Blurred Lines: Poulantzas and the Liquidation of Marxist State Theory

Joshua Depaolis

In fact, this absolutely idealist and voluntarist conception of the state, which identifies it with a ‘machine’ or a ‘tool’ invented and created solely for the purposes of domination by a class ‘will’, is utterly contrary to Marxist scientific analysis of the state. Nicos Poulantzas: Preliminaries to the Study of Hegemony and the State, 1964.1

In the first place it represents the interests of monopoly capital which, however, is in the final analysis a characteristic of all rightwing governments in the stage of imperialism. Nicos Poulantzas: The Political Forms of the Military Coup D’etat, 1967.2

Given that up to a point conflict will be inevitable, how should it be resolved without leading, slowly but surely, to an embryonic or fully fledged situation of dual power? Nicos Poulantzas: Towards a Democratic Socialism, 1978.3


Today in our post Soviet and by necessary extension post political era, nominally Marxist thought has become detached from revolutionary strategy and vacillates between impotent “critical criticism” and aspirations to a renewed reformist integration. In this environment nothing is more appealing than the argument that the Marxist classics lack a theory of the state or of the political.4 The obvious untruth of such an assertion is more than compensated for by its immense “use value” to those who seek to harmonise a revolutionary doctrine with the “lived experience” of a long restoration.

The Marxist theory of the state, developed by Marx and Engels and defended against the reformist degeneration of the Second International by Lenin, Bukharin, Stuchka and Pashkunias among others not only exists, it forms the line of demarcation between the revolutionary project of destruction of the bourgeois state from without and the revisionist project of “transformation” of the bourgeois state from within. An essential task of any reformism seeking to appropriate Marxist discourse to its own ends is an artful blurring of this line. Reform appears as revolution,5 revolution as reform.6 The formulations of the classics are presented as inadequate and demanding “clarifications” which inevitably strip them of their subversive content and reduce them to the level of bourgeois sociology. In this task of obfuscation Poulantzas was a master.

His thought contains within itself the transition from the national-popular revisionism of the post Seventh Congress Communist Parties to the post modern “radical liberalism” of today.7 A transition which if it marks a rupture between national systems of social partnership and East-West confrontation on the one side and the atomised information society on the other also contains a substantial continuity: the necessity of producing an ideological discourse which presents the integration of worker antagonism as subversive and revolutionary. Throughout his trajectory Poulantzas remained loyal to the Communist Parties which facilitated this transition while organising repression against diffuse worker opposition to the dictate of capital.8 As such his thought must be read “between the lines” as a theoretical expression of capitalist strategy for the containment of the workers movement from within. His work, regardless of its own self understanding, must be understood not as a contribution to revolutionary strategy but as a particularly sophisticated expression of the discourse of the “party of the State within the working class”.

The national-popular Communist Parties required an ideological discourse able to legitimise their project of neutralisation of proletarian politics through the bourgeois democratic assimilation of worker organisation. This demanded an intellectual cadre capable of formulating the subordinate integration of the working class within civil society as its “hegemony” over the same. This was the role played by thinkers like Poulantzas who operated to package the policy of reactionary integration in “proletarian revolutionary” terms when the Communist Parties were threatened by the global upsurge of worker struggle transitioning to a pluralism of “social movements” as worker rigidity was dissolved by restructuring.

As for the contemporary influence of Poulantzas one need only note that a significant think tank of the social traitors of the Syriza Party who have as their greatest accomplishment the surrender of the Greek working class to systematic degradation at the hands of the EU and the IMF is quite appropriately named the Poulantzas Institute. Indeed, the democratic socialism of today with its cross class populism, empty calls for “structural reform” and identification of the final goal with an “alternative” management of restructuring by the national state is a worthy successor of the Eurocommunism for which Poulantzas apologised.

Which is say that Poulantzas’s work remains an important weapon of bourgeois workers politics in the contemporary ideological class struggle. Hence the necessity of a critical examination of his theoretical framework as part of the broader project of the reconstitution of proletarian ideology on the terrain of political theory. In the following text we will seek to make a small contribution to this examination in the hope of provoking debate about the counter-revolutionary orientation of not only Poulantzas but “university Marxist” state theory more generally. It is this body of revisionist theorisation of the political which provides the ideological base of today’s democratic socialism just as NGO, union and academic jobs provide its material base.

If the struggle towards the construction of the proletarian party today must be waged materially by challenging the domination of the reformist bureaucratic machinery within the workers movement it must be waged ideologically through a systematic attack on all the theoretical formulations which legitimise the operations of this machinery. And the more such formulations appear as “left” or “militant” to a superficial observer the more dangerous they are to the accumulation of forces around the construction of proletarian politics. Therefore, we will restrict ourselves to some observations on Poulantzas’s early works prior to his openly counter-revolutionary turn in the latter part of the Seventies.

1: The Essays prior to the Publication of “Political Power and Social Classes”

A: Bourgeois Legal Idealism

In the 1964 essay “Marxist Examination of the Contemporary State and Law and the Question of the Alternative” Poulantzas begins by declaring that that the “important thing” in any examination of the “superstructure” is its “specificity”, which is to say its differentiation from the base.9 It is no less than a claim for the independence of ideological and political forms in relation to the production relations which they express as the rest of the essay and the whole of his later work will make abundantly clear.

He proceeds to launch an attack against two major theorists of the dictatorship of the proletariat10 (Stuchka and Pashukanis) claiming that they fail to grasp the “precise meaning of the fact that the judicial and state level pertains to the superstructure”.11 They are faulted for “reducing” law and state to the “base” thus depriving them of the “relative autonomy” which is to play such a notable role in the later work of Poulantzas. Through a somewhat obtuse line of argument Poulantzas makes his first of many efforts at denying the integral unity of the social whole in a manner which leaves space for idealism. The social organism is not a totality consisting of the prevailing relations of production and their ideological expression. Rather a complex of “levels” in which the “specificity” of the different segments of the superstructure floats suspended above the allegedly still determinate “economic” base.12 The legal and by extension the political is no longer a concentration of the economic but a qualitative disjunction from it. Practically, the field is left open for a “proletarian politics” with no concrete relation to a transformation of the relations of production.13

The siting of the superstructures at a distance from the base serves here to detach the law as a system of norms from the relations of exploitation these norms codify. It is far from accidental that while this text is structured around an attack against revolutionary Soviet judicial thought, Poulantzas remained heavily influenced by Kelsen’s polemical work in defence of the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.14

In fact for Marx, the law of property is a legal expression of the relations of production,15 just as the form of the state is a political expression of the given mode of extraction of surplus from the immediate producers.16 From the beginning Poulantzas proceeds from the standpoint of a bourgeois idealism which insists on the real independence of the political, legal and ideological forms from the relations of production which determine them. This was a standpoint convergent to that of the Communist Parties whose social democratisation from the Popular Front onward constituted them as instruments for the corporatist integration of the workers movement differentiated from their Second International cousins only by allegiance to the degenerated workers state produced by the October Revolution. The content of communist politics was no longer the overcoming of capitalist economic forms but their management or comanagement by organised labour for the indefinite future. In this context it was useful to posit an effectively absolute autonomy of the political, thus concealing the reduction of proletarian politics to a managerial modality of bourgeois economics.17

B: “Marxist” Restatement of the Theory of the State as Defender of the General Interest

1965 sees the publication of the essay Preliminaries to the Study of Hegemony and the State which extends the same idealist approach from legal to state theory. Poulantzas sets the stage by contrasting his own framing of Gramsci’s elaboration of the concept of hegemony with the alleged prior predominance of an “absolutely idealist and voluntarist” state concept which made the mistake of identifying it with a “machine” or a “tool” which is “invented and created solely for the purpose of domination by a class...”. According to Poulantzas this position is “utterly contrary to Marxist scientific analyses” of the state and conveniently identified with Vyshinsky a name thoroughly tarnished in international Stalinism following the 20th Congress of the CPSU and the Secret Speech.

