Εισήγηση από το συνέδριο «Κρίση, Κράτος και Δημοκρατία. Αξιοποιώντας τη θεωρία του Νίκου Πουλαντζά για την αντιμετώπιση του αυταρχικού καπιταλισμού». Πάντειο Πανεπιστήμιο, 12-13 Δεκεμβρίου 2014
Eleni Portaliou (Technical University of Athens; Athens Borough Councillor)
The topicality of the strategy of the democratic path to socialism
The conference ‘Crisis, State and Democracy. Working with Nicos Poulantzas’ theory to confront authoritarian capitalism’ aims to bring back to the fore the living theoretical legacy of Nicos Poulantzas in order to illuminate major issues in the current political conjuncture. Historically, the theory was an integral part of the revolutionary projects and / or less radical programmes for breaking with the dominant relations of production and power, in favor of the working classes. Today, the policy of the left has been completely disconnected from the theory and, as Bob Jessop says, ‘although Poulantzas remains a major figure within postwar Western Marxism, the overall influence of Marxist political theory has declined since his death’.i He, however, created his theoretical work at the time when the revolution was on the agenda and the ideas were a material force for changing the world. This is why he wrote with a sense of urgency, confronted with the possibility that the communist parties of the West (France, Italy, Spain) would take power in their countries. I wonder if the theoretical reflection of the conference will have the slightest impact on the conception of political change that SYRIZA is planning for Greece or on the formation of an alternative proposal for Europe by the Party of the European Left, a proposal which does not exist today.
A. THE THEORIST OF THE STATE
Nicos Poulantzas placed the study of state and political power at the heart of his theoretical work, a task that had been neglected by both the Second and the Third International after Lenin. It was, as he notes, a deviation, a consequence of economism which considers that all other issues of social reality, including the state, are mere epiphenomena and can be reduced to the economic ‘base’. From this deviation, there appears the clear distinction between ‘class in itself’ and ‘class for itself’, into which consciousness is introduced externally, from the vanguard party. The instrumental view of left parties, such as the French Communist Party, considers the state, on the one hand, as being impervious to class struggle and, on the other hand, as a neutral instrument that can be used in a change of state power by the working class for the transition to socialism. Similarly, the statism of social democracy sees the ‘State-Subject’ as the holder of an intrinsic rationality embodied by the political elite and solely by the mechanisms of representative democracy.ii
A1. According to Nicos Poulantzas, the state, like capital, is first and foremost a social relation, the material condensation of a correlation of forces between social classes, as it is manifested in a special way within the state itself. Precisely for this reason, the state is penetrated by class antagonisms in its mechanisms; the class struggle does not leave it unaffected. This does not mean that the state is neutral in class terms. It is not a ‘tool’ of the bourgeoisie but ‘the modern state as a whole (the social security as well as health organizations, the school, the administration etc.) correspond structurally to the power of the bourgeoisie … The popular masses cannot extract positions of autonomous power in the capitalist state. They exist as an instrument of resistance, as an element of corrosion or sharpening of the internal contradictions of the state’.iii
A2. Poulantzas states explicitly that there is no general theory of the State and Power. There may be theoretical proposals regarding the state. These, however, have the same status as those of Marx on ‘production in general’. This is so because the state is not an unchanging theoretical object, independent of the means of production, the relations of production, and class struggle. The forms of the state, as regards both the general stages of capitalism (liberal capitalism, monopoly capitalism) and their different phases, are linked to specific social formations and relations of production. The theory, therefore, of the capitalist state cannot be delinked from a history of its formation and reproduction, and can only be identified through the association of this state with the history of political struggles in capitalism.
Poulantzas studies specific forms, deepening in the approach to the state, especially in the monopoly stage of capitalism, and its transformations at the end of the 1970s, when the counter-attack of the bourgeoisie against the major uprisings that shook Europe and the world occurred. It is this state that the term ‘authoritarian statism’ or ‘authoritarian consensus democracy’ describe. Today, the consensus function of the state, which allows for the reproduction of bourgeois dominance without serious shocks, is minimized; instead, its repressive mechanisms have been reinforced.
