Poulantzas, Nicos

Poulantzas, Nicos
   The most influential of Louis Althusser’s disciples, Nicos Poulantzas developed Althusser’s structuralist approach applying it in the elaboration of a Marxist theory of the state. He also contributed to Marxist analyses of classes and fascism. Born in Greece, Poulantzas attended the University of Athens, followed by further study at the University of Heidelberg and then the University of Paris, where he was a student of Althusser. He held various academic posts in Paris, and politically he was active in the Greek Democratic Alliance, the Greek Communist Party and Greek Communist Party of the Interior, and also served as an advisor on education for the new democratic government of Greece after the collapse of the military dictatorship.
   Poulantzas’ chief contribution to Marxism lies in the field of political theory, particularly the area of state theory. While accepting the Marxist starting point that the state served the interests of the ruling class, he sought to elaborate a more sophisticated theoretical framework on this basic insight. According to Poulantzas the capitalist state did not automatically represent the dominant classes’ economic interests, but rather represented their political interests. He also followed Althusser in distinguishing between the state’s repressive state apparatus and ideological state apparatus. The former consisting of the army, police, judiciary and so on did not, as some orthodox Marxists believed, capture the entire nature of the state. The latter, consisting of schools, the media, churches and so on, was a vital part of the state and crucial in maintaining the dominance of the ruling class. Poulantzas also followed Althusser in stressing the relative autonomy of the state, the fact that it was a complex and contradictory sphere that could not be connected to the economic base of society in a simple, linear deterministic way.
   He also contributed to the Marxist analysis of fascism arguing that earlier Marxist approaches, such as that of the Third International, had adopted an overly deterministic or economistic view of the relation between base and superstructure. The Third International view had been that fascism (or, as the Third International labeled it, “social fascism”) was a product of economic backwardness. Poulantzas discussed fascism with reference to the notion of the “exceptional capitalist state,” a form of state that includes Bonapartism and some military dictatorships. While the fascist states saw the continued “dictatorship of capital” they were also relatively autonomous. The military dictatorships of Spain, Portugal and Greece he also saw as “exceptional states” dependent on international capital and representing conflicting capitalist interests and classes.
   Poulantzas’ publications include Political Power and Social Classes (1968), Fascism and Dictatorship (1970), Classes in Contemporary Capitalism (1974), The Crisis of the Dictatorships (1975) and State, Power and Socialism (1978). He committed suicide in Paris in 1979.

Historical dictionary of Marxism. . 2014.