Unfortunately for Poulantzas and the cadre of intellectuals who following the 20th Congress attempted to complete Stalin’s work under the banner of petty bourgeois democratic anti-Stalinism the Marxist heritage cannot be disposed of simply by identifying it with a hack like Vyshinsky. The definition of the state as a “machine” which functions solely for the purpose of class domination is the fundamental insight of Marx and Engels on the question of the state.18 An entire booklet of citations could be produced on this question. Here, we will restrict ourselves to noting that when Lenin summed up19 the experience of the dispersal of Constituent Assembly and the establishment of Soviet power against the petty bourgeois pure democracy of the Second International he set the stage by noting:

In explaining the class nature of bourgeois civilisation, bourgeois democracy and the bourgeois parliamentary system, all socialists have expressed the idea formulated with the greatest scientific precision by Marx and Engels, namely, that the most democratic bourgeois republic is no more than a machine for the suppression of the working class by the bourgeoisie, for the suppression of the working people by a handful of capitalists [emphasis added].20

This awkward attempt to offload the ABCs of Marxism onto the choreographer of the Moscow trials highlights a fundamental feature of the intellectual trajectory of Poulantzas. Despite superficial appearances to the contrary his body of work shares an essential continuity. The difference between the early essays and the final interviews is the difference between concealment and avowal of the same liquidationist project. A flight from the Marxist program of class dictatorship towards the pure democracy of the commodity form.

On this score Poulantzas has no originality. His thought reflects the political degeneration of the bourgeois workers parties which he supported. A trajectory which runs from the obscuration of the specific features of the proletarian dictatorship in the 1928 Comintern program,21 through the ratification of subordination to bourgeois democracy at the 7th Congress of the Comintern, the announcement of “national roads to socialism” and “peaceful transition” and finally and predictably complete dissolution into the neoliberal centre left.

Having thus disposed of the fundamental insight of Marxist state theory Poulantzas proceeds to further elaborate his outline of the mistakes of the notorious “Vyshinsky”. We are informed that:

The state is regarded as the exclusive property of ‘a’ dominant class. The class will, the determining principle of the mediation and production of the superstructures and ideologies on the basis of the infrastructure, is presented as the expression of an indivisible, abstract essence of a single class-subject of the ‘will’ of domination and the state.22

The tone of protest here is reminiscent of those who assert that Marxists “reduce” the rich complexity of social life to the “abstract” polarity of the wage relation. Here also, a “reduction” is being carried out. But not by the prejudice of “economistic” Bolsheviks. Rather by the actuality of the capitalist state itself.

The state is the “exclusive property” of the dominant class because it is structurally determined as a mechanism for the imposition of the law of value over and against labour. This determination is given by the standing army and the bureaucracy as the means through which the dictate of capital confronts not “society” in general but wage dependent labour in particular.

It is at the same time the conscious self organisation of the capitalists to perpetuate the domination of the workers at the level of the social whole. This will appears as both “indivisible” (unitary) and abstract because of the uniquely impersonal and abstract character of the specifically capitalist form of class domination. The wage worker is subjected to the dictatorship of capital through the mediation of abstract and impersonal public power. An abstract impersonality which operates as the straightforward mode of appearance for the exploitation of one class by another. Nothing here is “autonomous”. The impersonal equality of the modern state is simply the judicial codification of factory despotism.

In bourgeois society every state is no more than a consortium organised to extract the maximum surplus from labour power. It is only the wounded feelings of the petty bourgeois idealist which motivate a desperate search for “something more”. What about the “general interest” and the “autonomy of the political” he protests, unaware that the “general interest” is only in the surplus value parcelled out as profit and the “autonomy of the political” finds its only possible expression in the football stadium kindly set aside for him and his dreams.

Just as Marx begins with the capital relation in general as domination over labour before moving to competition between capitals, so the bourgeois state can only be grasped by beginning with its general defining feature as the political subject through which capitalist command over labour is mediated at the level of the social whole before advancing into the concrete particularity of the factionalisation of the political representatives of capitalist domination. Poulantzas makes an empiricist deployment of concrete actuality against the essential truths which can only be revealed by abstraction.

Having registered his protest against the heinously abstract and unitary characteristics of bourgeois class rule he objects to another “reductionism”:

The dialectical relations between the state and the dominant classes, founded on their respective constitution as particular political units, thus boil down to a reduction [emphasis added] of the state’s unity to that of the dominant class...23

Indeed the unity of the capitalist state is simply the unity of the capitalist class. It is the self constitution of this class as a subject through the articulation of the complex of apparatuses for the domination of labour power. There is no capitalist class prior to or outside of the bourgeois class state. The class state as a dynamic unity of form and content is itself the self regulating articulation of the domination of capital over labour which makes up the real substance of the bourgeois as a class. Once again the reduction is made in reality. In this way the bourgeois class state is not at all homologous to the proletarian class party which emerges contingently within the workers movement through the fusion with proletarian ideology as the scientific summary of its prior practice. In fact the default position of the workers movement is a continually repeated absorption within the bourgeois state.

Our author is scandalised that the state is not only maligned as a concrete expression of ruling class domination it is “one sidedly” associated with “organised violence” and “oppressive force”.24 One could observe here that Blackstone’s observations reducing the effectivity of law to coercion alone in the “final determination”25 are a breath of fresh air in comparison to Poulantzas’s obfuscations. Marx’s observations on vulgar political economy which in distinction to its classical predecessor replaces science with apologia could just as well be applied to a contrast of classical bourgeois state theory with degenerate revisionist “Marxism”.

This indictment comes to a close with the observation that “...the consequences of the theoretico-historical conception of the state as the ’product’ of a ’will’ on the part of ’the dominant class’ render concrete analysis of a particular, historically determinate state an utter impossibility.”26

The essential content of the capitalist state is the domination of the capitalist class articulated in the state over the working class. This is the necessary ground for any concrete typology of the forms of the capitalist state. The understanding of the state as the concrete articulation of capitalist power over living labour, as mere materialisation of the interest of the dominant class is confirmed repetitively by the history of its restructuring. Every process of constitution making since the classic American and French examples is a process in which the dominant class consciously restructures its own instruments of domination asserting its monopoly of power within the social body by identifying itself with the latter. It is the denial of the state as mere instrument of rule, its idealist suspension above and between the classes which makes its analysis impossible.

After a digression in which Stalin’s “Hegelianism” is taken to task in the name of a structuralist dismemberment of the social totality and we are sagely informed that for the “mature” Marx, Engels and Lenin the state is the “state of a class divided society” (groundbreaking!) we are finally conveyed to Poulantzas’s counter thesis:

The modern political state does not translate the ’interests’ of the dominant classes at the political level, but the relationship between those interests and the interests of the dominated classes – which means that it precisely constitutes the ’political’ expression of the interests of the dominant classes.

Here, we arrive at Poulantzas’s famous innovation. The “relational theory” of the state. The reader could well be confused at what precisely has been accomplished here. After all, dominant and dominated class form aspects of a single whole and the interests of the dominant classes by definition only exist in relation to the interests of the dominated. What is crucial in this wordplay is a creeping relativisation of the state as a machine of class dictatorship. It is as if we were informed that management does not represent the profit imperative of the firm but rather the relation between this profit imperative and the workers’ struggle. What is a banality at one level is obfuscation at another. An essential function of the state (and not only the capitalist one) as an instrumentality of class domination – the granting of concessions to the interests of the dominated class – is here mobilised to dispute this very instrumentality. The class state is not the total relation but its dominant term.

