Bernstein in Seattle: Representative Democracy and the Revolutionary Subject (Part 2)


The first part of this essay sought to show how the devel­op­ment of the Marx­ist the­ory of the state was closely con­nected to the prob­lems of rev­o­lu­tion­ary strat­egy, specif­i­cally in terms of the forms of work­ing-class orga­ni­za­tion appro­pri­ate for devel­oped demo­c­ra­tic soci­eties. Ralph Miliband’s Par­lia­men­tary Social­ism and the work of Perry Ander­son and Tom Nairn in New Left Review framed these ques­tions within the speci­ficity of Eng­lish his­tory, devel­op­ments closely fol­lowed and the­o­rized by Nicos Poulantzas. We have seen that this is the foun­da­tion for the debate which would then take place between Poulantzas and Miliband, ini­ti­ated by the latter’s The State in Cap­i­tal­ist Soci­ety. Their increas­ingly polar­ized the­o­ret­i­cal debate ran par­al­lel to their nearly iden­ti­cal strate­gic analy­ses of the left polit­i­cal par­ties as they entered the tur­bu­lent 1970s, the prac­ti­cal prob­lems of orga­ni­za­tion now even more promi­nent. In this period it was even more appar­ent that these seem­ingly the­o­ret­i­cal debates revolved around the prob­lem of an orga­ni­za­tional void that Eng­land rep­re­sented. But this seem­ingly pecu­liar dilemma now appears to be a uni­ver­sal one, and our dis­course is still ori­ented by the same themes that were at the core of British Marx­ism: the vac­il­la­tions of hope and fear in social democ­racy, a pes­simism about work­ing class pol­i­tics, and the absence of a his­tor­i­cally appro­pri­ate rev­o­lu­tion­ary strat­egy.


It was Miliband, as his biog­ra­pher Michael New­man points out in a fas­ci­nat­ing account of the debate with Poulantzas, who ini­ti­ated the dra­matic shift from respect­ful cri­tique and mutual admi­ra­tion to hos­tile polemic. His review of the Eng­lish trans­la­tion of Poulantzas’s Polit­i­cal Power and Social Classes in 1973 was met by a request from Perry Ander­son to tone it down; the ver­sion which appeared in New Left Review was, then, already con­sid­er­ably mod­er­ated.1

New­man sug­gests Miliband’s aggres­sive shift was due partly to an impa­tience with Poulantzas’s lan­guage and method­ol­ogy, but per­haps above all to this per­cep­tion of “polit­i­cal dan­ger,” to which he was espe­cially sen­si­tive as a Jew­ish exile from the Nazi inva­sion of Bel­gium. The prob­lem revolved around fas­cism; Poulantzas had sug­gested that Marx con­sid­ered Bona­partism “char­ac­ter­is­tic of all forms of the cap­i­tal­ist State,” because it demon­strated that the social ori­gins of the mem­bers of the state appa­ra­tus and their inter­per­sonal rela­tions with the rul­ing class could not account for the state’s action. As Poulantzas had recalled in his review of Miliband’s The State and Cap­i­tal­ist Soci­ety, Bona­partism showed that the “State can only truly serve the rul­ing class in so far as it is rel­a­tively autonomous from the diverse frac­tions of this class, pre­cisely in order to be able to orga­nize the hege­mony of the whole of this class.” Poulantzas remarked in pass­ing that “Miliband finally admits this auton­omy only in the extreme case of fas­cism.”2

Here con­sid­er­able prob­lems of con­cep­tual trans­la­tion appear to have resulted. While Poulantzas had argued that rel­a­tive auton­omy, char­ac­ter­is­tic of all states and most clearly appar­ent in Bona­partism, was neglected in Miliband’s analy­sis except in the case of fas­cism, Miliband took this to mean that Poulantzas was equat­ing demo­c­ra­tic states and fas­cist states. Miliband fur­ther claimed that this was a con­se­quence of Poulantzas’s insis­tence on start­ing with social rela­tions which take place “behind the backs” of actors, instead of indi­vid­ual behav­ior: if the state elite was sim­ply “impris­oned in objec­tive struc­tures,” it was impos­si­ble to dis­tin­guish between rule by bour­geois con­sti­tu­tion­al­ists and rule by fas­cists, the very prob­lem which had led the Com­intern to under­es­ti­mate the impact of the rise of the Nazis.3 It is a sur­pris­ing claim, to say the least, since Poulantzas’s ini­tial review of Miliband’s book had already made a point of sharply crit­i­ciz­ing the Third Period Com­intern, argu­ing that the economism of its the­o­ries, result­ing in “the absence of a the­ory of the State,” was “per­haps nowhere more evi­dent than in its analy­ses of fas­cism – pre­cisely where the Com­intern had most need of such a the­ory of the State.”4

Nev­er­the­less, if these crit­i­cisms were made cau­tiously in Miliband’s ini­tial reply to Poulantzas, they were repeated with evi­dent anger by the time of his review of Polit­i­cal Power and Social Classes. Miliband quite clearly showed that Poulantzas had read a great deal into inci­den­tal remarks by Marx and Engels regard­ing the phe­nom­e­non of Bona­partism.5 But this was pre­cisely the prob­lem of tex­tual inter­pre­ta­tion – the piecing together of a the­ory from “inci­den­tal remarks” – that Miliband had so effec­tively illu­mi­nated in his own arti­cle “Marx and the State.” As we have already shown, in this essay Miliband him­self had argued that Bona­partism pointed to another inter­pre­ta­tion of the the­ory of the state in Marx.6 By mov­ing past this prob­lem of inter­pre­ta­tion to set­tle deci­sively on the “instru­men­tal­ist” solu­tion, Miliband had largely dropped the the­o­ret­i­cal ques­tion posed by Bona­partism (that of the state orga­niz­ing the hege­mony of the rul­ing class by remain­ing rel­a­tively autonomous from its var­i­ous frac­tions) and instead restricted it to the “extreme infla­tion of exec­u­tive power and the forcible demo­bi­liza­tion of all polit­i­cal forces in civil soci­ety.”7 This sec­ond ques­tion was cer­tainly of con­sid­er­able impor­tance, but it by no means pre­cluded the first one, as Miliband had already con­vinc­ingly demon­strated.

Poulantzas’s final reply in 1976 responded to Miliband’s hos­til­ity in kind, though this must have been mixed with a cer­tain frus­tra­tion. Miliband’s com­plaints about the abstract char­ac­ter of Poulantzas’s the­ory had not been accom­pa­nied with the attempt to elab­o­rate a the­o­ret­i­cal alter­na­tive – in this sense no debate ever really took place. Fur­ther­more, the cri­tique of “struc­tural­ism” had already become a cen­tral ele­ment of Poulantzas’s own the­o­ret­i­cal devel­op­ment, and was appar­ent in pub­lished works with ample empir­i­cal research, which were already avail­able for Miliband’s ref­er­ence by the time the latter’s review came out. This was espe­cially sig­nif­i­cant regard­ing the prob­lems of Bona­partism, fas­cism, and dic­ta­tor­ship, since Poulantzas had devoted an entire book to these top­ics by the time of Miliband’s review, and had since pub­lished another one.8

The bulk of the debate at this point belongs to the impor­tant and inter­est­ing strug­gle for the devel­op­ment of a Marx­ian epis­te­mol­ogy, a strug­gle in which the use of the word “struc­tural­ism” obscures impor­tant ques­tions. Ernesto Laclau’s very bal­anced account “The Speci­ficity of the Polit­i­cal” had appeared in 1975, and Poulantzas indi­cated that he found it to be an accu­rate and pro­duc­tive engage­ment with the “true ter­rain” of the debate.9  Laclau’s dis­tinc­tion between “abstrac­tion” and “for­mal­ism” was in this regard a con­sid­er­able step for­ward. But this is not our con­cern here, so we turn to a reflec­tion on the debate’s role within the ques­tion of strat­egy.

Miliband’s book on the state had not explic­itly addressed the strate­gic dimen­sion, other than con­tin­u­ing some of the themes of Par­lia­men­tary Social­ism; yet as Poulantzas had sug­gested in the first entry of the debate, this dimen­sion was fun­da­men­tal for under­stand­ing the his­tor­i­cal tra­vails of the Marx­ist the­ory of the state. For Poulantzas, the “neglect of the­o­ret­i­cal study of the State in the Sec­ond Inter­na­tional, and in the Third Inter­na­tional after Lenin,” was derived from the economism of these Inter­na­tion­als, “which is gen­er­ally accom­pa­nied by an absence of rev­o­lu­tion­ary strat­egy and objec­tives.”10 State the­ory, then, was inex­tri­ca­bly tied up with the task of artic­u­lat­ing a rev­o­lu­tion­ary strat­egy, one which con­fronted the prob­lem of state power in its speci­ficity. This is pre­cisely why Poulantzas’s own work was devoted to a “read­ing” of Marx, Engels, and Lenin on polit­i­cal ques­tions, a tex­tual focus which also pro­voked Miliband’s frus­tra­tion.11 For Poulantzas the task of the­o­riz­ing the texts was an eval­u­a­tion of a strate­gic legacy.

But in fact, Miliband had com­mented in 1970, with con­sid­er­able acu­ity, on the inter­nal rela­tion in Lenin’s writ­ings between the the­ory of the state and the the­ory of orga­ni­za­tion, inso­far as Lenin’s the­ory of the state revolved around the exer­cise of social­ist power. Lenin’s insis­tence in The State and Rev­o­lu­tion on smash­ing the state impor­tantly under­lined the anti-bureau­cratic char­ac­ter of social­ist pol­i­tics. But the schema in which it had been pre­sented did not the­o­rize the “polit­i­cal medi­a­tion of the rev­o­lu­tion­ary power,” the form of polit­i­cal orga­ni­za­tion of the pro­le­tariat which then deter­mi­nes the char­ac­ter of its dic­ta­tor­ship: “the extra­or­di­nary fact, given the whole cast of Lenin’s mind, is that the polit­i­cal ele­ment which oth­er­wise occu­pies so cru­cial a place in his thought, namely the party, receives such scant atten­tion in The State and Rev­o­lu­tion.” With­out an explicit the­o­riza­tion of the rela­tion between the party and the state, it is unclear “whether it is the pro­le­tariat which is capa­ble of assum­ing power, lead­ing, direct­ing, orga­niz­ing, etc.; or whether it is the van­guard of the pro­le­tariat, i.e. the work­ers’ party, which is here des­ig­nated. Both inter­pre­ta­tions are pos­si­ble.”12

There was no rea­son to pre­clude, then, the inter­pre­ta­tion of the dic­ta­tor­ship of the pro­le­tariat as the dic­ta­tor­ship of the party, as sin­gle party rule by the pro­le­tar­ian van­guard. Antic­i­pat­ing later pre­oc­cu­pa­tions, Miliband argued for the impor­tance of a “social­ist plu­ral­ism”: “unless ade­quate pro­vi­sion is made for alter­na­tive chan­nels of expres­sion and polit­i­cal artic­u­la­tion, which the con­cept of sin­gle party rule excludes by def­i­n­i­tion, any talk of social­ist democ­racy is so much hot air. Sin­gle party rule pos­tu­lates an undi­vided, rev­o­lu­tion­ary pro­le­tar­ian will of which it is the nat­u­ral expres­sion.”13

