Poulantzas and Gramsci: State and Strategy

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In the second instalment of his series on Nicos Poulantzas, Chris Walsh considers the Greek Marxist's relationship to Antonio Gramsci and assesses the usefulness of his strategy for socialists in Europe today.

Nicos Poulantzas’s final major work State, Power, Socialism (SPS) draws on and concludes his expansive researches into the capitalist State in an attempt to offer strategic guidance out of Western Marxism’s crisis of the late 1970s. By this point, Poulantzas had abandoned the Leninism of his earlier career and was a proponent of a Left Eurocommunism. In SPS he offers his own conception of a ‘democratic road to socialism’, which dispenses with such problematic concepts as ‘dual power’ and ‘the Dictatorship of the Proletariat’. Although clearly indebted to Gramsci, Poulantzas uses this text to critique his conception of power, aspects of his understanding of the State, his strategy and, fundamentally, his fidelity to the Leninist tradition. This article will interrogate Poulantzas’s critique of Gramsci; assess the usefulness of the ‘democratic road to socialism’; and attempt to outline which aspects (if any) of the mature Poulantzas’s theory are congruent with a Leninist and Gramscian strategy for socialists today.

Leaving Lenin Behind

The first point to raise about Poulantzas’s critique of Gramsci in SPS is that more often than not, he is setting up a straw-man to tear down. Although he correctly identifies Gramsci as a Leninist, he routinely attributes positions of Lenin’s, made in very specific circumstances, to Gramsci more generally.(For an investigation into the theoretical relationship between Lenin and Gramsci see ‘Gramsci’s Leninism’) Poulantzas writes of Lenin:

“The capitalist State is still considered as a mere object or instrument, capable of being manipulated by the bourgeoisie of which it is an emanation. According to this view of things, the State is not traversed by internal contradictions, but is a monolithic bloc without cracks of any kind. The struggles of the popular masses cannot pass through the state, any more than they can become, in opposition to the bourgeoisie, one of the constituent factors of the institutions of representative democracy. Class contradictions are located between the State and the popular masses standing outside the State.”1

In the first installment of this series, we outlined Poulantzas’s critique of the ‘instrument state’, as outlined by Lenin, instead defining the State as a ‘material condensation of a relationship of forces’. Here, he also challenges the notion of ‘civil society’ constituting a distinct terrain from the State; and the fact that Lenin’s conception sees the State neither as a site of strategy or an arena of class struggle. For Lenin, the State could not be challenged through an internal struggle for and within its apparatuses: it was a state that maintained class order through force alone; it’s monopoly of legitimate violence, its ‘special bodies of armed men’. The only way to challenge for state power was to amass forces outside of the state, within civil society, until the forces for revolution were of equal power to those of the State resulting in a situation of ‘dual power’. This situation, of two rival and parallel powers coexisting in society could only last a short while, until the new working class counter-power finally maneuvers to take hold of the state apparatuses, overthrowing (or ‘smashing’) the existing State and beginning the task of constructing an entirely new state-form, the workers state.

Poulantzas doesn’t really do Lenin a disservice by characterizing his ideas as such. In fact, ‘dual power’ (which he is at such pains to denounce) was not an idea that Lenin dreamt up before the revolution but a phenomenon which organically unfolded during the revolutionary process in Russia. Lenin simply described what had actually taken place.

For the conditions in which Lenin operated, his state theory was correct. He was also all too aware of the fact that conditions in the West were significantly different to those in Russia and thus a completely different revolutionary strategy would be necessary. The real problem with Poulantzas’s critique is that he fails to understand just how different Gramsci’s strategy and conception of the State are from Lenin’s. He thus assumes that ‘dual power’ for Gramsci is identical to ‘dual power’ as described by Lenin. Crucially, by not acknowledging Gramsci’s concept of the ‘integral state’, Poulantzas wrongly characterizes Gramsci as “a prisoner to the topographical metaphors of the Leninist tradition”2 who “posits civil society as a lowlands external to the state, the locus for the construction of a possible counter-power.”3 An explanation of the concept of the ‘integral state’ will clarify Poulantzas’s error.

