Nicos Poulantzas

Nicos Poulantzas
Nicos Poulantzas

Nicos Poulantzas (Greek: Νῖκος Πουλαντζᾶς; 21 September 1936, Athens, Greece  – 3 October 1979, Paris, France) was a Greek Marxist political sociologist. In the 1970s, Poulantzas was known, along with Louis Althusser, as a leading Structural Marxist and, while at first a Leninist, eventually became a proponent of eurocommunism. He is most well known for his theoretical work on the state. But he also offered Marxist contributions to the analysis of fascism, social class in the contemporary world, and the collapse of the dictatorships in Southern Europe in the 1970s (e.g. Franco's rule in Spain, Salazar's in Portugal, and Papadopoulos's in Greece).



Poulantzas studied law in Greece and moved to France where he completed a doctorate in the philosophy of law.[1]. He taught sociology at the University of Paris VIII from 1968 until his death. He was married to the French novelist Annie Leclerc and had one daughter. He killed himself in 1979 by jumping from the window of a friend's flat in Paris.[2]

Theory of the state

Poulantzas's theory of the state was reacting against what he saw as more simplistic understandings within Marxism. Instrumentalist Marxist accounts held that the state was simply an instrument in the hands of a particular class. Poulantzas disagreed with this, because he saw the capitalist class as too focused on their individual short term profit, rather than on maintaining the class's power as a whole, to simply exercise the whole of state power in its own interest. Poulantzas argued that the state, though relatively autonomous from the capitalist class, nonetheless functions to ensure the smooth operation of capitalist society, and therefore benefits the capitalist class. In particular, he focused on how an inherently divisive system such as capitalism could co-exist with the social stability necessary for it to reproduce itself - looking in particular to nationalism as a means to overcome the class divisions within capitalism. Poulantzas has been particularly influential over the leading contemporary Marxist state theorist, Bob Jessop.

Borrowing from Antonio Gramsci's notion of cultural hegemony, Poulantzas argued that repressing movements of the oppressed is not the sole function of the state. Rather state power must also obtain the consent of the oppressed. It does this through class alliances, where the dominant group makes an 'alliance' with subordinate groups, as a means to get the consent of the subordinate group. In his later works, Poulantzas analysed the role of what he termed the 'new petty bourgeoisie' in both consolidating the ruling classes hegemony and undermining the proletariat's ability to organise itself. By occupying a contradictory class position, that is to say, by identifying with its de facto oppressor, this fraction of the working class throws its lot in with the bourgeois whose fate it (wrongly) believes it shares. The fragmentation (some would argue the demise) of the class system is, for Poulantzas, a defining characteristic of late capitalism and any politically useful analysis must tackle this new constellation of interests and power. A highly abbreviated example of this can be seen in a Poulantzas-influenced analysis of the New Deal in the United States: the American ruling class, by acceding to some of the demands of labour (things like minimum wage, labour laws, etc.), helped cement an alliance between labour and a particular fraction of capital and the state [Levine 1988]. This was necessary for the continued existence of capitalism, for if the ruling class simply repressed the movements and avoided making any concessions, it could have led to a socialist revolution.


Poulantzas provides a nuanced analysis of class structure in an era when the internationalisation of production systems (today 'globalisation') was shifting power from labour to capitalist classes. In many areas, he foresaw the current debate on the critical Marxian language of 'class', 'bourgeoisie', and 'hegemony' finds little echo in contemporary political science where its positivism requires researchers to focus on putative measurable and objective entities. However, by placing class analysis at the center of political analysis, Poulantzas reminds us that theorists are political agents themselves and that accounts of the political world are suffused with the ambient ideology that they suppose themselves to bracket.

Major works

  • Poulantzas, Nicos. Political Power and Social Classes. NLB, 1973 (orig. 1968).
  • Poulantzas, Nicos. Fascism and Dictatorship: The Third International and the Problem of Fascism. NLB, 1974 (orig. 1970).
  • Poulantzas, Nicos. Classes in Contemporary Capitalism. NLB, 1975 (orig. 1973).
  • Poulantzas, Nicos. The Crisis of the Dictatorships: Portugal, Greece, Spain. Humanities Press, 1976.
  • Poulantzas, Nicos. State, Power, Socialism. NLB, 1978.
  • Poulantzas, Nicos. The Poulantzas Reader: Marxism, Law and the State, ed. J. Martin. Verso, 2008.

Further reading

  • Aronowitz, Stanley and Peter Bratsis eds. Paradigm Lost: State Theory Reconsidered. University of Minnesota Press, 2002.
  • Jessop, Bob. Nicos Poulantzas: Marxist theory and political strategy. Macmillan, 1985.
  • Levine, Rhonda. Class struggle and the New Deal: industrial labor, industrial capital, and the state. University Press of Kansas, 1988.
  • Gallas, Alexander, Bretthauer, Lars, Kannankulam, John and Ingo Stützle eds. Reading Poulantzas. Merlin Press, 2011.


  1. ^ Stuart Hall, "Nicos Poulantzas: State, Power, Socialism", New Left Review I/119, January-February 1980 [1]
  2. ^ "Nicos Poulantzas". The Professor Network. Retrieved 20 May 2009. 

External links

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