Poulantzas Revisited: State, Classes and Socialist Transition; An Interview with Panagiotis Sotiris

Thomas Goes: Why should we, today, study the work of Nicos Poulantzas, a the­o­reti­cian who died almost 40 years ago? Or to put it dif­fer­ent­ly, what can activists, orga­niz­ers, and cadres with­in the anti-cap­i­tal­ist left learn from his writ­ings that could be use­ful, indeed, even nec­es­sary to build a strong, promis­ing left?

Pana­gi­o­tis Sotiris: The work of Nicos Poulantzas is one of the most impor­tant con­tri­bu­tions to a pos­si­ble Marx­ist the­o­ry of the state and of class antag­o­nisms with­in the state. His was a high­ly orig­i­nal, rela­tion­al con­cep­tion of the state — the state as not sim­ply an instru­ment in the hands of the rul­ing class but as the “con­den­sa­tion of a class rela­tion.” He offered invalu­able insights into the com­plex­i­ty of state appa­ra­tus­es, artic­u­lat­ing mul­ti­ple rela­tions between the state and the ter­rain of class strug­gle includ­ing the realm of pro­duc­tion, and the myr­i­ad ways that the state func­tions as a cru­cial node in the (re)production of bour­geois class strate­gies.1

Poulantzas’s final book, State, Pow­er, Social­ism, offers one of the most sophis­ti­cat­ed con­cep­tu­al­iza­tions of how the state plays a cru­cial role in the pro­duc­tion and repro­duc­tion of repres­sive mea­sures and ide­o­log­i­cal inter­pel­la­tions, but also shapes dis­cours­es, strate­gies and tech­nolo­gies of pow­er, to bor­row Foucault’s term. This approach is rem­i­nis­cent of Anto­nio Gramsci’s inte­gral state, the “entire com­plex of prac­ti­cal and the­o­ret­i­cal activ­i­ties with which the rul­ing class not only jus­ti­fies and main­tains its dom­i­nance, but man­ages to win the active con­sent of those over whom it rules.”2 In this sense, Poulantzas’s the­o­ry is a tool to help mil­i­tants under­stand what they are up against.

At the same time, Poulantzas’s rela­tion­al con­cep­tion of the state offers a way to the­o­rize the effec­tive­ness of class strug­gles. It is true that there has been a ten­den­cy to inter­pret this rela­tion­al con­cep­tion as a form of reformism, that it points toward a grad­ual trans­for­ma­tion of the state by means of the strug­gles that are “inte­ri­or­ized” with­in it. I dis­agree with a read­ing that would turn Poulantzas’s work into some­thing like Eduard Bernstein’s reformism. Accord­ing to Poulantzas, state appa­ra­tus­es are the “mate­ri­al­iza­tion and con­den­sa­tion of class rela­tions.” So, we are talk­ing about a class state inscribed with the strate­gic and tac­ti­cal inter­ests of the bour­geoisie.3 In any case it is nei­ther fortress nor instru­ment but a ter­rain of class antag­o­nisms. Sub­al­tern class­es can induce rup­tures, open­ings, and gains as part of a strat­e­gy for hege­mo­ny, which in the end will also need a con­fronta­tion with the very mate­ri­al­i­ty of the repres­sive appa­ra­tus­es of the state (what in clas­si­cal Marx­ist the­o­ry was described as the neces­si­ty to smash the state). This is yet anoth­er use­ful reminder for mil­i­tants: rad­i­cal pol­i­tics is nei­ther a long march through insti­tu­tions nor a sim­ple prepa­ra­tion for a final con­fronta­tion with the state. We might think of it instead as a com­plex dialec­ti­cal process: of chang­ing the class bal­ance of forces in favor of the sub­al­tern class­es, cre­at­ing con­di­tions for work­ing class hege­mo­ny and prepar­ing for the con­fronta­tion with the class strate­gies mate­ri­al­ly inscribed in the state.

Last­ly, I want to empha­size the impor­tance of Poulantzas’s the­o­riza­tion of author­i­tar­i­an sta­tism. Poulantzas was one of the first Marx­ist the­o­rists in the after­math of the cap­i­tal­ist cri­sis of 1973-4 to sug­gest that the reac­tion of the cap­i­tal­ist class­es and their polit­i­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tives in the state was the result of exten­sive cap­i­tal­ist restruc­tur­ing (and the first signs of the neolib­er­al turn) along with an author­i­tar­i­an trans­for­ma­tion of the state. I think that this dual ten­den­cy has since been a con­stant fea­ture of social and polit­i­cal pow­er. On the one hand it is exem­pli­fied in devel­op­ments with­in cap­i­tal­ist states e.g. the expan­sion of repres­sive sur­veil­lance, the move of the cen­ter of pow­er from the leg­isla­tive to the exec­u­tive, insu­la­tion of the deci­sion process­es against any form of inter­ven­tion by the pop­u­lar class­es, and reduc­tion of the scope of polit­i­cal debate with impor­tant strate­gic choic­es pre­sent­ed as sim­ply tech­ni­cal. On the oth­er hand, it is evi­dent in the author­i­tar­i­an insti­tu­tion­al frame­work of the Euro­pean Union, in some ways the mod­el par excel­lence of author­i­tar­i­an sta­tism in Europe.

