Chapter 30: Structuralist Marxism


“Marx founded a new science, the science of History” 1

By the late 1950s the terrain of debate for Marxist theory had shifted quite dramatically. The long boom and the introduction of genuine social reforms in Europe, as part of the “post war consensus” was, coupled with the Cold War anti-communism, a very strong factor in isolating revolutionary Marxists from the wider working class. The deStalinisation drive after the 20th party conference in 1956 and the crushing of the Hungarian revolution by Warsaw pact troops that same year were body blows to official Communism, driving out many supporters from the movement. This period also saw the expansion of the New Left and a revival of interest in Hegel and the early – supposedly more humanist – Marx, with concerns over alienation and social oppression displacing political economic analysis which was often seen as tainted with economic deterministic models of base and superstructure.

Louis Althusser hard at work smoking. And also chalking some things on the board

Louis Althusser hard at work smoking. And also chalking some things on the board

The French intellectual Louis Althusser was, for a time, arguably the dominant influence arising from the official Communist movement. A long time member of the PCF, Althusser was also a lecturer in Paris, a public intellectual with one foot in academia and one in the party. Many saw Althusserianism as a renewal of Marxism, a new perspective and approach which saved Marxism from stagnation and increasing irrelevance. He pioneered what became known as structural Marxism. Based on the French philosophical ideas that emerged with the decline of existentialism, structuralist thought saw the world in terms of objects and their relations – the actual content of the objects was secondary. Structuralism really began in linguistics with the work of Ferdinand de Saussure and then spread to other notable French intellectuals like Claude Levi-Strassure in the field of anthropology. The publication of his book Pour Marx in 1965 (in English in 1969) started a serious debate on methodology in Marxist theory, something which continued onto the political economic terrain with Reading Capital that same year.

Althusser organised a regular Das Kapital reading group at his university, the product of which was Reading Marx which was ostensibly a group effort from the teacher and the students. His classes and approach was popular, he was giving his students the independent theoretical tools and the arguments they needed to understand Marxism through their own reading; as Rancière, a young student said “Marx’s theory belonged to nobody but his readers and their only duty was to it.” Compared to the stultifying theoretical oppression of the PCF the gauche youth felt liberated – if the party was Catholicism with the dictates of the Pope behind every formulation, Althusser’s way (although he remained in the PCF himself) was protestant, individual and rebellious. 2 In Reading Capital, Althusser and his students, including Etienne Balibar who went onto develop Althussers ideas after his death, argued that Marx decisively broke from Hegelian philosophy in 1845 with the publication of The German Ideology, which they refer to as an epistemological break (a term borrowed from Gaston Bachelard). It is epistemological because it is a fundamental shift from Marx being concerned with German idealism and philosophy to a new problematic, that is a new science of history. In essence Marx started off interested in people but then became interested in production. Althusser quotes Marx and Engels when they said; “we resolved … to settle accounts with our erstwhile philosophical conscience”. There was in fact a double break, Marx abandoned the earlier idealistic phase of his work; “By founding the theory of history (historical materialism), Marx simultaneously broke with his erstwhile ideological philosophy and established a new philosophy (dialectical materialism).” There is some truth that there is a shift in Marx’s concerns, but only in as much as the Paris manuscripts are still very much influenced by the idealist Hegelianism – but whilst there was an evolution in Marx’s thought there remains more similarities between the young and old Marx than differences. Instead of Hegel, Althusser proposed Spinoza as the fore-runner of Marx’s materialism (Althusser himself said: ‘but my reference point would be neither Kant nor Hegel; it would be Spinoza. . . . I’m a Spinozist.’ 3). Spinoza is an interesting choice, as within his world view humans have no agency, free will was simply an illusion that we should forget when we accept the iron laws of nature that dominate our lives. 4 Spinoza would also be deployed by other philosophers later as a way around the contribution of Hegel to Marxism (see the chapter on post-Marxism).