The Integral State

In Poulantzas’s investigations into the capitalist State, he saw fit to dispense of the traditional couplet of ‘state/civil society’; thinking it useless when considering the ubiquitousness of the modern State. Gramsci, of course, understood this trend long before Poulantzas; but instead of abandoning the terms, he continued to find use for them as component parts of the new expanded state-form that he himself theorized as the ‘integral state’. It would be easy, now, to denigrate Poulantzas for this oversight; but we mustn’t forget that within the Prison Notebooks, particularly the early books, the terms ‘state’ and ‘civil society’ are still used regularly whilst the concept of the ‘integral state’ is not referenced explicitly until much later. Today’s student also has the benefit of a not inconsiderable body of scholarship investigating and unpacking the ideas of Antonio Gramsci. Referring specifically to the concept of the ‘integral state’, Peter Thomas’s The Gramscian Moment provides an explanation of the concept with a clarity and thoroughness that previously just wasn’t available to us.

For Gramsci, the ‘integral state’ was a new type of state-form which engulfed both political and civil society. Whereas the State that Lenin and the Bolsheviks dealt with in Russia was ‘above society’; in the advanced capitalist West, the state and civil society are not two distinct entities but two component parts of the same organism (the ‘integral state’). There is a dialectical relationship between the two parts so that the capacities of the state to act are always dependant upon the balance of class and social forces, and the role of actors, within civil society (“the ‘social basis’ of the integral state.”4 ) Far from complying with the outmoded ‘topographical metaphors’ which Poulantzas accuses him of, with the concept of the ‘integral state’ Gramsci provides a rich and complex theory of the State that Poulantzas’s formulation has a great deal in common with.

Peter Thomas, in an invaluable article critiquing Poulantzas’s critique of Gramsci, describes the ‘integral state’:

“Gramsci comprehended ‘political’ and ‘civil society’ as ‘attributes’ of the ‘substance’ of the ‘integral state’: whereas ‘political society’ refers to this ‘substance-state’ after the consolidation of the political power of a class in (state) institutions on the basis of the degree of coercion, ‘civil society’ is associated with the constitution of such (potential) political power in forces on the social terrain on the basis of consent.”5

Poulantzas criticized Lenin and Gramsci for situating class struggle outside of the State. Once we comprehend the ‘integral state’ it’s clear that he was mistaken in the case of Gramsci. Classes (and class fractions) primarily compete for hegemony within civil society; but this civil hegemony must progress into political hegemony “by capture of the legal monopoly of violence embodied in the institutions of political society, or the state understood in a limited sense, that is, the state apparatus.”6 If leadership within the social basis of the integral state (civil hegemony) cannot quickly evolve into political hegemony, then the State can (and will) simply crush the threat to ruling class with the repressive state apparatuses. In every state, no matter how much effort is made to garner consent from the subaltern classes, in the last analysis it is violence that maintains the dominance of the ruling classes.

Classes cannot constitute themselves as real political forces anywhere but political society. Forces amassed within civil society (social forces), only represent the ‘potential’ for political power; such power can only be consummated through expression in political society.

For Gramsci then, ‘dual power’ does not mean an amassing of forces external to the State which can then overthrow it, but a struggle within the ‘integral state’ concurrently building hegemony within ‘civil society’ whilst being vigilant to exploit opportunities to maneuver for power within ‘political society’. Thomas again,

“The path to political power for the proletariat would involve, in the first instance, modifying the relation of forces within the integral state, dislocating the mutual reinforcement of coercion and consent exploited by the bourgeoisie in order to further its own class domination…The state apparatuses of the bourgeoisie could be neutralized only when the proletariat had deprived it of its ‘social basis’ through the elaboration of an alternative hegemonic project.”7

It could not be clearer: the consent of the ruling classes can only be undermined by an alternative hegemonic project articulated by a working class movement on the terrain of civil society. Once consent is retracted, a political crisis ensues, and maneuvers for state power are on the agenda.

The phrase ‘mutual reinforcement of coercion and consent is important’: the continued dominance of ruling class ‘common sense’ is ensured by the forceful quelling of dissenting narratives within civil society; whilst as long as this ‘common sense’ ensures the populace that the repressive apparatuses are for its own good (i.e. “crime is on the rise so we need more police on the streets”or “strikes are detrimental to the whole of society, it’s for everyone’s good if the army breaks them up.”) a majority of the population will tend to agree and support the coercion. The multitude of apparatuses that maintain the hegemony of a class (or seek to build a counter-hegemony) within the ‘integral state’ at every level of society is described as the ‘hegemonic apparatus.’ It is this sprawling apparatus that is utilized by a class in the translation of civil hegemony to political hegemony. “Or, to modify the concept of the capitalist state in Poulantzas’s late works, the hegemonic apparatus is a ‘material condensation of a relation of forces’ within a class or class alliance that permits it to confront its antagonist at a political level.”8

