The political testament of Nicos Poulantzas



Considerations on Poulantzas' last book and its reception by Louis Althusser and Étienne Balibar

“One thing is certain: socialism will either be democratic or it won't be” (Nicos Poulantzas).

1978. The date of publication of this text – The state, power, socialism – attracts attention. In the same year, Louis Althusser and Étienne Balibar rebelled against the leadership of the PCF. They addressed a double criticism of the Central Committee of the Party. The first one was the removal of the expression “dictatorship of the proletariat” from the preamble of the Party statute (for both a key concept of Marxist theory); the second because it was a deliberation whose debates remained secret.

And Althusser completes by emphasizing: “direction secret”. Dictatorship of the proletariat in theory (Althusser and Balibar) and in the deliberation, without debates, of the PCF Central Committee. And, most importantly, the dictatorship of the proletariat in full effect at that historical moment under the conditions of so-called “real socialism”, especially, of course, in the USSR.

In that same year, 1978, Nicos Poulantzas published what would become his last book (L'État, le pouvoir, le socialisme). Who knows his theoretical-political testament (he would commit suicide the following year at the age of 43)? In a very brief “warning” he highlights the urgency of the text and its personal character: “I assume responsibility for what I write and speak in my own name”. A personal, urgent and necessary exposition, as he tells us, beyond the canons of orthodox Marxism or so-called authentic Marxism. Poulantzas is writing in French; perhaps in Greek, his native language, he could tell us that he is abandoning dogmatic comforts to set his soul on fire.

In the last chapter of this book (again the “last”) “Towards a democratic socialism”, Poulantzas seems to want to surprise us by taking a much more ideological-political position than theoretical and absolutely exhaustive about the unfolding of history: “one thing is certain, the Socialism will be democratic or it will not be. To eliminate any ambiguity, let's understand this: if socialism is proposed again in history, it will certainly be through the democratic path. It is clear, then, that the weight of this certainty leans much more towards the “democratic” than towards “socialism”. Or put another way: we will no longer have in history the repetition of the Bolshevik, Chinese or Cuban revolutions, in short, those that led to the “dictatorship of the proletariat”.

Poulantzas thus exposes a fundamental divergence with the ideological, political and theoretical positions of Louis Althusser and Étienne Balibar.

Until then, this Greek living in Paris since the early 1960s had conducted an investigation in a theoretical direction very close to that of Althusser and his former students. He had been playing a recognized role in the theoretical advances in the field of Marxism, especially regarding issues of the State, power, social classes and ideology. In these investigations, he privileged themes related to the different forms of dictatorship: fascism in Germany and Italy in fascism and dictatorship and the dictatorships in Portugal, Greece and Spain in The crisis of dictatorships. A perspective concentrated then on the critical study of these dictatorships; and perhaps, already in those texts, he was trying to announce his “last” criticism, the one that was yet to come: his vehement rejection of the dictatorship of the proletariat, for which he reserves an eloquent “No”.

And the finish of this “No” takes on an absolutely radical form: “it is better to take this risk [of choosing a democratic path to socialism] than slaughtering others so that, after all, we ourselves end up under the knife of a Committee of Public Health or of some Dictator of the proletariat”.

And he ends the book with a last seam (last paragraph of the last chapter of the last book): “the risks of democratic socialism can certainly be avoided in only one way: to remain calm and walk in line under the auspices and authority of democracy advanced liberal; But that is another story…".

Your critics[I]they would not let it escape: they would highlight, in addition to a melancholy ending, a shift to the right, especially for those who defend the “dictatorship of the proletariat”. But this ending can be understood in another way: as a remapping of the field and strategy of the class struggle. Advanced liberal democracy as the stage for this struggle to be waged within bourgeois society itself.

The “No”, almost shouted by Poulantzas, is justified on two levels: theoretical and ideological (if, rigorously, one can separate them). From a theoretical point of view, our author is abusively economical, he offers us only a single argument, which, of course, assumes decisive: the theory/strategy of dual power. But who's putting their soul on the line, would it take more than that?

Leninist heritage: “The State must be destroyed en bloc by a frontal struggle, by movement or encirclement, but outside the fortress-State, aiming at creating a situation of dual power… with a 'D-Day' type assault strategy” .

