and dysfunctional or (b) they are permanent and catastrophic. Poulantzas himself argued that, while the generic elements of crisis are constantly reproduced in capitalist societies, crises only emerge when these elements condense into a distinct conjuncture and develop according to specific rhythms and fluctuations (1976: 21-2, 28). The genesis and rhythms of particular crises in the state and political field must therefore be studied case by case rather than attributed to a permanent institutional or political crisis. They must be related first to the field of political class relations and only secondarily to specific political institutions (1973: 63; 1976: 23, 28).

Only one type of political crisis produces an exceptional form of state, namely, a crisis of hegemony within the power bloc. This occurs when no class or fraction can impose its ‘leadership’ on other members of the power bloc, whether by its own political organisations or through the ‘parliamentary democratic’ state. This is typically related to a general crisis of hegemony over the whole society (1973: 72, 100-1, 124-5). Such crises are reflected in the political scene and the state system. Symptoms include: a crisis of party representation, that is, a split between different classes or fractions and their parties (1973: 73, 102, 126); attempts by various social forces to by-pass political parties and influence the state directly; and efforts by different state apparatuses to impose political order independently of decisions coming through formal channels of power (1973: 74, 102-3; 1976: 28). Such phenomena can undermine the institutional and class unity of the state even where it continues to function and provoke splits between top echelons in the state system and lower ranks (1973: 334). The state may also lose its monopoly of violence (1973: 335).

The outcome of political crises always depends on the nature and modalities of class strategies and struggles. For example, fascism emerged because a political crisis coincided with an offensive step by the bourgeoisie and a defensive step by the working class (1973: 78-82, 107-8, 130-1, 139-47). Thus class struggles not only contribute to the genesis of political crises but also determine whether they are resolved by restoring democracy or resorting to an exceptional state. Economic crises do not directly cause political and state crises but they do shape the conjuncture in which such crises emerge, especially in the stage of monopoly capitalism, with its close ties between economic and political power (1973: 53; 1976: 25, 34). When crises affect all social relations rather than one particular field of relations they become ‘organic’ or ‘structural’ crises (1976: 26).

Poulantzas’s analysis of the exceptional state derives from his view that the definitive features of the normal form of the capitalist type of state are democratic institutions and hegemonic class leadership. Normal states correspond to conjunctures in which bourgeois hegemony is stable and secure; and exceptional states are responses to a crisis of hegemony (1974: 293; 1973: 11, 57-9, 72, 298, 313; 1977: 92-3). Thus, while consent predominates over constitutionalized violence in normal states, exceptional states intensify physical repression and conduct an ‘open war’ against dominated classes (1974: 226; 1973: 152, 316-18, 330; 1977: 9, 92, 129). This basic contrast is reflected in four sets of institutional and operational differences between the two forms of state.

  • Whereas the normal state has representative democratic institutions with universal suffrage and competing political parties, exceptional states suspend the electoral principle (apart from plebiscites and/or referenda closely controlled from above) and end the plural party system (1974: 123, 230; 1973: 324-7; 1977: 42, 91, 114).
  • The transfer of power in normal states follows constitutional and legal rules and occurs in stable and predictable ways. Exceptional states suspend the rule of law, however, to facilitate constitutional and administrative changes allegedly required to help solve the hegemonic crisis (1974: 226-7, 311; 1973: 320-4; 1978b: 87-92).
  • Ideological state apparatuses in normal states typically have ‘private’ legal status and enjoy significant autonomy from official government control. In contrast, ISAs in exceptional states are generally subordinated to the repressive state apparatus and lack real independence. This subordination serves to legitimate the increased resort to coercion and helps overcome the ideological crisis that accompanies a crisis of hegemony (1973: 314-8; 1977: 113-4).
  • The formal separation of powers within the RSA is also reduced through the infiltration of subordinate branches and power centres by the dominant branch and/or through the expansion of parallel power networks and transmission belts cutting across and linking different branches and centres. This produces greater centralisation of political control and multiplies its points of application in the state. This serves to reorganise hegemony, to counteract internal divisions and short-circuit internal resistances, and to secure flexibility in the face of bureaucratic inertia (1973: 315-6, 327-30; 1977: 50, 92, 100-1; 1978b: 87-92).

