Poulantzas’ Approach To The Capitalist State

Nicos Poulantzas is a Greek-Marxist political sociologist who is famous for his Althusseran account of the State’s relative autonomy. He has on many occasions been referenced by the ‘New Left Review’ especially in relation to the state debate with Ralph Miliband and his support for Structural Marxism. Despite being widely known, little is known about his theory of the state and often is labeled as a ‘class-struggle reductionist’ or ‘structuralist’; expressions that both fail to capture his complex theory of the state.
In this paper, we provide a more rounded portrayal of Poulantza’ theory of the capitalist state. In particular, the paper analyzes the nature of the capitalist state from Poulantzas’ perspective and explores how his pathbreaking analysis provides important insights to understanding the behaviour of the state and the state’s structure. This will include exploring the liberal view of the state and the communist orthodox of ‘state monopoly capitalism’.

Against the notion of the state being a pliant tool of monopoly capital, this paper will identify the state as both the crystalization and locus of class struggle. It will reject the liberal pluralistic-functionalist approaches and try to draw attention to ucomplex social theory: the view of the state as a material condensation of relationships among classes and its relative autonomy from the dominant class. Additionally, the paper examines the political implications of this ; and finally, it explores the changing face of economic relations which has been facilitated by globalization, work reorganization and knowledge transmission.
Nicos Poulantzas is widely known as an alleged proponent of Structural Marxism (Walsh 2012). He is also most famous for his Althusseran account of the State’s’ relative autonomy’. The greatest appeal of his state theory can be seen in Britain as evident with the New Left Review which has enthusiastically taken up his cause (Clarke 1991). Although Nicos Poulantzas has on many occasions been referenced by the organized left, especially in relation to the state debate with Ralph Miliband and his support for Structural Marxism; it should be noted that neither of these contexts gives an accurate representation of this dynamic thinker (Walsh 2012). For example, the Miliband debate provides only a small reflection of Poulantzas’ theory of capitalist state.
Despite being a renowned Marxist political sociologist, little is known about his theory of the state. Often, he is labeled as a ‘class-struggle reductionist’ or ‘structuralist’; expressions that both fail to capture his complex theory of the state (Tabak 1999). While his theory is seldom discussed in certain areas of the academic circles; it is important to note that he is amongst the most important post-war theorists especially to those that seek to advance Marxist state theories beyond crude instrumentalism and subjectivism (Walsh 2012).
For this reason, this paper provides a more rounded portrayal of Poulantzas’s theory of the capitalist state. In particular, the paper analyzes the nature of the capitalist state from Poulantzas’ perspective and explores how his pathbreaking analysis provides important insights to understanding the behaviour of the state and the state’s structure. Additionally, the paper examines the political implications of his view.
The power bloc
In order to get a clear perspective of Poulantzas’s state theory, it is important to first examine the power bloc. It is a widely accepted fact that for every society, there is an array of classes that form the dominant and dominated classes. In this respect, Poulantzas noted that the economically dominant class could only establish political dominance in the society through the capitalist state (Walsh 2012). He called this group of dominant class the ‘power bloc’ which comprises of the capitalist class and the economically powerful classes.
The interests of the power bloc are heteros and the make-up and balance of forces in the power bloc vary from state to state (Walsh 2012). Undeniably, for every society, there will always be contradictory and competing interests especially among the different ruling classes. Given the divergent interests of the power bloc, it becomes the state’s primary role to ensure that such conflicting interests within the power bloc do not undermine the dominance of the bloc as a whole nor pose threat to unity.
It thus becomes the role of the state to unify and organize the various classes and to uphold their political interests without posing threat to unity. It follows that the class differences within the power bloc should not hinder the state’s task of maintaining unity and the subordinance of the subaltern classes. Poulantzas, in this respect, views the state as playing an active role in the reproduction of relations and maintenance of class-hierarchical status quo (Kalyvas 1999).