The ques­tion of ide­ol­ogy, too, was very closely embed­ded in the prob­lem of strat­egy. As we have already noted, Poulantzas’s com­ments on ide­ol­ogy were a response to the events of May ‘68 in France, and like so many other the­o­rists of the period, a bal­ance sheet of these events ani­mated much of the con­cep­tual dis­course. Miliband sug­gested, at the end of The State in Cap­i­tal­ist Soci­ety, that 1968 showed how spon­tane­ity ran up against the lim­its of orga­ni­za­tion.14 Of course, this basic insight could be granted a very wide range of inflec­tions, and Miliband’s own ambiva­lence towards the forms and agents of strug­gle in this period prob­a­bly played a con­sid­er­able role in form­ing his the­o­ret­i­cal posi­tions on the ques­tion.  While he shared the sen­ti­ments of New Left Review regard­ing the Wilson government’s com­plic­ity with the Viet­nam war, he had found the stu­dent move­ment much more dif­fi­cult to accept. His skep­ti­cism towards the move­ment and its meth­ods did not pre­vent him from com­ing to the defense of stu­dents (and sym­pa­thetic lec­tur­ers, includ­ing Robin Black­burn) against admin­is­tra­tive repres­sion, or from crit­i­ciz­ing his col­leagues for their com­plic­ity with the admin­is­tra­tion. But it did lead to some trou­bling intro­spec­tion: “I am not sure if I would have been with the Bol­she­viks in ‘17,” he con­fessed in a let­ter to Marcel Lieb­man recount­ing his expe­ri­ences fol­low­ing a build­ing occu­pa­tion. More­over, this dis­com­fort was not only a ques­tion of tac­tics; it was also due to an unwill­ing­ness to throw the forms of clas­si­cal insti­tu­tions of knowl­edge into ques­tion. He even wrote angrily in response to his friend John Saville’s crit­i­cisms of the “lib­eral uni­ver­sity”: “I want the uni­ver­si­ties to be left alone as much as pos­si­ble, as cen­tres of inde­pen­dent research and teach­ing, which is what I under­stand by the lib­eral uni­ver­sity. I think the time has come to be tough with all the sloppy thought about this, at the risk of being called a petty-bour­geois…”15

While Miliband’s account of the prob­lem of ide­ol­ogy was marked by the­o­ret­i­cal and polit­i­cal ambiva­lence, Poulantzas largely dropped the ques­tion in his final reply, though he was in the process of con­sid­er­ably revis­ing his approach. Laclau’s cri­tique of the the­ory of ide­o­log­i­cal state appa­ra­tuses framed the prob­lem more clearly, with a more direct the­o­ret­i­cal ref­er­ence to the strate­gic prob­lem it raised: “There is here a sub­tle trans­po­si­tion which goes from defin­ing the State as the instance which con­sti­tutes the fac­tor of cohe­sion between the lev­els of a social for­ma­tion to the asser­tion that every­thing that con­tributes to the cohe­sion of a social for­ma­tion per­tains, by def­i­n­i­tion, to the State.” With this con­cep­tion of the state as a “qual­ity” rather than an objec­tive struc­ture one would end up hav­ing to divide every social phe­nom­e­non in two, iden­ti­fy­ing “a State wing and a rev­o­lu­tion­ary wing”: “the mind of every indi­vid­ual would be schizo­phrenically divided between a State half, tend­ing to the co­hesion of the social for­ma­tion and an anti-State half tend­ing to its dis­rup­tion. Is this not an extreme exam­ple of over­ politi­ciza­tion of the var­i­ous lev­els of a struc­ture, a his­tori­cist devi­a­tion against which Poulantzas warns us?”16

An alter­na­tive approach would come from Perry Ander­son, who had by then fol­lowed up on a pas­sage in his “Social­ism and Pseudo-Empiri­cism” which hinted at a crit­i­cism of the “divorce from polit­i­cal real­ity and prac­tice” that char­ac­ter­ized West­ern Marx­ist thinkers.17 This break from the pre­vi­ous the­o­ret­i­cal prob­lem­atic, which would be fully man­i­fested in the mag­is­te­rial self-crit­i­cism of Con­sid­er­a­tions on West­ern Marx­ism, was accom­pa­nied by strate­gic shifts, now from a van­tage point influ­enced by Ernest Man­del, look­ing towards a resur­gence of mass move­ments through the renewal of Trot­sky­ism. Ander­son had also in the mean­time pur­sued the prob­lems of state the­ory and the East-West polar­ity within the his­tor­i­cal analy­sis of Pas­sages from Antiq­uity to Feu­dal­ism and Lin­eages of the Abso­lutist State.18

Most sig­nif­i­cant for our pur­poses is “The Antin­o­mies of Anto­nio Gram­sci,” pub­lished in New Left Review sev­eral months after Poulantzas’s final entry in the debate with Miliband. Here Ander­son echoed the point made by both Miliband and Laclau in their cri­tiques: with his devel­op­ment of the con­cept of ide­o­log­i­cal state appa­ra­tuses, Poulantzas had inflated the state to the point of indis­tinc­tion. Licensed by a cer­tain read­ing of Anto­nio Gramsci’s vac­il­la­tions on the dif­fer­ences between East and West and the state-civil soci­ety rela­tion, the con­tem­po­rary the­o­rists of the reformist Com­mu­nist Par­ties had restricted the secur­ing of con­sent in West­ern democ­ra­cies to the field of cul­ture. This con­cep­tion, which under­lay the “Euro­com­mu­nist” turn with which Poulantzas was now asso­ci­ated, assumed that the vio­lent state repres­sion of Tsarist Rus­sia did not apply to the West­ern state, and the masses had the for­mal pos­si­bil­ity of estab­lish­ing a social­ist gov­ern­ment through demo­c­ra­tic elec­tions. The fact that such a thing had in fact never taken place was thought to be a result of the “prior ide­o­log­i­cal con­di­tion­ing of the pro­le­tariat before the elec­toral moment as such” – that is, through the “ide­o­log­i­cal indoc­tri­na­tion of the means of com­mu­ni­ca­tion” or “the invis­i­ble dif­fu­sion of com­mod­ity fetishism.” “For a rep­re­sen­ta­tive ver­sion of these ideas,” he men­tioned in a foot­note, “see Perry Ander­son, ‘Prob­lems of Social­ist Strat­egy.’”19

The new strate­gic frame­work Ander­son pre­sented turned its empha­sis away from cul­ture as the mech­a­nism of con­sent to “the gen­eral form of the rep­re­sen­ta­tive State,” which “deprives the work­ing class of the idea of social­ism as a dif­fer­ent type of State.” Com­mu­ni­ca­tion, con­sumerism, and “other mech­a­nisms of cul­tural con­trol” could only rein­force, in a com­ple­men­tary and sec­ondary man­ner, this more fun­da­men­tal ide­o­log­i­cal effect, which belonged to the sphere of the state itself. The bour­geois state abstracted the pop­u­la­tion from its class divi­sions, “rep­re­sent­ing” indi­vid­u­als as equal cit­i­zens: “it presents to men and women their unequal posi­tions in civil soci­ety as if they were equal in the State. Par­lia­ment, elected every four or five years as the sov­er­eign expres­sion of pop­u­lar will, reflects the fic­tive unity of the nation back to the masses as if it were their own self-gov­ern­ment.” The “juridi­cal par­ity between exploiters and exploited” masks “the com­plete sep­a­ra­tion and non-par­tic­i­pa­tion of the masses in the work of par­lia­ment.”20 What made the bour­geois form of state unique was that the con­sent it secured “takes the fun­da­men­tal form of a belief by the masses that they exer­cise an ulti­mate self-deter­mi­na­tion within the exist­ing social order.”21 The belief in equal­ity of all cit­i­zens, that is, in the non-exis­tence of a rul­ing class, mate­ri­ally pro­duced by the appa­ra­tuses of par­lia­men­tary rep­re­sen­ta­tion, is the form of con­sent ade­quate for a devel­oped cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety.

While Gram­sci had never given in to the reformist temp­ta­tion, those who claimed his legacy in the 1970s priv­i­leged the “war of posi­tion” in civil soci­ety over the seizure of state power.22 While the char­ac­ter of West­ern democ­racy had ren­dered any direct trans­po­si­tion of the Bol­she­vik strat­egy in the East – insur­rec­tion against a shaky and hybrid state-form – unten­able, the mis­take of the reformists, Ander­son now argued, lay in their fail­ure to rec­og­nize that the very struc­ture they thought could be used to extend their coun­ter-hege­mony – the par­lia­men­tary process – was actu­ally the pri­mary means of secur­ing con­sent.

Not only did the “par­lia­men­tary road to social­ism” rein­force par­lia­men­tary ide­ol­ogy, it also failed to rec­og­nize that the oper­a­tions of con­sent by no means elim­i­nated the last resort of coer­cion. True, it was essen­tial to clearly iden­tify the insti­tu­tions which granted cul­ture a dom­i­nant role in democ­racy, and thereby sharply dis­tin­guish it from abso­lutism or fas­cism, and it was just as nec­es­sary to defend these insti­tu­tions against fas­cist incur­sions. But it nev­er­the­less remained the case, insisted Ander­son, that “the devel­op­ment of any rev­o­lu­tion­ary cri­sis nec­es­sar­ily dis­places the dom­i­nance within the bour­geois power struc­ture from ide­ol­ogy to vio­lence… the army inevitably occu­pies the front of the stage in any class strug­gle against the prospect of a real inau­gu­ra­tion of social­ism.”23

Only by the con­struc­tion of an alter­na­tive pro­le­tar­ian democ­racy, which in the last resort would have to defend itself in the vio­lent clash with the repres­sive arm of the state, could social­ism be won. Pro­le­tar­ian democ­racy was the con­di­tion for a rev­o­lu­tion capa­ble of con­fronting the repres­sive appa­ra­tus of the state, of draw­ing sol­diers over to the side of the peo­ple. In this con­text, the bureau­cratic form of the estab­lished Com­mu­nist Par­ties posed seri­ous dan­gers, since “the social­ist rev­o­lu­tion will only tri­umph in the West by a max­i­mum expan­sion – not con­stric­tion – of pro­le­tar­ian democ­racy: for its expe­ri­ence alone, in par­ties or coun­cils, can enable the work­ing class to learn the real lim­its of bour­geois democ­racy, and equip it his­tor­i­cally to sur­pass them.”24 Only when “the masses have made the expe­ri­ence of a pro­le­tar­ian democ­racy that is tan­gi­bly supe­rior to bour­geois democ­racy” could such a rev­o­lu­tion take place in the West, and this process would have to begin before the seizure of the state itself: “the exhi­bi­tion of a new, unpriv­i­leged lib­erty must start before the old order is struc­turally can­celled by the con­quest of the State. The name of this nec­es­sary over­lap is dual power.”25

Nev­er­the­less, Ander­son noted that the devel­op­ment of dual power posed a con­sid­er­able strate­gic prob­lem: “the major­ity of the exploited pop­u­la­tion in every major cap­i­tal­ist social for­ma­tion today remains sub­ject in one way or another to reformist or cap­i­tal­ist ide­ol­ogy.” 26 “Antin­o­mies” con­cluded by invok­ing the United Front as the approach capa­ble of win­ning over the con­vic­tions of the work­ing class of the advanced indus­trial democ­ra­cies. Else­where, how­ever, Ander­son went some­what fur­ther in point­ing to the “crit­i­cal weak­ness” of the dual power sce­nario, the “dif­fi­culty in demon­strat­ing the plau­si­bil­ity of coun­ter-insti­tu­tions of dual power aris­ing within con­sol­i­dated par­lia­men­tary democ­ra­cies: all the exam­ples of sovi­ets or coun­cils so far have emerged out of dis­in­te­grat­ing autoc­ra­cies (Rus­sia, Hun­gary, Aus­tria), defeated mil­i­tary regimes (Ger­many), ascen­dant or over­turned fas­cist states (Spain, Por­tu­gal).”27 The dual power sce­nario would come to be the divid­ing line of strate­gic debate in the 1970s, one which made strange bed­fel­lows, as divid­ing lines some­times do.


