rough notes on and quotes from Nicos Poulantzas’s State, Power, Socialism

Poulantzas writes in the preface that there is often a strong
distinction between theoretical writing and political intervention
writing. He tried to avoid this separation. I’m not convinced he

He writes that a great variety of theorists basically agree that the
state pre-exists the ruling classes and the ruling classes then seek
to relate to the state. (11.) Poulantzas rejects this, and rejects the
view that the state is overly tied to particular class or sectoral
interests in the present. He also rejects what he calls a marxist view
that the state is purely instrumental for this or that part of the
capitalist class. (12.) He notes that while capitalists benefit from
the state, they are quite frequently unhappy with the state. (12.) He
also adds that many important state functions are not simply a matter
of domination. (13.) He rejects the view that “there is a
free-standing state power which is only afterwards utilized by the
dominant classes.” (13. Later, on p39 he attributes a similar view to
what he calls a “Jacobin-statist socialism.”) He also rejects the
view that the state is just a reflection of or is reducible to the
economy. (15.)

Poultantzas makes a big deal out of a point that sounds quite
abstract, about the relationship between the state and capitalist
social relations: “The position of the State vis a vis the economy is
never anything but the modality of the State’s present in the
constitution and reproduction of the relations of production.” (17.)
He will later reject the view that there can be a general theory of
the state (and likewise general theory of economy, p19) I like this
point – “The theory of the capitalist State cannot be isolated from
the history of its constitution and reproduction.” (25.) But he seems
to me to isolate his theory from history. It’s very much a theoretical
and largely history-less exposition.

He rejects technological determinism including the variety of marxism
which sees the forces of production as determining the relations of
production. (26.) “The productive forces (…) are always organized
under given relations of production.” (26.) And the relations of
production are political and ideological, and they “do not belong to a
field external to power and class struggle.” (27.)

“the body is not simply a biological entity, but a political institution” (29.)

“the State acts within an unstable equilibrium of compromises between
the dominant classes and the dominated. The State therefore
continually adopts material measures which are of positive
significance for the popular masses, even though these measures
represent so many concessions imposed by the struggle of the
subordinate classes.” (31.)

One key role for the state is an organizational one for the capitalist
class, which includes that class “formulating and openly expressing
the tactics required to reproduce its power. The State does not
produce a unified discourse, but several discourses” (32.)

The state also produces important knowledge. “statistics and the state
statistical bodies cannot be treated as mere mystification, but
constitute elements of state knowledge to be used for the purposes of
political strategy.” (32.)

The state and capitalist class “strategy is only the outcome of the
clash between various tactics expressing themselves within the State
and the circuits, networks, and apparatuses that incarnate them. Since
the strategy is therefore often not known in advance within (and by)
the State itself, it is not always susceptible to rational
formulation.” (32-33.)

The state “organizes the market and property relations.”( 39.)

It is a mistake to explain the state or see its basis as resting in
the market and commodities. (50-51.)

Criticizes what he euphemistically calls ‘the East’, which I take to
mean the USSR and China, saying equivocally that they have qualities
like capitalism/the capitalist state, and adding unequivocally “The
workers exercise neither control and mastery over the labour processes
(relations of possession) nor real economic power over the means of
labour (economic property relation, as distinct from legal property):
what has taken place there is a statization, and not a genuine
socialization, of production. At the political level, there is a
dictatorship _over_ the proletariat.” (51, his emphasis.) He will say
much later in the book that “Even if it is so extensive that virtually
the whole of capital is juridically nationalized, statization of the
economy does not fundamentally break with capitalist relations of
production (exclusion of workers from real control over the means of
production and from mastery of the labor processes). It gives rise
instead to the phenomenon of state capitalism.” (193.)

criticizes the idea of deriving the state as a category from economic
categories or the historical function of the state in promoting the
expansion and maintenance of capital, because these while descriptive
don’t explain why the state is the entity that fulfill needed
functions within capitalism

“political relations of domination (…) exist and are reproduced in the
very process of extraction of surplus-value.” (55)

The stuff on individualization and the body and stuff is hella
confusing and also interesting.

He emphasizes that labor under capitalism is “a class relations whose
condition of existence and guarantee of reproduction is organized
physical violence.” (81.) He stresses repeatedly, and rightly, that
this violence and its importance should not be underestimated.

