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Review: Poulantzas and the Problem of Fascism

Reviewed Work(s): Fascism and Dictatorship: The Third International and the Problem of
Fascism by Nicos Poulantzas and Judith White
Review by: Anson G. Rabinbach
Source: New German Critique, No. 8 (Spring, 1976), pp. 157-170
Published by: Duke University Press
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/487727
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Poulantzas and the Problem of Fascism

by Anson G. Rabinbach
Nicos Poulantzas, Fascism and Dictatorship: The Third Internation
Problem of Fascism. Translated by Judith White, London: New Left Bo
366 pages.

Although European Marxists have been engaged in a reevaluation of the p

fascism for more than a decade, Nicos Poulantzas' Fascism and Dictatorship i
comprehensive work of this kind to appear in English, and has already attra
deal of attention.1 Poulantzas' goal was not to write a history of fascism in
Germany (Japan and the quasi-fascist states, e.g., Austria, Spain, Portu
included), but rather to provide a theoretical framework based on the no
"exceptional" character of the fascist state, derived from Marx's analy
Bonapartist dictatorship in the 18th Brumaire, and applied to fascism in th
Otto Bauer, Trotsky and August Thalheimer. Fascism and Dictatorship is
closely tied to the theory of the state which Poulantzas developed in his
work, Political Power and Social Classes and to a large extent is an attempt
criticisms of that earlier book.
What Poulantzas' critics had above all found wanting in Political Power and Social
Classes was a historical dimension, which Poulantzas' structuralism had excluded, and
which resulted in a monolithic logic of the state which seemed to posit a basically
unchanging continuity of the capitalist state. This absence of a historical dimension
indicated that the structuralist approach could not account for the authoritarian
forms of the capitalist state since it did not distinguish between "exceptional" or crisis
forms, and the "normal" legal forms of the capitalist state.2 Poulantzas' study of
fascism thus attempts to demonstrate the significance of his theory of the state for
precisely those conditions which it supposedly could not explain.
Without a doubt, Fascism and Dictatorship is more oriented toward history than
Poulantzas' earlier work. Yet, it is also a bad compromise: more often than not,
Poulantzas' structuralist method gets in the way of his history, and his history in the
way of his method. From the start the two never really hit it off, and the mismatch is
already evident in the structure of the book itself. The decision to separate theoretical
and historical chapters establishes the primacy of method over history in the very

1. For a discussion of recent literature in the Federal Republic see my: "Towards a Marxist
Theory of Fascism and National Socialism: A Report on Developments in West Germany," New
German Critique, S (Fall, 1974), 127-153.
2. See Nicos Poulantzas, Political Power and Social Classes (London, 1973) and Ralph
Miliband, "Poulantzas and the Capitalist State." New Left Review, 82 (November-December,
1973), 85-92.

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principle of organization. The book proceeds in a leapfrog fashion so that chapters

begin with "a series of general propositions" followed by historical examples "which
are intended to illustrate these propositions" (13). Theoretical and historical materials
are never integrated, resulting in an unwieldy dualism throughout the work. Despite
Poulantzas' disclaimer that "this is not a historiographical study" but a "study in
political theory" the methodological consequences of his organizing principle go far
beyond disciplinary considerations.
Moreover, Poulantzas' approach is not wholly unknown to Anglo-Saxon historical
theory. At the heart of his argument is a structuralist Marxist version of the
modernization thesis: that the function of fascism was to exorcize the traditional social
structure which presented an obstacle to the development of capitalist hegemony in
Italy and Germany.3 It is significant therefore that Poulantzas seems unaware of such
standard works as Barrington Moore's Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy,
which a decade ago pointed to the role of popular and plebeian reactionary
movements where the resistance of pre-capitalist social formations necessitated new
forms of legitimation for an essentially statist and authoritarian course of capitalist
development.4 The absence of a discussion of Moore's work, as well as of much of the
detailed scholarship in this area is indicative of a deeper problem with Poulantzas'
historical investigation. There is an almost indiscriminate and unsystematic selection
of sources to support arguments which, even from the perspective of the established
interpretations, seem rather dated and questionable.
Central to any critique of this book, however, is not Poulantzas' historiography,
which he admits is not a major concern, but his method. Poulantzas' goal is to provide
a structuralist foundation for a theory of fascism, and thereby to avoid the "historicist
fallacy" which relativizes and homogenizes history, resulting in a lack of scientific rigor
in historical writing. He poses a scientific alternative in which the categories are
provided by the logic of the structure that precedes and is validated by the historical
material. Contradictions exist only within a structured whole, and linear progress is
replaced by a series of "displacements" and variances in the course of uneven
development. An ordered and "purposeful" comprehension of phenomena is made
possible by a discovery of the function of a specific event within this framework. Here
his method is ultimately identical with Althusser's dictum that only a " 'determination'
in the last instance makes it possible to escape the arbitrary relativism of observable
displacements by giving these displacements the necessity of a function. "5 Unlike
Althusser, however, Poulantzas emphasizes the historical function of the relatively
autonomous structures and "conjunctures." He thus rejects unilinear causality and his

