The Althusser – Poulantzas discussion on the State

The Althusser – Poulantzas discussion on the State


  1. Althusser and Poulantzas: uneasy partners on a common trajectory 



In the course of his activities at the École Normale, Louis Althusser conceived  the idea of mapping out, together with Marxist-oriented students of his,  a number of areas for the deployment of Marxian and Marxist theory. Class-struggle developments such as the Sino-Soviet split, the crisis in the regimes of existing socialism (Germany ’53, Hungary ’56) but also the end of colonialism, made it urgently necessary to initiate a return to the study of Marxism as a decisive parameter for the articulation of satisfactory answers by Communist parties in the new conditions. Such a project demanded specialized work from certain politically engaged Marxists who were, however, prepared to accept its overall guidelines. It was in that context that Poulantzas undertook the study of the Political both from the aspect of the political stage it occupied within a mode of production and within a social formation and from the aspect of the specificity that characterizes political practice as against other forms of practice.  (Baltas 2012: 69- 70).

The relationship of political collaboration that was to develop between Althusser and Poulantzas did not necessarily lead to a complete identity of views. That was to become evident when in his article “Towards a Marxist Theory”, published in 1966 in the periodical Les Temps Modernes[1], Poulantzas criticized some aspects of Althusser’s work For Marx[2], which had been published a short time previously. But because the content of the article in question has little bearing on the theory of the State, it will not occupy us further here.

In any case, whatever the differentiations, Poulantzas’ first book Political Power and Social Classes[3] is characterized by a pronounced influence from Althusser’s work up to that date. Specifically the concept of the mode of production, the definition of social power, the priority of contradiction over unity, the concept of ideology in class-struggle terms, the critique of humanism and economism, all of these are evident signs of Althusser’s influence  (Milios 1990: 61)[4].

Something similar could be said of Poulantzas’ critique of Ralph Miliband’s work[5] The State in Capitalist Society in his article “The Problem of the Capitalist State”[6], which incorporated an (at that time) unpublished analysis of Althusser on the Ideological State Apparatuses (Milios 1990: 62). But Political Power and Social Classes received a commendation in any case from Althusser in his more comprehensive study “On the Reproduction of Capitalism” (of which “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses” comprised one section). In it he noted the value of critique of the instrumentalist theory of the State, the importance of elevating to political power an alliance of social classes or fractions of social classes, and the distinction between state power and apparatuses of power (Αlthusser 2014a: 72-73)

But in Fascism and Dictatorship too, published year later (1970), the influence of Althusser on Poulantzas was obvious when he proceeded to draw a distinction between the ideological and repressive state apparatuses, when he noted the abolition of the relative autonomy of the ideological apparatus during states of emergency, when he articulated a critique of the economism of the 3rd International (Milios 1990: 62).But despite the existence of these influences on the work in question it was to become obvious that quite significant differences were emerging, which would only become greater with the passage of time, as we shall demonstrate below.

In any event, in the last interview that he was to give, Poulantzas mentioned that Gramsci was the point of departure for agreement and disagreement with Althusser,conceding however that they were in agreement on his first writings and above all the methodological and philosophical texts. On the other hand he regarded as problematic the structuralist elements that are inherent in Althusser’s theory, believing that in Althusser’s attempt to criticize historicism, “the stick was bent in the other direction”. Poulantzas concludes “So, I will stand by the critical role of Althusserianism rather than by the substantive analysis” (Poulantzas 1979b: 198).  



2. Dialogue on the State I: The State as an aggregation of Ideological and Repressive Apparatuses.

Let us now move on to the related discussion on the State as elaborated in Althusser’s texts on the repressive and ideological apparatuses (irrespective of the year of their publication) and the corresponding positions of Poulantzas.

Althusser’s first direct position statement on the State linked it to the functioning of the State’s repressive and ideological apparatuses: “The State is thus first of all what the Marxist classics have called the state apparatus. This term means: not only the specialized apparatus (in the narrow sense) whose existence and necessity I have recognized in relation to the requirements of legal practice, i .e .the police, the courts, the prisons; but also the army, which … intervenes directly as a supplementary repressive force in the last instance, when the police and its specialized auxiliary corps are ‘outrun by events’... The   state apparatus, which defines the State as a force of repressive execution and intervention ‘in the interests of the ruling classes’ in the class struggle conducted by the bourgeoisie and its allies against the proletariat, is quite certainly the State, and quite certainly defines its basic ‘function’” (Althusser 2014b: 239).