Poulantzas criticized Gramsci for not viewing the state in ‘relational terms’, but it is clear that he did: If the ‘integral state’ is the means by which both force is exerted and consent is garnered, as long as rival classes provide their consent and play a role in the hegemonic project of the ruling class; then the state is acting as a social relation. Just as Poulantzas understood that the dominant class or fraction within the ‘power bloc’ had to make class alliances and appeal for consent from other classes both within the bloc and external to it; Gramsci understood that in order for the ruling class to maintain their dominance with minimal tumult, concessions are made to sections of the subaltern classes to ensure their continued support for their class project. The State is not then, homogeneously bourgeois; but riven with class contradictions. It is in fact, for Gramsci long before Poulantzas, “a material and institutional condensation of power relations between and within classes.”9

Finally, Poulantzas criticized Gramsci for imagining political power as a ‘quantifiable substance’ that classes compete to possess. It is in fact the ability of a class to “realize their specific interests” in “opposition to the capacity (and interests) of other classes: the field of power is therefore strictly relational.”10

He rejected a ‘zero-sum’ conception of power in which the loss of power by one class necessarily leads to the gain of an equal measure of power by another opposing class, since there are class relations on numerous levels both internal to the dominant and dominated classes but also (more obviously) between classes in these opposing blocs. The network of power relations is so vast that power lost by one particular class or fraction could represent power gained by any number of other classes and fractions, both in rival hegemonic projects and within class alliances.11

The logic of the ‘integral state’ as outlined above demonstrates that Gramsci also understood power in these same ‘relational terms’. The power relation, for Gramsci, does not just exist between competing classes; but is evident in the process of developing civil hegemony into (institutional) political hegemony. Political power “is immanent to the hegemonic projects by means of which classes constitute themselves as classes (relations within classes) capable of exercising political power (as opposed to an incoherent mass of ‘corporative’ interests confined to the terrain of civil society). Only subsequently do such concrete social relations, in their relationships with other classes, take on state-form.”12

As we saw earlier, forces within civil society can only represent potential power. Once a class gains a foothold in political society, real political power depends upon its ability to “relate adequately to its ‘social basis’ in civil society.”13 The continued support of the class alliances made within civil society must be ensured by a class’s actions in political society remaining true to the hegemonic project to which they consented. This consent cannot be lost, since the position within political society depends upon it.

Towards a Democratic Socialism

One of the tasks of this article is to investigate the continuity between Gramsci’s concept of ‘war of position’ and Poulantzas’s ‘democratic road to socialism’. In unpacking the ‘integral state’, we have been able to undermine a number of Poulantzas’s criticisms of Gramsci, namely: that he suggested that class struggle always takes place external to the state; that power was a ‘quantifiable substance’ rather than a social relation; that ‘state’ and ‘civil society’ represent two distinct and separate terrains; and that a ‘dual power’ strategy means “encirclement of a fortress state.”14 Now we can assess the similarities between Gramsci’s real outlook (as illuminated by Peter Thomas, rather than Poulantzas’s misinterpretation) and the ‘democratic road to socialism’.

In revolutionary circles, due to his abandonment of ‘the Dictatorship of the Proletariat’, Poulantzas has too often been dismissed out of hand as a just another treacherous reformist; some have even gone so far as to question whether he is even a socialist.15 However, in Europe today the radical left’s significant gains in the electoral field are pushing old questions about socialist activity in ‘bourgeois parliaments’ to the fore once more. The radical left coalition Syriza’s narrow defeat in the Greek elections provoked intense argument about whether or not revolutionaries should offer the project their support. The question, ‘what does it mean to be a revolutionary in Europe today?’ is by no means a simple one: one thing that can be said, though, is that there isn’t a strategist worth their salt who imagines that a socialist revolution can be achieved without competing for power in political society. Engagement in political society alone cannot lead to a socialist society, but reforms can be won if we act within the state’s institutions and through securing such reforms we can build support for a more radical and ambitious vision than the system as it exists can accommodate.