Poulantzas was extremely perceptive, handing us before his death a theoretical conception for the future. Through this perspective, we can refer to the crisis of the modern state that he dissects and, particularly, in the current political crisis. Let’s look briefly at what constitutes authoritarian statism: the excessive strengthening of the executive with the simultaneous decline of the parliament, the organic confusion of the three powers (executive, legislative, judicial), the transfer of a large part of the functions of the bourgeois parties in the state administration, the restriction of rights and freedoms, the strengthening of state violence and repression, the predominance of the mass media in the ideological mechanisms of the state, the lack of transparency and the de-articulation and of each branch and mechanism to formal and visible networks and tight cores, and finally the massive development and the organizational role of the parallel state networks of a public, semi-public or para-public nature.
A3. The relationship of the state with the bourgeoisie is depicted by Poulantzas in the notion of ‘relative autonomy’. The bourgeoisie is not uniform. The state, although representing predominantly the interests of the hegemonic class or one of its fractions, is supposed to maintain a relative autonomy, which guarantees the unity of the power coalition, despite its internal contradictions. Here, Poulantzas reminds us of Gramsci, who ‘with his sharp intuition, saw that the capitalist state in the entirety of its mechanisms (and not only the bourgeois political parties) assumes the role of a ‘party’ against the power coalition, a role that is analogous to the role exercised by the party of the working class against the popular alliance, the ‘people’.iv
The unity of the power coalition at this stage of radical restructuring, designed to contain the falling tendency of the rate of profit, which translates, inter alia, into the destruction of separate capitals, is broken. From this perspective, the intensity of the class struggle disassembles the unity of the bourgeoisie through the state and assists the political shift of some of its affected factions.
A4. The role of the state in the economy is, for Poulantzas, determining. ‘The state in the monopoly capitalist stage intervenes decisively in the economy, in the sense that its role is not limited basically to the reproduction of what Engels called ‘general conditions’ of the production of surplus value, but unfolds in the very cycle of the extended reproduction of capital as a social relation’.v The state does not maintain an externality as far as their relations of production and reproduction are concerned. The economy is not a self-reproduced and self-regulated structure, in which the state serves to define the negative rules of the game.
Therefore, the state is not only the sum of its ideological and repressive mechanisms, as a particular theoretical and political view – with which Poulantzas clashes – claims it to be. Besides, ideology does not refer only to a system of ideas and representations, but also to a series of material practices that characterize all social practices, including the political and economic ones. From this perspective, ideology is present in the relations of production and not just in the ideological mechanisms of the state (church, school, media, cultural mechanisms, the family – from a certain point of view -, bourgeois and petty-bourgeois parties, the trade-union mechanism of class collaboration) and vice-versa, the economic functions of the state are responsible for the reproduction of the dominant ideology (image of the state as guarantor of development, etc.).
Today, this intervention by the state in the Greek economy, with the internalisation of the policies of globalized capital and the decisions of key supranational organizations is catalytic. In this very territory, and due to the destabilization of the hegemony of the bourgeoisie which the state ensures, new contradictions are manifested in the state mechanisms.
A5. The nation-state, Poulantzas says, does not lose its leading role in the monopoly stage of capitalism. Supranational institutions, including the European Economic Community (there was no European Union at the time that he wrote), do not establish mechanisms that displace nation-states. ‘Nation-states undertake to promote the interests of the dominant imperialist capital during its expanded development within the “national” formation, i.e. during its complex internalisation in the internal bourgeoisie that undergoes its dominance’.vi The nation-state intervenes, therefore, based on the role that it has to organize hegemony, in an ‘internal’ field that is permeated by the inter-imperialist contradictions, while the contradictions between the dominant fractions within the social formation are already internationalized. Therefore, even though the struggles of the popular classes develop more than ever in a global background, and the establishment of global relations of production and the socialization of labor objectively strengthen the international solidarity of workers, the national form predominates in their struggle, which is international in substance.
