The State, Social Movements, Party: Interview with Nicos Poulantzas (1979)

Venus of the Rags (Michelan­ge­lo Pis­to­let­to, 1967)

Edi­to­r­i­al Intro­duc­tion: This inter­view, which first appeared in the Fall 1979 issue of the left Euro­com­mu­nist jour­nal Dialec­tiques, is one of Nicos Poulantzas’s last major the­o­ret­i­cal (and empir­i­cal) state­ments and demon­strates the sub­stan­tial dif­fer­ences that had emerged between his and Althusser’s lat­er views on the nature of the cap­i­tal­ist state and the direc­tion of rev­o­lu­tion­ary strat­e­gy. As not­ed by the inter­view­ers, two oth­er lengthy dis­cus­sions with Poulantzas had been fea­tured in the pages of the jour­nal, which trace the tra­jec­to­ry of his oeu­vre in the mid- to late- 1970s. Focus­ing on “cur­rent prob­lems of Marx­ist research on the state,” and “the state and pow­er,” respec­tive­ly, Poulantzas uses this forum to expound and clar­i­fy some of the con­cep­tu­al ter­mi­nol­o­gy that would found in State, Pow­er, Social­ism (espe­cial­ly the notion of the state as the “con­den­sa­tion” of class forces) and the dynam­ics of the “polit­i­cal crises” he saw unfold­ing across West­ern and South­ern Europe.1 The open-end­ed con­ver­sa­tions allow Poulantzas to devel­op and elab­o­rate his analy­sis of the state form and his cri­tiques of the state monop­oly cap­i­tal­ist the­o­rists in the PCF.

In this text, Poulantzas devotes sub­stan­tial space to refut­ing Althusser’s claims in “Marx­ism as a Finite The­o­ry,” pos­ing con­cep­tu­al, his­tor­i­cal, and strate­gic chal­lenges to his for­mer mentor’s under­ly­ing premis­es regard­ing the cap­i­tal­ist state, civ­il soci­ety, and the insti­tu­tions, appa­ra­tus­es, and prac­tices which mark the spe­cif­ic mate­ri­al­i­ty of this shared ter­rain. His diag­no­sis of Althusser’s over­sights leads into a dis­cus­sion of the polit­i­cal coor­di­nates of the cur­rent moment, both the rise of neolib­er­al poli­cies and author­i­tar­i­an sta­tism, but also the “cri­sis of the work­ers’ par­ties” in West­ern Europe and their dif­fi­cul­ties in respond­ing to the demands and cross-class alliances present in the then-recent wave of fem­i­nist, stu­dent, envi­ron­men­tal, and region­al­ist move­ments. Poulantzas’s final answer here, where he asks whether “a cer­tain irre­ducible ten­sion” between par­ty orga­ni­za­tions and autonomous social move­ments “at a dis­tance from sites of pro­duc­tion” is a sine qua non for a demo­c­ra­t­ic tran­si­tion to social­ism, has not lost its rel­e­vance.


Dialec­tiques: We’ve inter­viewed you twice in pre­vi­ous issues of Dialec­tiques, on pow­er and the state today. Since then, your lat­est book, State, Pow­er, Social­ism, has appeared and there has been a debate prompt­ed by Louis Althusser’s inter­ven­tion pub­lished in Il Man­i­festo and Dialec­tiques. How do you sit­u­ate your­self in rela­tion to this debate?2

Nicos Poulantzas: I would like to indi­cate before­hand that there are cur­rent­ly impor­tant inter­na­tion­al dis­cus­sions around the state (in Eng­land, Unit­ed States, Ger­many, etc.) that have not yet had an impact in France. Here, we main­ly know what is going on in Italy, thanks to Dialec­tiques in par­tic­u­lar. This means that the debate is still taint­ed by a Lati­nate provin­cial­ism. Nev­er­the­less, it pos­es some impor­tant prob­lems.

Now, of course, I under­stand that Althusser’s orig­i­nal inter­ven­tion came in the form of an inter­view, so we can­not expect the rig­or of a writ­ten text. How­ev­er, this inter­ven­tion con­tains some posi­tions that are grounds for seri­ous reser­va­tions.

1. Althusser’s first posi­tion: the dis­tinc­tion between the cap­i­tal­ist state and “civ­il soci­ety” would be an out­right juridi­co-ide­o­log­i­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the bour­geoisie.

This posi­tion is too descrip­tive, both true and false. It is too easy, in fact, to elide the real prob­lem by crit­i­ciz­ing the way in which it is posed with­in bour­geois ide­ol­o­gy. Let’s leave the term civ­il soci­ety and its strong ide­o­log­i­cal con­no­ta­tions to the side, then, at least for this inter­view, and replace it with social rela­tions of pro­duc­tion and repro­duc­tion.

To a cer­tain extent, Althusser’s state­ment is true. I’ve tried to show in recent works that, against Althusser’s ini­tial posi­tions, the state can­not be con­sid­ered as an instance or lev­el in itself, total­ly dis­tinct from already exist­ing rela­tions of pro­duc­tion and repro­duc­tion, a self-repro­duc­ing state pos­sess­ing a kind of auton­o­my through var­i­ous modes of pro­duc­tion.3 The state is already present in the very con­sti­tu­tion of the rela­tions of pro­duc­tion, not only their repro­duc­tion, as Althuss­er would lat­er argue in his arti­cle “Ide­ol­o­gy and Ide­o­log­i­cal State Appa­ra­tus­es.” The specif­i­cal­ly cap­i­tal­ist state, a prod­uct and fact of real­i­ty, pos­sess­es an emi­nent pos­i­tiv­i­ty. To be able to under­stand this role of the state, to which Althuss­er now seems to refer, we clear­ly need to move beyond his con­cep­tion of the state in the arti­cle in ques­tion, and which is, more gen­er­al­ly, a tra­di­tion­al con­cep­tion of the state with­in Marx­ism: some­thing that only acts neg­a­tive­ly, whether through the exer­cise of repres­sion (pro­hi­bi­tion), or in the incul­ca­tion, how­ev­er mate­r­i­al, of ide­o­log­i­cal legit­i­ma­tion (concealment/obfuscation). The state doesn’t equal repres­sion + ide­ol­o­gy. The eco­nom­ic role of the state, in its spe­cif­ic mate­ri­al­i­ty, needs to be giv­en the utmost con­sid­er­a­tion, as does its declared role as the polit­i­cal orga­niz­er of the bour­geoisie, and last­ly, the nor­mal­iz­ing and dis­ci­pli­nary pro­ce­dures and tech­niques of state pow­er.

