Outline of the Book Project

The Project and its Reception

In September 2006, Nicos Poulantzas would have been 70. The volume ›Poulantzas lesen‹, released on the occasion of his birthday by German publisher VSA, honours him as one of key figures in post-war Marxist theory. It consists of 18 chapters on all relevant aspects of his work, which were written by some of the most eminent experts in the field (Clyde W. Barrow, Alex Demirović, Joachim Hirsch and Bob Jessop), and by a new generation of Marxist scholars who draw their inspiration from Poulantzas. The book is a pioneering work because a collection of articles exclusively dedicated to his thought did not exist before in German, and still does not exist in English. Its special status is also underscored by the fact that it serves as a supplement to VSA’s reissue of Poulantzas’s main work State, Power, Socialism in 2002, which is highlighted by the two having almost identical book covers. The Nicos Poulantzas Society in Athens showed its support for the project by providing financial assistance. Under its auspices, a translation into Greek is prepared.

So far, ›Poulantzas lesen‹ has received a warm welcome. In a review for Frankfurter Rundschau, a leading national daily, Rudolf Walther emphasised its »contemporary relevance« in the light of the current debate within the left about the state’s role in processes of emancipation. His comments follow a string of articles in the left-wing German and Swiss press which commemorated Poulantzas’s birthday. During the Historical Materialism Annual Conference 2006 in London roughly 50 people turned up for each of the three panels covering articles from ›Poulantzas lesen‹, many of whom expressed their interest in seeing the book published in English. Moreover, several German university teachers have already announced that they are going to use the book as a reading in class.

Contemporary Relevance

Poulantzas’s position among 20th century Marxists is distinctive. This is illustrated by reflecting on his life. Born shortly before World War II, he was too young to become one of the great Marxist theorists who were later to be regarded as the instigators of the revolts of 1968 in the realm of social theory. Due to his suicide in 1979, he neither witnessed the hold on power that neoliberal governments came to have in the UK and the US, nor the collapse of authoritarian socialism in Eastern Europe. Likewise, he did not experience the decline in influence his generation of Marxists was faced with after the rupture of 1989 and the resurgence of public interest in Karl Marx’s works from the late 1990s onwards. All of this makes his position in 20th century intellectual history distinctive. He was not forced to make concessions to the post- or even anti-Marxist Zeitgeist which was to become dominant after 1989, and yet he dealt with a whole range of questions which are of particular interest for anyone studying the current conjuncture. Poulantzas tried to analyse the rise of neoliberalism and its authoritarian imposition through the state, the internationalisation of the state, the growth of the new social movements, the demise of Marxism, and the conditions for a renewal of socialist strategy.

The contributions to ›Poulantzas lesen‹ demonstrate that there are insights in Poulantzas which have been buried by the tectonic shifts within left-wing discourses after 1989, and which deserve to be recovered. For example, he highlighted that the dominant response to the crisis of Fordism on the level of the state was a resort to authoritarianism, and that a viable socialist response would require the articulation of the struggles inside and outside the state. Today, these issues are more pressing than ever. There is a range of forces aiming to rebuild the anti-capitalist left – the alter- globalization movement, resurgence of left parties in Europe and the governments of Venezuela and Bolivia. The differences in their self-conception given, they are all confronted with the same problem: their relationship to the capitalist state. Poulantzas deserves praise for having outlined a strategy which takes the state as a field of struggle seriously, but does not rest on any illusions about the scope of state interventionism under capitalist conditions.

Structure and Content

In the English-speaking world, most people know Poulantzas for little more than his debate with Ralph Miliband, which resulted in him being received as a structurecentred theorist. This assessment, however, does not hold up to closer scrutiny. Especially in his late work, Poulantzas emphasised the importance of struggles for the constitution of social reality. Accordingly, ›Poulantzas lesen‹ follows the tradition in the reception of his work which dismisses portraying him as a vulgar structuralist.