Althusser’s method, taken from both the linguistic turn and ideas of textual readings which were popular in France at the time as well as psychoanalysis, was to deconstruct the classical texts to discover their real meaning. Taking their cue from methods of analysis, Althusser and his students regarded it as necessary to read between the lines to uncover the meaning of which Marx himself was perhaps not even aware. The task, Althusser argued, was to symtomatically read Marx, that is to look at the gaps, the missing linkages, the buried meaning in the text, not strictly at what was presented on the page. He would go through capital and write in brackets, often with no text between them, to indicate where he thought the question was being posed – unspoken to be sure, but there between the words themselves. This mirrored the Lacanian and Fruedian methods in psychoanalysis of the analysand understanding the underlying reality by reading the symptoms of the patient. Fortunately for his purposes, this method allowed Althusser to ignore whole sections and important parts of Marx and Engel’s writings, discarding them because they did not fit his preconceived political project for how he wanted to develop post-war Marxism.

In order to do this Althusser radically reconceptualises Marx’s own political economy and method. Althusser’s project was to attack what he described as “humanist” and “economist” interpretations of Marx, both of which were a result of the errors of the Second International. By Humanism, Althusser means the kind that the New Left of the 1950s and 60s was pioneering, influenced by the German Ideology and Lukács’ ideas. The early Marxist writings had achieved widespread support amongst the intelligentsia in France after the Second World War, with most prominent French thinkers considered themselves Marxist in some way or another, and, like Sartre and Beauvoir, they tended to emphasis the rich humanist tradition instead of the political economic questions. 5 He claimed that Marx ‘outed’ Humanism as an ideology in 1845 – but his position was very much influenced by the debates going on between the Maoists and the Kremlin at the time. He quoted approvingly the Chinese Communist Party’s criticism that the CPSU was deploying ‘humanism’ instead of proletarian revolutionary politics. 6 Against notions of an abstract human as a subject of exploitation and an agent of resistance, Althusser believed that; “As a science, however, historical materialism, as exposed in Marx’s later works, implies a theoretical anti-humanism.” 7 Thus, class becomes a structural component of analysis, deprived of the individuals within it.

The notion of totality, which was such an important argument in scientific socialism in the 1920s, was explicitly jettisoned. Instead there are relatively autonomous spheres, the ideological, political and economic, each one with its own connected structures. Society is a decentred totality, with the economic only being determinant “in the last instance”. 8 Althusser argued that crises can occur in any structure which then become ‘overdetermined’ by a generalised crisis which is conjunctural not necessarily systemic in the way that Marx would have argued it. So it was not human agency which affected history so much as it was the relationship between the three spheres of society. Depending on how they aligned, overlapped, clashed or decomposed they determined what was possible in any contingent moment. This has an important bearing on Marxism as a model of science and revolutionary theory, Althusser emphasised not the necessity as such of capital formation but instead the contingent and variable factors of its emergence. This became known as Aleatory Materialism – the philosophy of the encounter, and was an opposite viewpoint to the teleos inspired reading of Marxism favoured before the war especially in the Second International. Althusser believed that the kind of teleological Marxism attributed to Marx, Engels and Lenin was “a transformed, disguised form of idealism.” 9

This key concepts of Aleatory Materialism which connect both the early Althusser with the late include the void, the encounter, the fact, the conjuncture and necessity-contingency. 10 Because there is no essential antagonism, changes are rendered as the outcomes of conjunctures or a concatenation of struggles. Politics proper only occurs in the conjuncture, in the alignment of various social, economic and political factors at any one time and the necessary tactical appreciations that flow from that. Instead of history with a goal, there is the necessary combination of many events and contingencies – a “necessity of contingency”, a way of thinking which is deployed to overcome what Althusser later perceives to be an idealist, Hegelian error in Marxism itself, which must be replaced.