A curi­ous fea­ture of the debates around rev­o­lu­tion­ary strat­egy in the 1970s is the grow­ing con­ver­gence between the posi­tions of Poulantzas and Miliband. While this may be a sur­pris­ing propo­si­tion, it is not an orig­i­nal one. New­man remarks in his account of the debate, “the irony is that the polit­i­cal posi­tions of the two were cer­tainly much closer by 1976 than when their books were orig­i­nally pub­lished,” and even notes that Miliband came close to the Euro­com­mu­nism typ­i­cally asso­ci­ated with Poulantzas, though Miliband kept a greater dis­tance from the par­ties that espoused it.28 Leo Pan­itch sug­gests that their work in this period can be con­sid­ered “com­ple­men­tary.”29 How­ever, the vast lit­er­a­ture of sec­tar­ian attack against not only Poulantzas, but also the chimeras of “struc­tural­ism” and “post-struc­tural­ism,” has totally obscured this con­ver­gence. Such rhetoric not only draws unten­able lines from a diver­sity of method­olog­i­cal posi­tions to a homog­e­nized and fic­tive reformist bogey­man, it dan­ger­ously implies that there is some uni­tary and pre­fab­ri­cated ortho­doxy which would have resolved any lin­ger­ing strate­gic uncer­tainty.30

Miliband had already come to a frank aware­ness of the lim­its of the exist­ing Left, as he wrote in “Mov­ing On” in the 1976 Social­ist Reg­is­ter: “Twenty years after 1956, the main prob­lem for the social­ist left in Britain is still that of its own organ­i­sa­tion into an effec­tive polit­i­cal for­ma­tion… none of the organ­i­sa­tions, old and new, which have occu­pied the stage in this period… con­sti­tutes an effec­tive social­ist for­ma­tion or is in the least likely to become one. Such an organ­i­sa­tion remains to be cre­ated.” This started, of course, with the ques­tion of the Labour Party; echo­ing a point already made in the post­script to the 1973 sec­ond edi­tion of Par­lia­men­tary Social­ism, Miliband wrote that despite its mass base, “the belief in the effec­tive trans­for­ma­tion of the Labour Party into an instru­ment of social­ist poli­cies is the most crip­pling of all illu­sions to which social­ists in Britain have been prone.”31 It was time now for a “new social­ist for­ma­tion” which could be the source of polit­i­cal renewal, and this renewal meant chal­leng­ing the dom­i­na­tion of the Labour Party over the Left.32 No exist­ing orga­ni­za­tion could achieve this task. The Com­mu­nist Party con­ceived of its role as lit­tle beyond influ­enc­ing Labour, and it oper­ated “in the name of a ‘demo­c­ra­tic cen­tral­ism’ which is in fact a device for the oli­garchic con­trol of the lead­er­ship over its mem­bers.”33 The group­ings to the left of the Com­mu­nist Party had one major flaw in com­mon: “they are all really very small and in some cases ridicu­lously small.”34 Attribut­ing this lim­i­ta­tion to work­ing-class false con­scious­ness did not help mat­ters.

Most impor­tantly, how­ever, these left orga­ni­za­tions all based their pol­i­tics on “a com­mon per­cep­tion of social­ist change in terms of a rev­o­lu­tion­ary seizure of power on the Bol­she­vik model of Octo­ber 1917.”35 Miliband’s Marx­ism and Pol­i­tics, which appeared the year after “Mov­ing On,” was devoted to a rethink­ing of that model of social­ist change, its argu­ment was already in view in his ear­lier essays on Marx and Lenin. Cau­tious and laconic in style, it was notable for a sharp turn away from empir­i­cal analy­sis, towards the kind of text-based the­o­riza­tion for which he had chided Poulantzas.

Miliband reviewed the the­o­ret­i­cal per­spec­tives that were latent in his ear­lier work, ask­ing once again what it meant that the state was an “instru­ment” of the “rul­ing class.” The argu­ment revolv­ing around the elite com­po­si­tion of the “per­son­nel of the state sys­tem,” he noted, while impor­tant and empir­i­cally ver­i­fi­able, was “open to a num­ber of very seri­ous objec­tions.”36 One was the “fre­quent excep­tions to the gen­eral pat­tern of class cor­re­la­tion”; he implic­itly invoked the argu­ments of Ander­son and Nairn regard­ing the Eng­lish aris­toc­racy, and implic­itly accepted Poulantzas’s sug­ges­tion that this point was implied in his own analy­ses of social democ­racy. But he con­cluded that “exclu­sive reliance on the social char­ac­ter of the state per­son­nel is unhelp­ful – it cre­ates as many prob­lems as it solves.”37

The sec­ond answer was the eco­nomic power of the rul­ing class, “by virtue of its own­er­ship and con­trol of eco­nomic and other resources, and of its strength and influ­ence as a pres­sure group.” This pres­sure, how­ever, could not explain the “com­plex­i­ties in the deci­sion-mak­ing process”; it did not explain how poli­cies were formed, and cer­tainly did not amount to prov­ing that the state itself was the rul­ing class’s instru­ment.38

Finally there was the “struc­tural” expla­na­tion, which sug­gested that any gov­ern­ment within a cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety acts within “struc­tural con­straints” which pre­vent it from being any­thing but a rul­ing-class instru­ment. While this was an “inte­gral part of the Marx­ist view of the state,” it had “never been ade­quately the­o­rized” and had “cer­tain defi­cien­cies which can eas­ily turn into crip­pling weak­nesses.”39 Accord­ing to Miliband, the struc­tural the­ory risked elim­i­nat­ing the agency and “free­dom of choice” of actors; nev­er­the­less, it was an impor­tant reminder of the “lim­its of reform,” a sub­ject which would become impor­tant later in the argu­ment.40

We have reviewed all of these argu­ments as they were implied in The State in Cap­i­tal­ist Soci­ety. Here they are argued with a con­cen­trated focus of abstrac­tion and tex­tual exe­ge­sis. But Miliband has sur­prises up his sleeve. This recon­sti­tuted instru­men­tal­ist the­ory ran up against “a pow­er­ful rea­son for reject­ing this this for­mu­la­tion as mis­lead­ing”: “while the state does act, in Marx­ist terms, on behalf of the ‘rul­ing class,’ it does not for the most part act at its behest.” The state

enjoys a high degree of auton­omy and inde­pen­dence in the man­ner of its oper­a­tion as a class state, and indeed must have that high degree of auton­omy and inde­pen­dence if it is to act as a class state. The notion of the state as an “instru­ment” does not fit this fact, and tends to obscure what has come to be seen as a cru­cial prop­erty of the state, namely its rel­a­tive auton­omy from the “rul­ing class” and from civil soci­ety at large.41

Bona­partism is indeed named as an exam­ple. But Miliband abruptly switches the stakes of the dis­cus­sion to the impor­tance of dis­tin­guish­ing between states with dif­fer­ent degrees of rel­a­tive auton­omy, rather than expli­cat­ing rel­a­tive auton­omy as a con­cept in con­trast to “instru­men­tal­ism.” Some­what stu­pe­fy­ingly Miliband reduces the the­o­ret­i­cal ques­tion of the char­ac­ter of the state to a moral imper­a­tive to rec­og­nize the “con­sid­er­able virtues in bour­geois demo­c­ra­tic regimes as com­pared with other forms of class dom­i­na­tion.”42

Miliband does return to the con­cep­tual ques­tion, acknowl­edg­ing that “all class states do enjoy some degree of auton­omy.”43 But the the­ory of the state which takes shape here, elab­o­rat­ing on the rel­a­tive auton­omy of the state with regards to its repres­sive, ide­o­log­i­cal-cul­tural, eco­nomic, and inter­na­tional func­tions, is guided towards clearly dis­tin­guish­ing between author­i­tar­ian and demo­c­ra­tic states. Miliband’s pre­oc­cu­pa­tion is not, in fact, pri­mar­ily con­cep­tual. It is ori­ented towards the polit­i­cal con­clu­sion he records at the end of the book: “the civic free­doms which, how­ever inad­e­quately and pre­car­i­ously, form part of bour­geois democ­racy are the pro­duct of cen­turies of unremit­ting pop­u­lar strug­gles. The task of Marx­ist pol­i­tics is to defend these free­doms; and to make pos­si­ble their exten­sion and enlarge­ment by the removal of their class bound­aries.”44

This was also the ani­mat­ing prob­lem in Miliband’s account of how the polit­i­cal power of cap­i­tal could be defeated. “There must be orga­ni­za­tion,” he wrote. “Against the vast array of pow­er­ful forces which the rul­ing class is able to deploy in the wag­ing of class strug­gle, the work­ing class and its allies can­not hope to suc­ceed unless they are orga­nized. The ques­tion is what this means.”45 In a rich review of the orga­ni­za­tional debates around sub­sti­tu­tion­ism and cen­tral­ism in the writ­ings of Lenin, Trot­sky, and Lux­em­burg, Miliband noted that all par­tic­i­pants had accepted the notion of “a gen­uinely har­mo­nious and organic unity” of class and party, “with the party as the true expres­sion of a class-con­scious and rev­o­lu­tion­ary work­ing class.” But “the notion of the party achiev­ing an organic and per­fectly har­mo­nious rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the class is noth­ing but a more or less edi­fy­ing myth.”46 By fail­ing to explic­itly the­o­rize the forms of nec­es­sary medi­a­tion between the class and its orga­ni­za­tion, these the­o­rists had left them­selves open to the most ossi­fied of forms. Fur­ther­more, they had elided a gen­uine con­tra­dic­tion between the tac­ti­cal require­ments of uni­fied action and the demo­c­ra­tic neces­sity for debate and dis­agree­ment, which had to be noted with vig­i­lance as one of the peren­nial ten­sions of social­ist orga­ni­za­tion. “The ‘unity of the work­ing class,’” Miliband declared, “which the party seeks or claims to embody, must be taken as an exceed­ingly dubi­ous notion.”47

For this rea­son Miliband defended the prin­ci­ple of a plu­ral­ity of par­ties: “Given the het­ero­gene­ity of the work­ing class and of the work­ing-class move­ment, it would be very remark­able if one party did con­sti­tute its nat­u­ral expres­sion; and the point is rein­forced by the exten­sion of the notion of the work­ing class which is required by the evo­lu­tion of cap­i­tal­ism.”48 But such plu­ral­ism still did not resolve the dilem­mas of polit­i­cal medi­a­tion. Some degree of sub­sti­tu­tion­ism, Miliband sug­gested, was inescapable – it amounted essen­tially to rep­re­sen­ta­tion. With­out acknowl­edg­ing that there would be an uncer­tain rela­tion­ship between the masses and a mil­i­tant minor­ity, with­out tack­ling the prob­lems of sub­sti­tu­tion­ism head-on, it would inevitably grow out of con­trol.49

With this in mind Miliband turned to the “con­cil­iar” forms of orga­ni­za­tion, namely sovi­ets or work­ers’ coun­cils – the chal­lenge of the “recur­ring and spon­ta­neous man­i­fes­ta­tion of pop­u­lar power,” which in insur­rec­tionary sit­u­a­tions come up “against the form of power rep­re­sented by the work­ers’ party or par­ties.”50 This was in many respects a prob­lem intro­duced to Marx­ism from the out­side. Marx’s reflec­tions on pop­u­lar power in the Paris Com­mune could not have addressed the pos­si­bil­ity of work­ers’ coun­cils; their sud­den ascen­dance in 1905, with vaguely syn­di­cal­ist roots, posed new ques­tions for Marx­ists. While Lenin may have for­mu­lated the slo­gan “All power to the sovi­ets,” Miliband pointed out, echo­ing his ear­lier analy­sis of State and Rev­o­lu­tion, he never the­o­rized the rela­tion­ship between soviet and party. But here Miliband went fur­ther and sug­gested that the decline of soviet power in the post-rev­o­lu­tion­ary sit­u­a­tion required a seri­ous rethink­ing of this rela­tion, and this is what drove his dis­cus­sion of social­ist strat­egy.