But this state­ment is also par­tial­ly false. As often hap­pens with my friend Althuss­er, he thinks to extremes, he goes from one extreme to the oth­er by bend­ing the stick in one direc­tion or anoth­er. Yes, as Marx clear­ly argued, a rel­a­tive sep­a­ra­tion of the state from the social rela­tions of pro­duc­tion and repro­duc­tion is a fea­ture of cap­i­tal­ism and its divi­sion of labor. Not only is this sep­a­ra­tion the foun­da­tion of cap­i­tal­ist state pow­er, but it is also – if not above all – the foun­da­tion of its spe­cif­ic mate­ri­al­i­ty as a “spe­cial” appa­ra­tus. This sep­a­ra­tion, which pre­sup­pos­es the par­tic­u­lar pres­ence of this state in the rela­tions of pro­duc­tion, is also the basis for the rel­a­tive auton­o­my of the state and mod­ern pol­i­tics that, against the tra­di­tion of eco­nom­ic reduc­tion­ism of the Third Inter­na­tion­al, a cer­tain num­ber of us worked to estab­lish [nous fûmes un cer­tain nom­bre à établir]; a sep­a­ra­tion that, I repeat, has noth­ing to do with juridi­co-ide­o­log­i­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tion: uni­ver­sal­i­ty of the state ver­sus the indi­vid­u­al­ized par­tic­u­lar­i­ties of civ­il soci­ety, or the total­i­tar­i­an Moloch-like state ver­sus the “break­down” of the social (Touraine, Lefort, Cas­to­ri­adis, etc.).

Indeed, by deny­ing this sep­a­ra­tion out­right, as Althuss­er now does, we are led to con­clu­sions that are obvi­ous­ly wrong, whether we like it or not:

a) On the one hand, we are unable to peri­odize the the cap­i­tal­ist state, a peri­odiza­tion that is marked pre­cise­ly by the dif­fer­en­tial forms of this sep­a­ra­tion: the so-called lib­er­al state, the inter­ven­tion­ist state, the wel­fare state, and the cur­rent author­i­tar­i­an state; on the oth­er hand, and for the same rea­sons, we are unable to dis­tin­guish between “par­lia­men­tary-democ­ra­cy” state-forms and excep­tion­al state-forms (fas­cism, mil­i­tary dic­ta­tor­ship, etc.), includ­ing actu­al forms of total­i­tar­i­an­ism. This inabil­i­ty to dis­tin­guish state-forms led to the Third Inter­na­tion­al the­o­ry of “social-fas­cism.”

b) There is a risk of falling, para­dox­i­cal­ly and by fol­low­ing the oppo­site path, into the worst or most exces­sive aspects of the­o­ries of “state monop­oly cap­i­tal­ism.” While some who uphold this the­o­ry broad­ly argue that today, for the first time, we are wit­ness­ing the abo­li­tion of this sep­a­ra­tion, Althuss­er appears con­tent to ques­tion the mere nov­el­ty of this phe­nom­e­non, by claim­ing that some­how, it has always been this way.

c) I am afraid that we are then led to nec­es­sar­i­ly reduce the total­i­ty of pow­er rela­tions to the state, which is sup­posed to be organ­i­cal­ly dif­fused through­out soci­ety in reg­i­ment­ing the lat­ter, there­by reviv­ing the state-cen­tric view of the Third Inter­na­tion­al.

d) Last­ly, and above all, we end up unable to ask the ques­tion about the req­ui­site retain­ment and deep­en­ing of polit­i­cal lib­er­ties under social­ism: this nec­es­sar­i­ly calls for spe­cif­ic insti­tu­tions (rad­i­cal­ly trans­formed insti­tu­tions of rep­re­sen­ta­tive democ­ra­cy) that guar­an­tee them. This then implies a cer­tain sep­a­ra­tion between state and social rela­tions, and there­fore, nec­es­sar­i­ly, a cer­tain non-with­er­ing away of the state. In short, and so as to not fall once again into a left neolib­er­al­ism, we can absolute­ly not treat this ques­tion – which is basi­cal­ly a ques­tion of the Recht­staat – by lim­it­ing it to a mat­ter of the “rules of the game” that orga­nize the mul­ti-par­ty sys­tem, as Althuss­er seems to do. In doing so, we block the path to a pos­i­tive analy­sis of the exer­cise of pow­er in the tran­si­tion­al peri­od and under demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ism. Bob­bio has right­ly empha­sized the absence of this line of analy­sis with­in the Marx­ist tra­di­tion.

2. Althusser’s sec­ond posi­tion, relat­ed to the first: we are unable to cur­rent­ly talk about a par­tic­u­lar “expan­sion” [élar­gisse­ment] of the state, a “politi­ciza­tion of the social” spe­cif­ic to con­tem­po­rary cap­i­tal­ism, since the bour­geois state would already be sem­pre allarga­to, always expand­ed “in its principle/concept.”