  For Althusser the State’s repressive apparatus operates in conjunction with the ideological apparatuses of the State. The State’s repressive apparatus includes the government, public administration, the army, the police and the courts, whereas the Ideological State Apparatuses (ISA) have ideology as their predominant component (e.g. education, family, political system, mass media) (Althusser 2014b:  242- 243). The ISA are a system of institutions, organizations and corresponding prescribed practices within which the state ideology is actualized as a whole or in part (Althusser 2014a: 77) The purpose of the Repressive State Apparatus is to secure through either physical violence or some other form of violence the reproduction of the exploitative productive relations, whereas the Ideological State Apparatuses are required for protection of the Repressive State Apparatus so as to secure for their part the reproduction  of the relations of production, given that in their pursuit of  the ideologization process they do not resort to the employment of violence  (Althusser 2014a: 78- 79; Althusser 2014b: 247- 248). But neither type of apparatus employs either repression or ideology exclusively. In fact the repressive apparatuses, at a secondary level, function ideologically, as do the ideological apparatuses. Secondarily and, marginally-symbolically, they may take the form of repression (Althusser 2014a: 86).  

Elaborating on this position in a later text, Althusser argued that the “body” of the State can be distinguished by the following apparatuses: a) the apparatus of state (public) power (or apparatus of repression), comprising the hard core of the State, its armed force for external and internal intervention: the military, the various divisions of the police, the gendarmerie, the CRS (Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité), the gardes-mobiles. To all these must be added the judiciary, prison officers and every institution of direct and indirect discipline, such as psychiatry, medicine, psychology, education, etc. b) the political apparatus comprising the head of state, the main body of the government,  the prefectural administration and all major administrative bodies, c) the ideological apparatuses (Althusser 2006: 101).

Although, as we have seen, Poulantzas accepted that ideological apparatuses play an important role, he was very critical of this thesis. Thus, in Fascism and Dictatorship he would argue that these positions of Althusser are situated on a plane that is both abstract and formalistic, thus downgrading the role of class struggle  (Poulantzas 1979a: 300- 301). This was because Althusser underestimated the economic role of the state apparatuses, so that he appeared almost to be arguing that the State’s only function is to exercise repression and dispense ideology, leaving out of account the reproduction of labour power through the school and the family (Poulantzas 1979a: 303). Similarly, the notion that there exists a unanimity of ideological apparatuses because of the uniformity of state power is cerebral and formalistic, given that it overlooks the factor of class struggle and ignores the fact that in every society there is a plethora of  class ideologies, which are contradictory and competing. The example of the Cultural Revolution reveals how power relations within the ideological apparatuses are not directly dependent on the class nature of state power. Thus the transformation of the ideological apparatuses “can only be the result of a revolutionizing practice directly affecting state power, imposing restrictions  (which vary with the class or classes in power) on the functioning of the ideological state apparatuses. These restrictions, which delimit the ‘unity’  of the ideological apparatuses, are by no means the exclusive effect of the ruling ideology, but are also affected by state power  itself within the (repressive) state apparatus.” (Poulantzas 1979a: 341- 342).

Poulantzas was to return to the subject in question in his Classes in Contemporary Capitalism,  where he would characterize as “simplistic” the view that would represent the State as having only a repressive or ideological role, arguing that the State retains a direct economic role in reproduction of the relations of production.   It is not a technical or neutral function of the State but something that is dictated by the political requirements of class domination (Poulantzas 1978b: 99). In this sense the State is not to be seen as a stratum separated from the relations of production. The State is present in the establishment of relations of production and not just in their reproduction (Poulantzas 1979c: 86).

Finally, the distinction drawn by Althusser between apparatuses operating with dominant and those operating with secondary elements (e.g. for the army repression is the dominant element and ideology secondary) (Althusser 2014b: 244), creates many problems for anyone attempting to understand the functioning of the State.  This is because the phenomenon of transfer of power from one apparatus to the other, the evolution in their character in response to conjunctural  changes, is not perceptible.[7] A typical example would be that of the army, which in crisis situations above and beyond its openly repressive function emerges as the dominant centre of power within the State, acting as an ideological and organizational apparatus performing the role of the party of the bourgeoisie. Correspondingly, other repressive institutions (the judiciary, prisons, police) have an enduring ideological role, to the extent that classification into primarily repressive and primarily ideological roles may seem devoid of meaning (Poulantzas 1980: 33).


3. Dialogue on the StateIΙ: The State as instrument? 


Some years after his pronouncement on the ideological and repressive apparatuses Althusser attempted to formulate an overall position on the State. The overall position, which later underwent further refinement, was to be centred on thethesis that“the State is separate from class struggle: of course, since that is what it is made for; that is why it is an instrument” (Althusser 2006: 70) . We shall see subsequently in what way Althusser seeks to uphold these two assumptions. But in any case, elaborating on this preamble  in a first attempt at definition he proceeds to  argue that the State is an apparatus, like every apparatus comprised of individual elements working for the achievement of a common goal: in this case the preservation of ruling class power.[8] But even the term “apparatus” does not accurately reflect the content and functioning of the State. It would be  more proper, Althusser asserts, to see the State as a machine: “machine” implies something more than “apparatus”. It adds the idea of transformation of energy simply through utilization of the initial energy. In the case of an apparatus we limit ourselves to one form of energy. With a machine we have to do with at least two forms of energy, and above all with the transformation of one into the other (Althusser 2006: 84-85). This is because it transforms into energy as power a prior form of energy as power or, to put it differently, energy as violence. This is the power or the violence of class struggle that has not yet been transformed into state power, not yet converted into legislation and law (Althusser 2006: 108). From the moment that power metamorphoses into state power it renounces, through various apparatuses for the dissemination of ideology, its class character, denying in that way the existence of class struggle – for the State there are no classes but only citizens – and recognition of only one form of power: state power. In this sense the State is a machine for generating power: legitimated power. The greater part of its activity consists in passing laws, issuing decrees, making decisions. The remainder serves the purpose of ensuring their implementation, through the operations of the State.[9]

