Bernstein in Seattle: Representative Democracy and the Revolutionary Subject (Part 2)

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The first part of this essay sought to show how the development of the Marxist theory of the state was closely connected to the problems of revolutionary strategy, specifically in terms of the forms of working-class organization appropriate for developed democratic societies. Ralph Miliband’s Parliamentary Socialism and the work of Perry Anderson and Tom Nairn in New Left Review framed these questions within the specificity of English history, developments closely followed and theorized by Nicos Poulantzas. We have seen that this is the foundation for the debate which would then take place between Poulantzas and Miliband, initiated by the latter’s The State in Capitalist Society. Their increasingly polarized theoretical debate ran parallel to their nearly identical strategic analyses of the left political parties as they entered the turbulent 1970s, the practical problems of organization now even more prominent. In this period it was even more apparent that these seemingly theoretical debates revolved around the problem of an organizational void that England represented. But this seemingly peculiar dilemma now appears to be a universal one, and our discourse is still oriented by the same themes that were at the core of British Marxism: the vacillations of hope and fear in social democracy, a pessimism about working class politics, and the absence of a historically appropriate revolutionary strategy.

Demarcations

It was Miliband, as his biographer Michael Newman points out in a fascinating account of the debate with Poulantzas, who initiated the dramatic shift from respectful critique and mutual admiration to hostile polemic. His review of the English translation of Poulantzas’s Political Power and Social Classes in 1973 was met by a request from Perry Anderson to tone it down; the version which appeared in New Left Review was, then, already considerably moderated. 1

Newman suggests Miliband’s aggressive shift was due partly to an impatience with Poulantzas’s language and methodology, but perhaps above all to this perception of “political danger,” to which he was especially sensitive as a Jewish exile from the Nazi invasion of Belgium. The problem revolved around fascism; Poulantzas had suggested that Marx considered Bonapartism “characteristic of all forms of the capitalist State,” because it demonstrated that the social origins of the members of the state apparatus and their interpersonal relations with the ruling class could not account for the state’s action. As Poulantzas had recalled in his review of Miliband’s The State and Capitalist Society, Bonapartism showed that the “State can only truly serve the ruling class in so far as it is relatively autonomous from the diverse fractions of this class, precisely in order to be able to organize the hegemony of the whole of this class.” Poulantzas remarked in passing that “Miliband finally admits this autonomy only in the extreme case of fascism.” 2

Here considerable problems of conceptual translation appear to have resulted. While Poulantzas had argued that relative autonomy, characteristic of all states and most clearly apparent in Bonapartism, was neglected in Miliband’s analysis except in the case of fascism, Miliband took this to mean that Poulantzas was equating democratic states and fascist states. Miliband further claimed that this was a consequence of Poulantzas’s insistence on starting with social relations which take place “behind the backs” of actors, instead of individual behavior: if the state élite was simply “imprisoned in objective structures,” it was impossible to distinguish between rule by bourgeois constitutionalists and rule by fascists, the very problem which had led the Comintern to underestimate the impact of the rise of the Nazis. 3 It is a surprising claim, to say the least, since Poulantzas’s initial review of Miliband’s book had already made a point of sharply criticizing the Third Period Comintern, arguing that the economism of its theories, resulting in “the absence of a theory of the State,” was “perhaps nowhere more evident than in its analyses of fascism – precisely where the Comintern had most need of such a theory of the State.” 4

Nevertheless, if these criticisms were made cautiously in Miliband’s initial reply to Poulantzas, they were repeated with evident anger by the time of his review of Political Power and Social Classes. Miliband quite clearly showed that Poulantzas had read a great deal into incidental remarks by Marx and Engels regarding the phenomenon of Bonapartism. 5 But this was precisely the problem of textual interpretation – the piecing together of a theory from “incidental remarks” – that Miliband had so effectively illuminated in his own article “Marx and the State.” As we have already shown, in this essay Miliband himself had argued that Bonapartism pointed to another interpretation of the theory of the state in Marx. 6 By moving past this problem of interpretation to settle decisively on the “instrumentalist” solution, Miliband had largely dropped the theoretical question posed by Bonapartism (that of the state organizing the hegemony of the ruling class by remaining relatively autonomous from its various fractions) and instead restricted it to the “extreme inflation of executive power and the forcible demobilization of all political forces in civil society.” 7 This second question was certainly of considerable importance, but it by no means precluded the first one, as Miliband had already convincingly demonstrated.

Poulantzas’s final reply in 1976 responded to Miliband’s hostility in kind, though this must have been mixed with a certain frustration. Miliband’s complaints about the abstract character of Poulantzas’s theory had not been accompanied with the attempt to elaborate a theoretical alternative – in this sense no debate ever really took place. Furthermore, the critique of “structuralism” had already become a central element of Poulantzas’s own theoretical development, and was apparent in published works with ample empirical research, which were already available for Miliband’s reference by the time the latter’s review came out. This was especially significant regarding the problems of Bonapartism, fascism, and dictatorship, since Poulantzas had devoted an entire book to these topics by the time of Miliband’s review, and had since published another one. 8

The bulk of the debate at this point belongs to the important and interesting struggle for the development of a Marxian epistemology, a struggle in which the use of the word “structuralism” obscures important questions. Ernesto Laclau’s very balanced account “The Specificity of the Political” had appeared in 1975, and Poulantzas indicated that he found it to be an accurate and productive engagement with the “true terrain” of the debate. 9  Laclau’s distinction between “abstraction” and “formalism” was in this regard a considerable step forward. But this is not our concern here, so we turn to a reflection on the debate’s role within the question of strategy.

Miliband’s book on the state had not explicitly addressed the strategic dimension, other than continuing some of the themes of Parliamentary Socialism; yet as Poulantzas had suggested in the first entry of the debate, this dimension was fundamental for understanding the historical travails of the Marxist theory of the state. For Poulantzas, the “neglect of theoretical study of the State in the Second International, and in the Third International after Lenin,” was derived from the economism of these Internationals, “which is generally accompanied by an absence of revolutionary strategy and objectives.” 10 State theory, then, was inextricably tied up with the task of articulating a revolutionary strategy, one which confronted the problem of state power in its specificity. This is precisely why Poulantzas’s own work was devoted to a “reading” of Marx, Engels, and Lenin on political questions, a textual focus which also provoked Miliband’s frustration. 11 For Poulantzas the task of theorizing the texts was an evaluation of a strategic legacy.

But in fact, Miliband had commented in 1970, with considerable acuity, on the internal relation in Lenin’s writings between the theory of the state and the theory of organization, insofar as Lenin’s theory of the state revolved around the exercise of socialist power. Lenin’s insistence in The State and Revolution on smashing the state importantly underlined the anti-bureaucratic character of socialist politics. But the schema in which it had been presented did not theorize the “political mediation of the revolutionary power,” the form of political organization of the proletariat which then determines the character of its dictatorship: “the extraordinary fact, given the whole cast of Lenin’s mind, is that the political element which otherwise occupies so crucial a place in his thought, namely the party, receives such scant attention in The State and Revolution.” Without an explicit theorization of the relation between the party and the state, it is unclear “whether it is the proletariat which is capable of assuming power, leading, directing, organizing, etc.; or whether it is the vanguard of the proletariat, i.e. the workers’ party, which is here designated. Both interpretations are possible.” 12

There was no reason to preclude, then, the interpretation of the dictatorship of the proletariat as the dictatorship of the party, as single party rule by the proletarian vanguard. Anticipating later preoccupations, Miliband argued for the importance of a “socialist pluralism”: “unless adequate provision is made for alternative channels of expression and political articulation, which the concept of single party rule excludes by definition, any talk of socialist democracy is so much hot air. Single party rule postulates an undivided, revolutionary proletarian will of which it is the natural expression.” 13

