Tuesday, December 19, 2006

More HM Stuff - Poulantzas, Miliband and Others

Warning - this is likely to be a little scrappy.

I have a few sheets of paper with scribbled notes taken at the Historical Materialism conference last week still to write up here. I've written up the notes on the plenary session on China in a post below. I have yet to write up some notes from a few sessions on Poulantzas, a session on Miliband, one on ecological crisis and one on the international state system today. I thought I had better write these up while the memory is still vaguely fresh.


Poulantzas, it seems, is sexy again. There is, apparently, a significant re-awakening of interest in Poulantzas in Left academia at the moment. For a while (the last 20 -30 yrs or so!) the old boy was regarded as a little old hat. Yesterday's sensation. Outmoded. Rather unfashionably 'structuralist'. Now, however, he is set to make a big wowee comeback. A bit like Peter Andre I suppose. That's very very good news for me. Bob Jessop commented, at the start of his paper that Poulantzas would, very soon, come to be regarded as one of THE major figures in political theory of the 20th Century. I suppose Bob Jessop would say that, wouldn't he? But it doesn't seem a particularly wild prediction to me. So read your Poulantzas if you want to be hip (although I advise you not to attempt Political Power and Social Classes unless you are really, really sure about it).

Clyde Barrow presented an interesting paper on the matter of Poulantzas' supposed 'Althusserian' theoretical foundations - a paper delivered, rather bewilderingly, in an American deep south accent. I can't be sure, but I should think that Barrow usually speaks with a deep south accent, rather than saving it for the delivery of papers on Poulantzas. It's quite odd, at first, listening to someone who sounds not completely unlike Deputy Dawg talking about the structural configuration of different modes of production - but one gets used to it after a while. I liked Barrow very much - seemed like a really nice guy.

Basically, Barrow's argument (and one with which I fully agree) was that people are wrong to pigeon-hole Poulantzas as an 'Althusserian'. I certainly get rather annoyed when people dismiss P's later work for 'incorporating substantial Althusserian residues' - even if it does (which I don't think it does in any meaningful sense - what, exactly, are 'Althusserian residues' anyway?) there is a real wealth of stuff in State, Power, Socialism which people tend to miss if they are busily hunting for Althusserian left-overs. I suppose most people would agree that P had made a significant (if not decisive - which I think he had) break with Althusser with the publication of SPS - but Barrow wanted to push this further and argue that even the early Poulantzas (you know, the Poulantzas in his 'Althusserian phase' - that one) is not, in any significant sense, working within an Althusserian paradigm (or should I say 'problematic') - (No, I shouldn't).
Barrow pointed out that there are very clear differences between the early P and Althusser and Balibar. Althusser and Balibar operate with what Barrow described as a 'Platonic' conception of the constitutive elements which go to make up a mode of production in their structuralist schema. Althusser argues, basically, that each mode of production is made up of a particular configuration of pre-existing elements - 'the economy', 'the political' etc. (an analysis which seems rather to mirror liberal categorisation). They reproduce the capitalist assumption that the economy is an autonomous entity - a spontaneously self-reproducing thing into which the political/state intrudes from the outside if it has anything to do with it at all. Poulantzas, however, starts his analysis at the level of the mode of production - rather than at the level of transhistorical 'ideological', 'political' or 'economic' elements of reality. So, he is not best pigeon-holed as Althusserian. And he is better than those clueless schmucks, Althusser and Balibar.

Jessop's paper aimed to convince us that P's State, Power, Socialism is a 'modern classic'. I completely agreed with him. In fact I agreed with him so much that I forgot to make any notes. What I remember of his presentation, however, is his argument that the section of SPS on 'Authoritarian Statism' is a remarkably prescient account of 21st Century politics - in particular, it is impossible to read this chapter without thinking 'Blimey, you're describing Blairism there even though you were writing in 1978, you remarkably prescient old fox, you'. Read it and see what I mean. The only thing P gets wrong is that he fails he anticipate the Thatcherite/Reaganite turn - he suggests that the politics of his near future would involve an extension of state ownership rather than privatisation and that 'economic' questions, would therefore, become increasingly 'politicised.' In that sense it is very much a book of its time - the 1970s. But, again, read it - and tell me that the stuff about managerialism, the hollowing out of politics, the creation of unaccountable, semi-militarised 'parallel state systems', about the increasing concentration of political power at the apex of the state executive does not describe what we have today. P, of course, goes further than this. He doesn't just 'predict' this process - he provides an intricate account of just why such a process would unfurl.

I have a scribble at the top of the Jessop page which tells me, by the way, that Althusser refused to publish an early work by Poulantzas because it was 'too historicist.' More ammunition, then, for the Poulantzas-as-not-an-Althusserian position.