After originally arguing that Marx completed his epistemological break in 1857, Althusser subsequently re-evaluated his views. What he fails to mention is the publication of the Grundrisse, written between 1857-58, it was not short of passages dealing with alienation In Lenin and Philosophy Althusser grinds up even more of the Hegelian contaminated Marx – desperate to purge it of any traces of ‘idealism’. By 1971 Althusser was arguing that; “When Capital volume One appeared (1867), traces of the Hegelian influence still remained. Only later did they disappear completely… The tendency of his thought drove him irresistibly to the radical abandonment of every shade of Hegelian influence, as can be seen from the 1875 Critique of the Gotha Programme and the 1882 Notes on Wagner. While remorselessly abandoning all Hegel’s influence, Marx continued to recognize an important debt to him: the fact that he was the first to conceive of history as a ‘process without a subject’.” 11 Althusser goes on to recommend “We ought to draw the conclusions from this, which means ultimately that we ought to rewrite Part I of  Capital” because Marx attempted to explain the commodity as both a use-value and an exchange value, which for many expressed the important unity of a commodity as both a product and as a social relation, but for Althusser was an unnecessary Hegelian travesty. Althusser also deploys a Engel’s Dialectics of Nature as a further argument against any kind of subjectivity, claiming that the “Marxist tradition was quite correct to return to the thesis of the Dialectics of Nature, which has the polemical meaning (among others) that history is a process without a subject’.” 12

It is impossible to imagine that Marx imagined in any way that history was a process without a subject, or that he ‘remorselessly’ abandoned Hegel in the 1840s or later. It is true that the earlier writings of Marxism were more concerned with the question of subjectivity because of their polemical character against the Young Hegelians, but even on this terrain they were opposed to Althusser’s approach. 13 Marx and Engels both wrote in the German Ideology that “the first premiss of all human history is, of course, the existence of living human individuals”, if we write a history of humanity without these living human individuals then it will be a brutal and occult history indeed. It is also arguable that Hegel’s system is a historical process with no subjectivity, since that is no concrete agency in it, only the necessary teleological motion towards the rational state. What Althusser was attempting to do, at least by his own admission, was to reassert the primacy of the masses making history, of the class struggle as the motor force of history, the problem is that what he left behind to make this reassertion was potentially fatal.

By the end Hegel could be found throughout Marx’s writings, leading to the Notes on Wagner as the only truly proper non-Hegelian writings, not much to go in when constructing a world view.


As part of his structural reading, it was necessary to dislocate Marxist categories from their commonly understood methodology and render them ahistorical – in other words to move from a historicist reading to an analytical one. Althusser rejected the standard notion of Marx’s critique of the classical political economists whereby they sought to obscure what was specific about the social relations under capitalism by preaching the eternity of the kind of social relations we have under capitalism.

In Reading Capital, Althusser and Balibar take Gramsci to task for what they see as erroneous interventions into Marxism, primarily in the field of historicism. The problem, as far as the structuralists were concerned, was that if you accepted that ideas were historically rooted, that they were products of a certain time and place, or that they served the interests of one class of another in a particular mode of production, then it ran the risk of leaving Marxism as just another ideology operating in the superstructure. The importance of establishing a Marxist science as opposed to an ideology is therefore central to the Structuralist project.

He cites a reference to a reference to Marx’s historicism in Gramsci’s writings and then proceeds to demonstrate how in fact Gramsci was referring to historically specific theories – namely he collapses history into theory. He explains that; “Hence the historicism of Marxism is no more than one of the aspects and effects of its own theory, correctly conceived, no more than its own internally consistent theory” but he is desperate to separate Marxism from any historically grounded basis. It must become universal or it will inevitably collapse into the terrain of ideology.

In this sense the mirror image of Althusser’s anti-historicism is Lukács who positively revels in the very ideas that are most objectionable. Lukács view of Marxism as the outlook of the proletariat, and therefore rooted in the historical emergence and existence of the working class, is anathema to Althusser. In Lukács’ hands Marxism is reduced to a motivating vision or an aesthetic argument, rather than a rigorous science. 14

Ideology and the individual

Althusser became popular in academic theory circles for his re-theorisation of the idea of Ideology. Althusser, following in the general trend of post 1945 Marxism, places the question of ideology and false consciousness at the heart of his brand of Marxism. His influential essay Ideological State Apparatus draws a distinction between the repressive state apparatus of modern capitalism, the riot police, the courts and the prisons, and the Ideological institutions which provide the meaning and narrative of our world. This is an interesting and useful distinction, and is connected to Althusser’s idea of how Ideology shapes and affects the world.

