Reflections on the political theory of the young Poulantzas (1968-1974)

Arshile Gorky (1904-1948), A Year in the Milkweed, 1944.


Excerpts selected by the authors of the newly released book.

This work of reflection on Nicos Poulantzas's political theory originated in meetings held at the Institute of Philosophy and Human Sciences (IFCH) of the State University of Campinas (Unicamp) and at the Institute of Advanced Studies (IEA) of the University of São Paulo (USP ), between August 2000 and March 2001, as part of research activities and thesis supervision.

Décio Saes (visiting researcher at IEA/USP) and Francisco Farias (doctoral fellow at IFCH/Unicamp) decided to meet regularly to systematically debate the main problems we had found in the political theory of the young Poulantzas. Thus, we began to meet fortnightly in the workrooms of the IFCH or the IEA to discuss the poulantzian texts of the 1968-1974 phase; more especially the books Political power and social classes (1968), Fascism and Dictatorship (1970) and Social classes in current capitalism (1974)

Our focus was broad but at the same time precise. The poulantzian themes that mobilized us were the following: (a) the relationship between the State and the ruling class in capitalist society; (b) the process of splitting the dominant class in this type of society; (c) the characterization of the power bloc, and the nature of its relationship with the capitalist state apparatus; (d) the exercise of hegemony by the ruling class as a whole (hegemony Postgraduate Course ), or a certain fraction of capital (hegemony stricto sensu).

Décio Saes: I think we both detected the same problem. There is, however, a difference in wording between us. You tended to see the relevant effect as perfectly systemic and the overt action as anti-systemic. I have tended to interpret specific political presence as perfectly systemic, pertinent effect already as anti-systemic, and overt action as an almost extreme case of pertinent effect. There may be a defect of exposition in Poulantzas's text. But when he defines the relevant effect as a new element that overflows the typical picture of levels, he is thinking about the relevant effect in anti-structural terms. The pertinent effect transforms the limits set by the structures.

Strictly speaking, it can be said that when the working class is acting openly, with its own organization, seeking political class power, the structures are producing relevant effects, that is, it refers to a presence as an autonomous force. He says that political presence without pertinent effects: “is that which is inserted as a possible variation within the limits circumscribed by the pertinent effects of other elements”.[I]

If there is only political presence without pertinent effects, political action is within the limits set by the structure. If relevant effects are produced, there is the creation of new elements that go towards transforming the limits set by the structure. Strictly speaking, it can be said that there is a flaw in the distinction between the relevant effect and the declared action; when he addresses the relevant effect, he points to Bonapartist ideology as the supreme example of this phenomenon. Now, hardly any author will attribute a revolutionary character to this ideological trend; Bonapartism is wholly systemic.

The curious thing is that, just before approaching the partial peasantry, Poulantzas proposes a definition of relevant effects: non-compliance with structural limits. And the definition of declared action is that of “organization of a social force that goes beyond the mere reflection of class in the political domain through pertinent effects”.[ii] That is: the declared action would be a tendency that goes beyond the relevant effects.

Francisco Farias: I understood the first level to mean that there is no distinct class; the social group has not yet been constituted. Strictly speaking, one cannot speak of social class or social group because a second level has not been reached, which is to produce a specific political-ideological effect.

Décio Saes: But this is contradictory to his scheme. The problem is this: it goes in the direction of criticizing the class itself and the class itself. Halfway through, he realizes that it is necessary to have a theoretical scheme to explain the differences in the behavior of the social group. For this, he creates a gradation: class without specific political presence, pertinent effects and open action. But this gradation, strictly speaking, could not exist after he had said that structures in their articulation produce effects, which are also articulated, on practices. So, there cannot be a social practice that is not characterized by conveying any ideological effect. Theoretically, he has no way of admitting this possibility, otherwise he reverts to the distinction between class in itself and class for itself.