3. For a sympathetic discussion of this approach see Henry Ashby Turner, Jr., "Fascism and
Modernization," World Politics, 24 (July, 1972), 547-564; A.F.K. Organski, "Fascism and
Modernization," in S.J. Woolf ed., The Nature of Fascism (London, 1968), pp. 19-41. For a
general theoretical statement see Reinhard Bendix, "Tradition and Modernity Reconsidered,"
Comparative Studies in Society and History, 9 (1967), 292-346.
4. Barrington Moore, Jr., Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy; Lord and Peasant
in the Making of the Modern World (Boston, 1966).
5. Louis Althusser, Etienne Balibar, Reading Capital (London, 1970), p. 99.

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attempt to develop a structural historicism constitutes itself as a deterministic "sc

of uneven development."6 It is ironic therefore that this method only represses its
secret teleology and results in a far more absolutized and determinist history than
historicism that Poulantzas seeks to escape.
Poulantzas has three essential objectives in Fascism and Dictatorship. First,
attempts to account for fascism as "a particular political phenomenon" (12)
analyzing the global and national circumstances in which it appeared. Second
provides a structural model of fascism as a specific form of the exceptional capit
state, distinct from both military dictatorship and 19th-century Bonapartism
Poulantzas the key to a reconsideration of the problem of the genesis of fascism is
political crisis that emerged in Italy and Germany and obstructed the realizatio
monopoly capitalist hegemony in the "weak links" (Italy and Germany) in the g
imperialist chain. By situating the fascist movement within this hierarchy of det
minations, Poulantzas argues that its function was to secure the hegemony
monopoly class interests by piercing the encrustations of the old social framework
exploding the impasse within the ruling group (power bloc). Fascism is thus
product of a constellation of social relations (conjuncture of class struggle) wh
demands an exceptional solution to exceptional circumstances. Poulantzas' mod
the fascist state as distinct from other forms of authoritarian class rule rests on the
functional role of fascism in the political crisis.
The third aspect of Poulantzas' interpretation is not directly concerned with an
analysis of fascism, but with the theory and strategy of the Third Interntional, which
despite its incapacity to either practically or theoretically come to terms with fascism
has dominated orthodox Marxisrr for more than four decades. In fact, this concern
not only makes up the book's subtitle, but is a substantial leitmotif throughout: "It is
clearly impossible to discuss fascism without discussing the working class, and equally
impossible to discuss the working class in the inter-war period without going into the
politics of the Comintern" (12). Yet it is in this area that the most problematic
consequences of Poulantzas' own interpretation most clearly emerge. There is a
hidden orthodoxy which is also the moral lesson of Fascism and Dictatorship: that
fascism was a punishment for a strategic error, fated by Soviet developments, and
mystically revealed by the Chinese experience, which for Poulantzas provides the soul
of his own non-"Europocentric" perspective.

Fascism and Political Crisis: The Limits of Structuralist Theory

From the outset Poulantzas makes explicit his intention to avoid the strict linear
causality of the orthodox view and to provide a theoretical alternative to the
economistic determinism which plagued the Comintern theory of fascism in the 1930s.
For Poulantzas the decisive element is to be found neither in economic circumstances,
such as crises, nor in exclusively national developments. Rather, the global situation,

6. Marc Zimmerman, "Polarities and Contradictions: Theoretical Bases of the

Marxist-Structuralist Encounter," New German Critique, 7 (Winter, 1976), 76.

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and more important, the constellation of national social formations that arises from it,
constitutes the structural basis for the political crisis that is the crucial component.
The political crisis that stands at the center of Poulantzas' interpretation is above all
characterized by the inability of the economically dominant capitalist class to achieve
political hegemony among those classes that make up the coalition constituting the
power of the state. Thus, those classes that share power are unable to find a way out of
the stalemate in which no single class or faction in the ruling power bloc can take
command, including the historically obstructed monopoly interests.
In Poulantzas' view the origins of the crisis must not be sought in the instrumentalist
thesis that capitalism produced fascism to save itself, or that the class interests used the
fascist movement and the state as its "agent." For Poulantzas, a class analysis of
fascism proceeds from "the conjuncture of class struggle," which refers to the
short-term constellation of socio-economic forces produced in a given national
framework by the context of global development. The political crisis that calls forth a
fascist solution is formed by the "specific historical transition to the establishment of
monopoly capitalism" (21) in the imperialist stage of capitalist development. Fascism
belongs to a global framework in which a significant degree of state intervention is
necessitated by the "transition between two modes of production in a single social
formation" (21).
As Poulantzas recognizes, however, fascism is not a universal characteristic of this
transition, but specific to the situation where exceptional circumstances brought it to
power (Italy, Germany, Japan). The fascist form of state intervention took root only
where certain types of national development made impossible a "normal" transition to
monopoly capitalist hegemony; where the dominant class could not achieve control
within the state apparatus. The critical factor is not the level of economic
development, but rather the structural weaknesses that occur within the "weak links"
of the global capitalist chain. From this standpoint Poulantzas provides us with a
textual reading of the "conjunctures" and "displacements" iwhich give the social
pathology of fascism its historical purpose.
There are two essential aspects in Poulantzas' crisis theory: first, the internal crisis
and the disintegration of the power bloc which turns into a general crisis of politics
and ideology; and second, the rise of fascism as a stage-like process. Here Poulantzas
adapts Gramsci's essentially 'historicist' analysis of the crisis of authority to a pre-
fabricated structuralist model. On a political level the internal crisis takes the form of
"the breaking of representational ties and the political parties" (71), i.e., the ruling
classes and class fractions loosen the ties binding them to their respective political
parties, while at the same time those parties are increasingly unable to organize
political hegemony over the classes they represent. This delegitimization is transposed
to the ideological level where a parallel crisis of the dominant ideology takes place,
accompanied by a general ideological crisis enveloping the labor movement and the
petty bourgeoisie. In the case of the latter there is an "offensive" of "imperialist-
feudal" ideology. This aspect of the crisis is accompanied by a simultaneous process of
the "steps in the growth of fascism" (65), a complex of factors which results in the