Here again is a descrip­tive posi­tion, at once true and false. In fact, this posi­tion is cor­rect if it is applied to bour­geois juridi­co-polit­i­cal ide­ol­o­gy. I not­ed in Polit­i­cal Pow­er and Social Class­es that “for bour­geois polit­i­cal ide­ol­o­gy there can be no lim­it based on law or prin­ci­ple to the activ­i­ty and encroach­ment of the state in the so-called individual/private sphere.”4 From Hobbes to Locke, from Rousseau him­self to Hegel, this mat­ter is clear.

This rep­re­sen­ta­tion does hold, let’s say, a par­tial truth. But what mat­ters in this rep­re­sen­ta­tion is not that it cov­ers over any kind of nat­ur­al prin­ci­ple regard­ing the expan­sion of the bour­geois state. It cov­ers over a his­tor­i­cal ten­den­cy inscribed in the mate­ri­al­i­ty of this state and its repro­duc­tion. Indeed, as I have insist­ed upon else­where, the sep­a­ra­tion of the mod­ern state and social rela­tions does not tie back some pre­lim­i­nary demar­ca­tion, to the intrin­sic lim­its between the public/political and the individual/private. The indi­vid­u­al­iza­tion of the social body is locat­ed in the prac­tices and tech­niques (eco­nom­ic, repres­sive, ide­o­log­i­cal, dis­ci­pli­nary, nor­mal­iz­ing) of a state that, in the same move­ment, incor­po­rates the uni­ty (the cohe­sion) of this divid­ed mon­ads. The individual/private sphere is not an inher­ent obsta­cle to state actions, but a space that the state con­structs by trac­ing its con­tours; this becomes a retractable hori­zon, while also being the base for resis­tances over the course of the state process [démarche éta­tique].

This doesn’t mean that there are no deter­mi­nant his­tor­i­cal lim­its to the expan­sion of the state, but that these lim­its do not adhere to the same nat­u­ral­ness of the individual/private sphere. The state is there­fore not always expan­sive in its prin­ci­ple, as Althuss­er argues, as if it were a ques­tion of the tran­shis­tor­i­cal nature of the state, man­i­fest­ed and/or con­cretized in real­i­ty in diverse ways. This expan­sion is a ten­den­cy and thus con­tains – against Key­ne­sian or oth­er illu­sions – its own lim­its, posed both by the process of pro­duc­tion and class strug­gle and, more­over, by the struc­tur­al frame­work of the state. We can see that the demar­ca­tions of this expan­sion, cor­re­spond­ing to his­tor­i­cal peri­ods, are of the high­est impor­tance. Who and what has expand­ed and towards what or whom? From the lib­er­al state to the inter­ven­tion­ist state after the cri­sis of the 1930s, from the wel­fare state to con­tem­po­rary author­i­tar­i­an sta­tism, the very terms public/private, state/social rela­tions, and the vari­a­tions in the expan­sion of the state between them, have com­plete­ly changed.

We are thus doubt­less wit­ness­ing cur­rent­ly a new stage of this process, name­ly the direct pres­ence of the state at the very cen­ter of the pro­duc­tion of sur­plus val­ue and the repro­duc­tion of labor-pow­er (col­lec­tive con­sump­tion, health­care, hous­ing, trans­porta­tion, etc.). The prodi­gious exten­sion of state func­tions, includ­ing its expan­sion into the domains of knowl­edge and sci­ence, and the con­cen­tra­tion of pow­er and knowl­edge are only indi­ca­tors of this. We are see­ing a com­plete reshuf­fling of pub­lic and pri­vate spaces, as well as a con­sid­er­able mod­i­fi­ca­tion of the artic­u­la­tion of the polit­i­cal and the socio-eco­nom­ic (which pos­es the ques­tion, among oth­ers, about a new artic­u­la­tion of their respec­tive orga­ni­za­tions, parties/unions). The pres­ence of state net­works in “every­day life” indeed leads to what [Pietro] Ingrao calls the politi­ciza­tion of the social.

This is on the con­di­tion, how­ev­er, that we do not lose sight of the lim­its of this cur­rent expan­sion of the state, the tran­scrip­tion of the sep­a­ra­tion between state and social rela­tions in the social field, which also show the bor­ders of this politi­ciza­tion of the social. Lim­its that seem to be lost, by the way, in both Althusser’s and Ingrao’s per­spec­tives: for Ingrao, when he seems to under­stand politi­ciza­tion as an exhaus­tive or expan­sive, pos­si­ble and even desir­able “inclu­sion” of the private/social “in” the state-pol­i­tics “syn­the­sis”; for Althuss­er – who crit­i­cizes Ingrao on his under­stand­ing of the politi­ciza­tion of the social – in his con­sid­er­a­tion of this as bour­geois pol­i­tics (the polit­i­cal) while also uphold­ing the pos­si­bil­i­ty, and I will return to this, of anoth­er pol­i­tics, this time pro­le­tar­i­an, but rad­i­cal­ly sit­u­at­ed “out­side” the state (pol­i­tics) in a phan­tas­mic non-place. It seems to me that despite their dif­fer­ences, to a cer­tain extent Althuss­er and Ingrao indeed adopt the same essen­tial­ist-topo­graph­i­cal con­cep­tion of the state; this leads both, if through dif­fer­ent paths (exhaus­tive or expan­sive politi­ciza­tion of the social with­in the state for Ingrao, pro­le­tar­i­an politi­ciza­tion out­side the state for Althuss­er) to an effec­tive­ly gen­er­al­ized pan-politi­cism.