The question of ideology, too, was very closely embedded in the problem of strategy. As we have already noted, Poulantzas’s comments on ideology were a response to the events of May ‘68 in France, and like so many other theorists of the period, a balance sheet of these events animated much of the conceptual discourse. Miliband suggested, at the end of The State in Capitalist Society, that 1968 showed how spontaneity ran up against the limits of organization. 14 Of course, this basic insight could be granted a very wide range of inflections, and Miliband’s own ambivalence towards the forms and agents of struggle in this period probably played a considerable role in forming his theoretical positions on the question.  While he shared the sentiments of New Left Review regarding the Wilson government’s complicity with the Vietnam war, he had found the student movement much more difficult to accept. His skepticism towards the movement and its methods did not prevent him from coming to the defense of students (and sympathetic lecturers, including Robin Blackburn) against administrative repression, or from criticizing his colleagues for their complicity with the administration. But it did lead to some troubling introspection: “I am not sure if I would have been with the Bolsheviks in ‘17,” he confessed in a letter to Marcel Liebman recounting his experiences following a building occupation. Moreover, this discomfort was not only a question of tactics; it was also due to an unwillingness to throw the forms of classical institutions of knowledge into question. He even wrote angrily in response to his friend John Saville’s criticisms of the “liberal university”: “I want the universities to be left alone as much as possible, as centres of independent research and teaching, which is what I understand by the liberal university. I think the time has come to be tough with all the sloppy thought about this, at the risk of being called a petty-bourgeois…” 15

While Miliband’s account of the problem of ideology was marked by theoretical and political ambivalence, Poulantzas largely dropped the question in his final reply, though he was in the process of considerably revising his approach. Laclau’s critique of the theory of ideological state apparatuses framed the problem more clearly, with a more direct theoretical reference to the strategic problem it raised: “There is here a subtle transposition which goes from defining the State as the instance which constitutes the factor of cohesion between the levels of a social formation to the assertion that everything that contributes to the cohesion of a social formation pertains, by definition, to the State.” With this conception of the state as a “quality” rather than an objective structure one would end up having to divide every social phenomenon in two, identifying “a State wing and a revolutionary wing”: “the mind of every individual would be schizo­phrenically divided between a State half, tending to the co­hesion of the social formation and an anti-State half tending to its disruption. Is this not an extreme example of over­ politicization of the various levels of a structure, a historicist deviation against which Poulantzas warns us?” 16

An alternative approach would come from Perry Anderson, who had by then followed up on a passage in his “Socialism and Pseudo-Empiricism” which hinted at a criticism of the “divorce from political reality and practice” that characterized Western Marxist thinkers. 17 This break from the previous theoretical problematic, which would be fully manifested in the magisterial self-criticism of Considerations on Western Marxism, was accompanied by strategic shifts, now from a vantage point influenced by Ernest Mandel, looking towards a resurgence of mass movements through the renewal of Trotskyism. Anderson had also in the meantime pursued the problems of state theory and the East-West polarity within the historical analysis of Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism and Lineages of the Absolutist State. 18

Most significant for our purposes is “The Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci,” published in New Left Review several months after Poulantzas’s final entry in the debate with Miliband. Here Anderson echoed the point made by both Miliband and Laclau in their critiques: with his development of the concept of ideological state apparatuses, Poulantzas had inflated the state to the point of indistinction. Licensed by a certain reading of Antonio Gramsci’s vacillations on the differences between East and West and the state-civil society relation, the contemporary theorists of the reformist Communist Parties had restricted the securing of consent in Western democracies to the field of culture. This conception, which underlay the “Eurocommunist” turn with which Poulantzas was now associated, assumed that the violent state repression of Tsarist Russia did not apply to the Western state, and the masses had the formal possibility of establishing a socialist government through democratic elections. The fact that such a thing had in fact never taken place was thought to be a result of the “prior ideological conditioning of the proletariat before the electoral moment as such” – that is, through the “ideological indoctrination of the means of communication” or “the invisible diffusion of commodity fetishism.” “For a representative version of these ideas,” he mentioned in a footnote, “see Perry Anderson, ‘Problems of Socialist Strategy.’” 19

The new strategic framework Anderson presented turned its emphasis away from culture as the mechanism of consent to “the general form of the representative State,” which “deprives the working class of the idea of socialism as a different type of State.” Communication, consumerism, and “other mechanisms of cultural control” could only reinforce, in a complementary and secondary manner, this more fundamental ideological effect, which belonged to the sphere of the state itself. The bourgeois state abstracted the population from its class divisions, “representing” individuals as equal citizens: “it presents to men and women their unequal positions in civil society as if they were equal in the State. Parliament, elected every four or five years as the sovereign expression of popular will, reflects the fictive unity of the nation back to the masses as if it were their own self-government.” The “juridical parity between exploiters and exploited” masks “the complete separation and non-participation of the masses in the work of parliament.” 20 What made the bourgeois form of state unique was that the consent it secured “takes the fundamental form of a belief by the masses that they exercise an ultimate self-determination within the existing social order.” 21 The belief in equality of all citizens, that is, in the non-existence of a ruling class, materially produced by the apparatuses of parliamentary representation, is the form of consent adequate for a developed capitalist society.

While Gramsci had never given in to the reformist temptation, those who claimed his legacy in the 1970s privileged the “war of position” in civil society over the seizure of state power. 22 While the character of Western democracy had rendered any direct transposition of the Bolshevik strategy in the East – insurrection against a shaky and hybrid state-form – untenable, the mistake of the reformists, Anderson now argued, lay in their failure to recognize that the very structure they thought could be used to extend their counter-hegemony – the parliamentary process – was actually the primary means of securing consent.

Not only did the “parliamentary road to socialism” reinforce parliamentary ideology, it also failed to recognize that the operations of consent by no means eliminated the last resort of coercion. True, it was essential to clearly identify the institutions which granted culture a dominant role in democracy, and thereby sharply distinguish it from absolutism or fascism, and it was just as necessary to defend these institutions against fascist incursions. But it nevertheless remained the case, insisted Anderson, that “the development of any revolutionary crisis necessarily displaces the dominance within the bourgeois power structure from ideology to violence… the army inevitably occupies the front of the stage in any class struggle against the prospect of a real inauguration of socialism.” 23

Only by the construction of an alternative proletarian democracy, which in the last resort would have to defend itself in the violent clash with the repressive arm of the state, could socialism be won. Proletarian democracy was the condition for a revolution capable of confronting the repressive apparatus of the state, of drawing soldiers over to the side of the people. In this context, the bureaucratic form of the established Communist Parties posed serious dangers, since “the socialist revolution will only triumph in the West by a maximum expansion – not constriction – of proletarian democracy: for its experience alone, in parties or councils, can enable the working class to learn the real limits of bourgeois democracy, and equip it historically to surpass them.” 24 Only when “the masses have made the experience of a proletarian democracy that is tangibly superior to bourgeois democracy” could such a revolution take place in the West, and this process would have to begin before the seizure of the state itself: “the exhibition of a new, unprivileged liberty must start before the old order is structurally cancelled by the conquest of the State. The name of this necessary overlap is dual power.” 25

Nevertheless, Anderson noted that the development of dual power posed a considerable strategic problem: “the majority of the exploited population in every major capitalist social formation today remains subject in one way or another to reformist or capitalist ideology.” 26 “Antinomies” concluded by invoking the United Front as the approach capable of winning over the convictions of the working class of the advanced industrial democracies. Elsewhere, however, Anderson went somewhat further in pointing to the “critical weakness” of the dual power scenario, the “difficulty in demonstrating the plausibility of counter-institutions of dual power arising within consolidated parliamentary democracies: all the examples of soviets or councils so far have emerged out of disintegrating autocracies (Russia, Hungary, Austria), defeated military regimes (Germany), ascendant or overturned fascist states (Spain, Portugal).” 27 The dual power scenario would come to be the dividing line of strategic debate in the 1970s, one which made strange bedfellows, as dividing lines sometimes do.