Globalization and the State
The current literature available on globalization takes a more liberal view of the State, the view that the State is a territorial institution with centralized control over its territories (Tabak 1999). According to the liberal view, the state is treated as an entity with its own unique power. Thus the power of the state becomes discharged when multinationals exit its territory (Tabak 1999).
Others, sharing a similar view, argue that when multinationals exit the state’s territory, the state may not necessarily become powerless as not enough capital has escaped the territorial state’s domain to make it obsolete (Lenin 2012). This paper, however, challenges this view from Poulantzas’s perspective of the state. The paper argues that these approaches fail to identify the source of the State’s autonomy.
Poulantzas’s state theory
In the state theory, Poulantzas seems less concerned to disprove liberal democratic theory but rather criticizes the communist orthodox of ‘state monopoly capitalism’ (Kalyvas 1999). Against this notion that the state is a pliant tool of monopoly capital, Poulantzas rejects the liberal pluralistic-functionalist approaches and draws the attention of mainstream political science to his complex social theory (Kalyvas 1999).
According to Nicos Poulantzas, the power of the state is not confined in a more or less rational actor/institution and its nature is independent of its territoriality (Kalyvas 1999). The state’s institutionalism is a reflection of the contradictory social relations and the state draws its power from these (Kalyvas 1999). The state’s existence is thus driven by contradictory social relations and can be viewed as an institutionalized power relationship that transcends the national territory and the territorial nation; both of which are not essential for its existence.
Poulantzas state theory reaffirm’s the view that the political realm is independent and is not, as articulated in classical Marxism, a reflection of the economic realm. He thinks of the state’s autonomy as central in all circumstances and independent of its territory. According to Poulantzas, the state is by definition a capitalist state, which constitutes the political unity of the dominant classes, thereby establishing them as dominant (Poulantzas 2000: p.77 ).
He rejects the so-called instrumentalist perspective articulated by Miliband on grounds that the states autonomy is independent of the ruling class and argues that the state is not a mere instrument of the ruling or dominant class, but is instead a separate entity with its own agenda.
This state theory developed by Poulantzas has its roots in his political theory which proposes a regional approach to understanding and analyzing the different levels in a social formation: political, economic and ideological levels (Poulantzas 2000).
His early work was, however, subject to criticism on the grounds that it was severely functionalist, failing to show exactly how the state fulfils its role as the ‘factor of cohesion’ (Rooksby 2012). Critics also argued that Poulantzas’s approach presented the political and economic ‘regions’ as distinct rather than simply analytically (Rooksby 2012). Criticism was also raised on grounds that his emphasis on determining the role of structural matrix in the capitalist society could not possibly be combined with the idea of contingent class struggle (Rooksby 2012).
Poulantzas later work, state, power, socialism, is far more superior to his early work and represents a major advance in his thinking. In this final work, this Greek Marxist sociologist rejects the Althusseran underpinnings thereby overcoming many of the criticism raised with his early work. The starting point of the analysis of the capitalist state shifts from the assumption of a determinant structural matrix to one that examines the nature of relations of production in the capitalist mode of production (Rooksby 2012). With a shift in focus, Poulantzas was able to develop a more improved theory of the state.
In this final piece, he provides a brilliant analysis of capitalism by conceptualizing a state that materializes and concentrates power and one that provides political space for class struggle (Poulantzas 2000). His analysis identifies the state as both the crystallization and locus of class struggle. On one side,there is a class struggle over the organization of production, knowledge and over state’s juridical apparatuses (Poulantzas 2000). It thus becomes the state’s role to reintegrate and unify separated and individualized workers into one nation. On the other side, this integration takes place in the context of class struggle and the state and other institutions are a product of such struggle (Poulantzas 2000).
His theory of the state is in response to the simplistic understandings within Marxism which posited that the state was a mere reflection of the dominant class and that state policy was a direct expression of this ruling class political will (Clarke 1991). In the Marxist scheme, the dominant class is one that owns or controls the means of production; and one in which its interests the state corresponds (Clarke 1991). That means that the dominant class may use the state power as an instrument to achieve its dominance in the society.
