Can Europe Make It?

Left radicalism fifty years after 1968: the capitalist state and political science

We must grasp relations between politics, society and the economy more precisely, by appropriating the information and conceptual wealth in the entire spectrum of investigation into the institutionalized public realm.

Giorgos Charalambous
26 May 2018

Nicos Poulantzas (1936 – 1979) was a Greek-French Marxist political sociologist. Wikicommons. Some rights reseved.Fifty years after the ‘1968 moment’ or more broadly the 1960s and 1970s ‘new left’, what orientations lie within today’s radical spaces concerning the capitalist state? And how do they compare to fifty years before?

Several imaginaries, arguments and perspectives exist concerning a socialist state or prefigurative practices beyond the state. Contestation also exists over the tools, potentials and processes of changing or transforming state structures. Most notably there continue disagreements concerning the arenas for mobilization; not so much the question of whether state institutions should be engaged with at all – the most recent representative example of this being Podemos’ ‘movement party’ with government aspirations – but rather how the functioning of left-wing activism and partisanship can be balanced between state and non-state arenas in order to maximize the result.

The radical left and the capitalist state

Without a doubt both institutional and extra-institutional sites of struggle are seen as legitimate by today’s radical left. As regards the search for citizenship defined beyond constitutionalism, a large proportion of the published material – written, verbal as well as graphical – is pre-occupied with resistance and extra-statal forms of self-, grassroots and community organization. Together they vividly suggest the rise of a bottom-up politics, protest, disruption and generalized dissent, feeding off a wider scepticism towards representative democracy in its capitalist liberal variety. Social movements have turned to citizenship as both a collective identity and a central demand, which organises various claims for civil, political and material rights that have been lost or damaged in the process of neoliberalization and its associated austerity programmes.

A critical characteristic of the post-2008 radical left in Europe is dispossession, and this has shaped the repertoires of social movement politics. Difficulties in managing with the basic means of subsistence became key factors in mobilizing political grievances since the onset of the financial crisis. Solidarity initiatives and networks, as well as social mini-economies or self-organised healthcare as alternative platforms for ‘re-instituting socio-economic relations’ have acted as survival tactics by vulnerable groups, at the same time generating spaces for propaganda against capitalism and neoliberalism. In parallel, an upsurge of experiments with economic practices in the form of cooperatives and associations focusing on the production or distribution of goods and services, as well as an increasing number of alternative finance systems have given rise to an ‘alternative moral economy’. In spite of the internet’s relevance to social movement politics, mobilization and resistance in the 2010s have been far from restricted to the virtual sphere; real, practical, extra-institutional forms of sociability are aplenty today as in the 1960s and 1970s.

At one and the same time as non-institutional forms of mobilization and resistance are unfolding in the context of aggressive and ‘authoritarian neoliberalism’, whereby the state is being reconfigured into a less democratic entity, insulated from social and political conflict, there is a growing consensus on a statist approach to social progress among some of the most successful electoral spearheads of today’s radical left – Podemos in Spain, Syriza in Greece, the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, the Left-Green Movement in Iceland, the ‘three-lefts’ government in Portugal since 2016, Jean Luc Melenchon’s unsuccessful but popular and vigorous campaign to win the French Presidency. These are parties that seek to take office in order to manage the state in a direction that is progressive in a redistributive, ecological, democratic and humanitarian way.

As the Greek left’s painstaking and controversial ongoing incumbency illustrates, radical left parties aspire to do so by stopping European austerity and reversing the multiple crises of neoliberal practice while remaining in the eurozone and the EU. To those dedicated to this electoral path, the attacks of an emerging ‘neo-anarchism’ on state power have limited efficacy, 'at a time when government actors themselves are explicitly endorsing the retreat of the state.' From this angle, perhaps today is a time when the capitalist state must first be selectively defended by radicals and then transformed? Should the fight against corporate asset-stripping of public goods previously protected by the capitalist state be a priority for the radical left? The response of socialist and socialist-inspired party leaders to both questions is affirmative. The attacks of an emerging ‘neo-anarchism’ on state power have limited efficacy, at a time when government actors themselves are explicitly endorsing the retreat of the state.

