A Critique of Balibar’s On the Dictatorship of the Proletariat

Though there is a lot to admire in Etienne Balibar’s very lucid and sophisticated defence (and extension) of the logic of Lenin’s thought (see previous post for a summary and discussion of the key ideas), I do not, in the end, think that it overcomes some of the key problems in State and Revolution and other associated texts. Indeed, Balibar’s argument seems to me merely to repeat and reinforce some of the difficulties in the original texts and perhaps even to make them more visible – revealing more explicitly difficulties that often remain partly submerged in the classics.

Perhaps the most striking thing about Balibar’s argument, particularly as he sets it out in summary in relation to the first two of the three arguments (he argues are) advanced in Lenin, is the extreme (dare I use the terms? I can’t think of better ones…) reductionism and essentialism of his approach. State power is always the power of a single class that holds this power absolutely and as an indivisible whole (both state power and the class that holds it). The only possible alternative to the absolute hold on state power by the bourgeoisie as a whole, is an equally absolute hold on state power by the proletariat as a whole – and thus any given state apparatus, which realises this power in material form, is either, absolutely and simply, the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, or, absolutely and simply, the dictatorship of the proletariat. This essentialist logic, in which the capitalist state is assumed to be wholly and in every respect bourgeois is also present in Lenin – but remains less explicitly stated. Here it is, in Balibar’s book, with bells on – which does at least perform the service of stating this logic in stark and unmissable terms and thus plainly signalling the implausibility of the fundamental assumptions on which the Leninist approach to state power is built. And this logic, thus stated, is in my view totally implausible.

For one thing, the wholly binary either/or logic here seems to leave no room conceptually for any kind of transition other than some form of instant and total transformation in the manner of flicking a light switch from off to on. State power is either absolutely bourgeois or absolutely proletarian – there can be no in-between, no grey area between these absolutes. Of course, we’ve seen that Balibar has quite a lot to say about the requirement for a long transitional process – the necessity of ‘a lengthy class struggle which is already in its preparatory stages before the revolution, and which becomes fully acute afterwards’ as he puts it. And indeed, as we’ve also seen, socialism, i.e the historical epoch of the DoP, is for Balibar, precisely, a long period of transitional struggle. But the problem here, surely, is that the very notion of transition – of an in-between period of transformation – is in sharp conflict with the stark either/or logic that underpins his theory of the state. We might ask, for example, how it makes sense to argue (along with Lenin) that a beginning to the process of ‘smashing’ the bourgeois state apparatus can begin before the seizure of power by way of putting socialist politicians into parliament to ‘disintegrate parliamentarism’ from within if, under the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, the hold of the bourgeoisie over state power is absolute and total. It’s worth noting in this respect that in his introduction to Balibar’s text, Graham Lock (offering a précis on Balibar’s argument, which he appears to accept completely) states that it is simply not the case that

even when it succeeds in electing “representatives” to the national parliament (Socialists or even Communists), the working class thereby gains the slightest grasp of State power, that it thereby holds the slightest scrap of State power. (Lock, in Balibar, p. 31)

But if it’s true that this doesn’t confer any sort of power in relation to the state under any circumstances, then how could any process of ‘disintegration’ of parliamentarism from within, such as the one that Balibar and Lenin envisage, possibly take place? Indeed, more broadly than this, it’s difficult to see, given the essentialist logic of Balibar’s approach, how any form of working class struggle could have any effect whatsoever on the integrity and functioning of the bourgeois state.

