Nicos Poulantzas Was a Vital Theorist of Democratic Socialism

Left political strategies have traditionally divided between social democratic parliamentarism and the Leninist idea of “smashing the state.” Nicos Poulantzas argued that neither strategy was adequate and developed his own vision of “revolutionary reformism.”

The Petrograd Soviet in 1917. (Wikimedia Commons)

The publication of Nicos Poulantzas’s Political Power and Social Classes (1968) and Ralph Miliband’s The State in Capitalist Society (1969) initiated a return to the question of the state in political science and sociology after a long hiatus during which mainstream social scientists had discarded the concept. Since that time, there has been an ongoing preoccupation with theories of the capitalist state among scholars. Meanwhile, the return of democratic socialism to national political agendas in Europe and North America has led to renewed debates about political tactics.

Tactics comprise immediate actions, or methods of conduct, that are carefully planned for the purpose of reaching a clearly defined goal. However, most contemporary Marxists often fail to distinguish between strategy (long-term goals) and tactics (immediate actions). What should be the long-term goal of left political tactics, and does a theory of the capitalist state provide any answer to that question beyond abstract calls for a transition to socialism?

Road Signs

When Poulantzas published his last book, State, Power, Socialism, in 1978, he did so partly because he was intrigued by the question of democratic socialism in the context of the rise of Eurocommunism in Italy, Spain, and France. This development raised the question of the role of the state in the transition to socialism. The reemergence of democratic socialism thus required political theorists and political activists to rethink the question of socialist strategy.

Poulantzas argued that a theory of the capitalist state could provide important insights into the role of the state during the transition to socialism. However, he observed that one could not deduce political strategy from such a theory, which could

never be anything other than applied theoretical-strategic notions, serving, to be sure, as guides to action, but at the very most in the manner of road signs. A “model” of the State of transition to socialism cannot be drawn up: not as a universal model capable of being concretized in given cases, nor even as an infallible, theoretically guaranteed recipe for one or several countries.

Poulantzas emphasized that there was “always a structural distance between theory and practice, between theory and the real.” This was a gap that could only be bridged by strategic decisions made by those engaged in the real class struggle.

With that said, what guides to action and road signs do Poulantzas’s theory of the capitalist state suggest for democratic socialism and socialist strategy today?

Winning the Battle

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels defined the long-term strategic goal of socialist tactics in The Communist Manifesto (1848) as the “formation of the proletariat into a class, overthrow of the bourgeois supremacy, conquest of political power by the proletariat.” Marx and Engels argued that “the first step in the revolution by the working class” was “to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class, to win the battle of democracy.”

Every important Marxist political theorist of the twentieth century embraced this strategic principle. Eduard Bernstein argued that “democracy is a condition of socialism” and his contemporary Karl Kautsky claimed that “socialism without democracy is unthinkable.” Similarly, in her critique of Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks after the Russian Revolution, Rosa Luxemburg declared that “without general elections, without unrestricted freedom of the press and assembly, without a free struggle of opinion, life dies out in every public institution.”

Even Lenin himself had earlier endorsed a tactical resolution adopted by the Third Congress of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party, which proclaimed that

the direct interests of the proletariat and the interests of its struggle for the final aims of socialism require the fullest possible measure of political liberty and, consequently, the replacement of the autocratic form of government by a democratic republic.

Unfortunately, a century later, we are far from having won the battle for democracy. If anything, we are now faced with the prospect of its demise throughout the world, including the Western liberal democracies.

At a time when Nicos Poulantzas was also concerned about the rise of authoritarian statism, he pointed out that it was not enough to assert that we want democratic socialism. It was necessary, he insisted, to clearly formulate strategic demands about what a democratic socialist form of societal self-governance would entail as an institutional form, i.e., a transitional democratic socialist state.

Two Strategies

In some of his earliest writings as editor of the Rheinische Zeitung, Marx embraced “bourgeois democracy” as a political advance for the working class. He considered it an essential political shell for the further development of the proletariat as a class.

The most basic foundation for “democracy” was universal suffrage. However, in writings such as The Communist Manifesto, the Demands of the Communist Party in Germany (1849), and the Critique of the Gotha Program (1875), Marx advocated an expansive program of social and economic democracy that rested upon a heavily graduated income tax (fiscal policy), a strong central bank (monetary policy), and public investment in industry, transportation, communications, and agriculture (industrial and employment policy).

At the same time, he called for a variety of programs and policies. These included free public education for all, free legal services, the abolition of consumption taxes, a strong social safety net (unemployment insurance, old-age pensions, housing, health care, etc.), and the complete separation of church and state.

In 1872, Marx speculated that in mature liberal democracies, such as the United States, Britain, and Holland, it might be possible for workers to “achieve their aims by peaceful means.” For more than a century, this complex of policies and electoral tactics has largely defined the political program we call social democracy.

However, Marx and Engels changed their thinking about the conquest of political power as a result of the Paris Commune in 1871. Marx concluded that the Commune “was essentially a working-class government, the product of the struggle of the producing against the appropriating class, the political form at last discovered under which to work out the economical emancipation of labor.” What was different about the Parisian experiment, according to Engels, was that the working class had created a non-state political form of self-governance, while in 1848 it had been “a power in the [capitalist] state” as a result of newly granted universal male suffrage.