The first section of the book aims to render his terminology accessible and to determine his position in Marxist theory. The ontological and epistemological status and the theoretical contexts of his key concepts are discussed. Clyde W. Barrow ex amines Poulantzas’s reception and critique of Althusser and Miliband. He comes to the conclusion that Poulantzas was a historical structuralist who never fully embraced the approach of the Althusser School. Bob Jessop argues that Poulantzas develops a theory of the »capitalist type of state«, which corresponds formally to a »pure capitalist social formation«. He adds that Poulantzas’s concept of authoritarian statism and his distinction between the exceptional and the normal form of the capitalist state demand further elaboration. Joachim Hirsch and John Kannankulam discuss whether Poulantzas’s approach to state theory is compatible with form-analytical derivations of the state. Lars Bretthauer explains the extent to which the concepts of ›materiality‹ and ›condensation‹ are key to Poulantzas’s relational understanding of the state. Alexander Gallas demonstrates that the writings of the late Poulantzas elucidate the relationship between form and struggle in Marx’s Critique of Political Economy. He argues that Poulantzas’s insights contribute to the overcoming shortfalls of contemporary interpretations of Capital.

The second section of the book is dedicated to how different configurations of power and domination can be conceptualized within Poulantzas’s framework. Max Koch reconstructs Poulantzas’s approach to class theory. Koch criticises Poulantzas for conceptualising the distinction between ›productive‹ and ›unproductive labour‹ in a substantialist fashion, and for failing to theorise the articulation between class domination and other forms of domination. In contrast, Jörg Nowak argues that Poulantzas establishes a link between gender relations, class relations and political power without systematically elaborating on it, and that feminist state theory time and again draws upon Poulantzasian notions of the state. Urs T. Lindner disagrees. He accuses Poulantzas of »class reductionism«, but nevertheless employs Poulantzas’s conception of statehood in order to establish the equivocalness of Michel Foucault’s concept of power. Sonja Buckel considers Poulantzas’s contribution to a Marxist theory of law. She attempts to articulate law and the state in their »relational autonomy« by relating Poulantzas’s state theory to Foucault’s governmentality studies. Ingo Stützle takes up the Poulantzasian notion of the state as an instance of social cohesion in order to demonstrate that the reproduction of the capitalist mode of production requires it to function as a knowledge apparatus.

The third section of the volume is concerned with the spatial and temporal dimension of capitalist statehood. Markus Wissen reconstructs Poulantzas’s line of argument in State, Power, Socialism, which connects the notion of nationhood with the temporal and spatial matrices of the capitalist mode of production. Wissen criticises Poulantzas for taking features of the Fordist configuration of time and space to be general features of capitalism. Hans-Jürgen Bieling uses Poulantzas’s work as a »heuristic source« for his investigation into the process of European Integration. Jens Wissel adopts Poulantzas’s concepts of »interior bourgeoisie« and »internationalisation of the state« in order to analyse the power bloc emerging on a global scale.

In the last section of the book, the political implications of Poulantzas’ state theory are analysed. Thomas Sablowski praises Poulantzas’s ability to distinguish between different state forms within capitalism and to theorise regime change, but criticises his neglect of economic factors in his conceptualisation of crisis. Ulrich Brand and Miriam Heigl examine what Poulantzas understands by »radical transformation « and by the articulation of struggles ›inside‹ and ›outside‹ the state. They criticise him for ignoring the importance of transforming not just the state, but society as a whole. Alex Demirović’s article is concerned with Poulantzas’s outlook on representative democracy. Demirović applauds Poulantzas for not dismissing it, but proposing to transform it from within. He criticises him, however, for not elaborating on how to coordinate the articulation between different movements and their struggles. Last but not least, Peter Thomas discusses Poulantzas’s critique of Gramsci. Thomas argues that Poulantzas does not do justice to Gramsci’s concept of ›lo stato integrale‹ and his distinction between ›war of manoeuvre‹ and ›war of position‹. Nevertheless, he argues that Poulantzas’s ideas should be integrated into a renewed socialist strategy in the Gramscian vein.