Other, more appropriate individuals can undertake the analysis of the relations between international institutions and nation- states in the current form of imperialism, the inter-imperialist rivalries, and the particular position of each nation-state in the global division of labor. While nation-states, such as Greece, cede – or are forced to cede – part of their autonomy, they continue to constitute parts of a chain that reproduces, through conflicts and contradictions, the global capitalist system. The primacy of international institutions over national ones concerns primarily the loss of popular sovereignty, which has a single field of expression – the nation-state -, where class struggle unfolds. This, today, is a major problem for the effectiveness of class struggle. Nevertheless, an updated examination of the relationship between the national and the international would reveal the new contradictions as well as limitations created for radical political change in every nation-state.
Β. THE STRATEGY OF THE DEMOCRATIC ROAD TO SOCIALISM
B1. Poulantzas bases the (revolutionary) strategy of the democratic road to socialism in this theoretical analysis of the modern state – the authoritarian consensual democracy.
Today’s state cannot be occupied like a castle would, with an invasion from the outside, i.e. with assault – war of movements (Lenin) – or encirclement – war of positions (Gramsci), i.e. with a frontal strategy like the one of dual power. However, simultaneously, Poulantzas reminds us that, as Lenin showed, the main objective of revolutionary action is state power, and the necessary precondition of any socialist revolution is the destruction of the bourgeois state, which he modifies, contrasting the concept of radical rupture with the mechanisms of the bourgeois state.
The strategy of the democratic road, then, refers to a major upset in state mechanisms, through the seizure of power by the parties and the organizations of the popular classes in a process of their radical transformation. Poulantzas says: ‘It would be a mistake – a slip with serious political consequences – to conclude that the presence of the popular classes within the state means that, in it, they hold power or could eventually conquer power, without a radical transformation of the state’.vii In other words: ‘unlike the reformist notion, I do not think that we can think that the dominated classes have the opportunity to gradually appropriate state mechanisms, encircling the branches or the mechanisms of the state, in order to establish within them their own bastions of power’.viii
This strategy for the state presupposes the simultaneous function of representative and direct democracy, the effective popular participation, and the decisive initiative of social movements.
B2. The strategy of the democratic road to socialism has two constants. One fundamental principle concerns, as already mentioned, the rupture with the mechanisms of the state and the other ‘consists of the simultaneous support for the grassroots social movements of the base, the promotion of hotbeds of direct democracy; in other words, the support for popular struggles that always exceed the state. If we restrict ourselves within the scope of the state, even while adopting the so-called strategy of rupture, we will slip into social democracy without noticing it: due to the very weight of the material existence of the state, changing the internal balance of power within the state cannot be carried out without the support for the struggles and movements that go beyond the state’.ix
Within the strategy of the democratic road to socialism, social movements occupy, somehow, a position akin to the soviets of the democratic communist tradition. Some do not include labor into the term ‘social movements’. This distinction is usually based on the way the movements are constituted (hierarchical structure or not), which also is wrong. The labor movement includes equally the trade unions that are usually structured hierarchically as well as the workers’ councils, factory committees and workers’ assemblies.
Poulantzas refers to the student, the ecological, the feminist and the autonomy movement, the neighbourhood and citizens’ committees, but also to new forms of revolt within the factory. These movements have experienced rapid growth in the 1980s as a result of the crisis of the parties of the left, and then multiplied in terms of content and massiveness. Since the late 1990s and the first decade of the 21st century, they were broadened further and took the lead in breaking with neoliberal capitalism. Today, the movements of the squares refer directly to central political issues, seeking to overthrow the power of the minorities of wealth in favor of global social justice and prosperity.
B3. The democratic way implies, also, as a key element, both for the seizure of power and for the radical changes in state mechanisms, the existence of left-wing parties that do not replicate the materiality of bourgeois parties, which have today been reduced to electoral mechanisms due to the dominance of the executive. In contrast, the left parties have to act preferentially in society and not in the state, and are not in a position to perform their role if they are not mass-based. The current crisis of the bourgeois parties translates into the contraction of the participatory process of their members, the strengthening of the leaders, of closed centralized staffs and technocrats. This crisis affects labor, left-wing and communist parties that move in a way within the field of the state and / or tend to replicate forms of bourgeois parties, usually when they participate or demand to participate in power. This shift involves SYRIZA as well, which is being de-massified, shrinking into a bureaucratic party structure and referring almost exclusively to parliamentarians and the parliament (structural shift in the rule).