It seems to me that there’s a similar problem too in terms of what Balibar says about the DoP itself. If forms of bourgeois parliamentarism may re-assert themselves within the proletarian state apparatus and if, indeed, the bourgeois state apparatus in some sense resists the process of its own destruction even under the DoP, then this would seem to suggest that in fact the proletariat as ruling class do not necessarily hold state power absolutely under socialism. The working class, indeed, seem to possess only a rather contingent and incomplete hold over state power and the proletarian state apparatus in the period of the DoP in much of Balibar’s account. So in what sense, then, is this compatible with the underlying binary logic of absolutely either/or: either the bourgeoisie hold state power absolutely or the proletariat do? The problem here only goes deeper once we consider Balibar’s comment about every state being essentially bourgeois – even the proletarian one, since the state form is in essence a hangover from the capitalist mode of production. I guess it might be said that Balibar’s simultaneous assertion that the proletarian state is absolutely proletarian but also essentially bourgeois,  is a dialectical type of contradiction and thus not really a logical absurdity – but find it quite hard to swallow this. Indeed it seems to me, moreover, that the whole idea of socialism as an epoch of transition, of “two worlds within the same world” makes little sense in conjunction with the stark essentialist and binary logic of Balibar’s underlying theoretical premisses.

It was already noted in the previous post that what Balibar has to say in relation to the process of the destruction of the bourgeois state is opaque and indeed, rather ambiguous.  This ambiguity intersects with the difficulties of logical consistency mentioned above. It will be recalled that while Balibar seems fairly clear that the repressive state apparatus must undergo ‘immediate destruction’, he seems to allow that certain unspecified organs of the bourgeois state might survive the seizure of power to be incorporated into the DoP and then progressively opened up to mass intervention as part of the process of withering. This is problematical enough, but I have to say that I’m not even sure that his discussion of the different ‘methods’ and ‘rhythms’ by which the destruction of the various organs of the capitalist state will take place does not suggest that, in fact, particular ‘aspects’ of ‘the bureaucracy’ – i.e. parts of the repressive state apparatus in the Leninist schema – would be opened up to the progressive participatory control of the masses in the period of the DoP which would clearly contradict the particular injunctions about the necessity of immediately ‘smashing’ the apparatus of repression. Another, equally plausible reading of the section in question (pp. 99-110) would be to say that the institutional forms that Balibar envisions being progressively subjected to the direct intervention of the masses are, in fact, new organs of the state of a new type – i.e. the revolution completely sweeps away all bourgeois state institutions and substitutes new ones which are then gradually democratised in step with the advance of the practical organisational capacities of the working class.

So, overall, it seems that we have two equally plausible readings of Balibar’s ambiguous comments here – one in which the entire bourgeois state apparatus is ‘immediately destroyed’ and replaced with different one of new, proletarian type and which is then increasingly democratised, and another in which only (some?) repressive bourgeois state apparatuses are smashed initially while other organs and functions of the old regime (ideological state apparatuses?) are incorporated into the new framework and then progressively democratised. The trouble is that neither of these possible interpretations are compatible with the wider schema of Balibar’s argument. On the one hand the idea that the entire bourgeois state apparatus could be abolished and replaced overnight seems in tension with his dismissal of what he calls the ‘”ultra-left idea” of the immediate abolition of bourgeois institutions and the appearance out of the blue’ (p. 105) of new ones. But, on the other hand, the drift of his argument that suggests certain organs of the old state survive and are merged into the institutional framework of the DoP seems to be in outright conflict with the essentialist basic logic of his theory in which it is insisted that the capitalist state is wholly and in every respect bourgeois. Indeed, to the extent that the second of these two drifts within Balibar’s argument predominates (which it appears to me that it does), Balibar seems to find himself caught in the same process of oscillation between two incompatible positions that we have seen marks Lenin’s argument – a process wherein Lenin moves back and forth between, on the one hand, formulations that appear to pivot on a very stark logic pertaining to the absolutely capitalist nature of the entire bourgeois state and thus the need to destroy it totally and, on the other hand, more apparently qualified positions that seem to disrupt and undermine that logic. It’s difficult not to conclude that this indicates a fundamental problem with the whole Leninist approach to state power and the revolutionary process.