To divide the pos­si­ble strate­gies for the achieve­ment of social­ist rev­o­lu­tion into “reformist” and “rev­o­lu­tion­ary” was mis­lead­ing, Miliband sug­gested, though the labels were hard to avoid; “con­sti­tu­tion­al­ist” and “insur­rec­tionary” came closer to accu­rate descrip­tions but did not avoid inevitable prob­lems.51 What really dis­tin­guished reformism was its “strong empha­sis on elec­toral suc­cess” within the lim­its of bour­geois democ­racy, which pre­vented its pro­gram from pro­ceed­ing towards social­ist trans­for­ma­tion. While Lenin shared many of the prin­ci­ples of reformism, insist­ing on open­ness towards par­lia­men­tary par­tic­i­pa­tion, he also put “insur­rec­tionary pol­i­tics” on the agenda.52 At first, the effect of the con­sol­i­da­tion of insur­rec­tionary pol­i­tics into Lenin­ist Com­mu­nist Par­ties was the reac­tive con­sol­i­da­tion of West­ern social democ­racy towards a specif­i­cally anti-insur­rec­tionary reformism. But over the course of the 20th cen­tury, that trend reversed itself. Start­ing with the Pop­u­lar Front and peak­ing by the time Miliband was writ­ing, the Com­mu­nist Par­ties had wholly accepted a con­sti­tu­tion­al­ist strat­egy. The adop­tion of reformism by the insur­rec­tionary orga­ni­za­tions left those com­mit­ted to the insur­rec­tionary strat­egy in a lurch: “Nowhere was a Marx­ist left, inde­pen­dent from both the par­ties of the old Sec­ond Inter­na­tional and of those of the new Third Inter­na­tional able to play more than a very mar­ginal role in the life of their labour move­ments.” For Miliband this point espe­cially applied to the Trot­sky­ist orga­ni­za­tions, which lay claim to the insur­rec­tionary her­itage but “remained utterly iso­lated from their work­ing-class move­ments and were never able to mount a seri­ous chal­lenge to their respec­tive Com­mu­nist par­ties.”53

The new preva­lence of the reformist strat­egy posed an impor­tant ques­tion: what would hap­pen if a social­ist party were indeed elected and pre­cip­i­tated a rev­o­lu­tion­ary cri­sis? This was the cru­cial split between reformism and Lenin­ism – the lat­ter main­tain­ing that the exist­ing state would have to be smashed and replaced by the dic­ta­tor­ship of the pro­le­tariat, and the for­mer instead envis­ag­ing “the car­ry­ing through of a social­ist trans­for­ma­tion by way of the main polit­i­cal insti­tu­tions – notably par­lia­ment – inherited from bour­geois democ­racy, even though these might be to a greater or lesser extent reformed in more demo­c­ra­tic direc­tions.” For Miliband both sce­nar­ios were essen­tially imag­i­nary, and could not “cor­re­spond to any pos­si­ble sit­u­a­tion that may be envis­aged.” The direct democ­racy of soviet power envi­sioned by Lenin, a total pop­u­lar power, could not be imag­ined in an imme­di­ately post-rev­o­lu­tion­ary sit­u­a­tion with­out some form of direc­tion – hence the blur­ring of lines between dic­ta­tor­ship of the pro­le­tariat and dic­ta­tor­ship of the party.54

On the other hand, the reformist strategy’s pri­or­i­ti­za­tion of state direc­tion could lead, as left crit­ics had long pointed out, to the social­ist lead­ers’ appear­ance as “agents of sta­bi­liza­tion,” a phe­nom­e­non eas­ily ver­i­fied his­tor­i­cally.55 While it was pos­si­ble to imag­ine an elec­toral vic­tory by social­ist par­ties which went on to insti­tute sweep­ing reforms directly threat­en­ing cap­i­tal­ist wealth and improv­ing the con­di­tions of the work­ing class, the clos­est his­tor­i­cal exam­ple of this phe­nom­e­non was Sal­vador Allende and the Unidad Pop­u­lar in Chile, and the short­com­ings of this model had been made abun­dantly clear.56 The assum­ing of state power by reformists does not nec­es­sar­ily elim­i­nate the class power of cap­i­tal. There will con­tinue to be a bat­tle within the state sys­tem, even if there are dras­tic changes in per­son­nel. But this bat­tle will largely depend on “what hap­pens out­side the state sys­tem as well as inside it.”57 Unless a social­ist gov­ern­ment is able to mobi­lize pop­u­lar power, it will be inca­pable of defeat­ing the vio­lence of the Right (though its com­mit­ment to con­sti­tu­tion­al­ism might limit its recep­tive­ness to the poten­tial mil­i­tancy of pop­u­lar mobi­liza­tion). But this prob­lem is not only a mat­ter of vio­lence, mil­i­tary coups, or civil war – it is also the kind of eco­nomic dis­rup­tion of which the own­ers of cap­i­tal will still be capa­ble. This pres­sure can and gen­er­ally has influ­enced reformist gov­ern­ments, who mod­er­ate their reforms to the point of total retreat. This can only be pre­vented, Miliband argued, if pop­u­lar sup­port is mobi­lized beyond elec­tions, by “a flex­i­ble and com­plex net­work of organs of pop­u­lar par­tic­i­pa­tion oper­at­ing through­out civil soci­ety and intended not to replace the state but to com­ple­ment it.” This com­ple­men­tary rela­tion between state power and pop­u­lar power Miliband dubbed “dual power.”58

Were it not for the pecu­liar role of this term, “dual power,” the con­ver­gence between Miliband and Poulantzas would appear absolute. Miliband’s usage essen­tially inverted the mean­ing of the con­cept, which was the pri­mary impe­tus for Poulantzas’s rethink­ing of the polit­i­cal in the late 1970s. In a piv­otal inter­view with Henri Weber of the Trot­sky­ist Ligue com­mu­niste révo­lu­tion­naire (LCR), from the same year that Marx­ism and Pol­i­tics was pub­lished, this prob­lem took cen­ter stage. As Poulantzas char­ac­ter­ized it, the dual power sce­nario of the Octo­ber Rev­o­lu­tion was “to sur­round the strong castle of the state from out­side with the struc­tures of pop­u­lar power” – to build the coun­ter-state of direct democ­racy, which would meet the cap­i­tal­ist state in a rup­tural clash. But for Poulantzas, such a dual power sce­nario, which Weber con­tin­ued to defend, was “extremely unlikely in the West” – not only because of the mas­sive devel­op­ment of the state in advanced cap­i­tal­ism and its close inte­gra­tion with many aspects of social life, but also because of the lim­its of left orga­ni­za­tions.59

Oth­ers, like Henri Weber him­self, con­tin­ued to defend the dual power model against Euro­com­mu­nism. An ear­lier inter­view he had con­ducted with Ernest Man­del (reprinted in NLR alongside Anderson’s “Antin­o­mies,” pro­vid­ing a par­al­lel and more con­tem­po­rary argu­ment) had also crit­i­cized Euro­com­mu­nism from the van­tage point of clas­si­cal dual power and direct coun­cil democ­racy. As Man­del put it, “In a rev­o­lu­tion­ary sit­u­a­tion, the rev­o­lu­tion­ary Marx­ists must be the force most com­mit­ted to the strength­en­ing of class unity and orga­ni­za­tion. They must con­stantly advo­cate the unity of the class appa­ra­tus of the work­ers, and this is made eas­ier by the fact that the organs of work­ers’ unity are pre­cisely the organs of its self-rep­re­sen­ta­tion: the Work­ers’ coun­cils.”60

In other words, the orga­ni­za­tional void was already filled, for Weber and Man­del, by the par­ties of the Fourth Inter­na­tional. But as Poulantzas pointed out to Weber, it was not at all clear that these par­ties resolved the prob­lem of orga­ni­za­tion, nor that they could have func­tioned as a mass polit­i­cal

We can­not ignore the actual forces on the ground. In real­ity, your hypoth­e­sis is not based solely on an eval­u­a­tion of the objec­tive pos­si­bil­i­ties of a rev­o­lu­tion­ary cri­sis in France. It is also based, implic­itly, on the pos­si­bil­ity of the extremely rapid and pow­er­ful devel­op­ment of a rev­o­lu­tion­ary party of the Lenin­ist type, to the left of the French Com­mu­nist Party. Your whole hypoth­e­sis is based on that. It’s there in black and white in Mandel’s inter­view on rev­o­lu­tion­ary strat­egy in Europe.

But I don’t think that this is at all likely. First, because of what I said before about the new real­ity of the state, the econ­omy, the interna­tional con­text, etc. And then, because of the weight of the polit­i­cal forces of the tra­di­tional left, par­tic­u­larly in a coun­try like France.

Your hypoth­e­sis implies, for instance, that the LCR will grow from 7,000 mil­i­tants to ten or twenty times that num­ber in a few months! That’s never hap­pened any­where!61


Such strate­gic reflec­tions on Poulantzas’s part are fre­quently dis­missed in the Anglo-Amer­i­can dis­cus­sion because of his asso­ci­a­tion with Euro­com­mu­nism, which is objec­tion­able to the rev­o­lu­tion­ary Left for its reformism, and to the social demo­c­ra­tic Left for its basis in the Stal­in­ist Com­mu­nist Par­ties – and these days it is not unusual for both objec­tions to exist in a sin­gle per­son.

How­ever, Poulantzas’s rela­tion to the phe­nom­e­non was com­plex, and can only be com­pre­hended if we divide the move­ment into its left and right wings. The right wing of Euro­com­mu­nism based itself on the the­ory of “state monopoly cap­i­tal­ism,” that is, the dom­i­na­tion of the state by a monopoly frac­tion of the bour­geoisie, which implied a pop­u­lar alliance with the pro­gres­sive side of the bour­geoisie to defend the state’s demo­c­ra­tic aspects. This the­ory was thor­oughly rejected by Poulantzas – to the point that he had actu­ally crit­i­cized Miliband for veer­ing too close to it.62 In response to Weber’s sug­ges­tion that he, too, had come close to these “offi­cial” PCI and PCF the­o­ries, Poulantzas replied that they were based on a “com­pletely false con­cep­tion”; he affirmed that “the whole of the present state and all its appa­ra­tuses – social secu­rity, health, edu­ca­tion, admin­is­tra­tion. etc. – cor­re­spond by their very struc­ture to the power of the bour­geoisie. I do not believe that the masses can hold posi­tions of autonomous power – even sub­or­di­nate ones – within the cap­i­tal­ist state. They act as a means of resis­tance, ele­ments of cor­ro­sion, accen­tu­at­ing the inter­nal con­tra­dic­tions of the state.”63

He con­firmed in a 1979 inter­view with Stu­art Hall and Alan Hunt for Marx­ism Today that “it is very clear that in Euro­com­mu­nism you can find the reformist ten­dency.” The dif­fer­ences lay in cer­tain mat­ters of empha­sis: first of all, the left wing was dis­tin­guished by “the impor­tance given to direct and work­ers’ coun­cil democ­racy, which has always been a deci­sive con­tin­uum between reformist and a rev­o­lu­tion­ary road to social­ism. Left-wing Euro­communism gives a much greater sig­nif­i­cance to rank-and-file democ­racy.” Sec­ond, the left wing empha­sized “the neces­sity of rad­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion” of the appa­ra­tuses of the state, while the right wing “tends to see those appa­ra­tuses more or less as neu­tral appa­ra­tuses and con­se­quently does not attach the same impor­tance to their trans­for­ma­tion.”64

On the other hand, Miliband’s prox­im­ity to Euro­com­mu­nism was not lost on the “rev­o­lu­tion­ary Marx­ist” ten­den­cies in the UK. Colin Barker wrote in a review of Miliband’s Marx­ism and Pol­i­tics in Inter­na­tional Social­ism: “The the­o­reti­cians of ‘Euro­com­mu­nism,’ of the right­ward mov­ing com­mu­nist par­ties, will be glad to embrace him. It is rather sad.”65 Like Poulantzas, Miliband had also directly addressed the phe­nom­e­non, in a Social­ist Reg­is­ter arti­cle called “Con­sti­tu­tion­al­ism and Rev­o­lu­tion: Notes on Euro­com­mu­nism.” Com­ment­ing on the dec­la­ra­tions of San­ti­ago Car­rillo (Poulantzas’s exam­ple of right Euro­com­mu­nism), and Gior­gio Napoli­tano, a mem­ber of the Sec­re­tariat of the PCI, Miliband noted that this was not merely a ten­dency towards social democ­racy which sought to man­age cap­i­tal­ism, but a pro­claimed social­ist pro­gram which had to be eval­u­ated as such. What dis­tin­guished Euro­com­mu­nism was that “it seeks to achieve the trans­for­ma­tion of cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety in social­ist direc­tions by con­sti­tu­tional means, inside the con­sti­tu­tional and legal frame­work pro­vided by bour­geois democ­racy.”66 This was based on the real­ity, Miliband sug­gested, that the work­ing class in advanced cap­i­tal­ist coun­tries, despite its skep­ti­cism of bour­geois pol­i­tics, was even more opposed to vio­lent insur­rec­tion, and the efforts of rev­o­lu­tion­ary orga­ni­za­tions would be ever frus­trated by these atti­tudes.