Bourgeois state x proletarian state. Representative democracy = bourgeois democracy = bourgeois dictatorship. Proletarian state = dictatorship of the proletariat. Some footprints left by this dual power.

The exterior of the “Fortress State” is the key to the concept of dual power. An exterior that, as such, denies the fact that bourgeois society is crossed by contradictions and, therefore, by class struggle (this is the theoretical core of Poulantzas' argument). An exterior that implies a conception of the world (an ideology), at the same time, present and foreign to bourgeois society, as if it were an enclave waiting for the idealized “D-Day”. All the more ideological because it denies the class struggle that crosses capitalist society, that is, its interior.

In this critique of the “dual power” situation, Poulantzas hopes to keep away not only from “real socialism” and, consequently, from the dictatorship of the proletariat, but, at the same time, from what he calls the statism of traditional social democracy. There is, says Poulantzas: “a close connivance between Stalinist statism and the statism of traditional social democracy (…) also for the latter, the relationship of the popular masses with the State is a relationship of exteriority”.[ii]

“Dual power” strategy; certainly a good argument, but one that leaves room for being subjected to a critical scrutiny. Perhaps in the direction suggested, long before, by Gramsci: “It seems to me that Ilyich (Lenin, of course) understood that a change was necessary from the war of movement, victoriously applied in the East in 1917, to the war of position, the only possible in the West.

Poulantzas, as if sensing the possibility of an objection in that direction pointed out by Gramsci – now definitely his last intervention (interview granted to Marco Diani and published in the weekly Rebirth of the Italian Communist Party, nine days after his death) – then sets up his own defense: “(…) even if it is no longer a question of a war of movement, the State remains to be conquered (…) the problematic of the siege, of the war of position always rests on a double power”.

From an ideological point of view, that “no” uttered by Poulantzas preserves itself from any objection. Unless, of course, we reject it completely, in this case, on the basis of another ideology, another ideological “affiliation”.

“We no longer have the millenarian faith in a few laws of bronze”, says Poulantzas. Refusing this “millenarian faith” represents a fundamental turning point, a disaffiliation that removes history from the rails that would take it, say, towards Finland Station in Saint Petersburg, where Lenin disembarked in April 1917. Now the flow of history is emptied of the certainties implied by a teleo (theo) logy, that is, a finalism inscribed with theological resources. A “millenarian faith” that, like an involuntary adherence to religion, feeds on its own ideology, with its initiates in the letter and spirit of the dogmas and mysteries that constitute its Book, which is certainly sacred.

In this not the “millenarian faith”, Poulantzas seems to want to sever any affiliation with Marx's contribution, with that of Marxist authors and with the Internationals, including the II, closer to social democracy. But not quite. He directs his criticism to a more restricted range: Lenin, the October Revolution, the Third International, the communist movement and, with the target centered, above all, on Stalinism and the dictatorship of the proletariat. And, in order not to completely abandon his previous theoretical-political positions, he produces his own genealogy:

(a) Marx: “for Marx the dictatorship of the proletariat was a strategic notion in a practical state, functioning, at best, as an indicator panel”; (b) Rosa Luxemburg: “the first fair and fundamental criticism of the Bolshevik revolution and of Lenin was that of Rosa Luxemburg”; and, with certain reservations, (c) Gramsci: “one knows the distance he assumed in relation to the Stalinist experience” (and, in his last interview, Gramsci is also excluded from his theoretical-political ascendancy: “[Gramsci] always reasons within of a fundamentally Leninist conception”).

Marx-Rosa-Gramsci (?): the most important thing in this self-proclaimed affiliation is not its theoretical correctness, but, much more than that, is to understand it as a declaration of intention – to remain aligned with a current theoretical, political and ideological possible in the field of Marxism. (In his last interview, Poulantzas indirectly reaffirms his appreciation for Marx’s contribution: “At the outset, I would like to intervene vividly in a polemic dominated by the hysterical anti-Marxism of the new philosophers [current that emerged in France around the mid-70s, André Glucksmann, Bernard-Henry Lévy and others], in which Marxism is identified with the Gulag").