TG: Maybe we can move on to Poulantzas’s class analy­sis. What is its impor­tance for our activism today? Why should we dis­tin­guish between a work­ing class and what he called the “new pet­ty bour­geoisie” com­posed of dif­fer­ent lay­ers of wage earn­ers?

PS: Poulantzas offered a the­o­ry of class struc­tures ground­ed in three key points.

First, he sug­gest­ed that social class­es are unthink­able out­side of the ter­rain of class strug­gle. He wrote that “social class­es involve in one and the same process both class con­tra­dic­tions and class strug­gle; social class­es do not first­ly exist as such, and only then enter into a class strug­gle. Social class­es coin­cide with class prac­tices, i.e. the class strug­gle, and are only defined in their mutu­al oppo­si­tion.”4

Sec­ond, he argued that rela­tions of pro­duc­tion are not sim­ple rela­tions of legal own­er­ship but rather com­plex rela­tions of pow­er and con­trol of the means and process of pro­duc­tion.

Third, he said that when we deal with the rela­tions of pro­duc­tion and the for­ma­tion of class we are not sim­ply talk­ing about “eco­nom­ic” aspects but also polit­i­cal and ide­o­log­i­cal ones. In this sense, we avoid both the nar­row economism of many tra­di­tion­al Marx­ist approach­es and, at the same time, the under­es­ti­ma­tion of the cen­tral­i­ty of rela­tions of pro­duc­tion that char­ac­ter­izes neo-Weber­ian the­o­ries of class strat­i­fi­ca­tion.

Poulantzas’s insight into the new pet­ty bour­geoisie was essen­tial.5 It was based upon a con­cep­tion of the pri­ma­cy of the social divi­sion of labor over the tech­ni­cal divi­sion of labor (which is the reflec­tion of the pri­ma­cy of the rela­tions of pro­duc­tion over the pro­duc­tive forces). For Poulantzas, “it is the social divi­sion of labor, in the form that this is giv­en by the spe­cif­ic pres­ence of polit­i­cal and ide­o­log­i­cal rela­tions actu­al­ly with­in the pro­duc­tion process, which dom­i­nates the tech­ni­cal divi­sion of labor.”6

Con­se­quent­ly, he stressed the fact that the emer­gence of con­tra­dic­to­ry class posi­tions that rep­re­sent at the same time aspects of the col­lec­tive labor­er and of the col­lec­tive cap­i­tal­ist was not a “neu­tral” tech­ni­cal evo­lu­tion, but the expres­sion of a deep­en­ing of the cap­i­tal­ist char­ac­ter of the labor process and of the polit­i­cal and ide­o­log­i­cal rela­tions with­in the ter­rain of pro­duc­tion. Despite cer­tain short­com­ings, such as Poulantzas’s ten­den­cy to iden­ti­fy the work­ing class with pro­duc­tive labor (a choice that leaves out impor­tant work­ing class seg­ments), I think that this is an impor­tant con­tri­bu­tion to any Marx­ist the­o­ry of social class­es.

More­over, I think that Poulantzas’s analy­sis can help us under­stand why treat­ing these social stra­ta as “work­ing class” would mean tak­ing for grant­ed this form of the cap­i­tal­ist labor process and of the cap­i­tal­ist divi­sion between intel­lec­tu­al and man­u­al labor. More­over, it would also mean the incor­po­ra­tion of impor­tant ele­ments of the pet­ty-bour­geois ide­ol­o­gy.

This does not mean that these stra­ta could not be a part of the “peo­ple” as the alliance of the sub­al­tern class­es. Indeed one of the most impor­tant chal­lenges today is gain­ing these stra­ta in such polit­i­cal direc­tion. In our time, con­tem­po­rary cap­i­tal­ist restruc­tur­ings tend at the same time to expand such posi­tions but also to wors­en their work­ing con­di­tions, thus polar­iz­ing them towards the work­ing class. Orga­niz­ing such stra­ta, incor­po­rat­ing them in trade unions, engag­ing them in col­lec­tive prac­tices and demands and break­ing the ide­ol­o­gy that they are “mid­dle class” or “pro­fes­sion­als” is indeed one of the most impor­tant stakes of class strug­gles today.

TG: Poulantzas argued for a class alliance between the work­ing class and the old and new pet­ty bour­geoisie. He named it “the peo­ple.” So, first, how did he assume such a “peo­ple” devel­ops? And what was, in his under­stand­ing, the role of the state and the par­ty with­in this process? My impres­sion is that his under­stand­ing of the party’s role was quite tra­di­tion­al.

PS: Poulantzas attempt­ed a recon­struc­tion of a the­o­ry of class alliances based upon his con­cep­tion of the peo­ple as an alliance under the hege­mo­ny of the work­ing class. In this sense, he offers a class-the­o­ret­i­cal per­spec­tive of the peo­ple in con­trast to cur­rent posi­tions such as the ones asso­ci­at­ed with read­ing of the work of Ernesto Laclau that tend to treat the peo­ple as a form of inter­pel­la­tion and as a dis­cur­sive con­struc­tion.

It is true that Poulantzas treat­ed the Com­mu­nist par­ty as the main ter­rain for the cre­ation of the polit­i­cal con­di­tions of such an alliance. He had in mind both the expe­ri­ence of the Greek com­mu­nist move­ment, how the KKE became the lead­ing force of the peo­ple in the Resis­tance and the Civ­il War, and the expe­ri­ence of the titan­ic Com­mu­nist par­ties of Italy and France. He there­fore also had in mind the idea of an alliance of the forces of the Left.