In this regard, the Euro­com­mu­nist aban­don­ment of the dic­ta­tor­ship of the pro­le­tariat was “sen­si­ble” – as was its acknowl­edg­ment of the lim­its of direct democ­racy. But it pro­vided no other solu­tion beyond the democ­ra­ti­za­tion of exist­ing state struc­tures. Instead of link­ing direct democ­racy and rep­re­sen­ta­tive democ­racy, to provide the polit­i­cal medi­a­tion required for the “utopian” aspect of the com­mu­nist vision, Euro­com­mu­nism had set­tled on a trans­formed sys­tem of rep­re­sen­ta­tion: “the dif­fer­ence is obvi­ous between an elab­o­rate struc­ture of offi­cially sanc­tioned (and con­trolled) organs of power, how­ever ‘rep­re­sen­ta­tive,’ and a net­work of asso­ci­a­tions, coun­cils, com­mit­tees and what­ever at the grass­roots, armed with a gen­uine mea­sure of power, and oper­at­ing alongside the state and inde­pen­dently of it.”67

The prob­lem with Euro­com­mu­nism was clear: these over­tures towards democ­racy, from par­ties that had been char­ac­ter­ized by strict inter­nal con­trol and repres­sion, were hardly cred­i­ble. “The con­tra­dic­tion is bla­tant,” Miliband noted, “between Euro­com­mu­nist protes­ta­tions of com­mit­ment to democ­racy on the one hand, and com­mit­ment to unde­mo­c­ra­tic prac­tices inside Com­mu­nist Par­ties on the other.” What’s more, the party bureau­cra­cies gave lit­tle rea­son to believe that they would not turn their par­tic­i­pa­tion in rep­re­sen­ta­tive democ­racy towards a craven pur­suit of votes, mak­ing every com­pro­mise to pre­serve their polit­i­cal power.

Miliband’s analy­sis has to be sit­u­ated in the large orga­ni­za­tional dif­fer­ences between mass Com­mu­nist Par­ties of Italy, Spain, and France, and the British con­text, where Labour was the sole mass orga­ni­za­tion. There was no objec­tive basis for Euro­com­mu­nism in Britain, so Miliband com­mented on it as an out­sider – despite, at the the­o­ret­i­cal level, essen­tially belong­ing to the ten­dency.68 How­ever, the left Euro­com­mu­nists on the Con­ti­nent, at the mar­gins of the mass par­ties, expe­ri­enced Euro­com­mu­nism as an open­ing towards the rethink­ing of orga­ni­za­tional form and strat­egy.

One such fig­ure was the Span­ish com­mu­nist Fer­nando Claudín, expelled from the PCE in 1964, whose book Euro­com­mu­nism and Social­ism Miliband had also dis­cussed. Writ­ing in 1977, Claudín empha­sized that the Com­mu­nist Par­ties were engaged in an “effort to adapt their con­cep­tion of social­ism and of a strat­egy of tran­si­tion to the speci­fic con­di­tions of advanced cap­i­tal­ism.”69 Fur­ther­more, the rise of these par­ties was sit­u­ated in the “long-term struc­tural cri­sis of the cap­i­tal­ist econ­omy,” a cri­sis whose nature was “not eco­nomic alone, but social and polit­i­cal, moral and ide­o­log­i­cal.”70 The stakes of work­ing-class strug­gle were to pre­vent the impo­si­tion of a cap­i­tal­ist “solu­tion” to the cri­sis, of “‘aus­ter­ity poli­cies’ within the frame­work of more author­i­tar­ian polit­i­cal regimes” which would attempt to “pre­pare the ground for a new expan­sion­ist phase of cap­i­tal­ism.”71

Alongside the cap­i­tal­ist cri­sis was the gen­eral cri­sis of the Com­mu­nist move­ment, as the speci­fic con­di­tions of West­ern Euro­pean and Third World strug­gles came to stand in “rad­i­cal con­tra­dic­tion” with the dic­tates of Moscow and the orga­ni­za­tional and strate­gic legacy of the Bol­she­vik model.72 The expe­ri­ence of 1968 had shown that not only infan­tile ultra-left­ism, but also “senile con­ser­vatism” was dan­ger­ous, and the neces­sity of fun­da­men­tally chang­ing the form of the party could no longer be ignored.73

Claudín warned against the con­ces­sion­ary ten­dency which was tied to the dom­i­nant anti-monopoly strat­egy, with the PCI as the prime exam­ple. Not only did this the­ory cover up the fact “that the non-monopoly bour­geoisie com­prises the greater part of the bour­geoisie and is respon­si­ble for the exploita­tion of a large part of the work­ing class,” it was also tied to a “grad­u­al­ist strat­egy,” cen­tered on elec­tions. The grad­u­al­ist strat­egy, in its sub­or­di­na­tion of “all forms of mass action and social strug­gle to a quest for alliances with one or sev­eral frac­tions of the bour­geoisie,” exposed the fear of the party bureau­cra­cies that their lead­ing role would be threat­ened by “autonomous and uni­tary organ­i­sa­tions of the work­ing class and pop­u­lar masses.”74

Indeed, the CPs gave no indi­ca­tion that their con­duct would dif­fer in any way from May 1968 and the Ital­ian Hot Autumn, when they acted “as a brake, lim­it­ing the growth and auton­omy of work­ers’ self-organ­i­sa­tion, chan­nelling it into the con­straints of insti­tu­tion­alised pol­i­tics so that there should be no con­flict between the two.” Claudín named fac­tory and neigh­bor­hood coun­cils, as well as autore­duc­tion of util­ity prices, as exam­ples of grass­roots democ­racy which advanced “anti-cap­i­tal­ist goals of strug­gle.” But since these forms of strug­gle implied “the rejec­tion of for­mal legal lim­its set by the exist­ing polit­i­cal sys­tem,” and the strat­egy of the par­ties revolved around respect­ing these lim­its, the two inevitably entered into antag­o­nism.75

In the reeval­u­a­tion of the strate­gic legacy this antag­o­nism prompted, the coun­cil com­mu­nist expe­ri­ence was of sig­nif­i­cant impor­tance. Claudín invoked Pan­nekoek, and made note of Gramsci’s early coun­cilist ori­en­ta­tion, but pointed out that the con­crete real­iza­tion of the coun­cilist model, in the soviet sys­tem which emerged in post-rev­o­lu­tion­ary Rus­sia, did not align with the theory’s pre­dic­tions. Within the “Com­intern Ide­ol­ogy,” then, there was “an essen­tial con­flict between coun­cil democ­racy and rep­re­sen­ta­tive or del­e­gated democ­racy.”76 While Claudín embraced the gen­eral cat­e­gory of “demo­c­ra­tic social­ism,” he empha­sized the impor­tance of con­test­ing the “legal­ist, elec­toral­ist, grad­u­al­ist ver­sion of that road; the ver­sion which seeks to fol­low a line of class col­lab­o­ra­tion with the lead­ing group of the bour­geoisie.”77 The alter­na­tive was a new, het­ero­ge­neous pro­lif­er­a­tion of “par­ties of a new type”: “The party of the work­ing class is a myth. The real­ity is rather the work­ing class as a party, mean­ing the total­ity of forms through which the class organ­ises itself and expresses its class antag­o­nism to the bour­geoisie.”78

But it was by no means clear that Euro­com­mu­nism could be seen as a real basis for this devel­op­ment – in fact, it was not even clear it could achieve grad­u­al­ist and legal­ist goals. In actual prac­tice, the elec­toral machine com­pelled the par­ties to work to pre­serve the bour­geois state. In this sit­u­a­tion, Ser­gio Bologna noted in 1977, “the party sys­tem no longer ‘receives’ the thrusts from the base; it con­trols and represses them.”79 Forc­ing through aus­ter­ity, strength­en­ing police pow­ers, plac­ing par­lia­men­tary alliances above grass­roots mobi­liza­tion, accept­ing junior part­ner­ships – all this led the reform­ing Com­mu­nist Par­ties to betray the desires of those who had ini­tially pro­pelled these par­ties into strik­ing range of polit­i­cal power. In June 1976, the PCI’s elec­toral results were at an all-time high, and most of this was due pre­cisely to the new social strug­gles. The next month, how­ever, the PCI, lack­ing any coher­ent gen­eral strat­egy regard­ing the ques­tion of state power, took the easy route, and made an alliance with the Chris­tian Democ­rats, sup­port­ing the gov­ern­ment of the anti-com­mu­nist Giulio Andreotti in July 1976, with­out a sin­gle com­mu­nist receiv­ing a port­fo­lio. The real con­tent of the PCI’s “His­toric Com­pro­mise” with Chris­tian Democ­racy, Claudín argued, was the attempt to sup­press mass strug­gle and “restrict its demands for reform to the lim­its com­pat­i­ble with the sys­tem.”80

These par­ties quickly lost the sup­port of the new work­ing class, such that by the late 1980s, only the old guard remained. As Claudín argued, the right Euro­com­mu­nist insis­tence on becom­ing “par­ties of gov­ern­ment” rather than “par­ties of strug­gle” led to fail­ure even in reformist terms; the elec­torate ulti­mately opted for the much more con­sis­tent and cred­i­ble social demo­c­ra­tic par­ties in every case, and the path was paved for “Euroso­cial­ist” aus­ter­ity.81 The stakes, Claudín noted, were high:

Euro­com­mu­nism con­tains the pos­si­bil­ity and the hope of over­com­ing – within advanced cap­i­tal­ism – the gen­eral cri­sis of the com­mu­nist move­ment. But it could just as well turn out to be its swan song… If social­ism does not throw over the prac­tices of social-demo­c­ra­tic reformism, or if Euro­com­mu­nism fails to live up to its promises, then there may occur a resta­bil­i­sa­tion of cap­i­tal­ism for a whole his­tor­i­cal period, block­ing the road to social­ism in Europe for the indef­i­nite future.82

This is, indeed, pre­cisely what hap­pened.


Poulantzas was inter­nal to the open­ing Euro­com­mu­nism seemed to rep­re­sent, but not to its con­sol­i­da­tion into “par­ties of gov­ern­ment”; and we are now in a posi­tion to place his analy­sis alongside that of Miliband, con­trast­ing both of them to the right­ist ten­den­cies of the bureau­cratic par­ties and the coun­ter­fac­tual analy­sis of the rev­o­lu­tion­ary sects.

It has to be noted that the strat­egy Poulantzas pro­posed in his dis­cus­sion with Weber was not nec­es­sar­ily more con­vinc­ing. Poulantzas had defended “a strug­gle designed to sharpen the inter­nal con­tra­dic­tions of the state, to carry out a deep-seated trans­for­ma­tion of the state,” aligned with “organs of pop­u­lar power at the base, the struc­tures of direct democ­racy,” which would “bring about a dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion inside the state appa­ra­tuses.”83 Of course, this is the same notion that Miliband had described as “dual power” – quite con­fus­ingly, since as Poulantzas pointed out, the clas­si­cal con­cep­tion of dual power was pre­cisely the obsta­cle to devel­op­ing it. But what­ever it was called, the devel­op­ment of this phe­nom­e­non in the Euro­com­mu­nist con­text was blocked by the bureau­cratism and oppor­tunism of the par­ties, whose tenac­ity Poulantzas had under­es­ti­mated.