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consolidation of power of the monopoly capitalist class. This process has four stages:
1) the growth of the fascist party to a mass party that wins the support of large
capital; 2) the period of the class alliance between the monopoly interests and petty
bourgeois following of the fascist party; 3) the first period of fascism in power, during
which the monopoly interests consolidate their hegemony while continuing to make
concessions to the masses; 4) the final period of stabilization which secures the
hegemony of the monopoly interests as the dominant class, resulting in the repression
of petty bourgeois interests.
The political crisis thus emerges as a consequence of the gradual disintegration of
established political constellations and dominant ideologies which obstructed the path
to monopoly capitalist hegemony over the state apparatus. Fascism and its
development from a weak movement to final control over the state thus acts as a
conductor for the current that leads from the historical impasse of a given social
formation to the establishment of monopoly rule. The political crisis is resolved by
fascism which abandons its autonomy to the monopoly interests once in power.
Fascism is therefore not a specific social formation unto itself, but rather a transitional
moment in the development from liberal capitalist (or pre-capitalist) forms of
domination to monopoly domination, placed within a backdrop of global
developments that can be seen as exceptional in themselves.
Poulantzas' attempt to provide an alternative to crude economism is based on a
theory in which economics is not a priori primacy, and in which multiple deter-
minations are given significant status. Events are important only insofar as they are
functional components of the structure as a whole. But the modernization theory
implications of this perspective are unmistakable throughout: fascism is a purgative of
the restraints on capitalist development. Lenin's theory of the imperialist chain is
ultimately the determining force from which Poulantzas' global perspective develops.
In his view only this starting point breaks with the economism of the Comintern and
the reduction of history to simple causal and linear national development.7 Germany
and Italy exemplify "weak links" not simply as the most backward economically, which
they clearly were not, but as the most unevenly developed internally of those social
formations. In Italy and Germany extremely accelerated industrial capitalist
development and embedded traditional social structures collided internally.
Poulantzas argues that it is only in this context that the epochal character of fascism is
comprehensible. It was a product of the political crisis that emerged from structural

7. Poulantzas' view of state intervention as a characteristic of the transition to monopoly

capitalist hegemony in the imperialist stage is shortsighted insofar as a narrow reliance on Lenin's
periodization obscures the more general and widespread tendency toward "statist"
industrialization outside of the English context. More recent interpretations of the changing
global context of industrialization have pointed out that throughout the 19th century German
and Russian industrialization departed from the English norm in precisely this regard. Moreover,
the Russian case, which Poulantzas does not discuss, is the paradigm of statist development. See
Frederick Stirton Weaver, "Relative Backwardness and Cumulative Change: A Comparative
Approach to European Industrialization," Studies in Comparative International Development, 9
(Summer, 1974), 70-97.

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features particular to countries in transition to the monopoly capitalist stage--and