How­ev­er, it is impor­tant to note that he did not restrict his view to the Par­ty or par­ties. He also under­scored the sig­nif­i­cance of autonomous social move­ments. In his last inter­ven­tions, short­ly before his sui­cide, we can find ele­ments of a deep­er appre­hen­sion of a cer­tain cri­sis of the West­ern mass work­ers’ par­ties and an even stronger empha­sis on autonomous social move­ments.7

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, because of his untime­ly death, we can­not say to which direc­tion his work would have gone. Nowa­days, we know that we can­not deal with these ques­tions sim­ply with­in a tra­di­tion­al par­ty-form. Social move­ments, espe­cial­ly new forms of polit­i­cal inter­ven­tion also based upon the reclaim­ing of pub­lic space, such as the Move­ment of the Squares in Greece or Indig­na­dos in Spain, have enabled exact­ly this com­ing togeth­er of the dif­fer­ent social class­es and groups that the “peo­ple” is com­prised of. How­ev­er, I still think that the ques­tion of work­ing-class hege­mo­ny with­in the artic­u­la­tion of such an alliance still requires a com­mon polit­i­cal project and the orga­ni­za­tion­al form that can sup­port it, name­ly a nov­el form of the rad­i­cal left front in its encounter with autonomous ini­tia­tives from below.

TG: How would you judge Poulantzas’s the­o­ret­i­cal and polit­i­cal tra­jec­to­ry? One can eas­i­ly rec­og­nize a Maoist inflec­tion to his work, espe­cial­ly in Fas­cism and Dic­ta­tor­ship and in Class­es in Con­tem­po­rary Cap­i­tal­ism. What was the pre­cise influ­ence of Mao­ism on Poulantzas?

PS: Poulantzas’s the­o­ret­i­cal and polit­i­cal tra­jec­to­ry began with his expe­ri­ences as a youth in Athens, with­in the Greek Left (the ille­gal orga­ni­za­tions of the Com­mu­nist Par­ty and the legal orga­ni­za­tions of the EDA) and then by his close expe­ri­ences of the French devel­op­ments sur­round­ing May 1968. It also includ­ed a series of the­o­ret­i­cal influ­ences begin­ning with Jean-Paul Sartre and Lucien Gold­mann before his turn to Anto­nio Gram­sci and Louis Althuss­er. Anoth­er impor­tant expe­ri­ence for Poulantzas was the par­tic­u­lar way he expe­ri­enced not only May 1968 in France, but also the split in the Greek Com­mu­nist Par­ty in 1968 and his par­tic­i­pa­tion in the Com­mu­nist Par­ty of the Inte­ri­or.8

The tra­di­tion­al approach is to describe the rup­ture in the Greek Com­mu­nist move­ment in terms of a split between the pro-USSR hard­lin­ers of the KKE and the more “euro­com­mu­nist” or “right-wing” approach of the Com­mu­nist Par­ty of the Inte­ri­or (KKE-Es). How­ev­er, many mil­i­tants that sided with KKE-Es were look­ing for a rad­i­cal or even rev­o­lu­tion­ary ren­o­va­tion of the strat­e­gy and tac­tics of the Com­mu­nist move­ment, and did so in oppo­si­tion to the more tra­di­tion­al and bureau­crat­ic approach of the KKE.

The local orga­ni­za­tion of KKE-Es in Paris, of which Poulantzas was an active mem­ber, was far to the left of the lead­er­ship. At the same time, it is obvi­ous that Poulantzas was also influ­enced by both the rad­i­cal cri­tique of economism and reformism not only by his expe­ri­ences with May 1968 but by the Chi­nese expe­ri­ence, by Mao and also the Cul­tur­al Rev­o­lu­tion. For exam­ple, his insis­tence on not treat­ing the hier­ar­chies with­in the labor process as “neu­tral” and “tech­ni­cal” echoes the Cul­tur­al Revolution’s cri­tique against the cap­i­tal­ist social divi­sion of labor.

How­ev­er, lat­er, par­tic­u­lar­ly in the sec­ond half of the 1970’s we see a dif­fer­ent polit­i­cal approach by Poulantzas. He opts for what he defined as a Left Euro­com­mu­nism and he seemed to be sym­pa­thet­ic towards both a strat­e­gy of left uni­ty and demo­c­ra­t­ic road to social­ism. This is more obvi­ous in the last chap­ter of his last book where he defend­ed such an approach, where he insists on the pos­si­bil­i­ty of com­bin­ing a par­lia­men­tary major­i­ty with strong autonomous move­ments from below.9 This is indeed a con­tra­dic­to­ry posi­tion. Still, it is an attempt to think thor­ough­ly about an impor­tant prob­lem. Since we have the ben­e­fit of hind­sight, we can say that at that par­tic­u­lar moment he was over­ly opti­mistic about such pos­si­bil­i­ties. At the same time he did not dis­cern how the social­ist par­ties of that peri­od (such as PS in France or PASOK in Greece), in the end, would end up imple­ment­ing cap­i­tal­ist restruc­tur­ing from the 1980’s onwards.

