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).