The no and the story

Nicos Poulantzas recognizes that “so far history has not provided us with any victorious experience of a democratic path to socialism…”. Certainly. Even more so if we don't forget that he is writing in 1978. We would still have to wait 11 years for the fall of the Berlin Wall to happen and for the curve of history, materially and ideologically, to make the first irrevocable inflection movement of a no to the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Regarding the status of no: “If we consider the 'No' as a primordial negative gesture, the process of disintegration of Eastern socialism produced a true act in the form of the enthusiastic movement of the masses who said 'no' to the communist regime, in the name of solidarity authentic; this negative gesture was more important than its subsequent frustrated positivization”. (Zizek, S.: subject spinoso, p.174, Paidós, Buenos Aires, Barcelona, ​​Mexico, 2001).


Etienne Balibar and Nicos Poulantzas

I recall that, in 1978, Balibar confronted the PCF's central leadership, taking a stand for the permanence, in the preamble of the party's statute, of the "concept" of dictatorship of the proletariat that he had already defended two years earlier in his On the dictatorship of the proletariat. Many years later, in a colloquium precisely in honor of the 20th anniversary of Poulantzas' death, he again refers to the “dictatorship of the proletariat”, rehearsing, in a shift of words, a timid and almost unnoticed self-criticism: “the dictatorship about the proletariat”. In a different political context, Balibar knew how to recognize the difference between “of the proletariat” and “about the proletariat”: thus removing the mask of dictatorship.

In 1981, just two years after Poulantzas' death, Christine Buci-Glucksmann organized a tribute to him that almost repeated the title of her last book (The state, power, socialism): the left, power, socialism: homage to Nicos Poulantzas.

Balibar did not directly participate in this meeting held in Saint-Denis (Paris VIII), but wrote an article for the book organized by Buci-Glucksmann that was published in 1983. In this article (“Après l'autre Mai”), more centered on the French political situation, Balibar references Nicos Poulantzas three times – just like that, formally, with first and last name – without any of them bringing anything that deserves any relevance. As if the mere fact of this (formal) nomination were the limit of what the honoree deserved!

Years later, in 1999, now in Athens, the land of Poulantzas, and in an Institute named after him, created two years earlier, a tribute was held on the 20th anniversary of his death. And there was Balibar in Athens. And he spilled out, unceremoniously and copiously, references to Nicos: Nicos here, Nicos there (no formality now); as if the friendship and intimacy between the two had tightened in these twenty years of absence of Poulantzas.

But… that intimacy (it would be better to say “proximity”) with Poulantzas began well before that meeting in Athens. Precisely ten years (November 27, 1989) earlier; just days after the fall of the Berlin Wall. And by that time it had also been ten years since Poulantzas had died.

At this moment, Balibar summons a “signifier”, or as he himself says, in another context, a “master word”, which promotes an approximation with “Nicos”: his name “L'égaliberte” (because of this value of signifier, of “master word”, and so that this strength is not lost, I will not translate this reference to equality and freedom). A theoretical choice that seems to have no return and that does not deviate so much from the path that could point towards the “democratic socialism” proposed by Poulantzas in 1978.”L'égaliberte”: a juxtaposition that, as a signifier, will henceforth assume a fundamental theoretical place in Balibar's reflections. Perhaps the beginning of an embrace of recognition for that “Nicos” that would only be concluded ten years later in Athens, twenty years after the death of the Greek “friend”.

And to close this embrace, now in Athens, Balibar, at least twice, takes this theoretical-political identification with Poulantzas a little further.

The first and decisive one is the explicit recognition that Poulantzas's conception (towards democratic socialism, at the same time, antagonistic to the dictatorship of the proletariat) puts, says Balibar, an “end to the myth of the 'exteriority' of revolutionary forces (parties or movements) in relation to the functioning of the State in advanced capitalism (...) the idea of ​​a communism of exteriority has lost all reference in the real (but not in the imaginary, because [continues Balibar] ghosts have a long life)”.