Poulantzas argued that representative democratic institutions facilitate the organic circulation and reorganization of hegemony because they offer a space for open class and fractional conflicts. Democratic institutions thereby inhibit major ruptures or breaks in social cohesion and, a fortiori, in the system of political class domination. However, if political and ideological crises cannot be resolved through the normal, democratic play of class forces, democratic institutions must be suspended or eliminated and the crises resolved through an open ‘war of manoeuvre’ that ignores constitutional niceties. But the very act of abolishing democratic institutions tends to congeal the balance of forces prevailing when the exceptional state is stabilised. This makes it harder to resolve new crises and contradictions through routine and gradual policy adjustments and to establish a new equilibrium of compromise. Thus Poulantzas concluded that the alleged strength of the exceptional state actually hides its real brittleness. These make exceptional states vulnerable to sudden collapse as contradictions and pressures accumulate. Conversely, apparently weak democratic states bend under the strain and therefore provide more flexible means to organize political class domination (1977: 30, 38, 48-50, 90-3, 106, 124).

If these features typify the most flexible regimes, ‘brittle’ regimes reveal the opposite features. They lack any specialized politico-ideological apparatuses to channel and control mass support and are thereby isolated from the masses. They display a rigid apportionment of state power among various distinct political ‘clans’ entrenched in each apparatus. And they lack an ideology that can forge the necessary state unity and can establish an effective national-popular cohesion. This produces a muddle of inconsistent policies toward the masses as the exceptional regime attempts to neutralize their opposition. It also leads to purely mechanical compromises, tactical alliances and settling of accounts among ‘economic-corporate’ interests among the dominant classes and fractions. In turn this intensifies the internal contradictions of the state apparatus and reduces its flexibility in the face of economic and/or political crises (1977: 49-50, 55-7, 79-80, 83-4, 91-4, 112-13, 120-1, 124-6).

Poulantzas clearly saw important differences among exceptional forms of state and was particularly impressed by fascism’s flexibility and manoeuvrability. In contrast, military dictatorship is the least flexible type; and Bonapartism is located halfway between these extremes (Jessop 1985). But he also insisted that no exceptional regime can secure the sort of flexible, organic regulation of social forces and the smooth circulation of hegemony that occurs under bourgeois democracies (1977: 124). Accordingly, just as the movement from a normal to an exceptional state involves political crises and ruptures rather than taking a continuous, linear path, so the transition from an exceptional to a normal form will also involve a series of breaks and crises rather than a simple process of self-transformation. This places a premium on the political class struggle to achieve hegemony over the democratization process. Indeed Poulantzas insisted that the class character of the normal state will vary significantly with the outcome of this struggle (1977: 90-7, 124, and passim).

Authoritarian Statism

These ideas are developed in Poulantzas’s account of the new ‘normal’ form of the capitalist type of state, i.e., ‘authoritarian statism’. Its basic developmental tendency is described as ‘intensified state control over every sphere of socio-economic life combined with radical decline of the institutions of political democracy and with draconian and multiform curtailment of so-called ‘formal’ liberties’ (1978b: 203-4). More specifically, the main elements of ‘authoritarian statism’ and its implications for representative democracy comprise: first, a transfer of power from the legislature to the executive and the concentration of power within the latter; second, an accelerated fusion between the legislature, executive, and judiciary, accompanied by a decline in the rule of law; third, the functional decline of political parties as the leading channels for political dialogue with the administration and as the major forces in organizing hegemony; and finally, the growth of parallel power networks cross-cutting the formal organization of the state and holding a decisive share in its various activities (1974: 303-7, 310-15; 1975: 173; 1976: 55-7; 1978b: 217-31; 1979: 132).

These changes are a permanent, structural feature of the modern state. They correspond to a peculiar sharpening of the generic elements of political and state crisis accompanying the long-term economic crisis that is supposedly besetting the entire current phase of the CMP. Among the most important crisis-tendencies in this phase are: the politicization of working-class resistance to capital’s attempt to resolve the economic crisis; the politicization of the new petty bourgeoisie because of the deepening of the social division of labour within the ranks of intellectual labour itself; the decomposition of the traditional alliance between the bourgeoisie and the old and new petty bourgeoisie; the ideological crisis accompanying the growth of new social movements on erstwhile ‘secondary’ fronts; and the sharpening of the contradictions within the power bloc because of the tendential division of labour between the comprador and interior fractions of capital (1978b: 210-14, 219, 221).

