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Michael Löwy: The Nicos Poulantzas I knew

Mike Watson 5 March 2015

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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.[1] 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…

What kind of person was Nicos Poulantzas?

He was a warm guy. He was a Mediterranean character, just what you imagine Greeks to be like… He had a great sense of humour, he was always joking around. He was generous, particularly with the students, among whom he was very popular. Our classes were packed to the rafters, hundreds of students would attend. Nicos Poulantzas was the opposite of a sectarian – a Marxist full of joy. In retrospect, his 1979 suicide might give the impression that he had a dark personality, but that wasn’t the case.

Around 1974 I asked him to be part of the panel for my dissertation on Lukács. He was supportive toward me, but I’ll never forget a remark he made during my viva: ‘Michael, what’s a bright guy like you doing, wasting your time on Lukács’? In his eyes, Lukács was an unbearable ultra-leftist…

For my part I found his books interesting, and of course I did read them, but for me he was too Althusserian, too structuralist. Our views came closer together toward the end, since in his last texts his earlier structuralism gave way to a more political treatment of the question of social classes and the state.  

Did you have the opportunity to debate him, outside of the classes themselves?

Yes, in particular I remember an occasion in the mid-1970s when our New Left Review comrades invited us to take part in a debate in London. Nicos had to present the arguments advanced in his last great book, State, Power, Socialism, whose famous concluding section on ‘the democratic road to socialism’ the NLR published.

Above all else, I remember saying that the way in which Nicos addressed Rosa Luxemburg’s thinking in this book seemed particularly useful. I, for my part, have always been a Luxemburgist. The point that Rosa made – and that Nicos picked up on, and then took further – concerned the need to combine both representative and direct democracy in the revolutionary process. I think that’s still an important idea today.

What was your thinking on his political position and how it developed?

It was really impossible to categorise Nicos’s politics. He was a member of Greece’s KKE (Interior) – a ‘Eurocommunist’ split in the Communist movement, breaking with Moscow at the time of the Prague Spring. I’ll mention in passing that the KKE (Interior) makes up part of the traditions underlying Syriza, the party of the Greek radical Left today. In this sense, Nicos was openly communist, but he also sometimes expressed what I would consider ‘reformist’ tendencies. In 1974 Greek democracy was re-established under the aegis of the Right, organised around Constantin Karamanlis. And the KKE (Interior) decided to support Karamanlis, with the slogan ‘Karamanlis or the tanks’ – it being implied that Karamanlis was the only alternative to dictatorship. Which is highly debatable…

Nicos did not live through the colonels’ dictatorship, he had already moved to Paris by that point. But he followed the Greek situation closely, and his book on the Crisis of the Dictatorships (NLB, 1976) includes a substantial discussion of Greece. I remember the debates that he had with PASOK members in Paris who were students of his. He was extremely critical of that party, and in retrospect the least that you can say is that he was right on that front.

That said, Nicos also had sympathies – like many others at the time, certainly – for Maoism and the Chinese Cultural Revolution. So his political position was sui generis

What was the main disagreement between you in those years?

At the debate that I just mentioned, organised by the NLR, I argued for a classically Leninist position holding that any revolutionary process involves the destruction of the state apparatus. He was a lot more reserved on that point. He maintained that since the state is a composite body resulting from struggles among different social forces, some parts of it could be conserved over the course of the revolutionary process.

With the end of the dictatorship in Greece, he came to take a different view of the question of the state apparatus and how revolutionary forces should act with regard to this apparatus. Other factors had also shifted him from his initial Leninism. The Union of the Left in France [the electoral alliance of the Communist and Socialist parties as well as the left-Radicals, its first period running from 1972–77] implied a concept of social transformation different to the idea of ‘dual power’ that had appeared in the Russian Revolution, and which Leon Trotsky had analysed in his History of the Russian Revolution. The Union of the Left also implied a different relationship with social democracy, that is, with the Parti Socialiste. The experience of the 1974 Carnation Revolution in Portugal – but also Allende’s Chile (1970–73) – influenced Nicos’s development, too. The strategic context of the mid-1970s was no longer the same as it had been right after May ’68, when there seemed to be an irresistible revolutionary wave engulfing all four corners of the world…


Did you read Poulantzas’s work within the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR), which you were a member of back then? Were his ideas discussed in the group?

Daniel Bensaïd took his ideas very seriously, on the site with Daniel’s writings you can find a lot of articles devoted to Poulantzas, or which polemicise, more generally, with the Eurocommunist tendency to which Nicos belonged. Henri Weber read Poulantzas before he joined the Parti Socialiste, and notably the LCR’s theoretical journal Critique communiste published an interview that Weber did with Poulantzas in 1977.[2] But I don’t think that he was read a lot in the LCR more generally, in its activist circles.

Your work together at Paris 8 lasted up till the second half of the ‘70s…

Yes, that’s right. I didn’t manage to get tenure at Paris 8 and so in 1977 I went to the CNRS. The heads of the university’s sociology department didn’t want me to have any teaching hours, so then I left and our collaboration came to an end.

And not long after that, in 1979, he killed himself.

What is your thinking on that? Do you think that his suicide was linked to the political context – the political defeat of the revolutionary movements of the day?