But Althusser’s own concept of ideology is far too one sided. He, like the Frankfurt school before him, saw ideology as all pervasive and overwhelming in the modern world, false consciousness is hard-wired into the brains of the proletariat to such a degree that their capacity to establish their own class consciousness and definitive interests is almost nil. Ideology in fact constitutes us as social subject, or to use Althusser’s phrase, it interpellates us. This is clearly a structuralist position but it is one which has interesting ramifications for how we think about our subjective identity. Althusser argues that there is no such thing as a pre-social subject – the moment that a child is born it exists in a world of already existing and established power and social relations. If it is a girl born into a working class, Black family then its subjective existence, how she will develop and the way the world will treat her is markedly different to a boy born into a white middle class family. 15 The problem with this form of interpellation is that it is too static and unitary. Of course we access the world through pre conceived notions and practices (call them all ideology if you want, though this can be problematic as well) but what happens when the subject is interpellated in a contradictory manner or only partially into the whole? A Marxist can reply that this is the point at which our ideas can radically change and we can begin to see through our ideology – for instance a woman, socially oppressed because of her gender, can join a trade union and become a militant class fighter, challenging the stereotypes and assumptions about her. Althusser recognises that the ideological state apparatus (church, family, etc.) is a contested battle ground but, as Eagleton points out, he never properly develops this point, and instead collapses back into more regular academic sociological accounts of how ideology functions, simply as a social binding mechanisms to maintain the status quo. 16

But this goes further. The ideological apparatus is built on lies – ideology does “not correspond to reality”, it is a realm of imaginary ideas (a concept he takes from Jacques Lacan) but one which is all powerful and totalising over our lives. The only area of genuine knowledge that there can be is science, which Althusser argues is the most important intellectual arena of research and advance. This is where he develops a method called Theoretical Practice which is integral to his whole approach, since it allows for analysis of objects independent of the social, practical world, privileging the role of the intellectual over the praxis of the worker or party activist.

Ideology is such an important aspect of the world and how we attribute meaning to the relations of production that we find ourselves in, Althusser argues that a form of ideology will be necessary under socialism or perhaps even communism “even a communist society could ever do without ideology, be it ethics, art or ‘world outlook’.” This notion is highly problematic as it suggests that socialism is not the emancipation of the working class as it becomes a class for itself and overcomes its own spiritual and social alienation to take control of society but is instead another social formation which will require a set of false ideas to bind the proletariat to it. In this sense Althusser theorises the top down practice of Stalinism. Even more concerning is the previous argument that the ideological state apparatus is composed of myths and lies, would the proletarian equivalent be any different? The conclusions of such a theory are decidedly against the vision of Marxism as a truly liberatory project where the destruction of class division and social oppression ushers in a new age where humanity finally becomes whole again, no longer alienated or set against our own society.

This position on the contingent interpellation through ideology of people is the root of Althusser’s rejection of thinkers like Lukács and Hegel who have a much more active conception of the subject and the possibility of its coming to self-realisation and then acting on it. Althusser’s model of society in fact looks a lot like Parson’s functionalism – a theory which systematically downgrades the role of the voluntary action or human agency and renders us mere ciphers for the structures of which we are passive products.

What does Althusser replace subjectivity with? From his perspective the crucial task of Marxists rests in the realm of science – to develop a science of history and politics which intellectuals could use to steer the party in the right direction. In Althusserian logic the social formation is composed of a triad – the economic, the political and ideological practices, separate from this is science. Science emerges from the pre-scientific ideology through an epistemological break which frees up the scientist to become a critical evaluator of society, indeed the only person who can see through ideology. The unity of practical work and science is Theoretical Practice which for Althusser referred to a marriage of Marxist historical materialism with modern critiques against empiricism and positivism from academia. 17 Theoretical practice is necessary because real Marxism is fundamentally anti-empiricist, according to Structuralist readings. The essence is dislocated from the appearance almost entirely, and theory is given primacy. The problem with this methodology is that Althusser conflated empirical with empiricism – a mistake which helped severe the science that he wanted to develop from what Marx had actually used.