Francisco Farias: Thus, we would return to the problem of the conditions of existence of social classes in capitalism: what constitutes a social class? What makes her emerge on the political scene? Apparently, the answer begins with the issue of associativism both of owners of the means of production – the employers' associations – and of sellers of labor power – the employee unions. Social classes are those groups with certain causal powers, revealed by their effects, and which therefore become social forces. From this point of view, self-employed lawyers and state employees would constitute two distinct classes, as they differ economically and have a specific associative representation. This would be valid for several other groups that, economically differentiated, have an institutional organization or have a power of collective mobilization.

However, not all groupings, as social forces, have a society project in their tables of values ​​and interests. Only those groups directly related to the social process of production – owners of the means of production and producers of surplus value – are capable of formulating and defending a global model of collectivity based on their own values ​​and interests. For only they, for reasons shown by the analysis of capital and the analysis of the bourgeois state, can simultaneously concentrate (or aspire to the concentration of) economic and political powers – in short, convert themselves into a social class.

In this sense, Poulantzas would have to admit that social classes are and are not effects of the structures of the social totality, a formulation that would take into account two modalities of grouping: the class in struggle for reforms, internal to the limits imposed by the validity of the structures; and the antagonistic class, tending to transform the model of society. In the first case, groups differentiated by their position in the economic structure – the owners of the means of production and salaried workers – are induced to mobilize and organize due to the double effect of the State apparatus.

On the one hand, the juridical-political structure produces the grouping effect; as is known, there is the effect of the egalitarian subject form, produced by the legal structure, which means that there is a group that is characterized by the tendency to practice equivalence, by objectifying the proportion in the salary level in relation to the degree of capital productivity; there is the salaried class in struggle for demands. In this case – the competition of fundamental classes – it is a practice of contemporary citizenship: a group does not accept the discrimination of establishing a salary level below the consumption conditions propitiated by the company's technical innovation gains – generating predispositions to conflicts.

On the other hand, the emergence factor of a class in terms of practices is the impact of the State's economic and social policies. The result of state intervention materializes potential class conflicts, as classes coalesce to defend or reject certain measures. In other words, groups differentiated by certain criteria in the economic sphere, and induced to aggregation by the effects of the juridical-political structure, do not form immediately in terms of practices; they acquire a rather latent character. It is the State's policy that becomes a mobilization factor for the competitive classes.

Poulantzas tried to circumvent the rigid result of the concept of social class, introducing the distinction between the “pure” class and the “autonomous” class, in which the first would be the social force without specific political presence, and the second that with political presence. Strictly speaking, we say, the first possibility – the abstract class – is constituted as a tendential effect of economic and legal-political structures at the level of practices. But a countertrend, produced by State policy and which leads to the mobilization of another form of grouping – the class fraction, the polyclass group – can leave the initial group, so to speak, in a state of hibernation.

Décio Saes: I reiterate that, in my view, the biggest problem with Poulantzas's theoretical scheme is that it cannot explain the transformation of a group integrated into the current model of society (inserted in a universe of systemic practices) into a revolutionary group. Strictly speaking, to arrive at this explanation, he would have to introduce an element external to the system into his theoretical scheme. In classical historical materialism, this element was the development of the productive forces.

In the Althusserian group, the author who was forced to address the role of the development of productive forces in the historical process was Etienne Balibar, in charge of presenting a theory of transition to the capitalist mode of production in the collective work Read the Capital. This is why it is said that the Althusserian group has no way of explaining social change, with the exception of Balibar, who introduces the productive forces into his theory of the transition from one mode of production to another. In his text, Balibar indicates that it is impossible to theorize the transition without introducing an external element to the system; and this element is the developmental factor, which is not contemplated in the simple reproduction of the structure. Apart from Balibar's luminous text, no other text of the Althusserian current indicated a way to resolve this great question: how is it possible for the same articulated set of structures to produce effect A and, at the same time, effect B, which is practically the antithesis of A.

