Nicos Poulantzas and the Capitalist State

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In the first of a series on the ideas of Marxist political theorist Nicos Poulantzas, Chris Walsh argues that his theory of the capitalist state is essential for any serious attempt to understand this problematic issue in the Marxist tradition.

Nicos Poulantzas is a name that, today, is little known and seldom discussed out with certain academic circles.  On the few occasions that the Greek Marxist is referenced by the organized Left, it is usually in relation to his public debate with Ralph Miliband on the nature of the State; or as an alleged proponent of Structural Marxism after Althusser.  However, neither context provides a particularly accurate representation of this dynamic thinker: the Miliband debate only provides a small detail of Poulantzas’s rich investigations into the capitalist State; whilst reducing his lifelong political researches to the category of ‘Structural Marxism’ is inaccurate and unfair. In a short series of articles we will attempt to provide a more rounded (though brief and hopefully accessible) portrayal of Poulantzas’s thought: specifically his theories of the ‘expanded’ state, owing a considerable debt (more than he himself would acknowledge) to Gramsci’s concept of the ‘Integral State’ and his multi-faceted understanding of class domination in the advanced capitalist West.  Far from a mere academic irrelevancy, Poulantzas is perhaps the most important post-war theorist for those seeking to advance Marxist theories of the State beyond crude instrumentalism and subjectivism.


Poulantzas identified hegemony as strategically specific to the capitalist mode of production (CMP).  As opposed to previous systems, the relations of production within capitalism are maintained and reproduced not only by the State’s use of its monopoly of legitimate violence; but also by establishing the acquiescence of sections of the subaltern masses.  Formally, the capitalist State is classless, representing the national-popular interest; although realistically, it upholds the interests of the dominant classes.  The two major functions of the State are the unification and organization of society’s dominant classes and the disorganization of the dominated classes.  The State ensures that members of the dominated classes do not experience the relations of production as class relations, instead living them as competitive relations among individuals constituted as ‘subjects’ of the democratic people-nation.  Poulantzas called this process ‘the isolation effect’: the State endeavours to prevent the raising of class consciousness within the dominated classes, whilst performing the opposite function for the dominant classes.

The Power Bloc

The first thing to examine in relation to continued supremacy of the dominant classes over the dominated is the specific make-up of each respective ‘bloc’.  It goes without saying that in any advanced capitalist society  there are an array of classes and class fractions beyond the opposing bourgeoisie and proletariat, although these are the primary components (although they themselves are highly stratified) of the dominant and dominated classes respectively.  For now we will focus on the dominant classes.  Poulantzas understood that economically dominant classes within society could only establish their political dominance through the capitalist State – the fundamental role of which is to protect the overall political interests of the dominant classes.  Poulantzas called the conglomerate of classes whose political interests are upheld by the State (i.e. the ruling classes) the ‘power bloc’.  The power bloc is comprised of various fractions of the capitalist class as well as other economically powerful classes or class fractions such as the landed aristocracy, elements of the petty bourgeoisie etc.  The interests of the components of the power bloc are heterogeneous (“We are dealing with fiefs, clans and factions: a multiplicity of diversified micro-policies.”)[i].  The exact make-up of the power bloc and balance of forces therein (which we will return to later) varies from State to State.

Since the specific interests of the various components of the power bloc are divergent, it is the State’s role to unify and organize the various classes and fractions to uphold their long-term political interests against the threat of the exploited and oppressed classes.  This unification is only possible if one class or fraction becomes the decision making body within the state, always prioritizing its own interests but simultaneously upholding the political interests of the entire bloc.  Poulantzas explains,

“The power bloc can in the end only operate under the hegemony and leadership of the component that cements it together in the face of the class enemy.  The strategic organization of the State destines it to function under the hegemony of a class or fraction located within it.  At the same time, the privileged position of this class or fraction is a constitutive element of its hegemony within the constellation of the relationship of forces.”[ii]

There will always be contradictory and competing interests and strategies between different sections of the ruling classes.  It is the State’s role, with the dominant class or fraction at the helm, to ensure that such internal contradictions within the power bloc are not allowed to pose a threat to the unity and dominance of the bloc as a whole.  Poulantzas saw the State as playing an active role in the reproduction of the relations of production and maintenance of the class-hierarchical status quo, therefore petty differences within the power bloc cannot be allowed to hinder the State’s task in maintaining the subordinance of the subaltern classes.  This is only possible if one class becomes dominant within the bloc and takes the strategic responsibility upon itself.

The dominant fraction must then, be doubly hegemonic: not only must it maintain hegemony within the power bloc, but also within society at large.  For Poulantzas, hegemony is “the unique organizing principle of the capitalist state.”[iii]  The capitalist State, unlike that of any previous mode of production, relies upon consent from the populace as well as straight violence to assure the continued maintenance of the relations of production.  As such, the State must present itself as representing the common interest of the nation and its citizens (the national-popular interest).  It must simultaneously articulate a strategy which maintains the unity of the dominant classes and protects their long-term political interests whilst winning popular support from sections of the subaltern classes.  Such popular support is garnered on the one hand from the subaltern classes formally having a stake in the political process through democratic institutions; and more specifically through economic concessions granted to them from above in the form of pay rises, welfare provision etc.  In this way, the State can appear not to represent the interests of the dominant classes since its policies may be immediately economically detrimental to sections of the power bloc.

