The State, Power and the Democratic Road to Socialism – The ideas of Nicos Poulantzas

Nicos Poulantzas is frequently cited as one of the strongest influences on the new Syriza government in Greece. Mark Winter offers an introduction to his ideas in an article originally published in the Summer 2015 issue of the rs21 magazine.Syriza_flags

Alexander Clapp describes how close the Nicos Poulantzas Institute is to Syriza’s headquarters in Athens:

Down the street from the party’s crumbling headquarters in Psiri… is the Nicos Poulantzas Institute. This is Syriza’s think tank, where about two hundred party intellectuals, mostly economists, have been polishing their theories since 1997. Leftists from more than twenty similar organisations throughout Europe – the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation in Germany, Espaces Marx in France – show up every week to give talks. Nicos Poulantzas was the decisive figure in the renewal of leftist thought in Greece, and remains the party’s intellectual anchor. A handful of Syriza’s current leaders knew him.1

Poulantzas’s thinking has had an enduring influence on the international left. Poulantzas has been cited recently by both Yanis Varoufakis, the Greek finance minister, and Stathis Kouvelakis, who is part of the left of Syriza. The latter states:

I come from, and I situate myself, within the Marxist tradition.  One of the key ways within this tradition of dealing with the state is to talk about its “relative autonomy.”  Nicos Poulantzas famously elaborated a lot on this notion.  The relative autonomy means that the state has the capacity to be at a distance from the different factions of the ruling class and of the balance of class forces in society.  The state intervenes to constitute the overall outcome of those class forces and it is constituted itself as the condensation of that balance between class forces and class relations, as Poulantzas famously said.2

We on the British far left have long theorised the state, but at a significant distance from it. We have made sharp critiques of those in the Communist and reformist traditions, but questions that were posed in the 1970s have come round again – of the relationship between activism, movements and a hostile state; of how to bridge the gap between partial reform and revolution; of how we should organise to build significant movements for change.

Why Poulantzas? For many on the left, Poulantzas avoids the perceived problems of West European Communist attempts at reformism involving dual power. Instead, he presents “a struggle within the state” – a strategy of seizing power by elections, combined with the mobilisation of social movements.

To appreciate the appeal of Poulantzas, some context is important. The left in a few key countries in Europe in the 1970s faced the very real prospect of assuming power. By the left, I mean the European Communist parties of Italy, France (and perhaps Spain), and by power, the “democratic road to socialism”. This was the high water mark of Eurocommunism, and for left Eurocommunists, Poulantzas articulated a compelling theory of state power.

The two years of 1976 to 1977 were, in retrospect, the highpoint of the Eurocommunism movement. In June 1976, the Italian Communist Party made its spectacular breakthrough at the polls, winning a third of the popular vote. Over the next year, they reentered the governing majority for the first time in thirty years. In France, the Union of the Left looked set to win for the first time in thirty years. In Spain, the death of Franco and the breakup of the system he had constructed led to a boom in membership and the Spanish CP, through its control of the Workers’ Commissions, seemed the biggest working class current. 3

Many in the broad left rejected Stalinism and the one-party state. They had learned from the Soviet invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia that Russian tanks do not deliver socialism – on the contrary, the Soviet Union crushed movements for democracy. But for many, the Soviet Union was nevertheless some kind of workers’ state. The conclusion? The left had to turn from the Lenin of What Is To Be Done and towards a strategy which made use of those restricted forms of state democracy that exist under capitalism:

The negative aspect [of Leninism] involves the whole question of the application and the theorisation of the dictatorship of proletariat which revolves around the total smashing of representative democracy… There were definitely elements of centralisation and a conception of the party as bringing consciousness to the working class from the outside. This includes What Is To Be Done? which is an aspect of Leninism in which I do not believe any more. Further, I think that this conception of the party leads directly to the conception of “the State Party” and then to statism.4

Have your state and eat it

In an interview with Stuart Hall and Alan Hunt, Poulantzas gave his view of the state:

The state is seen as a kind of closed place which can be taken only by an external type of strategy, whether it be the Leninist frontal type of strategy or the Gramscian type of encircling of the state. In its place I began to think of the state as a condensation, a relation of forces. 5

Poulantzas presents a dual strategy: to maintain representative democracy while creating direct democracy at the base (the movement). Kouvelakis summarises it succinctly: “The state has to be seized from the inside and from the outside, from above and from below.” Struggle is two-pronged, as it is “designed to sharpen the internal contradictions of the state, to carry out a deep-seated transformation of the state”, supported by new “structures of direct democracy at the base”.

