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Nicos Poulantzas, State, Power, Socialism

by Luis F. Angosto-Ferrández on December 7, 2015
Past & Present

Let us start from the end. State, Power, Socialism (1978) is closed with a section entitled “Towards a democratic socialism” (Part Five). Poulantzas therein condensed basic tenets of his positioning before the debates around democracy and socialism running in the 1970s. These debates remained central among Marxist thinkers and activists, but were also a shadow contender for a broader variety of theorists with very different political inclinations – on both sides of the Cold War boundary. By then, revolutionary state transformation was actually seen as an ongoing reality in some parts of the world, and in others it appeared as a more or less remote, but nevertheless achievable, possibility. Neither the advocates of socialist transformation nor their rivals could afford to ignore that the Cuban revolution and national liberation movements such as the Vietnamese had triumphed in a recent past, nor could they for example overlook the events surrounding the Portuguese Carnation revolution (1974) or Allende’s project in Chile (violently cut short in 1973).

SPSEven the potential of regime transition in Spain after Franco’s death had initially generated some enthusiasm and expectation among advocates of socialist transformation – let us recall that the communist party had been a crucial force in the clandestinity during the fascist regime, and also that worker’s and democratic mobilisation had given signs of strength in the period preceding and succeeding Franco’s death in 1975. Moreover, the 1960s had unveiled an unexpected social ferment in countries of the world system’s core, out of which new social movements emerged – from feminism to environmentalism to civil rights movements. Though the latter’s articulation with worker’s movements had been rather limited and actually characterised by mutual distrusts, and despite the fact that by the mid-1970s there were more signs of what Poulantzas himself identified as a current of state authoritanism in many European countries than of emerging forces capable of undertaking a libertarian state make up, potentially revolutionary state transformation was still discussed in that decade – far beyond the walls of minority party directorates.

In those days it was not easy to fully foresee the wide-ranging effects of the imminent neoliberal revolution. By the time of writing State, Power, Socialism, Poulantzas was posing with serenity, rigour and realism questions and proposals that barely a decade later would become largely inconceivable in mainstream political theory – or, if brought to the fore, more often than not they would be presented with the tones of despair, dilettantism or candid illusionism.

Against that backdrop, Poulantzas’s concluding section provides three basic coordinates that I will use to situate this review of State, Power, Socialism, the book that has occupied participants in the Past & Present Reading Group over the past few months:

  1. Poulantzas developed a theory of the state (and power) as a potentially transformative tool, always within the frame of options for the materialisation of socialism;
  2. those options where in turn situated within a democratic (and electoral) frame; and
  3. the road to socialism which Poulantzas advocated was paved by a combination of representative and direct forms of democracy, both presented as necessary signposts in that road but also as constitutive elements of socialist democracy and liberties.

The first of these three points is significant for anyone approaching an author like Poulantzas, militant of a ‘left’ party within the Eurocommunism spectrum, in Greece. His theoretical density, and the level of abstraction on which he develops many of his arguments and concepts, become much more accessible and stimulating when read in the light of his political proposals. I would not make this point to fully exonerate an author from a degree of responsibility in potentially obscuring her argumentation (to the extent that it becomes open to most contrasting interpretations); but I think it is necessary and fair to point this out in the case of Poulantzas. Because of his concern with applicability, he is clearly distinguishable from other authors who, even when appearing as more accessible in their theoretical characterisations of the state and its powers, always leave a reader interested in social change without anything resembling a compass for action – or else with an urgent desire to travel to Pluto, in the hope that that planet is inhabited by a non-human species among which more democratic and just societies could be founded, since humanity seems to be so doomed for failure.

It is in this respect that Part Five of State, Power, Socialism makes the penny drop: it contains keys to unlock some of the most dense passages of Poulantzas’s work. So let us pick that penny up with generous spirit, since after all we are generally short of cash.

MartinPoulantzas was an advocate of democratic socialism. That is, he did not only proclaim the essentially democratic qualities of socialism, but also considered that the transition from capitalism to socialism had to be undertaken under an electoral frame, guarantor of pluralism and political liberties that are to be considered substantive for individuals and groups in a democracy – and not only ‘formal’ and ‘bourgeois’. His insistence on this question was not merely a matter of abstract political principles, but also a result of his reflections on previous socialist experiences. And this relates to another trait that makes Poulantzas stand out as a remarkable thinker: he was a soundly reflexive author. His reflexivity was expressed in his personal approach to is own work: he did not have qualms in acknowledging his own theoretical and analytical slippages or limitations when, with some perspective, he could come back to them (see for instance the excellent interview that he gave to the journal Marxism Today in 1979, reproduced in The Poulantzas Reader: Marxism, Law and the State, edited by James Martin. Cured of dogmatism and far from cultivating an ego bathed in the aromas of political infallibility, he was open to serious theoretical discussion – in the search for viable practical solutions.

But, very importantly, his reflexivity was also expressed in the way he remarked on the necessity of revisiting the theoretical proposals of Marxist revolutionary thinkers of the past, and also collective political endeavours such as the one crystallised in the Third International. In his view, that learning from the past was precisely the basis of an invitation to advocate a democratic road to socialism. As he argues in Part Five of this book, he saw such a road as the only plausible guarantee to achieve socialism while avoiding the danger of anti-democratic (and thereby anti-socialist) statism that could emerge from two different angles: the Stalinist ‘state-worship’, and the dual-power strategy of external surrounding and replacement of the state apparatus by a structure of direct-democracy councils leading to the state’s complete demolition. In fact, Poulantzas thought that both processes were intertwined. In his reading, the second (and equally misleading) strategy was already contained in Lenin’s over-reliance on council democracy resulting from a profound distrust of what the latter considered the univocal class (and monolithic) character of the state. In Poulantzas’s view, echoing criticisms that Rosa Luxemburg had presented in her own reading of the Russian Revolution (see Part Five, again), tends to lead to a degradation of democracy tout-court, and to the gradual emergence of a statism controlled by a bureaucratised party.

