Poulantzas

Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Sat Dec 23 06:44:30 MST 2000


>I have been reading about Poulantzas theory of the state. It is difficult
>going. Can anyone explain what is special and valuable about his theory? Did
>he believe in revolution?
>
>John

I am not quite sure what to say about anything Poulantzas wrote abstractly
about the state, but his particular analysis of the 3rd International and
fascism I find quite useful. Here's something I wrote a while back:

Nicos Poulantzas tried to carve out a political space for revolutionaries
outside of the framework of the CP, especially the French Communist Party.
Poulantzas wrote "Fascism and Dictatorship, The Third International and the
Problem of Fascism" in 1968 when he was in the grips of a rather severe
case of Maoism.

This put him in an obviously antagonistic position vis a vis Trotsky.
Trotsky was the author of a number of books that tried to explain the
victory of Hitler, Mussolini and Franco in terms of the failure of the
Comintern to provide revolutionary leadership. Poulantzas's Maoism put him
at odds with this analysis. His Maoist "revolutionary heritage" goes back
through Dmitrov to Stalin and Lenin. In this line of pedigrees, Trotsky
remains the mutt.

Poulantzas could not accept the idea that the Comintern was the gravedigger
of revolutions, since the current he identified with put this very same
Comintern on a pedestal. Yet the evidence of Comintern failure in the age
of fascism is just too egregious for him to ignore. He explains this
failure not in terms of bureaucratic misleadership, but rather in terms of
"economism". This Althusserian critique targets the Comintern not only of
the 1930s when Hitler was marching toward power, but to the Comintern of
the early 1920s, before Stalin had consolidated his power. All the
Bolsheviks to one extent or another suffered from this ideological
deviation: Stalin and Trotsky had a bad case of it, so did Bukharin,
Zinoviev and Kamenev.

What form did this "economism" take? Poulantzas argues that the Third
International suffered in its infancy from "economic catastrophism", a
particularly virulent form of this ideological deviation. What happened,
you see, is that the Communists relied too heavily on Lenin's "Imperialism,
the Latest Stage of Capitalism". Lenin's pamphlet portrayed capitalism as
being on its last legs, a moribund, exhausted economic system that was
hanging on the ropes like a beaten prize-fighter. All the proletariat had
to do was give the capitalist system one last sharp punch in the nose and
it would fall to the canvas.

If capitalism was in its death-agony, then fascism was the expression of
the weakness of the system in its terminal stages. Poulantzas observes:

"The blindness of both the PCI and KPD leaders in this respect is
staggering. Fascism, according to them, would only be a 'passing episode'
in the revolutionary process. Umberto Terracini wrote in Inprekorr, just
after the march on Rome, that fascism was at most a passing 'ministerial
crisis'. Amadeo Bordiga, introducing the resolution on fascism at the Fifth
Congress, declared that all hat had happened in Italy was 'a change in the
governmental team of the bourgeoisie'. The presidium of the Comintern
executive committee noted, just after Hitler's accession to power:
'Hitler's Germany is heading for ever more inevitable economic
catastrophe...The momentary calm after the victory of fascism is only a
passing phenomenon. The wave of revolution will rise inescapably Germany
despite the fascist terror..."

Now Poulantzas is correct to point out this aspect of the Comintern's
inability to challenge and defeat fascism. Yes, it is "economic
catastrophism" that clouded its vision. We must ask is this all there is to
the problem? If Lenin's pamphlet had not swept the Communists off their
feet, could they have gotten a better handle on the situation?

Unfortunately, the failure of the Comintern to provide an adequate
explanation of fascism and a strategy to defeat it goes much deeper than
this. The problem is that Stalin was rapidly in the process of rooting out
Marxism from the Communist Party in the *very early* stages of the
Comintern. Stalin's supporters were already intimidating and silencing
Marxists in 1924, the year of the Fifth Congress of the Comintern.

>From around that time forward, the debate in the Comintern was not between
a wide range of Marxist opinion. The debate only included the rightist
followers of Bukharin and Stalin, the cagey spokesman for the emerging
bureaucracy. The Soviet secret police and Stalin's goons were suppressing
the Left Opposition. Shortly, Stalin would jail or kill its members. So
when Poulantzas refers to the "Comintern", he is referring to a rump
formation that bore faint resemblance to the Communist International of the
heroic, early days of the Russian Revolution.

When Stalin took power, the Comintern became an instrument of Soviet
foreign policy and Communist Parties tried to emulate the internal shifts
of the Soviet party. The ultraleft, third period of the German Communist
Party mirrored the extreme turn taken by Stalin against Bukharin and the
right Communists in the late 1920s. Bukharin was for appeasement of the
kulaks and, by the same token, class-collaborationist alliances with the
national bourgeoisie of various countries. Stalin had embraced this policy
when it was convenient.