What Marx saw in the Commune, as compared to 1848, was a new political form that “breaks the modern state power.” He stressed the need for the proletariat to “transform the traditional working machinery” of the state and “destroy it as an instrument of class rule”:

The working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for their own purpose. The political instrument of their enslavement cannot serve as the political instrument of their emancipation.

Thus, since the late nineteenth century, the Marxist debate on socialist strategy has largely been a contest between the proponents of parliamentary socialism, articulated in works like Bernstein’s Evolutionary Socialism (1899), and revolutionaries who insisted on the need to smash the state, as exemplified by Lenin’s pamphlet State and Revolution (1917).

Democratic Roads to Socialism

There is no question that in most of his writings, Poulantzas advocated a strategy in line with the second school of thought. In 1975, for instance, he made the following argument:

The transition to socialism cannot take place by a simple shift in state power (the working class and its allies replacing the bourgeoisie); this transition requires the state apparatuses to be smashed, i.e., it is not just a question of replacing the heads of these apparatuses, but of a radical transformation in their actual organizational structure.

However, in State, Power, Socialism (1978), Poulantzas explicitly abandoned his smash-the-state position:

There is no longer a place for what has traditionally been called smashing or destroying that [state] apparatus . . . the term smashing, which Marx too used for indicative purposes, came in the end to designate a very precise historical phenomenon: namely, the eradication of any kind of representative democracy or “formal” liberties in favour purely of direct, rank-and-file democracy and so-called real liberties . . . if we understand the democratic road to socialism and democratic socialism itself to involve, among other things, political (party) and ideological pluralism, and extension and deepening of all political freedoms including for opponents, then talk of smashing or destroying the state apparatus can be no more than a mere verbal trick.

At the same time, Poulantzas still included the following warning:

It would be an error fraught with serious political consequences to conclude from the presence of the popular classes in the State that they can ever lastingly hold power without a radical transformation of the State . . . the action of the popular masses within the State is a necessary condition of its transformation, but is not itself a sufficient condition.

In his final book, Poulantzas thus defined a strategy of democratic socialism that would incorporate the electoral politics of parliamentary socialism while simultaneously going beyond it to embrace forms of direct democracy. Instead of smashing the state, Poulantzas now envisioned what he called a “radical transformation of the State.”

That transformation would embrace innovations such as workers’ ownership and self-management, as well as limited forms of “council communism” based on organs of mass democracy (the original meaning of “soviet” in the Russian context). However, Poulantzas believed that these innovations would serve to strengthen, broaden, and deepen the democratic component of a modern democratic republic, instead of challenging and displacing it through a strategy of “dual power,” as occurred during the Russian Revolution.

Discussing the Russian case, Poulantzas argued that by abolishing the newly elected Constituent Assembly at the beginning of 1918, the Bolsheviks had left the state apparatus unsupervised and unregulated in the name of an “all power to the soviets” strategy. This set the stage for a socialist form of authoritarian statism, namely Stalinism, as the decentralized soviets lacked either the political capacity or the technical expertise to direct the day-to-day-activity of a complex modern society on a national scale. He concluded that during a transition to socialism, the institutions of representative democracy should be viewed “not as unfortunate relics to be tolerated for as long as necessary, but as an essential condition of democratic socialism.”

Democratic Socialism

Poulantzas concluded that democratic socialism was a two-pronged strategy consisting of policy and politics. On the one hand, it entailed a set of policies and programs designed to promote a more egalitarian society based on the principle “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” This strategy might begin with basic social democratic policies, but it required a radical transformation of what Poulantzas calls the “economic apparatus” — central banks, tax systems, employment and wage policies, trade policies, social insurance — and ultimately would have to result in public and/or workers’ ownership of the means of production.

However, Poulantzas argued that the path toward reaching these goals also necessitated a political strategy — a radical transformation of the State — that would combine a transformed form of representative democracy with direct rank-and-file democracy:

The essential problem of the democratic road to socialism, of democratic socialism, must be posed in a different way: how is it possible radically to transform the State in such a manner that the extension and deepening of political freedoms and the institutions of representative democracy (which were also a conquest of the popular masses) are combined with the unfurling of forms of direct democracy and the mushrooming of self-management bodies?

For Poulantzas, this meant that the democratic road to socialism would be a long process that involved “the spreading, development, reinforcement, coordination and direction of those diffuse centers 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.”

In place of the demand for “all power to the soviets,” Poulantzas argued that a left-wing government should immediately begin to integrate popular forms of direct democracy and workers’ self-management into the state. Rather than a situation of dual power with a contest between direct democracy and representative democracy, a single workers’ state should bring the two forms of democracy together.

Consequently, Poulantzas called for a struggle “to modify the relationship of forces with the State, as opposed to a frontal, dual power type of strategy,” which would mean “a sweeping transformation of the state apparatus.” He reiterated his earlier admonition against “building ‘models’ of any kind whatsoever,” emphasizing once again that a theory of the capitalist state could be at best “a set of signposts” for strategic decision-making, but not a road map.

These observations from Poulantzas left several questions open. What exactly would it mean to combine a transformed democratic republic with workers’ ownership, self-management, and other forms of direct democracy? However, these observations nonetheless identified a political strategy of constitutional reform which could draw on the insights of state theory, while directing political tactics toward long-term goals beyond mere disruption and protest.

Democratic socialism is not just an economic program or a set of social policies. It is a strategy of constitutional reform aimed at realigning the structural relationship of the state to the working classes. There can be no socialism without a reinvigorated and more expansive democracy.