Let’s stay with Althuss­er for a moment: con­trary to what he believes, every class strug­gle, every social move­ment (trade-union, eco­log­i­cal, region­al, fem­i­nist, stu­dent), inso­far as it is polit­i­cal, or rather, in its polit­i­cal dimen­sions, is nec­es­sar­i­ly sit­u­at­ed on the strate­gic ter­rain of the state. A pro­le­tar­i­an pol­i­tics can­not sim­ply be locat­ed out­side of the state, any more than a form of pol­i­tics sit­u­at­ed on the ter­rain of the state is there­fore, or nec­es­sar­i­ly, bour­geois. If there are in fact lim­its to the expan­sion of the state, to the politi­ciza­tion of the social, then it is pre­cise­ly to the extent that class strug­gles and social move­ments always spill over, away from the state (even viewed in an expand­ed sense, includ­ing the ISAs), or to the extent that every­thing is not polit­i­cal – pol­i­tics is not the sole dimen­sion of social exis­tence. Over­com­ing the state-insti­tu­tion­al­ist fix­a­tion of the Third Inter­na­tion­al, or even priv­i­leg­ing the impact of social move­ments (“civ­il soci­ety”) does not entail attribut­ing the hon­or­able, supreme title of POLITICS at any cost, see­ing every­where the dif­fu­sion of pol­i­tics or the polit­i­cal. Pow­ers and strug­gles are not reducible to either the state or pol­i­tics: it can’t be left to Fou­cault to remind Marx­ism of this! This doesn’t mean that these pow­ers and strug­gles don’t have par­tic­u­lar effects in this case, or polit­i­cal impor­tance, nor is it to say that the state has no effect on them.

D: You are refer­ring here to Althusser’s posi­tion in the inter­view in ques­tion, where the work­ing class par­ty must be sit­u­at­ed or locat­ed “out­side” the state.

NP: Exact­ly. I think that Althuss­er strong­ly upholds the tra­di­tion­al posi­tion of the Third Inter­na­tion­al con­cern­ing the state. I have shown in sev­er­al places that it is an instru­men­tal­ist view: the state as a tool or machine (the key­word is said!) which is open to the manip­u­la­tion at the will and hands of the dom­i­nant class­es. Pow­er would then be a quan­tifi­able enti­ty, embod­ied in the state as a hyposta­sized object. In pass­ing from the mech­a­nis­tic metaphor to the topo­log­i­cal metaphor, it leads to this rough con­clu­sion: the state con­sti­tutes a mono­lith­ic bloc with no cracks, except those stem­ming from bureau­crat­ic dys­func­tions. The inter­nal con­tra­dic­tions of the state, as class con­tra­dic­tions, would not apply to its hard core, but, at most, only the ISAs [Les con­tra­dic­tions internes de l’Etat comme con­tra­dic­tions de classe ne seront jamais de mise pour son noy­au dur, mais, à la rigueur, pour les seuls A.I.E.]. This state will remain a cas­tle strong­ly for­ti­fied against the rev­o­lu­tion­ary strug­gles of the dom­i­nat­ed class­es. An instru­men­tal­ist, but also essen­tial­ist con­cep­tion of the state: either the pop­u­lar mass­es are includ­ed – “inte­grat­ed” – and thus con­t­a­m­i­nat­ed by the bour­geois pest infect­ing the cas­tle; or they remain pure in the quest for their for-itself/­class con­scious­ness (the par­ty) and thus are locat­ed absolute­ly out­side the walls. Seiz­ing state pow­er can there­fore only mean, for its hard ker­nel at the very least, pen­e­trat­ing the for­ti­fied cas­tle from out­side, by a war of movement/assault or a war of position/encirclement (Gram­sci): in short, always via a “frontal” strat­e­gy of a kind of dual pow­er. The par­ty can thus only be sit­u­at­ed rad­i­cal­ly out­side the state, oper­at­ing as an anti-state in the con­sti­tu­tion of a sec­ond pow­er (the Sovi­ets) that will sub­sti­tute itself for the first (destruc­tion of the state).

Against this essen­tial­ist con­cep­tion, I have pro­posed that the state be viewed rela­tion­al­ly, or more exact­ly, as the mate­r­i­al con­den­sa­tion of the rela­tion of forces between class­es and class frac­tions. Pow­er is not a qual­i­fi­able essence, but a rela­tion. The state is prop­er­ly con­sti­tut­ed by the class con­tra­dic­tions which, under a spe­cif­ic form, become the inter­nal con­tra­dic­tions of the state, and this does not con­cern or involve the ISAs. Sta­tist or state-cen­tric pol­i­tics are the result of this con­tra­dic­to­ry process; what is deci­sive in polit­i­cal deci­sion-mak­ing is not what hap­pens below, above, or beyond the state, but what hap­pens with­in the state. Rather than in terms of out­side or inside, this must be con­sid­ered in terms of ter­rain and strate­gic process­es: pop­u­lar strug­gles, via their polit­i­cal dimen­sions, are always locat­ed – I repeat – on the ter­rain of the state. If this is a per­ma­nent trait of the cap­i­tal­ist state, it nonethe­less presents new dimen­sions in the cur­rent moment. The expan­sion of the state into all domains of every­day life inten­si­fies the con­tra­dic­tions on the state ter­rain, giv­ing rise to a cri­sis com­plete­ly spe­cif­ic to the con­tem­po­rary state.

The par­ty can­not, there­fore, sit­u­ate itself as rad­i­cal­ly out­side in rela­tion to the state, The seizure of state pow­er depends on a long-term strat­e­gy of mod­i­fy­ing the rela­tion of forces on state ter­rain itself, press­ing on its inter­nal con­tra­dic­tions. But con­trary to what cer­tain cur­rents in the Euro­com­mu­nist par­ties accept, we must not for­get that the state is not a sim­ple rela­tion­ship: it always holds a spe­cif­ic mate­ri­al­i­ty as an appa­ra­tus, which can­not be rad­i­cal­ly mod­i­fied by mere­ly shift­ing the rela­tion of forces. That this par­ty must sit­u­ate itself on the ter­rain of the state does not mean that it must wed itself to the mate­ri­al­i­ty of the state as an appa­ra­tus, by exact­ly copy­ing the latter’s admin­is­tra­tive mod­el or iden­ti­fy­ing itself with it – indeed, the oppo­site is the case. Here lies pre­cise­ly the ques­tion of the auton­o­my of the orga­ni­za­tion of the work­ing class and the pop­u­lar mass­es, and not in the divi­sion of this orga­ni­za­tion out­side the state.