We should also note the extremely functionalist logic that seems to attend Balibar’s argument – something, again, that it shares with Lenin’s argument in State and Revolution and that, again, seems to point toward a fundamental problem in this tradition of thinking in relation to state power. Just as for Lenin, Balibar’s approach seems very strongly to imply the state necessarily performs a particular function determined by the class structure in which it is embedded, with very little indication of how precisely this function is (always-already) accomplished. It’s as if, in the Leninist approach as in the famous criticism of the Realist approach to the state in mainstream International Relations, the state is a kind of ‘black box’ that is always assumed, mysteriously, to function with perfect coherence and efficiency in its performance of particular systemic imperatives that are always, simply, given. Indeed there is no indication at all in Balibar’s book that capitalist states might act in any way that might be sub-optimal or dysfunctional for capital – or in ways that might conflict with the interests of particular fractions of capital.

Here, of course, Balibar’s approach seems to run into the same difficulties that are often associated with so-called ‘instrumentalist’ theories of the state – i.e. if state power is held and exercised directly, somehow, by the ruling class as a whole (as indeed Balibar argues that it is) then how is it possible to explain instances of state policy on the part of the British state historically for example that seem to have favoured particular fractions of capital (financial) over and to the detriment of others (manufacturing)? Further, given that particular capitalist states have often acted in ways that conflict with the short run interests of large swathes of capital – even if this is functional for capital as a whole in the long run (Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal is often referenced as the classic case) – how can any theory of state power that pivots on the claim that the capitalist class, especially as an undifferentiated whole, directly possesses state power account for this?

What all of these essentialist, functionalist and instrumentalist elements inherent in Balibar’s perspective together imply of course, is a vision of the capitalist state as a perfectly coherent entity. In fact Balibar’s perspective is, we might say, in this respect the ne plus ultra of the ‘Leninist’ perspective on the state so roundly dismissed as almost useless by Nicos Poulantzas in State, Power, Socialism. Poulantzas’ main criticism of the ‘Leninist’ approach, of course, is that it pivots on the untenable, and in the end fundamentally absurd, assumption that ‘the State is not traversed by internal contradictions, but is a monolithic bloc without cracks of any kind’ (Poulantzas, 2000, p. 254). Isn’t Balibar’s apprehension of bourgeois state power as something held in an absolute way by the bourgeoisie as a whole, without regard to the internal divisions within that class, and to the total and absolute exclusion of the working class exactly a vision of the state as ‘monolithic bloc without cracks of any kind’?

We noted a broad similarity in relation to Poulantzas’ and Balibar’s approach to state power – specifically state power, for both theorists, manifests a kind of social relation. As Balibar puts it the state ‘rests on a relation of forces between classes, which it develops and reproduces’ (p. 88). But here, the superiority of Poulantzas’ approach becomes very clear in my view. Balibar’s conceptualisation of this relational basis is an extremely static one in which proletarian and popular forces are always-already subordinated to bourgeois forces and always-already totally excluded from the terrain of state power.  As such, Balibar tends to focus merely on one dimension of the relation of forces that the state is seen to embody, as if the social relation in question (the balance of class forces as crystallised by the state) was one in which only a single side in this relation ever has any agency and as if this struggle was always one-way traffic. In other words, the relational dimension of Balibar’s theory is not, in the end, all that relational. The idea of a relation of forces, and certainly the idea of class relation of forces, surely connotes a process of interaction between more than one antagonistic force – and suggests, moreover, that these forces are, precisely, forces rather than merely passive recipients of pressure exerted by external agencies. Further, the idea of a relation of forces also surely implies some degree of contingency – and thus a conflict in which no particular outcome is ever wholly guaranteed and in which no specific balance of forces is ever permanent. All of this is absent from Balibar’s schema.

Poulantzas’ great insight was to understand that if state power (like all forms of power) is (class) relational, then we must grasp the mode in which struggle between classes (and class fractions) is inscribed in the institutional structure and functioning of the state. If the state is a ‘specific material condensation of a relationship of forces among classes and class fractions’ (Poulantzas, 2000, p. 129) then we must be attentive to the ways in which class antagonisms permeate the entirety of the state’s’ institutional materiality’. This means that the state cannot ever be absolutely the possession of one class (fraction) to the total exclusion of all other forces. For Poulantzas, the state as social relation, must be understood as a strategic terrain that is perpetually battled over by antagonistic social forces that are in some sense ‘present’ on that battleground – and that, as such, we must also grasp that the struggles of the working class permanently traverse the institutional materiality of the state. For Poulantzas, state structures are constantly shaped and reconfigured in response to working class struggles and therefore working class power is always to some extent manifested and embedded within the state and their interests reflected in aspects of state policy. The state’s internal class divisions become most obvious when public sector workers strike, for example, but it is also clear that state policy is moulded in response to class pressures that are brought to bear on it – including those emanating from the working class. It’s hard to explain the provision of ‘welfare’ measures, for example, without reference to working class interests, demands and mobilisation (even if ‘welfare’ measures are subordinated to the imperatives of capital accumulation).