“The capitalist state does not directly represent the economic interests of the dominant classes but their political interests.  Thus economic concessions which further the immediate interests of the dominated classes can simultaneously advance the political interests of the dominant classes.  This can occur because the forms in which the dominated classes struggle for concessions contribute significantly to their political disorganization.  Moreover, to the extent that such concessions are won in the face of resistance from the dominant classes, this confirms the state’s claim to represent the general interest.  Viewed in this way state power must be seen in relational terms – that is, as founded on an unstable equilibrium of compromise among class forces, rather than as the monopoly of one class (fraction).”[iv]

The State has a political autonomy from the economic base allowing it to act as “a flexible framework to unify the long-term political interests of an otherwise fissiparous power bloc, disorganize the subaltern classes, and secure the consent of the popular masses.”[v]

Against Instrumentalism

Poulantzas’s investigations into the nature of the capitalist State aimed to demonstrate that analyses that considered the State simply as an instrument utilized by one class (or class coalition) for the suppression of other classes were insufficient.  This approach implies that the State is no more than a class-neutral block of violence that can be wielded by any class (for any class project) and that once a particular class is in possession of the (object) State, State policy is a direct expression of the political will of the ruling class.  Against this approach Poulantzas argued that,

“If the State is apprehended as a tool or instrument, its materiality has no political relevance of its own: it is simply reducible to State power, that is, to one class which manipulates the instrument.”[vi]

The “materiality” of the State is, however, vital to Poulantzas’s analysis.  He maintained that the intrinsic class struggle of the capitalist system is hardwired into the mainframe of the State, that “Class contradictions are the very stuff of the State.”[vii] Thus the actions of the State can never be solely dictated by the ruling class (as subject) but are expressive of the relations of production as well as the particular balance of class forces of the conjuncture.

“The (capitalist) State should not be regarded as an intrinsic entity: like ‘capital’, it is rather a relationship of forces, or more precisely the material condensation of such a relationship among classes and class fractions, such as this is expressed within the State in a necessarily specific form.”[viii]

The State is not simply a tool in the hands of one homogenous ruling class used to maintain the subordinance of the proletariat.  It is a site of strategy on which classes and class fractions from both the dominant and dominated blocs compete to realize their class projects against combatant classes.  The State should be thought of as a “strategic field formed through intersecting power networks which constitutes a favourable terrain for political maneuver by the hegemonic fraction.  It is through constituting this terrain that the state helps to organize the power bloc.”[ix]

The state constitutes the terrain on which classes and fractions maneuver for power by establishing which State apparatuses are powerful and which are not.  There is no hierarchy of powerful apparatuses within the state: there is no ‘top apparatus’ through which power is exercised.

“The centralized unity of the State does not rest on a pyramid of whose summit need only be occupied for effective control to be ensured.  Moreover, even when a Left government manages to gain control of the hitherto dominant apparatus, the state institutional structure enables the bourgeoisie to transpose the role of dominance from one apparatus to another.  In other words, the organization of the bourgeois State allows it to function by successive dislocation and displacement through which the bourgeoisie’s power may be removed from one apparatus to another: the State is not a monolithic bloc, but a strategic field.”[x]

Power is dispersed across different apparatuses within the State and the dominant class or fraction of the power bloc has the ability to alter the capabilities of specific apparatuses should they fall under the control of a rival class or fraction.  Hence, if a bourgeois fraction is dominant by controlling a specific apparatus (i.e. parliament), then loses control of that apparatus to a subaltern fraction; the new class in parliament is not automatically dominant since the State can allow the power of the displaced bourgeois fraction to be realized through another apparatus (i.e. the army).  Poulantzas identified a distinction between ‘real power’ and ‘formal power’.  The former allows classes to realize their objective interests through the State whilst the latter only appears to do so (i.e. a party may be in government but not in power).

Following his analyses of the nature of the capitalist State, Poulantzas arrived at the conclusion that the only prospect for socialism would be through a democratic transition; contrary to the Leninist model which he criticized in the work of Gramsci.  In the following installments we will investigate Poulantzas’s critique of Gramsci and outline his specific theory of power.

[i] Poulantzas, Nicos; State, Power, Socialism (NLB 1978) 135

[ii][ii]Ibid. 136-137

[iii] Jessop, Bob; Nicos Poulantzas: Marxist Theory and Political Strategy (Macmillan 1985) 54

[iv] Ibid. 66

[v] Jessop, Bob; ‘Poulantzas’s State, Power, Socialism as A Modern Classic’; Reading Poulantzas (Ed. Gallas et al.) (Merlin 2011) 41

[vi] Poulantzas, Nicos; State, Power, Socialism (NLB 1978) 129

[vii] Ibid. 132

[viii] Ibid. 128

[ix] Jessop, Bob; Nicos Poulantzas: Marxist Theory and Political Strategy (Macmillan 1985) 125

[x] Poulantzas, Nicos; State, Power, Socialism (NLB 1978) 138

Chris Walsh is a member of the International Socialist Group in Glasgow.

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