On October 12th, 1979, the journal of the Italian Communist Party, Rinascita, published what would turn out to be the final published words of Greek-French Marxist theorist Nicos Poulantzas. He initially came to prominence as a defender (along with Louis Althusser) of a deeply problematic structuralist interpretation of Marxism. This final interview is interesting, in 2017, the year of the100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, because it shows him to be re-thinking one of the pillars of his earlier theory: that the state is nothing more than a programmed function of capitalist society, whose necessary and sole task is to protect capitalist class interests.
In the interview, he discusses the relationship between state and society and claims that Marxism must re-think the role that the existing institutions of liberal democracy will have to play in the transition to, and the political life of, a future socialist world. In particular, he argues that twentieth, (now twenty-first), century Marxists have to jettison the vanguardism of Lenin’s understanding of the worker’s party.
In Marx there exist elements that are completely contradictory with respect to Lenin’s theories. Despite the criticisms of the formal character of liberties, there was always a preoccupation with the institutions of representative democracy that is difficult to find in Lenin.
This contrast between Marx and Lenin on the (at least instrumental) value of formal political rights anticipates the defense of Marx as a deeply democratic thinker decades later by August H. Nimtz Jr., (in Marx and Engels: Their Contribution to the Democratic Breakthrough). Nimtz proves, by paying close attention to Marx and Engels’ political writings, that they did not regard “bourgeois democratic rights” as nothing but ideological camouflage for class violence, but as vital tools for working class political organization. Forty years on from Poulantzas’ remarks, in an era where people’s thoughts have been liberated from their heads and can be broadcast at will to the world through social media, it is even more important that the Left come to terms with political pluralism and civil and political rights.
Whatever merits Lenin’s version of democratic centralism had (and it has one that I will discuss below), the core of his revolutionary theory: the need for one working class party that will rule unchallenged, proved a disaster. Yes, the revolution was undone by the severe depredations caused by the Civil War, foreign opposition, and, above all, the failures of other European Revolutions, but the belief that the “dictatorship of the proletariat” meant “dictatorship by the one party of the proletariat” cannot be absolved of all guilt for the catastrophe of Stalinism. Neither one single mind, nor any disciplined collection of minds, can understand every nuance that needs to be understood by those charged with governing a complex society. There needs to be political argument between competing interpretations of policy and programme, and those interpretations require organization outside of a single party.
Not even Stalinist dictatorship, the imprisonment and execution of millions, could destroy opposition. It lay dormant, until ultimately exploding in 1989. The lesson is: it is impossible, in modern conditions, where people expect to think for themselves, that all will arrive at the same conclusion. There will be different interpretations of core political values and the wisdom of different policy options, and the only way to resolve those differences is through full and free debate between different possibilities. Thus, any viable democratic socialist project needs competition between political visions. This argument has been a staple of liberal democratic critique of Marxism, and, in that respect, the liberals were right.
Even Gramsci, widely lauded for injecting a more fulsome understanding of democracy into revolutionary socialism, remained trapped, according to Poulantzas, within a Leninist worldview. He failed to think through the real value of multi-party systems and constitutionalism (Rechtstaat):
Gramsci did not have a positive theory of the exercise of power, of the institutions of representative democracy in the transition to democratic socialism. Missing are a theory of a plurality of parties [pluripartidismo] and of the Rechtsstaat [del estado de derecho].
In the twenty-first century, the two most exciting attempts to renew democratic socialism, Bolivia and Venezuela, abandoned the language of the dictatorship of the proletariat and the practice of Leninist vanguardism in favour of constitutionalism (especially the radically democratic institution of the constituent assembly to write new constitutions). Unfortunately, they have not successfully maintained a steady course towards socialist transformation. The problems that the Venezuelan government has faced, especially since the death of Chavez, reveal a paradox of political pluralism that complicates the picture Poulantzas was beginning to paint.
The real strength of Lenin’s idea of democratic centralism is that it insisted upon disciplined political unity. After full and free debate (in the party) everyone was required to publicly endorse the decision chosen. Such a demand is not undemocratic, because everyone was allowed to have their say and to choose whether to be a member of the party. If you were allowed to make your arguments, but your side lost, and you were free to leave but chose to stay, then you were (in a curiously Kantian way) the author of the collective act. You could have refused to acknowledge its legitimacy by leaving, but you chose to stay, knowing you will have to publicly support it, which is equivalent to having chosen the option you did not prefer. Since the transition to a new society will be rife with conflict, the party that is leading the transition will have to be internally unified if it is to prevail, and its prevailing is the key to securing the natural and social conditions of the robustly democratic socialist society that the majority of people are fighting for (in a revolutionary or transitional situation).
That is the theory. Subsequent history has shown that the reality is different: all the differences, even within the socialist camp, cannot be housed under a single party with unified leadership. The unity at the top will prevent full and free debate in the party ranks below (not to mention all the people outside the party who still have an interest in future law and policy). There is no spontaneous virtue within the working class, or any other social group, that ensures that every decision it makes will be right and just, simply because of the class (or any other) identity it shares:
Indeed, it seems to me that the categories of Marxism tend to consider the problem of the relationship between the working class and political democracy as “naturally” settled. I wonder, is there not a relation between Lenin’s underlying underestimation of the importance of formal democracy and a theory that takes for granted the “spontaneously” democratic role of the working class?