Moreover, whether the state disengages or intervenes to moderate a given crisis-tendency in one area, it aggravates other crisis-tendencies in other areas. Thus the postwar state’s ability to moderate the ‘wilder’ aspects of capitalist crises in advanced capitalism (as evident in the 1930s) requires it to assume direct responsibility for the purgative effects of crisis. This can threaten its legitimacy and stability. This occurs because it has become much harder for the dominant fraction to sacrifice its short-term economic-corporate interests in order to promote its long-term political hegemony. Yet failure to act against economic crisis-tendencies will undermine capital accumulation. Likewise, the state’s growing involvement in hitherto marginal areas of social life politicizes the popular masses – especially as postwar social policy commitments exclude spending cuts, austerity, and recommodification and the resulting legitimation crisis leads the masses to confront the state directly and threaten its stability. But any failure to intervene in these areas would undermine the social reproduction of labour power. The state’s growing role in promoting the internationalization of capital also provokes problems for national unity. This is especially clear in its impact on less developed regions and national minorities (1978b: 141-2, 154-3, 210-14, 219, 221, and 245-6).

Poulantzas previously argued that exceptional regimes are always temporary and occur in response to specific conjunctures. Thus, because these crisis-tendencies are permanent features of contemporary capitalism, authoritarian statism must be seen as normal. For significant ‘exceptional’ features co-exist with and modify ‘normal’ features of the capitalist type of state as they become orchestrated into a permanent structure running parallel to the official state system. This involves a constant symbiosis and functional intersecting of normal and exceptional structures under the control of the commanding heights of the state apparatus and the dominant party (1978b: 208, 210, 245; cf. 1979: 132). Real power is concentrated and centralized at the summits of the governmental and administrative system, which seals itself off from the representational role of parties and parliaments. The latter are now simple electoral ‘registration chambers’ with very limited powers and it is the state administration, guided by the political executive, that has become the main site for developing state policy. This massively politicizes the administration and risks its fragmentation behind a formal façade of bureaucratic hierarchy and unity (1978b: 236). Indeed politics is increasingly focused in the staff office of a president or prime minister. Standing at the apex of the administrative structures, this office appears as a purely personalistic presidential-prime-ministerial system. But it actually condenses many contradictory pressures and works to re-balance conflicting forces and popular interests still surface in the form of contradictions inside the administration (1978b: 221-4, 226-9, 233, 236-8; cf. 1974: 311-14).

Poulantzas related this ‘irresistible rise of the state administration’ mainly to the state’s growing economic role as modified by the political situation. For state intervention means that law can no longer be confined to general, formal, and universal norms whose enactment is the preserve of parliament as the embodiment of the general will of the people-nation. The rule of law is weakened because legal norms are increasingly modified and elaborated by the administration to suit particular conjunctures, situations, and interests and because the initial formulation of laws is also now largely undertaken by the administration rather than parliament (1978b: 218-19; cf. Scheuerman 2005). This change is the product of the permanent instability of monopoly hegemony within the power bloc and over the people as well as of changing economic imperatives. Indeed the decline of the rule of law also affects the political sphere. One sign of this is the increasing emphasis on pre-emptive policing of the potentially disloyal and deviant rather than the judicial punishment of clearly defined offences against the law (1978b: 219-20). More generally, the crisis of monopoly hegemony means that the state administration becomes the central site at which the unstable equilibrium of compromise between the power bloc and the popular masses is elaborated within the power bloc itself. It also transforms the parties of power (or ‘natural parties of government’ in contrast to those parties destined for a permanent oppositional role) into a single (or duopolistic) authoritarian mass party whose task is more to mobilize mass support for state policies in a plebiscitary fashion than it is to directly articulate and represent popular interests and demands to the state. This is also related to an increasingly dense network of crosscutting ties between big business and the central administrative apparatuses of the state (especially the economic apparatuses) and to a general increase in political and administrative centralism. A further aspect here is the increased personalism of power at the top of the executive. This does not involve a genuine Bonapartist dictator who concentrates despotic powers in his hands but rather involves the search for a charismatic frontman who can give a sense of strategic direction to the complexities of politics both for the dominant classes and in more plebiscitary fashion for the popular masses (cf. Grande 2000). Poulantzas nonetheless concludes that this centralization of administrative power at the expense of parliament, popular parties, and democratic liberties does not mean that the state has been enormously strengthened. Instead he stresses the relative weakness of the authoritarian state in the face of the growing incompressibility of economic contradictions and crisis-tendencies and in the face of new forms of popular struggle.