How­ev­er, to mod­i­fy the bal­ance of pow­er [le rap­port de force] with­in the state, and fur­ther­more, rad­i­cal­ly mod­i­fy the mate­ri­al­i­ty of the state, is only one aspect of a demo­c­ra­t­ic tran­si­tion to social­ism. The oth­er aspect of the process depends on, at the same time, grass­roots social move­ments pro­pelling the spread [l’essaimage] of spaces of direct democ­ra­cy: in short for move­ments to ground them­selves in pop­u­lar strug­gles that always spill over beyond, and keep a dis­tance from, the state. To remain lim­it­ed to the state ter­rain, even in order to adopt a strat­e­gy of rup­tures, is to unwise­ly slip towards social-democ­ra­cy; because of the spe­cif­ic weight of the mate­ri­al­i­ty of the state, to even change the rela­tion of forces with­in the state can only hap­pen by also rely­ing on strug­gles and move­ments which go beyond the state.

This mat­ters today more than ever. With new forms of state con­trol and con­tem­po­rary admin­is­tra­tive pro­ce­dures, with mass neo-cor­po­ratist ini­tia­tives which engage the state by spread­ing mul­ti­ple net­works of con­trol (social assis­tance, autho­rized police, psy­chi­atric, and judi­cia­ry net­works) through­out the social fab­ric, and in the con­text of eco­nom­ic cri­sis and the cri­sis of the wel­fare state – which trig­gers a ten­den­tial and wide­spread legit­i­ma­tion cri­sis but with­out lead­ing to a rup­ture in con­sen­sus – pop­u­lar revolts are trans­lat­ing into new forms. Revolts or upris­ings can­not assume the same forms as dur­ing the “sav­age” cri­sis of 1930, and can­not emerge via the form of a gen­er­al strike or an alter­na­tive over­all polit­i­cal project. But in their place both upstream and down­stream of the appa­ra­tus of pro­duc­tion, these upris­ings or revolts can no longer be stamped with the seal of mar­gin­al­i­ty, as has been more or less the case for sev­er­al years. They are the con­den­sa­tion of dif­fuse and wide-rang­ing pop­u­lar protests, and also redi­rect these protests towards the cul­tur­al sphere: the stu­dent, fem­i­nist, region­al­ist, and eco­log­i­cal move­ments, neigh­bor­hood com­mit­tees, cit­i­zen com­mis­sions etc., to which one must cer­tain­ly add the new forms of revolt in the fac­to­ry.

These move­ments are cer­tain­ly not detached or sep­a­rat­ed from class con­tra­dic­tions, as Alain Touraine has argued through his oppo­si­tion between “class contradictions/social move­ments,” since they are organ­i­cal­ly linked to con­tra­dic­tions (eco­nom­ic, but also polit­i­cal and class ide­o­log­i­cal) imma­nent to the expand­ed repro­duc­tion of cap­i­tal. They nonethe­less pos­sess a speci­fici­ty: they con­dense and reflect class con­flicts with­out being reducible to the lat­ter. By locat­ing them­selves with­in a self-man­age­ment per­spec­tive, these move­ments sub­stan­tial­ly move beyond the insti­tu­tions of rep­re­sen­ta­tive democ­ra­cy.

At stake is the artic­u­la­tion of two dimen­sions of this process. It is not a ques­tion of “destroy­ing” the insti­tu­tions of rep­re­sen­ta­tive democ­ra­cy – which are also, if not pri­mar­i­ly, an achieve­ment [une con­quête] of the pop­u­lar mass­es – sole­ly in favor of strug­gles out­side the state or direct democ­ra­cy (this is the orig­i­nal Lenin­ist solu­tion, for the most part adopt­ed by Althuss­er). Nor is it a ques­tion of desert­ing, even sti­fling, these grass­roots move­ments in lieu of the slight reforms of rep­re­sen­ta­tive democ­ra­cy (the clas­sic strat­e­gy of social-democ­ra­cy).

Two aspects of the process which must remain rel­a­tive­ly dis­tinct. It is here that Ingrao’s posi­tion pos­es cer­tain prob­lems from the oth­er side. Ingrao is well aware of the risks of cor­po­ratism, of atom­ized or socio-pro­fes­sion­al re-pri­va­ti­za­tion, of the frag­men­ta­tion which threat­ens the work­ers’ self-man­age­ment [auto­ges­tion­naire] move­ment. We also know that for the Deleuze-Guat­tari-Fou­cault cur­rent, this frag­men­ta­tion is set up as or trans­formed into a pos­i­tive the­o­ry of social move­ments: sin­gu­lar micro-revolts, scat­tered resis­tances, iso­lat­ed exper­i­men­ta­tions – this is the only way, accord­ing to these the­o­rists, of avoid­ing a strat­e­gy that would risk impris­on­ing this move­ments with­in the nets of sta­tist pol­i­tics, strip­ping them of their “auton­o­my.” Of course, for these move­ments to remain there is the best way for them to be recu­per­at­ed by the ver­ti­cal, insti­tu­tion­al­ized neo-cor­po­ratism and neo-clien­telism of the state such as it exists today, inte­grat­ed in the repres­sive per­mis­sive­ness of the state: we already find a lit­tle bit of this recu­per­a­tion all over. What are the means that Ingrao rec­om­mends to ward off this very real dan­ger, how­ev­er like­ly it has been exag­ger­at­ed by French and Ger­man thinkers with a ten­den­cy to gen­er­al­ize too hasti­ly from the traces of Nazism and Fas­cism which remain in their coun­tries (Haber­mas for exam­ple)? It would be a mat­ter, as it were, of artic­u­lat­ing social move­ments with the process of trans­form­ing the state by their sub­or­di­na­tion-inser­tion with­in the insti­tu­tions of a demo­c­ra­t­ic state. The state here is con­sid­ered as “the moment of total­i­ty,” the “gen­er­al syn­the­sis”; a con­cep­tion which, although dia­met­ri­cal­ly opposed to the one Ingrao ascribes to Althuss­er (state as object), nev­er­the­less evinces, to a cer­tain extent, the same essen­tial­ist view of the state (for Ingrao, the state as the sub­ject of social ratio­nal­i­ty).