            Having formulated this theory of the State, Althusser concludes that “to leap from this to the conclusion that the State ‘is by definition traversed by class struggle’ is to engage in wishful thinking. It is to take certain effects - profound effects, to be sure - or certain traces of the class struggle (bourgeois and proletarian) for the class struggle itself. But I maintain, precisely, that the State, the core of the State - which comprises its physical, political, police and administrative forces of intervention - is, so far as possible, constructed in such a way as not to be affected, or even ‘traversed’, by the class struggle ……” (Althusser 2006: 80)

In our opinion if he had not moved beyond this formulation, the conclusion would have been that the class struggle does not penetrate the hard core of the State, with the implication that other parts of the State can be penetrated by the class struggle.  

In two very interesting articles D. Dimoulis argues that when Althusser represents the State as separated from the class struggle he means that there is a hard core which is distinct from the rest of the State and which comprises an instrument of the ruling class. In the remainder of the public sector there are strikes, etc. so it cannot be construed as being an instrument of class domination. This real differentiation serves the purpose of investing the State with the stamp of class (Dimoulis 1997: 71-72). At the same time when he postulates that the State, or at least the hard core of the State, is an instrument, Althusser means - according to Dimoulis – that it is constructed of a distinctive metal, as it were, which can be deployed exclusively by the bourgeoisie to keep itself in power and which is continuously upgraded so as to be effective against the efforts of the working classes to impose controls on its operations (Dimoulis 1997: 77).  In the opposite contingency, in the event – in other words – of its being affected by trends  in the class struggle, it would not be able to perform its role of safeguarding the class character of the bourgeois state.  The only way, therefore, to terminate the identification of the State with the rule of the bourgeoisie,  is to stage a socialist revolution and abolish the state in question. (Dimoulis 2016: 31-32) With this interpretation of Althusser that he offers, Dimoulis believes that the French philosopher actually succeeds in exposing the contradiction inherent in the theory of relative autonomy, as formulated by Poulantzas:  either there is relative autonomy, in which case the state is not a class state, or the state is a class state, in which case there is no relative autonomy .

But the corollary of this interpretation of the Althusserian’s work is that if the distinctive metal is adapted only to the requirements of the bourgeoisie, then it is not a tool. On the contrary P. Sotiris argues that the notion of the instrument or tool is predicated on separation from the class struggle but not from the classes themselves.  In other words its intervention is transparently biased in favour of the dominant class even if on certain occasions it implements measures to the disadvantage of conjunctural vested interests or at the expense of some sections of the ruling class (Sotiris 2004: 414-415). For a start, in this approach too the question remains of what the State is if it is not a tool? Above and beyond that, Althusser’s recognition that the State intervenes in intra-bourgeois disputes (Althusser 2006:78) does not necessitate acceptance of the position that  class struggle penetrates the State, foreshadowing creation of yet more problems. From the moment that one agrees that class struggle does not penetrate the interior of the State and that the State opposes the class struggle in a purely external manner,  one must accept that that intra-bourgeois disputes are not a form of class struggle or else that they are similarly external to the State.

What is most significant, though, is that Althusser evidently does not accept this “modificatory” interpretation. Thus, later in the text persisting in the assertion that the State is an instrument[10]  he concludes that “only the Force of the dominant class enters into the State and is recognized there, through the violent ‘separation’ that is responsible for the fact that this entry into the State is simultaneously a radical rejection and negation of the class struggle from which this separation has nevertheless issued:…” (Althusser 2006: 109- 110)

Seeking to defend this view Kalampokas-Betzelos-Sotiris maintain that Althusser was in essence attempting to draw a distinction between the class nature of the Body of the State, and in particular  the repressive mechanisms, and the fact that they are usually comprised of people originating from the lower classes (Kalampokas- Betzelos-Sotiris 2016: 18). Nevertheless if, on the one hand, Althusser wished to make some such assertion he made it in these words as a way of insisting on the significance of the actions of the State apparatus and not on the social origins of those comprising it, without adopting any theory of “separation”. Secondly, enlistment in the repressive apparatuses transforms not only the consciousness of the people who staff them but also their social position. Beyond that, our disagreement is not over whether or not all of this represents normality within the repressive apparatuses but over whether there exists a possibility of overturn of this “normality” in extreme historical circumstances (see below).