How­ever, the rethink­ing towards which Poulantzas drew these strate­gic prob­lems in his last book, State, Power, Social­ism, led to remark­able the­o­ret­i­cal devel­op­ments. This text, which engages with Fou­cault and Deleuze and crit­i­cizes the nou­veaux philosophes, can­not be ade­quately sum­ma­rized here, so we focus on the themes already raised. Just as the May ‘68 revolt had once prompted Poulantzas to recon­sider the theme of ide­ol­ogy, its fail­ure led him to the prob­lem of direct democ­racy.84 In the con­text of a cri­tique of Fou­cault, though a par­al­lel argu­ment was also made with ref­er­ence to Lefort and Cas­to­ri­adis, Poulantzas crit­i­cized the “sim­plis­tic illu­sions of anti-insti­tu­tional purity” which imag­ined that by plac­ing one­self out­side the state, “one is thereby sit­u­ated out­side power (which is impos­si­ble).” This was not only a the­o­ret­i­cal mis­take; it was also “the best means of leav­ing the field open for sta­tism: in short, it often involves a retreat in the face of the enemy pre­cisely on this strate­gi­cally cru­cial ter­rain.”85

The stakes of the prob­lem were elab­o­rated with a new inves­ti­ga­tion of the strate­gic legacy of social­ist rev­o­lu­tion. He referred first and fore­most to the cri­tique of the Rus­sian Rev­o­lu­tion advanced by Rosa Lux­em­burg, who crit­i­cized Lenin not for his neglect of direct democ­racy, but for his “exclu­sive reliance” on it – the elim­i­na­tion of rep­re­sen­ta­tive democ­racy (in the form of the Con­stituent Assem­bly) in favor of the new kind of state rep­re­sented by the sovi­ets.86 The model of dual power, of the encir­cling and seizure of the fortress, required not only the raz­ing to the ground of the exist­ing appa­ra­tus but the for­ma­tion of another one capa­ble of tak­ing its place:

What is to replace the bour­geois State en bloc is no longer direct, rank-and-file democ­racy. The sovi­ets are now not so much an anti-State as a par­al­lel State – one copied from the instru­men­tal model of the exist­ing State, and pos­sess­ing a pro­le­tar­ian char­ac­ter in so far as its sum­mit is controlled/occupied by a “sin­gle” rev­o­lu­tion­ary party which itself func­tions accord­ing to the model of the State.87

Stal­in­ist sta­tism, which para­dox­i­cally took over a rev­o­lu­tion that had raised the prac­ti­cal pos­si­bil­ity of direct democ­racy, con­verged fun­da­men­tally with “social-demo­c­ra­tic state-wor­ship,” char­ac­ter­ized by “basic dis­trust of direct, rank-and-file democ­racy and pop­u­lar ini­tia­tive.” Both forms of social­ist sta­tism viewed the pop­u­lar masses as stand­ing “in a rela­tion­ship of exter­nal­ity to a State that pos­sesses power and con­sti­tutes an essence.” To then occupy the state involved “replac­ing the top lead­ers by an enlight­ened left élite and, if nec­es­sary, mak­ing a few adjust­ments to the way in which the exist­ing insti­tu­tions func­tion.” This mod­er­ately adjusted state would “thereby bring social­ism to the pop­u­lar masses from above.” But to escape from a “techno-bureau­cratic sta­tism of the experts” through “the other tra­di­tion of direct, rank-and-file democ­racy or self-man­age­ment would really be too good to be true.” The threat of these forms of despo­tism was in fact con­stantly posed by the very mate­ri­al­ity of the exist­ing state appa­ra­tus.88 And indeed, tech­noc­racy embed­ded itself in “the com­plex nature of tasks in a post-indus­trial soci­ety,” which invited the emer­gence of “left experts” flanked by a “self-man­age­ment com­mis­sar.”89

For Poulantzas, then, the ques­tion of demo­c­ra­tic social­ism had to posed dif­fer­ently:

how is it pos­si­ble rad­i­cally to trans­form the State in such a man­ner that the exten­sion and deep­en­ing of polit­i­cal free­doms and the insti­tu­tions of rep­re­sen­ta­tive democ­racy (which were also a con­quest of the pop­u­lar masses) are com­bined with the unfurling of forms of direct democ­racy and the mush­room­ing of self-man­age­ment bod­ies?

Instead of a model of dual power as encir­cling and seiz­ing the fortress, it was a mat­ter of “artic­u­lat­ing trans­formed rep­re­sen­ta­tive democ­racy and direct, rank-and-file democ­racy.”90

While this argu­ment was sure to put the scent of reformism in the air, Poulantzas sug­gested that the pos­ing of “every strat­egy other than that of dual power as reformist” by the Third Inter­na­tional had pre­vented the effec­tive analy­sis of reformism. As a result, the Third Inter­na­tional invented its own kind of reformism, rely­ing on its instru­men­tal­ist under­stand­ing of the state: “You cor­ner some loose parts of the state machin­ery and col­lect a few iso­lated bas­tions while await­ing a dual power sit­u­a­tion. Then, as time passes, dual power goes by the board: all that remains is the instru­ment-State which you cap­ture cog by cog or whose com­mand posts you take over.”91

But reformism was really “an ever-latent dan­ger, not a vice inher­ent in any strat­egy other than that of dual power.” With this in mind, it was not nec­es­sar­ily wrong to say that the demo­c­ra­tic road to social­ism posed a greater risk of reformism and “social-democ­ra­ti­za­tion.” To avert this risk, to pre­vent the tra­ver­sal of the state from con­clud­ing in the admin­is­tra­tion of cap­i­tal­ism, there had to be a process of “real breaks,” at the apex of which “the rela­tion­ship of forces on the strate­gic ter­rain of the State swings over to the side of the pop­u­lar masses.”92

It was pre­cisely this con­text that made the artic­u­la­tion of rep­re­sen­ta­tive and direct democ­racy so vital for Poulantzas. There could be no more talk of “smash­ing” the state, if this meant “the erad­i­ca­tion of any kind of rep­re­sen­ta­tive democ­racy or ‘for­mal’ lib­er­ties in favour purely of direct, rank-and-file democ­racy and so-called real lib­er­ties.” It was nec­es­sary for social­ism to involve “polit­i­cal (party) and ide­o­log­i­cal plu­ral­ism, recog­ni­tion of the role of uni­ver­sal suf­frage, and exten­sion and deep­en­ing of all polit­i­cal free­doms includ­ing for oppo­nents.” But this was a process nec­es­sar­ily accom­pa­nied by “the devel­op­ment of new forms of direct, rank-and-file democ­racy, and the flow­er­ing of self-man­age­ment net­works and cen­tres.” Both sides were indis­pens­able; on its own, “the trans­for­ma­tion of the state appa­ra­tus and the devel­op­ment of rep­re­sen­ta­tive democ­racy would be inca­pable of avoid­ing sta­tism.” But con­versely, “a uni­lat­eral and uni­vo­cal shift of the cen­tre of grav­ity towards the self-man­age­ment move­ment would like­wise make it impos­si­ble, in the medium term, to avoid techno-bureau­cratic sta­tism and author­i­tar­ian con­fis­ca­tion of power by the experts.”93 The only way to pre­vent the sta­tist and social-demo­c­ra­tic dan­gers was the “active reliance on a broad, pop­u­lar move­ment… the con­tin­u­ous sup­port of a mass move­ment founded on broad pop­u­lar alliances.” Such a broad move­ment could be built by “tak­ing up espe­cially new pop­u­lar demands on fronts that used to be wrongly called ‘sec­ondary’ (women’s strug­gles, the eco­log­i­cal move­ment, and so on).”94

Here Poulantzas went some­what fur­ther than Miliband, and did not restrict his rethink­ing to the abstract ques­tion of the rela­tion­ship of direct democ­racy to rep­re­sen­ta­tive democ­racy. In the inter­view with Hall and Hunt, he addressed the prob­lem of the form of the party beyond the prin­ci­ple of plu­ral­ism:

I am not sure that a polit­i­cal party is the best form of orga­niz­ing even, in their dif­fer­ences, the new forms of social move­ments. For exam­ple, I am not sure at all that we must ask a rev­o­lu­tion­ary polit­i­cal party to take under con­sid­er­a­tion the eco­log­i­cal prob­lem, the fem­i­nist prob­lem and so on. So the prob­lem is not only to have a party so good that it is not only going to be polit­i­cal but take up every sphere of social life and eco­nomic life. I think that this con­cep­tion of the party as the unique cen­tral­izer, even if it is a very sub­tle cen­tral­iza­tion, is not nec­es­sar­ily the best solu­tion. I think more and more that we must have autonomous social move­ments whose type of orga­ni­za­tion can­not be the same as that of a polit­i­cal party orga­ni­za­tion. There must be a fem­i­nist move­ment out­side the most ideal pos­si­ble party because the most ideal party can­not include such types of social move­ments even if we insist that the rev­o­lu­tion­ary party must have cer­tain con­cep­tions of the woman ques­tion.

It was not enough to say that there should be many par­ties – “plu­ral­ism of par­ties in the demo­c­ra­tic road to social­ism means nec­es­sar­ily changes in the func­tion of the party itself.” It was this that accounted for the cri­sis of the par­ties at the end of the 1970s as they tried to respond to the new social move­ments.95


The his­tor­i­cal moment faced by Miliband and Poulantzas had made it nec­es­sary to con­front the inter­re­la­tion between the the­ory of the state and the form of the party, mean­ing both the rela­tion of work­ing-class move­ments to the bour­geois state, and the role of the state in the poten­tial exer­cise of social­ist power. This inter­re­la­tion was embed­ded in the prob­lem of rev­o­lu­tion­ary strat­egy in the con­text of advanced cap­i­tal­ism, for which no model of rev­o­lu­tion was his­tor­i­cally avail­able. Both Miliband and Poulantzas crit­i­cally the­o­rized the poten­tial for bureau­cratism and oppor­tunism if this absent cen­ter of strat­egy was not met with an explicit con­fronta­tion with the ques­tion of orga­ni­za­tion.

While “demo­c­ra­tic social­ism” is once again a pop­u­lar topic, we have not heard from this vari­ety in a long time. Today there is a social­ist city coun­cil mem­ber, but no sovi­ets in Seat­tle. How­ever, nei­ther Poulantzas nor Miliband ade­quately engaged with the the­o­ret­i­cal pro­duc­tion of the coun­cilist tra­di­tion, which had its own cri­tique of par­lia­men­tary democ­racy; and they did not seek to under­stand how coun­cil­ism emerged within a speci­fic moment of cap­i­tal­ist devel­op­ment – which would help to under­stand how other forms could emerge at other moments.96 The char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of the coun­cil as the form of direct democ­racy did not cap­ture how it was sit­u­ated at a speci­fic moment of cap­i­tal­ist devel­op­ment cen­tered on the fac­tory, with a fig­ure of labor char­ac­ter­ized by high lev­els of skill and a close rela­tion­ship to the machine. The council’s polit­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance lay not in the abstract prin­ci­ple of self-man­age­ment but in its antag­o­nism towards cap­i­tal­ist com­mand at the point of pro­duc­tion – the block it imposed on tech­no­log­i­cal devel­op­ment, and the nascent pos­si­bil­ity it pre­sented of the expro­pri­a­tion of wealth. In the Rus­sian con­text the party had to medi­ate between this class fig­ure and the spread of coun­cil orga­ni­za­tion to the “toil­ing masses.”97

Through­out the 20th cen­tury the applic­a­bil­ity of this model was not always clear. The decen­ter­ing of the fac­tory in the cap­i­tal­ist restruc­tur­ing of the 1970s would make it even more nec­es­sary to dis­cover the new ways that the pro­le­tariat artic­u­lated antag­o­nis­tic demands and orga­ni­za­tional forms. This dynamic can­not be illu­mi­nated by rais­ing the prob­lem of “rep­re­sen­ta­tive democ­racy” – and even “direct democ­racy” does not bring out its con­tent, the con­sti­tu­tion of a col­lec­tive sub­ject capa­ble of estab­lish­ing forms of life beyond cap­i­tal­ist rela­tions of pro­duc­tion, which in the 1970s could be observed in the autonomous strug­gles that were emerg­ing out­side of the party. In this sense, as Anto­nio Negri argued in response to a par­al­lel set of claims in the Ital­ian con­text (which Poulantzas had invoked explic­itly), the old term “dic­ta­tor­ship of the pro­le­tariat” – or per­haps, instead, “com­mu­nist power” – actu­ally comes closer to nam­ing the polit­i­cal process at work.98

The limit of this the­ory, then, was its dis­place­ment of the the­ory of orga­ni­za­tion onto the philo­soph­i­cal prob­lem of the rela­tion between rep­re­sen­ta­tive and direct democ­racy. But Miliband and Poulantzas were cor­rect to show that the form of orga­ni­za­tion could not sim­ply be taken as an expres­sion of the his­tor­i­cal changes in the com­po­si­tion of the class.99 It had to be explic­itly brought into ques­tion.