Convergences

A curious feature of the debates around revolutionary strategy in the 1970s is the growing convergence between the positions of Poulantzas and Miliband. While this may be a surprising proposition, it is not an original one. Newman remarks in his account of the debate, “the irony is that the political positions of the two were certainly much closer by 1976 than when their books were originally published,” and even notes that Miliband came close to the Eurocommunism typically associated with Poulantzas, though Miliband kept a greater distance from the parties that espoused it. 28 Leo Panitch suggests that their work in this period can be considered “complementary.” 29 However, the vast literature of sectarian attack against not only Poulantzas, but also the chimeras of “structuralism” and “post-structuralism,” has totally obscured this convergence. Such rhetoric not only draws untenable lines from a diversity of methodological positions to a homogenized and fictive reformist bogeyman, it dangerously implies that there is some unitary and prefabricated orthodoxy which would have resolved any lingering strategic uncertainty. 30

Miliband had already come to a frank awareness of the limits of the existing Left, as he wrote in “Moving On” in the 1976 Socialist Register: “Twenty years after 1956, the main problem for the socialist left in Britain is still that of its own organisation into an effective political formation… none of the organisations, old and new, which have occupied the stage in this period… constitutes an effective socialist formation or is in the least likely to become one. Such an organisation remains to be created.” This started, of course, with the question of the Labour Party; echoing a point already made in the postscript to the 1973 second edition of Parliamentary Socialism, Miliband wrote that despite its mass base, “the belief in the effective transformation of the Labour Party into an instrument of socialist policies is the most crippling of all illusions to which socialists in Britain have been prone.” 31 It was time now for a “new socialist formation” which could be the source of political renewal, and this renewal meant challenging the domination of the Labour Party over the Left. 32 No existing organization could achieve this task. The Communist Party conceived of its role as little beyond influencing Labour, and it operated “in the name of a ‘democratic centralism’ which is in fact a device for the oligarchic control of the leadership over its members.” 33 The groupings to the left of the Communist Party had one major flaw in common: “they are all really very small and in some cases ridiculously small.” 34 Attributing this limitation to working-class false consciousness did not help matters.

Most importantly, however, these left organizations all based their politics on “a common perception of socialist change in terms of a revolutionary seizure of power on the Bolshevik model of October 1917.” 35 Miliband’s Marxism and Politics, which appeared the year after “Moving On,” was devoted to a rethinking of that model of socialist change, its argument was already in view in his earlier essays on Marx and Lenin. Cautious and laconic in style, it was notable for a sharp turn away from empirical analysis, towards the kind of text-based theorization for which he had chided Poulantzas.

Miliband reviewed the theoretical perspectives that were latent in his earlier work, asking once again what it meant that the state was an “instrument” of the “ruling class.” The argument revolving around the élite composition of the “personnel of the state system,” he noted, while important and empirically verifiable, was “open to a number of very serious objections.” 36 One was the “frequent exceptions to the general pattern of class correlation”; he implicitly invoked the arguments of Anderson and Nairn regarding the English aristocracy, and implicitly accepted Poulantzas’s suggestion that this point was implied in his own analyses of social democracy. But he concluded that “exclusive reliance on the social character of the state personnel is unhelpful – it creates as many problems as it solves.” 37

The second answer was the economic power of the ruling class, “by virtue of its ownership and control of economic and other resources, and of its strength and influence as a pressure group.” This pressure, however, could not explain the “complexities in the decision-making process”; it did not explain how policies were formed, and certainly did not amount to proving that the state itself was the ruling class’s instrument. 38

Finally there was the “structural” explanation, which suggested that any government within a capitalist society acts within “structural constraints” which prevent it from being anything but a ruling-class instrument. While this was an “integral part of the Marxist view of the state,” it had “never been adequately theorized” and had “certain deficiencies which can easily turn into crippling weaknesses.” 39 According to Miliband, the structural theory risked eliminating the agency and “freedom of choice” of actors; nevertheless, it was an important reminder of the “limits of reform,” a subject which would become important later in the argument. 40

We have reviewed all of these arguments as they were implied in The State in Capitalist Society. Here they are argued with a concentrated focus of abstraction and textual exegesis. But Miliband has surprises up his sleeve. This reconstituted instrumentalist theory ran up against “a powerful reason for rejecting this this formulation as misleading”: “while the state does act, in Marxist terms, on behalf of the ‘ruling class,’ it does not for the most part act at its behest.” The state

enjoys a high degree of autonomy and independence in the manner of its operation as a class state, and indeed must have that high degree of autonomy and independence if it is to act as a class state. The notion of the state as an “instrument” does not fit this fact, and tends to obscure what has come to be seen as a crucial property of the state, namely its relative autonomy from the “ruling class” and from civil society at large. 41

Bonapartism is indeed named as an example. But Miliband abruptly switches the stakes of the discussion to the importance of distinguishing between states with different degrees of relative autonomy, rather than explicating relative autonomy as a concept in contrast to “instrumentalism.” Somewhat stupefyingly Miliband reduces the theoretical question of the character of the state to a moral imperative to recognize the “considerable virtues in bourgeois democratic regimes as compared with other forms of class domination.” 42

Miliband does return to the conceptual question, acknowledging that “all class states do enjoy some degree of autonomy.” 43 But the theory of the state which takes shape here, elaborating on the relative autonomy of the state with regards to its repressive, ideological-cultural, economic, and international functions, is guided towards clearly distinguishing between authoritarian and democratic states. Miliband’s preoccupation is not, in fact, primarily conceptual. It is oriented towards the political conclusion he records at the end of the book: “the civic freedoms which, however inadequately and precariously, form part of bourgeois democracy are the product of centuries of unremitting popular struggles. The task of Marxist politics is to defend these freedoms; and to make possible their extension and enlargement by the removal of their class boundaries.” 44

This was also the animating problem in Miliband’s account of how the political power of capital could be defeated. “There must be organization,” he wrote. “Against the vast array of powerful forces which the ruling class is able to deploy in the waging of class struggle, the working class and its allies cannot hope to succeed unless they are organized. The question is what this means.” 45 In a rich review of the organizational debates around substitutionism and centralism in the writings of Lenin, Trotsky, and Luxemburg, Miliband noted that all participants had accepted the notion of “a genuinely harmonious and organic unity” of class and party, “with the party as the true expression of a class-conscious and revolutionary working class.” But “the notion of the party achieving an organic and perfectly harmonious representation of the class is nothing but a more or less edifying myth.” 46 By failing to explicitly theorize the forms of necessary mediation between the class and its organization, these theorists had left themselves open to the most ossified of forms. Furthermore, they had elided a genuine contradiction between the tactical requirements of unified action and the democratic necessity for debate and disagreement, which had to be noted with vigilance as one of the perennial tensions of socialist organization. “The ‘unity of the working class,’” Miliband declared, “which the party seeks or claims to embody, must be taken as an exceedingly dubious notion.” 47

For this reason Miliband defended the principle of a plurality of parties: “Given the heterogeneity of the working class and of the working-class movement, it would be very remarkable if one party did constitute its natural expression; and the point is reinforced by the extension of the notion of the working class which is required by the evolution of capitalism.” 48 But such pluralism still did not resolve the dilemmas of political mediation. Some degree of substitutionism, Miliband suggested, was inescapable – it amounted essentially to representation. Without acknowledging that there would be an uncertain relationship between the masses and a militant minority, without tackling the problems of substitutionism head-on, it would inevitably grow out of control. 49

With this in mind Miliband turned to the “conciliar” forms of organization, namely soviets or workers’ councils – the challenge of the “recurring and spontaneous manifestation of popular power,” which in insurrectionary situations come up “against the form of power represented by the workers’ party or parties.” 50 This was in many respects a problem introduced to Marxism from the outside. Marx’s reflections on popular power in the Paris Commune could not have addressed the possibility of workers’ councils; their sudden ascendance in 1905, with vaguely syndicalist roots, posed new questions for Marxists. While Lenin may have formulated the slogan “All power to the soviets,” Miliband pointed out, echoing his earlier analysis of State and Revolution, he never theorized the relationship between soviet and party. But here Miliband went further and suggested that the decline of soviet power in the post-revolutionary situation required a serious rethinking of this relation, and this is what drove his discussion of socialist strategy.