It is impor­tant to stress that this debate with the inter­ven­tions of Poulantzas, Althuss­er, Bal­ibar, the replies by Hen­ri Weber or Daniel Ben­saïd, the inter­ven­tions by Chris­tine Buci-Glucks­mann, and the par­al­lel Ital­ian debate (see for exam­ple the texts by Ingrao) all rep­re­sent the last major debate on ques­tions of strat­e­gy regard­ing social­ist tran­si­tion as a real, not sim­ply the­o­ret­i­cal, ques­tion.10

TG: You men­tioned Poulantzas’s cri­tique of economism and reformism. What was his crit­i­cism exact­ly about? And how did it influ­ence his own the­o­ret­i­cal and strate­gic think­ing? For exam­ple, in Fas­cism and Dic­ta­tor­ship we find a con­stant argu­ment that the par­ties of the Third Inter­na­tion­al had an econ­o­mistic approach. But his only strate­gic sug­ges­tion is that a more mass line pol­i­tics would have been nec­es­sary. For exam­ple, how did it influ­ence the pol­i­tics of the local group of the KKE-Es in Paris?

PS: Poulantzas’s cri­tique of economism is evi­dent in many aspects of his work. First of all, the very idea of attempt­ing to elab­o­rate on a com­plex the­o­ry of the state and its role is in con­trast to any instru­men­tal con­cep­tu­al­iza­tion of the state. Sec­ond, the cri­tique of Third Inter­na­tion­al economism is a cru­cial aspect of the argu­ment he attempts to present in Fas­cism and Dic­ta­tor­ship. Third, his the­o­ry of social class­es, which includes polit­i­cal and ide­o­log­i­cal deter­mi­na­tions and insists on the pri­ma­cy of social divi­sion of labor to the tech­ni­cal divi­sion, also rep­re­sents a rup­ture with economism.

Regard­ing his cri­tique of the Third Inter­na­tion­al, it is very inter­est­ing how Poulantzas attempt­ed to draw a line of demar­ca­tion with both “third-peri­od” sec­tar­i­an­ism but also a reformist con­cep­tion of “pop­u­lar fronts” and polit­i­cal alliances with “demo­c­ra­t­ic” bour­geois par­ties. Hav­ing said that, I would like to draw atten­tion to his inter­ven­tions in the debates with­in the Greek Com­mu­nist Par­ty of the inte­ri­or.

I would like to draw atten­tion to a text he wrote under an alias in 1970, in Ago­nas (“Strug­gle”) the organ of the Paris local orga­ni­za­tion of the KKE-Es.11 This is an answer to an arti­cle by L. Eleuthe­ri­ou, a mem­ber of the lead­er­ship of the Par­ty who sug­gest­ed a strat­e­gy of alliances from above with demo­c­ra­t­ic par­ties (such as the par­ties of the cen­ter), based on the idea that these par­ties rep­re­sent­ed the pet­ty bour­geois stra­ta.

Poulantzas opposed this con­cep­tion of polit­i­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tion, reject­ed the idea of alliances only “from above” and insist­ed that the Unit­ed Front tac­tic required work from below and an attempt from the com­mu­nist par­ties to also work with­in the peas­antry and oth­er pet­ty bour­geois stra­ta. Since Eleuthe­ri­ou evoked the 7th Con­gress of the Com­mu­nist Inter­na­tion­al and Dimitrov’s posi­tions, Poulantzas uses his crit­i­cal approach to these posi­tions that we also find in Fas­cism and Dic­ta­tor­ship, to sug­gest that a dif­fer­ent approach to polit­i­cal alliances was nec­es­sary.

I would like to stress here that the ques­tion of polit­i­cal alliances was very cru­cial in the debates of the Greek Left in the peri­od of the 1967-74 dic­ta­tor­ship and the chal­lenges that the Left faced such as how to cre­ate uni­ty in strug­gle against the dic­ta­tor­ship while avoid­ing giv­ing the bour­geois forces the hege­mon­ic role in the anti-dic­ta­tor­ship strug­gle. This was also evi­dent in his inter­ven­tions after the dic­ta­tor­ship, in the debates around the strat­e­gy of KKE-Es where Poulantzas crit­i­cized “nation­al anti-dic­ta­tor­ship alliance” that pro­mot­ed, again, an alliance with bour­geois forces. In this sense, we can say that, in his inter­ven­tions, Poulantzas was always to the left of the lead­er­ship of KKE-Es.

On the oth­er hand, Poulantzas always referred to the com­mu­nist move­ment, not to some form of het­ero­doxy. His posi­tions were, by all accounts, to the left of Euro­pean com­mu­nist par­ties, and we can find, in his work, many posi­tions that were crit­i­cal of what we might call “com­mu­nist reformism.” How­ev­er, he nev­er opt­ed for a form of gauchisme [ultra-left­ism] and his focus was on the com­mu­nist par­ties. He nev­er seemed to sug­gest that the solu­tion was to adopt the posi­tions of Maoist or Trot­sky­ist groups of that peri­od, whose posi­tions he treat­ed as one-sided; he stressed the impor­tance of autonomous and rad­i­cal mass move­ments.