Now, when we speak of a democratic road to democratic socialism, such a strategy must not only profoundly transform but also maintain forms of representative democracy and forms of liberties… This representative democracy must, at the same time, go hand in hand with the creation of direct democracy at the base.6

So Poulantzas argues for elections and social movements:

Even if we do not speak about “smashing the state”, nevertheless left Euro-Communism is very conscious of the problem of the necessity of radical transformation, not only of the ideological apparatuses of the state but also of the repressive apparatuses themselves.7 

How to begin? The left has to enter the state, which requires an electoral strategy. Once electoral power has been achieved, it would then have the power to democratise the structures of the state. Struggle is then “designed to sharpen the internal contradictions of the state, to carry out a deep-seated transformation of the state” supported by new “structures of direct democracy at the base”. “Struggle,” for Poulantzas, “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.”

Key theories of Poulantzas: 

  • the state (a dual strategy)
  • relative autonomy:
  • the state is a condensation of the class struggle and is contested

In Political Power and Social Classes (1968) he first developed the idea of the relative autonomy of the state. For capitalism to function, the state must be able to resist the interests of individual capitalists in order to act in the general interest of capitalism as a whole. As Poulantzas formulated it, the state must be “relatively autonomous” from the interests and demands of the likes of Apple, Google and Facebook, as they tend to be divided and competitive.

Relative autonomy: 

  • the state can be at a distance from the different factions of the ruling class and the balance of class forces in society 8
  • The state instead creates the space for the competing interests of the capitalist class to come together and form long-term strategies and alliances: the power-bloc. At the same time, the state disorganizes the working class by dividing them into individuals or citizens: the isolation effect.

Poulantzas refined his theories in State, Power, Socialism (1978), his final work before his early demise. He now defined the state as a “social relationship”, and suggested that the relative autonomy of the state was dynamic; since the state was a “condensation of the class struggle,” its autonomy was always likely to be contested. No single class had complete control, and the state always had to consider the interests of the dominated classes – relative autonomy would shift and change in response to the intensity of struggle. By way of example, Kouvelakis explains how this relative autonomy might apply in the case of the Greek crisis:

The characteristic of the Greek state is precisely that this relative autonomy, for reasons that go very deep in Greek history, has been much weaker, much more limited, than in other cases.  The Greek state, indeed, has been at constant war with the popular classes, with its own people, for many decades.  What is at the very root of the weakness of the Greek state, paradoxical as it may sound to some, is the very failure of the popular classes in Greece to reach a permanent form of representation and regulation of their interests within the state itself.9

So the problem is one of representation and control within the state. Poulantzas proposed a strategy that would democratize the state and allow it to be used in defence of autonomous rank-and-file movements “at a distance from the state, within the state, and to transform the state.”10

He continues: 

Even if we do not speak about “smashing the state”, nevertheless left Euro-Communism is very conscious of the problem of the necessity of radical transformation, not only of the ideological apparatuses of the state but also of the repressive apparatuses themselves… there will be a decisive turning point, which is not going to be a civil war but is nevertheless going to be a profound crisis of the state.11

Regarding the economy, he states: 

At no point should changes lead to the actual dismantling of the economic apparatus: such a development would paralyse it and accordingly increase the chances of boycott on the part of the bourgeoisie… The democratic road to socialism refers to a long process, the first phase of which involves a challenge to the hegemony of monopoly capital, but not headlong subversion of the core of the relations of production. Over and above the breaks involved in the anti-monopoly phase, the State will still have to ensure the workings of the economy – an economy which will remain to a certain degree capitalist for a long time to come.12

On the question of organisation, Poulantzas is keen to avoid the sins of the one-party system. In response to the Stalinist model of control, he points to the importance of social movements in the struggle for democratic socialism:

I think that this conception of the party as the unique centraliser, even if it is a very subtle centralisation, is not necessarily the best solution. I think more and more that we must have autonomous social movements whose type of organisation cannot be the same as that of a political party organisation. There must be a feminist movement outside the most ideal possible party because the most ideal party cannot include such types of social movements even if we insist that the revolutionary party must have certain conceptions of the woman question.13