As Stuchka noted: “The class of exploiters can never strive for the elimination or destruction of the class exploited by them. In those cases when it renounces this principle it perishes itself along with the exploited class. From this derives the adaptable and conciliatory nature of the class of oppressors...”.27 Far from speaking against the function of the state as a pure instrument of class domination, consideration for the interests of the dominated is an essential aspect of this function.

Consider the rescript of the Emperor Antonius Pius cited in Justinian’s Digest:

The power of masters over their slaves certainly ought not to be infringed and there must be no derogation from any men’s legal rights. But it is in the interest of masters that those who make just complaint be not denied relief against brutality or starvation or intolerable wrongdoing.28

No doubt a Roman Poulantzas could have used such formulations to argue that Roman law does not codify the interests of the slave owners but rather expresses the “relation” between the interests of the slave and the interests of the owner. At this point it is abundantly clear that the “innovations” proposed by Poulantzas flagrantly contradict not only Vyshinsky but Marx, Engels and Lenin as well. Thankfully an explanation is ready to hand. We are advised not to confuse the “descriptive expressions” of the Marxist classics with “scientific concepts”.29 What is meant here by “scientific” is made all too clear by the mass of bizarre assertions (including the claim that the Second International suffered from “Hegelianism”) which follows. The tenor of the whole is sufficiently conveyed by the following extract:

We cannot ‘abstract’ one of Marx’s theoretical concepts – ‘class’ – and elevate it, thus isolated, into a historical subject producing superstructures – objects, thereby neglecting the fact that this concept can only be theoretically constituted in an objective ensemble designated by the ‘mode of production’.30

However the mode of production is the dynamic contradiction between the classes. And the state constituted within and constitutively defining this contradiction is the means by which the dominant class of the contradiction masters the total process through a continual integration of all tendencies towards a movement beyond the stable reproduction of the contradiction by the dominated class. Structuralist objectivism serves to deny the inseparable mutual determination between the characteristic structural form of the capitalist state as the political concentration of the relations of domination which are inextricable from the production relations and the class will of the bourgeoisie constituted as a political subject to ensure the reproduction of these relations. This will is both constituted by and mediated through the articulated system of state apparatuses which finds its most concentrated expression in the professional armed forces and the bureaucracy of the executive.31

Here, on the contrary the objective aspect, the structural form is artificially severed from the subjective aspect, the constitution of the bourgeoisie as a political class subject. The end result? The class nature of the state fades away. It becomes a socially neutral “terrain” where the contending class wills entwine. A mere measure of the balance of forces in their relation. In fact identical to that relation itself.

What is being attempted amidst an immense confusion of concepts is a superficially “Marxist” restatement of the bourgeois idealist thesis of the state as representative of the general interest. The effort is brought to its long overdue culmination with the aid of Gramsci’s questionable distinction between the “hegemonic” and the “economic corporate” state.

The structure of domination is not some unchanging ‘socioeconomic interests of the dominant classes + state as repression’, but corresponds to a universalizing, mediated form which these interests must assume with respect to a political state that at the same time has the real function, while remaining a class state, of representing a formal and abstract ‘general interest’ of society.32

At this point the apologetic character of the analysis comes into its own. The capitalist class state does not “alongside” its function as class state proper “also” fulfil the function of representing the “abstract general interest”, real or otherwise. On the contrary, the “abstract general interest” is the direct expression of capitalist class dictatorship. Its content as a direct expression of class rule is given precisely by its abstract character which is the necessary content of any political concentration of the abstraction of the wage relation itself.

The relative disjunction posited here between class state and general interest is no more than the most vulgar mystification. One could just as well argue that the Tsar alongside his role in ensuring feudal rent extraction also had the “real” function of representing the “unity of the Russian people”. Indeed he did33 and the latter function was the inseparable mode of appearance of the former. The unity of the Russian people had a relation of exact equivalence with the continued extraction of feudal rent just as in capitalist society the general interest represented by the state is always and only the general interest in the continued exploitation of wage labour.

The false distinction between the “economic-corporative” and the “hegemonic” state is no more than an apologia for the revisionist demand for “anti-fascist” unity with the bosses. Which in practice amounts to the functionalization of worker organization as an instrument of the “economic-corporative” interest of the latter as the track record of the bourgeois workers parties supported by Poulantzas demonstrates painfully well.


2: “Political Power and Social Classes” as Open Gate to Liquidation under a “Left” Cover

With Political Power and Social Classes (originally published in 1968) Poulantzas attempts his first book length theoretical statement noteworthy for attempting to apply a “Leninist” veneer to the same revisionist product he would continue to peddle throughout his career. The bourgeois idealist outlook of his early essays is further elaborated.

A: False Disjunction Between Reality and Ideal of Generalised Commodity Production and the Idealist Theory of “Relative Autonomy”

Consider the starting point of his elucidation of the capitalist state:

We are informed it is distinguished by both “ determination of agents of production” and the absence of “political class domination” from its institutions. These are alleged to be the “fundamental characteristics” of the capitalist state and to distinguish it from prior state forms.34 This affirmation sets the stage for the supposed “relative autonomy” of the political within capitalist society which plays such an important role in Poulantzas’s conceptual framework. However, it is untenable. Firstly it is false to assert that the bourgeois state does not determine subjects as agents of production. The premise of the bourgeois constitution is the determination of every citizen as a commodity producing subject, as an agent of production for exchange. As Sieyes puts it:

All the relations between citizens are founded on the basis of freedom and equality. One gives his time or his merchandise, the other in return his money. There is no subordination but a continual exchange.35

The determination of the citizen as a commodity producer and by necessary extension the division of citizens into buyers and sellers of the unique commodity labour power is the substantive content of every bourgeois constitution.36

Secondly, what Poulantzas fails to recognise is that the abstract and universal equality of citizens is synonymous to the “political class domination” of the bourgeoisie in its purest and most perfected form. Every citizen is equal to every other citizen in their right to buy and sell labour power in the framework determined by the separation of the producers from the conditions of production which is the necessary precondition of the universal equality and freedom of generalised commodity production. Universal suffrage, equality under the law, direct democracy, the organisation of struggle against discrimination and oppression, the fullest development of all this is also the fullest development of the unrestricted class rule of the bourgeoisie and the totalitarian atomisation of the working class within bourgeois democracy.37 Only the most naive Kantian enthusiast of abstract universality in the ideal is capable of setting it against “universal prostitution” in fact.