TG: At least since 1989 there has been lit­tle dis­cus­sion about a social­ist tran­si­tion with­in the broad Euro­pean left. Except for some small­er groups with­in the rev­o­lu­tion­ary left, for exam­ple the Social­ist Work­ers Par­ty in Eng­land or the LCR (now the NPA) in France, left par­ties have focused more or less on fight­ing for reforms. In one way or anoth­er this was tied to strate­gies that tried to build alliances with social demo­c­ra­t­ic and/or left-lib­er­al par­ties. This was even true for the PRC [Com­mu­nist Refoun­da­tion Par­ty] in Italy – a par­ty that tried to rethink the rela­tion­ship between social move­ments and the par­ty. To put it anoth­er way: The anti-neolib­er­al gov­ern­ment has been the main strate­gic idea with­in the broad­er Euro­pean Left. From a Poulantz­ian point of view, and also based on the Greek expe­ri­ence, what do you think about this strate­gic ori­en­ta­tion?

PS: It is true that the peri­od after 1968 rep­re­sents a strate­gic cri­sis of the Left that took many forms. One of these was the “de-com­mu­niza­tion” of major par­ties of the Left and their trans­for­ma­tion into social-demo­c­ra­t­ic and lat­er social-lib­er­al par­ties. The Ital­ian Com­mu­nist Par­ty is the one that comes first to mind. On the oth­er hand, most of the ten­den­cies that refused such an open­ly social-demo­c­ra­t­ic turn did not devel­op some­thing more than an anti-neolib­er­al posi­tion in the 1990’s, along with a defence of mass move­ments and a gen­er­al, abstract sup­port of social­ism.

At the same time most ten­den­cies of the rev­o­lu­tion­ary or anti-cap­i­tal­ist Left, or the Left that referred to the expe­ri­ence of 1968, also expe­ri­enced an ide­o­log­i­cal cri­sis. Many groups dis­solved and those ten­den­cies that per­sist­ed were rel­a­tive­ly small and lacked strate­gic ren­o­va­tion. This was obvi­ous in the 4th Inter­na­tion­al, the IST, and oth­ers.

At the same time, espe­cial­ly after the sec­ond half of the 1990’s with the sym­bol­ic expres­sion of the anti-glob­al­iza­tion move­ment, there was a renewed rad­i­cal­ism. This rad­i­cal­ism was expressed in the streets, in social move­ments, and in con­fronta­tions with the police. In some cas­es it was man­i­fest­ed in impor­tant elec­toral results such as the LCR-LO in 1999 France and the impres­sive result for Olivi­er Besan­cenot in the 2002 French pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, or at a dif­fer­ent reg­is­ter in the PRC’s new­found appeal with youth. How­ev­er this was not fol­lowed by a strate­gic debate. This was obvi­ous in the Euro­pean Social Forum and the World Social Forum where one could find thou­sands of mil­i­tants, social move­ments of great sig­nif­i­cance, and a bur­geon­ing inter­est in Marx­ist the­o­ry, but no real strate­gic debate. Daniel Bensaïd’s call to reopen the strate­gic debate went unan­swered.

Even more unfor­tu­nate was the sub­sti­tu­tion of left strat­e­gy for alliances with social democ­ra­cy espe­cial­ly anti-neolib­er­al gov­ern­ments or – worse yet – “any­one but” gov­ern­ments. The dis­as­trous expe­ri­ence of the PRC’s par­tic­i­pa­tion in the sec­ond Pro­di gov­ern­ment, from which the com­mu­nist left in Italy nev­er recov­ered, offers a les­son we can­not ignore. It is true that in var­i­ous instances, Poulantzas was invoked to sup­port such strate­gies, but there was no depth and no strate­gic debate. It was not a “demo­c­ra­t­ic road to social­ism” but a full capit­u­la­tion to par­lia­men­tary log­ic and the ced­ing of hege­mo­ny to social democ­ra­cy in a peri­od when it was one of the main polit­i­cal forces that imple­ment­ed “actu­al­ly exist­ing neolib­er­al­ism.”

This vac­u­um of strat­e­gy cre­at­ed by this approach and the fact the sub­sti­tu­tion of elec­toral pol­i­tics and basic anti-neolib­er­al reforms is the fun­da­men­tal lim­i­ta­tion of this left vari­ety; it cre­at­ed a ver­sion of the Left that is rhetor­i­cal­ly rad­i­cal yet inca­pable of think­ing about strate­gies of rup­ture. The most trag­ic exam­ple of this is SYRIZA whose pro­gram­mat­ic unpre­pared­ness and com­pul­sive Euro­peanism paved the way for a thor­ough­go­ing capit­u­la­tion to the Troi­ka and now a full-fledged accep­tance of an aggres­sive neolib­er­al log­ic. The younger mem­bers of SYRIZA’s lead­er­ship, includ­ing Tsipras him­self, received their “polit­i­cal edu­ca­tion” in the 1990’s and ear­ly 2000’s, exact­ly dur­ing the peri­od of Euro­pean Social Forum and peak pop­u­lar­i­ty for the idea of an “anti-neolib­er­al front.”

TG: Some com­rades would argue that the bal­ance of forces as well as the “char­ac­ter of the peri­od” do not allow more than anti-neolib­er­al pol­i­tics. In the Ger­man left it is com­mon to hear the argu­ment that, giv­en dif­fer­ent pos­si­ble roads of cap­i­tal­ist devel­op­ment (either more author­i­tar­i­an and neolib­er­al or more social and demo­c­ra­t­ic) as well as the bal­ance of forces, any­thing we do is push­ing for a bet­ter cap­i­tal­ism. Thus we cre­ate bet­ter con­di­tions for class strug­gle, social move­ments and more space for the Left. In oth­er words, in their per­spec­tive there is only one solu­tion. But that’s not rev­o­lu­tion­ary pol­i­tics; it is called in Ger­man the “Refor­mal­ter­na­tive.” The late Poulantzas, with his inter­est in left Euro­com­mu­nism, is a point of ref­er­ence for these kind of strate­gies. What is your reply to these strate­gic sug­ges­tions?