Let's move on to the problem of characterizing bourgeois factions. In Political power and social classes, Poulantzas states that, first of all, fractions must be characterized on an economic level.[iii] Let us remember that, when addressing social classes, this author maintains that they must be characterized simultaneously in the economic, political, and ideological planes. However, when approaching the fractions, Poulantzas characterizes them in the economic plan, understood basically as the relations of production. It is obvious that, when dealing with the commercial bourgeoisie, Poulantzas does not place it in the sphere of production, but in the sphere of circulation.

These statements clash with his more general statement, according to which social classes and fractions must be characterized simultaneously at the three levels. Later on, he will make a reference to the “republican bourgeois fraction”, thus introducing another, strictly political, criterion. In fact, the economic criterion derives from a certain classification (functions of capital: industrial, commercial and even banking); the political criterion does not derive from any classification. In fact, he uses "fraction" in different senses. The correct procedure would have been to take, for example, the economic structure, and see how it produces effects on the agents of capital; and at the same time to analyze the articulation of these effects with the effects of the political sphere, to finally arrive at the concept of class fraction.

The result of applying this complex model of analysis would be the characterization of a group that combines the effects of performing a certain function of capital with the individualizing effects of the legal-political structure. This group would be characterized, therefore, by an “egalitarian-bourgeois behavior”: the search for the equalization of its profit margin with that already obtained by other segments of the capital. Perhaps this simple characterization was the best that could be achieved on this level. Other subdivisions would likely involve other methodologies. Remaining on the plane of analysis of the structure of the capitalist mode of production, Poulantzas still does not introduce the following problem: that of the possibility of the ruling class splitting up according to other criteria (the contingent of labor, the scale of activity, etc.).

Francisco Farias: I hadn't paid attention to the problem of how structure can impact fractionation. However, I would see that there is a question of delimitation analogous to that of social classes. Although the class fraction exists as a social force, not every subgroup with causal powers within the social class constitutes a class fraction.

Only those groups that, for economic and political reasons to be specified, tend to propose a variant of capitalist development or a so-called nation project would constitute a fraction of the ruling class.

Décio Saes: Let's move on to the discussion of Fascism and Dictatorship. Again, I will not discuss the theses with which I agree; I will address some formulations that seem problematic to me.[iv] The first theoretical theme to be highlighted is the change in the concept of power bloc. Poulantzas begins by stating that the bloc in power is a alliance of various classes. In the previous text (Political power…), he said the opposite: the power bloc was a much broader phenomenon, which extended to the economic, ideological and political aspects; it was a community of interests that transcended the realm of political alliance.

Not that this will bring about major changes in the analysis, but anyway, it is strange that he identifies the bloc in power with an alliance, because it seems that the bloc in power depends on an explicit political agreement between the factions; if there is no agreement, there is no block in power. The previous idea of ​​the power bloc was that the existence of the interest bloc was independent of an explicit political agreement; it was a community of interests whose unity was guaranteed by the state apparatus. So, first of all, I find this change inappropriate; and, secondly, I saw no reason for the change. Examining the general theoretical chapter, I do not see any reason, and this change only brings problems. If the power bloc is an alliance, it means that if there is no explicit agreement between the fractions, they will be outside the community of interests that unites all sectors of the ruling class.

Francisco Farias: Even the idea that the alliance is specific does not solve.

Décio Saes: Does not solve anything. The specific restricts more; does not zoom. The fact of saying that the alliance is specific does not mean that it is a community of interests. He is simply saying: it is a special kind of covenant. It restricts the concept more instead of expanding it, because the difference with the previous concept is that the power bloc was much broader than the concept of alliance, in the sense that it concerned a common situation of segments that all belong to the ruling class. So, there is a community of interests from an economic, ideological and political point of view.