As Lenin noted:

He who recognises the class struggle must also recognise that in a bourgeois republic, even in the freest and most democratic bourgeois republic, “freedom” and “equality” never were, and never could be, anything but an expression of the equality and freedom of the commodity owners, the equality and freedom of capital.38

Poulantzas on the other hand, true to his original legal idealism, sees the specifically bourgeois form of political class domination as the apparent absence of the same. This formulation follows logically from his prior effort to introduce a “relative” disjunction between the state as class state and as representative of a “general interest” which we are assured is not merely ideological but rather possesses a real existence. As he further elaborates in the text currently under consideration:

However, one remark needs to be added: the fact that the state’s juridico-political superstructure is related to its ideological function does not in itself mean that the former is reduced to the ideological. In short, the, state as ‘representative’ of the political unity of the nation-people, is nevertheless reflected in a whole real institutional framework which tends to function effectively according to the concrete situation of the forces present, in the direction of a specific unity of the state’s power and of a relative autonomy vis-a-vis the dominant classes.39

It is again claimed that the state is supposed to represent an “abstract general interest” which far from forming the concrete existence of the dominant class as a political class project is premised upon a “relative autonomy” from the latter. Elsewhere in the text Poulantzas cites two empirical examples of this alleged autonomy where in contradiction to his earlier claims for it as a general principle it is partially attributed to the “weakness” of the party system in a specific national context:

This is clearly the case in the USA where the parties weaker organization has sometimes allowed a relative autonomy to the state, which came into play in Roosevelt’s ‘New Deal’. This autonomy has also come into play (as it were despite the system) in the particular case of the 1945 Labour Government in Britain.40

In 1972 Poulantzas further elaborated on the supposed class content of this “autonomy” in the American case, asserting that the New Deal was an example of governance by the petty bourgeoisie. Here the pluralist delirium of the state as a “terrain” is taken to further heights and we are informed that the “reign” of the petty bourgeoisie “coexisted” with the “hegemony” of “big capital”.41

In actuality the structural features of the capitalist mode of production preclude any “reign” by the petty bourgeoisie under the “hegemony” of “big capital” or otherwise. And this is for a reason deeper than any sociological characteristics of the petty bourgeoisie or the empirical reality of the iron grip of private business over the democratic state which discredit the examples he selects.42

Rather, the inadmissibility of the thesis of “petty bourgeois government” is rooted in the untenability of the theory of relative autonomy and the idealist scission of the economic and the political it rests upon.43 Such a scission requires that the capitalist state be located “at a distance” from capitalist production to the point where Poulantzas posits that one of the structural features of such states is an incapacity to “intervene” in the “core of production”.44 In fact not only can the capitalist state intervene in the core of production, it is the core of capitalist command over production at the level of the total process.45

The state is itself the unitary articulation of the total capital and to occupy a governing position within the state is to become integrated as a fraction of the bourgeoisie. Every government of the state is by definition a government of the bourgeoisie regardless of its sociological origins or its position in relation to this or that fraction of capital. To speak of a petty bourgeois government of the capitalist state makes no more sense than discussing a possible “petty bourgeois management” of any given bank or multinational. Even a degenerated workers state however much it may embody quantitative gains for labour within the wage relation is no more a rupture with the state as the organisation of capitalist exploitation then the UAW pension fund is a rupture with the law of value.46

The capitalist state embodies the unity of the social whole constituted by wage labour whose preservation defines the bourgeoisie as a political class project. Its characteristic formal structure is inseparable from its dynamic instrumentality as a weapon against the workers.

B: Vulgar Reformist Reduction of Bourgeois Dictatorship to “Prevention” and “Exclusion”

At the same time as Poulantzas insists on the absence of “political class domination” within and the “relative autonomy” of the capitalist state he works to paper over his revisionism with the crudest “Leninist” declarations on the repressive and exclusionary nature of the state. He claims that:

With regard to the dominated classes, the function of the capitalist state is to prevent their political organization which would overcome their economic isolation... The capitalist state thus fulfils its function both by concealing their own class character from the. dominated classes and also by specifically excluding them from the state institutions, in so far as they are the dominated classes. [emphasis added]47

Here the relation between the state and the working class is presented as one of both preventing its political organization and excluding it from state institutions. In reality class dictatorship normally functions in the opposite manner. Far from preventing working class political organization it facilitates and encourages it and rather than excluding the working class from the state it welcomes its entry as a custodian of capital. Poulantzas can only see the fascist and authoritarian side of class rule because he himself represents the democratic and inclusive side. The continually repeated integration of the workers movement within the organisation of bourgeois workers politics is the defining feature of the democratic state. And this integration is what characterises the strongest and most stable articulations of class rule. Prevention and exclusion becomes the primary aspect only in crisis periods within weak links of the imperialist chain. Crisis management under favourable conditions is better exemplified by the integration of the workers movement within the corporatist framework which the bourgeois workers party embodies.

Poulantzas shows his colours by identifying prevention and exclusion as fundamental characteristics of the capitalist state in relation to worker organization while maintaining a discrete silence on encouragement, inclusion and participation. Even the more enlightened officials of the Tsarist autocracy understood the need to permit and include the organization of workers in their own interests within the legal order.48 And to the statesmen of modern pure democracy it is second nature. What was only half hearted with Zubatov, became a true art with Hilferding, Roosevelt, Berlinguer and Carillo.

What threatens the bourgeoisie is not the organization of the workers as an interest group within bourgeois society, nor the entry of organized labour into the halls of government; rather it is the merger of working class organization with a program for the abolition of wage labour. For Poulantzas whose concept of socialism never goes beyond some combination of nationalisation and workers control and who like all anti-Stalinists of the right (Gramsci first of all49) finds his ideal in an “eternal NEP” the abolition of capital is a distant dream long severed from the immediate aspiration to exercise hegemony within it. Which entails organized labour as custodian of capitalist profitability against the workers themselves. The “relational theory” of the State finds its practical form in the socialist exultation of piecework.

The main guarantee of class domination is not the fascist concentration camp but the organisation of the working class within the democratic state.50 Precisely because the fascist state is an exception to this norm51 a unilateral focus on this exception and the repressive-exclusionary aspect of class domination of which it forms the culminating point can only constitute an apologia however masked of “Freedom, Equality, Property and Bentham”.52

C: Rejection of the Revolutionary Critique of Bureaucracy for the Reformist Critique of “Bureaucratism”

In the final section of the text Poulantzas briefly discusses “bureaucracy and bureaucratism”. He begins by making his class orientation clear: we are informed that Trotsky’s (unspecified) “errors” have distorted “theoretical research” not to speak of the “ideological rubbish churned out by his successors”. On the other hand we are assured that Weber has “made the most successful attempt at elucidating this problem”.53 Here the revolutionary criticism of the labour bureaucracy as the social strata which continually reinscribes the integration of the workers movement within bourgeois society on the level of the union, the party and the state is rejected in favour of the anti-Marxist polemic of a partisan of bourgeois democracy.54 It is not a question of denying the many limitations of Trotsky’s analysis but of understanding that here as elsewhere Poulantzas attacks from the right.

This is further confirmed when we reach the meat of his analysis. Much as any bourgeois sociologist would happily admit the “corrupt influence” of “money in politics” while denying the class character of the state, Poulantzas admits to the existence of “bureaucratism” in the workers state while denying that “bureaucracy” exists at all. We are informed on the basis of a perfunctory reading of Lenin’s post 1918 work that “ is possible in this period of transition that a ‘bureaucratism’ may exist which is not linked to the existence of the ‘bureaucracy’ as a specific category55 and there the matter rests. The extent to which this continued to be correct after Lenin’s time and to which it perhaps represented a serious underestimation of the problem in correspondence with Lenin’s commitment to “orderly retreat” is left prudently uninvestigated. The polite discretion on such an embarrassing matter rivals that of a Stalinist university textbook. Deference to bourgeois democracy and to the labour bureaucracy are two sides of the same reactionary coin.

It is worth noting that when Poulantzas briefly returned to this question in his most superficially “radical” work Fascism and Dictatorship we see further obfuscation of the significance of the bureaucracy in conjunction with a bizarre insinuation that the defence of the Soviet Union may have been unjustified.56 Which hardly sits well with the continued endorsement of the Popular Front in the same work.57 Perhaps this exceptional incoherence is best explained by the brief intoxication the Cultural Revolution generated in so many petty bourgeois intellectuals. An event whose real dynamics Poulantzas with his denial of the “category” of bureaucracy had no hope of comprehending.