reducible to economic considerations only "in the last instance."
Poulantzas' point about the epochal character of fascism is a valuable counterpoint
to the pretentious diagnosis of imminent fascism now current in France and West
Germany.8 But the greater part of his argument is hardly new to theorists of fascism.
As early as 1935, Ernst Bloch's extremely significant Erbschaft dieser Zeit pointed to
the schism between contemporaneous and non-contemporaneous elements in the
social structure of Germany and, moreover, demonstrated the decisive impact of this
structural situation on the consciousness of the social groups affected.9 His conclusion
was that the German Mittelstand looked backward to a reactionary utopia based on a
pre-industrial myth and grounded in a "revolt of nature" (Horkheimer), while
capitalist class interests looked towards a capitalist society fully rationalized and
streamlined according to the prescriptions of a technocratic utopia. Prophetically,
Bloch clearly foresaw the dissolution of the forms and content of the pre-industrial
utopia into the rationalization of nature that followed the seizure of power. Yet,
Bloch's analysis went further than Poulantzas' by illuminating the ambivalence within
the very structure of fascism itself, an ambivalence that finds its way into every
moment of fascist domination: the balance between pre-capitalist myth, late capitalist
rationality (technocratic principle, culture industry, rationalized propaganda), and
specifically fascist modes of social integration (aestheticized politics, ritual).
From Bloch's perspective the crucial aspect of fascism is its cultural synthesis, its
particular form of social integration which replaces the delegitimized bourgeois public
sphere in the "crisis of authority." It is in the context of the collapse of the bourgeois
public sphere and its reconstitution as a fascist public sphere that the specific aspects
of the fascist movement can be seen as the decisive mediation between the social-
psychological and political dimensions of the crisis. Furthermore, the ambivalence of
fascist culture points to a radical disjuncture between the function of fascism and its
universalistic attempt to create a mode of social integration, which, although
regressive, is also distinct from the way in which other forms of capitalism attempt to
arrive at legitimacy. For this reason, fascism may in fact represent a qualitatively
different social formation from liberal capitalism with its identity of exchang
economy and ideology of possessive individualism, and from late capitalism with it

8. For a recent example of this tendency see Wolfgang Fritz Haug's "Faschismus-Theorie in
antifaschistischer Perspektive," Das Argument, 87 (November, 1974), 537-542. Not only has this
tendency meant a return to theoretical orthodoxy of the worst sort, but is in fact a legitimation
for the Current 'Biindnispolitik' policy of the DKP. For a critique see Eike Hennig, "Faschistische
Oeffentlichkeit und Faschismustheorien; Bemerkungen zu einem Arbeitsprogramm," Aesthetik
und Kommunikation, 20 (June, 1975), 107-117. For an example of French Maoist writings along
this line, see Andre Glucksmann, "Der alte und der neue Faschismus," in Foucault, Geismar,
Glucksmann, u.a., Neuer Faschismus, Neue Demokratie; Ueber die Legalitat des Faschismus im
Rechtsstaat (Berlin, 1972), pp. 7-68. These essays are from a special issue of Les Temps
Modernes, 310 (1972). Foucault's critique of the Maoist position is the most valuable part of this

9. Ernst Bloch, Erbschaft Dieser Zeit (Frankfurt am Main, 1973).

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permanent crisis of legitimacy.10

Perhaps more important, what is central to Poulantzas' theory, his argument that
political crisis and fascism are levers for the establishment of monopoly capitalist class
rule, is also the most open to both empirical and theoretical objection. For Poulantzas
the obstruction of monopoly interests is characterized as a "hegemonial incapacity" on
the part of that class, an absolute statemate within the class itself. Older theories of
fascism, particularly Bauer's and Gramsci's, also saw a historical stalemate, which in
the inter-war period resulted from the inability of the proletariat to make good its
claims to power, and the failure of the bourgeoisie to establish a decisive hegemony,
permitting only a "third force" to intervene in the vacuum. In Poulantzas' view,
however, this represents a misinterpretation of the structural crisis that paralyzed the
pre-fascist state. It was not, as Bauer and Gramsci believed, an equilibrium of
opposing class forces, but rather a significant defeat of the working class movement
that constituted the decisive development. In contrast to Bonapartism, which was
produced by a "balance of class forces" necessitating an independnet state power with
greater autonomy in the crisis, Poulantzas argues that there is no equilibrium that
produces fascism. Rather, the defeat of the labor movement coupled with an internal
crisis within the ruling bloc reaches a critical state. The crisis ultimately rests upon the
bourgeoisie itself: "throughout the rise of fascism, the bourgeoisie remained the
principal aspect of the contradiction" (61).
There is no doubt a good deal of truth in this view. Needless to say, Trotsky's
constant warnings against the optimistic idiocy of the Comintern were clearly borne
out by events. Moreover, Gramsci's understanding that neither an economistic nor an
instrumental view of the class character of fascism is of value in contrast to the "crisis
of authority" which he thematized in his analysis of the disintegration of
parliamentary forms of rule and legitimacy in the 19th and early 20th-century state, is
indeed significant. Yet, whereas Grasmci and the Frankfurt School placed the
problem of the cultural foundations of fascism at the center of critical Marxism's
critique of the dismal state of theoretical affairs produced by the Comintern,
Poulantzas' concern is simply strategic: the offensive strategy of the Comintern should
have been replaced by a "defensive" one.
Furthermore, Poulantzas' argument rests so heavily on the presupposition of fascism
as functional for the establishing monopoly class rule that it paradoxically falls into
line with the instrumentalist theory of fascism which it attempts to replace. The initial
step in this direction is the claim that "it is not true that the NSDAP first became a
mass movement, only then to win the support of big capital" (109). For the period of
fascist rule Poulantzas is even less subtle about fascism as a tool of the ruling interests:
"the fascist party in effect increasingly operated as the political representative of big
capital, assuring its political hegemony and its direct participation in the commanding
positions of the State apparatuses" (43). Not only is there little evidence to maintain
the view that "as early as 1930 support and funds flowed in" (110), but as late as 1932