What we call Bern­stein in Seat­tle is a project to research the scram­bling of the terms which once related rep­re­sen­ta­tive democ­racy to work­ing-class orga­ni­za­tion – the nexus which for a cen­tury was called the party, and absorbed every ques­tion of rev­o­lu­tion, tran­si­tion, and con­struc­tion. Bernstein’s revi­sion­ism was an eth­i­cal world­view which pro­vided its adher­ents a com­fort­ing tele­ol­ogy in place of the clas­si­cal sequence of the expro­pri­a­tion of the expro­pri­a­tors. A tran­si­tion to par­lia­men­tary democ­racy rather than the entrench­ment of state repres­sion, sta­bi­liza­tion of the cap­i­tal­ist econ­omy rather than its final col­lapse, and an emerg­ing mid­dle class rather than the absolute polar­iza­tion between cen­tral­ized cap­i­tal and immis­er­ated labor; revi­sion­ist ide­ol­ogy sunk its foun­da­tions in these his­tor­i­cal real­i­ties. On the other hand the ad hoc reformism of the Labour Party, as Miliband showed, expressed the incor­po­ra­tion of the worker’s move­ment into the par­lia­men­tary machine, its bureau­cratic layer locked firmly into the rules of the game. In the Eng­lish con­junc­ture, Ander­son and Nairn noted, there was no force to coun­ter this incor­po­ra­tion, due to the empiri­cist sus­pi­cion of the­ory that had mar­gin­al­ized Marx­ism, the dom­i­na­tion of the Labour Party by trade union affil­i­ates sus­cep­ti­ble to cor­po­ratism, and a con­cil­ia­tory and defen­sive approach which resulted from the absence of an over­ar­ch­ing pro­gram for a dif­fer­ent kind of soci­ety.

But Eng­land, curi­ously enough, turned out to be a kind of exem­plary case, as the objec­tive process of state incor­po­ra­tion extended across Euro­pean social democ­racy and reached even the mass Com­mu­nist Par­ties on the Con­ti­nent, paving the way for a dis­tinct kind of reformism in the post­war period. It was Poulantzas’s ambiva­lent insight that this process implied a cri­sis in the clas­si­cal strate­gic prob­lem­atic. Thus post­war reformism was of an entirely dif­fer­ent char­ac­ter: it man­i­fested a deep uncer­tainty about the rela­tion of the cap­i­tal­ist state form, now fully devel­oped into a struc­ture markedly dif­fer­ent from the states pre­vi­ous rev­o­lu­tions had set out to seize or smash, to the orga­ni­za­tional form of the rev­o­lu­tion­ary sub­ject, now that the legal polit­i­cal party had been incor­po­rated into the nor­mal func­tion­ing of the state and the social con­di­tions for the clas­si­cal insur­rec­tionary sce­nario no longer existed; the reformism of the left par­lia­men­tary par­ties was a struc­tural real­ity entirely dis­tinct from clas­si­cal revi­sion­ism.

Now, these left par­ties hav­ing dis­in­te­grated or led the way in neolib­eral restruc­tur­ing, this sce­nario too belongs to the past. We get lit­tle help in over­com­ing con­tem­po­rary reformism by repeat­ing 20th-cen­tury slo­gans. We need instead to study where the 20th cen­tury has left us, with a close eye on the pecu­liar­i­ties of Amer­i­can his­tory, which must become the object of a com­pre­hen­sive the­o­ret­i­cal research pro­gram.100 Our imme­di­ate con­text is the polit­i­cal and ide­o­log­i­cal cri­sis inter­nal to the Amer­i­can cap­i­tal­ist state, emerg­ing from an eco­nomic cri­sis whose long-term con­se­quences remain unclear. The per­sonal entry of a cap­i­tal­ist into the state elite has, far from rep­re­sent­ing an unprob­lem­atic com­mon cap­i­tal­ist inter­est, caused an enor­mous dis­rup­tion in the exist­ing state sys­tem. Like Thatcher and Rea­gan before him, Don­ald Trump weaves together dis­parate ele­ments of the dom­i­nant ide­ol­ogy to but­tress a novel rul­ing-class strat­egy; but rather than paving the way for the renewal of an exist­ing bour­geois party, he has unrav­elled the future coher­ence of the Amer­i­can Right. Such dis­junc­tions are pre­cisely the object of the Marx­ist the­ory of the state; and though it has become impos­si­ble to pre­dict where the realign­ment of the bour­geois par­ties will turn, this realign­ment is a ref­er­ence point for rev­o­lu­tion­ary strat­egy.

A turn of the cap­i­tal­ist state towards social­ism is an objec­tive impos­si­bil­ity. Whether this season’s left can­di­date aspires to such a thing is a ques­tion which does not inter­est us; what mat­ters is the cri­sis of the bour­geois par­ties, and the pop­u­lar energies which, with­out an ade­quate form of polit­i­cal expres­sion, are unequipped for a hos­tile world. React­ing to these inchoate energies with pre­fab­ri­cated for­mu­las abdi­cates our respon­si­bil­ity. Rev­o­lu­tion­ary the­ory has to have the fore­sight to study the cap­i­tal­ist state – to learn how to rebel against it, and to fur­nish us with the cre­ative art of orga­ni­za­tion so we can leave it behind forever. There is noth­ing to gain in writ­ing new tunes to old hymns. Our ter­ri­fy­ing task is to build com­mu­nist power in the pro­fane world of clay and fire, and even our own pan­theon will have to leave our earth to us.

  1. Michael New­man, Ralph Miliband and The Pol­i­tics Of The New Left (Lon­don: Monthly Review Press, 2003), 198–215. With the 1973 review Miliband shifted his cri­tique to “struc­tural­ist abstrac­tion­ism,” which leads to method­olog­i­cal ques­tions we will not address at any length here. 

  2. Nicos Poulantzas, “The Prob­lem of the Cap­i­tal­ist State,” New Left Review, I, no. 58 (Decem­ber 1969): 74. 

  3. Ralph Miliband, “The Cap­i­tal­ist State – Reply to N. Poulantzas,” New Left Review, I, no. 59 (Feb­ru­ary 1970): 58. The phrase “behind the backs” is Marx’s appo­site descrip­tion of the frame­work which Poulantzas adopted; Karl Marx, Cap­i­tal, Vol­ume 1: A Cri­tique of Polit­i­cal Econ­omy, trans. Ben Fowkes (New York: Pen­guin Clas­sics, 1992), 135. 

  4. Poulantzas, “The Prob­lem of the Cap­i­tal­ist State,” 68. 

  5. Ralph Miliband, “Poulantzas and the Cap­i­tal­ist State,” New Left Review, I, no. 82 (Decem­ber 1973): 90–1. 

  6. See “Bern­stein in Seat­tle: Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Democ­racy and the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Sub­ject (Part 1),” and Ralph Miliband, “Marx and the State,” Social­ist Reg­is­ter 2, no. 2 (March 19, 1965): 278. Poulantzas’s work rep­re­sented an attempt to take this insight in a very dif­fer­ent direc­tion from Miliband’s remark in “Marx and the State”: “This sec­ondary view is that of the state as inde­pen­dent from and supe­rior to all social classes, as being the dom­i­nant force in soci­ety rather than the instru­ment of a dom­i­nant class.” It was this dichotomy between a supe­rior, inde­pen­dent force, and mere instru­ment, that Poulantzas sought to dis­place. As Poulantzas noted, an elab­o­rated con­cep­tion of rel­a­tive auton­omy was bet­ter suited the­o­ret­i­cally to explain the ques­tions raised by Miliband’s own analy­ses of social-demo­c­ra­tic gov­ern­ments; Poulantzas, “The Prob­lem of the Cap­i­tal­ist State,” 72. See also the judi­cious account of this in Ernesto Laclau, “The Speci­ficity of the Polit­i­cal: The Poulantzas-Miliband Debate,” Econ­omy and Soci­ety 4, no. 1 (Feb­ru­ary 1, 1975): 87–110. 

  7. Miliband, “Poulantzas and the Cap­i­tal­ist State,” 91. 

  8. As Poulantzas said, “the way in which the dif­fer­ences between Miliband and myself have some­times been per­ceived, espe­cially in Eng­land and in the United States, as a con­tro­versy between ‘instru­men­tal­ism’ and ‘struc­tural­ism,’ is an utterly mis­taken way of sit­u­at­ing the dis­cus­sion.” Nicos Poulantzas, “The Cap­i­tal­ist State: A Reply to Miliband and Laclau,” New Left Review, I, no. 95 (Feb­ru­ary 1976): 64. For another inter­pre­ta­tion of this exchange as a “non-debate,” which con­tains a pos­i­tive appraisal of both sides, see Bob Jes­sop, “Dia­logue of the Deaf: Some Reflec­tions on the Poulantzas-Miliband Debate,” in Class, Power and the State in Cap­i­tal­ist Soci­ety: Essays on Ralph Miliband, ed. Paul Wetherly, Clyde W. Bar­row, and Peter Burn­ham (Bas­ingstoke ; New York: Pal­grave Macmil­lan, 2008). This essay also notes the con­ver­gence in Poulantzas and Miliband’s later views. 

  9. Poulantzas, “The Cap­i­tal­ist State,” 74. 

  10. Poulantzas, “The Prob­lem of the Cap­i­tal­ist State,” 68. 

  11. Miliband, “Poulantzas and the Cap­i­tal­ist State,” 84. 

  12. Ralph Miliband, “Lenin’s The State and Rev­o­lu­tion,” Social­ist Reg­is­ter 7, no. 7 (March 17, 1970): 313. 

  13. Ibid., 315–6. 

  14. Miliband, The State in Cap­i­tal­ist Soci­ety, 275–6. 

  15. New­man, Ralph Miliband And The Pol­i­tics Of The New Left, 151, 145. 

  16. Laclau, “The Speci­ficity of the Polit­i­cal.” 

  17. Perry Ander­son, “Social­ism and Pseudo-Empiri­cism,” New Left Review, I, no. 35 (Feb­ru­ary 1966): 31–2. 

  18. Poulantzas cited the lat­ter in his final reply, “The Cap­i­tal­ist State,” 80; see also Miliband’s review, Ralph Miliband, “Polit­i­cal Forms and His­tor­i­cal Mate­ri­al­ism,” Social­ist Reg­is­ter 12, no. 12 (March 18, 1975). 

  19. Perry Ander­son, “The Antin­o­mies of Anto­nio Gram­sci,” New Left Review, I, no. 100 (Decem­ber 1976): 27. For a close engage­ment with Anderson’s argu­ment from the van­tage point of recent Ital­ian Gram­sci schol­ar­ship, see Peter D. Thomas, The Gram­s­cian Moment: Phi­los­o­phy, Hege­mony and Marx­ism (Chicago, Ill.: His­tor­i­cal Mate­ri­al­ism, 2011). 