When Stalin broke with Bukharin, he turned sharply to the ultraleft and
dumped the rightist leadership of the Comintern. He replaced it with his
lackeys who were all to happy to march in lock-step to the lunatic left.
The German CP went to the head of the pack during this period by attacking
the social democrats as being "social fascists".

Poulantzas maintains that the Kremlin did not have a master-puppet
relationship to the Communist Parties internationally. Since the evidence
to the contrary is rather mountainous, his explanations take on a labored
academic cast that are in sharp contradistinction to his usually lucid
prose. It also brings out the worst of his Maoist mumbo- jumbo:

"To sum up: the general line which was progressively dominant in the USSR
and in the Comintern can allow us to make a relatively clear [!]
periodization of the Comintern, a periodization which can also be very
useful for the history of the USSR. But this is insufficient. For example,
we have seen how the Comintern's Sixth (1928) and Seventh (1935) Congresses
cannot be interpreted on the model of a pendulum (left opportunism/right
opportunism), but that there is no simple continuity between them either.
That corroborates the view that the turn in Soviet policy in relationship
to the peasantry as a whole was not a simple, internal, 'ultra-left' turn.
But it will be impossible to make a deeper analysis of this problem in
relation to the Comintern until we have exactly established what was the
real process involving the Soviet bourgeoisie [Don't forget, gang, this is
1968] during the period of the class struggle in the USSR -- which was
considerably more than a simple struggle of the proletariat and poor
peasants against the kulaks."

As Marxists, we should always avoid the temptation to resort to
"deterministic" types of analysis. Poulantzas, the Althusserian, would
never yield to such temptation. That is why refuses to make a connection
between the ultraleft attack on the peasantry within the Soviet Union and
the ultraleft turn internationally. I am afraid, however, that no other
analysis makes any sense. Sometimes, a cigar is simply a cigar. Stalin, the
quintessential bureaucrat seems only capable of lurching either to the
extreme left or extreme right. His errors reflect an inability to project
working-class, i.e., Marxist, solutions to political problems. By
concentrating such enormous power in his hands, he guaranteed that every
shift he took, the Communist Parties internationally would follow.

Ideology plays much too much of a role in the Poulantzas scheme of things.
The Comintern messed up because it put Lenin on a pedestal. He also says
that the bourgeoisie supported fascism because it too was in a deep
ideological crisis. What does Poulantzas have to say about the German
working-class? What does he say about the parties of the working-class?
Could ideological confusion explain their weakness in face of the Nazi
threat? You bet.

Poulantzas alleges that the rise of fascism in Germany corresponds to an
ideological crisis of the revolutionary organizations, which in turn
coincided with an ideological crisis within the working class. He says:

"Marxist-Leninist ideology was profoundly shaken within the working class:
not only did it fail to conquer the broad masses, but it was also forced
back where it managed to root itself. It is clear enough what happens when
revolutionary organizations fail in their ideological role of giving
leadership on a mass line: particular forms of bourgeois and
petty-bourgeois ideology invade the void left by the retreat of Marxist-
Leninist ideology.

The influence of bourgeois ideology over the working class, in this
situation of ideological crisis, took the classic form of trade unionism
and reformism. It can be recognized not only in the survival, but also in
the extending influence of social democracy over the working class, through
both the party and trade unions, all through the rise of fascism. The
advancing influence of social-democratic ideology was felt even in those
sections of the working class supporting the communist party."

Comrades, this is not what Lenin said! Lenin said that socialist
consciousness has to be brought into the working-class from the outside,
from intellectuals who have mastered Marxism. Not is it only what Lenin
said, it is happily what makes sense. Workers *never* rise above simple
trade union consciousness.

When Poulantzas says that bourgeois and petty-bourgeois ideology "invades"
the working-class, he is mixing things up hopelessly. This type of ideology
has no need to invade, it is *always* there. It is socialist ideas that are
the anomaly, the exception.

Workers have no privileged status in class society. The ruling ideas of any
society are the ideas of the ruling class. When Jon the railroad worker
reports to this l*st about the numbers of his co-workers who are for Perot,
he is conveying the same truth that is found in What is to be Done. The
ideas that he supports are being "imported" into the rail yards. That's the
way it goes.

This also explains the murderous fanaticism of the Shining Path. When they
witness the "bourgeois" ideas of ordinary Peruvian workers, it is very
tempting for them to put a bullet in the brain of any of them who stand in
their way. If Maoism posits ideology as the enemy, no wonder they conceive
of the class struggle as a struggle against impure thoughts. The answer to
impure thoughts, of course, is patient explanation. This is the method of
Marxism, the political philosophy of the working-class. Marxists try to
resolve contradictions by reaching a higher level of understanding.
Sometimes, it can be frustrating to put up with and work through these
contradictions, but the alternative only leads down the blind alley to
sectarianism and fanaticism.


Louis Proyect
Marxism mailing list: http://www.marxmail.org/





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