The relative autonomy of the State in Nicos Poulantzas

Christiana Carvalho's photo


The ideological character of the State does not have an abstract existence, but is present in its own institutional structure

The State, as a theoretical object, is a concern of political scientists, jurists, sociologists, philosophers and others, so that we find from formalist conceptions to more instrumental notions, which address its structure, historicity, origin, function and institutionality.

Starting with Law, we can observe formalist concepts, which define the State as a sovereign power that organizes a people present in a given territory. This conception, although it identifies elements of the State, creates a static notion of the state entity, incapable of identifying its movements and the social disputes that cross it.

There are classic conceptions, such as that of Weber, who classifies it as the entity that has a monopoly on the legitimate use of force, or even more instrumentalist notions (linked to economism) that characterize it as a mere appendix of the economic structure, without any autonomy . In Marxism itself, there is no consensus on the notion of the State, although one of the great contributions to thinking about the political from the perspective of historical materialism has been elaborated by the Greek thinker who lived in France, Nicos Poulantzas.

To address the relationship between the State, political power and social classes, Nicos Poulantzas distances two traditional and widespread views of the state entity, classified as the State as an instrument and the State as a subject.

The first sees the State as a neutral field, without specific materiality, which can be conducted as an instrument by the group that will occupy it. Thus, the state apparatus occupied by conservatives would create conservative policies and, when occupied by progressives, it would become a progressive state apparatus. However, we know that the State remains bourgeois even if occupied by individuals against the bourgeoisie, as Marx had already demonstrated in The 18 Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.

The second position sees the state entity as the mere emanator of the interests of the bourgeoisie, a monolithic block without cracks, which will produce the same results despite the class struggle. This conception must be discarded so that we can visualize the State as a field crossed by social disputes, because although it has a class nature, it also has contradictions that open spaces for political struggle.

The State, as a cohesion factor of the unity of a social formation, is a “structure in which the contradictions of the different levels of a formation are condensed”[I], such as the political level and the economic level, which have relative autonomy, although they influence each other reciprocally. Contradictions, in turn, concern the inherent conflicts of a society divided into classes.

Although Poulantzas himself revisited the theme later, in the work The state, power, socialism, emphasizing the nature of the State, in this article we make use of the author's conception present in Political power and social classes.

One of the concepts developed by Poulantzas to understand the capitalist State – considering the split between the political and the economic in this mode of production – is that of relative autonomy. The relational perspective adopted by Poulantzas does not allow the use of static and formal concepts, but of analysis categories that are inserted in broader totalities and only make sense in relation to other concepts.

The understanding that the categories of analysis allow the handling of different levels of abstraction is essential to approach the notion of relative autonomy of the State. Thus, three levels of abstraction stand out, starting with the most general and abstract to the most specific and concrete.

  1. I) mode of production in general, encompassing different types of economic organization existing in history, such as feudalism, slavery and capitalism.
  2. II) specific mode of production, such as the capitalist mode of production. We can see that this level of abstraction is already more concrete than the previous one.

III) social formation, which concerns a specific state, determined by a specific mode of production. Class struggles and the contradictions that permeate them materially only exist at this last level, which is the most concrete of all. The Brazilian State and its classes and fractions are an example of a specific social formation.

Poulantzas creates a “regional theory of politics in the capitalist mode of production”, using the premise that political power is not diluted in economic power, but has relative autonomy in relation to it. For Poulantzas, the relative autonomy of the various instances also existed in other modes of production, however, it takes on specific contours in capitalist society.

In this way, relative autonomy presents itself as a form of non-intervention by political power in the production process, since this occurs based on its own logic, without the need for military coercion by the State, considering that the objectives pursued within the of production are not strictly political. This non-intervention, however, is only apparent, as the State creates the legal conditions necessary for the reproduction of capital and guarantees it the veneer of legitimacy.

However, the relative nature of this autonomy means at least two factors: I) the State and political power suffer determinations from the economic field. II) there is a limit to the space of struggle within the State, since the legal-political framework does not allow the confrontation of some bases, such as the extinction of private ownership of the means of production.

Relative autonomy allows political power to move away from economic power, having its own field of action not necessarily conditioned by the economic component. For those who believe that all class disputes are resolved in the field of economics, just remember the Brazilian civil military dictatorship, whose economic policy was linked to developmentalism – typically progressive in origin – while its political roots were rooted in authoritarianism.

In order to broaden our understanding of State autonomy, it is important to approach four concepts that describe the state legal-political structure: capitalist law, bureaucratism, isolation effect and unit representation effect[ii]. Capitalist law, primarily, characterizes all individuals as free and equal, attributing formal equality and autonomy of will to them, that is, everyone is in an equal position to carry out acts that are the result of their legitimate will, such as , a contract that guarantees the purchase and sale of its workforce. According to Poulantzas:

“Moreover, the juridical-political superstructure of the capitalist State is related to this structure of production relations; this becomes clear as soon as we turn to capitalist law. The separation of the direct producer from the means of production is reflected in the institutionalized fixation of production agents as legal subjects, that is, as political individuals-persons. This is as true for that particular transaction constituted by the labor contract, the purchase and sale of labor power, as it is for the formal legal ownership of the means of production or institutionalized public-political relations.[iii]"

Bureaucratism, in turn, concerns the formal opening of institutions to, in theory, recruit subjects from all social classes, who may join it through public tenders or running for elective office. It is obvious that this openness is only apparent, as there are no similar material conditions between individuals and classes to integrate institutions. The existing hierarchization within State bodies must appear as a differentiation of functional competences, and not as a subordination of some subjects by others.

