The Poulantzas project

Nicos Poulantzas in days before smoking in the office was structurally selected against

Now that I have some spare time on my hands, one of my medium-term projects is to do a proper engagement with Poulantzas, with the aim of sorting out my own theory of the capitalist state, and of economic policy in particular. I draw on Poulantzas a bit in my thesis, borrowing useful ideas without dealing with his vision as a whole. Now I want to go back and sort out exactly what I think. Poulantzas is one of those theorists who is incredibly helpful even when I disagree with points or even think the framing itself is misguided. He asks the right kinds of questions, and shows what a theory of the capitalist state has to do, even when his own particular constructions (which he kept radically revising throughout his short career) are problematic. Thirty or forty years on, he is still the person to engage with in Marxian state theory – a tradition that reached its high-water mark in the late 1970s, and never died but faded away.

Poulantzas is also difficult to read, and I don’t think it’s the translation. He adopts the language of other theoretical systems – first Sartre’s, then Althusser’s – of which he simply assumes knowledge. So there are a lot of sidetracks to do in dealing with him. On the other hand, once the language is understood, he is a very clear and systematic writer. And the fact that most of his exposition takes place through engagement with other writers is a good thing – in dealing with Poulantzas, you are also dealing with the Marxian ‘classics’, with Gramsci, Sartre, Althusser, Ralph Miliband, Perry Anderson, and Foucault.

The book Paradigm Lost: state theory reconsidered, edited by Aronowitz and Bratsis [2002], has some great chapters on why Poulantzian state theory – along with the work of Miliband, which I’ll also discuss – receded as a research program and why it deserves to be revived. (It also makes clear why Poulantzas and Miliband – their names linked mainly by the polemics they directed against one another – can be seen as part of the same program.) Leo Panitch, in his chapter, “The impoverishment of state theory”, stresses that there was substance and systematicity to the state theory of the 1970s that was new to both social science and the Marxian tradition, especially in its attempts to deal with modern advaced capitalist democracies:

It needs to be stressed today that we did not at all see ourselves as falling back on a prefabricated Marxism; the new theory of the state had Marxist roots but it was founded on the notion that nothing like an elaborated and coherent theory of the capitalist state (in contrast with the complex array of concepts and tendential laws that constituted Marxian economics and historical materialism) had been fashioned either by Marx himself or by his successors—up to and including Gramsci. And the new theory was concerned to displace the narrowly ideological official Marxism of the Communist parties. [p. 90]

My plan, then, is to work through Poulantzas’s major essays and books and some of their reference points – with particular attention to his theory’s relevance for the development of economic policy in the twentieth century. Economics is sometimes said to be a weak point for Poulantzas – but that gives me something to do.

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Published in: on 16 September, 2010 at 12:54 pm  Comments (3)  

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  1. Hi, Good luck with studying Poulantzas. I undertook this challenging but rewarding task as part of my MA thesis. At the time the Poulantzas reader was not published but I managed to track down a rare copy of Bob Jessop’s book: (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Nicos-Poulantzas-Marxist-Political-Strategy/dp/0312572670) which I would highly recommend if you can get a copy.

    My blog, Guild Socialism is partly influenced by my reading of Poulantzas as explained in this post:
    http://guildsocialism.blogspot.com/2009/02/poulantzas-and-cooperatives.html

  2. Thanks Matt. Yes, I have a copy of the Reader – it’s really useful. In fact when I get around to it I’m going to start with the early papers reprinted there. One reason I’ve been delayed in getting started is feeling obliged to do some background reading on legal theory and Sartre’s ‘Critique of Dialectical Reason’, because I was lost on first reading. I’m on firmer ground with the Althusserian framework of ‘Political Power and Social Classes’ – but now that I think about it, I was motivated to read Althusser originally because of being lost without it on my first attempt at that book. Poulantzas is difficult in that way!

  3. […] short-ish term reading goals. Gonna keep tossing stuff up here for a while… Poulantzas (see here) Pashukanis (see […]


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