            To return to the direct dialogue between Althusser and Nicos Poulantzas, Poulantzas was (again) vehemently critical of the above positions of Althusser, focusing on the Althusser’s excessively narrow reading of the State phenomenon.

In the first pages of State, Power, Socialism,  at a high level of abstraction and without making any direct reference to Althusser, Poulantzas censures the habit of adopting a “formalist – economist position according to which the economy is composed of elements that remain unchanged through the various modes of production ….such a conception obscures the role of struggles lodged in the very heart  of the relations of production and exploitation. Furthermore, it treats the space or field of the economic (and consequently that of the State, i.e. political) as essentially immutable, as possessing intrinsic limits   that are sketched out  once and for all by its supposed self-reproduction” (Poulantzas 1980: 15). This perception has certain implications: it can lead either into the trap of reductionism (the State as a mere reflection of the economy) or to the notion of immutable autonomy of the various grades of the superstructure from the economic base. The corollary of such innate autonomy is a self-reproducing economy. Both these hypotheses converge, therefore, in approaching the State and Economy as externally grounded relations (Poulantzas 1980: 15- 16)[11]

Later on in the book Althusser, now mentioned by name, is charged by Poulantzas with downgrading the presence of the State, limiting it to the realm of repressive and ideological functions, in such a way, indeed that what is projected is exclusively the negative aspect of state intervention. The State sets  the boundaries of the forbidden and establishes the mechanisms of manipulation:  “…the conception as systematized by Althusser  rests on the idea of a State that acts and functions through repression and ideological inculcation and nothing else. It assumes that the State’s efficacy somehow lies in what it forbids, rules out and prevents; or in its capacity to deceive, lie, obscure, hide, and lead people to believe what is false” (Poulantzas 1980: 30).

At the same time, the role of the State in the economy appears to be restricted to setting the rules for the market, ignoring the important position occupied by the contemporary state in the economy, both as producer and consumer:   (Poulantzas 1980: 30).

            In reality what happens is the exact opposite. The distinguishing feature of state activity is its “positivity”. The State does not confine itself to excluding and prohibiting but above all engages in “creating, transforming and making reality”  (Poulantzas 1980: 30). This active role emerges from the fact that the State has as its basic role the organization and representation of the long-term interests of the power bloc under the direction of the hegemonic fraction of the ruling class (Poulantzas 1980: 44). The peculiarity of the capitalist state is that it appears as manager and representative of the interests of the whole of society. But if there is to be relative legitimacy it is also necessary, taking into account the correlation of power in social relationships, that the demands of subordinate classes be incorporated into government policies. It is in this way that the State co-opts the popular strata, primarily through consent and secondarily through coercion. It is a consent that is orchestrated first and foremost  through establishment of a process for implementation of material concessions from the rulers to the ruled. The ruling classes accept a  disposition of this kind judging that in the specific conjuncture a settlement involving short-term loss is preferable, on the proviso that its content does not draw into question bourgeois power. Of course it by no means pre-ordained that this consensus arrangement will be prolonged forever. On the contrary, Poulantzas emphasizes that what is involved is an unstable equilibrium of compromise whose maintenance depends on the evolution of the class struggle within the specific political conjuncture  (Poulantzas 1978a: 192-193). But in any case the State is in a position to make concessions to the subordinate strata because to represent the long-term interest of the bourgeois class it possesses a certain autonomy from, and within, those private vested interests  (Poulantzas 1980: 127- 128)

Poulantzas’ reference to the (relative) autonomy of the State, with respect both to the relations of production and to classes or fractions of the power bloc (Poulantzas 1978a: 256) brings us to another major disagreement with Althusser on the instrumentality of the State, deriving from the concept of the externality of the State vis à vis the social classes. For Poulantzas the idea of the State as Subject acting independently of and above society leads us to a kind of Hegelianism that draws distinctions between the State and civil society. Correspondingly if we perceive the State to be a mechanism we instrumentalize it: we accept that it may function differently if the social class managing it is changed. By contrast, it is the  separation of the State from the relations of production that enables us to understand the periodization of the capitalist state, from the classical liberal state to the welfare state and authoritarian statism and on the other hand the transition from the forms of parliamentary democracy to the forms of national emergency state (fascism, military dictatorship)  (Poulantzas 1979c: 86- 87).  

Consequently,  the only way to avoid these contradictions is to approach the State as a relationship or rather,  more correctly, as condensation of a correlation of forces between classes, expressed in a sui generis way within  the State (Poulantzas 1976: 81- 82). Only if we accept this premise can we can understand why there exists in the capitalist West this form of state that differs so much from the state that the bourgeoisie would like to exist (Poulantzas 1980: 12). Unlike with Althusser, the State for Poulantzas is not a monolithic block imposed “from outside” on the dominated classes, who can exert influence on only if they can manage to encircle it, with contradictions inside the State manifesting themselves only as contradictions within the power bloc and popular struggles being something external to the State. In contrast to this argumentation, Poulantzas maintains that popular struggles permeate the State through and through precisely because they are located within the State, influencing its strategy[12]. Thus “the State swims through the struggles that constantly inundate it” (Poulantzas 1980: 140- 141). The result is the formation of state mechanisms depending not only on the correlation of forces within the power bloc but also on the correlation of forces between the power bloc and the dominated classes. 