PS: I think that such an approach is a very anti-dialec­ti­cal one. The very idea that the Left can present a project of a bet­ter cap­i­tal­ism and thus cre­ate a bet­ter ter­rain for move­ments is almost absurd. I mean the very his­to­ry of the work­ers’ move­ment sug­gests that when­ev­er there was a “bet­ter” cap­i­tal­ism, this was not the result of the Left pro­mot­ing alliances for a good cap­i­tal­ism. It has always been the out­come of autonomous and mil­i­tant strug­gles and of a broad­er anti-cap­i­tal­ist chal­lenge to the exist­ing social order, exem­pli­fied in the com­mu­nist move­ment of the 20th cen­tu­ry. Only such dynam­ics could force the cap­i­tal­ist pow­ers to make reforms and con­ces­sions to the sub­al­tern class­es.

More­over, such an approach under­es­ti­mates anoth­er impor­tant aspect of the cur­rent con­junc­ture: the com­bi­na­tion of the neolib­er­al fuite en avant. This has been the answer to the 2007-8 cap­i­tal­ist cri­sis. Increased author­i­tar­i­an sta­tism and an almost “post-hege­mon­ic” approach, along with the ero­sion of any demo­c­ra­t­ic process, has meant there is not much space for reforms towards a “bet­ter” cap­i­tal­ism. Of course, the class strug­gle nev­er ends and there is a con­stant char­ac­ter to social antag­o­nism. At the same time, the actu­al deci­sion-mak­ing process­es are more insu­lat­ed against the inter­ven­tion of the sub­al­tern class­es than at any time in the past.

What is need­ed is a much more con­fronta­tion­al approach that presents a rad­i­cal alter­na­tive. We are now talk­ing about a tran­si­tion­al pro­gram, a series of inter­linked demands and goals that chal­lenge the pow­er of the cap­i­tal­ists, accen­tu­ate the con­tra­dic­tions of the cur­rent form of bour­geois pol­i­tics and cri­sis-man­age­ment and open up the way for a post-cap­i­tal­ist social con­fig­u­ra­tion. Such a pro­gram­mat­ic approach can, on the one hand, re-estab­lish the Left as a tru­ly anti-sys­temic force, draw a line of demar­ca­tion with bour­geois forces, sug­gest an alter­na­tive nar­ra­tive (and not the fan­ta­sy of a bet­ter cap­i­tal­ism) and offer a polit­i­cal per­spec­tive for mass move­ments. Such an approach can real­ly open up the way for tru­ly hege­mon­ic projects of the forces of labor, and can cre­ate con­di­tions for a Left that aims at not only resis­tance, but also pow­er and hege­mo­ny.

I can under­stand the pos­si­ble invo­ca­tion of Poulantzas in such debates and posi­tions. Yet Poulantzas nev­er referred to a left that would sim­ply strug­gle for reforms. Even when he made a polit­i­cal turn to the “demo­c­ra­t­ic road” we should nev­er for­get that he was refer­ring to a “demo­c­ra­t­ic road to social­ism,” a process where a par­lia­men­tary vic­to­ry of the Left with a rad­i­cal pro­gram towards social­ist trans­for­ma­tion would be com­bined with strong autonomous social move­ments in a com­plex process of social trans­for­ma­tion. We can crit­i­cize these posi­tions and bring for­ward their con­tra­dic­tions and lacu­nae, such as Poulantzas’s under­es­ti­ma­tion of how the state appa­ra­tus would react to such a chal­lenge, or his all-too-pos­i­tive approach to the pos­si­bil­i­ty of col­lab­o­ra­tion of the com­mu­nist left with par­ties like PASOK, yet we must admit that he nev­er sug­gest­ed an alliance with social-demo­c­ra­t­ic forces just in the name of “bet­ter cap­i­tal­ism.”

More­over, Poulantzas also real­ized that sim­ply aim­ing at gov­ern­men­tal pow­er was not the answer to the ques­tion of strat­e­gy, even if he cham­pi­oned – con­tra more clas­si­cal “insur­rec­tion­ist” approach­es – the pos­si­bil­i­ty of a “demo­c­ra­t­ic road.” He always gave cre­dence to the impor­tance of mass move­ments from below, autonomous move­ments that would also pres­sure even a left-wing gov­ern­ment to over­come its short­com­ings, move in a more rad­i­cal direc­tion, ini­ti­ate process­es of trans­for­ma­tion and answer any poten­tial counter-offen­sives from the part of the bour­geois forces. Take the fol­low­ing pas­sage from a 1979 inter­view by Poulantzas:

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.12

TG: What would an alter­na­tive strat­e­gy look like? As far as I can see, there are three major alter­na­tive strate­gies dis­cussed in the rad­i­cal left. First, the idea of an anti-monop­o­lis­tic alliance and a pro­gres­sive democ­ra­cy. This is for exam­ple the strate­gic frame­work of the declin­ing Ger­man Com­mu­nist Par­ty. Sec­ond, the idea of non-state rad­i­cal pol­i­tics, in its dif­fer­ent vari­eties – anar­cho-syn­di­cal­ism or some autonomous cur­rents. And last but not least, rev­o­lu­tion­ary Marx­ist orga­ni­za­tions most­ly of a Trot­sky­ist cur­rent, orga­niz­ing their pol­i­tics around the idea of a deep rev­o­lu­tion­ary cri­sis and the devel­op­ment of sit­u­a­tions of dual pow­er. Do you see an alter­na­tive approach? In a dis­cus­sion I attend­ed last year, Stathis Kou­ve­lakis argued for a left gov­ern­ment that would mobi­lize for anti-cap­i­tal­ist reforms work­ing togeth­er and in ten­sion with social move­ments.