To divide the possible strategies for the achievement of socialist revolution into “reformist” and “revolutionary” was misleading, Miliband suggested, though the labels were hard to avoid; “constitutionalist” and “insurrectionary” came closer to accurate descriptions but did not avoid inevitable problems. 51 What really distinguished reformism was its “strong emphasis on electoral success” within the limits of bourgeois democracy, which prevented its program from proceeding towards socialist transformation. While Lenin shared many of the principles of reformism, insisting on openness towards parliamentary participation, he also put “insurrectionary politics” on the agenda. 52 At first, the effect of the consolidation of insurrectionary politics into Leninist Communist Parties was the reactive consolidation of Western social democracy towards a specifically anti-insurrectionary reformism. But over the course of the 20th century, that trend reversed itself. Starting with the Popular Front and peaking by the time Miliband was writing, the Communist Parties had wholly accepted a constitutionalist strategy. The adoption of reformism by the insurrectionary organizations left those committed to the insurrectionary strategy in a lurch: “Nowhere was a Marxist left, independent from both the parties of the old Second International and of those of the new Third International able to play more than a very marginal role in the life of their labour movements.” For Miliband this point especially applied to the Trotskyist organizations, which lay claim to the insurrectionary heritage but “remained utterly isolated from their working-class movements and were never able to mount a serious challenge to their respective Communist parties.” 53

The new prevalence of the reformist strategy posed an important question: what would happen if a socialist party were indeed elected and precipitated a revolutionary crisis? This was the crucial split between reformism and Leninism – the latter maintaining that the existing state would have to be smashed and replaced by the dictatorship of the proletariat, and the former instead envisaging “the carrying through of a socialist transformation by way of the main political institutions – notably parliament – inherited from bourgeois democracy, even though these might be to a greater or lesser extent reformed in more democratic directions.” For Miliband both scenarios were essentially imaginary, and could not “correspond to any possible situation that may be envisaged.” The direct democracy of soviet power envisioned by Lenin, a total popular power, could not be imagined in an immediately post-revolutionary situation without some form of direction – hence the blurring of lines between dictatorship of the proletariat and dictatorship of the party. 54

On the other hand, the reformist strategy’s prioritization of state direction could lead, as left critics had long pointed out, to the socialist leaders’ appearance as “agents of stabilization,” a phenomenon easily verified historically. 55 While it was possible to imagine an electoral victory by socialist parties which went on to institute sweeping reforms directly threatening capitalist wealth and improving the conditions of the working class, the closest historical example of this phenomenon was Salvador Allende and the Unidad Popular in Chile, and the shortcomings of this model had been made abundantly clear. 56 The assuming of state power by reformists does not necessarily eliminate the class power of capital. There will continue to be a battle within the state system, even if there are drastic changes in personnel. But this battle will largely depend on “what happens outside the state system as well as inside it.” 57 Unless a socialist government is able to mobilize popular power, it will be incapable of defeating the violence of the Right (though its commitment to constitutionalism might limit its receptiveness to the potential militancy of popular mobilization). But this problem is not only a matter of violence, military coups, or civil war – it is also the kind of economic disruption of which the owners of capital will still be capable. This pressure can and generally has influenced reformist governments, who moderate their reforms to the point of total retreat. This can only be prevented, Miliband argued, if popular support is mobilized beyond elections, by “a flexible and complex network of organs of popular participation operating throughout civil society and intended not to replace the state but to complement it.” This complementary relation between state power and popular power Miliband dubbed “dual power.” 58

Were it not for the peculiar role of this term, “dual power,” the convergence between Miliband and Poulantzas would appear absolute. Miliband’s usage essentially inverted the meaning of the concept, which was the primary impetus for Poulantzas’s rethinking of the political in the late 1970s. In a pivotal interview with Henri Weber of the Trotskyist Ligue communiste révolutionnaire (LCR), from the same year that Marxism and Politics was published, this problem took center stage. As Poulantzas characterized it, the dual power scenario of the October Revolution was “to surround the strong castle of the state from outside with the structures of popular power” – to build the counter-state of direct democracy, which would meet the capitalist state in a ruptural clash. But for Poulantzas, such a dual power scenario, which Weber continued to defend, was “extremely unlikely in the West” – not only because of the massive development of the state in advanced capitalism and its close integration with many aspects of social life, but also because of the limits of left organizations. 59

Others, like Henri Weber himself, continued to defend the dual power model against Eurocommunism. An earlier interview he had conducted with Ernest Mandel (reprinted in NLR alongside Anderson’s “Antinomies,” providing a parallel and more contemporary argument) had also criticized Eurocommunism from the vantage point of classical dual power and direct council democracy. As Mandel put it, “In a revolutionary situation, the revolutionary Marxists must be the force most committed to the strengthening of class unity and organization. They must constantly advocate the unity of the class apparatus of the workers, and this is made easier by the fact that the organs of workers’ unity are precisely the organs of its self-representation: the Workers’ councils.” 60

In other words, the organizational void was already filled, for Weber and Mandel, by the parties of the Fourth International. But as Poulantzas pointed out to Weber, it was not at all clear that these parties resolved the problem of organization, nor that they could have functioned as a mass political

We cannot ignore the actual forces on the ground. In reality, your hypothesis is not based solely on an evaluation of the objective possibilities of a revolutionary crisis in France. It is also based, implicitly, on the possibility of the extremely rapid and powerful development of a revolutionary party of the Leninist type, to the left of the French Communist Party. Your whole hypothesis is based on that. It’s there in black and white in Mandel’s interview on revolutionary strategy in Europe.

But I don’t think that this is at all likely. First, because of what I said before about the new reality of the state, the economy, the interna­tional context, etc. And then, because of the weight of the political forces of the traditional left, particularly in a country like France.

Your hypothesis implies, for instance, that the LCR will grow from 7,000 militants to ten or twenty times that number in a few months! That’s never happened anywhere! 61

Traversals

Such strategic reflections on Poulantzas’s part are frequently dismissed in the Anglo-American discussion because of his association with Eurocommunism, which is objectionable to the revolutionary Left for its reformism, and to the social democratic Left for its basis in the Stalinist Communist Parties – and these days it is not unusual for both objections to exist in a single person.

However, Poulantzas’s relation to the phenomenon was complex, and can only be comprehended if we divide the movement into its left and right wings. The right wing of Eurocommunism based itself on the theory of “state monopoly capitalism,” that is, the domination of the state by a monopoly fraction of the bourgeoisie, which implied a popular alliance with the progressive side of the bourgeoisie to defend the state’s democratic aspects. This theory was thoroughly rejected by Poulantzas – to the point that he had actually criticized Miliband for veering too close to it. 62 In response to Weber’s suggestion that he, too, had come close to these “official” PCI and PCF theories, Poulantzas replied that they were based on a “completely false conception”; he affirmed that “the whole of the present state and all its apparatuses – social security, health, education, administration. etc. – correspond by their very structure to the power of the bourgeoisie. I do not believe that the masses can hold positions of autonomous power – even subordinate ones – within the capitalist state. They act as a means of resistance, elements of corrosion, accentuating the internal contradictions of the state.” 63

He confirmed in a 1979 interview with Stuart Hall and Alan Hunt for Marxism Today that “it is very clear that in Eurocommunism you can find the reformist tendency.” The differences lay in certain matters of emphasis: first of all, the left wing was distinguished by “the importance given to direct and workers’ council democracy, which has always been a decisive continuüm between reformist and a revolutionary road to socialism. Left-wing Euro­communism gives a much greater significance to rank-and-file democracy.” Second, the left wing emphasized “the necessity of radical transformation” of the apparatuses of the state, while the right wing “tends to see those apparatuses more or less as neutral apparatuses and consequently does not attach the same importance to their transformation.” 64

On the other hand, Miliband’s proximity to Eurocommunism was not lost on the “revolutionary Marxist” tendencies in the UK. Colin Barker wrote in a review of Miliband’s Marxism and Politics in International Socialism: “The theoreticians of ‘Eurocommunism,’ of the rightward moving communist parties, will be glad to embrace him. It is rather sad.” 65 Like Poulantzas, Miliband had also directly addressed the phenomenon, in a Socialist Register article called “Constitutionalism and Revolution: Notes on Eurocommunism.” Commenting on the declarations of Santiago Carrillo (Poulantzas’s example of right Eurocommunism), and Giorgio Napolitano, a member of the Secretariat of the PCI, Miliband noted that this was not merely a tendency towards social democracy which sought to manage capitalism, but a proclaimed socialist program which had to be evaluated as such. What distinguished Eurocommunism was that “it seeks to achieve the transformation of capitalist society in socialist directions by constitutional means, inside the constitutional and legal framework provided by bourgeois democracy.” 66 This was based on the reality, Miliband suggested, that the working class in advanced capitalist countries, despite its skepticism of bourgeois politics, was even more opposed to violent insurrection, and the efforts of revolutionary organizations would be ever frustrated by these attitudes.