Althusser’s epistemology

In his quest for the more rigorous science of Theoretical Practice, Althusser invented a new model for understanding levels of abstraction in Marxism. He identified three generalities, each one operating at a different level in the process of constructing ideology. Generalities I is the raw data of the world around us, the basic stuff of analysis and debate – facts and figures as it were. Next is Generalities II, which is a set of conceptual tools that we use to understanding the raw data. Finally we arrive at Generalities III which are substantive theories. 18 Generalities II is the realm of the problematic, it is where the type of questions that you ask and your method of analysing the answers leads you to your substantive theories. As a working model we could take the exploitation of a worker. The raw data is the worker herself, the fact she works and produces commodities which are worth more than she is paid (already the raw data is itself tinged with a theoretical hue, since the concepts that we are using cannot be totally ‘empirical’). The conceptual tools are the working out of the rate of exploitation through the rate of profit, the relationship between fixed and variable capital and the question of class and property. All of these are help us process the data and arrive at a broader theory, historical materialism, the class struggle as the motor of history and so on.

The inductive method he used could be problematic, if taken in too rigid a fashion it would have certainly made the writing of Capital very hard to achieve, since Marx spent almost 25 years pouring over books and statistical charts (empirical data) to arrive at more complex theories. That is, he did not start with theory and find data to prove it, which is the preferred model of Althusser’s anti-empiricist approach. This has dangerous implications for an emancipatory science, because it implies (or even makes explicit) some notion that practical real sensual experience is incapable of achieving any kind of conceptual hierarchy that could lead to ideas about socialism and revolution. The working class is therefore unable to arrive at any progressive political conclusions itself, instead the gatekeepers of theory (intellectuals) must formulate this knowledge for them. 19

As E P Thompson argues, Althusser’s conception of science and the role of intellectuals is thoroughly elitist, this real knowledge is not accessible to the ordinary worker, she must exist in a permanent interpellated state of ideological abstraction as a means of understanding her world through an all encompassing decentred network of myths, images and concepts. In this sense the battle was between a Marxist science and the ideology of everything else, and only the scientists could reach the conditions for objective truth. E P Thompson’c conclusion is that this is a reflection of Althusser’s life in the academy instead of the (self) activity of the workers movement. Simon Clarke went further, arguing that the attempt by Althusser to establish the autonomy and authority of mental labour over material labour is a direct interjection of bourgeois ideology into Marxism. Since the authority of mental over manual labour is specifically capitalist it means Althusser must establish the necessity of the these productive relations, rendering them eternal – which is “precisely the defining characteristic of bourgeois ideology”. 20

Althusser’s methodological error, according to Clarke, is to confuse the social and technological divisions of labour. Althusser collapses the technological distinction under capitalist production into the social relation between mental and material which misses the point that what we are dealing with is “the domination of capital over labour and the associated appropriation of the creative powers of labour.” 21 In doing this Althusser is merely repeating all other attempts to subordinate the working class to something/someone else, whether it is the reformist leaders, the Stalinist party or capital itself. By privileging the intellectuals as the bearers of science one is merely repeating the attitude of the bourgeois class which considers itself the holders of all true knowledge.

Anderson argues that Althusser develops his concept of ideology not from Marx but from Freud – that it is ideology without history, similar to the unconscious, immutable and eternal. 22 Ideology operates as a socially binding mechanism, it is useful also to know that the concept of overdetermination comes from Freud’s analysis of dreams and neurosis which can caused by multiple, overlapping factors and influences not just one source.