The fact of saying that the alliance is specific does not mitigate anything. The concept of alliance is already a more restricted concept. So, I didn't understand the reason for the conceptual change. If the bloc in power were to depend on an alliance, then it would be much smaller, because very often there is no alliance at all. Imagine the political relation between landed property, commercial capital and industrial capital; frequently, this relationship is not one of alliance, but of conflict. We would have to reduce the scope of the power bloc if only two of these fractions had an explicit alliance, then only they would participate in the power bloc. We should conclude, in the case of the First Republic in Brazil, that industrial capital would be outside the power bloc; since commercial capital (agro-export bourgeoisie) had allied itself with land ownership to conduct the oligarchic policy.

Poulantzas maintains that the rise of class conflict – he is thinking of fascism – does not reunify the power bloc in the face of a common enemy; it produces, on the contrary, effects on the internal contradictions of the power bloc. He raises the thesis that the rise of the masses, instead of pushing the fractions of the ruling class towards unity, provokes the disintegration of its political unity. I would say that this could have happened in a very short space of time, because, in the medium term, fascism will play a unifying role.

Perhaps he should have explained that when the masses intervene, they can throw bourgeois politics as a whole into crisis, generating dissension even over how to face the rise of the masses. But this situation of dissent cannot go on indefinitely. There has to be a time for some party or political force to assume the role of politically unifying the ruling class; or prolonging the situation will lead to a revolutionary mood.

In my opinion, in the case of fascism, the rise of the masses ended up causing the emergence of a political force capable of unifying the ruling class against its historical adversary (the popular classes). Poulantzas perhaps means that, instead of a broad front of liberal bourgeois parties arising against the proletarian revolution, an anti-liberal party, contrary to the other bourgeois parties, has emerged to carry out this task.

He seems very impressed by Gramsci's habit of lamenting, on behalf of the bourgeoisie, that a certain way, which he considers ideal, has not been implemented. At a certain point, he refers to Gramsci in this perspective: the liberal bourgeois parties, instead of forming a united front of parties to face the proletarian revolution, had to give way to the fascist party. But isn't it much more natural for an authoritarian, counter-revolutionary party to assume this task, rather than the liberal bourgeois parties, which by definition bet on the card of pluralism, on party fragmentation, because they believe that this is the essence of liberal democracy?

It is difficult to understand Poulantzas' expectation that the liberal bourgeois parties would form a front to face the proletarian revolution, in which case there would have been no fascistization. He seems to be saying that there might not have been fascistization if the parties, instead of getting involved in contradictions with each other, had united in a broad bourgeois front. But this was Gramsci's dream, resumed by Poulantzas in his analysis.

In the case of fascism. the rise of the masses led to a split in the power bloc rather than to unification; but that goes for a first moment. In every process of mass ascension, there are two moments: first, the rise of the masses causes dissension within the power bloc, not least because each sector wants to take a position in the face of popular ascension: some want to repress, others want to take advantage, according to fractional interests. In the next moment, the rise continuing and endangering the social order, all sectors come together under one personality, under the command of the army, under one party and are politically unified. That is what happened; the fascist party ended up unifying the ruling class politically.

In my opinion, Poulantzas did not understand that there are two stages in this political process. The rise of the masses causes dissent in the ruling class to some extent; after that, the ruling class resolves its dissensions and tends to unify, unless there is no time for this (that is, unless the dissensions provoke a revolutionary climate, and the revolution succeeds, which is not the case). case being analyzed). Poulantzas seems to think, following Gramsci, that “the normal bourgeois way” would be the immediate unification of the fractions in the power bloc; the masses are on the rise, immediately all fractions of the ruling class create a broad bourgeois front, of a liberal character, to face them.

Well, that's not how things happen in real history. Take the Brazilian case: when the ABC movement began to rise, dissensions arose within the bourgeoisie about what posture to adopt in relation to the military regime. Not all bourgeois sectors agreed to remain under the protection of the military regime. The MDB rejected this submissive posture; and, in the Opening, the bourgeois parties began to ask for the end of the military regime. But there was no reunification.