In any case, Ingrao’s con­cep­tion has actu­al­ly been applied in the polit­i­cal expe­ri­ence of the Aus­tro-Marx­ists who, want­i­ng to take equal dis­tance from Bol­she­vism and social-democ­ra­cy, attempt­ed to artic­u­late both aspects of the process in ques­tion, but by incor­po­rat­ing the sec­ond (social move­ments of direct democ­ra­cy) with­in the first (demo­c­ra­t­ic rep­re­sen­ta­tive insti­tu­tions). This expe­ri­ences shows that because of the spe­cif­ic mate­ri­al­i­ty of the state appa­ra­tus, these move­ments end up dis­solv­ing with­in the nets of the state by being inte­grat­ed in and iden­ti­fied with its admin­is­tra­tive cir­cuit. For my part, I am ask­ing whether, and to what extent, a cer­tain irre­ducible ten­sion between these two dimen­sions of the process is a risk to be assumed, and what’s more, whether or not this ten­sion is an inte­gral part of a dynam­ic in the tran­si­tion to demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ism.

D: This rais­es the ques­tion of the role of the par­ty in these move­ments today, and the cri­sis tra­vers­ing Com­mu­nist par­ties in the West.

NP: Exact­ly. To begin with the sec­ond ques­tion, I don’t think that it’s at all about a cri­sis of the “par­ty-form,” as is some­times said today (by Bal­ibar in par­tic­u­lar): to talk about the cri­sis of the “par­ty-form” seems as total­ly mis­guid­ed as to talk about a cri­sis of the “state-form.” On the one hand, there is the mat­ter of a gen­er­al cri­sis of the polit­i­cal par­ty “sys­tem,” relat­ing to new eco­nom­ic real­i­ties, the cur­rent cri­sis of the state, and the new form of state author­i­tar­i­an­ism – a cri­sis which to some degree involves the Com­mu­nist par­ties in the West. On the oth­er hand, there is the mat­ter of a cri­sis spe­cif­ic to the mass work­ers’ par­ties in the advanced cap­i­tal­ist coun­tries.

To grasp the first dimen­sion of this ques­tion, con­tem­po­rary ide­o­log­i­cal process­es must be grant­ed the great­est impor­tance. In effect, I would reit­er­ate that we should not con­sid­er repres­sion or overt vio­lence and the orga­ni­za­tion of con­sent as two terms of a quan­tifi­able pow­er held by the state, akin to the image of the Cen­taur. In this con­nec­tion we apply an empiri­cist-essen­tial­ist con­cep­tion of “zero-sum pow­er” to the state, of the sort where a dimin­ish­ing of the degree of legit­i­ma­tion auto­mat­i­cal­ly cor­re­sponds to an inverse­ly pro­por­tion­al increase in repres­sion, and vice ver­sa. In fact, an increase of repres­sive vio­lence on the part of the state is nec­es­sar­i­ly accom­pa­nied by an inten­si­fied refor­mu­la­tion of legit­i­ma­tion. This is pre­cise­ly what is now hap­pen­ing in the state’s response to its own cri­sis.

I can insist here on the new repres­sive forms of the con­tem­po­rary state, bring­ing an inten­si­fi­ca­tion of overt state vio­lence (con­sid­er­able restric­tions of lib­er­ties, gen­er­al­ized doc­u­men­ta­tion of elec­tron­ic infor­ma­tion, with­er­ing-away of the law, rede­ploy­ment of the judi­cial and police appa­ra­tus in their con­sub­stan­tial assem­blage, etc.), and not only an inten­si­fi­ca­tion of so-called sym­bol­ic vio­lence. But this is accom­pa­nied by a real restruc­tur­ing of right-wing ide­ol­o­gy, seri­ous­ly shak­en by the uptick in strug­gles after 1968, and which proves once again capitalism’s prodi­gious capac­i­ties for cul­tur­al inte­gra­tion (for exam­ple, the divert­ed recu­per­a­tion of a whole series of themes from May ‘68). To con­tin­ue to speak in this regard of ide­olo­gies of cri­sis hard­ly seems exact to me, because we are cur­rent­ly wit­ness­ing a ver­i­ta­ble restruc­tur­ing of the dom­i­nant ide­ol­o­gy.

The nov­el­ty of this restruc­tur­ing is attached to the con­tra­dic­to­ry assem­blage of often old­er, diverse ide­o­log­i­cal cur­rents:

a) An irra­tional­ism spe­cif­ic to the gen­er­al offen­sive against Marx­ism and Enlight­en­ment ratio­nal­ism.5 Irra­tional­ism and neo-spir­i­tu­al­ism are thus already more than sim­ple ide­o­log­i­cal effects of the cri­sis, but cov­er it, paving the way for an old­er type of ratio­nal­i­ty that is tend­ing this time to per­vade the entire social fab­ric: the instru­men­tal ratio­nal­i­ty and tech­no­crat­ic log­ic of experts, rel­a­tive­ly opposed to those of the law and the gen­er­al will;

b) Neolib­er­al­ism, man­i­fest­ing in a anti-state dis­course under the cov­er of the lib­er­a­tion of the indi­vid­ual from the imped­i­ments of the state. Although the pro­po­nents of neolib­er­al­ism often present them­selves as adher­ents to “anar­cho-cap­i­tal­ism,” this should not be under­stood by this that they rec­om­mend an actu­al, impos­si­ble return to a sav­age com­pet­i­tive cap­i­tal­ism: the state con­tin­ues to assume an organ­ic role in the repro­duc­tion of cap­i­tal. What neolib­er­als in fact rec­om­mend is the with­draw­al, already well under­way, of the “social func­tions” of the wel­fare state (cri­sis of the Key­ne­sian state), which were an impor­tant vic­to­ry won by the pop­u­lar mass­es;

c) Author­i­tar­i­an­ism, name­ly the new dis­course of law and order, the secu­ri­ty of cit­i­zens, and nec­es­sary restric­tions on the abuse of demo­c­ra­t­ic lib­er­ties (see the Tri­lat­er­al Com­mis­sion), etc.