The crisis of Althusserianism

Almost from the moment that Althuserianism emerges it begins to radically shift its arguments and even disintegrate, especially after 1968. Althusser himself leads the attack on his own “Theoreticism” and calls for the development of philosophy as a “revolutionary weapon”. In a phrase that could have come straight from Lukács he argues; “It is therefore necessary to abandon the theoretical position of the ruling classes, and take up a position from which these mechanisms can become visible: the proletarian standpoint.”296 Part of the problem was Althussers own political loyalties were torn. As a member of the ultra-Stalinist PCF he had to obey the party line, but his heart looked to Beijing and Maoism as a more fruitful and revolutionary alternative. Whilst on the surface the differences appears to be between two forms of authoritarian politics, philosophically it was the difference between structuralism and voluntarism, between history with no subject and subjective class will as the ultimate criterion for political success. 23

Marxism in France came under serious attack in the 1970s, not simply from jingoistic pro-government propaganda as had been the case in the US with the senator McCarthy witch-hunts in the 1950s. This time it also came from the intelligentsia. Bernard Henri-Lévy published La Barbarie à visage humain (1977) and claimed “the Soviet camps are Marxist, as Marxist as Auschwitz was Nazi”. Foucault attacked Marxism as a science, arguing it was at its most depraved when it reached fulfilment as a scientific theory, one which rationalised the most barbaric dictatorships in the name of human progress. The September issue of Time ran with the headline “Marx is dead”. The attempts of the French intellectuals in the 1950s like Sartre to regenerate Marxism through a fusion with existentialism had failed, Althusser had failed and the French intellectuals began a headlong retreat towards eclectic and post modern theories. Generally speaking, the French intellectuals fell upon one another in a debate about the Gulag and what it represented.

The blame for repelling the intellectuals and strengthening the anti-Marxist positions must fall squarely on the shoulders of the PCF. The actions of the PCF in 1968 was the beginning of the end for post war Marxist thought in France.

So if the ghost of Marx was no longer haunting Europe, what would fill the void?

In Venice in 1977 Althusser declared there was a crisis of Marxism. Some could fairly say that the crisis was of his own making, or at least he was a significant contributor towards it. But what Althusser was pointing towards was in fact three overlapping crises. The first concerned the Maoists and Stalinists in France especially, who had hit a dead end and seemed increasingly without purpose or plan. Many of them evolved rapidly away from socialism, forming a new philosophical movement called the new philosophes which became hostile to Marxism. The second was the rise of a new trend amongst continental Stalinism of Eurocommunism and a conscious drive towards a revived form of reformism which was too much even for some of the Stalinists. Finally there was a crisis of Althusser’s own Marxism and intellectual project.

In the subsequent article which contained the text of his speech he points to the example raised by some Communist workers, that it was not longer possible to hold the past and the present together in the same way, to integrate the 1917 revolution, the defence of Stalingrad with the actual lived experience of most workers – “there no longer exists in the minds of the masses any “achieved ideal”, any really living reference for socialism.” 24 Althusser’s doubt about the present state of Marxism was very much rooted in the impending splintering and decline of Stalinism – but this decline would have profound knock on effects for the non-Stalinist left.

Looking back at the historical record, it is possible to conclude that the deep desire of French intellectuals to break free of Stalinism and refound a healthy Marxism was sadly squandered by Althusser and his closest followers. Many young socialists felt the need to break free from the terrible legacy of the PCF, arguably the foremost Stalinist party in Western Europe, not just in terms of members but also a record of betrayals. From the 1936 revolutionary movement, then its support of the Special Powers act in Algeria which created a police state in the colony to the terrible role that it played in the revolutionary upsurge of 1968, Althusser promised a renewal and a revival which in fact never came. His retreat from his own ideas was not just under the hammer blow of ‘correction’ from the central committee, or from a possible personality flaw which emerged as a prelude to his later mental break down. He came up against contradictions within his own system, which he had tried to graft onto a more subjective and vital revolutionary Marxism.

The fate of many Althusserians afterwards was not a positive one. In Britain, Barry Hindess and Paul Hirst, early enthusiasts of Althusser had abandoned not only their old teacher but even Marxism by 1975, following the Althusserian machine along the path to the final inescapable conclusion that it was Marxism itself that was the cause of vulgar and utopian thinking. Althusser himself may have felt similar fears, which is why he rejected parts of his theory which led down that path. Althusser himself suffered from terrible mental health problems, in a particularly psychotic episode he killed his wife in 1980 and spent the next 7 years under medical care before dying in 1990.