There are also changes among the parties in power ‘that seek to participate, and do participate, in government according to a pattern of regular alternation that is organically fixed and anticipated by the existing state institutions as a whole (and not just by constitutional rules) (1978b: 220). Their ties of representation to the power bloc become .looser because monopoly capital finds it harder to organize its hegemony through parliamentary parties and therefore concentrates its lobbying on the administration (1973: 171; 1974: 313, 313-14n, 320; 1978b: 221-3). Thus the parties no longer fulfil their traditional functions in policy-making (through compromise and alliances around a common party programme) and in political legitimation (through electoral competition for a national-popular mandate). They are now little more than transmission belts for official decisions and merely differ in the aspects of official policy that they choose to popularize (1978b: 229-30, 237). In turn political legitimation is redirected through channels based on plebiscitary and manipulative techniques that are dominated by the executive and channelled through mass media (1978b: 229).

Nonetheless the activities of the state administration continually run up against limits inherent in its own political structure and operation. These limits are particularly clear in the internal divisions between different administrative coteries, clans, and factions and in the reproduction inside the state system of class conflicts and contradictions. Thus we must ask how the administration overcomes these tensions so as to act effectively on behalf of monopoly capital. Exceptional states achieve this through a political apparatus (such as the fascist party, the army, or the political police) that is distinct from the administration. In the theoretically normal form of representative democracy, it is achieved through the organic functioning of a plural party system located at a certain distance from the central administrative apparatus (1978b: 231, 232-3; cf. 1973: 316-17, 332, 340-1, 353; 1974: 318-20, 335-7, 345-6, 348, 353-5; 1977: 33, 104-7). But how can this be realized under authoritarian statism?

Poulantzas suggested that the dominant mass party functions as a parallel network and acts as a political commissar at the heart of the administration, developing a material and ideological community of interest with key civil servants. This same party must also transmit the state ideology to the popular masses and reinforce the plebiscitary legitimation of authoritarian statism (1978b: 236-7). Hence the dominant mass party actually functions as the dominant state party insofar as it represents the state to the masses rather than vice versa. Such a highly unified and structured mass party is most likely to develop during a long period without alternation among the governing parties. But similar functions can be performed by a single inter-party ‘centre’ that dominates the alternating parties of power (1978b: 232, 235-6).

The irresistible rise of the state administration in metropolitan capitalism cannot prevent a further sharpening of the generic elements of political and state crisis. Examples include: (a) politicization of the bureaucracy, especially among its lower ranks, in opposition to the dominant ‘state party’; (b) the greater difficulties facing the administration than a flexible plural party system in organizing hegemony and managing the unstable equilibrium of class compromise; and (c) the growth and impact of mass struggles precipitated by new forms of state intervention with potentially major dislocating effects within the state itself (1978b: 240-7). Thus the rise of ‘authoritarian statism’ involves a paradox. While it clearly strengthens state power at the expense of liberal representative democracy, it also weakens its capacities to secure bourgeois hegemony (1978b: 241, 263-5).