Balibar’s one dimensional account of state power – in which that power is always exerted by one force against another passive (non) force – does not grasp any of this. Indeed, Poulantzas’ critical description of the way in which Leninist approaches to the state tend to treat power as ‘a quantifiable substance held by the State that must be taken out of its hands’, as if the state was ‘a thing-instrument that may be taken away, …[or] a fortress that may be penetrated by means of a wooden horse,.. [or] a safe that may be cracked by burglary’ (Poulantzas, 2000, 257-8) seems to apply with full force in respect to Balibar.

Interestingly, Poulantzas did seem to have Balibar in mind as a chief proponent of the crude approach to state power that he was seeking to demolish once and for all in State, Power, Socialism (SPS). There are a couple of glancing references to Balibar’s On the dictatorship of the Proletariat – one toward the beginning of Poulantzas’ book and another toward the middle and both are really pretty contemptuous! It’s worth drawing out what Poulantzas has to say about Balibar’s book specifically. One of the major targets of Poulantzas’ ire in SPS is what he calls the ‘formalist theoreticism’ of those approaches (and again the Leninist approach is the main culprit here) that treat the state as a transhistorical phenomenon and which thus assume the possibility and legitimacy of a ‘general theory of the state’ taken as an epistemologically distinct object across different modes of production. For Poulantzas, the concept of the state could not ‘have the same extension, field or meaning in the various modes of production’, or indeed across different phases of the same mode of production, because the position of the political field of the state vis-a-vis the economy has changed as relations of production and exploitation have shifted over time. In addition, the terrain of political domination varies ‘with the precise form and regime assumed by the State within each stage or phase [of capitalism]: be it a particular form of parliamentarian, or of presidential rule, fascism or military dictatorship’ (Poulantzas, 2000, p. 124). Thus, only a conjunctural type analysis of state power that was sensitive to the stage and phase of capitalism and to the particular form taken by a given state within these stages and phases would pass muster. This is what Poulantzas argues that Balibar signally fails to do.

For Poulantzas, Balibar was a key exponent of a ‘stupendous dogmatism’ (Poulantzas, 2000, p. 20) which ‘treats the general propositions of the Marxist classics as a ‘General Theory’ (the “Marxist Leninist” theory) of the State, reducing the capitalist State to a mere concretization of ”the State in general”‘. ‘With respect to political domination’, he continues, ‘this results in little more than the following kind of dogmatic banality: every State is a class State; all political domination is a species of class dictatorship; the capitalist State is a State of the bourgeoisie.’ (Poulantzas, 2000, p. 124). As Poulantzas, then remarks:

Obviously such an analysis is incapable of advancing research by a single inch. It is completely unserviceable in analysing concrete situation since it cannot account for the differential forms and historical transformations of the capitalist State except by the “tweedledum and tweedledee” kind of observation. (Poulantzas, 2000, pp. 124-5)

This, it seems to me, is an absolutely devastating observation that nails a key problem with Balibar’s approach. The logic of Balibar’s perspective is indeed to suggest that there is very little difference at all between different forms of capitalist state, since all are in essence absolutely the same – the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. State power is either in the hands of the bourgeoisie absolutely or in the hands of the proletariat absolutely – these are the only two meaningful alternatives; and of course, this dichotomous logic squeezes out of the frame of analysis any further (sub) variations or at least strongly implies that these must be insignificant. This is important because, as Poulantzas further points out:

The failings of this analysis have incalculable political consequences:… it has led to a number of political disasters, especially in the inter-war period when a strategy had to be adopted in the face of the rise of fascism. It found expression in the Comintern’s so-called ‘social-fascism’ strategy, which was based quite precisely on this conception of the State and on the inability to distinguish between the parliamentary-democratic form of State and the quite specific form that is the fascist State. (Poulantzas, 2000, p. 125)

Indeed it’s hard to see how the reductionist and essentialist approach espoused by Balibar could be inoculated against this sort of logic.*

What Poulantzas’ criticism of the ‘formalist theoreticism’ of Balibar’s book draws our attention to is that it’s Balibar’s attempt to derive a ‘General Theory’ – a ‘Marxist-Leninist theory of the State’ – from a series of general propositions in the classics that is the root of many of the problems we have encountered above in relation to the stark essentialism and functionalism of his theory. His argument boils down to the assertion of certain Leninist axioms as self-evident truths – just as Lenin’s argument, in my view, ultimately rests on the assertion as an axiom of the view he draws from Marx that the state is ‘an organ of class rule, an organ for the oppression of one class by another’. But no matter how sophisticated Balibar’s argument, at its core is a defence of certain articles of faith – the capitalist state is wholly and absolutely bourgeois; while it exists it will only ever function to oppress the proletariat; it is wholly and absolutely impermeable for proletarian forces; it can only be ‘smashed’ in a frontal assault by forces wholly external to it and must be replaced with a new type of state that will be wholly and absolutely proletarian – that can only really be re-stated in the essentialist and functionalist terms that define them.

It’s worth saying, in conclusion to this discussion, that over the last 40 years since the publication of On the Dictatorship of the Proletariat Balibar has fundamentally changed his view and indeed abandoned the positions he defended in the 1970s. As he remarks in an essay (‘Communism and Citizenship: On Nicos Poulantzas’) included in his 2010 edited collection of writings, Equaliberty (published in English in 2014), his defence of the concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat was ‘in hindsight, derisory’ and a manifestation of ‘”eschatological and prophetic dogmatism”‘ (Balibar, 2014, p. 146). Further, he goes on to comment: ‘I will… say, when it comes to the “condensation of the relation of forces” or the “relational concept of the state,” that I have long since conceded this point to Poulantzas’ (Balibar, 2014, p. 147). Class struggles he now admits do indeed traverse the state as a kind of strategic terrain and further, he says that it is necessary to reject ‘the myth of the exteriority of revolutionary forces (parties or movements) in relation to the functioning of the state in advanced capitalism’ (Balibar, 2014, p. 147). This second point in particular seems to bring Balibar into line with the fundamental coordinates of Poulantzas’ conception of the ‘democratic road to socialism’ in SPS (or better, as he put it elsewhere, the ‘revolutionary road to democratic socialism’) – an approach which seeks to articulate extra-parliamentary mass struggle with a parallel (and dialectically intertwined) struggle within the state to reconfigure and transform its ‘institutional materiality’.

And it’s surely significant that the author of one of the most sophisticated defences of the logic of Lenin’s State and Revolution, should end up wholly abandoning it and conceding the argument to his erstwhile rival – the principal opponent of the ‘Leninist’ approach to the state and to the associated approach to strategy in those 1970s debates within and around the PCF – Nicos Poulantzas.

*We should note here that Poulantzas levies very similar criticisms against Balibar that were directed previously by Ralph Miliband against what he saw as Poulantzas’ ‘structural abstractionism’ in the celebrated debate between the theorists across several issues of New Left Review. Indeed Poulantzas’ excoriation of the ‘stupendous dogmatism’ he saw among the contemporary Marxist left was just as much self-criticism of his own earlier positions as it was a broadside against thinkers such as Balibar.


Balibar, E. (1977) On the Dictatorship of the Proletariat (London, NLB)

Balibar, E. (2014) Equaliberty: Political Essays (Durham, Duke University Press)

Poulantzas, N. (2000) State, Power, Socialism (London, Verso)

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