Interview with Steve Ellner: Can A Country Have A Revolutionary State and A Capitalist Economy?

In two interviews, Marcano and Ellner discuss the Marxist view of the state and its relevance to Venezuela today.


At various moments in the interview with Steve Ellner, I welcomed the explanations that he offered in response to my questions. I most identified with the idea of the state as developed by Nicos Poulantzas in which in addition to, and beyond, being an object of a given class, the state is conceived of as a type of mirror that takes in and reflects the nation’s social dynamic. According to this conception, the state is a relation of forces that grows and changes in accordance with the capacity to mobilize each social force. The thesis makes much practical sense in the context of the current process taking place in Venezuela.

The vision that Steve puts forward is encouraging with regard to the Bolivarian project of change. An important opportunity for the revitalization of Marxist thought is at play in Venezuela. This is what I believe to be the case and what I get out of Steve’s explanations and contributions. Venezuelan developments are a challenge that us Marxist intellectuals cannot ignore. What is happening here is a “refreshing” of the model that is advancing toward the construction and consolidation of a new way of understanding our reality.


1. E.M. – How would you characterize the role of the Venezuelan state in the process of change over the last fifteen years? Many people say the state has to be transformed in order to achieve socialism, but what does this mean in practice? Are the same concepts of the state applied to pro-capitalist governments equally applicable to the case of governments committed to socialism such as in Venezuela?

S.E. –These questions are complex. Fortunately there is much important writing by Marxist theoreticians over the last half a century that helps us understand the role of the state in capitalist countries under normal circumstances. These same theoretical works serve as a point of departure to analyze the strategy of socialist transformation by peaceful means in countries like Venezuela.

E.M.- What are the contributions of these theoreticians?

S.E. – The old standard dogmatic concept of the capitalist state saw it as nothing more than an instrument of the bourgeoisie to promote their interests, although Marx and Engels did not adhere to such a simplistic vision. The problem with this approach is that it underestimates the capacity of the capitalist state to overcome crises by way of reformism. In 1917-1918 with the Soviet revolution and the disaster of World War I, Lenin, Trotsky, Rosa Luxemburg and much of the left throughout the world assumed that the days of capitalism were numbered, and the same occurred with the economic crisis of the 1930s. The school of “Structural Marxism” that was developed by Louis Althusser (of the Communist Party of France) and then by the Greek communist Nicos Poulantzas attempted to explain the elasticity of the state and its ability to respond to these challenges by putting forward the argument that the state under capitalism enjoys a status of relative autonomy vis-à-vis the capitalist class, particularly in the realm of economic policy.

E.M. – In other words, according to the structural Marxists the state is not always at the service of the capitalists, at least when it comes to economic reforms.

S.E. – That’s right. The capitalist state is in charge of guaranteeing the survival of capitalism and maintaining stability, and to achieve this on occasion it has to give in to the workers. Consequently it makes concessions to them contrary to the short-term interests of large economic groups. The state cannot ignore class conflict and therefore it tends to mediate between the interests of the capitalists and those of the workers and the popular classes in general. At times, the state in its determination to defend the long-term interests of the system, clashes with the capitalists who are more absorbed by their immediate interests. Furthermore, the state has to be above the short-term interests of the capitalists because at times different fractions of the capitalist class enter into conflict. For this reason a simple link cannot exist between the state and the bourgeoisie. But at the same time, the state defends at all costs the hegemony of the capitalist system both in the country and at the international level. And furthermore, the state cannot distance itself too much from the capitalists because, according to Poulantzas, it has to respond to the logic of the capitalist system that is based on capital accumulation. In short, the best form for the state to defend the capitalist system and maintain stability is to be a bit removed from the capitalist class as such, at the same time that the basic interests of the two always converge.

E.M. – Give me an example of how this functions in practice.