The reality of the exteriority of the “revolutionary forces”, the so-called “dual power” strategy that underlies the “dictatorship of the proletariat”, twenty years later, is transformed into a myth. Once again, Balibar, sensitive to the theoretical-political conjunctures, joins hands in the paddle. The “dictatorship of the proletariat” which, for him, had already been transformed into “dictatorship over the proletariat”, in this new step is closer to the positions defended by Poulantzas. And, here in Athens, homeland of the honoree, in the strengthening of this posthumous friendship, Balibar transforms the as cold as distant “Nicos Poulantzas” from 1983 into his friend “Nicos”.

But Balibar's identification with Poulantzas would still have room to go further, much further. An identification that Balibar considers as Nicos' "communism" for which "the idea of ​​communist politics is philosophically an ethical idea". An ethic that is the meeting ground of “égaliberté” of Balibar and the “democratic socialism” of Poulantzas. The arms of the embrace anointed by an ethic.

“The communists – continues Balibar – practically 'represent' the plurality, the multiplicity of interests of emancipation that are irreducible to one another because of their radical nature” (Balibar borrowing the word from Nicos).

At the forefront are the interests of radical emancipation. The paths: multiple, plural. Multiplicity that was not contemplated by communism (in the singular) of exteriority, of the “dual power” strategy, of the single path. The abstract universal is condemned to step on the ground of history, or maybe not even that far if we consider it as the “ghost” that Balibar alludes to. Its function now seems to be to scare away the unwary. How can we not see here a kinship, even if not so close, with fetishism: a glimpse of the phantasmagoria of history. Commodity fetishism, idea fetishism, or perhaps simply, in these phantasmagorias, ideas taking the place of commodities.

Balibar concludes his homage to Nicos with an elegant and moving tirade: “Today Poulantzas and others who are no longer here. But citizen communists, citizen communists or citizenship communists are always here. 'Invisible', because they have no weapons, no field, no party, no Church. It's their way of existing."

Here Balibar throws a wedge that produces a repair to Poulantzas' proposal of a “democratic socialism”: the relevant theoretical-political place he attributes to citizenship. A little earlier, in this same text paying homage to Poulantzas, he had already noticed the absence of the notion of citizenship in the arguments in defense of “democratic socialism”. Balibar does not want to confuse his idea of ​​citizenship with any abstract proposal. On the contrary, he seeks to link it dialectically, contradictorily, to égaliberté. Crevices and openings of citizenship communists: “invisible” yes, but not ghosts. “Citizenship Communists”, “Citizenship Communists” égaliberté".

A communist policy as an ethical idea. Radical Emancipation Communists. Communists of citizenship and égaliberté. Balibar's propositions.

Bringing these different forms of communism to the Nicos Poulantzas Institute, in Athens, at the turn of the 1961th century, has at least two aspects that contradictorily intertwine. The first is to produce some identification with the Institute that invited him, something subjective. The second, with much more political weight, is to break the monopoly of the expression “communist” (and derivatives) hitherto exclusive to the parties with that name. Balibar, politically and subjectively, is comfortable dealing with this break in the monopoly: he joined the French Communist Party in XNUMX and twenty years later he was expelled for having criticized the party's racist actions.

Retroactively, it is impossible to know whether Poulantzas would accept being classified as a “communist of citizenship” or a “communist of radical emancipation”. What seems more certain is that back in 1978/79 he would have gladly participated in the debate on Balibar's proposal.

I would certainly agree with the idea that communist policy is an ethic. In 1968, on the occasion of the crushing of the so-called “Prague Spring” by Soviet tanks, a split opened up in the Greek Communist Party. The party from the interior - contrary to that intervention - to which Poulantzas joined and which is an embryo of the current Syriza and the so-called party from abroad, due to its close dependence on the CP of the USSR[iii] (now the exteriority of the “dual power” appears in a different way).

In his last text, Poulantzas still declares his affiliation with Marx. Balibar does not go so far, but makes a refined farewell.[iv]

The left, in order to identify itself as such, obliges itself to a minimum of commitment to Marx's work: extracting from it The capital the knowledge according to which capitalist society is a class society that functions by exploitation and that commodity fetishism is its (objective) form of (subjective) ideological domination. Could it be that the foundations of ethics are anchored in this commitment?