Poulantzas disagreed with the Instrumentalist Marxist view and instead argued that the capitalist class was more focused on individual profit rather than maintaining class’s power as a whole (Poulantzas 2000). Against the instrumentalist approach, Poulantzas argues that the state is more of a material condensation of the relationship among the various classes and that intrinsic class struggle of the capitalist system is hardwired into the state’s mainframe, thus the state’s actions and policy cannot be solely dictated by the ruling class (Poulantzas 2000).
Owing a considerable debt to the notion of ‘cultural hegemony’ articulated by Antonio Gramsci; Poulantzas also argues that the repressing movements of the oppressed are by no means the state’s sole function (Salomon 2012). He argues that instead the state power obtains consent of the oppressed through class alliances, wherein the ruling class creates an alliance with the oppressed groups in order to obtain their consent. According to Poulantzas, the state is neither an instrumentalist depository of the ruling class-power nor a subject with its own abstract power; but is rather the centre of the exercise of power.
Implications of this view
Drawing from the above, it can be argued that the theory of the capitalist state comprise of three dialectical moments which, besides being autonomous, are also co-determinants of each other: the state as an institution, state as a function and state as a relation (Tabak 1999). The state is an institution in the sense of its embodiment in its personnel and apparatuses. As articulated by Poulantzas, the state is a centralized apparatus that comprise of an assemblage of impersonal and anonymous functions (Tabak 1999). While Members within institution-state may come from different classes, they follow a specific internal unity.
The state can also be viewed as a function, with political, economic and ideological functionality (Tabak 1999). When the three categories are combined, the state performs an objective function, maintaining social cohesion in order to ensure continuing accumulation of capital. There are many facets to this function of cohesion: first, the state serves as a function by creating what is referred to by Poulantzas as a “people-nation” (Tabak 1999). Second, it serves as a function by playing a constitutive role in the reproduction of class powers (Tabak 1999).
Given the above, it can be seen that the state’s functionality makes possible its institutionality. On the other hand, its institutionality is circumscribed by and casually embedded in its functionality (Tabak 1999). This coexistence is constantly reproduced by social relations, bringing us to the third moment, state as a relation. By state as a relation, Poulantzas implies that the state is a condensate of a relation of power between struggling classes (Tabak 1999). Conceiving the state as a relation, means grasping the fact that it is the resultant of contradictions and that it is destined reproduce class divisions.
State’s autonomy
These three moments define the nature of the state and the state’s relative autonomy. The three moments are also dialectically linked to two processes: first, the distinction between the political and the economic; relations of production-consumption-circulation and the state (capitalist mode of production) (Tabak 1999: p.139). Second, specificity of the constitution of classes and of class struggle in the capitalist mode of production (Tabak 1999: p.139)
In capitalism, for example, the surplus mode of extraction requires a functionally autonomous state (Tabak 1999: p. 140). This is due to the fact that production and valorization of products in the market are two separate processes. While the control of production rests largely in the hands of the capitalist, product circulation and valorization in the global market is beyond the capitalist’s individual control. It thus requires the presence of an overarching force such as the state which will follow the overall logic of surplus creation and ensure surplus extraction (Tabak 1999).
Criticism of Poulantzas state theory
Several questions have, however, been raised with regard to Poulantzas approach and his emphasis on the state’s relative autonomy. Questions such as: how relative is relativeUnder what circumstances can we consider it as more or lessMore so, what form does the autonomy assumeThese key questions have been raised in political discourse and Poulantzas approach critiqued as having not provided a satisfactory answer to them.
Poulantzas approach has been critiqued as undermining his attempt to explain the nature of the relationship between the state and the dominant class. His approach is also seen as subverting the very concept of relative autonomy that it proposes. Poulantzas argues against structuralism stating that the state’s power is not located in the levels of structures but is instead an effect of ensemble of these levels (Miliband 1970). The concept of power is thus not applicable to one level of the structure. From this view, the state power does not in itself imply state’s articulation at other structural levels. It can only mean the power of determinate class whose interests are prioritized by the state (Miliband 1970).