4.  The antinomies of Althusser-Poulantzas

            The Althusser-Poulantzas debate helps with the progress of the Marxist theory of the State not only through the answers that are given but also through the questions that are posed. Let us make some attempt to codify them. For Althusser the key operational apparatuses of the State are oppressive, typified by the repression comprising what it calls the “hard core” of the State, and ideological, whose key feature is ideology. But these two apparatuses, which contribute to the reproduction of social relations, also have secondary functions of opposite content: the repressive ideological and the ideological repressive. In a later text of his Althusser would add to this the political apparatus underlying the key political institutions residing within a social formation. Above and beyond that, the State for Althusser is a machine for  transforming the violence of the class struggle into power, a conclusion which leads to the position that the class struggle cannot penetrate the State and that only the ruling class has access to the State, converting its own strength into power.

            Poulantzas criticized the first  texts of Althusser, saying that the older scholar  restricted the role of the State exclusively to its ideological and repressive function, ignoring its economic role and the importance of class struggle in the ideological apparatuses, because of the existence of opposing ideologies but also because of the confrontational character of the ideologies, as evidenced by the example of the Cultural Revolution in China. On the other hand the different roles played by the various apparatuses depending on the evolution of the class struggle makes nonsense of the distinction between repressive and ideological. It is essentially in this way that Poulantzas adopts a relational approach to state institutions. There are the state institutions (e.g. the military, the church, the government) that sometimes rate as repressive apparatuses and sometimes as ideological.

            Poulantzas was later to highlight the “negativity” with which Althusser approached the State, ignoring the ruling strata’s consensus-seeking procedures. These necessarily involve losses for the dominant power bloc, something that works to the advantage, however, of long-term reproduction of  these specific social relations.  But for this to happen the State must in one way or another take into account the demands of the dominated classes. Poulantzas says that this does happen because popular struggles “swim inside the State”, which is able to meet the popular demands precisely because it encapsulates a balance of forces between the power bloc and the dominated classes. Althusser, by contrast, believes that it cannot happen because a mechanism of class, i.e. the State, which by virtue of its construction has been created to serve the interests of the bourgeoisie, cannot - because of its structure - give consideration to popular struggles and integrate them.

             This is a dialogue, then about the nature of the ideological and repressive apparatuses, the role of finance, the neutrality or otherwise of the State, and the extent to which the popular struggles make inroads into it and are registered as being within it.

            Let us take these points one at a time. In every social formation a state is constituted corresponding to the material imprint of the history of that national formation. This means that the different evolution, from state to state,  of certain institutions (for example in one state there may be a Senate, in another not; in one state a constitutional court, in another not) results in different state structures. Above and beyond that, the apparatuses can be divided into four categories: a) the repressive, which comprise the hard core of the bourgeois state, b) the ideological, c) economic and d) the representative (parliament, government, local government). It is true that each of these exercises a principal function (for example the military a repressive function) but this is in no way precludes the existence of secondary functions. Thus while local government counts as a mechanism for representation, it also performs an ideological function (“the small State that is closer to the citizens and counterposes itself”), and a repressive function (by virtue of the existence of the municipal police) and an economic function (both through municipal enterprises and through mechanisms for the reproduction of labour power such as municipal clinics).  The fact that different structures exist between one capitalist state and another is a testament to the effects of the class struggle. 

             In conclusion, while Althusser rightly emphasizes the existence and the importance of these functions of the repressive and ideological apparatuses (and secondarily of the apparatuses of representation) he underrates the economic apparatuses of the State and their importance,  disregarding all the significant changes that have been under way for decades due to increased economic intervention by the State (Keynesianism, the welfare state, etc.). Poulantzas, for his part, downplays the specific role performed by state apparatuses, acknowledging only the existence of state institutions with different roles on each occasion. Finally, we should make it clear that Poulantzas’ reference to the Chinese experience is out of place because it pertains to the process of transformation of the State after the revolution, something completely different from the operations of the capitalist state.

            The second question has to do with how far the class struggle is inherent within the State or structurally external to it. It has already been said that state organization varies from one national formation to another because of the specific historical development of class struggle. Above and beyond that, if one adopts the position of Althusser it runs the risk of “forgetting” class struggle, against the advice of Mao, and entering into a structuralism from which the only escape is social revolution.  Otherwise, i.e. without social revolution, we have a state structure which, because the class struggle does not enter into it, is reproduced in perpetuity. It is at this point, from the moment that aspects of state functions undergo historic changes, both within the same formation and between different formations, that the empirical impasse meets up with the methodological impasse (perpetual reproduction of the same structure).  On the other hand Poulantzas’ thesis that the State swims amidst class struggles fails to establish gradations of significance, merely offering a general observation that “everything is class struggle”, without taking it into account that the class struggle does not start from scratch but is waged on the basis of already existing results of class struggle, i.e. hierarchical state structures that crystallize class correlations.