10. On this problem see Jtirgen Habermas, Legitimation Crisis, trans., Thomas McCarthy
(Boston, 1973).

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financial support from the dominant monopoly interests did not "flow" to the Nazis.11
Furthermore, financial support is not evidence of support by advanced monopoly
interests, and it seems that it was not the strongest but the weakest capitalist interests
that first sought refuge in the Nazi camp.12 The ruling monopoly interests supported
fascism only after they had become sufficiently powerless, and after the mass
movement had achieved a significant base of support, and then only reluctantly and
partially. Moreover, the "identity of interests" (Neumann) which brought fascism to
power consisted of more than bourgeois groups, and necessarily included conservative-
aristocratic, military and even "socialistic" elements (left wing of the Nazi party,
syndicalists in Italy). Finally, fascist forms of integration and the predominance of the
party continued long after the ruling interests could no longer "control" the fascist
political structure (it is questionable that they ever did).
In short, it is not the politics of fascism that produces class domination by the
monopoly interests, but rather the primacy of fascist politics and integration that
secures the existing social domination of a class at the expense of its political power.
The work of Arthur Schweitzer, Franz Neumann and Tim Mason has rightly pointed
to this aspect as a decisive characteristic of fascism. Poulantzas, however, is forced by
his structuralist method to defend a teleology of fascism against its history. Though
fascism indeed arises from a crisis in which the ruling groups cannot be assured of
hegemony, it does not necessarily prove functional, even if it may ultimately maintain
the socio-economic status quo. The dangers of dysfunction, and in the long run, of
destruction, are not to be discounted. By placing the veil of teleological necessity over
history, Poulantzas may in fact "give his displacements the necessity of a function,"
but only at the expense of any meaningful discussion of the genesis of fascism. Since his
purpose is to provide such a theory, the primacy of method over history ends with the
defeat of both. Moreover, the argument that a division of labor is possible in which
"Marxism emphasizes genesis over structure when dealing with historical events, and
emphasizes structure over genesis when dealing with historical theory," only legitimizes
the antinomy (and implicitly restores the validity of the subject-object problem that is
ignored by structuralism).13 Rather, as Poulantzas' work demonstrates, the result of
this method is as Althusser admits, to "purify the concept of the theory of history... of
any contamination by the obviousness of empirical history."14

11. See Henry Ashby Turner, Jr., "Big Business and the Rise of Hitler," American Historical
Review, 1 (October, 1969), 56-70; and Henry Ashby Turner, Jr., "Grossunternehmertum und
Nationalsozialismus 1930-1933; Kritisches und Erganzendes zu zwei neuen Forschungsbeitra-
gen," Historische Zeitschrift, 221 (September, 1975), 18-68.
12. See Alfred Sohn-Rethel, Oekonomie und Klassenstruktur des deutschen Faschismus
(Frankfurt am Main, 1973), p. 49.
13. Zimmerman approvingly cites this remark in his attempt to rescue structuralism by
arguing that it is in fact an inherent necessity of the concept of totality, even among non-rigid
and "critical" praxis-oriented Marxists such as Lukacs and Goldmann. Zimmerman concludes
that "Marxism and structuralism complement each other, since the first stresses change and the
second resistance." Zimmerman, p. 87.
14. Althusser, Balibar, p. 105.

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Poulantzas' theoretical reconstruction of the conditions for fascism thus g

structures and conjunctures the character of an autonomous and teleological n
so that even the fascist movement and fascist ideology appear only in the
rescuing the monopoly capitalist fraction from its inability to supersede the he
crisis. The emergence and development of fascism coincides and develops w
political crisis in order to fulfill its ultimate purpose and achieve "a comp
specific reorganization of the bloc" (72). Fascism therefore brings ab
modification of the power relations within the ruling group. Its significance lies o
the "shift" or displacement which it brings about within the state, cement
identity of hegemonic social forces and ruling political groups. In an effort t
Althusser's program of establishing the logical structures of a theoretical
Poulantzas turns his method into a rationalization for an objectivistic theor
incontrovertibly leads toward the absolute necessity of fascism through a
determinations reducible to global socio-economic relations in "the last instanc
extreme rigidity of Poulantzas' method and its ultimately teleological principl
to mind Engels' sarcastic remark about Christian Wolff's rationalist teleology
unfortunately could be applied to Engels as well) that "cats were created to eat
and mice to be eaten by cats, and the whole of nature to testify to the wisdom

