The Work of Nicos Poulantzas Is Vital for Understanding the Authoritarian Right

Nicos Poulantzas developed a highly original interpretation of fascism, seeing it as a potential that lurked within all capitalist states under conditions of crisis. His work can help us understand the danger posed by right-wing authoritarianism today.

Former Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro and Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán shake hands during a news conference on February 17, 2022, in Budapest, Hungary. (Janos Kummer / Getty Images)

The Greek political thinker Nicos Poulantzas was one of those Marxists who attempted to think about fascism as a challenge that was both theoretical and strategic. His writings on fascism were not motivated simply by theoretical considerations but also by urgent political exigencies. He sought not only to describe what led to fascism but also to distinguish fascism from other forms of “exceptional state.”

Poulantzas rejected the liberal approach that presented fascism as an anomaly in the history of capitalism that told us nothing about the system in general. Yet he also challenged the economic determinism of those Marxists who depicted fascist regimes as a necessary function of capitalist development during the interwar period. According to Poulantzas, the potential for fascism existed within capitalist states, but the realization of that potential depended on the outcome of class struggles.

With the rise of far-right political movements in Europe, the United States, and elsewhere, the question of whether those movements will repeat the experience of interwar fascism, in whole or in part, is being widely debated. Poulantzas can be an important reference point for such debates. His warning that capitalist democracies were shifting toward a kind of “authoritarian statism” that would preserve the forms of liberal-democratic rule while trampling upon civil liberties now seems especially prescient in the light of contemporary trends.

The Coup in Greece

The experience of the 1967–1974 military dictatorship in Greece was especially important for Poulantzas’s turn toward the question of fascism. The dictatorship was a watershed moment for the Greek political system and the Greek left — in particular the communist movement. It represented the limits of the anti-communist state that took shape after the monarchist victory in the Greek Civil War of the late 1940s.

That state combined some formal elements of parliamentarism with the criminal penalization of communist political activity and the existence of a “parallel constitution” of authoritarian measures and power centers inside the state, such as the army and the monarchy. After a period of intense social struggles and political crises, the army took over as the “party of the state” after a coup that had backing from at least some elements of the US state and its agencies.

At the same time, the dictatorship was a moment of strategic crisis for the Left. The left parties were not really prepared for it — something that led to mass arrests — and it brought the conflicts inside the Communist Party of Greece (KKE) to a head, acting as the catalyst for a split in the party in 1968. But there were other considerations for Poulantzas as well.

In certain segments of the post-1968 revolutionary left in France, such as the Maoist Gauche Prolétarienne, there was a tendency to depict Gaullism as a form of fascism, something with which Poulantzas disagreed. Poulantzas wished to distinguish his position from those who extended the “fascist” characterization to forms of authoritarian rule that were in truth different from fascism.

At the same time, he wanted to examine how fascist and more generally “exceptional” state forms could emerge in conjunctures of political crisis or even a crisis of the state. This stood in contrast to the tendency, obvious in many mainstream readings of fascism, to view it simply as a kind of political “pathology” or “anomaly,” instead of treating it as something that is a latent possibility in capitalist social formations.

In a text that appeared in Greek in 1967, in the journal of the Union of Greek Students in Paris, Poulantzas insisted that the 1967 coup was not fascist, since one could not identify the “popular base” that was associated with classical fascism. Nor was it “Bonapartist,” since one could not see in the Greece of the late 1960s the catastrophic equilibrium that might lead to Bonapartism, following the analysis of nineteenth-century French politics developed by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels.

Rather, it was for Poulantzas a coup that corresponded to the international strategy of US imperialism. This was in a conjuncture marked by a serious escalation of popular struggles — which did not reach a point of equilibrium with the bourgeoisie — but also by divisions inside the dominant classes. The fact that parts of the state such as the Greek army had gained a relative autonomy was another symptom of this.

Poulantzas concluded that, since the army takeover in 1967 was not a fascist coup and lacked a popular base, the Left should boycott any attempt by the new regime to create mass organizations:

According to [Georgi] Dimitrov’s report, for instance, such organizations must be used — as was the case in Germany and Italy — for a revolutionary should be wherever the masses are. And Dimitrov pours endless ridicule on the “revolutionaries” who pose the question at the level of individual “honesty.” On the other hand, if, as I believe is the case, we are not dealing with a fascist coup, and certainly not with a stabilized one, then the line must be the absolute boycotting of the organizations that the regime might create to attract the masses, so that its isolation be maintained.

This was in contrast with Francoist Spain, where the underground left parties infiltrated the official state trade union that the regime had set up.