            Consequently, the position that there exist hierarchical state structures necessarily leads us to the debate on the nature of the State. The problem with Poulantzas’ view is that the combination of the relational approach and  acceptance of the existence of popular struggles within the State in effect leads to the conception of the State as neutral arbiter. The problem with Althusser is that with the positions he adopts the following issues arise: If use of the term "tool" is accepted, one is obliged to admit that a tool can be employed by any social class: the question is essentially one of mastery of an instrument. After that it naturally follows that the instrument in question will be used to serve the interests of the ruling class to the detriment of the dominated strata, which is why the public services are established with the mission of reproducing the domination of the ruling class, not maintaining a putative social peace. On the other hand if the state is not a tool it remains inexplicable why class struggle cannot penetrate it, so that the impression is created that any changes in state polices will be the result of action  "from above", not changes "from below".  

              The position is supported in this article is that the State constitutes the material outcome of a correlation of forces  in the context of a specific mode of production which, operating dynamically within  a social formation, is a generator of social action (Bihr 1989: 96) The State intervenes actively in society and receives back the reflection of its intervention, altering, transforming or revising its policy (Sakellaropoulos 2001: 256). But there is a limit to the changes that may be made within the capitalist mode of production, a limit that is not unrelated to the way  the relations of proprietorship of the means of production and extraction of surplus value are reproduced. What determines, on each occasion,  the number and the significance of the concessions the bourgeoisie is prepared to make is the correlation of forces  between the various social actors. But the concessions cannot under any circumstances exceed the abovementioned limit. To put it differently, and perhaps a little schematically, over  a long historical period the dominance of a specific mode of production brings to political power a social class which establishes an institutional framework that best serves its interests, albeit not in any absolute sense.  Whatever changes are made to the institutional framework, they cannot override the need for perpetuation of this mode of production. The social classes who wish to change this particular mode of production are obliged to seek the overturn of its institutional framework. In other words, the fact that the class struggle has a presence within the State does not on any account imply that the State no longer organizes the reproduction of bourgeois power. In the event that  the individual militant disputes achieve a uniformity in their demands that targets the capitalist system itself and acquires resonance among broader popular layers, then the policy of the State towards the opposing social forces undergoes radical change.  A policy of open violence is implemented, overt repression of popular mobilizations,  without invocation – necessarily – of any legal pretext beyond vague gestures in the direction of “law and order”.   This happens because within the State the so-called “hard core” has its seat, established in an entirely hierarchical and bureaucratic manner. It is characterized by the predominance of an ostensibly “classless” mode of operation centred on an ideology of “common national interest”  and housed primarily in the repressive apparatuses (Army, Police, National Intelligence Service), the instrumentalities for the execution of economic policy, the judiciary and the higher levels of implementation of the government’s national policy, ministry officials, technocrats in public administration, etc. (Milios 1990: 66- 67). The existence of the hard core implies the presence of a structural boundary within the State that clearly defines the “forbidden area” into which the class struggle is not allowed to penetrate.  Within the State the boundary is movable (e.g. it can shift from the judiciary to the army) delineating a territory that is kept clear of influence from popular struggles (Tzarellas 2016: 147). Thus in the event of a seizure of governmental power by a Left party, the overthrow of the Left government occurs after a power shift from one centre to another[13]. Allende, for example, may have taken over the reins of government in Chile, but the shift of real power to the Army led to his overthrow. Correspondingly, the army may have sided with the Carnation Revolution in Portugal, but the air force and the navy did not. Thus the class struggle may indeed penetrate the State, and even its hard core, but such penetration encounters a forceful reaction.  The first form of reaction, and the most common historically, is when the hard core as a whole reacts with repression against the popular dynamic. But there is also the case when the intensity of popular struggles and the ensuing crisis of the State is so great that a section of the hard core becomes separated from the rest and allies itself with the dominated classes. What prevails then is the rule of “displacement and reinforcement”: the power of the bourgeois state   shifts away from the breakaway sector and seeks reinforcement from the other sectors that continue to function uninterruptedly, i.e. to defend the interests of the bourgeoisie by every available means.