3:“Classes in Contemporary Capitalism” and the Liquidation of Proletarian Dictatorship in Favour of Petty Bourgeois Democracy

With Classes in Contemporary Capitalism the centrality of the class alliance for structural reform is asserted against the construction of a system of proletarian power for the transition to communism. The text is written in the spirit of the revisionist summation of the Chilean events-finalisation of the capitulation to bourgeois democracy.

A: The “Worker-Peasant Alliance” as Immutable Starting Point

The essays do not deal directly with the working class...Yet I think that today it is more than ever the case that an essential component of revolutionary strategy consists in knowing the enemy well, and in being able to establish correct alliances.58 [our emphasis]

Here the thread which runs through all the right and “left” zigzags of Poulantzas’s work59 (till the liquidationist crescendo) is affirmed once again: that the Leninist thesis is not the split with bourgeois workers politics, and the qualitative distinction between bourgeois and proletarian democracy, but rather the class alliance between the workers and the petty bourgeois. This thesis was already formulated in the “debate” staged within the CPSU around Trotsky’s Lessons of October60 and further elaborated in Gramsci’s Notebooks via the distinction between the “war of position” and the “permanent revolution”, the latter being identified with “economism”.61

In this emphasis on class alliances the real relation of the general and the particular in Lenin’s thought is reversed. The need to make concessions to the peasantry imposed by its overwhelming numerical predominance, even to the point of decomposing the worker vanguard through the restoration of capitalist production relations,62 becomes a political template for a developed capitalism defined by a worker majority.63 While the universal “lesson of October” the construction and imposition of new organs of proletarian power through armed struggle against bourgeois democracy becomes a particularity of backwards Russia.64

Those who would reduce Lenin to a theorist of class alliance elevated from adaptation to Russian backwardness into universal principle should recall his 1902 observation on the draft program of the RSDLP.

“Besides, reference to the dictatorship of the proletariat contained in the original draft is missing here. Even if this were done accidentally, through an oversight, it is still indubitable that the concept of “dictatorship” is incompatible with positive recognition of outside support for the proletariat. If we really knew positively that the petty bourgeoisie will support the proletariat in the accomplishment of its, the proletariat’s, revolution it would be pointless to speak of a “dictatorship”, for we would then be fully guaranteed so overwhelming a majority that we could get on very well without a dictatorship (as the “critics” would have us believe). The recognition of the necessity for the dictatorship of the proletariat is most closely and inseparably bound up with the thesis of the Communist Manifesto that the proletariat alone is a really revolutionary class”.65

This and not the adaptations imposed by the retreat of the world revolution and the hostile encirclement66 of the peasantry is the Leninism which becomes ever more valid the more the linear development of capital progresses.

B: Denial of the Reality of Abstraction in Defence of a Multiclass “Revolution”

Poulantzas’s deemphasis of the fundamental characteristics of the production relations themselves, his focus on the contradictions within the bourgeoisie and the middle classes and the possibilities of an alliance policy enabled by these contradictions gives his work the stamp of bourgeois sociology. Not just insofar as his work is a sociology of the bourgeoisie not of the working class (which is unilaterally reduced to its trade union/party representation integrated within the bourgeois state.) but because he ignores the determining features of capitalist production in general in favour of a mass of empirical details utilised as a polemical weapon in the interests of obscuring these determining features and their political implications. This serves to justify a political strategy in which the objective of overcoming capitalist production relations has been displaced by that of implementing contingent modifications within the reproduction of these relations.67 This can also be seen in his differentiation between mode of production and social formation:

The articulation of the structural determination of classes and of class positions within a social formation, the locus of existence of conjunctures, requires particular concepts. I shall call these concepts of strategy, embracing in particular such phenomena as class polarization and class alliance.

Among these, on the side of the dominant classes, is the concept of the ‘power bloc’, designating a specific alliance of dominant classes and fractions; also, on the side of the dominated classes, the concept of the ‘people’, designating a specific alliance of these classes and fractions. These concepts are not of the same status as those with which we have dealt up till now: whether a class, fraction or stratum forms part of the power bloc, or part of the people, will depend on the social formation, its stages, phases and conjunctures.

But this also indicates that the classes, fractions and strata that form part of these alliances, do not for all that lose their class determination and dissolve into an undifferentiated type of merger or alliance. Just to take one example: when the national bourgeoisie forms part of the people, it still remains a bourgeoisie (leading to contradictions among the people); these classes and fractions do not dissolve into one another, as a certain idealist usage of the term ‘popular masses’, or even the term ‘wage earning class’, might suggest.68

In the above formulation the movement from mode of production to social formation – conjuncture masks a reduction of the proletarian revolution to the already accomplished popular revolution. As the linear development of capital advances the binary division defining the capitalist mode of production converges increasingly with the empirical actuality of social life. Poulantzas covers over the progressively advancing concrete realisation of abstraction by consigning the class binary of purely capitalist production relations to a transhistorical non actuality.69 In this way, much like determination by the economic, the proletarian revolution becomes the last moment which never arrives.

The term proletariat no longer names the relational dynamic which unites particular wage demands with the general program of abolition of the wage. Rather it indicates the leading core of a cross class bloc which utilises working class organization to resolve the crisis of accumulation. The horizon of communism recedes in favour of the illusory project of completing the democratic revolution which means no more than the preservation of decadent production relations. The positing of an illusory contradiction between the “people” and the “power bloc” as if Junkers and zamindars were not first of all a topic for the history books obscures the governing contradiction for the revolution as transition to communism – that between proletarian and bourgeois politics within the working class. The real enemy is not the “power bloc” but the revisionist dissolution of proletarian politics into popular democracy.70

No matter to what extent real subsumption submerges the social, the line of demarcation dividing the revolutionary and counter revolutionary camps never converges with the divide between the politically mediated trajectories of preservation or destruction of the wage relation. The strategic objective is reduced to a restructuring of this relation which solicits the maximum popular participation to ensure mass consensus around the integrationist objectives of revisionism.71 Naturally such a “revolution” refrains from smashing the state machine.

In the process of socialist revolution, the working class cannot confine itself to taking the place of the bourgeoisie at the level of state power, but it has also radically to transform (to ‘smash’) the apparatuses of the bourgeois state and replace them by proletarian state apparatuses.72

“Smashing” and “radical transformation” are not only not synonymous. They are directly opposed. To conflate them is to conflate the demand for a full actualisation of bourgeois democracy with the struggle to impose proletarian democracy through the destruction of the former.73 The purpose of the socialist revolution is to “abolish law”74 not simply to rewrite the legal code however “radically” and however much the latter objective might be imposed by an unfavourable balance of forces as the horizon of the possible.

The Soviet Union beginning with the project of destruction of the state became crystallised within the international balance of forces as a bourgeois workers state75 which both embodied a quantitative gain for living labour within capital and blocked any qualitative transformation of the production relations. The Communist Parties articulated the same contradiction internationally. By reducing the act of “smashing” to that of “transformation” Poulantzas effaces this foundational contradiction and reduces class politics to the quantitative terms formulated by Kautsky.76 This effacement, already in full course when Soviet discourse reconciled commodity production and socialism and christened “people’s democracies” in Eastern Europe, was the real social democratisation of the Communist Parties.77 The later renunciation of ritualistic appeals to proletarian dictatorship was the collapse of a structure long after its foundation had rotted away. In this respect Poulantzas’s intellectual trajectory mirrors that of the communist movement as a whole.