Fascism and Dictatorship

Poulantzas’s main theoretical confrontation with these issues was the book Fascism and Dictatorship, which first appeared in French in 1970, two years after his celebrated work Political Power and Social Classes. It continued the attempt to develop a coherent theorization of fascism and distinguish it from other forms of exceptional state while also returning to questions of revolutionary strategy in the aftermath of May 1968.

For Poulantzas, fascism was “one of the possible conjunctures” of the imperialist stage of capitalism. He theorized imperialism as a “stage in capitalist development as a whole” that was “not simply or solely an economic phenomenon; in other words, it is not determined by events in the economic domain alone, nor can it be located within it.” Poulantzas opposed this perspective to the economism of the Third International.

One feature of this stage in particular, apart from its economic modifications, was that it assigned a new role to the capitalist state, “giving it new functions and an extended field of intervention, and also a new level of effectiveness.” Poulantzas connected this to an accumulation of contradictions within the imperialist chain during the interwar period: “Although the revolution was made in the weakest link in the chain (Russia), fascism arose in the next two links, i.e., those which were, relatively speaking, the weakest in Europe at the time.”

Poulantzas insisted that fascism could only be explained “by reference to the concrete situation of the class struggle, as it cannot be reduced to any inevitable need of the ‘economic’ development of capitalism.” He rejected what he called the “economist catastrophism” of the Third International and believed that this faulty paradigm could explain many of the European communist movement’s strategic failings regarding fascism.

Poulantzas argued that it was both analytically and politically disastrous to portray fascism as a phenomenon that would bring revolution closer since it was an expression of capitalism’s catastrophic economic crisis. In Fascism and Dictatorship, he attempted to develop a theory that would treat fascism as “a form of State and of regime at the extreme ‘limit’ of the capitalist State.” This meant that it was neither a “pathology” of the bourgeois state nor an inevitable development of it but depended upon particular conjunctures that were determined by the outcome of class struggles.

Poulantzas stressed the importance of the analyses of fascism developed by communist thinkers such as August Thalheimer, Antonio Gramsci, and Leon Trotsky. At the same time, however, he criticized some of their arguments. For example, he thought that the notion of catastrophic equilibrium that Thalheimer and Gramsci had used, drawing upon Marx’s interpretation of Bonapartism, was not applicable in cases where the working class had already been defeated. He also believed that Trotsky had been wrong to perceive an imminent fascist danger in France during the 1930s.

Elements of Fascism

According to Poulantzas, the key elements for the emergence of fascism were as follows. First of all, there was a process of “deepening and sharpening of the internal contradictions between the dominant classes and class fractions.” Second, there was a crisis of hegemony, in the sense that “no dominant class or class fraction seems able to impose its ‘leadership’ on the other classes and fractions of the power bloc, whether by its own methods of political organization or through the ‘parliamentary democratic’ State.”

In this context, one could observe the “hegemony of a new class fraction within the power bloc: that of finance capital, or big monopoly capital,” as well as a crisis of party representation and of the dominant ideology. An “offensive strategy on the part of the bourgeoisie” coincided with a “defensive step by the working class.”

While setting out these elements, Poulantzas wanted to avoid any narrowly “instrumentalist” conception of fascism. He insisted that during and after their rise to power, fascist parties and states typically possessed a “relative autonomy” from both the wider power bloc and the specific fractions of big monopoly capital whose hegemony they had established.

Poulantzas was very critical of certain aspects of the analysis of fascism developed by the Third International. This included the formulations put forward by the Bulgarian communist leader Georgi Dimitrov at the Seventh Congress of the Communist International in 1935, where he described fascism as the dictatorship of “the most reactionary, chauvinist and imperialist elements of finance capital.”

For Poulantzas, this was an unduly narrow summary of the economic interests that the fascist state represented. It also opened the way for a strategy of alliances that might include all fractions of capital with the exception of those Dimitrov had identified. Although fascism represented a new relationship of forces within the dominant classes, he believed, this did not mean that it exclusively represented the interests of finance capital.

In contrast to the rhetoric of the Third International, Poulantzas insisted that important defeats of the working classes and an ideological crisis of the working-class movement and its organizations were important aspects to the rise of fascism. He also stressed the inadequacy of the concept of “social fascism,” which presented social democracy and fascism as twin, potentially cooperative forces and underestimated the fact that fascist parties had developed a social basis of their own.

In addition, he addressed the particular attachment of petty-bourgeois strata to fascist parties. Poulantzas argued that in a period of economic and political crisis, certain elements of the ideology of fascist parties offered an outlet to these strata, such as “statolatry,” nationalism, elitism, racism, and militarism.