Authoritarian Statism today

Poulantzas’s analysis of authoritarian statism was remarkably prescient when first written some 25 years ago. The various trends that he identified in SPS and subsumed under the general rubric of ‘authoritarian statism’ have since become even clearer in response to the growing political crisis in the power bloc, the representational crisis in the political system, the legitimacy and state crises associated with the twin failures of the postwar interventionist state and the neo-liberal turn, and the growing challenge to the primacy of the national territorial state in the face of globalization. We should particularly note the continued decline of parliament and the rule of law, the growing autonomy of the executive, the increased importance of presidential or prime ministerial powers, the consolidation of authoritarian, plebiscitary parties that largely represent the state to the popular masses, and, something neglected by Poulantzas, the mediatization of politics as the mass media play an increasing role in shaping political imaginaries, programmes, and debates. An increased emphasis on issues of national security and pre-emptive policing associated with the so-called war on terror at home and abroad, has also reinforced the attack on human rights and civil liberties. New Labour is a particularly compelling illustration of these tendencies but the same trends are also starkly evident in the USA, Italy, Spain, France, Germany, and many other metropolitan societies. This poses interesting questions not only regarding how and why Poulantzas could predict these trends but also whether and, if so, why, he missed other equally important features of the current normal form of the capitalist state.

His success can be explained in terms of his commitment to combining theoretical and historical analyses rather than engaging in crude Staatsableiterei (efforts at deriving logically the form and functions of the state from prior analysis of the logic of economic aspects of the capital relation) or reducing every form of capitalist state to a simple dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. Thus, theoretically, Poulantzas argued that an adequate periodization of the capitalist type of state should consider the changing forms of articulation of its economic, political, and ideological functions linked to the different stages of capitalism. His earlier work had already discussed the correlation between competitive capitalism and the liberal state, monopoly capitalism and the interventionist state, and state monopoly capitalism and the ‘strong state’ (cf. 1973, 1974, and 1975). His analyses in CCC and, especially, SPS provided significant analyses of changes in the social relations of production, the relation between the economic and extra-economic conditions of valorization, the dominant forms of competition, and the imperialist chain. Combined with his more sophisticated analysis in SPS of the economic, political, and ideological moments of social relations of production and the changing spatio-temporal matrices of capital accumulation, this enabled him to theorize the ‘transformed form’ of the economic functions of the ‘strong state’ in its latest phase (1978b: Part III, chs 1-2). This analysis is also explicitly indebted to the empirical as well as theoretical studies of contemporary French analysts of state monopoly capitalism, especially concerning the law of overaccumulation-devalorization and the changing demands on the reproduction of labour-power (for a critical appreciation of these studies, see Fairley 1990, Jessop and Sum 2006). It goes beyond such studies, however, by emphasizing the political overdetermination of the strong state’s responses to economic crisis, especially in a period that is also marked by political and state crisis.

His analysis of the distinctive political character of authoritarian statism also draws explicitly on contemporary studies of the state in metropolitan capitalist social formations as well as careful theoretical generalization from the case of fascism as the most flexible form of exceptional regime, updated from the interwar period to the current stage of capitalism and suitably modified to allow for the ‘normality’ of authoritarian statism. Given this theoretical starting point and his more general reflections on the specificity of political and state crises in contemporary capitalism, Poulantzas also seems to have extrapolated key features of authoritarian statism from French experience, with its strong étatist tradition and postwar history of Gaullism. He was probably also influenced by the character of the CDU-Staat in Germany and its subsequent transformation into a Sicherheitsstaat. What distinguishes Poulantzas’s analysis from contemporary libertarian, liberal, and leftist critiques of creeping authoritarianism is his ability to locate these tendencies in a form-analytical, strategic-relational analysis of the capitalist type of state combined with a distinctive interpretation of contemporary imperialism and a neo-Gramscian analysis of the political crisis of the power bloc and its hegemony and, in so doing, to show that the intensification of generic features of exceptional regimes involved both a strengthening and a weakening of the capitalist type of state. This illustrates well the heuristic and explanatory power of his key thesis that the state is a social relation.