4: Conclusion: Poulantzas as a Patron Saint of the Preventative Counter Revolution

Bucci Glucksman

Beginning with Crisis of the Dictatorships in 1975 Poulantzas passed from efforts to couch revisionism in “Leninist” formulations towards an open hostility to revolution enjoining the need to prevent the emergence of dual power78 and applying the long discredited anti-Bolshevik interpretations of Luxemburg’s final work79 to a crudely elitist80 and historically bankrupt attack on proletarian democracy.81

This shift corresponded well to the activity of the Communist Parties in Southern Europe. In Italy the PCI distinguished itself with a militarist hard line against the fragmented revolutionary left as a precondition for the accelerated restructuring which would perhaps ironically result in its own demise. In Iberia and Greece the Communist Parties had to police the workers movement to ensure an orderly transition from outmoded military dictatorships to democratic outposts of EEC imperialism. In concrete actuality the struggle of the “people” against the “power bloc” was the struggle to modernise the authoritarian state which had become dysfunctional in relation to the need for the absorption of acute class contradiction through the introduction of inclusive systems of mediation able to dissipate the tensions inflamed by an excessively rigid system of regulation. Which also required the selective use of terror against irreducible elements.

On the world scale the capitalist offensive against worker rigidity stretched from the arrest of the “Gang of Four” to New York’s debt crisis. The long nightmare of proletarian power which had tormented the bourgeoisie since October 1917 was finally coming to a close. In this moment of renewed “material incentive” in China, mass “penitence” in Italy and a victorious “national reorganization process” in Argentina revisionism no longer had to pander to the effects of a worker upsurge. On the contrary it had to justify its existence to a bourgeois consensus intoxicated by free markets and the Rights of Man.82

In the more than forty years since that time this consensus has never been successfully challenged and as a result Poulantzas retains all his relevance. His work remains an essential means through which the radical petty bourgeois reconciles its Marxist pretensions with its actual commitment to Lassialian schemes for state “uplift” of a demoralised and atomised working class. After all, the state is not an enemy but a “relation” or so their professors tell them. Those of us who see independent proletarian politics as the necessary premise of a renewed worker offensive cannot afford to entertain such fantasies.

—Joshua Depaolis is the editor and translator of 1978: A New Stage in the Class War? Selected Documents from the Spring Campaign of the Red Brigades (Kersplebedeb 2019) and editor with Elena Louisa Lange of The Conformist Rebellion: Marxist Responses to the Contemporary Left (Rowman & Littlefield 2022).

Works Cited

  • Anderson, Frank Maloy, The constitutions and other select documents illustrative of the history of France 1789–1901, H. W. Wilson company, 1904.
  • Blackstone, William, Commentaries on the Laws of England: Book I: Of the Rights of Persons, Oxford University Press, 2016.
  • Bonnell, Victoria E., Roots of Rebellion: Workers’ Politics and Organizations in St. Petersburg and Moscow, 1900–1914, University of California Press, 1983.
  • Buci-Glucksmann, Christine, Granmsci und Der Staat: Für eine materialistische Theorie der Philosophie, Pahl Rugenstein Verlag, Köln, 1981.
  • Ciccariello-Maher, George, We Created Chávez: A People’s History of the Venezuelan Revolution. Duke University Press, 2013.
  • Corney, Frederick, Trotsky’s Challenge: The ‘Literary Discussion’ of 1924 and the Fight for the Bolshevik Revolution, Brill, Leiden, 2015.
  • Domhoff, G. and Webber, Michael J., Class and Power in the New Deal: Corporate Moderates, Southern Democrats, and the Liberal-Labor Coalition, Stanford University Press, Stanford, 2011.
  • Ducange, Jean-Numa and Keucheyan, Razmig, The End of the Democratic State: Nicos Poulantzas, a Marxism for the 21st Century, Palgrave Macmillan, 2019.
  • Gramsci, Antonio, Le opere. La prima antologia di tutti gli scritti, Editori Riuniti, 1997.
  • Jessop, Bob, Nicos Poulantzas: Marxist Theory and Political Strategy, Macmillan, 1985.
  • Lenin, V.I, Marxism on the State: Preparatory Material for the Book The State and Revolution, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1972.
  • Linhart, Robert, Lenin, i contadini e Taylor, Coines Edizioni, Rome, 1977.
  • Lukács, Georg, The Destruction of Reason, Merlin Press 1980.
  • Millward, Robert and Singleton, John, The political economy of nationalisation in Britain 1920–1950, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1995.
  • Mullin, Richard, The Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party, 1899‒1904: Documents of the ‘Economist’ Opposition to Iskra and Early Menshevism, Brill, Leiden, 2015.
  • Naccarato, Alessandro Difendere la democrazia. Il PCI contro la lotta armata, Carocci, Rome, 2015.
  • Poulantzas, Nicos, Political Power and Social Classes, NLB and Sheed and Wood, 1973.
  • Poulantzas, Nico, Fascism and Dictatorship: The Third International and the Problem of Fascism, NLB, 1974.
  • Poulantzas, Nicos, Classes in Contemporary Capitalism, NLB, 1975.
  • Poulantzas, Nicos, The Poulantzas Reader: Marxism, Law, and the State, Verso, 2008.
  • Sieyès, Emmanuel Joseph, Political Writings: Including the Debate between Sieyès and Tom Paine in 1791, Hackett Publishing Company, Inc, 2003.
  • Stuchka, P.I., Selected Writings on Soviet Law and Marxism, M. E. Sharpe, New York, 1988.
  • Trotsky, Leon, The Struggle against Fascism in Germany, Pathfinder Press, New York, 1971.
  • Trotsky, Leon, Writings of Leon Trotsky (1937–8), Pathfinder Press, New York, 1976.
  • Trotsky, Leon, Writings of Leon Trotsky: Supplement (1934–40), Pathfinder Press, New York, 1979.
  • Trotsky, Leon, Stalin: An Appraisal of the Man and his Influence, Wellred Books, 2016.
  • Warski, Adolf, Rosa Luxemburgs Stellung zu den taktischen Problemen der Revolution, Verlag der Kommunistischen Internationale, Hamburg 1922.
  • Watson, Alan, The Digest of Justinian: Translation Edited by Alan Watson, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 1998.
  • Wood, Ellen Meiksins, The Retreat from Class: A New “True” Socialism, Verso, 1998.

  1. Poulantzas 2008 p 75. 

  2. Ibid 167. Emphasis ours. 

  3. Ibid 374. 

  4. An important premise for this misconception is the failure to understand that Capital as a theoretical presentation of the capital relation is also the theory of the bourgeois democracy which is inextricable from the same. 

  5. The various apologetic treatments of the Bolivarian “revolution” in which a situation characterised by a reactionary integration of the specific type advocated by Poulantzas in his later work is identified with the dual power it successfully prevents are typical in this regard. See, for example Ciccariello-Maher 2013. 

  6. Here, right opportunism which sees the indefinite perpetuation of commodity production under socialism as a positive good converges with the left opportunism which sees no difference between the plans of Ludendorff’s general staff and War Communism. In either case non mercantile production recedes into an ahistorical utopia. 

  7. The intersectionality and anti-fascism of today’s left liberalism resembles nothing so much as the popular and democratic fronts of the old Communist Parties and the resemblance is a family one. 

  8. The PCI which throughout the post war era shamelessly identified any worker protest outside of its control as a “subversive scheme” of the right already in 1976 established a special counter-insurgency wing targeting the revolutionary movement (the Sezione problemi dello Stato). See Naccarato 2015. If the PCF never formed such an apparatus it was more on account of the absence of a worthy adversary than any lack of motivation. The popularity of Eurocommunism among today’s reformists is a clear indicator of their willingness to support austerity and restructuring with paramilitary police and special prisons if the capitalists ever condescend to assign them such a task. 

  9. Poulantzas 2008 p 25. 

  10. Despite claims to the contrary Stuchka’s instrumental theory and Pashukanis’s theory of form determination are not only compatible regardless of differences in emphasis but together form a comprehensive statement of the necessary unity of form and content within the bourgeois state. 

