Nicos Poulantzas’s third major work is a pioneering survey of some of the most fundamental, yet least studied, aspects of the class structure of advanced capitalist societies today. The book starts with a general theoretical essay that for the first time seriously explores the distinction between the “agents” and “positions” of capitalist relations of production, and seeks to avoid the typical errors of either functionalism or historicism. It also provides a polemical reconsideration of the problem of the “nation state” as a political unit today, and its relationship to the internationalization of capital.
Finally, and most originally, Poulantzas develops a long and powerful analysis of the much-abused concept of the “petty-bourgeoisie.” In this, he scrupulously distinguishes between the “traditional” categories of petty-bourgeoisie—shopkeepers, artisans, small peasants—and the “new” categories of clerical workers, supervisors, and salaried personnel in modern industry and commerce. At the same time he demonstrates the reasons why a unitary conceptualization of their class position is possible. The difficult question of the definition of “productive” and “unproductive” labor within Marx’s own account of the capitalist mode of production is subjected to a novel and radical reinterpretation. The political oscillations peculiar to each form of petty-bourgeoisie and especially their characteristic reactions to the industrial proletariat, are cogently assessed.
Poulantzas ends his work with a reminder that the actions and options of the petty-bourgeoisie are critical to any successful struggle by the working class, which must secure the alliance of important sections of the petty-bourgeoisie if the fateful experience of Chile is not to recur elsewhere tomorrow. Combining empirical and theoretical materials throughout, Classes in Contemporary Capitalism represents a notable achievement in the development of Marxist social science and political thought.
On the weekend of the international conference on Nicos Poulantzas’s work held at the Sorbonne on 16–17 January, Contretemps published this interview with Michael Löwy, who was for seven years the late Greek-French thinker’s assistant at the Université de Paris 8-Vincennes.
Can you tell us about how you met Nicos Poulantzas?
In the 1960s my Brazilian friend Emir Sader – who to this day remains one of the most important Latin American Marxists – was living in exile in France. After my own move to France in 1969 I met with Emir one day and he said to me: ‘I have to leave for Chile’ (this was a few months before Salvador Allende’s Unidad Popular came to power, in 1970), ‘can you take my place as Nicos Poulantzas’s assistant at Vincennes university’? I said ‘yes, of course…’ That was when he introduced me to Nicos, who also agreed to this.
At that time, Nicos knew nothing of my own theoretical and political pedigree. He had no reason to worry about that, since Emir had vouched for me. But we belonged to very different tribes of Marxists: he was an Althusserian whereas I was a Lukácsian, he was semi-Maoist and then a Eurocommunist, whereas I was a Trotskyist. And yet we got along marvellously well. Over the years we organised courses on the Third International, the national question, state theory, Lenin, Gramsci… And at the outset we had decided to do the courses together. The students loved this, because they heard two different points of view on each of these themes. Our little duo lasted for some years…