This said, Poulantzas’s account of authoritarian statism is problematic. For, while it adequately describes some important authoritarian trends in the current form of the capitalist type of state, this can be attributed to successful extrapolation of widely remarked trends on the assumption of continued instability in the hegemony of the power bloc. Extrapolation proved less fruitful, however, in other respects (see below). There are also some more basic problems with the concept of authoritarian statism as developed by Poulantzas. First, relative to the weight allotted to it in explaining the genesis of authoritarian statism, Poulantzas hardly discusses the nature of hegemony and its crisis in contemporary capitalism. Second, and relatedly, he did not show how the exceptional features of authoritarian statism are articulated under the dominance of the normal elements – which is crucial to his claim that this new form of the capitalist state is a normal democratic state. Third, while his earlier methodological and theoretical principles required him to show how the rise of ‘authoritarian statism’ entails a break or rupture in the political process (since it involves a transition to a new state form), he admitted that it results from the gradual accentuation of tendencies coeval with monopoly capitalism and thus typical of interventionist states. It is on this basis that he could successfully extrapolate some of these tendencies into the most recent period of state monopoly capitalism and fail to predict the dominance of the neo-liberal turn in the transition to a globalizing, post-fordist accumulation regime that would characterize this latest period. In particular, he seems not to have anticipated the success of monopoly capital’s offensive step and the weakening of organized labour in response to the crisis of Atlantic Fordism and its Keynesian welfare national states. A thorough strategic-relational analysis would have been very helpful here. Fourth, despite his recognition in SPS that the spatio-temporal matrices of capital accumulation were being radically re-organized, his analysis of authoritarian statism was still heavily imprinted by the assumption that the national state would remain the dominant scale at which political class domination would be organized. In short, even if we accept Poulantzas’s basically descriptive account of ‘authoritarian statism’ as a normal form of capitalist state, he is less convincing in explaining its emergence and future development.

Moreover, despite his amazing theoretical acuity and astonishing prescience in some respects, he missed other important trends and developments in contemporary capitalism. First, in focusing on the changing forms of state economic intervention and highlighting its role in redrawing the boundaries between the economic and extra-economic, he missed the changes in the overall dynamic of capital accumulation that are associated with the transition from Atlantic Fordism to a globalizing knowledge-based economy. Second, in focusing on the role of national states in contemporary imperialism, he failed to note how far the growing multi-scalar interpenetration of economic spaces that he identified in Classes in Contemporary Capitalism also implied a major re-scaling of state apparatuses and state power. Although he correctly rejected the myth of the world state or a single superstate, he did not foresee the extent to which state apparatuses and state powers have been re-scaled upwards, downwards, and sideways in an attempt to manage an increasingly complex world economy. This re-scaling of particular state powers does not detract from Poulantzas’s insistence on the continued centrality of the national state in securing the conditions for social cohesion but it does further weaken its capacities to fulfil this crucial general function. And, third, although he recognized the vital role of networks in the state’s operations (e.g., parallel power networks within the state to ensure a measure of apparatus unity, networks of business and administrative power at the summits of the economic state apparatus to facilitate the elaboration of economic strategies in favour of monopoly capital, or networks among the parties of power), he did not realize how far this would shift the exercise of state power away from top-down planning and hierarchical rule towards decentralized context-steering and other forms of governance in the shadow of hierarchy.

Notwithstanding these closing criticisms, Poulantzas remains a crucial figure in the development of a materialist theory of the state. His insight that the state is a social relation not only invigorated his more abstract-simple form-analytical account of the capitalist type of state but also provided a powerful approach for dealing with the concrete-complex features of actually existing states in capitalist societies. He cannot be said to have completed the Marxist theory of the capitalist state, if only because such a theory, even were it possible, cannot be completed as long as the disjointed, discontinuous expanded reproduction of the capital relation and the struggle against such reproduction continue in new forms. But he can certainly be acknowledged for his role in providing subsequent theorists and militants with a rich and sophisticated theoretical and conceptual framework with which to analyze the contradictory and conflictual process of expanded reproduction from the viewpoint of the key strategic-relational contribution of the state (and interstate system) in organizing a power bloc and disorganizing subaltern classes in different periods, stages, and conjunctures. In short, Poulantzas’s texts can be considered as modern classics in the sense that they pose important questions and provide answers that, even if they are no longer regarded as fully adequate, nonetheless point us in the right direction. Continued recognition as a ‘classic’ text is not guaranteed. Indeed, ‘in order for a text to achieve the accolade of a classic, it must typically overcome a variety of cultural hurdles; while to survive as one, it must be subjected to continual critical engagement, its concepts reformulated to meet new problems and trials’ (Baehr and O’Brien 1994: 127-8). Poulantzas’s work has triggered renewed critical engagement, as the present volume indicates, and its concepts can certainly be redeployed and reformulated to enable us to meet new problems and trials.


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