PS: This is sure­ly an open and rather dif­fi­cult ques­tion. First, I think that the idea of an anti-monop­o­lis­tic alliance is based on a mis­ap­pre­hen­sion of the dom­i­nant social bloc. The con­trast between monop­o­lies and more medi­um or small bour­geoisie is a ten­sion with­in the dom­i­nant bloc which is man­aged by the dom­i­nant seg­ments of the pow­er bloc. For instance, we can see how “monop­oly cap­i­tal” instru­men­tal­izes labor dereg­u­la­tion and over­ex­ploita­tion to main­tain its lead­ing role rel­a­tive to medi­um and small busi­ness­es. More­over, the repro­duc­tion of medi­um and small busi­ness­es in many cas­es is con­di­tioned upon the strat­e­gy of monop­oly cap­i­tal (out­sourc­ing and new flex­i­ble forms of concentration/centralization). It is one thing to try to think of a poten­tial alliance with the self-employed or very small busi­ness and anoth­er to insist on the fan­ta­sy of an alliance with pro­gres­sive ele­ments of the bour­geoisie.

There is the idea that we can do away with pol­i­tics in the sense of a strug­gle for rev­o­lu­tion­ary pow­er. From Alain Badiou’s “pol­i­tics at a dis­tance from the state” to John Holloway’s notion of chang­ing the world with­out tak­ing pow­er, there is an abun­dance of exam­ples.13 How­ev­er great the changes made by autonomous move­ments, there is a lim­it. We need strong, autonomous, and vic­to­ri­ous social move­ments, just as we need suc­cess­ful exper­i­ments of alter­na­tive social con­fig­u­ra­tions such as the expe­ri­ence in self-man­age­ment. Yet this is not enough. Social change also needs con­fronta­tion with the pow­er of the dom­i­nant class­es: the pow­er that is mate­ri­al­ized and con­densed in state appa­ra­tus­es. This is espe­cial­ly true if we look at cur­rent forms of author­i­tar­i­an sta­tism, espe­cial­ly in the form of state of per­ma­nent eco­nom­ic excep­tion and urgency (such as the “regime” imposed by the Troi­ka in Greece). There is a ten­den­cy towards the pre-emp­tive under­min­ing of social move­ments and towards the dras­tic reduc­tion of the pos­si­bil­i­ty of major changes induced by move­ments. There is an extreme insu­la­tion of the deci­sion-mak­ing process against such devel­op­ments. In such a con­junc­ture you need polit­i­cal pow­er to change the world.

How­ev­er, the idea that the seizure of pow­er would be a sim­ple rep­e­ti­tion of Octo­ber 1917 is absurd. This is more fan­ta­sy than an actu­al strat­e­gy, and in cer­tain cas­es (the cur­rent anti-cap­i­tal­ist rhetoric of the Greek Com­mu­nist Par­ty is an exam­ple that comes to mind) an excuse for not doing much. I can under­stand the defence of the rev­o­lu­tion­ary road as an ide­o­log­i­cal ref­er­ence point against polit­i­cal and the­o­ret­i­cal anti­com­mu­nism, yet this has to be trans­lat­ed into strat­e­gy. This means actu­al­ly think­ing about the con­junc­ture, the oppor­tu­ni­ties offered and the orig­i­nal ways nec­es­sary to take advan­tage of them. In no case does it mean con­stant­ly treat­ing the sit­u­a­tions as “not ripe enough.” In 2010-12 Greece came clos­er to a hege­mon­ic cri­sis than any Euro­pean coun­try since the “fall of the dic­ta­tor­ships” in the mid-1970’s. What could be more “ripe” than that?

Does this mean sim­ply com­bin­ing a left gov­ern­ment with a tran­si­tion­al pro­gram and strong autonomous move­ments form below? I think that we need a more dialec­ti­cal approach. On the one hand, recent devel­op­ments not only in Europe but also in the pre­vi­ous decade in Latin Amer­i­ca have shown the pos­si­bil­i­ty that in a con­di­tion of extreme social and polit­i­cal cri­sis that leads to mass move­ments and to major breaks in the rela­tions of rep­re­sen­ta­tion artic­u­lat­ed around sys­temic par­ties, it is pos­si­ble for forces of the rad­i­cal left to reach gov­ern­men­tal pow­er. At the same time, the extent of the trans­for­ma­tion of the state (the solid­i­fi­ca­tion and mate­ri­al­iza­tion of a class rela­tion of forces in favor of cap­i­tal), and the degree of devel­op­ment of author­i­tar­i­an sta­tism mean that it is very dif­fi­cult to exer­cise pow­er in a nor­mal way. This is espe­cial­ly true when we talk about a gov­ern­ment that (in con­trast to SYRIZA) would have gone all the way towards a rup­ture with the Euro­pean Union and impe­ri­al­ism (since it is impos­si­ble to have any form of social change with­in the embed­ded neolib­er­al­ism of the Euro­zone and the EU insti­tu­tion­al frame­work).