This restruc­tur­ing of the con­tent of the rul­ing dis­course cor­re­sponds to, even induces and brings into relief, the con­sid­er­able mod­i­fi­ca­tions in the chan­nels and appa­ra­tus­es which elab­o­rate and cir­cu­late it. The prin­ci­pal ide­o­log­i­cal role has shift­ed away from the school, the uni­ver­si­ty, and pub­lish­ing towards the media (see the recent work of Régis Debray). It’s impor­tant to add that this shift is tied, with­in state cir­cuits, to a broad­er shift in legit­i­ma­tion pro­ce­dures, from the polit­i­cal par­ties to the state admin­is­tra­tion, of which they are there­by the priv­i­leged inter­locu­tors. This is prob­a­bly at the bot­tom of things: the rede­ploy­ment of media is of a piece with the state administration’s mul­ti­form and increas­ing con­trol over it, with the log­ic and sym­bol­ic order imple­ment­ed in medi­at­ic dis­course reflec­tive­ly repro­duc­ing those of the cur­rent admin­is­tra­tion.

All this is at the root of a cri­sis and a decline of polit­i­cal par­ties, which have still held an impor­tant role until now. If par­ties are no longer present in the effec­tive sites of deci­sion-mak­ing, which have already left Par­lia­ment behind to set up shop [s’installer] with­in the exec­u­tive branch­es, they still hold a deci­sive role as the polit­i­cal orga­niz­ers and rep­re­sen­ta­tives of class inter­ests against the state admin­is­tra­tion, of whom they are the pre­ferred con­tacts. They are, more­over, ide­o­log­i­cal appa­ra­tus­es of the first order, by basi­cal­ly elab­o­rat­ing and trans­mit­ting a dis­course found­ed on the gen­er­al will, and under­gird­ing the insti­tu­tions of rep­re­sen­ta­tive democ­ra­cy: in the short, the Recht­staat.

Cur­rent­ly, the admin­is­tra­tion has set itself up as the prin­ci­pal polit­i­cal orga­niz­er of the rul­ing class­es and the priv­i­leged inte­gra­tor of the pop­u­lar mass­es: it has con­sol­i­dat­ed itself as the prin­ci­pal site of deci­sion-mak­ing, and to do this it has reached out to var­i­ous pro­fes­sion­al social groups over par­ties (insti­tu­tion­al­ized neo-cor­po­ratism, man­i­fest­ing espe­cial­ly in the numer­ous tri­par­tite com­mis­sions). This has led to a cri­sis of rep­re­sen­ta­tion for the “par­ties in pow­er,” in the eyes of the class­es and frac­tions they rep­re­sent. In a par­al­lel fash­ion, the role of legit­i­ma­tion is shift­ed towards the admin­is­tra­tion. In this way, the dis­course of author­i­tar­i­an tech­nocratism finds in the admin­is­tra­tion a site of priv­i­leged trans­mis­sion; this is also the case for neolib­er­al dis­course (neu­tral, arbi­trary state sets sim­ple rules for social actors), which returns to the tra­di­tion­al form of the self-legit­i­ma­tion of the state. The administration’s role also influ­ences in its turn the dom­i­nant ide­o­log­i­cal dis­course: the flat­ten­ing and ren­der­ing uni­form of this dis­course, plebisc­i­tary and pop­ulist forms of con­sent cou­pled with the her­meti­cism of the lan­guage of experts.

This cri­sis of the par­ty sys­tem of course pri­mar­i­ly con­cerns the par­ties in pow­er, those who par­tic­i­pate in gov­ern­ment with reg­u­lar alter­na­tion, includ­ing sev­er­al social demo­c­ra­t­ic par­ties. But it also con­cerns, in cer­tain aspects, the com­mu­nist par­ties in the West, to the extent that they are – inde­pen­dent of whether they belong to the gov­ern­men­tal sphere or not – still present on ter­rain of the state.

But, more gen­er­al­ly, the mass work­ers’ par­ties are also affect­ed by their own cri­sis, which con­cerns, in the first instance, the com­mu­nist par­ties (a cri­sis of mil­i­tan­cy, amongst oth­ers). Cer­tain politi­co-strate­gic ori­en­ta­tions of these par­ties, and cer­tain aspects of their bureau­cra­ti­za­tion, def­i­nite­ly have a role to play in this cri­sis, but the fun­da­men­tal rea­sons are above all social: some­thing that the dis­cus­sion in France on this ques­tion has tend­ed to obscure. In effect, these par­ties have been for the most part orga­ni­za­tion­al­ly built not only as “work­ers’ par­ties” in the strict sense (even if they were real­ly only pre­dom­i­nant among work­ers [meme s’ils ne furent jamais qu’à dom­i­nante ouvrière]), but were also cen­tered on the con­tra­dic­tions with­in the pro­duc­tive appa­ra­tus itself, the fac­to­ry (the party–union, state–enterprise bina­ries). But social move­ments, essen­tial­ly con­cern­ing the work­ing class itself, are cur­rent­ly tak­ing place at a dis­tance from sites of pro­duc­tion. These move­ments and strug­gles (fem­i­nist, stu­dent, region­al­ist, eco­log­i­cal) are, more­over, already cross-class [pluri­clas­siste] in char­ac­ter.