In any case, today’s forces pointedly resemble Eurocommunism in the 1970s. The Eurocommunists were equally oriented towards entering government or some sort of participation in state structures that would tie them more closely to public political decision-making and implementation. As exemplified most by the office-seeking adventure of the Italian Communist Party (PCI) in the 1970s leading towards the compromeso storico, Eurocommunism was open to pluralist perspectives on alliances and representation that acknowledged the significance of (re-) approaching the middle classes and accommodating for the conventionalism and conservatism of  the ‘petit bourgeois’. State theory enjoyed a fair amount of attention in the 1970s not only from Marxist theorists but also from more mainstream social science. New theories of the state, unsurprisingly but not inevitably, gave rise to a series of political positions: that imminent social transformation was not on the agenda for the advanced capitalist states and consequently that the latter’s structures should be approached with a mood of more constructive engagement than that entailed by the dismissive views couched in the orthodox interpretation of Leninism or in anarchism. (See for example, C.W. Barrow on ‘The Miliband–Poulantzas debate:An intellectual history and Leo Panitch, The Impoverishment of State Theory’.)

As much as there is a tendency on the contemporary radical left to envision ‘state capture’, or at least to spend political time and resources on institutional battles, there is still much theoretical work to be done for this political family before legitimating a socialist strategy towards the state across a common set of indicators in the current phase of retrenchment. Ideological fragmentation on the radical left, in the 1960s as in today, means that there is nothing close to a ‘universal’ answer to a number of key questions about the neoliberal state: if it can be transformed from within or must be uprooted and dissolved through mass, revolutionary action so as to dismantle its apparatuses and replace them with non-state forms of human association? What would a transformation of the capitalist state rooted in class actually entail? How is state transformation best conceptualized in sequential terms and in context-specific ways? What are the micro level factors – from elite psychology to the psychology of voting – and macro level currents – from linked financial institutions to the inter-dependencies of neo-imperialism – that lock the system inside itself and gradualise radical change? Why has the left, as Ralph Miliband’s theory of a ‘state system’ pointed out five decades ago, acceded to governmental power at various points in the twentieth century but not been able to conquer state power in its diverse forms and places?[i] Is this conquest less or more plausible today during the era of neoliberal crisis, a different epoch from the 1960s and 1970s crisis of profitability and welfare state erosion. Why has the left, as Ralph Miliband’s theory of a ‘state system’ pointed out five decades ago, acceded to governmental power at various points in the twentieth century but not been able to conquer state power in its diverse forms and places?

Moving forward

As social movements from below claimed new ways of doing politics outside of the liberal format in the past two decades and simultaneously state policy became subsumed into the managerial and technocratic or expert policy prescriptions of several regional and international organizations linked to private capital, state theory became increasingly marginal to the shifting political environment and its corresponding academic fashion[ii].

In a way the radical left’s political efficacy regarding the capitalist state has gradually diminished; and the onset of the crisis has not reversed the trend. Several signs of theoretico-ideological weakness and division on these matters may partly be the result of non-radical scholars dominating most of the work on how parties link citizens to the state, clientelistic and patronage practices, elections and electoral behavior, public administration and the formal and socio-legal aspects of the policy process. Marxist or class-analytic approaches anchor the analysis of the state in terms of its structural relationship to the capitalist system of class relations, but they often stop short of envisioning how the oppressive features of capitalism can be neutralized within the context of a socialist state and more generally in what ways liberal constitutionalism offers both things to avoid in constructing socialism, and procedures or rules to mimic and build upon.

The argument and plea here draws from Antonio Gramsci’s observation that ‘If political science means science of the State, and the State is the entire complex of practical activities with which the ruling class not only justifies and maintains its dominance, but manages to win the active consent of those over whom it rules, then it is obvious that all the essential questions of sociology are nothing other than the questions of political science’. Taking Gramsci’s point a step further socialist strategy as a question of sociology has a lot to gain from the empirical as well as theoretical questions being dealt with by today’s (non-Marxist) political scientists. Not to repeat past mistakes of ‘dogmatic’ social science, one must acknowledge that the liberal tradition has generated research with a firm grasp on how the state, its institutions and its public arenas function. But this is often not appropriately discussed, critiqued and utilized by radical scholars and collective actors seeking state transformation, on account of its liberal, pro-capitalist intellectual origins. One must acknowledge that the liberal tradition has generated research with a firm grasp on how the state, its institutions and its public arenas function.

If the left is to manage the state or contribute to policy-making favouring ‘revolutionary reforms’ that transcend Keynesianism as the most suitable formula for running state affairs, then it is key to consider the long-term experience of radical left actors (communist, social-democratic or other) in relation to office across time and space, and capture the alternating sequences of de- and then re-‘ideologizing’ toward which the liberal tradition is pointing.