Poulantzas and Eurocommunism

Nicos Poulantzas, writing from 1968 until the mid 1980s was considered the continuer of Althusserian thought in Europe. Poulantzas soon moved into the emerging Eurocommunist tradition. By the 1980s he was writing openly reformist books and championing the Euro-Communist agenda. A brief look at the origins of Eurocommunism might help matters here. It marked the beginning of final evolution of Stalinism as a political movement into social democracy. The term became popular in the late 1970s when Santiago Carrillo, the leader of the Spanish Communists published a pamphlet called Eurocommunism and the state. The ‘Euro’s primary political innovation was a commitment to extending bourgeois democratic forms which they believed would naturally evolve into socialism. The parliamentary road to socialism was nothing new in some of the Communist Parties, but the new theorisation of the reformist strategy was an important development in post war Stalinism. The disappointment of Beijing’s rapprochement with Washington in 1972 was a serious blow to many more critical minded Stalinists. It essentially marked an acceptance by various Communist party leaders that in the face of the economic changes taking place in the 1970s they were unwilling to act as an ideological opposition to the centre ground. But it also represented an acknowledgement that the various roads to socialism that the parties had adopted were not working (both because they were essentially reformist but also because there was no will to make them happen through radical anticapitalist action), this was the core of Togliatti’s call for “polycentrism” initially made in 1956. Polycentrism meant respected regional blocs of Communist affiliations and allowing greater autonomy of the parties vis a vis Moscow. Internally it meant allowing a wider range of ideas and even heterodox theories to be expressed. This new approach was the Stalinist version of Gramsci’s western Marxism perspective, born out of the continuing crisis and deterioration of Stalinism as a world movement. 25

Within this new orientation, Poulantzas articulated three key positions. Firstly the state was neutral in the class struggle, that the bourgeois democratic forms should be extended and developed, not overthrown. This meant a focus on electoral work and an attempt to take over the state and transform it, in the process creating the possibility of the state being used to transform society. Secondly, he introduced a new version of the popular frontism of the Stalinists. Adopting a position developed by C Wright Mills which argued that it is the mode of distribution in the form of wages which determines class, not the relationship to the mode of production. 26 He goes onto argue that it is only the productive workers (i.e. the blue collar workers in factories) which are really part of the working class, white collar workers are in fact part of the petty bourgeoisie. At a stroke, Poulantzas dramatically shrinks the working class and expands the middle classes. This sociological sleight of hand provides the argumentation which points to the necessity of the Euro-communist strategy of the popular alliance between the working and middle classes. But more than this, the real contradiction in modern society is not the antagonistic relationship between the workers and the bosses but between monopoly capital and “the people”. This is taken almost directly from the Maoist and Stalinist politics of the third world national liberation movement. It also points to a possible alliance in the western world with progressive bourgeoisie who can be won to an anti monopolist struggle.

For Poulantzas this means that the working class party cannot represent the interests of only the working class, and cannot limit itself merely to concessions to win support from the lower middle classes (which was Lenin’s position). Instead the working class party must represent all classes fighting monopoly capitalism, decisively moving away from any talk of revolution and towards a programme of transforming the state in the interests of the people. Whilst the Mensheviks accused Lenin of abandoning class in favour of a “party of the oppressed”, the aim of Bolshevism was a revolutionary overthrow of Tsarism in which the working class was the political actor alongside allies from other classes, but of course there was no question of a reformist perspective, unlike Eurocommunism.

However, the contribution that Poulantzas is most remembered for is the debate on the question of the state, in particular his exchanges with the English Marxist Ralph Miliband in the pages of New Left Review. 27 Miliband’s book The State in Capitalist Society explored the limits of Social Democratic state theory, especially whether a reformist road to socialism was possible or whether it required a combined use of parliament and extra parliamentary means. Miliband sought to provide evidence and argumentation for the instrumentalist view of the state, that it is an “instrument of the bourgeoisie”. Crucially, what made the state specifically capitalist from an instrumentalist point of view was that it was staffed by pro-capitalists – the civil servants, Members of Parliament and the executive, etc. Since the states character was ultimately quite contingent upon who its personnel.