            To conclude, both the struggles waged within the State and the State itself  bear the stamp of class. Poulantzas’ weakness is that while he correctly points out, criticizing Althusser, that the instrumentalist conception of the State has no answer to the question of why, if the State is an instrument, the bourgeoisie chooses this state and not some other that would secure for it a larger share of the wealth. It appears similarly unable to explain how the bourgeoisie can impose its rule through this specific type of state (Tzarellas 2016: 251). At the same time it leaves out of account how the integration of popular struggles into the State can at one point in time take the form of popular gains but how at another the State can succeed in co-opting this dynamic and transforming it into an adjunct to reproduction of the power of capital (for example the welfare state as a parameter in the reproduction of labour power or universal suffrage as legitimizing process). Perhaps the main problem for the positions of Poulantzas is the shift in his views from the “necessity of destruction of the state apparatus” to the possibility of a gradual transformation of the State in a socialist direction through the intensity of the class struggle. Althusser, for his part, while insisting on the process of a revolutionary rupture with the bourgeois state, pulls the joystick to the other side when he refuses to recognize the existence of two geographies in the State, into one of which the class struggle insinuates itself while the other remains impervious to it. He thus arrives at a stance of underestimating the importance of individual popular struggles in their day-to-day development and the opportunities that exist, for as long is this is feasible under the existing correlation of forces, for the securing of gains by the dominated classes.

                Apart from the theoretical disagreements there is something that is not to be underestimated, and that is the historical conjuncture within which the differences between the two thinkers sharpened. Althusser was a witness to the rightwards shift of the Communist Party in France, the popularity of the theory of Eurocommunism, the historical compromise in Italy. It was into this context that he intervened with his text  “What must change in the Party” of April 1978. In “Marx in his Limits” Althusser appears to be trying to formulate an answer to the Eurocommunist theory, towards  some of whose aspects Poulantzas also seems to be slipping. Althusser evidently rejects the reformist notion that it is sufficient for the Left to win the elections and that immediately afterwards it is feasible to embark on the process of socialist transformation. But the problem is that the discussion is confined in this way to  fretting over whether the State is a tool or whether it is a special kind of tool that can be handled only by the bourgeoisie. But it also acquires a conservative-deterministic dimension in so far as the class struggle is no longer conceivable other than as a head-on confrontation with the bourgeois state. Poulantzas for his part, clearly having shifted from the positions of his first works, appears to be moving towards the relational view of the State within the framework of the parliamentary road to socialism, where social struggles have their importance because they increase the popularity of Leftist parties. This too is a product of its time, of the discussions between socialists and communists in France and the corresponding discussions in Greece. The influence on his later work of the Italian Communist Party’s shift to the right is abundantly clear. It is a context that leads him to downplay the fact that popular struggles are not simply struggles within the State but are antagonistic tendencies that bring the “external” into the “internal”, something which acquires a special dynamic, going beyond a simple process of democratization of state structures  (Kalampokas-Betzelos-Sotiris 2016: 28).


            One necessary final observation: the preceding critique can in no way annul the contribution of these two theorists to the progress of research into the theory of the State. The deepening of Gramsci’s treatment of hegemony, the highlighting of the significance of the ideological and repressive apparatuses, the rejection of economism and historicism, the emphasis on the primacy of class struggle: these are integral components of a militant Marxist heritage. And for that we should all be grateful.




Althusser L., 2006, “Marx in his limits” in Philosophy of the Encounter. Later Writings 1978- 1987, London- New York: Verso, pp. 7-162.

Αlthusser L., 2014a, On the Reproduction of Capitalism, London and New York: Verso.

Αlthusser L., 2014b, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses” in On the Reproduction of Capitalism, London and New York: Verso, pp. 232- 272. 

Αlthusser L., 2014c, “Note on the ISAs” in On the Reproduction of Capitalism, London and New York: Verso, pp. 218- 231.

Baltas A., 2012, “The Althusser Program’ and the position on it of Nikos Poulantzas” in Poulantzas Today (edited H. Golemis and I. Economou), Athens, Nikos Poulantzas Institute, pp. 63-72 (in Greek).

Barrow C., 2011, “(Re)ReadingPoulantzas: State Theory and the Epistemologies of Structuralism” in Reading Poulantzas edited by A. Gallas- L. Bretthauer-J. Kannankulam- I. Stutzle, Pontipool: Merlin Press, pp. 27- 40.

BihrA., 1989, Entre Bourgeoisie et Prolétariat, Paris: L' Harmattan.

Dimoulis D., 1997, “The ‘productive machine’ of legitimate power. Questions of theory of the state”, Theseis No. 60, pp. 65-81 (in greek).

Dimoulis D., 2016, “Undoing the Demos. Althusser on Democracy (via a critique of Wendy Brown)”, Theseis  No. 136, pp. 17-37 (in Greek). 

Kalampokas G-T., Betzelos-P. Sotiris, 2016, “State, Political Power and Revolution: Althusser, Poulantzas, Balibar and the ‘Debate on the State”, Decalages vol 2 no 2, pp. 1-33.

Milios G., 1990, “From ‘smashing the state apparatuses’ to the crisis and further evolution of the State”, Theseis 30: 59-78 (in Greek).   

Poulantzas N., 1976, The Crisis of the Dictatorships. Portugal. Spain. Greece, London: NLB.

Poulantzas N., 1978a, Political Power and Social Classes, New York- London: Verso.

Poulantzas N, 1978b, Classes in Contemporary Capitalism,  New York- London: Verso.