  20. Ibid., 28. 

  21. Ibid., 30. 

  22. The mar­shal­ing of the the­ory of “ide­o­log­i­cal state appa­ra­tuses” for a renewed reformism is clearly shown in the sec­ond chap­ter of San­ti­ago Car­rillo, Euro­com­mu­nism and the State (Lon­don: Lawrence and Wishart, 1977). 

  23. Ander­son, “The Antin­o­mies of Anto­nio Gram­sci,” 42, see also 44. 

  24. Ibid., 71. 

  25. Ibid., 78. 

  26. Ibid. 

  27. Perry Ander­son, Argu­ments within Eng­lish Marx­ism (Lon­don: Verso, 1980), 196; see also Thomas, The Gram­s­cian Moment, 240–1. 

  28. New­man, Ralph Miliband and The Pol­i­tics Of The New Left, 211, 237. 

  29. Pan­itch writes: “Miliband was try­ing to for­mu­late a vision of what kind of state a new social­ist pol­i­tics should aim for, and how it might be real­ized through a strat­egy of admin­is­tra­tive plu­ral­ism… which would be anchored in civil soci­ety as well as the state. When Poulantzas fol­lowed with his own tren­chant cri­tique of the utopian notions of direct democ­racy within the Marx­ist tra­di­tion and his insis­tence on think­ing through the place and mean­ing of rep­re­sen­ta­tive insti­tu­tions in social­ist democ­racy, this was very much con­sis­tent with, and com­ple­men­tary to, the posi­tion Miliband had advanced.” Leo Pan­itch, “Ralph Miliband, Social­ist Intel­lec­tual, 1924-1994,” Social­ist Reg­is­ter 31, no. 31 (March 18, 1995); for an early exam­ple of strate­gic think­ing at the inter­sec­tion of the two thinkers, see also Leo Pan­itch, “The State and the Future of Social­ism,” Cap­i­tal and Class, no. 11 (1980). 

  30. See for exam­ple Ellen Meiksins Wood, The Retreat From Class: A New “True” Social­ism (Lon­don; New York: Verso, 1999). Wood’s bril­liant his­tor­i­cal work on the devel­op­ment of Eng­lish cap­i­tal­ism pro­vides a far bet­ter basis for the crit­i­cal inter­pre­ta­tion of these the­o­ret­i­cal debates. 

  31. Ralph Miliband, “Mov­ing On,” Social­ist Reg­is­ter 13, no. 13 (March 18, 1976): 128. 

  32. Ibid., 131. 

  33. Ibid., 134. 

  34. Ibid., 137. 

  35. Ibid., 139. 

  36. Ralph Miliband, Marx­ism and Pol­i­tics (Oxford Uni­ver­sity Press, 1977), 69. 

  37. Ibid., 70–1. 

  38. Ibid., 71, 72. 

  39. Ibid., 73. Poulantzas was men­tioned in a foot­note as an exam­ple of this “deter­min­ism”; given the latter’s con­sis­tent refusal of the the­ory of the state as instru­ment, this is per­plex­ing. 

  40. Ibid., 74. 

  41. Ibid.; for the ear­lier for­mu­la­tions see Miliband, “Poulantzas and the Cap­i­tal­ist State”; and “State Power and Class Inter­ests,” New Left Review, I, no. 138 (April 1983): 57–68. 

  42. Miliband, Marx­ism and Pol­i­tics, 76. 

  43. Ibid., 80. 

  44. Ibid., 190. 

  45. Ibid., 118. 

  46. Ibid., 126. 

  47. Ibid., 127. 

  48. Ibid., 129. 

  49. Ibid., 130; Miliband ren­ders this as “sub­sti­tutism.” 

  50. Ibid., 134. 

  51. Ibid., 150. 

  52. Ibid., 166. 

  53. Ibid., 171. 

  54. Ibid., 178. 

  55. Ibid., 182. 

  56. See Ralph Miliband, “The Coup in Chile,” Social­ist Reg­is­ter 10, no. 10 (March 18, 1973). 

  57. Miliband, Marx­ism and Pol­i­tics, 184. 

  58. Ibid., 188. 

  59. Nicos Poulantzas, The Poulantzas Reader: Marx­ism, Law and the State, ed. James Mar­tin (Lon­don: Verso, 2008), 340–1. 

  60. Ernest Man­del, “Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Strat­egy in Europe – A Polit­i­cal Inter­view,” New Left Review, I, no. 100 (Decem­ber 1976): 97–132; See also Henri Weber, “Euro­com­mu­nism, Social­ism and Democ­racy,” New Left Review, I, no. 110 (August 1978): 3–14. Weber warned pre­sciently that the Euro­com­mu­nist call for democ­ra­ti­za­tion of the state could, instead of open­ing the way to social­ist trans­for­ma­tion, sim­ply be sub­sti­tuted for it. But the pos­si­bil­ity of a the­o­ret­i­cal dis­cus­sion of the prob­lems of orga­ni­za­tion was buried under the incan­ta­tion that in a rev­o­lu­tion­ary sit­u­a­tion, “the role of a rev­o­lu­tion­ary party is to fos­ter the unity and class inde­pen­dence of the work­ers and to cham­pion the social­ist alter­na­tive in as prac­ti­cal and con­crete a way as pos­si­ble” (13). Weber is now a rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the French Social­ist Party in Euro­pean Par­lia­ment, which by no means inval­i­dates his analy­sis, but does make his infer­ences about the latent reformist con­tent of the the­o­ries he crit­i­cizes some­what dif­fi­cult to swal­low. 

  61. Poulantzas, The Poulantzas Reader, 357. 

  62. Poulantzas, “The Prob­lem of the Cap­i­tal­ist State,” 76; see also Polit­i­cal Power and Social Classes, trans. Tim­o­thy O’Hagan (Lon­don: Verso, 1978). 

  63. Poulantzas, The Poulantzas Reader, 337. 

  64. Nicos Poulantzas, “Inter­view with Stu­art Hall and Alan Hunt,” Marx­ism Today, July 1979, 196. 

  65. Colin Barker, “Mus­cu­lar Reformism,” Inter­na­tional Social­ism, no. 102 (Octo­ber 1977). 

  66. Ralph Miliband, “Con­sti­tu­tion­al­ism and Rev­o­lu­tion: Notes on Euro­com­mu­nism,” Social­ist Reg­is­ter 15, no. 15 (March 18, 1978): 159. 

  67. Ibid., 166-7. 

  68. The story of Marx­ism Today, often described as the British man­i­fes­ta­tion of Euro­com­mu­nism, must also be reex­am­ined, and indeed it has been in the unpub­lished remain­der of this man­u­script, which will appear in a dif­fer­ent form in the future. 

  69. Fer­nando Claudín, Euro­com­mu­nism and Social­ism, trans. John Wake­ham (Lon­don: New Left Books, 1978), 9. 

  70. Ibid., 11. 

  71. Ibid., 19. 

  72. Ibid., 41. 

  73. Ibid., 95. 

  74. Ibid., 107–8. 

  75. Ibid., 113, 114. 

  76. Ibid., 78. It would be of sig­nif­i­cant inter­est to tie Gramsci’s own analy­sis of the state to his ear­lier writ­ings on the fac­tory coun­cils. 

  77. Ibid., 129. 

  78. Ibid., 135, 124. 

  79. Ser­gio Bologna, “The Tribe of Moles,” in Autono­mia: Post-Polit­i­cal Pol­i­tics, ed. Sylvere Lotringer and Chris­tian Marazzi, trans. Ed Emery (Cam­bridge, Mass; Lon­don: Semi­o­texte, 2007). 

  80. Claudín, Euro­com­mu­nism and Social­ism, 115. 

  81. The point is ably made in Perry Ander­son, Eng­lish Ques­tions (Lon­don ; New York: Verso, 1992), 316. 

  82. Claudín, Euro­com­mu­nism and Social­ism, 146. 

  83. Ibid., 339, 341. 

  84. See the inter­view with Weber in The Poulantzas Reader, 356. 

  85. Nicos Poulantzas, State, Power, Social­ism, trans. Patrick Camiller (Lon­don: New Left Books, 1978), 153. 

  86. Ibid., 253; though as Miliband had pointed out, Luxemburg’s own analy­sis of coun­cils in Ger­many 1918 ran up against sim­i­lar prob­lems; see Miliband, Marx­ism and Pol­i­tics, 180–1. A use­ful analy­sis of the his­tor­i­cal back­ground can be found in Fer­nando Claudín, “Democ­racy and Dic­ta­tor­ship in Lenin and Kaut­sky,” New Left Review I, no. 106 (Decem­ber 1977). 

  87. Poulantzas, State, Power, Social­ism, 255. 

  88. Ibid., 255–6. 

  89. Ibid., 262; see also 196. 

  90. Ibid., 256–7. For a care­ful read­ing of Poulantzas on this point, vis-a-vis his inter­pre­ta­tion of Gram­sci on dual power, see Peter Thomas, “Con­junc­ture of the Inte­gral State? Poulantzas’s Read­ing of Gram­sci,” in Read­ing Poulantzas, eds. Alexan­der Gal­las, Lars Bret­thauer, John Kan­nanku­lam, and Ingo Stüt­zle (Lon­don: Mer­lin Press, 2011), 279ff.  

  91. Poulantzas, State, Power, Social­ism, 258. 

  92. Ibid., 258–9. 

  93. Ibid., 261–2. 

  94. Ibid., 263–4. 

  95. Poulantzas, “Inter­view with Stu­art Hall and Alan Hunt,” 200–1. Claudín sim­i­larly writes: “No class organ­i­sa­tion can ful­fill the role of the women’s lib­er­a­tion move­ment or the stu­dent move­ment”; Claudín, Euro­com­mu­nism and Social­ism, 123. For a dis­cus­sion of the rela­tion between party forms and new social sub­jects in France and Italy respec­tively, see Éti­enne Bal­ibar, “Après l’autre Mai,” in La Gauche, le pou­voir, le social­isme: Hom­mage à Nicos Poulantzas, ed. Christine Buci-Glucks­mann (Paris: Presses Uni­ver­si­taires de France, 1981), 99-119; and in the same col­lec­tion, Rossana Rossanda, “Crise et dialec­tiques des par­tis et mou­ve­ments soci­aux en Italie,” 120-36.  

  96. Though see Poulantzas’s com­ment on the fail­ure of Cas­to­ri­adis and Lefort to con­nect their “largely jus­ti­fied” advo­cacy of self-man­age­ment to a non-reduc­tive state the­ory: “In real­ity, how­ever, it is the ter­ri­fy­ingly pal­pa­ble role of the State which neces­si­tates a tran­si­tion to social­ism largely based on direct, rank-and-file democ­racy; and that requires exact knowl­edge of the State and of its cur­rent role.” Poulantzas, State, Power, Social­ism, 38–9. 

  97. On this point see Ser­gio Bologna, “Class com­po­si­tion and the the­ory of the party at the ori­gins of the work­ers’ coun­cil move­ment,” Telos 13 (Fall 1972). 

  98. See the exchange between Bob­bio and Negri in Nor­berto Bob­bio, Which Social­ism?: Marx­ism, Social­ism and Democ­racy (Cam­bridge: Polity Press, 1988). 

  99. I refer here to a kind of his­tori­cist model of expres­sive causal­ity, a per­sis­tent risk for the vital method­ol­ogy of class com­po­si­tion. This is a the­o­ret­i­cal ten­sion which applies to both Negri and Bologna, cited ear­lier; for a more detailed analy­sis see Asad Haider, “Crise et enquête,” Revue Péri­ode, March 2014. 

  100. Among the many exist­ing inquiries Mike Davis’s Pris­on­ers of the Amer­i­can Dream (Lon­don: Verso, 1986) deserves par­tic­u­lar atten­tion. 

Author of the article

is an editor of Viewpoint, a graduate student at UC Santa Cruz, and an activist in UAW 2865.