So it was in order to avoid an anti-democratic statism that Poulantzas advocated a democratic road to socialism. This advocacy implied the belief in the necessity of maintaining a political system that, during the process of a necessary ‘sweeping transformation of the state’ that would lead to socialism, combined representative and direct forms of democracy. Is that process easy? And is it not vulnerable to the more than likely risks of the ‘social-democratisation’ of struggles, as some of Poulantzas’s Marxist critics put it? Poulantzas answers to these questions were: no, and yes, respectively.

Poulantzas was far from presenting his proposals as a stroll through the park, or as an infallible and rather rapid route to revolutionary success. But since he distrusted other apparently simpler alternatives out of his historical analysis as well as his political principles, he stood his ground with coherence. And the coherence resulted in the development of one of his central theoretical contributions: the conceptualisation of the state as condensations of a relationship of (class) forces.

The discussion of this conception occupies a concrete section of the book (fundamentally Part Two), but can be considered to underscore all of it. The basic contention of this conceptualisation is that, rather than a monolithic instrument of class (bourgeois) power, the state is a site of struggle traversed and permeated by the balance of class forces within a given society. In fact, the state apparatus and its structures are seen as essential for the consolidation of dominant class blocs, which are always constituted by fractions and partly divergent interests. It is in this respect that the state can become the site of encounter and development for a new, transformative political bloc. And this is why, in Poulantzas’s view, neither the dual-power strategy nor the Gramscian war-of-position were seen as adequate and contemporarily valid strategies to achieve state transformation and socialism: the way to get there implied competing for the reconfiguration of (class) forces in that site, which is not separated (nor separable) from society at large.

As for the dangers in the democratic road to socialism, Poulantzas explicitly recognised their manifold character. They were not only related to the threat of violent and fascist reaction from within the state apparatus, which while real (and historically demonstrated) it could be prevented by the successful development of popular mobilisation. That mobilisation, Poulantzas contended, would precisely result from the process of strengthening direct and representative democratic institutions during the process of transition.

AGLBut other dangers were seen in the possibility that, in the modification of relations that the state contributes to condense, the transformative bloc could not build enough forces to reach the necessary rupturing point – a point in the transition into socialism. And this threat also related to another question of theoretical and political importance in Poulantzas’s work: the acknowledgement of an ‘institutional materiality’ of the state (Part One) and its relation with the ‘constitution and reproduction of the relations of production’ and with the division of labour. This relation between the state and the reproduction of relations of production becomes the source of a double necessity for the forces of transformation: on the one hand, the apparatuses of the state require transformation themselves, if they are going to enable the real crystallisation of a new, transformative bloc (and this is why Poulantzas insisted that the maintenance of the institutions of representative democracy was not equivalent to its simple reproduction); on the other hand, that is not fully possible if there is not a simultaneous, or at least parallel, process of transformation of the relations of production – which require active modifications in the foundations of the economic front during a process of transition to socialism.

Venezuela Reframed- coverIn my own book Venezuela Reframed I resorted to the theoretical proposals of Poulantzas as a general source of theoretical inspiration to explain the emergence of the Chavista bloc, its internal tensions and its (undefined) political directionality – it is a bloc driven by conflict. It is partly an understanding of the role of the state as facilitator of the condensation of class forces that enabled me to developed the concept of ‘state-supporting’ social movement in order to name existing synergies between state/society actors that have developed in a country like Venezuela over the past 17 years – with a potential for transformation that the results of the recent National Assembly elections seriously affect.

In any case, a final note in addition to what I have highlighted as stimulating and useful from this book by Poulantzas is in order. The members of the reading group this semester expressed different takes on the book’s contributions. Not all of them found its proposals stimulating or helpful to think about actually existing states and their relations with class and social formation – nor as a source of ideas to think about processes of transformation. So this review does not claim to represent a collective positioning before Poulantzas’s book. Yet I would nevertheless recommend its reading to anyone who, at present, wonders for instance about how to approach the understanding of the ongoing political processes in Venezuela, Bolivia or Ecuador; or to those who look for theoretical support to adequately understand and explain the causes, potentials and limitations of having parties like Syriza in Greece, or the possibilities that in Spain would open with a government led by Podemos. To these people I would suggest the following: read Part Five of the book, then come back to its beginning and, once you draw your conclusions about the overall contributions of the book, pose yourself the following question. In the constitution of potentially transformative political blocs, should people aim to operate from ‘the exterior’ of the state, should they do it from the ‘interior’, or should they forget about such an ontological division as a source of categories for analysis and political praxis? Poulantzas will provide an answer for you.

Luis F. Angosto-Ferrández

Luis F. Angosto-Ferrández lectures in anthropology and Latin American Studies at the University of Sydney. His recent publications include ‘Venezuela Reframed: Bolivarianism, Indigenous Peoples and the Socialisms of the 21st Century’ (Zed Books, 2015) and ‘Democracy, Revolution and Geopolitics in Latin America: Venezuela and the International Politics of Discontent’ (Routledge, 2014).

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