The bourgeois parties, realizing today – through their participation in government – the tougher postwar class policy against the working classes, have lost contact with the social organizations while representation has been converted into manipulation / prevention of the questioning of bourgeois power. For the left parties, however, the relationship with social movements, traditional and new ones, is an identifying characteristic. The party – let’s remember Poulantzas once again – is neither the magnet that brings together social organizations, nor the exclusive producer of policy, and especially policy synthesis. The members of left-wing parties act within the society, play a leading role in social struggles, and support social organizations and social movements, respecting and ensuring the autonomy of the latter from the state and the political parties.
The political coalition for the power of the popular classes includes not only the political parties, but also the social movements, which are linked through relations of dialectical tension with these parties.
B4. Poulantzas insists, rightly, on the importance of representative democracy (political parties, freedom), the depreciation or abolition of which impacted negatively on direct democracy. Here, we should recall his reference to Rosa Luxemburg, the fiery revolutionary and proponent of the direct democracy of the soviets, who defended the representative institutions, thinking that the suppression of political life would lead the Soviets themselves into paralysis. Without general elections, unrestricted freedom of the press and assembly, without a free struggle of the different viewpoints, life burns out in every political institution and only bureaucracy triumphs.
The ‘crushing of the state’ does not mean the abolition of the institutions of representative democracy, but rather their radical democratization, Poulantzas says: ‘When we say that there must be a co-articulation between forms of representative democracy and forms of direct democracy, this obviously means that we do not want to renew but rather to overcome the existing democratic system, that we want to overcome the totalitarian separation that exists between a caste of professionals of politics and the rest of the population’.x We know, moreover, that ‘for people to be interested, they should have the impression that they influence the decisions that concern them and, in order to influence these decisions, they should form a collective entity, talk together, be able to press, etc.’. The isolated person, the person as perceived by the bourgeoisie vis-à-vis the political machine, is withdrawn into the sphere of his private life’.xi
Popular self-organization – social movements and social deliberative bodies, autonomous from the state and political parties – i.e. direct democracy, are a guarantee that the representation will not degenerate into commissioning and that the political parties expressing the popular classes will not end up becoming public bodies, perpetuating the dominance of the state that they will have to crush (repressive mechanisms) or radically democratize (control of representation, realization of formal freedoms, etc.).
Local government, as noted in earlier decisions of SYRIZA, could also form an example of the articulation of direct and representative democracy, starting from today onwards. This, however, has not been seen, risking the exclusion of local government schemes and local social organizations / movements from political intervention and the shrinking of the institution to the powers of the representatives.
B. Jessop (1991), ‘On the originality, legacy, and actuality of Nicos Poulantzas’, Studies in Political Economy 34, pp. 75-107.
ii N. Poulantzas (1973), State, Power, Socialism, Athens: Themelio, p. 364. All the excerpts from sources in Greek have been translated in English by the author.
iii N. Poulantzas (2009), ‘The state and the transition to socialism / An interview of Nicos Poulantzas with Henri Weber’, in Nicos Poulantzas: Texts – Marxism, Law, State, ed. by J. Martin, Athens: Nissos / Nicos Poulantzas Institute, p. 443.
iv N. Poulantzas (1974), Classes in Contemporary Capitalism, Athens: Themelio, p. 120.
v Ibid., p. 122.
vi N. Poulantzas, ‘The internationalization of capitalist relations and the nation-state’, in Nicos Poulantzas: Texts – Marxism, Law, State, ed. by J. Martin, Athens: Nissos / Nicos Poulantzas Institute, p. 326.
vii Poulantzas, State, Power, Socialism, pp. 204-205.
viii N. Poulantzas (1980), On Gramsci – Between Sartre and Althusser, Athens: Polytypo, p. 132.
ix L. Althusser, E. Balibar, N. Poulantzas, and B. Edelman (1980), A discussion about the state, Athens: Agonas, p. 65.
x Poulantzas, ‘The state and the transition to socialism’, pp. 458-459.
xi Ibid., 458.