Poulantzas N., 1979a. Fascism and Dictatorship, New York- London: Verso.

Poulantzas N., 1979b. Interview with Nicos Poulantzas, Marxism Today, July, vol. 23 no 7, pp. 194- 201.

Poulantzas N.,1979c, “L’état, les mouvements sociaux, le parti” Entretien avec Nicos Poulantzas, Dialectiques no 28, pp. 85- 95

Poulantzas N., 1980.State, Power, Socialism, New York- London: Verso.

Sakellaropoulos S., 2001, Greece in the post-Junta period. Political and social developments 1974-1988, Athens: Livanis (in Greek) 

Sotiris P., 2004, Communism and Philosophy. Louis Althusser’s Theoretical Adventure,  Athens: Ellinika Grammata (in Greek).

Tzarellas D., 2016, The relationship between  economics and politics in Marxist theory: bourgeois state and capitalist crisis. Doctoral dissertation, Athens: Panteio University (in Greek).

Weber Η., 1978, "Eurocommunism, Socialism and Democracy", New Left Review n. 110: 3- 14.






[1]N. Poulantzas, 1966, “Vers une Théorie Marxiste”, Les Temps Modernes no 240: 1952- 1982.  In Εnglish “Towards a Marxist Theory”, 2008, in The Poulantzas Reader. Marxism, Law and The State, (edited by Τ. Μartin) London- New York: Verso, pp. 139- 165.

[2]L. Althusser, 1965, Pour Marx, Paris: Maspero. In English For Marx, 1969, London: Penguin Press.

[3]N. Poulantzas, 1968, Pouvoir Politique et Classes Sociales, Paris: Maspero. In English “Political Power and Social Classes:, 1978a,  London- New York: Verso.

[4] In any case as early as the Introduction and the first footnote Poulantzas clearly endorses Althusser’s interpretation of the content of, and relationship between, historical and dialectical materialism (Poulantzas 1978a: 11), or correspondingly in footnote  6 ( Poulantzas 1978a: 18).  

[5]R. Miliband, 1969, The State in Capitalist Society, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.

[6]N. Poulantzas, 1969, “The Problem of the Capitalist State”, New Left Review 58: 67-78..

[7]“Certain apparatuses are distinguished in an almost nominalist or essentialist manner according to whether they are repressive (set mainly through repression) or ideological (set mainly through ideology). But this distinction is itself highly debatable. Depending on the form of the State and regime and on the phase of reproduction of capitalism, a number of apparatuses can shift from one sphere to the other and assume new functions” (Poulantzas 1980: 33).

[8]“The State apparatus may well display a diversity of apparatuses (repressive, political and ideological); what defmes them as state apparatuses is the fact that they all work together to 'the same end'.” (Althusser 2006: 82).

[9]“We would clearly say that the State is a machine for producing power. In principle, it produces legal power … because, even when the state is despotic, and ‘dictatorial’ to boot, it always has an interest, practically speaking, in basing itself on laws; …. In fact, the whole political apparatus, like the whole State administration, spends its time producing legal power, hence laws, as well as decrees and ordinances …The rest οf it consists in monitoring their application by the agents of the State themselves, subject in their turn to the monitoring of inspectorates beginning with the Court of Auditors” (Althusser 2006: 107)

[10]“ All this is a way of reiterating that Marx’s and Lenin’s formula to the effect that the State is an ‘instrument’, and is therefore separate from the class struggle, the better to serve the interests of the dominant class, is a powerful formula. There can be no question of abandoning it.” (Althusser 2006: 81) Similarly, the reference to “the circle of the reproduction of the State in its functions as an instrument for the reproduction of the conditions of production, hence of exploitation, hence of the conditions of existence of the domination of the exploiting class” (Althusser 2006: 126). Here it is obvious that there has been a shift in Althusser’s position from the assertion  in Sur la Reproduction, where he is clearly polemicizing against  “certain Marxists, and  by no means the least of them, (who) have ‘fallen’ to the wrong side of the path on the ridge by presenting the State as a mere instrument of domination and repression in the service of 'objectives, that is , of the dominant class's conscious will” (Althusser 2014a: 72). The former work was written in 1971; the second in 1978.

[11] For a highlighting of this issue also see Barrow 2011: 34

[12] As he says, specifically in relation to Althusser: “Let us linger for a moment on Althusser. Contrary to what he maintains, every class confrontation, all the social movements (syndicalist, ecological, autonomist, feminist, student, etc.) insofar as they are political, or rather in relation to their political aspects, are necessarily located in the strategic field of the State. Proletarian policies cannot be placed outside the State, just as a policy that is situated within the scope of the State is not for that reason necessarily a bourgeois policy.” (Poulantzas 1979c: 88).

[13]As H. Weber aptly observes: “It is not enough to occupy the heights in order to hold the entire apparatus; if the summit is lost, the centre of real power changes position.”(H. Weber 1978: 10).