This, however, may not necessarily be true as it would imply depriving the state of its autonomy and turning it into a mere instrument of the determinate class. In line with this view, Poulantzas argues that the state possess its autonomy and structural specificity which cannot be easily reduced to an analysis in terms of power (Jessop 2009). This concession, however, does not seem to dissipate the confusion but rather serves to compound it.
Failure by Poulantzas to differentiate between state power and class power is suggested to be the main reason for this confusion. While state power is considered ultimate, it is not the only means to maintaining and assuring class power. The lack of a clear distinction between class power and state power prevents his analysis from providing satisfactory answer to the above questions.
By now, it is an acknowledged fact that Poulantzas tended to place a lot of emphasis on the differences and relations between class fractions in the capitalist state. While stressing this fact is important and needs to be comprehended in the analysis of the capitalist state; his emphasis on these differences and relations may obscure the underlying cohesion of these elements and critics may well use these differences to deny the fundamental cohesion of the capitalist class (Miliband 1970).
Nonetheless, Poulantzas work has been particularly influential even though his legacy remains ambivalent. This is evident with his state theory, which has become a major contribution to the theoretical agenda on this topic, especially the so-called ‘relative autonomy’ of the state. By creating space for a ‘relatively autonomous’ Marxist political science and defining the nature of the capitalist state, the state’s structure and state’s autonomy; Poulantzas’s work has clearly been influential.
In essence, Poulantzas’s view of the state goes against instrumentalism which sees the state as solely depending on the dominant class or those that man its top structures. Rather, he sees the state from a ‘functional’ view as fulfilling society’s needs of which it is part. There is no doubt that Poulantzas’s state theory has been influential with his work often referenced by the organized left. He has made important contributions to the theoretical agenda on capitalist state by analyzing the nature of the capitalist state and providing important insights to the understanding of the state, its structure and its autonomy.
Undeniably, Poulantzas has made important contributions to this theoretical debate. First, he made a major contribution to the capitalist state theory that goes beyond the conventional Marxist analyses. Second, he developed a broader approach to the state as a relation, viewing the state as the ‘condensate of class relations’. Additionally, his analysis of the current form of capitalist type of state can be seen with ‘authoritarian statism’ which is far more evident today than before, especially in France and Germany.
More recently, however, Poulantzas analysis seems to have been widely neglected. Over the past few years, much has changed with economic relations being transformed by globalization, compression of space and time, work reorganization and knowledge transmission which has been facilitated by information and communications revolution. There has been a shift of locus of relation away from the nation state which was fundamental to Poulantzas’s analysis. Nonetheless, he remains one of the most important post-war theorists to advance Marxist state theories beyond crude instrumentalism and subjectivism.
Miliband, R., 1970. The Capitalist state: reply to Nicos Poulantzas. New Left Review
Salomon, C., 2012. ‘The great transformation of the Poulantzasian modern capitalist state under Globalization’. Journal of Political Inquiry
Kalyvas, A., 1999. ‘The stateless theory: Poulantzas’s challenge to postmodernism’. Journal of Hellenic Diaspora
Tabak, 1999. ‘A poulantzasian approach to the state and globalization’. Journal of Hellenic Diaspora
Carnoy, M. and M. Castells, 2002. ‘Globalization, the knowledge society, and the Network state: Poulantzas at the millennium’. Global Networks, vol. 1 (1)
Jessop, B., 2009. Poulantzas’s state, power, socialism as a modern classic. [Viewed on 10th December 2012] available from
Poulantzas, N., 2000. State, power, socialism. New edition. Verso Books
Walsh, C., 2012. Nicos Poulantzas and the capitalist state. Scotland: International Socialist Group
Lenin, 2012. Terrifyingly real: Poulantzas and the capitalist state. [viewed on 10th December 2012] available from
Rooksby, 2012. Towards a better theory of the capitalist state: combining block’s and poulantzas’ approaches. [Viewed on 10th december 2012] available from
Clark, S., 1991. The State debate. Macmillan publishers.

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