In this regard, the Eurocommunist abandonment of the dictatorship of the proletariat was “sensible” – as was its acknowledgment of the limits of direct democracy. But it provided no other solution beyond the democratization of existing state structures. Instead of linking direct democracy and representative democracy, to provide the political mediation required for the “utopian” aspect of the communist vision, Eurocommunism had settled on a transformed system of representation: “the difference is obvious between an elaborate structure of officially sanctioned (and controlled) organs of power, however ‘representative,’ and a network of associations, councils, committees and whatever at the grassroots, armed with a genuine measure of power, and operating alongside the state and independently of it.” 67

The problem with Eurocommunism was clear: these overtures towards democracy, from parties that had been characterized by strict internal control and repression, were hardly credible. “The contradiction is blatant,” Miliband noted, “between Eurocommunist protestations of commitment to democracy on the one hand, and commitment to undemocratic practices inside Communist Parties on the other.” What’s more, the party bureaucracies gave little reason to believe that they would not turn their participation in representative democracy towards a craven pursuit of votes, making every compromise to preserve their political power.

Miliband’s analysis has to be situated in the large organizational differences between mass Communist Parties of Italy, Spain, and France, and the British context, where Labour was the sole mass organization. There was no objective basis for Eurocommunism in Britain, so Miliband commented on it as an outsider – despite, at the theoretical level, essentially belonging to the tendency. 68 However, the left Eurocommunists on the Continent, at the margins of the mass parties, experienced Eurocommunism as an opening towards the rethinking of organizational form and strategy.

One such figure was the Spanish communist Fernando Claudín, expelled from the PCE in 1964, whose book Eurocommunism and Socialism Miliband had also discussed. Writing in 1977, Claudín emphasized that the Communist Parties were engaged in an “effort to adapt their conception of socialism and of a strategy of transition to the specific conditions of advanced capitalism.” 69 Furthermore, the rise of these parties was situated in the “long-term structural crisis of the capitalist economy,” a crisis whose nature was “not economic alone, but social and political, moral and ideological.” 70 The stakes of working-class struggle were to prevent the imposition of a capitalist “solution” to the crisis, of “‘austerity policies’ within the framework of more authoritarian political regimes” which would attempt to “prepare the ground for a new expansionist phase of capitalism.” 71

Alongside the capitalist crisis was the general crisis of the Communist movement, as the specific conditions of Western European and Third World struggles came to stand in “radical contradiction” with the dictates of Moscow and the organizational and strategic legacy of the Bolshevik model. 72 The experience of 1968 had shown that not only infantile ultra-leftism, but also “senile conservatism” was dangerous, and the necessity of fundamentally changing the form of the party could no longer be ignored. 73

Claudín warned against the concessionary tendency which was tied to the dominant anti-monopoly strategy, with the PCI as the prime example. Not only did this theory cover up the fact “that the non-monopoly bourgeoisie comprises the greater part of the bourgeoisie and is responsible for the exploitation of a large part of the working class,” it was also tied to a “gradualist strategy,” centered on elections. The gradualist strategy, in its subordination of “all forms of mass action and social struggle to a quest for alliances with one or several fractions of the bourgeoisie,” exposed the fear of the party bureaucracies that their leading role would be threatened by “autonomous and unitary organisations of the working class and popular masses.” 74

Indeed, the CPs gave no indication that their conduct would differ in any way from May 1968 and the Italian Hot Autumn, when they acted “as a brake, limiting the growth and autonomy of workers’ self-organisation, channelling it into the constraints of institutionalised politics so that there should be no conflict between the two.” Claudín named factory and neighborhood councils, as well as autoreduction of utility prices, as examples of grassroots democracy which advanced “anti-capitalist goals of struggle.” But since these forms of struggle implied “the rejection of formal legal limits set by the existing political system,” and the strategy of the parties revolved around respecting these limits, the two inevitably entered into antagonism. 75

In the reevaluation of the strategic legacy this antagonism prompted, the council communist experience was of significant importance. Claudín invoked Pannekoek, and made note of Gramsci’s early councilist orientation, but pointed out that the concrete realization of the councilist model, in the soviet system which emerged in post-revolutionary Russia, did not align with the theory’s predictions. Within the “Comintern Ideology,” then, there was “an essential conflict between council democracy and representative or delegated democracy.” 76 While Claudín embraced the general category of “democratic socialism,” he emphasized the importance of contesting the “legalist, electoralist, gradualist version of that road; the version which seeks to follow a line of class collaboration with the leading group of the bourgeoisie.” 77 The alternative was a new, heterogeneous proliferation of “parties of a new type”: “The party of the working class is a myth. The reality is rather the working class as a party, meaning the totality of forms through which the class organises itself and expresses its class antagonism to the bourgeoisie.” 78

But it was by no means clear that Eurocommunism could be seen as a real basis for this development – in fact, it was not even clear it could achieve gradualist and legalist goals. In actual practice, the electoral machine compelled the parties to work to preserve the bourgeois state. In this situation, Sergio Bologna noted in 1977, “the party system no longer ‘receives’ the thrusts from the base; it controls and represses them.” 79 Forcing through austerity, strengthening police powers, placing parliamentary alliances above grassroots mobilization, accepting junior partnerships – all this led the reforming Communist Parties to betray the desires of those who had initially propelled these parties into striking range of political power. In June 1976, the PCI’s electoral results were at an all-time high, and most of this was due precisely to the new social struggles. The next month, however, the PCI, lacking any coherent general strategy regarding the question of state power, took the easy route, and made an alliance with the Christian Democrats, supporting the government of the anti-communist Giulio Andreotti in July 1976, without a single communist receiving a portfolio. The real content of the PCI’s “Historic Compromise” with Christian Democracy, Claudín argued, was the attempt to suppress mass struggle and “restrict its demands for reform to the limits compatible with the system.” 80

These parties quickly lost the support of the new working class, such that by the late 1980s, only the old guard remained. As Claudín argued, the right Eurocommunist insistence on becoming “parties of government” rather than “parties of struggle” led to failure even in reformist terms; the electorate ultimately opted for the much more consistent and credible social democratic parties in every case, and the path was paved for “Eurosocialist” austerity. 81 The stakes, Claudín noted, were high:

Eurocommunism contains the possibility and the hope of overcoming – within advanced capitalism – the general crisis of the communist movement. But it could just as well turn out to be its swan song… If socialism does not throw over the practices of social-democratic reformism, or if Eurocommunism fails to live up to its promises, then there may occur a restabilisation of capitalism for a whole historical period, blocking the road to socialism in Europe for the indefinite future. 82

This is, indeed, precisely what happened.

Democracy

Poulantzas was internal to the opening Eurocommunism seemed to represent, but not to its consolidation into “parties of government”; and we are now in a position to place his analysis alongside that of Miliband, contrasting both of them to the rightist tendencies of the bureaucratic parties and the counterfactual analysis of the revolutionary sects.

It has to be noted that the strategy Poulantzas proposed in his discussion with Weber was not necessarily more convincing. Poulantzas had defended “a struggle designed to sharpen the internal contradictions of the state, to carry out a deep-seated transformation of the state,” aligned with “organs of popular power at the base, the structures of direct democracy,” which would “bring about a differentiation inside the state apparatuses.” 83 Of course, this is the same notion that Miliband had described as “dual power” – quite confusingly, since as Poulantzas pointed out, the classical conception of dual power was precisely the obstacle to developing it. But whatever it was called, the development of this phenomenon in the Eurocommunist context was blocked by the bureaucratism and opportunism of the parties, whose tenacity Poulantzas had underestimated.