Poulantzas offered a very detailed analysis of fascism in power as an interventionist “exceptional state” that helped overcome an ideological crisis and expanded the scope of state intervention beyond the limits set by law. While the single-party system did not eliminate the contradictions between different fractions of the dominant classes, he insisted, it did offer

forms of “direct representation” typical of situations where the power bloc is politically disorganized, where political parties are cut out by the direct “organizer” role of the other State apparatuses, and where the masses are characteristically subject to the dominant ideology.

The suspension of competitive, multiparty elections did not mean the suspension of legitimacy as such, Poulantzas believed. Fascist parties in power constantly invoked some form of “popular sovereignty” and engaged in regular mobilization of the masses.

Organic Crises

Fascism and Dictatorship was an important contribution to the debate. It certainly had its shortcomings, such as the author’s tendency to think that strategies articulated within state apparatuses were determined mainly by the relationship of forces within and between the dominant class fractions. This ran against his own insistence on the relative autonomy of the state. Poulantzas also underestimated the extent to which fascism was based on a form of mass politics.

Nonetheless, his analysis managed to strike an important balance. On the one hand, it treated fascism as an “organic” aspect of certain historical periods, linked to the transformation of accumulation regimes and state apparatuses alike. On the other hand, it stressed its contingent features, reflecting the conjunctural dynamics of class struggle in one country or another. In this way, Poulantzas underlined the potential for fascism to emerge while showing that not every form of state authoritarianism was fascist.

The same desire to avoid presenting all “exceptional states” as fascist was obvious in 1975’s The Crisis of the Dictatorships. This was a more “interventionist” book than his other works, written in an attempt to analyze the demise of right-wing authoritarian regimes in Greece, Portugal, and Spain during the mid-1970s. It included some very interesting observations about the role of US imperialism.

Poulantzas identified a “plurality of American tactics” in dealing with the regimes of Southern Europe that was “related to the contradictions of American capital itself” — contradictions that found expression within the US state:

The peculiarity of the American state is that its “external fascism,” i.e. a foreign policy that generally does not hesitate to have recourse to the worst types of genocide, is embodied by institutions which, while far from representing an ideal case of bourgeois democracy (one need only recall the situation of social and national minorities in the USA), still permit an organic representation of the various fractions of capital within the state apparatuses and the branches of the repressive apparatus. A regime of this kind, even though based on a real union sacrée of the great majority of the nation on major political objectives (and a lot could be said about this), is necessarily accompanied by constant and open contradictions within the state apparatuses.

At any given time, Poulantzas argued, Washington’s attitude could encompass “a number of possible solutions” that ranged from “various degrees of support to the more or less passive acceptance of solutions that it considers the lesser evil — up to the point of a certain break.” The different state apparatuses involved in US foreign policy could even work at cross-purposes to an extent:

The CIA, the Pentagon and military apparatus, and the State Department often adopt different tactics, as do the Administration and executive branch as a whole as opposed to Congress; this is quite apparent in the cases of Greece, Portugal, and Spain. What is more, these tactics are often pursued in parallel, giving rise to parallel networks that take no notice of each other and even combat one another.

Authoritarian Statism

In the 1970s, Poulantzas continued working on questions about the state, taking his studies in two important directions. On the one hand, Poulantzas developed a highly original, relational definition of the state, according to which the state was not an “entity” that possessed its own “intrinsic instrumental essence . . . it is itself a relation, more precisely the condensation of a class relation.”

On the other hand, he put forward a more elaborate theorization of state crisis:

This series of contradictions expresses itself at the very heart of the state (the state is a relation) and is a factor in determining the characteristics of the state crisis: accrued internal contradictions between branches and apparatuses of the state, complex displacement of dominance between apparatuses, permutations of function, accentuations of the ideological role of a given apparatus accompanying the reinforcement in the use of state violence, and so forth. These all bear witness to efforts of the state to restore a toppling class hegemony.

For Poulantzas, this was leading to an authoritarian turn “that could signify simply that a certain form of ‘democratic politics’ has come to an end in capitalism.”

Poulantzas identified a series of transformations of which this new “strong state” authoritarianism was comprised:

Prodigious concentration of power in the executive at the expense of not only “popular” parliamentary representation but also a series of networks founded on popular suffrage . . . organic confusion of three powers (executive, legislative, and judicial) and the constant encroachment on the fields of action and competence of the apparatuses or branches that correspond to them . . . accelerated pace of the state’s arbitrary policies that restrict citizens’ political liberties . . . precipitous decline of the role of bourgeois political parties and the displacement of their political-organizational functions (both from the perspective of the power bloc and from that of the dominated classes) in favour of the administration and bureaucracy of the state . . . accentuation of the use of state violence (both in the sense of physical violence and in that of “symbolic violence”) . . . creation of a vast network of new circuits of “social control” (extended police surveillance, psychological-psychoanalytic divisions, social welfare controls).