S.E. I’ll provide two. Barack Obama at times supports economic and social policies that are relatively beneficial to the popular classes in the United States and in the process is heavily criticized by the right financed by powerful economic groups. But at the same time, the president promotes a foreign policy that is almost as aggressive and bellicose as that of the Republicans. The Democratic Party can masquerade as champions of the working class – much like Acción Democrática did in Venezuela as the “Party of the People” – but when it comes to defending the imperialist system, the Democrats and Republicans area one of the same with just minimum differences. The war in Vietnam, for instance, was in large part the work of President Lyndon B. Johnson (a Democrat) and was continued by the Republican Richard Nixon, and something similar happened in the case of the wars in the Mid-East with George W. Bush and then Obama. Another example is U.S. policy toward Cuba. In its defense of imperialism, the government has maintained an embargo on Cuba for half a century. During much of that time, one of the lobbyists in favor of lifting the embargo has been no one other than David Rockefeller, who has his eyes set on the possibility of doing business on the island. In short, at times the state defends the interests of capitalism with greater determination than the capitalists!

E.M. – According to what you are saying, for structural Marxism the state is impenetrable even though its economic policies at times favor the popular sectors. Thus the electoral road to power for the left can be deceptive. The implication is that the only viable strategy for leftists is to change the capitalist structure and the state at the same time. With a capitalist economy, the people who govern, regardless of their good intentions, cannot carry out real structural change.

S.E. – Yes, the structuralism of Althusser was somewhat rigid in that sense. This is precisely why Poulantzas began to modify his vision of the state and even criticize the master Althusser. In the last years of his life before his untimely death in 1979, Poulantzas added another element to his analysis of the state. According to him, the state institutions have to reflect in some way the social conflicts that are being waged. That is to say, the behavior and the composition of the state in each moment take into account the correlation of forces in the society. With this new dimension of Poulantzas’ thinking, the state was less rigid than what Althusser envisioned.

E.M. – What is the importance of this last thesis with regard to leftist strategy? I imagine there is a relationship between theories on the state and political strategy. If not, the topic really is devoid of importance.

S.E. – That’s true. The structuralism thesis of Althusser by implication sees the state and the forces around it as enemy territory for leftists, even while they could at times work for popular reforms. For this reason, the defenders of Althusser’s thinking discarded the feasibility of strategic alliances between the socialist left and more moderate parties on the periphery of the state in order to win elections and promote structural change. In contrast, Poulantzas belonged to the Eurocommunist movement which emerged as an important force in the 1970s, specifically in Italy, Spain and other nations. Eurocommunism exerted an influence here in Venezuela with the emergence of the Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) during its early years in the 1970s when it was a leftist party, prior to embracing neoliberalism during the second administration of Rafael Caldera. Eurocommunism rejected the position of the “dogmatic” Communists (such as the French Communist Party of Althusser). Poulantzas’ position lent itself to the strategy of creating a type of popular front, possibly led by social democratic parties in order to gradually gain control of the state by electoral means with a vision of the democratic and peaceful road to socialism.

E. M. – Are the same theories of Althusser and Poulantzas applicable to the process of change and the democratic path to socialism which is currently being attempted in Venezuela?

S.E. – The two models of the state lend themselves to two distinct strategies that have been subject to considerable debate among the Chavistas. The thesis of Althusser envisioned a static state that in spite of its relative autonomy is intricately tied to the capitalist structure and thus is incapable of evolving into something different. The implication is that socialism is achieved in stages and at this moment the principal objective is to consolidate the gains of the last fifteen years of struggle. One current within Chavismo embraces this concept of the state and views the capitalist structure in Venezuela as so powerful that the state cannot break away from it for now. Regardless of the revolutionary commitment of the leaders of the process, the state cannot ignore the logic of the capitalist system in the current stage. This stagist thinking privileges political, economic and social stability at the same time that it underscores the importance of the campaign to increase economic productivity which has become a slogan in recent years. The principal goal of this political current in the present is consolidation as opposed to continuation of the “process” of change.

E.M. – How does Poulantzas’ thinking manifest itself in Venezuela?

S.E. – The analysis of Poulantzas on the state is less deterministic since it denies that the state is in a strait jacket and therefore argues that it can transform itself in accordance with the change in the correlation of forces. This concept opens the possibility of deepening the process of change, as has occurred in Venezuela over the last fifteen years.