However, the rethinking towards which Poulantzas drew these strategic problems in his last book, State, Power, Socialism, led to remarkable theoretical developments. This text, which engages with Foucault and Deleuze and criticizes the nouveaux philosophes, cannot be adequately summarized here, so we focus on the themes already raised. Just as the May ‘68 revolt had once prompted Poulantzas to reconsider the theme of ideology, its failure led him to the problem of direct democracy. 84 In the context of a critique of Foucault, though a parallel argument was also made with reference to Lefort and Castoriadis, Poulantzas criticized the “simplistic illusions of anti-institutional purity” which imagined that by placing oneself outside the state, “one is thereby situated outside power (which is impossible).” This was not only a theoretical mistake; it was also “the best means of leaving the field open for statism: in short, it often involves a retreat in the face of the enemy precisely on this strategically crucial terrain.” 85

The stakes of the problem were elaborated with a new investigation of the strategic legacy of socialist revolution. He referred first and foremost to the critique of the Russian Revolution advanced by Rosa Luxemburg, who criticized Lenin not for his neglect of direct democracy, but for his “exclusive reliance” on it – the elimination of representative democracy (in the form of the Constituent Assembly) in favor of the new kind of state represented by the soviets. 86 The model of dual power, of the encircling and seizure of the fortress, required not only the razing to the ground of the existing apparatus but the formation of another one capable of taking its place:

What is to replace the bourgeois State en bloc is no longer direct, rank-and-file democracy. The soviets are now not so much an anti-State as a parallel State – one copied from the instrumental model of the existing State, and possessing a proletarian character in so far as its summit is controlled/occupied by a “single” revolutionary party which itself functions according to the model of the State. 87

Stalinist statism, which paradoxically took over a revolution that had raised the practical possibility of direct democracy, converged fundamentally with “social-democratic state-worship,” characterized by “basic distrust of direct, rank-and-file democracy and popular initiative.” Both forms of socialist statism viewed the popular masses as standing “in a relationship of externality to a State that possesses power and constitutes an essence.” To then occupy the state involved “replacing the top leaders by an enlightened left élite and, if necessary, making a few adjustments to the way in which the existing institutions function.” This moderately adjusted state would “thereby bring socialism to the popular masses from above.” But to escape from a “techno-bureaucratic statism of the experts” through “the other tradition of direct, rank-and-file democracy or self-management would really be too good to be true.” The threat of these forms of despotism was in fact constantly posed by the very materiality of the existing state apparatus. 88 And indeed, technocracy embedded itself in “the complex nature of tasks in a post-industrial society,” which invited the emergence of “left experts” flanked by a “self-management commissar.” 89

For Poulantzas, then, the question of democratic socialism had to posed differently:

how is it possible radically to transform the State in such a manner that the extension and deepening of political freedoms and the institutions of representative democracy (which were also a conquest of the popular masses) are combined with the unfurling of forms of direct democracy and the mushrooming of self-management bodies?

Instead of a model of dual power as encircling and seizing the fortress, it was a matter of “articulating transformed representative democracy and direct, rank-and-file democracy.” 90

While this argument was sure to put the scent of reformism in the air, Poulantzas suggested that the posing of “every strategy other than that of dual power as reformist” by the Third International had prevented the effective analysis of reformism. As a result, the Third International invented its own kind of reformism, relying on its instrumentalist understanding of the state: “You corner some loose parts of the state machinery and collect a few isolated bastions while awaiting a dual power situation. Then, as time passes, dual power goes by the board: all that remains is the instrument-State which you capture cog by cog or whose command posts you take over.” 91

But reformism was really “an ever-latent danger, not a vice inherent in any strategy other than that of dual power.” With this in mind, it was not necessarily wrong to say that the democratic road to socialism posed a greater risk of reformism and “social-democratization.” To avert this risk, to prevent the traversal of the state from concluding in the administration of capitalism, there had to be a process of “real breaks,” at the apex of which “the relationship of forces on the strategic terrain of the State swings over to the side of the popular masses.” 92

It was precisely this context that made the articulation of representative and direct democracy so vital for Poulantzas. There could be no more talk of “smashing” the state, if this meant “the eradication of any kind of representative democracy or ‘formal’ liberties in favour purely of direct, rank-and-file democracy and so-called real liberties.” It was necessary for socialism to involve “political (party) and ideological pluralism, recognition of the role of universal suffrage, and extension and deepening of all political freedoms including for opponents.” But this was a process necessarily accompanied by “the development of new forms of direct, rank-and-file democracy, and the flowering of self-management networks and centres.” Both sides were indispensable; on its own, “the transformation of the state apparatus and the development of representative democracy would be incapable of avoiding statism.” But conversely, “a unilateral and univocal shift of the centre of gravity towards the self-management movement would likewise make it impossible, in the medium term, to avoid techno-bureaucratic statism and authoritarian confiscation of power by the experts.” 93 The only way to prevent the statist and social-democratic dangers was the “active reliance on a broad, popular movement… the continuous support of a mass movement founded on broad popular alliances.” Such a broad movement could be built by “taking up especially new popular demands on fronts that used to be wrongly called ‘secondary’ (women’s struggles, the ecological movement, and so on).” 94

Here Poulantzas went somewhat further than Miliband, and did not restrict his rethinking to the abstract question of the relationship of direct democracy to representative democracy. In the interview with Hall and Hunt, he addressed the problem of the form of the party beyond the principle of pluralism:

I am not sure that a political party is the best form of organizing even, in their differences, the new forms of social movements. For example, I am not sure at all that we must ask a revolutionary political party to take under consideration the ecological problem, the feminist problem and so on. So the problem is not only to have a party so good that it is not only going to be political but take up every sphere of social life and economic life. I think that this conception of the party as the unique centralizer, even if it is a very subtle centralization, is not necessarily the best solution. I think more and more that we must have autonomous social movements whose type of organization cannot be the same as that of a political party organization. There must be a feminist movement outside the most ideal possible party because the most ideal party cannot include such types of social movements even if we insist that the revolutionary party must have certain conceptions of the woman question.

It was not enough to say that there should be many parties – “pluralism of parties in the democratic road to socialism means necessarily changes in the function of the party itself.” It was this that accounted for the crisis of the parties at the end of the 1970s as they tried to respond to the new social movements. 95

Disjunctions

The historical moment faced by Miliband and Poulantzas had made it necessary to confront the interrelation between the theory of the state and the form of the party, meaning both the relation of working-class movements to the bourgeois state, and the role of the state in the potential exercise of socialist power. This interrelation was embedded in the problem of revolutionary strategy in the context of advanced capitalism, for which no model of revolution was historically available. Both Miliband and Poulantzas critically theorized the potential for bureaucratism and opportunism if this absent center of strategy was not met with an explicit confrontation with the question of organization.

While “democratic socialism” is once again a popular topic, we have not heard from this variety in a long time. Today there is a socialist city council member, but no soviets in Seattle. However, neither Poulantzas nor Miliband adequately engaged with the theoretical production of the councilist tradition, which had its own critique of parliamentary democracy; and they did not seek to understand how councilism emerged within a specific moment of capitalist development – which would help to understand how other forms could emerge at other moments. 96 The characterization of the council as the form of direct democracy did not capture how it was situated at a specific moment of capitalist development centered on the factory, with a figure of labor characterized by high levels of skill and a close relationship to the machine. The council’s political significance lay not in the abstract principle of self-management but in its antagonism towards capitalist command at the point of production – the block it imposed on technological development, and the nascent possibility it presented of the expropriation of wealth. In the Russian context the party had to mediate between this class figure and the spread of council organization to the “toiling masses.” 97

Throughout the 20th century the applicability of this model was not always clear. The decentering of the factory in the capitalist restructuring of the 1970s would make it even more necessary to discover the new ways that the proletariat articulated antagonistic demands and organizational forms. This dynamic cannot be illuminated by raising the problem of “representative democracy” – and even “direct democracy” does not bring out its content, the constitution of a collective subject capable of establishing forms of life beyond capitalist relations of production, which in the 1970s could be observed in the autonomous struggles that were emerging outside of the party. In this sense, as Antonio Negri argued in response to a parallel set of claims in the Italian context (which Poulantzas had invoked explicitly), the old term “dictatorship of the proletariat” – or perhaps, instead, “communist power” – actually comes closer to naming the political process at work. 98

The limit of this theory, then, was its displacement of the theory of organization onto the philosophical problem of the relation between representative and direct democracy. But Miliband and Poulantzas were correct to show that the form of organization could not simply be taken as an expression of the historical changes in the composition of the class. 99 It had to be explicitly brought into question.