  11. Ibid p 26. 

  12. “ seems to me essential for a Marxist analysis of the juridical-state level to arrive at a precise conception of the reality of ideal social phenomena, of the state sphere of juridical norms – a reality that is not essentialist, but grounded in their division from the base and their historical effectivity.” Ibid p 30. 

  13. For the term “dictatorship of the proletariat” to have scientific meaning it can only indicate the political form of the transformation of capitalist into communist production relations. Not the stable reproduction of the latter. This was clearly recognised by Lenin despite his necessary capitulation to the unfavourable national and international balance of forces. See Lenin 1972 p 67 and Linhart 1977 p 15–16.  

  14. Jessop 1985 p 45. 

  15. “In order that these objects may enter into relation with each other as commodities, their guardians must place themselves in relation to one another, as persons whose will resides in those objects, and must behave in such a way that each does not appropriate the commodity of the other, and part with his own, except by means of an act done by mutual consent. They must therefore, mutually recognise in each other the rights of private proprietors. This juridical but the reflex of the real economic relation between the two. It is this economic relation that determines the subject-matter comprised in each such juridical act. [our emphasis]” (
    “At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or – this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms [our emphasis] – with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto.” (

  16. “The specific economic form, in which unpaid surplus-labour is pumped out of direct producers, determines the relationship of rulers and ruled, as it grows directly out of production itself [our emphasis]...” (

  17. Here a parallel can be drawn with Stuchka’s efforts to justify the NEP. However for Poulantzas and his peers what in Stuchka’s time was seen as an unfortunate or even catastrophic reversal had become identical to the final goal itself.  

  18. An insight which could be fully formulated only on the basis of the experience of the Paris Commune. Just as it could be fully recovered from Second International revisionism only on the basis of the development of Soviet power by the worker masses. Without mass movements for workers power Marxist theory decomposes and dies. 

  19. See Trotsky 2016 p 323–25 for the 1919 Comintern theses on “pure democracy” as summation of the struggle for Soviet power. 

  20. (

  21. As the Democratic Centralist Vladimir Smirnov noted the 1928 Comintern Program ( only offers a schematic sketch of the Soviet system without comment on the need to advance towards the extinction of the state and the capitalist division of labour which it expresses. See

  22. Poulantzas 2008 p 76. 

  23. Ibid p 76. 

  24. Ibid. 

  25. “We must therefore observe that the main strength and force of a law consists in the penalty annexed to it... And, even where rewards are proposed as well as punishments threatened, the obligation of the law seems chiefly to consist in the penalty: for rewards, in their nature, can only persuade and allure; nothing is compulsory but punishment.” Blackstone 2016 p 44.
    An excellent reminder for the naively sophisticated enthusiasts of “hegemony” and “soft power”. The capacity to systematically apply violence to the recalcitrant is the obligatory entry fee to the game of winning “hearts and minds”. The contrary opinion is well suited to the mental softness produced by a degenerate labour movement neither capable nor inclined to impose consequences on strike breakers and scabs.  

  26. Poulantzas 2008 ibid. 

  27. Stuchka 1988 p 43. 

  28. Watson 1985 Volume One p 18. 

  29. This argument is comparable to the injunctions of modernizing secularists against a “literal reading” of religious texts. In the one case it is a matter of avoiding reactionary in the other progressive transgression of bourgeois democratic doctrine. 

  30. Poulantzas 2008 p 80. 

  31. The latter two are the structures specifically designated as the “state machine” in the Marxist classics. The armed forces form the “hard core” of state power and their conflation with the immense system of “ideological state apparatuses” supposed to constitute virtually the whole of social life in the Althusserian schema only obscures the essential question: who will inflict violence upon who? Or as Lenin once put it, one party in power and the other in prison.  

  32. Ibid. 

  33. As Plekhanov noted in 1900. “...the working population of Russia habitually imagine the tsar to be something of the order of a people’s tribune. They think that the tsar defends their interests from infringements by all the higher estates.” (Mullin 2015 p 104). It is regrettable that Poulantzas was not present to condemn the “reductionist” tendency to paint the autocracy as an instrument of feudal class interest thus neglecting the Tsar’s role as “father of his people”. After all, “ideal social phenomena” posses “reality”. 

  34. Poulantzas 1973 p 123. 

  35. Sieyes 2003, p 82. 

  36. As the French Constitution of the Year III observes “Every man can contract his time and his services...” (Anderson, 1904 p 213). The fact every citizen may or may not be subject to class domination according to the contingency of their circumstances reflects the specifically impersonal character of class domination in bourgeois society. Not any apparent absence of the same from the political sphere. 

  37. None of this speaks against the immense value of bourgeois democracy as the necessary basis of its own determinate negation by proletarian democracy. It is however a liquidationist error to see the relation between bourgeois and proletarian democracy as mere continuity, extension or realisation. Proletarian democracy is qualitatively different from the fullest extension of bourgeois democracy and is only constituted in antagonism to the latter. See Lenin 1972 p 66.  

  38. (

  39. Poulantzas 1973, p 277. 

  40. Ibid p 317–18. 

  41. Poulantzas 2008, 209. As Trotsky noted the dictatorship of big capital is always mediated (Trotsky 1971, p 333). The petty bourgeois populist forms of the New Deal, Jacobinism or fascism are no deviation from bourgeois dictatorship. Rather they are the most appropriate mode of expression of the liberty, equality and freedom of commodity owners which forms the substance of class domination. Here as elsewhere in Poulantzas’s work the contingent forms of appearance of the capitalist state are detached from its essential content and put to work obscuring the latter. We can assume that for the vulgar empiricism of his sociological mind every government in which the cabinet was not composed exclusively of bankers and the executives of multinational enterprises was a noteworthy example of “relative autonomy”. 

  42. As Domhoff and Weber demonstrate, the legal architecture of the New Deal was formulated by big capital as a framework for preventative counter revolution against the communist threat (Domhoff, 2011). A counter revolution the Communist Party was happy to participate in following the bourgeois democratic line of the Seventh Congress of the Comintern which Poulantzas characterises as a “correction” of the “extremist” view of social democracy as agent of monopoly capital (Poulantzas 1973, p 274). In order to defend the Popular Front it is necessary to present the corporatist dictatorship of the bourgeoisie as a “petty bourgeois government”.
    The CPUSA enforcement of a wartime no strike pledge while the capitalists fed the workers through a meat grinder of industrial accidents is certainly a worthy precursor to the Eurocommunist line of worker sacrifice for the good of the national economy.
    As for the British case, far from representing an eruption of petty bourgeois radicalism the post war nationalisations of the Labour government can be differentiated from a longstanding bipartisan interest in nationalisation as a tool of industrial policy mostly in terms of rhetorical flourishes. See for example Singleton in Millward and Singleton 1995 p 13–37.  

  43. This untenability has been recently recognised (albeit partially) by an author broadly sympathetic to Poulantzas and his strategic perspective. See Garo in Ducange and Keucheyan 2019 p 29.  

  44. Ibid 27. 

  45. This is clear enough from a consideration of the role of central banking. The idea of a capitalist production without comprehensive state command is a petty bourgeois fantasy. Neoliberalism far from embodying a reduction in the role of the state as revisionists allege is in fact the conjunction of a reduction in the social wage, with the erosion of labour market rigidity and the escalating militarisation of a state command which is if anything reinforced

  46. More Trotskyists should have thought through the implications of Trotsky’s equation of the USSR with the AFL. In both cases it is a question of a gain won by workers within capital. If failure to defend such gains is sterile abtsentionism, failure to recognise their limited bourgeois character entails a fundamental misunderstanding of the capital relation. A regression from an understanding of capital as a form determined totality to a vulgar sociology of interest groups waging a quantitative struggle in the sphere of distribution. Indeed Trotsky disposed of the scholastic and illusory distinction between “state capitalism” and “degenerated workers state” which so preoccupied his followers with a passing remark in correspondence with Serge.