In his paper, Peter Thomas argued that, if anything, Poulantzas is best thought of as a Gramscian. He focused on the final chapter (first published as an article in NLR) of SPS (a brilliant if flawed attempt to draw out the practical strategic implications of his theory of the state). It focused on Poulantzas' reading of Gramsci's conception of the distinction between 'state' and 'civil society'. Thomas argued that Poulantzas wrongly attributed to Gramsci, the idea that the state is 'a closed place' - a self-contained entity, separated and distinct from 'civil society', whereas the whole thrust of P's argument in SPS is that the state is a social relation and that it is therefore continually modified by changing balances of social forces - that 'the state is traversed from end to end by the effects of popular struggles' (I'm quoting from memory there, so that's probably wrong - but it's something like that. I am, of course, too lazy to go and get the book from my office.) Poulantzas' and Gramsci's understanding of the state, Thomas suggested, was much closer than Poulantzas thought. Thomas also provided, along the way, an incidental critique of Anderson's 'The Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci' - one of the most celebrated and thorough analyses of Gramsci's thought. I wish I could remember what the criticism was exactly. There is some flaw in Anderson's approach - no can't remember it. Drat.


One of the main things to emerge from the Miliband session was that - just as it makes little sense to categorise Poulantzas as an Althusserian structuralist - it is a mistake to think of Miliband as an 'instrumentalist'. There are countless 'Introduction to Political Science/Theory' books, where Marxist state theory is framed in terms of a 'structuralist/instrumentalist' debate and in which the NLR Poulantzas-Miliband debate is wheeled out as the structuralist-instrumentalist bun fight par excellence. The NLR Poulantzas-Miliband (and Laclau sticks his big waggling oar in at one stage, too) is actually pretty unenlightening. In fact its a bit shit if you ask me. Miliband and Poulantzas simply talk past each other. Poulantzas starts it by (unfairly) accusing Miliband of being a crude instrumentalist and Miliband responds (quite understandably) by arguing that, 'Well, Mr Poulantzas, you are just a structuralist abstractionist and you talk bollocks'. So it's Poulantzas' fault. Miliband, however, was not an 'instrumentalist' - his 'instrumentalist' book, The State in Capitalist Society is an intervention in a particular debate and can only be understood properly in that context. What Miliband was trying to do in that book, was to prove 'pluralism' wrong on its own terms, by pointing out the continuing salience of class and showing that power (particularly the levers of state power) was/were not evenly distributed amongst social groups.

In fact (as Paul Wetherley stressed in his paper) Miliband does provide a fairly robust account of the 'structural constraints' which state agents encounter and which tend to safeguard capitalism from political courses of action which my have the effect of weakening it. See his NLR essay, State Power and Class Interests for example. But even in The State in Capitalist Society Miliband is quite clear that the state is not capitalist simply because of the class background of senior state managers (the argument wrongly attributed to him on a frequent basis). In fact he provides a whole chapter on 'structural constraints' in that book!

Interestingly, Barrow (in his Miliband paper) suggested that the category 'instrumentalism' was invented almost arbitarily by Gold, Lo and (Erik Olin) Wright in a graduate paper they had published in Monthly Review in 1975 (‘Recent Developments in Marxist Theories of the Capitalist State’). They simply made up the category for the sake of convenience and proceeded to dump a few theorists into it. For some reason, the term became popular and the categorisation of Miliband (and Domhoff - who, amusingly, produced, at some point, an essay entitled 'I am not an Instrumentalist') just stuck. An interesting question then - have there ever been any Marxist 'instrumentalist' state theorists?

Paul Blackledge began his paper on Miliband by sticking his tongue out at my girlfriend, causing her to go into an uncontrollable giggling fit for the duration of the session. The substance of his paper consisted of the argument that Miliband's position on socialist strategy in the last chapter of Marxism and Politics (1977) is flawed since it is based on a faulty view of the relationship between Leninism and the Popular Front strategy. It seems to me that Blackledge is right about Miliband's conflation of Leninism with Popular Front strategies. However, I wasn't convinced by his argument. He got a bit of a telling off from Hilary Wainwright and Leo Panitch looked distinctly hostile. The argument (as I remember) from the floor was that Miliband (and other New Left figures such as E P Thompson and Raymond Williams) objected to Leninism for reasons that could not be boiled down to Miliband's mistaken reading of Popular Front politics. They (Miliband, Thompson, Williams) never made the leap into Leninism/Trotskyist politics (even though they produced some fearsome critiques of both Stalinism and parliamentary labourism) quite simply because they just didn't like the look of Leninism or Trotskyism. Seems about right to me actually. Miliband didn't have an 'incorrect' or 'partial' or 'incomplete' analysis of Stalinism or reformism or whatever. He didn't make the leap because, very simply, he was just waiting for something rather more agreeable to come along.

Peter Burnham presented an interesting paper on Miliband's Parliamentary Socialism - a classic which every left-leaning member of the Labour Party should read. Burnham's argument, which seems about right to me, was that Miliband oscillated throughout his life between calling for battle within the Labour Party and calling for the building of a new party. I wonder if this oscillation wasn't at all conditioned by his dislike of Leninist parties - the thought, that is, that all of those (in many ways) rather unattractive Trot parties out there had cornered the extra-Labour Party market as it were so, bollocks, we'd better look again at the Labour Left.

This post is now far too long. I'll end it there. I may write up the Ecological crisis and the international state system stuff in a couple of days.


This post is probably best described as a 'splurge of consciousness' rather than a coherent summary of a set of academic papers. I'm sorry. But it's late, I'm tired and it's nearly Christmas.

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