Poulantzas' application of structuralism to concrete historical experience reveals not

only the shortcomings of his method but its ideological roots as well. In its effort to
combat the old causal mechanical determinism of Stalinist orthodoxy, structuralism
reintroduces an older and yet more serious orthodoxy, linking "scientific" Marxism to
a tradition in the 17th and 18th-century natural (and human) occurence. Although
Kantian philosophy maintained a residual interest in "the admission of a unity of
design in all things which constitute this great universe" through his transcendental
theology, this principle has remained out of sight in contemporary social theory. 16
Nevertheless, that tradition, which can also be found in an interpretation of Hegelian
dialectics that perceives spirit, not as critical and productive confrontation of the
reflecting subject with a historical object, but as an immanent purposefulness of all
things, a secret plan of history, has consistently played a role in all orthodox Marxist
theory. Though more explicit in Althusser and the structuralists, who introduce
complexity through the relative autonomy of a multiplicity of structures, the
teleological principle is also implicit in the cruder deterministic schemas from Engels
to Diamat. What is new in structuralism is the way the very language of teleology rises
to the surface while attacking (and limiting the attack to) the uni-causal determinism
of orthodox Marxism. If the "scientific" Diamat of Engels and his successors was

15. Frederick Engels, Dialectics of Nature, trans. Clemens Dutt (New York, 1940), p. 7.
16. I. Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, trans., F. Max Mtiller (New York, 1966), p. 521.
Walter Benjamin made this point when he wrote: "The puppet called 'historical materialism' is
to win all the time. It can easily be a match for anyone if it enlists the services of theology, which
today, as we knlow, is wizened and has to keep out of sight." Walter Benjamin, Illuminations,
trans., Harry Zohn (New York, 1969), p. 253.

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anticipated by the mechanistic materialism of the 18th century, structuralism returns

to a theoretical concept of inner purposefulness that characterized pre-Enlightenment
nature philosophy from Aristotle to Aquinas. Devastated by Lukacs and the Hegelian
Marxism of the 1920s and 30s, scientific Marxism is being revived, its wretched body
transfused with the new blood of structuralist method, which is in fact, a serum
manufactured by an alchemy known only to theology.

Theory of the State: The Exceptional Hypothesis

Poulantzas' methodological difficulties reemerge in his second major theme, an
analysis of the distinctive aspects of the fascist state as "a specific form of exceptional
State, in no way to be confused with other forms of the capitalist State" (12). The basis
for his analysis remains, however, identical with his earlier conception, drawn from his
reading of Marx's 18th Brumaire and articulated in Political Power and Social Classes.
In that work Poulantzas argued that the capitalist state is characterized by its "relative
autonomy" from the direct manipulation of the ruling class, and by its equally
"relatively autonomous" branches of the state apparatus. For Poulantzas, "the system
of the state is composed of several apparatuses or institutions of which certain have a
principally repressive role, in the strong sense, and others have a principally
ideological role."17 The capitalist state is above all defined by its two functions of
maintaining the uneasy harmony within the power bloc and reinforcing the disunity of
potential working class opposition. But since Poulantzas has already formulated his
notion of the function of the capitalist state from Marx's conception of Bonapartism,
from an "exceptional" form, it is difficult to see how he can then show fascism, or for
that matter, Bonapartism, to be exceptional cases. In fact, Poulantzas had already
universalized, and thus hypostatized the crisis form of the 19th-century state into a
structural model of the capitalist state as a whole: "When Marx designated
Bonapartism as the 'religion of the bourgeoisie,' in other words as characteristic of all
forms of the capitalist State, he showed that this State can only truly serve the ruling
class insofar as it is relatively autonomous from the diverse fractions of this class,
precisely in order to be able to organize the hegemony of the whole of this class."18
Poulantzas' basic definition rests therefore on the relative historical independence of
the state, in which the state machine consolidates its position "as against civil society"
(Bonapartism) and on the Gramscian notion of the state apparatus, that coercive
power which "is, however, constituted for the whole of society in an anticipation of
moments of crisis of command and direction when spontaneous consent has failed." 19

17. Nicos Poulantzas, "The Problem of the Capitalist State," New Left Review, 58
(November, December, 1969), 77.
18. This statement provides an interesting example of the structuralist mis-reading of Marx.
Marx's formulation clearly refers to the element of 'transcendence' in Bonapartist ideology and
psuedo-universal political myth rather than to any continuity with the structure of the state. He is
referring to the Rousseauian tradition of "civil religion," manifest throughout the Bonapartist
epoch. See Ibid., 74.
19. The one-sidedness of Poulantzas' reading of Gramsci is especially evident here, since