    You could, if you wanted to, call the Soviet economy “state capitalism”, but if you consider the other parts of the globe, you have to say that it is the only regime that is capable of further developing the forces of production. Not to see that, because of the ignominy of the bureaucracy, is to be a liberal and not a revolutionary Marxist. Trotsky to Serge, June 5 1936 in Trotsky 1979 p 671

  47. Poulantzas 1973 p 188–89. 

  48. Consider the observations of Moscow University professor Ozerov in a 1902 letter to the Moscow chief of police:

    In the memorandum, Ozerov extolled the virtues of Western European trade unions and urged that they be introduced into Russia, where they would attract “the most cultivated, the uppermost layer, so to speak, in the workers’ aristocracy,” comprising, he believed, about 10 or 15 percent of the Petersburg labor force. Ozerov confidently assured the Chief of Police that once workers had acquired a legal right to establish trade unions and engage in collective work stoppages, they would moderate their demands and demonstrate political loyalty to the autocratic system. Bonnell 1983 p 105
    Ozerov’s dream was realised in the post war European social state with the aid of the Communist Parties. Those who protested the enforced consensus could look forward to special laws, isolation units, torture and “suicide” as the lynch mob baying for their extermination composed treatises on the “democratic road to socialism”.

  49. For Gramsci the proletariat needed to sacrifice its “corporative interest” in the transformation of the production relations in order to maintain hegemony within capitalist society through a long term class alliance with the petty bourgeois. See the 1926–7 letters concerning the conflict with the Opposition in the CPSU in Gramsci and Santucci 1997, p 164–178. Such a position can and did have no other outcome than the consolidated rule of the labour bureaucracy as a surrogate bourgeoisie. That Stalin later chose the engineer and the Stakhanovite as alliance partners rather than the kulak changed nothing essential.  

  50. For Lenin the period of capitalist development following 1871 saw the development of the workers parties into a bureaucratic machine of domination “similar” to that of the imperialist state itself and which also needed to be “smashed” (Lenin 1972 p 50–51). Exploring the implications of such insights was never part of the Leninism of those who like Poulantzas’s contemporaries had long settled into comfortable jobs perfecting this machinery. 

  51. Poulantzas 1973 p 294. 

  52. (

  53. Poulantzas 1973 p 325.  

  54. Lukács 1980 p 601–19.  

  55. Poulantzas 1973 p 349.  

  56. Poulantzas 1974 p 228, 233.  

  57. Ibid p 97.  

  58. Poulantzas 1975 p 9.  

  59. Poulantzas 2008 p 324.  

  60. See Corney 2015 for an extensive selection of documentation on this crucial confrontation.  

  61. Buci-Glucksmann 1981 p 269–71. Gramsci used the term “economism” as a pejorative for worker centrality not to indicate subordination to the bourgeois workers politics of which his popular democratic line was a rendition. 

  62. Trotsky 1971 p 221.  

  63. The idiocy of Poulantzas’s attempts to conceal worker predominance by assigning a “petty bourgeois” status to a large proportion of the working class has been noted elsewhere (Wood 1986 34–40) and there is no need to belabour the point here.  

  64. Trotsky lucidly warned of the resistance which would be mounted against the authentic lessons of Bolshevism. “After all, communist parties have yet to confront the experience of actually overthrowing the democratic state. This is an enormously difficult task; in the old democratic countries, it is a thousand times more difficult than it was for us. Formally, all communists adopt the position of ‘rejecting’ formal democracy. But that does not really solve the problem. The main problem still remains: how to overthrow by revolutionary means a democracy that has deeply penetrated national customs, to overthrow it in practice. In this way bourgeois-democratic public opinion exerts a most powerful resistance which must be understood and assessed beforehand. This resistance inevitably penetrates the communist parties themselves as well, creating corresponding groupings in them.” Trotsky 1924 in Corney 2015 p 309. 

  65. (

  66. “After the complete victory of the democratic revolution the small proprietor will inevitably turn against the proletariat; and the sooner the common enemies of the proletariat and of the small proprietors, such as the capitalists, the landlords, the financial bourgeoisie, and so forth are overthrown, the sooner will this happen. Our democratic republic has no other reserve than the socialist proletariat in the West.” (

  67. Poulatzas had already degraded proletarian class interest to “...the maximum feasible advances which can be secured against opposing classes in particular conjunctures.” (Jessop p 154). A fine restatement of Bernstein’s “The movement is everything, the final goal is nothing”.  

  68. Poulantzas 1975 p 24. 

  69. What is at issue here is not a naive rejection of the mediated relation between objective – economic and subjective – political class position. Rather rejecting a mystifying displacement of the terrain upon which this mediation occurs. A “mass line” without absolute worker centrality is simply populism. And populism today even more than in Poulantzas’s time is the spearpoint of the counter-revolution. 

  70. The political subject is constituted in the conjuncture by the elements within the working class who refuse democratic integration. In that sense the main question of proletarian politics following the supersession of the democratic revolution is no longer how to unite the popular bloc but rather how to divide it. The unity of the popular bloc becomes the historically given form of the counter-revolution. As Engels noted in an 1875 letter cited by Lenin “in a country where not only the bourgeoisie has moulded state and society in its own image but where in its wake the democratic petty bourgeoisie, too has already carried out this remoulding down to its final consequences” Lassalle’s “proposition” that in relation to the workers all other classes are “only one reactionary mass” is in fact “true”. If this was an “exceptional case” in 1875 it is now closer to the norm. See Lenin 1972 p 33.  

  71. Or as Poulantzas would soon put it: “...a parallel struggle, a struggle outside the institutions and apparatuses, giving rise to a whole series of instruments, means of coordination, organs of popular power at the base, structures of direct democracy at the base. This form of struggle would not aim to centralize a dual power type of counter-state..” (Poulantzas 2008). In this schema the purpose of mass mobilisation is not the construction of proletarian power but the restructuring of the bourgeois state. Here we can see the ancestry of the dichotomy between electoralism and base building so dear to contemporary revisionists.  

  72. Poulantzas 1975, p 23. 

  73. Lenin 1972 p 22.  

  74. Stuchka 1988 p 9. 

  75. Trotsky November 1937 in Trotsky 1976 p 66–67.  

  76. Stuchka 1988 p 42.  

  77. The democratic socialist discourse of the Eurocommunists in which a mixed economy and bourgeois party pluralism are identified with socialism was prefigured in high Stalinism. See for example A. Sobolev’s 1952 lecture on People’s Democracy ( 

  78. Poulantzas 2008 p 374 cited above and elsewhere.  

  79. Ibid p 344. For a critique which illustrates how Luxemburg repudiated her democratic prejudices (much as Lenin repudiated his on the question of the state) see Warski 1922 and the draft translation available at ( 

  80. Poulantzas 2008 p 347. 

  81. Ibid 345 where Poulantzas expresses his concerns about the excesses of (non-existent) council democracy in Cambodia, Cuba and China.  

  82. We are informed that Poulantzas was troubled by the “tragic plight” of refugees following the victory over the US in Vietnam (Jessop 22). Starting with a reduction of proletarian to national popular struggle finally that too was rejected in a complete capitulation to imperialist reaction and its Carter era ideological offensive of anti-totalitarianism and defence of human rights. Humanitarianism for the mercenaries of the Saigon regime is truly worthy of a Burke or a Von Gentz.