In his final work, State, Power, Socialism, Poulantzas described these transformations of capitalist states as the emergence of “authoritarian statism”:

For want of a better term, I shall refer to this state form as authoritarian statism. This will perhaps indicate the general direction of change: namely, intensified state control over every sphere of socioeconomic life combined with radical decline of the institutions of political democracy and with draconian and multiform curtailment of so-called “formal” liberties, whose reality is being discovered now that they are going overboard.

Poulantzas was careful to distinguish this authoritarian statism from totalitarianism or fascism. This was not because he underestimated the extent of these transformations or their authoritarian character. Rather, it was because we were dealing not with some form of “exceptional state” but rather with the authoritarian mutation of the “democratic” capitalist states themselves:

The emergence of authoritarian statism cannot be identified either with a new fascist order or with a tendency toward fascism. The present-day State is neither the new form of a genuine exceptional State nor, in itself, a transitional form on the road to such a State: it rather represents the new “democratic” form of the bourgeois republic in the current phase of capitalism. . . . For the first time in the history of democratic States, the present form not only contains scattered elements of totalitarianism, but crystallizes their organic disposition in a permanent structure running parallel to the official State.

Poulantzas was concerned during this period with the authoritarian transformation of capitalist states as well as with the authoritarian or “totalitarian” character of “actually existing socialism” in the Soviet-led Eastern bloc. In a certain sense, the conception of a democratic road to socialism that he articulated in State, Power, Socialism was his way of dealing with both challenges.

Poulantzas believed that, thanks to the existence of strong social movements, it might be possible to impose profound changes within the state that condense the social relationship of forces. Through a strategy that combined the conquest of governmental power with autonomous social mobilization, one could open the way for socialist transformation. This idea of democratic socialism that would combine representative and direct forms of democracy was also his answer to the impasse of Soviet-style “actually existing socialism.”

Reading Poulantzas Today

Poulantzas has been strongly criticized for excessive optimism about the possibility of radical-democratic state transformation and for underestimating how the material dynamics inscribed in the state — precisely what he described as “authoritarian statism” — would impose their logic upon any attempt at left-wing governmentalism (as the experience of countries like France and Greece in the 1980s would show). His suicide in 1979 brought a premature end to his theoretical trajectory, leaving many open questions about the directions that his thinking might have subsequently followed.

However, Poulantzas did leave us with some invaluable insights into the transformation of capitalist states. Of particular importance was his identification of authoritarian tendencies and shifts that would become much more evident in the years to come. The authoritarian-disciplinary aspects of neoliberal states are now all too familiar to us, including the use of “anti-terrorist” legislation as a cover for repressive practices and surveillance mechanisms.

Poulantzas was also right to anticipate that the neoliberal agenda of privatization and pro-market deregulation would not involve the rolling back of the state. Instead, it would require the expansion of administrative interventions and machinery, most of which would be insulated against any form of democratic control or input from popular movements.

The proliferation of supposedly independent (and unelected) authorities and the increased power of central banks are typical examples of this. In the European context, the imposition of neoliberal policies under the auspices of European integration has meant expanding the authority of unelected European Union institutions and giving priority to European regulation over democratic decision-making processes at the national level.

The work of Poulantzas can help us to better understand the current wave of far-right political movements, which is linked not only to situations of political crisis — including the crisis of the Left in its various forms — but also to the authoritarian transformation of states, with new forms of state racism directed against migrants and refugees. In addition, and perhaps above all, his work drives home the point that we cannot separate resistance to fascism and state authoritarianism from broader anti-capitalist struggles.

Such resistance can only be effective if it is based on a bloc of the working classes with the other subaltern classes, rather than minimalist alliances limited to the simple defense of liberal democracy. After all, it is mainly the parties of the so-called constitutional arc that have orchestrated the current “postdemocratic” mutations of advanced capitalist states. Most far-right political movements have no problem declaring their full compliance with the current institutional framework of liberal democracy, including its transnational embodiments such as the EU.

This points to another important lesson that we can draw from Poulantzas. While his vision of a democratic road to socialism has been justly criticized for possible reformist readings, his assertion that “socialism can only be democratic” was not simply a question of distancing himself from the experience of the USSR and its allies. It also carries the implication that “democracy can only be socialist,” in the sense that there is no “organic” association between capitalism and democracy. The only way to achieve democracy as self-government of the subaltern is through a struggle to move beyond capitalism.