“the modern State manages death in a number of different ways; and
medical power is inscribed in present-day law.” (82)

Law “gives expression to the imaginary ruling-class representation of
social reality.” “law is an important factor in organizing the consent
of the dominated classes” Law is “the reality which assigns the place
they must occupy.” (83.)

“Law does not only deceive and conceal and nor does it merely repress
people by compelling or forbidding them to act. It also organizes and
sanctions certain real rights of the dominated classes (even though,
of course, these rights are invested in the dominant ideology and are
far from corresponding in practice to their juridical form); and it
has inscribed within it the material concessions imposed on the
dominant classes by popular struggles.” (84.) This is ambiguous to me:
law=good, or law=good and thus helpful in maintaining capitalism?

“even the most dictatorial of States is never devoid of law; and the
existence of law or legality has never forestalled any kind of
barbarism or despotism.” (85.)

“in the capitalist mode of production, the specific relations of
production assign to the economic a role that is at once determining
and dominant.” (88.) The primacy of the economic is a matter of
capitalism, not human societies.

He also adds (91-92) that law helps provide predictability to the
system for capitalists.

“With regard to the dominant classes, and particularly the
bourgeoisie, the State’s principal role is one of organization. It
represents and organizes the dominant class or classes; or, more
precisely, it represents and organizes the long-term political
interest of a power bloc, which is composed of several bourgeois class
fractions (for the bourgeoisie is divided into class fractions) (…) By
means of the
State is organized the conflictual unity of the alliance in power and
the unstable equilibrium of compromise among its components. This is
done under the bloc hegemony and leadership of one class or fraction:
the hegemonic class or fraction.” This role for the state requires the
state’s relative autonomy. (127.)

“state apparatuses (…) reproduce hegemony by bringing the power bloc
and certain dominated classes into a (variable) game of provisional
compromises.” (140.)

“according to the nature of their contradictions with the popular
masses, the various fractions of the power bloc often seek to enlist
their support against the other factions of the bloc (…) to utilize
the popular masses in their relationship of forces with the other
fractions of the bloc – in order either to impose solutions more to
their advantage, or to put up more effective resistance to solutions
which favour other fractions over and above themselves.” (144.)

The state itself must be organized and reorganized. “[T]he struggles
of the popular masses constantly call into question the unity of the
state personnel as a category in service to the existing power and
hegemonic fraction of the dominant classes.” (155.)

Strong emphasis on “the State’s role in the reproduction-management of
labour-power.” (185.) “Reproduction of labour-power is a political
strategy, since it always involves reproduction of the social division
of labour; politico-ideological elements always enter into the
constitution of this reproduction. (…) It is impossible to
overemphasize the fact that the various ‘social’ measures taken by the
Welfare State with respects to the reproduction of labour-power and
the field of collective are at the same time geared to
police-political management and control of labour-power.” (186.)

“it is exactly as if we were dealing less with a State unable to
master the effects of economic crisis than with a State whose
self-appointed task is to foster rampant economic crises, the effects
of which are outside its control.” (214.)

“Seeds of Stalinism were well and truly present in Lenin – and not
only because of the peculiarities of Russia and the Tsarist state with
which he had to grapple.” (251.) Poulantzas says that Lenin wanted to
replace formal state institutions with rule by councils, at least
early on. This sounds like a compliment but then he says it was “this
very line (sweeping substitution of rank-and-file democracy for
representative democracy) which principally accounted for what
happened in Lenin’s lifetime in the Soviet Union, and which gave rise
to the centralizing and statist Lenin whose posterity is well enough
known.” (252.)

According to Poulantzas, Luxemburg criticized Lenin for “exclusive
reliance on council democracy and complete elimination of
representative democracy.” (He quotes from Luxemburg’s The Russian
Revolution.) Poulantzas describes Lenin as having a distrust of the
idea that the working class can participate meaningfully in the
capitalist state, which becomes – after the rise of a so-called
workers’ state – a “distrust of the popular movement as such,” which
he sees as being key to “Stalinist statism.” (255.)

Poulantzas elsewhere writes in favor of direct democracy, I can’t
remember where. He also favors “struggle at a distance from the state
apparatuses” for the sake of the autonomy of the struggle and
organizations of struggle. (259.)

“socialism will be democratic or it will not be at all.” (265.)

Now I can finally return this book to the library.