Now, to Poulantzas’s idea of the ‘democratic road to socialism’:

“For state power to be taken, a mass struggle must have unfolded in such a way as to modify the relationship of forces within the state apparatuses, themselves a strategic site of political struggle. For a dual-power type of strategy, however, the decisive shift in the relationship of forces takes place not within the State but between the State and the masses outside. In the democratic road to socialism, the long process of taking power essentially consists in the spreading, development, reinforcement, coordination and direction of those diffuse centres of resistance which the masses always possess within the state networks, in such a way that they become the real centres of power on the strategic terrain of the State.”16

The misrepresentation of ‘dual power’ we have already addressed, we needn’t go over it again. The notion of altering “the relationship of forces” within the state and “the spreading, development, reinforcement, coordination and direction of those diffuse centres of resistance” sounds very similar to Peter Thomas’s explanation of a working class hegemonic project “modifying the relation of forces within the integral state, dislocating the mutual reinforcement of coercion and consent.” For Gramsci, the dislocation of consent is achieved by an alternative hegemonic project uniting an alliance of oppressed and exploited classes within civil society which can then challenge the ruling class politically through state institutions. For Poulantzas the “centres of resistance” (apparatuses controlled by subaltern classes) are coordinated (this is only possible under the hegemony of one class) and increased in number until they become “the real centres of power”. How the transition from resistances to the power of the dominant classes (formal power) to actual power centres (real power) occurs is never made explicitly clear by Poulantzas but he does go on to write:

“To shift the relationship of forces within the State does not mean to win successive reforms in an unbroken chain, to conquer the state machinery piece by piece, or simply to occupy the positions of government. It denotes nothing other than a stage of real breaks, the climax of which – and there has to be one – is reached when the relationship of forces on the strategic terrain of the State swings over to the side of the popular masses.”17

The subaltern classes give political expression to their projects by challenging state institutions. Importantly, Poulantzas also stresses the necessity of establishing new institutions and new centres of working class organization.

“It is not simply a matter of entering state institutions (parliament, economic and social councils, ‘planning’ bodies, etc.) in order to use their characteristic levers for a good purpose. In addition, struggle must always express itself in the development of popular movements, the mushrooming of democratic organs at the base, and the rise of centres of self-management… The question of who is in power to do what cannot be isolated from these struggles for self-management or direct democracy”18

This is important. Poulantzas’s strategy by no means advocates the abandonment of struggle in the communities, workplaces, campuses etc. He, like Gramsci, also recognizes that the expression of a class project in political society must correspond to a social base in civil society. He is not saying that we simply compete for control of state institutions until we eventually have more power than the bourgeoisie et voila socialism: entirely new working class institutions have to be formed which can be put to use by socialists operating within political society. There is no reason why a version of a ‘democratic road to socialism’ shouldn’t include workers’ militias, women’s assemblies, housing scheme tenancy organizations etc. In fact, for Poulantzas, forces external to political society are absolutely vital if his strategy is to be carried through since, “A broad popular movement constitutes a guarantee against the reaction of the enemy, even though it is not sufficient and must always be linked to sweeping transformations of the State.”19

The point here is that if a socialist hegemonic project on the terrain of political society maintains the consent of its social basis; it will always have mass numbers willing to fight for it if and when it faces clandestine attempts to quell the radical potential of the experience or explicit, violent bourgeois reaction. With regards to the latter he notes, “Clearly, the democratic road to socialism will not simply be a peaceful changeover.”20 Indeed, but if Poulantzas accepts the inevitability of a violent bourgeois backlash; then he is no position to reject the ‘Dictatorship of the Proletariat’.

Poulantzas’s problem with the concept of the ‘Dictatorship of the Proletariat’ is its authoritarian nature and failure to allow a ‘plurality of parties’. Of course, there could quite conceivably be a ‘plurality of parties’ under these conditions: only parties that would pose a direct threat to the gains of the revolution and seek to revert back to the previous order would be forbidden (which we presume Poulantzas could not take issue with). The precarious nature of the temporary stage of the ‘Dictatorship of the Proletariat’ demands the highest vigilance against bourgeois reaction. The influence of the deposed class may still be considerable; therefore all caution must be taken to protect the gains of the revolution: this includes limiting the liberties of bourgeois threat. Previously, we have explained the ‘Dictatorship of the Proletariat’ as similar to the ‘domination’ aspect of Gramscian hegemony:

“A class is dominant in two ways, namely it is “leading” and “dominant.” It leads the allied classes, it dominates the opposing classes. Therefore, a class can (and must) “lead” even before assuming power; when it is in power it becomes dominant, but it also continues to ‘lead’.”21

After a revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist state (or ‘radical transformation’ thereof), the new hegemonic class must continue to dominate the deposed bourgeoisie in order that it isn’t given the opportunity to forcefully regain dominance. In recognizing the reality of such a threat, Poulantzas cannot deny the necessity of “a ‘special coercive force’ for the suppression of the bourgeoisie by the proletariat”22 , or ‘the Dictatorship of the Proletariat’.