What is need­ed is an excess of pop­u­lar pow­er from below to counter the cap­i­tal­ist strate­gies inscribed in the very mate­ri­al­i­ty of the state and to answer poten­tial bour­geois counter-offen­sives. We need not just strong move­ments but also nov­el forms of dual pow­er. Soon­er or lat­er it would need to not only run the state or reform it but also to bring about a more pro­found trans­for­ma­tion in a process that would require a rup­ture with the bour­geoisie and lead to a con­stituent process that could imple­ment insti­tu­tion­al arrange­ments antag­o­nis­tic to the cap­i­tal­ist ones: lim­its to own­er­ship, new forms of democ­ra­cy, new forms of par­tic­i­pa­to­ry plan­ning, demo­c­ra­t­ic con­trol, and reduc­tion of oppres­sive mech­a­nisms.

These can­not be sim­ple abstract blue­prints for the future. They must be based on real expe­ri­ences and exper­i­men­ta­tions, the col­lec­tive inge­nu­ity of the mass­es, the learn­ing process asso­ci­at­ed with move­ments and rad­i­cal pol­i­tics, and open the­o­ret­i­cal debate. Rad­i­cal or rev­o­lu­tion­ary pol­i­tics is a process of con­stant exper­i­men­ta­tion. Unfor­tu­nate­ly most orga­ni­za­tions and fronts of the Left have failed so far to become the kind of col­lec­tive lab­o­ra­to­ries for the pro­duc­tion of strate­gies, dis­cours­es, and intel­lec­tu­al­ism need­ed. Even the expe­ri­ence of SYRIZA, if we take it as a test case, has not dealt with its trag­ic defi­cien­cies and defeats.

Some will argue that now we only need resis­tance and move­ments since the “win­dow of oppor­tu­ni­ty” for rev­o­lu­tion­ary pol­i­tics has closed, where per­haps it was open in 2010-12. The reply is that strate­gic debate has nev­er been a lux­u­ry for the Left. From 1848 to the Paris Com­mune to the 1905 rev­o­lu­tion to 1917 the idea that we learn from major expe­ri­ences and con­stant­ly reassess and trans­form com­mu­nist the­o­ry and prac­tice and even rev­o­lu­tion­ize strat­e­gy has been like oxy­gen for both Marx­ism and the work­ing class move­ment. We need that oxy­gen today.

  1. Nicos Poulantzas, Class­es in Con­tem­po­rary Cap­i­tal­ism, trans. David Fern­bach (Lon­don: Ver­so, 1979), 26. 

  2. Anto­nio Gram­sci, Selec­tions from the Prison Note­books, trans. Quintin Hoare and Geof­frey Now­ell Smith (Lon­don: Lawrence and Wishart, 1971), 244. 

  3. Poulantzas, Class­es in Con­tem­po­rary Cap­i­tal­ism, 25. 

  4. Ibid., 14. 

  5. Poulantzas argued that the con­di­tions of monop­oly cap­i­tal­ism give rise to a new pet­ty bour­geoisie class of non-pro­duc­tive salaried work­ers. Exam­ples include office work­ers, engi­neers, and tech­ni­cians. 

  6. Poulantzas, Class­es in Con­tem­po­rary Cap­i­tal­ism, 21. 

  7. See, for exam­ple, Nicos Poulantzas, “The State, Social Move­ments, Par­ty: Inter­view with Nicos Poulantzas (1979),” trans. Patrick King, View­point Mag­a­zine

  8. Nicos Poulantzas, “Inter­view with Nicos Poulantzas,” in The Poulantzas Read­er: Marx­ism, Law and the State, trans. James Mar­tin (Lon­don: Ver­so, 2008) 387-388. 

  9. Nicos Poulantzas, State, Pow­er Social­ism, trans. Patrick Camiller (Lon­don: New Left Books, 1978). The chap­ter in ques­tion is enti­tled “Part Five: Towards a Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ism.” 

  10. See the debate between Hen­ri Weber and Poulantzas in The Poulantzas Read­er, 334-360 and Buci-Glucksmann’s many inter­ven­tions in the review Dialec­tiques

  11. Nicos Poulantzas, “On the ques­tion of alliances,” Ago­nas, July 1970 (in Greek, writ­ten under the pseu­do­nym, N. Skyr­i­anos). 

  12. Poulantzas, “The State, Social Move­ments, Par­ty.” 

  13. John Hol­loway, Change the World With­out Tak­ing Pow­er (Lon­don: Plu­to, 2002). 

Authors of the article

has taught social and political philosophy as an adjunct lecturer at the University of Crete, Panteion University, the University of the Aegean, and the University of Athens. His research interests include Marxist philosophy, the work of Louis Althusser, and social and political movements in Greece.

is a sociologist, focusing on Sociology of Work and Labor Relations. He is working at the Soziologisches Forschungsinstitut (SOFI) Göttingen, is a member of »Organisieren Kämpfen Gewinnen«, Projekt M and DIE LINKE.