Louis Althusser and Nicos Poulantzas

1978 was the year in which Althusser and Poulantzas defended completely antithetical theoretical-political positions. Althusser, against the central leadership of the PCF, proposed to save the “dictatorship of the proletariat” at any cost.[v]. Poulantzas, on the opposite pole, wanted to avoid being massacred by any “Dictator of the proletariat” and bet heavily on his prediction of history: “socialism will be democratic or it will not be” (and this 10 years before the fall of the Wall).

I bring here the testimony of Althusser himself to tell us about his relationship with Poulantzas: “Madness, the psychiatric hospital, confinement can terrify certain men or women, who are able to think or bear the idea without a great inner anguish, which can get to the point of withholding them, whether from visiting a friend or even from intervening in any matter. A singular thing: they were generally the most intimate, but not always, and, among the intimate, some visibly distanced themselves [Althusser in one of his hospitalizations]. In this regard, I cannot fail to evoke the heroism of our dear Nicos Poulantzas, who had an absolute horror of any psychiatric hospital, and yet he always came to visit me regularly during my stays, and was always happy with me when in reality he must have been writhing with anguish, but I didn't find out about that until too late. And I even remember that he was practically the only one I agreed to see, in the year before Hélène's death [this previous year is 1979, the year of Poulantzas' death]. So I didn't know that he had tried to kill himself once, in which case that counted as a mere accident, during the night, in a wide avenue a truck had dragged him... in reality, he had thrown himself under the wheels, his companion would tell me. Well, I saw Nicos, not in my house, but in the street near the School, and I learned later that he was already suffering from the terrible crisis of persecution that he was going to put an end to by means of a spectacular suicide.[vi]. Well, Nicos was happy in front of me, he didn't say a word to me about his suffering or about his first attempt, which he disguised as an accident, he told me about his work and research projects, he questioned me over mine and said goodbye, kissing me warmly, as if he were going to see me again the next day. When I later learned what he had in mind, I could not contain my admiration for what, in him, was not only an exceptional gesture of friendship, but true heroism”.[vii]

Balibar's embrace in Poulantzas; warm farewell kiss from Poulantzas to Althusser. A theoretical-political identification and another that comes to seal something personal, more subjective, or rather, intersubjective: a cup of fraternity.

Althusser seems to want to tell us that certain intersubjective ties manage to pierce different ideological layers. As if they were (crazily) looking for a background: “pre-ideological” or perhaps the place of being (human, so many would say, in terms of what it brings in moving and solidarity). Who knows? What is certain is that ideological affinities do not facilitate this plunge (Althusser mentions the “intimates” who drifted apart). Mad diving in search of that trait, that grain of humanity before fetishism overtook it or it had been submerged by the avalanche of capital.

* Paulo Silveira is a psychoanalyst and retired professor at the Department of Sociology at USP. Author, among other books, of On the side of history: a critical reading of Althusser's work (Police).



[I] I include myself among these critics. Poulantzas, Silveira, P. (org.), Editora Ática, São Paulo, 1984. In that political context, the cold war and the hegemony of the PCs facilitated the dulling of historical sensitivity.

[iii] Löwy, Michael, “Nicos Poulantzas, as I knew him”, interview with setback in 18 / 12 / 2014.

[iv] Balibar, E. Marx's Philosophy, Discovery, Paris, 1993.

[v] Althusser, in his last intervention in 1985, made strong reservations about “real socialism”: “I believe I have served, and served well, the idea of ​​a communism not aligned with the detestable example of 'real socialism' and its Soviet degeneration (…)”. The future lasts a long time, P. 212, Companhia das Letras, São Paulo, 1992.

[vi] Poulantzas threw himself from the 22nd floor of the Montparnasse tower. “Nicos's great friend, Constantin Tsoukalas, who is also my friend, was with him at the time of the act. He says that Nicos started by throwing books out the window, saying that what he had written was worthless, that he had failed in his theoretical undertaking, and then he threw himself out of the window. So there is certainly a sense of personal failure. But no one will ever know, it is an inexplicable tragedy.” Michael, Löwy, work cit.

[vii] Althusser, L., The future…, ob.cit. p.229.

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