Nicos had been depressed for more than a year. In 1978, he had what he called an accident, though some of us wondered if it was in fact a suicide attempt. I don’t believe that he had the feeling that the Left had lost, so I for my part wouldn’t say that his suicide was related to any political defeat. Certainly there was a crisis in the Union of the Left, which his attentions were principally devoted to at that time, but there was nothing irreversible about that, it was no tragedy.

Nicos’s great friend Constantin Tsoukalas, who is a friend of mine, too, was with him at the moment he did it. He says that Nicos started by throwing his books out of the window, saying that what he had written was worthless, and that he had failed in his theoretical effort – and then he threw himself out of the window. So certainly he had a feeling of personal failure. But no one will ever know – it’s an inexplicable tragedy…

There was a very particular situation at Paris 8 in that period, with not only teaching staff representing different varieties of Marxism but also thinkers like Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze and Jean-François Lyotard. Did you two have any interactions with this wider intellectual milieu?

Not really. The cloistering of different disciplines was already very entrenched, we were in the sociology department whereas they were in philosophy. Sometimes we met with people from outside the department – for example, François Châtelet, who had institutional responsibilities for the university as a whole. But our theoretical and political discussions principally took place within the sociology department, indeed more with the students than with other colleagues of ours. This was an exciting and very international environment, with students coming from all over the world.

That said, Nicos did take non-Marxist sociologists and philosophers very seriously, as we can particularly see in his last book. For example, we had exchanges on Max Weber, who he was more critical of than I was. He argued that Weber was wrong to insist that violence – the famous ‘monopoly on legitimate violence’ – is the state’s defining criterion. I retorted that since for Weber it is not the monopoly on violence that defines the state, but its monopoly on legitimate violence, he is therefore posing the question of legitimacy as fundamental…

Did Poulantzas talk to you about the Althusserian milieu’s own internal debates – with Balibar or with Althusser himself, for example?

No, not to me… as I say, I belonged to a different tribe. And what’s more, I had written articles that were very critical of Althusser. I did give him these articles to read, as it happens. He respected my critical effort, though of course he did not agree…

Did Poulantzas know about and follow the debates on his work that were taking place in other countries – in particular, those going on outside Europe?

Certainly he did follow what was being written in Britain, among the ‘New Left’. Particularly worth mentioning is his polemic with Ralph Miliband, which was an important moment in Marxist debates on the nature of the capitalist state. As for further afield… I don’t think so. While his writings were influential in Latin America, that continent was at something of a distance from his own concerns, with the one exception of the Chilean experience. Though Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who would later become President of Brazil, did devote several articles to Poulantzas’s ideas.

Nicos thought above all in European terms – in his outlook, the conditions of social transformation had to be considered within a European context.

What influence did Poulantzas have on your own work? You were a student of Lucien Goldmann – a thinker whose Marxism was at the other end of the scale to Poulantzas’s…

Poulanztas was close to Goldmann and Sartre in his early thinking, before he discovered Althusser. So he was not completely foreign to what Ernst Bloch called the ‘warm currents’ of Marxism.

At a conference on Poulantzas’s work held in Greece about ten years ago, I presented a paper saying that the experience of ‘participatory budgeting’ in Porto Alegre, in Brazil, is an example of the combination of representative and direct democracy that Nicos talked about. I still think I was right on that point. Recently I returned to this idea in a short volume that I wrote together with Olivier Besancenot on the links between Marxism and anarchism.[3] Indeed, there’s a chapter in this book in which we discuss anarchist ideas on direct democracy, and where we show that in practice anarchists have always made use of forms of delegation or representation.

Today in ‘Bolivarian’ Latin America there is a hybrid of direct and representative forms of democracy…

That’s quite right – it’s particularly the case in Bolivia, where the power of the social movements drove Evo Morales’s MAS government to establish forms of grassroots democracy. In this regard it’s interesting to note that Emir Sader, who I mentioned earlier on, is close to Álvaro García Linera, who is the Bolivian vice-president and the government’s leading theorist. Of course, the current Latin-American context is very different to the situation that Nicos was thinking about: that is, Europe at the end of the three decades of post-WWII growth. But nonetheless we can say that there is an ‘elective affinity’ between these attempts to understand and transform the world… 

[1] The Brazilian sociologist Emir Sader (born 1943) worked as Poulantzas’s assistant from 1968 to 1969 while he was living in exile in France, before heading to Chile. He is the author of numerous works on Brazil and Latin-American societies, including his The New Mole: Paths of the Latin-American Left (Verso, 2011). He is currently executive secretary of the Latin American Social Sciences Council (CLACSO).

[2] ‘L’État et la transition au socialisme. Interview de Nicos Poulantzas par Henri Weber’, Critique communiste (the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire journal), no. 16, June 1977 translated to English as 'The State and the Transition to Socialism', in The Poulantzas Reader, ed by James Martin (Verso, 2008) pp. 334-360.

[3] Olivier Besancenot and Michael Löwy, Affinités révolutionnaires. Nos étoiles rouges et noires, pour une solidarité entre marxistes et libertaires, Paris: Mille et une nuits, 2014.

Michael Löwy was speaking to Alexis Cukier, Razmig Keucheyan and Fabio Mascaro Querido.

Translated by David Broder.

See the original article here.