The way forward according to Poulantzas and the left Eurocommunists is a variety of struggles working on different levels and at their own pace. Each of these struggles will create or discover their own unique form of organisation. This is an explicit rejection of the model of the centralised vanguard party as theorised by Lenin (and Gramsci):

We must be very clear. As soon as we speak of a plurality of parties in the transition to socialism and as long as we take this conception seriously, it is evident that you cannot “have your cake and eat it”. It is very clear that in the Leninist tradition (although Lenin himself did not have a conception of the one party system) the conception of the vanguard party goes hand in hand with the conception of the dictatorship of the proletariat and the one party system. You cannot, at the same time, say we are going to have a pluralism of parties and maintain the Leninist conception of the vanguard party because such a conception of the party implies or even requires the single party system. You cannot have both of them.14

For Poulantzas, the problem with the Lenin of What Is To Be Done is ‘centralisation and the bringing of consciousness to the working class from outside’. His suggestion that we must have autonomous social movements will strike a chord with many activists in the movement. On the key question of how control is to be exercised in order to unite movements, he argues:

What must be the differentiation, what must be the transformation of the party? I do not believe that the party should be lost in or amalgamated with the different types of social movements. But nor can the party, as a cadre apparatus, successfully link the many different social or economic movements. We must also reconsider the classical view of Leninist centralism in which everything political is primary and the remainder is secondary. What is the feminist movement, what is the ecological movement, what are the other types of social movement? These are not mere secondary movements in relation to the working class movement or to the party. Otherwise, everything becomes secondary. This question of primary and secondary relations must be rethought.15

Critics suggest that Poulantzas placed greater emphasis on the electoral strategy than on the potential power of the movement, and that he is too vague when it comes to questions about the working class or communist party.  Many have argued, too, that Poulantzas is silent on the actual struggle of workers.

For Marx, “the state stands over and against the workers”, while the Lenin of The State and Revolution shows how parliamentary democracy may be crushed by those with power and wealth. In Greece, we have already seen the ruling class exert tremendous pressure on Syriza, the financial ‘troika’ place brutal limits on their space, and the subsequent impact this has had on Syriza’s relationship to the movement.

Those of us in the International Socialist ‘diaspora’ approach these questions from the perspective of revolution ‘from below’. We stand with Marx when he asserts that “the emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class.


References and further reading:

Barker, C., 1978. A ‘New’ Reformism?—A Critique of the Political Theory of Nicos Poulantzas. International Socialism, second series issue 4.

Clapp, A., 2015. Diary. London Review of Books. Available at:

Davidson, N., 2015. Politics in the age of austerity: From above and from below. rs21. Available at:

Hall S. and A. Hunt, 1979. An interview with Nicos Poulantzas. Marxism Today.

Kouvelakis, S., 2010. The Greek Laboratory: Shock Doctrine and Popular Resistance. MR Zine. Available at:

Poulantzas, N., 1978. State, Power, Socialism. London: Verso.

Spencer, P. 1979. The ‘left’ face of Eurocommunism. International Socialism,  second series issue 5

  1. Clapp, 2015
  2. Kouvelakis, 2010
  3. Spencer, 1979
  4. Hall and Hunt, 1979
  5. Hall and Hunt, 1979
  6. Hall and Hunt, 1979
  7. Hall and Hunt, 1979
  8. Kouvelakis, 2010
  9. Kouvelakis, 2010
  10. Poulantzas, 1978
  11. Hall and Hunt, 1979
  12. Poulantzas, 1978
  13. Hall and Hunt, 1979
  14. Hall and Hunt, 1979
  15. Hall and Hunt, 1979



There are 4 comments

  1. Brian Parkin

    Poulantzas as a left Eurcommunist is essentially a Stalinist on the run from the realities of the post-revolution Soviet Union. As such he combines liberal sentiments which deny the class character of the state and in the process suggests that the state can be transformed- sophistry for somehow suggesting that the state at its core is neutral and that by working ‘within’ the state, it can become a guarantor of democracy- although Poulantzas is stuck with bourgeois electoral politics for his definition of democracy. Poulantzas is in the Greek tradition of the Sophists who relied on the confusion of interpretation to avoid arriving at the grubby reality of meaning. He has nothing to teach us.


leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s