Poulantzas had a different approach. Taking as his basis Althusser’s three “spheres” of society, he argued that the state existed in the political and acted as a socially stabilising function. As opposed to Miliband, the state was not the result of social relations between the exploiters and the exploited, but was in fact the source of social relations, it created them and gave them shape. The state as such did not exist, it was “composed of several apparatuses or institutions of which certain have a principally repressive role, in the strong sense, and others a principally ideological role”. 28 The state was relatively independent of the economic, resting as it did in the political sphere, because of this level of autonomy state could be captured by the working class, if the working class came to dominate the political sphere in the way that the capitalist class currently did. The role of the state could be determined by its social composition and the result of its endeavours, in this case unequal wealth distribution and anti-working class policies.

Reaching for his Gramsci notebooks, Poulantzas argued that the economic crisis of the mid 1970s represented a crisis of bourgeois hegemony which offered a chance for a counter hegemonic political alliance to be formed by the Communist Parties. In practice this would mean an electoral alliance between the Communists and sections of the progressive middle classes. Whilst many Marxists would agree that the state is a site of class struggle (standing in elections, winning representation to local and national government, etc.), from a revolutionary perspective they would reject the idea that the class struggle can be won in the parliamentary arena. In a sense it is deep enemy territory, you can have a presence there – equivalent to guerilla bands behind enemy lines in a war – but you cannot conquer it for your own side.

Although Miliband appeared at first sight to have a more radical interpretation of the state, there was also potential reformist conclusions even within his own analysis, namely that a primary problem for social democracy in power was that it became inconsistent and “lost its nerve”, implying that a more consistent left reformism would theoretically be able to achieve socialism through parliamentary institutions. 29 His position was a form of radical social democratic centrism, a viewpoint which tended to converge with the Eurocommunism of Poluantzas more than both writers probably thought at the time

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  1. Althusser 1976a, p. 151.
  2. Davis O, Jacques Rancière key contemporary thinkers, p. 6
  3. Elliot 2006 p38, cites the French original of Althusser’s Lénine et la philosophie’ from the Bulletin de la Société française de philosophie.
  4. Jay 1986, p29
  5. Poster M, Althusser on History without Man, Political Theory, Vol. 2, No. 4 (Nov., 1974), p. 399
  6. Althusser 1969 p222
  7. Althusser, 1969, p251
  8. A reference to Engel’s letter
  9. Althusser, Louis 1994a, Écrits philosophiques et politiques I, edited by François Matheron, Paris: Stock/IMEC. cited in Elliot G, 2006 p355
  10. Morfino 2002, p. 147–8 cited in Elliot G 2006
  11. Althusser 1971
  12. Althusser 1971 p117
  13. In the Holy Family Marx and Engels criticise the Young Hegelians for believing that; “History, like truth, becomes a person apart, a metaphysical subject, of which the real individuals are merely the bearers.”
  14. Poster M, Althusser on History without Man, Political Theory, Vol. 2, No. 4 (Nov., 1974), p. 395
  15. Althusser 1971 p. 161
  16. Eagleton 1990 p. 144-147
  17. Elliot, 2006, p91-92
  18. Althusser1968 p. 183–5.
  19. We should compare this viewpoint with Rosa Luxemburg’s criticism of Bernstein where she argues for a democratisation and generalisation of knowledge away from the ‘party elites’ [as long as[ theoretic knowledge remains the privilege of a handful of “academicians” in the Party, the latter will face the danger of going astray". (In Reform and Revolution, introduction)
  20. Clarke 1980 p. 16
  21. Clarke 1980 p. 16
  22. Considerations of Western Marxism p. 84
  23. Callinicos, Resource of Critique, p. 91-92
  24. Marxism Today July 1978, p. 215
  25. Bracke, 2007, p. 64-65
  26. Wood E M, 1983, p. 258
  27. Poulantzas, 1969, Miliband 1970
  28. Poulantzas 1969, p. 77
  29. Lea J, 1969 p. 42


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