All this is at the root of a cri­sis unfold­ing in the same moment when work­ers’ par­ties need to play a new role in the artic­u­la­tion of trans­for­ma­tions in the state and the devel­op­ment of new social move­ments. In effect, against a par­tic­u­lar con­cep­tion of the “auton­o­my” of the “social” vis-à-vis polit­i­cal orga­ni­za­tions (which should only be con­cerned with the state), it seems clear that, faced with the risks of cor­po­ratism and recu­per­a­tion (and even though the rise of of a vast, fas­cist-Pou­jadist alliance [rassem­ble­ment] on the basis of these move­ments hard­ly seems pos­si­ble), as well as the seri­ous con­flicts between these two aspects of the process (which hap­pened in Por­tu­gal), these par­ties need to be active­ly involved in the new social move­ments.

That this can only be done by way of a sig­nif­i­cant trans­for­ma­tion of these par­ties, of their atti­tudes in regard to social move­ments (which have until now only been that of con­tempt, if not den­i­gra­tion, par­tic­u­lar­ly in the case of the PCF), of their inter­nal orga­ni­za­tion, of their rela­tion­ships to unions and mass orga­ni­za­tions – is clear. But the real ques­tion con­sists in know­ing what form the party’s involve­ment should be in this field. Here too, Ingrao’s posi­tion, one of the more devel­oped in this domain, is prob­lem­at­ic: put schemat­i­cal­ly, his posi­tion con­sists in see­ing the par­ty as “the total­iz­ing moment” [moment de glob­al­i­sa­tion] of the new social strug­gles, in the sense that a trans­formed par­ty must suc­ceed in “syn­the­siz­ing” these move­ments, ori­ent­ing them, even fram­ing them in the form of a con­stel­la­tion, of which it would be the prin­ci­pal axis. This is the same posi­tion that Ingrao has adopt­ed con­cern­ing the rela­tion­ship between the demo­c­ra­t­ic state and social move­ments.6

The ques­tions con­cern­ing the par­ty itself are: to what extent can it, or even should it, trans­form itself in order to “har­ness” [capter] social move­ments, with­out lead­ing into the trap of a pop­ulist par­ty? But oth­er ques­tions con­cern social move­ments: it is not at all clear that their “inte­gra­tion” [inser­tion] in a par­ty, how­ev­er demo­c­ra­t­ic and trans­formed it is, would not make them lose their own speci­fici­ty. All the more so, since these move­ments have not (yet?) found spe­cif­ic orga­ni­za­tion­al forms (and should they?), so that their rela­tion to the par­ty can be a new type of rela­tion­ship between par­ties and mass orga­ni­za­tions: thus the risk of their being dis­solved into the par­ty is only greater. It is worth ask­ing here whether or not a cer­tain irre­ducible ten­sion between the work­ers’ par­ties and social move­ments is a nec­es­sary con­di­tion of the dynam­ic towards a tran­si­tion to social­ism.

– Trans­lat­ed by Patrick King

This text orig­i­nal­ly appeared as “L’Etat, les mou­ve­ments soci­aux, le par­ti,” in Dialec­tiques no. 28 (Fall 1979), 85-95. It was sub­se­quent­ly reprint­ed as “La crise des par­tis,” in Nicos Poulantzas, Reperès (Paris: Maspero, 1980), 163-183.


This arti­cle is part of a dossier enti­tled “The Cri­sis of Marx­ism.”


  1. See Nicos Poulantzas, “Prob­lèmes actuels de la recherche marx­iste sur l’état,” Dialec­tiques 13 (1976), 30-43; “L’état, le pou­voir, et nous,” inter­view with David Kaiser­gru­ber, Dialec­tiques 17 (Win­ter 1977), 51-68. 

  2. On State, Pow­er, Social­ism, see Yan­nick Blanck, “Le marx­isme en l’Etat, Dialec­tiques, no. 23 (Spring 1978). 126-8. On Althusser’s inter­ven­tion, see Dialec­tiques, nos. 23 and 24/25 (1978). Translator’s note: The lat­ter ref­er­ence is to Rossana Rossanda’s inter­view with Althuss­er, “Marx­ism as a Finite The­o­ry,” in the present dossier. 

  3. I’ve explained my own ini­tial posi­tion on this sub­ject, rel­a­tive­ly dis­tinct from that of Althuss­er and Bal­ibar, in the pre­vi­ous two inter­views I’ve done for Dialec­tiques. See also my arti­cle in New Left Review, “The Cap­i­tal­ist State: A Reply to Ralph Miliband and Laclau,” New Left Review I/95 (Jan­u­ary-Feb­ru­ary 1976). 

  4. Nicos Poulantzas, Polit­i­cal Pow­er and Social Class­es, trans. Tim­o­thy O’Hagan (Lon­don: Ver­so, 1978), 219. 

  5. Translator’s note: For anoth­er take on this phe­nom­e­non, see Eti­enne Bal­ibar, “Irra­tional­ism and Marx­ism,” trans. Patrick Camiller New Left Review I/107 (Jan­u­ary-Feb­ru­ary 1978), 3-19. 

  6. See for exam­ple, Pietro Ingrao, Masse e potere (Rome: Edi­tori Riu­ni­ti, 1977); and Pietro Ingrao in con­ver­sa­tion with Romano Led­da, Crisi e terza via (Rome: Edi­tori Riu­ni­ti, 1978). Translator’s Note: For a ret­ro­spec­tive on Ingrao’s dif­fi­cult lega­cy, see David Broder, “A Heretic, Not a Split­ter,” Jacobin Mag­a­zine, Octo­ber 7, 2015. 

Author of the article

was a Greek-French Marxist political theorist. His works include Political Power and Social Classes (1968) and State, Power, Socialism (1978).