Let's go back to fascism. For Gramsci, if, faced with the proletarian danger, the bourgeois parties had created a broad liberal front, once the danger of a revolution had been removed, there would have been a bourgeois democracy in Italy, and not the fascist regime. The broad liberal front would know how to face, by democratic methods, the rise of the masses. Gramsci supposed that the bourgeoisie could have behaved in a more civilized way, instead of resorting to fascism. And Poulantzas seems to have followed Gramsci's inspiration.

Francisco Farias: We can consider that it suits the hegemonic fraction to maintain the distinction between legislative and executive functions. In the first place, this becomes compatible with the objective of transforming the specific interest of a fraction into the general interest of the class, since the generalization of interests is organized from the competition between the different fractions, by influencing the different branches of the State apparatus. Second, the hegemonic fraction tends to participate in Parliament, through elected representatives, because, in part, it resists the costs of the class compromise necessary for the stability of the power bloc, especially when such compromise takes the form of a political alliance. , requiring the granting of a general increase in direct and indirect wages.

It is in this sense that Poulantzas (1972) speaks of a latent tendency of the bureaucracy of the capitalist State to adopt a “Bonapartist” posture, that is, the tendency to impose concessions to subordinate interests on the hegemonic fraction, even when, let us add, these concessions only mean normalization. , and not the expanded reproduction, of these interests.

In certain situations – such as the change of political hegemony; the high degree of conflicts in the circle of representatives of the hegemonic fraction; the rise of the dominated classes –, the capitalist fraction would renounce the distribution of powers in the contemporary State apparatus, in order to preserve the prevalence of its interests within the power bloc.

It is the form of State in which the executive and legislative powers become superimposed or merged, (1) either with the purpose of dislodging the representatives of the former hegemonic fraction from political positions in the State, who, due to a kind of electoral inertia, would continue to being elected; (2) or, in a context in which the political representatives of the hegemonic fraction present a high degree of divergence among themselves, to avoid criticism from subordinate social forces, according to the maxim that parliamentary democracy is given up in favor of the profitability of capital ; (3) is still to frighten the specter of political revolution in the eyes of the mass of the ruling classes. Therefore, the analysis of the power bloc cannot be restricted to the relationship between the State and the ruling class.

Décio Saes: Exactly. Conflicts within the ruling class make room for popular struggle; and the struggle of the popular classes, when it reaches a certain level, or leads to the political unification of the dominant classes; or eventually, within certain limits, to the aggravation of differences, with the possibility of alliances between the dissident bourgeoisie and the popular classes. If these two phenomena are not taken into account (conflict in the power bloc and conflict between the ruling class and popular classes) and the relationship between both, the analysis is limited. This ends up being valid for the entire book: the role of the popular classes in the functioning, ultimately, of the state apparatus is barely mentioned.

* Décio Azevedo Saes He is a professor at the Methodist University of São Paulo. Author, among other books, of Citizenship and Social Classes: Theory and History (Methodist).

*Francisco Pereira de Farias He is a professor at the Department of Social Sciences at the Federal University of Piauí. Author, among other books, of Bourgeois state and dominant classes in Brazil (1930-1964) (ed. CRV).


Décio Azevedo Saes & Francisco Pereira de Farias. Reflections on the political theory of the young Poulantzas (1968-1974). Marília, publisher Lutas anticapital, 2021.


[I] POULANTZAS, N. Pouvoir politique et social classes. Paris: Maspero, 1972, vol. I, p. 80.

[ii] Same, same, p. 99.

[iii] POULANTZAS, N. Pouvoir politique et social classes. Paris: Maspero, vol. I, section I, chapter 2: Politique et classes sociales.

[iv] POULANTZAS, Nicos. fascism et dictature. Paris: Seuil/Maspero, 1974, part 3, chapitre I: General Propositions.

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
  • 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
  • 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'”
  • 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
  • Why are we on strike?statue 50g 20/06/2024 By SERGIO STOCO: We have reached a situation of shortage of federal educational institutions
  • 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