What we call Bernstein in Seattle is a project to research the scrambling of the terms which once related representative democracy to working-class organization – the nexus which for a century was called the party, and absorbed every question of revolution, transition, and construction. Bernstein’s revisionism was an ethical worldview which provided its adherents a comforting teleology in place of the classical sequence of the expropriation of the expropriators. A transition to parliamentary democracy rather than the entrenchment of state repression, stabilization of the capitalist economy rather than its final collapse, and an emerging middle class rather than the absolute polarization between centralized capital and immiserated labor; revisionist ideology sunk its foundations in these historical realities. On the other hand the ad hoc reformism of the Labour Party, as Miliband showed, expressed the incorporation of the worker’s movement into the parliamentary machine, its bureaucratic layer locked firmly into the rules of the game. In the English conjuncture, Anderson and Nairn noted, there was no force to counter this incorporation, due to the empiricist suspicion of theory that had marginalized Marxism, the domination of the Labour Party by trade union affiliates susceptible to corporatism, and a conciliatory and defensive approach which resulted from the absence of an overarching program for a different kind of society.

But England, curiously enough, turned out to be a kind of exemplary case, as the objective process of state incorporation extended across European social democracy and reached even the mass Communist Parties on the Continent, paving the way for a distinct kind of reformism in the postwar period. It was Poulantzas’s ambivalent insight that this process implied a crisis in the classical strategic problematic. Thus postwar reformism was of an entirely different character: it manifested a deep uncertainty about the relation of the capitalist state form, now fully developed into a structure markedly different from the states previous revolutions had set out to seize or smash, to the organizational form of the revolutionary subject, now that the legal political party had been incorporated into the normal functioning of the state and the social conditions for the classical insurrectionary scenario no longer existed; the reformism of the left parliamentary parties was a structural reality entirely distinct from classical revisionism.

Now, these left parties having disintegrated or led the way in neoliberal restructuring, this scenario too belongs to the past. We get little help in overcoming contemporary reformism by repeating 20th-century slogans. We need instead to study where the 20th century has left us, with a close eye on the peculiarities of American history, which must become the object of a comprehensive theoretical research program. 100 Our immediate context is the political and ideological crisis internal to the American capitalist state, emerging from an economic crisis whose long-term consequences remain unclear. The personal entry of a capitalist into the state élite has, far from representing an unproblematic common capitalist interest, caused an enormous disruption in the existing state system. Like Thatcher and Reagan before him, Donald Trump weaves together disparate elements of the dominant ideology to buttress a novel ruling-class strategy; but rather than paving the way for the renewal of an existing bourgeois party, he has unravelled the future coherence of the American Right. Such disjunctions are precisely the object of the Marxist theory of the state; and though it has become impossible to predict where the realignment of the bourgeois parties will turn, this realignment is a reference point for revolutionary strategy.

A turn of the capitalist state towards socialism is an objective impossibility. Whether this season’s left candidate aspires to such a thing is a question which does not interest us; what matters is the crisis of the bourgeois parties, and the popular energies which, without an adequate form of political expression, are unequipped for a hostile world. Reacting to these inchoate energies with prefabricated formulas abdicates our responsibility. Revolutionary theory has to have the foresight to study the capitalist state – to learn how to rebel against it, and to furnish us with the creative art of organization so we can leave it behind forever. There is nothing to gain in writing new tunes to old hymns. Our terrifying task is to build communist power in the profane world of clay and fire, and even our own pantheon will have to leave our earth to us.

References   [ + ]