The last, and most controversial, aspect of the strategy to be addressed is the fact that within the ‘democratic road to socialism’ “there is no longer a place for what has traditionally been called smashing or destroying”23 the state apparatuses. Poulantzas no longer speaks of revolution, only ‘radical transformation’. For Poulantzas, because of the democratic road to socialism’s necessary transformation of the relationship of forces within the state; the materiality of the various apparatuses will also be transformed. His argument is that such a radical transformation alters the State so significantly that its individual apparatuses should no longer be seen as the same entities, thus the State is no longer a ‘bourgeois state. This is obviously problematic. If he is willing to accept that new working class institutions will have to be started from scratch on the terrain of civil society; then surely it is conceivable that, if socialists were to take power, these new institutions would be able to (and in fact would have to) replace the make shift institutions transformed from the previous bourgeois state as the new centres of power. The other apparatuses were part of a bourgeois class project and as such will not be suitable for a working class hegemonic project – therefore, operation of said apparatuses must necessarily be transitory, only until they are negated by the new institutions created specifically for a working class project.

An acceptable (though slightly altered) interpretation of Poulantzas’s strategy might read something like this: a working class movement must compete for state power through the already existing political institutions; establishing control over certain state apparatuses primarily begins to offer resistance to bourgeois class projects; any representation in institutional form must correspond to social support at a distance from the state apparatuses; self-organization and the establishment of new working class institutions must begin; connecting and coordinating (through a common project) the “diffuse power centres” within the State begins to alter the relationship of forces therein; an alternative hegemonic project can be articulated undermining the consent of the ruling class causing a political crisis; the political expression of the alternative hegemonic project provides a “real break” in the alteration of class forces within the State (most likely, but no means necessarily, by establishing a parliamentary majority); electoral success must be supported by the project’s social basis which will help ensure that a violent backlash from the deposed ruling class can be quelled; taking hold of the institutions of the state cannot be permanent – the new institutions that have already been established out with the existing state apparatuses, which are tailored to this specific project, should become the new power centres in a new state; the old institutions should be disbanded or destroyed.

Obviously this is working rather loosely with Poulantzas’s own outlook and there are aspects of it that he would reject outright. However, the point has not been to prove that Poulantzas’s ‘democratic road to socialism’ offers a blueprint for socialist strategy today but to illuminate which parts are useful and attempt to incorporate his expansive research on the State and the nature of domination in advanced capitalist Europe into a revolutionary strategy. Poulantzas may have gone too far with some of his conclusions and been too quick to distance himself from certain vital concepts; but his mature works stimulate much needed debate around socialist strategy for our time. In remedying some of his errors with regards to Gramsci, we can begin to right some of the wrongs of Poulantzas’s conclusions. Gramsci recognised that to create a force capable of challenging the State there would necessarily have to be,

“a phase of transformation within the existing state. His belated embracing of the strategy of the United Front…meant a tactical movement with the strategic goal of empowering the subaltern classes, by means of the experience of dealing with the representative institutions of the state, to make the transition from a leading to a dominant group. The primary goal remained the foundation of a ‘state of a new type’.”24

The goal must always be the establishment of a ‘state of a new type’, a workers’ state; but this will only ever come to pass if we build a counter-hegemonic project which can challenge for state power within political society.

[1] Poulantzas, Nicos; State, Power, Socialism; (NLB 1978); 254

[2] Thomas, Peter; ‘Conjuncture of the Integral State?: Poulantzas’s Reading of Gramsci’; Reading Poulantzas; (Merlin 2011) 279

[3] Ibid. 280

[4] Ibid. 287

[5] Ibid. 288

[6] Ibid. 285

[7] Ibid. 289

[8] Thomas, Peter D.; The Gramscian Moment: Philosophy, Hegemony and Marxism; (Haymarket Books 2009); 226

[9] Thomas; 2011; 285

[10] Poulantzas; 1978; 147

[11] Poulantzas, Nicos; Political Power and Social Classes;  (NLB & Sheed and Ward 1973) 119

[12] Thomas 2009; 226

[13] Thomas 2011, 289

[14] Poulantzas 1978; 258

[15] Barker, Colin; A ’New’ Reformism – A Critique of the Political Theory of Nicos Poulantzas;

[16] Poulantzas 1978; 258

[17] Ibid. 258-9

[18] Ibid. 259-60

[19] Ibid. 263

[20] Ibid. 263

[21] Gramsci, Antonio; Prison Notebooks, Volume I; trans. Buttigieg; (Columbia University Press 2007) 136

[22] Lenin; The State and Revolution; Lenin: Selected Works; (Dover 1987) p281

[23] Poulantzas 1978; 263

[24] Thomas 2009; 290-1


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