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Significantly, both Marx's and Gramsci's formulations revolve around the situation of
crisis, the latter as an anticipation, the former as a response. Poulantzas, however,
locates his definition in relation to the continuity of all capitalist state forms, and
specifically against Miliband's argument that it is the fascist state that above all
demonstrates autonomy vis-d-vis the dominant social classes. Now, in his more recent
work, Poulantzas presents us with the paradox that he has universalized the
Bonapartist conception of the state, only to assert that fascism and Bonapartism
represent exceptional forms.
The problem becomes especially acute in the discussion of the specific character of
the fascist state. Poulantzas characterizes fascism, not by a change in the nature of the
state, but by a displacement within its apparatuses, e.g., greater autonomy for the
organs of repression, or tighter control over ideological aspects. The four elements
that distinguish the fascist state are: 1) the mass party in the framework of the
ideological apparatus provides a permanent mass mobilization; 2) the party first
dominates the repressive state apparatus and later becomes dominated by it; 3) the
political police is predominant in the repressive apparatus; 4) there is a diminishing
relative autonomy of the ideological apparatus (resulting in the integration of the
family within the state apparatus).
Despite these considerations, however, Poulantzas so underestimates the importance
of specifically fascist elements that he ultimately reestablishes the identity of the fascist
state with all other capitalist state forms: "In spite of everything that has been written
to the contrary, it therefore has the features peculiar to the capitalist state" (310). By
collapsing the specific characteristics of fascism within a distended and
one-dimensional concept of the state, Poulantzas misses the significance of precisely
those aspects which characterize the primacy of fascist politics: the autonomy of the
mass movement, and the abolition of the distinction between bourgeois public and
private spheres through the abolition of traditional bourgeois forms of legitimacy. The
fact that these aspects are mentioned only in passing is a chronic weakness of the book.
Moreover, Poulantzas also underestimates fascism as a qualitatively different crisis
form, peculiar to the advanced capitalist state: that it no longer functions in the
interests of capital as a whole (or mediates the dominant interests), but in fact
abdicates this role in favor of the primacy of state activity to both secure a solution to
the crisis (economic autarchy, public works, militarization), and to provide legitimacy
through ambivalent forms of social integration (repression, mass organizations, social
policy, and symbols which ensure mass quiescence and mobilization at the same time).
The result is that Poulantzas subsumes these qualitative characteristics of fascist
cultural organization under the flat category of the "ideological apparatus."
These aspects involve not only a simple displacement within the state apparatus, but
an actual primacy of politics in which both the state and the mass movement are

Gramsci also includes the " 'spontaneous' consent given by the great masses of the population to
the general direction imposed on social life by the dominant fundamental group" as part of the
category of "social hegemony." Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, ed. and
trans., Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith (New York, 1971), p. 12.

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fundamentally freed from the constraints of political control and legal legitimacy in
order to carry through expedient policies. The fascist state is not simply another form
of the relative autonomy of the capitalist state, but is its direct elimination. In the
context of 19th-century liberal capitalism, even in the already largely statist French
situation, the relative autonomy of the state in maintaining authority and legitimacy
was restricted to crisis situations. In the 20th century the Bonapartist model broke out
of its crisis constraints and became a permanent fixture. It is this state that is the basis for
Weber's theory, and Gramsci seems to have had this in mind when he characterized the
post-Risorgimento Italian state as "Bonapartist." But the crisis situation of the
modern state in its fascist form represents more than a restructuring of its normal
form. Fascism represents the failure of the institutionalization of the relatively
autonomous capitalist state, its inability to establish itself and maintain its hegemony.
This is especially important insofar as fascism directly creates a new form of public
sphere that competes with the traditional agencies of socialization by constituting a
separate mode of mass integration and propaganda. For this reason Poulantzas'
functionalism cannot account for the way that the state is able to organize mass support
and secure the hegemony of the dominant class. The absence of a theory of fascism as a
mass movement which can explain the success of its symbols and organizational forms
reduces the problem to a one-way theory of ideological manipulation.

Fascism as Retribution: The Third International

By far the weakest section of Fascism and Dictatorship is devoted to a critique of the
politics of the Comintern. It is this theme, however, that is perhaps the most
significant because it points to the strategic "alternative" implicit in Poulantzas'
argument. Poulantzas claims that the Comintern was imprisoned in an "economic
catastrophism" which justified two equally disastrous and contradictory interpre-
tations. This resulted in a consequential double determinism which, before the Nazi
seizure of power predicted that fascism could not succeed in a "highly industrialized
and economically advanced country like Germany" (38), and after the fact claimed
that it was precisely because of its advanced industrial character that fascism had
succeeded and could be anticipated in other advanced capitalist countries. Yet,
despite the validity of this judgment, Poulantzas' critique of the Third International
is quite restrained and is more concerned with bolstering his own position and its
strategic concept. In fact, his approach is restricted to a criticism of the "economism"
and "absence of a mass line" in the Comintern theory and propaganda, avoiding any
discussion of the more fundamental problem of the inability of European Communist
parties to function as more than legitimating organs of Soviet foreign policy in a
period when revolutionary spontaneity (which they stridently disavowed) had in fact
ceased to exist, an absence which only reinforced the increasing authoritarianism and
acceptance of Stalinism among the European Communists.
The main thrust of Poulantzas' critique is not directed toward the decisive failures
which plagued the Comintern from the eclipse of the revolutionary period of
1919-1921 through the entire phase of Bolshevisation. His main purpose is to