1. Michael Newman, Ralph Miliband and The Politics Of The New Left (London: Monthly Review Press, 2003), 198–215. With the 1973 review Miliband shifted his critique to “structuralist abstractionism,” which leads to methodological questions we will not address at any length here.
2. Nicos Poulantzas, “The Problem of the Capitalist State,” New Left Review, I, no. 58 (December 1969): 74.
3. Ralph Miliband, “The Capitalist State – Reply to N. Poulantzas,” New Left Review, I, no. 59 (February 1970): 58. The phrase “behind the backs” is Marx’s apposite description of the framework which Poulantzas adopted; Karl Marx, Capital, Volume 1: A Critique of Political Economy, trans. Ben Fowkes (New York: Penguin Classics, 1992), 135.
4. Poulantzas, “The Problem of the Capitalist State,” 68.
5. Ralph Miliband, “Poulantzas and the Capitalist State,” New Left Review, I, no. 82 (December 1973): 90–1.
6. See “Bernstein in Seattle: Representative Democracy and the Revolutionary Subject (Part 1),” and Ralph Miliband, “Marx and the State,” Socialist Register 2, no. 2 (March 19, 1965): 278. Poulantzas’s work represented an attempt to take this insight in a very different direction from Miliband’s remark in “Marx and the State”: “This secondary view is that of the state as independent from and superior to all social classes, as being the dominant force in society rather than the instrument of a dominant class.” It was this dichotomy between a superior, independent force, and mere instrument, that Poulantzas sought to displace. As Poulantzas noted, an elaborated conception of relative autonomy was better suited theoretically to explain the questions raised by Miliband’s own analyses of social-democratic governments; Poulantzas, “The Problem of the Capitalist State,” 72. See also the judicious account of this in Ernesto Laclau, “The Specificity of the Political: The Poulantzas-Miliband Debate,” Economy and Society 4, no. 1 (February 1, 1975): 87–110.
7. Miliband, “Poulantzas and the Capitalist State,” 91.
8. As Poulantzas said, “the way in which the differences between Miliband and myself have sometimes been perceived, especially in England and in the United States, as a controversy between ‘instrumentalism’ and ‘structuralism,’ is an utterly mistaken way of situating the discussion.” Nicos Poulantzas, “The Capitalist State: A Reply to Miliband and Laclau,” New Left Review, I, no. 95 (February 1976): 64. For another interpretation of this exchange as a “non-debate,” which contains a positive appraisal of both sides, see Bob Jessop, “Dialogue of the Deaf: Some Reflections on the Poulantzas-Miliband Debate,” in Class, Power and the State in Capitalist Society: Essays on Ralph Miliband, ed. Paul Wetherly, Clyde W. Barrow, and Peter Burnham (Basingstoke ; New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008). This essay also notes the convergence in Poulantzas and Miliband’s later views.
9. Poulantzas, “The Capitalist State,” 74.
10. Poulantzas, “The Problem of the Capitalist State,” 68.
11. Miliband, “Poulantzas and the Capitalist State,” 84.
12. Ralph Miliband, “Lenin’s The State and Revolution,” Socialist Register 7, no. 7 (March 17, 1970): 313.
13. Ibid., 315–6.
14. Miliband, The State in Capitalist Society, 275–6.
15. Newman, Ralph Miliband And The Politics Of The New Left, 151, 145.
16. Laclau, “The Specificity of the Political.”
17. Perry Anderson, “Socialism and Pseudo-Empiricism,” New Left Review, I, no. 35 (February 1966): 31–2.
18. Poulantzas cited the latter in his final reply, “The Capitalist State,” 80; see also Miliband’s review, Ralph Miliband, “Political Forms and Historical Materialism,” Socialist Register 12, no. 12 (March 18, 1975).
19. Perry Anderson, “The Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci,” New Left Review, I, no. 100 (December 1976): 27. For a close engagement with Anderson’s argument from the vantage point of recent Italian Gramsci scholarship, see Peter D. Thomas, The Gramscian Moment: Philosophy, Hegemony and Marxism (Chicago, Ill.: Historical Materialism, 2011).
20. Ibid., 28.
21. Ibid., 30.
22. The marshaling of the theory of “ideological state apparatuses” for a renewed reformism is clearly shown in the second chapter of Santiago Carrillo, Eurocommunism and the State (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1977).
23. Anderson, “The Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci,” 42, see also 44.
24. Ibid., 71.
25. Ibid., 78.
26. Ibid.
27. Perry Anderson, Arguments within English Marxism (London: Verso, 1980), 196; see also Thomas, The Gramscian Moment, 240–1.
28. Newman, Ralph Miliband and The Politics Of The New Left, 211, 237.
29. Panitch writes: “Miliband was trying to formulate a vision of what kind of state a new socialist politics should aim for, and how it might be realized through a strategy of administrative pluralism… which would be anchored in civil society as well as the state. When Poulantzas followed with his own trenchant critique of the utopian notions of direct democracy within the Marxist tradition and his insistence on thinking through the place and meaning of representative institutions in socialist democracy, this was very much consistent with, and complementary to, the position Miliband had advanced.” Leo Panitch, “Ralph Miliband, Socialist Intellectual, 1924-1994,” Socialist Register 31, no. 31 (March 18, 1995); for an early example of strategic thinking at the intersection of the two thinkers, see also Leo Panitch, “The State and the Future of Socialism,” Capital and Class, no. 11 (1980).
30. See for example Ellen Meiksins Wood, The Retreat From Class: A New “True” Socialism (London; New York: Verso, 1999). Wood’s brilliant historical work on the development of English capitalism provides a far better basis for the critical interpretation of these theoretical debates.
31. Ralph Miliband, “Moving On,” Socialist Register 13, no. 13 (March 18, 1976): 128.
32. Ibid., 131.
33. Ibid., 134.
34. Ibid., 137.
35. Ibid., 139.
36. Ralph Miliband, Marxism and Politics (Oxford University Press, 1977), 69.
37. Ibid., 70–1.
38. Ibid., 71, 72.
39. Ibid., 73. Poulantzas was mentioned in a footnote as an example of this “determinism”; given the latter’s consistent refusal of the theory of the state as instrument, this is perplexing.
40. Ibid., 74.
41. Ibid.; for the earlier formulations see Miliband, “Poulantzas and the Capitalist State”; and “State Power and Class Interests,” New Left Review, I, no. 138 (April 1983): 57–68.
42. Miliband, Marxism and Politics, 76.
43. Ibid., 80.
44. Ibid., 190.
45. Ibid., 118.
46. Ibid., 126.
47. Ibid., 127.
48. Ibid., 129.
49. Ibid., 130; Miliband renders this as “substitutism.”
50. Ibid., 134.
51. Ibid., 150.
52. Ibid., 166.
53. Ibid., 171.
54. Ibid., 178.
55. Ibid., 182.
56. See Ralph Miliband, “The Coup in Chile,” Socialist Register 10, no. 10 (March 18, 1973).
57. Miliband, Marxism and Politics, 184.
58. Ibid., 188.
59. Nicos Poulantzas, The Poulantzas Reader: Marxism, Law and the State, ed. James Martin (London: Verso, 2008), 340–1.
60. Ernest Mandel, “Revolutionary Strategy in Europe – A Political Interview,” New Left Review, I, no. 100 (December 1976): 97–132; See also Henri Weber, “Eurocommunism, Socialism and Democracy,” New Left Review, I, no. 110 (August 1978): 3–14. Weber warned presciently that the Eurocommunist call for democratization of the state could, instead of opening the way to socialist transformation, simply be substituted for it. But the possibility of a theoretical discussion of the problems of organization was buried under the incantation that in a revolutionary situation, “the role of a revolutionary party is to foster the unity and class independence of the workers and to champion the socialist alternative in as practical and concrete a way as possible” (13). Weber is now a representative of the French Socialist Party in European Parliament, which by no means invalidates his analysis, but does make his inferences about the latent reformist content of the theories he criticizes somewhat difficult to swallow.
61. Poulantzas, The Poulantzas Reader, 357.
62. Poulantzas, “The Problem of the Capitalist State,” 76; see also Political Power and Social Classes, trans. Timothy O’Hagan (London: Verso, 1978).
63. Poulantzas, The Poulantzas Reader, 337.
64. Nicos Poulantzas, “Interview with Stuart Hall and Alan Hunt,” Marxism Today, July 1979, 196.
65. Colin Barker, “Muscular Reformism,” International Socialism, no. 102 (October 1977).
66. Ralph Miliband, “Constitutionalism and Revolution: Notes on Eurocommunism,” Socialist Register 15, no. 15 (March 18, 1978): 159.
67. Ibid., 166-7.
68. The story of Marxism Today, often described as the British manifestation of Eurocommunism, must also be reexamined, and indeed it has been in the unpublished remainder of this manuscript, which will appear in a different form in the future.
69. Fernando Claudín, Eurocommunism and Socialism, trans. John Wakeham (London: New Left Books, 1978), 9.
70. Ibid., 11.
71. Ibid., 19.
72. Ibid., 41.
73. Ibid., 95.
74. Ibid., 107–8.
75. Ibid., 113, 114.
76. Ibid., 78. It would be of significant interest to tie Gramsci’s own analysis of the state to his earlier writings on the factory councils.
77. Ibid., 129.
78. Ibid., 135, 124.
79. Sergio Bologna, “The Tribe of Moles,” in Autonomia: Post-Political Politics, ed. Sylvere Lotringer and Christian Marazzi, trans. Ed Emery (Cambridge, Mass; London: Semiotexte, 2007).
80. Claudín, Eurocommunism and Socialism, 115.
81. The point is ably made in Perry Anderson, English Questions (London ; New York: Verso, 1992), 316.
82. Claudín, Eurocommunism and Socialism, 146.
83. Ibid., 339, 341.
84. See the interview with Weber in The Poulantzas Reader, 356.
85. Nicos Poulantzas, State, Power, Socialism, trans. Patrick Camiller (London: New Left Books, 1978), 153.
86. Ibid., 253; though as Miliband had pointed out, Luxemburg’s own analysis of councils in Germany 1918 ran up against similar problems; see Miliband, Marxism and Politics, 180–1. A useful analysis of the historical background can be found in Fernando Claudín, “Democracy and Dictatorship in Lenin and Kautsky,” New Left Review I, no. 106 (December 1977).
87. Poulantzas, State, Power, Socialism, 255.
88. Ibid., 255–6.
89. Ibid., 262; see also 196.
90. Ibid., 256–7. For a careful reading of Poulantzas on this point, vis-a-vis his interpretation of Gramsci on dual power, see Peter Thomas, “Conjuncture of the Integral State? Poulantzas’s Reading of Gramsci,” in Reading Poulantzas, eds. Alexander Gallas, Lars Bretthauer, John Kannankulam, and Ingo Stützle (London: Merlin Press, 2011), 279ff.
91. Poulantzas, State, Power, Socialism, 258.
92. Ibid., 258–9.
93. Ibid., 261–2.
94. Ibid., 263–4.
95. Poulantzas, “Interview with Stuart Hall and Alan Hunt,” 200–1. Claudín similarly writes: “No class organisation can fulfill the role of the women’s liberation movement or the student movement”; Claudín, Eurocommunism and Socialism, 123. For a discussion of the relation between party forms and new social subjects in France and Italy respectively, see Étienne Balibar, “Après l’autre Mai,” in La Gauche, le pouvoir, le socialisme: Hommage à Nicos Poulantzas, ed. Christine Buci-Glucksmann (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1981), 99-119; and in the same collection, Rossana Rossanda, “Crise et dialectiques des partis et mouvements sociaux en Italie,” 120-36.
96. Though see Poulantzas’s comment on the failure of Castoriadis and Lefort to connect their “largely justified” advocacy of self-management to a non-reductive state theory: “In reality, however, it is the terrifyingly palpable role of the State which necessitates a transition to socialism largely based on direct, rank-and-file democracy; and that requires exact knowledge of the State and of its current role.” Poulantzas, State, Power, Socialism, 38–9.
97. On this point see Sergio Bologna, “Class composition and the theory of the party at the origins of the workers’ council movement,” Telos 13 (Fall 1972).
98. See the exchange between Bobbio and Negri in Norberto Bobbio, Which Socialism?: Marxism, Socialism and Democracy (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1988).
99. I refer here to a kind of historicist model of expressive causality, a persistent risk for the vital methodology of class composition. This is a theoretical tension which applies to both Negri and Bologna, cited earlier; for a more detailed analysis see Asad Haider, “Crise et enquête,” Revue Période, March 2014.
100. Among the many existing inquiries Mike Davis’s Prisoners of the American Dream (London: Verso, 1986) deserves particular attention.

Author of the article

is an editor of Viewpoint and author of Mistaken Identity: Anti-Racism and the Struggle Against White Supremacy (Verso, Spring 2018).