A politics of the state would illuminate the latter’s mechanisms and structures that are conducive to retreat, de-mobilization or compromise by radical left forces. Even if the objective is to wholly substitute the capitalist state it would be useful to draw insights from the formal nuances of the political process in order to be able to modify, envision or deconstruct them in socialist terms. As the radical left is pushing away from a neoliberal or capitalist model of production, re-moulding existing public structures and managing the commons that are being privatized can draw on organizational theory cutting across all types of collective action, in order to refine strategy and crystallize vision.


Claus Offe, Non-Resident Permanent Fellow at the IWM since 2015 and a member of the Institute’s Academic Advisory Board, teaches Political Sociology at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin. All rights reserved.If the purpose is to counter cooptation by the norms of capitalist democracy then a step forward in socialist strategy can arise out of the study of certain types of political actors at large – parties, party leaders, politicians, interest groups, parliamentary groups – which follow general patterns that do not leave the radical left and more broadly the question of socialism unaffected. If one agrees that the combination of state and non-state radical activity needs to be constantly and self-reflexively fine-tuned by those aspiring for a better future, then one must keep alert to the nuances of bureaucracies, both state and non-state, and the efforts to reform them in defense of liberal ideas and capitalist interests. Finally, if the objective, following Bob Jessop’s writings, is not to seek a determinate theory of the capitalist state but rather to embrace the search for institutional, historical and strategic specificity, then comparative politics underpins every attempt at such a search.

In so far as political parties and parliamentary entities have been encapsulated by the state and turned into ‘public utilities’, moving away from society, especially the strain of research on party organizational and programmatic adaptation, including a number of now available data sources on the internet, can inform the linkage function of the state and address the widely observed tendencies of cartel-like party systems, professionalized governance and personalized politics. These phenomena and their spatiotemporal distribution intermediate the relationship of the parliamentary and extra-parliamentary radical left with the state in capitalism and neoliberalism, and thus reflect the opportunities and constraints of the political conjuncture radical actors confront.

Likewise, the study of public opinion, scrutinizing how citizens view and the mass media construct the capitalist state, and by extension the public perceptions of the state’s strengths and weaknesses as situated in the ‘superstructure’, needs to be systematized so as to suggest pathways of propaganda and unravel the dialectics of ‘false consciousness’ among the oppressed.


Fifty years after 1968, when Marxist state theory thrived and attracted attention within centre-stage academia in Europe as well as across the Atlantic, socialist theory is once against devoid of a politological appetite keen to connect regimes of accumulation and consumption to the micro-level, intersecting political developments within and around the capitalist state. In the midst of political fluidity and the recent global wave for democracy, it is now more pertinent than ever before to integrate the political science mainstream into the Marxist treatments of the state, equalizing the core of political sociology towards the political dimension, while at the same time not forfeiting class analysis.


Ralph Miliband (1924 - 1994) was a British Sociologist and a Marxist author on Parliamentary Socialism (1961), The State in Capitalist Society (1969) and Marxism and Politics (1977). All rights reserved.The spirit of Nicos Poulantzas’s (1968) and Claus Offe’s (e.g. 1975) contributions to a Marxist theory of politics, or of Miliband’s (1969) quest for understanding the interpersonal connections between the state and corporate institutions constitutes a resource of the past which can be emulated in the present in order to reframe the state debate in terms intellectually analogous to those of the Marxist revival of 1968, more effectively connecting public policies to private behaviors. We need to grasp more precisely the relations between politics, society and the economy, by appropriating the empirical information and conceptual wealth found in the entire spectrum of investigation into the institutionalized public realm.



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Barrow, C. W. (2002). ‘The Miliband–Poulantzas debate: An intellectual history’, in S. Aaronowitz and P. Bratsis (eds.), State theory Reconsidered: Paradigm Lost. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 13-52. 

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Offe, C. (1975). “The Theory of the capitalist state and the problem of policy formation’, in L. Lindberg, (ed.), Stress and Contradiction in Modern Capitalism. Lexington, Mass.: D. C. Heath, 125-44.

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[i] For the theory behind this empirical comment, see Barrow (2002:17-21).

[ii] This argument is succinctly elaborated by Aronowitz and Bratsis (2002: xiv).


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