The isolation effect constitutes an ideological component of the capitalist State, which helps in the reproduction of capital. Isolation, by characterizing individuals as subjects of rights in an individual perspective, makes it difficult to recognize their class interests and their belonging to a specific place in the mode of production, hiding the antagonism between classes. The sale of your labor power to an individual owner of the means of production is a mere act of will. In the words of Poulantzas: “This isolation, an overdetermined but real effect, is experienced by the agents in the mode of competition and leads to the concealment, for these agents, of their relations as class relations”[iv].

In addition, the State has an effect of representing unity, as it presents itself as the nation-State or nation-people. Here it is worth calling attention to a double aspect. At the same time that this State favors – due to its juridical-political structure – the interests of the ruling class, it is able to present itself as a third party in relation to economic class disputes, as a neutral entity, which does not favor any class. . This apparent neutrality is visualized by presenting itself as a national-popular State, representative of the general interest. Thus, there is a double estrangement of the working classes, created by the effect of economic isolation that transforms everyone into individuals-people-political subjects and also as part of a nation-state. The ideological character of the State does not have an abstract existence, but is present in its own institutional framework. According to Nicos Poulantzas:

“The institutionalized power of the class-capitalist state presents a class-specific unity, precisely insofar as it can present itself as a popular-national-state, as a state that does not represent the power of a class or specific classes, but the political unity of private agents, given over to economic antagonisms that the State assigns itself the function of overcoming, uniting these agents in a “popular-national” body.[v]

If we understand the concepts as categories of analysis useful for apprehending reality, it becomes important to handle them to target a specific social formation, creating a kind of theory with one foot on the ground, which uses abstraction to reveal the concrete movements of society. our material life. Starting from the possibility of a general theory of politics in the capitalist mode of production, we visualize that certain abstract categories gain materiality as we use them to analyze a social formation.

If collective action is indispensable to influence the dynamics of historical processes, a theory that reaches not only the appearance, but also the essence of the State – and all the complexity that permeates it – is crucial to guarantee greater precision and effectiveness to political strategies.

*Matheus Silveira de Souza Master in State Law from USP.


POULANTZAS, Nicos. Political power and social classes. Campinas, Unicamp Publisher, 2019.

SAES, Decio. The question of the State's relative autonomy in Poulantzas. Marxist Criticism, 1998.


[I] POULANTZAS, Nicos. Political power and social classes. Campinas, Editora da Unicamp, 2019, pg. 46.

[ii] SAES, Decio. The question of the State's relative autonomy in Poulantzas. Marxist Criticism, 1998.

[iii] POULANTZAS, Nicos. Political power and social classes. Campinas, Editora da Unicamp, 2019, pg. 128.

[iv] POULANTZAS, Nicos. Political power and social classes. Campinas, Editora da Unicamp, 2019, pg. 284.

[v] POULANTZAS, Nicos. Political power and social classes. Campinas, Editora da Unicamp, 2019, pg. 285.

See this link for all articles


  • About artificial ignoranceEugenio Bucci 15/06/2024 By EUGÊNIO BUCCI: Today, ignorance is not an uninhabited house, devoid of ideas, but a building full of disjointed nonsense, a goo of heavy density that occupies every space
  • Franz Kafka, libertarian spiritFranz Kafka, libertarian spirit 13/06/2024 By MICHAEL LÖWY: Notes on the occasion of the centenary of the death of the Czech writer
  • The society of dead historyclassroom similar to the one in usp history 16/06/2024 By ANTONIO SIMPLICIO DE ALMEIDA NETO: The subject of history was inserted into a generic area called Applied Human and Social Sciences and, finally, disappeared into the curricular drain
  • Letter to the presidentSquid 59mk,g 18/06/2024 By FRANCISCO ALVES, JOÃO DOS REIS SILVA JÚNIOR & VALDEMAR SGUISSARDI: “We completely agree with Your Excellency. when he states and reaffirms that 'Education is an investment, not an expense'”
  • A look at the 2024 federal strikelula haddad 20/06/2024 By IAEL DE SOUZA: A few months into government, Lula's electoral fraud was proven, accompanied by his “faithful henchman”, the Minister of Finance, Fernando Haddad
  • Strengthen PROIFESclassroom 54mf 15/06/2024 By GIL VICENTE REIS DE FIGUEIREDO: The attempt to cancel PROIFES and, at the same time, turn a blind eye to the errors of ANDES management is a disservice to the construction of a new representation scenario
  • PEC-65: independence or patrimonialism in the Central Bank?Campos Neto Trojan Horse 17/06/2024 By PEDRO PAULO ZAHLUTH BASTOS: What Roberto Campos Neto proposes is the constitutional amendment of free lunch for the future elite of the Central Bank
  • Chico Buarque, 80 years oldchico 19/06/2024 By ROGÉRIO RUFINO DE OLIVEIRA: The class struggle, universal, is particularized in the refinement of constructive intention, in the tone of proletarian proparoxytones
  • Volodymyr Zelensky's trapstar wars 15/06/2024 By HUGO DIONÍSIO: Whether Zelensky gets his glass full – the US entry into the war – or his glass half full – Europe’s entry into the war – either solution is devastating for our lives
  • The melancholic end of Estadãoabandoned cars 17/06/2024 By JULIAN RODRIGUES: Bad news: the almost sesquicentennial daily newspaper in São Paulo (and the best Brazilian newspaper) is rapidly declining