Political power and social classes

Image: Elyeser Szturm

By Tatiana Berringer*

Commentary on the classic book by Nicos Poulantzas, recently published in a new translation by Editora da Unicamp.

At the end of 2019, Editora Unicamp published a new translation of Political power and social classes, in the Marx 21 Collection. After 51 years of the first edition of the book in France, this work is still considered one of the main treatises of Marxist political science, which demonstrates that the author's objective was achieved. The task that Poulantzas set himself was to write a regional theory of politics in the capitalist mode of production. He systematized the main contributions of Marx and Engels, Lenin and Gramsci, especially the works on politics.

Poulantzas was part of the group of Marxists led by the philosopher Louis Althusser who undertook a re-reading of Marx's works. Therefore, in addition to being extremely theoretically and methodologically rigorous, throughout the book there is a great debate within Marxism, especially with historicist, humanist and economicist currents, as well as a dialogue with thinkers from other theoretical fields such as Max Weber and Wright Mills.

The main theoretical contributions of Political power and social classes three key concepts are contained: “legal-political structure”, “relative autonomy” and “power bloc”. They are, clearly, concepts that are connected and that question the mechanistic thinking present in some Marxists. Therefore, the definition of social class is not determined exclusively by the position in production, but depends on the political and ideological position that classes and class fractions assume in certain political conjunctures, producing or not relevant effects.

The State is the political one, a structure that organizes and guarantees the maintenance and reproduction of the capitalist mode of production. Law and bureaucratism are the basis of this structure that is based on the idea of ​​equality and universality. Therefore, the capitalist State is a national State, which, at the same time, maintains social cohesion and organizes the social relations of production. This is the objective role of the bourgeois state. The nation hides the class character of the State and, in line with the effect of isolation of social classes produced by the action of bourgeois law, it aims to prevent the organization of dominated classes that come to be identified in the national collective and not as social classes.

For Poulantzas, the State is not a class State due to the social composition of its staff, but due to the objective role that this State plays, regardless of the social origin of its occupants. There is a relative autonomy of the capitalist State before the bourgeoisie, and the role it plays is to find a balance of compromise between classes and class fractions, enabling the maintenance and reproduction of the capitalist mode of production.

Both the bourgeoisie and the popular classes are not understood or treated as monolithic. The cleavage within it leads to the constitution of fractions, layers and class categories. The power bloc is, therefore, the contradictory unit of classes and class fractions under the hegemony of one of them, which controls state policy (economic, social and foreign). Political conflicts take place, therefore, between the classes and fractions of dominant classes and between the dominated classes and fractions of classes and the middle sectors, with intersections, formation of alliances and political fronts. These dynamics determine, consequently, the regimes and forms of State.

Poulantzas built a theoretical framework, which, despite being very consistent and robust, is not complete. This is the work that what could be called the “Poulantziana School of Campinas” has sought to undertake in recent decades. This group brings together researchers such as Décio Saes, Armando Boito Jr., Lucio Flávio de Almeida, Angelita Matos de Souza, Francisco Farias, Danilo Martuscelli, Angela Lazagna, Caio Bugiato and the author of this review, and, outside Unicamp, researchers from different Universities like Eliel Machado, Jair Pinheiro, Leonardo Granato, Thiago Barison, and a whole generation of graduate students and young doctors who have just graduated.

It is the task of developing, deepening and improving some theoretical concepts and debates, as well as carrying out empirical research using this theoretical instrument. The works of this group have gained importance in the political and intellectual scene in recent years. This new translation was already expected by the public familiar with Poulantzas' work and will certainly attract readers interested in Marxist political theory.

*Tatiana Berringer, PhD in political science from Unicamp, is a professor of International Relations at UFABC.

Bibliographic reference

Nicos Poulantzas. Political power and social classes. Translation: Maria Leonor Loureiro. Technical review: Danilo Enrico Martuscelli. Campinas, Editora Unicamp, 2019.

See this link for all articles