It is about understanding, as experience teaches, that no class by itself, by its very nature, is destined to be a guarantor of freedom without the intervention of a conscious project to that end. It is necessary to know how to look, without illusions and hesitation, into the stratifications, the divisions, the internal complexities that characterize the working class. It needs democracy and democratic institutions not only to defend itself against its enemies, but also to “defend itself” at the moment it assumes political power. Understanding this is important in order not to underestimate, as some Marxists did, the immense work of invention necessary for the elaboration of a democratic political theory of the transition to socialism.
The only way multiple parties can be avoided is through police action to destroy them, but that sort of action destroys democracy in the name of a democracy to come, which (we know now, and Poulantzas could see in 1979) will never arrive.
However– and here is the paradox that Venezuela above all has revealed– a gradual transition, which pays compensation for re-appropriated collective property, that allows independent, even outright oppositional political organizations, risks being undone at any moment by organized counter-thrusts. If socialists ‘liquidate the class enemy,’ then they militarize the struggle and indefinitely postpone democracy (but not totalitarian rule). If, on the other hand, they try to preserve political pluralism, they in effect keep their class enemies alive to fight another day, ensuring that whatever steps towards socialism they make, through legislation and the creation of new institutions of popular power, will be precarious and subject to legislative roll back should the government change.
There is no theoretical solution to this problem, but only a choice to be made. Unless the socialist left can build consistent support for its ideas, realize those ideas in institutions of popular self-government that extend into economic life, and defeat, by superior results and arguments, class enemies, it will never achieve its goals. Any sort of militarized conflict will lead to mutually destructive civil war (as in Syria). Socialists have to win by political organization and argument, democratic struggle, international solidarity, and demonstrable achievements. Such success is imaginable only over the long term- and, in spite of the danger of reaction and roll-back– gradually.
The interview also touches on a problem which perhaps resonates differently in 2017 than in 1979, but is perhaps also more important now. It concerns what Poulantzas calls the “pan-politicization” of society. When he made this argument in 1979, his concern was that critics were treating capitalism as CAPITALISM, an omnipotent, omniverous system that ruled out any space for free activity and self-organized experimentation.
I ask myself more and more often if it is fair to say there is a political defect in our society. Are we sure we will not fall into “pan-politicism”, one of the biggest ideological illusions inherited from the history of these recent years? At its heart, perhaps, the problem consists in recognizing that not everything is political, that there are limits to the politics of “politicization”. It is necessary to adapt to thinking that spaces of freedom may exist for new collective projects, for the expression of new subjectivities that escape politics–or better, certain limits of politics.
He implies that capitalism might not be as monolithically oppressive as critics suggest. Capitalism is a contradictory system, and social contradictions are spaces of possibility. Capitalism commodifies life-necessities, it is true, but their life-value exist independently of commodification, and this potentially available for non-commodified appropriation and use. Expanded civil rights and legal flexibility allow for experimentation and self-organization (co-ops, community run spaces, self-help groups, skill exchanges…). His point seems to be that as we work against capitalism, we should not miss opportunities to live differently within it. Not every argument needs to end with: “if you want x, you have to overthrow capitalism.”
This point remains relevant today even as changed political conditions reveal a new dimension probably not intended by Poulantzas. The cultural politics of outrage and censorship strikes me as a new form of over-politicization which threatens to suffocate the emancipatory vision of socialism. All past history is marred by structures of hierarchy and oppression. It therefore follows that traces of oppressive and hierarchical thinking can be found everywhere, from the crassest popular culture to the highest of high art. It does not follow, as too many left wing guardians of virtue think, that art works that bear the traces of this oppression consciously endorse it, and that therefore public display should be banned because it supposedly reinforces it.
Instead of learning to read art critically, with an eye and ear for nuance, with the ability to detect contradiction, tension, and irony, instead of understanding art as invention, not description, and, above all to recognize the liberatory potential expressed by aesthetic form (whatever the ‘literal’ content appears to be), too much of the left– especially on university campuses- is dominated by a philistine and censorious sensibility. We need to leave banning art to right wing religious fanatics and the cops. We need to remember that historically it is gays and lesbians, radicals, and iconoclasts– Wilde, Marx, Joyce– who suffered most at the hands of a conservative state, and radicals who fought for freedom of speech and expression (the Berkeley Free Speech Movement in the 1960’s, or Toronto’s flagship LGBTQ Glad Day Bookstore, in the 1970’s and 80’s for example). The Left must stand on the side of iconoclasm, free thought and expression, appreciation for the artistic exploration of the dark side of the human character, and of beauty as a socialist value. Socialists above all should understand that life is not always nice and safe and pretty, and defend the right of artists to spread discomfort and challenge polite sensibility.