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postulate, in retrospect, an alternative drawn from the Chinese view of Sovie

development. In fact, his critique is so fundamentally rooted in the Chinese inte
pretation of Soviet history that it serves as the foundation for his most fundamen
assumptions. It is in this framework alone that Poulantzas' curious approval of Cl
Zetkin's 1923 remark that "historically and objectively, fascism is more o
punishment of the proletariat for not taking the revolutionary road..." (51) is
comprehensible. Fascism becomes the retribution for the sins of the proletariat
Poulantzas' citation of this statement is not incidental. It is crucial for the
standpoint which he assumes, and it reveals the ideological substance of his "scien
method. For Poulantzas the problem of fascism is resolved only by an analysis of
went on in the USSR" since "such an analysis ought to be based precisely o
historical experience of the Chinese revolution and the principles developed by
(230). Relying on Bettelheim's questionable reading of Soviet history, Poulantzas
the source of the debacle of the Third International in the outcome of "the desp
struggle in the USSR between the 'two roads' [the capitalist and the socialist]"
Not only does Poulantzas uncritically accept Bettelheim's Maoist interpretation
the USSR is a "state capitalist" country ruled by a "state bourgeoisie" with imper
ambitions and authoritarian policies, but the level of rhetoric only makes more s
the points of comparison between the Soviet Union and China that are suppresse
Clearly, the more sober reflections on the Chinese experience which some re
French observers have offered on the economic weaknesses and political faul
"post-Leninist authoritarianism" have not entered this idyllic world. 21 For Poul
the answer to the riddle of fascism lies in the "reconstitution of the Soviet bourg
which sealed the fate of the labor movement, and is made intelligible by the Ch
Here Poulantzas' attempt to view the history of the Comintern from the lofty perch
of the Chinese revolution and its self-legitimating principles in fact establishes a much
more fundamental continuity between his own thinking and the real failure of the
Third International: a fetishism of the Leninist party organization and the
subordination of the problem of subjectivity and consciousness to the interests of
bureaucratic homogeneity and control.22 Poulantzas' resurrection of a true Leninism
through Mao is a substitute for his inability to confront the crisis of European Marxism
in the 1930s. The repression of history is also evident in his avoidance of any
consideration of the possibility that the universalization of the instrumentalist
conception of the party was itself an expression of the fact that revolutionary
self-consciousness had ceased to be identical with class position in the post-1919
period, and that the future had been decisively, in Bloch's word, "obstructed." An

20. For an excellent critique of Bettelheim, see Ralph Miliband, "Bettelheim and the Soviet
Experience," New Left Review, 91 (May-June, 1975), 57-66.
21. Gilbert Padoul, "China 1974: Problems not Models," New Left Review, 89 (January,
February, 1975). 73-84.
22. See Paul Mattick, Jr.'s review of Paul Sweezy and Charles Bettelheim, The Transition to
Socialism (New York, 1972) in Telos, 20 (Summer, 1974), 167-174.

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explanation of the false politics of the Comintern which rests on the fantasy that if
Mao's theory of the "third phase" or some such thing had been understood, fascism
could have been prevented and the correct line blissfully adopted by the masses,
cannot be taken seriously. Yet, it illuminates Poulantzas' attempt to escape the vise of
structuralist determinism through its real counterpart: an orthodox "voluntarism."
Perhaps it is for this reason that structuralism has become so attractive to American
Marxists in the 1970s. The eclipse of a radical opposition in the West has forced the
now somewhat jaded generation of the 1960s to seek its red star over China. The more
tenaciously the structures of western domination seem to assert themselves, the more
alluring become the sirens of the East. But the mysteries of the orient have already
been pierced by the Nixon visit which revealed that the people's palaces were filled
with Realpolitik. The danger is that structuralism may in fact become to the Marxism
of the 1970s what Diamat was to the epoch of Stalin and Hitler. As a result, any
advantages that might have been gained from the adoption of the Gramscian notion of
the "crisis of hegemony" in the theory of fascism are ultimately lost in Poulantzas'
structuralist epistemology. Attempting to turn Marxism into a science of history,
Poulantzas comes far closer to natural theology and loses sight of Gramsci's own
prescient warnings against a "mechanical historical materialism" that "assumes that
every political act is determined, immediately, by the structure."23

Anson G. Rabinbach

23. Gramsci, Prison Notebooks, pp. 407,408.

No. 44 May 1976


An examination of the deepest problem in the Marxist tradition: the unresolved dual
definition of freedom as the absence of necessity, and as the sensual interaction of
subject and object. With discussion by Raya Dunayevskaya, Rollo Handy, Jeremy J.
Shapiro, Carmen Sirianni, Bernard Murchland, and Kingsley Widmer. Reply by
Harrell. $3.00 per copy.

Arthur Efron, Edito

123 Woodward Avenue, B

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