This process is similar to, but not exactly the same, as the “permanent revolution” espoused by Trotsky. Unlike what many of Trotsky’s followers say, flexibility does not mean that the process always advances. In certain situations concessions to those who oppose socialism may be necessary. But the process should always advance as much as possible in accordance with leftist gains in society.


E.M. – In the first part of the interview, you spoke of two Marxist theories on the state, developed by Louis Althusser and Nicos Poulantzas, and the manner in which both influence leftist strategy. Can you summarize the two.

S.E. Sure. Structural Marxism associated with Althusser points out that the state under the control of leaders of the bourgeoisie maintains a relative autonomy in its relations with the capitalists in order to guarantee the greatest possible degree of stability and defend the long-term interests of the capitalist system. Nevertheless, at no time does the bourgeois state promote or accept structural changes that endanger the capitalist system. This concept is fundamentally different from “dogmatic Marxism” that sees the state as a simple “instrument” of the capitalists that is always at their service. In the United States, for instance, the “dogmatists” refuse to support any politician of the Democratic Party, even though some of them have backed popular reforms such as the application of the system of social security in the area of health. In contrast, the structural Marxism of Althusser that recognizes the state’s capacity to implement progressive economic reforms is compatible with a strategy in the U.S. of selective support for some Democrats. An example of a progressive Democrat is the recently elected mayor of New York Bill de Blasio, who has assumed positions in favor of the non-privileged sectors of the population.

E.M. – And with regard to Poulantzas’ state theory?

S.E. – At first Poulantzas defended the structuralist theory associated with Althusser. But in his last book before his untimely death in 1979, titled State, Power, Socialism, Poulantzas viewed the state as even less tied to the capitalist structure than did Althusser. Poulantzas argued that the state is inherently unstable in that it absorbs social conflicts and reflects the change in the correlation of political forces. Thus, for example, the flourishing of the struggles of the popular classes as a result of the organization and mobilization of the underprivileged, the growth of organized labor, and the advances of leftist political parties invariably have an impact on the state. The theory of Poulantzas lends itself to strategic alliances between the left and parties near the center of power. This option for the left of alliance formation goes beyond occasional electoral support for some “establishment” politicians in favor of specific demands, as is envisioned in the theory of Althusser.

E.M. – Poulantzas had in mind a situation like that of Venezuela where the left maintains power without the necessity of allying with social democratic parties located to its right?

S.E. – Apparently not. The position of the Venezuelan left in power is much more auspicious than in Europe at the time that Poulantzas was writing on the state. The hope of the Eurocomunists who Poulantzas supported was that social democratic parties would reach power with the help of the left through a type of strategic alliance in which the social democrats would be in charge and the communists would be a junior partner. At the time it was impossible to imagine a situation in Europe in which the socialist left would gain state power on its own.

E.M. – What conclusions do you reach regarding the characteristics of the Venezuelan road to socialism?

S.E. – The propitious factors in Venezuela run contrary to the thesis of the “constituted power” versus the “constituent power” in which the road to socialism is characterized by a head-on struggle between the state bureaucrats and the top leaders of the Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV) (that is, the ““constituted power”), on the one hand, and the social movements with radical slogans (“constituent power”), on the other. On the contrary, the favorable factors point to a process in which socialism is achieved through initiatives “from above” on the part of the governing leaders committed to socialism, and “from below” on the part of the social movements and other rank-and-file organizations, as Poulantzas envisioned. In the process, mechanisms of participation in decision making are established at all levels, and this implies a transformation of the state, whose characteristics are impossible to predict. Nevertheless, this thesis does not deny the existence of tensions, conflicts and contradictions between those operating “from above” and “from below” within the revolutionary camp.

E.M. – What are the favorable factors in Venezuela that you are referring to?

S.E. – In the first place, the national executive in 2002-2003 took control of the state oil company PDVSA as well as the armed forces – the two most important institutions in Venezuela. It also gained control of the Central Bank which had previously been to a great degree “autonomous,” which in practice means at the service of foreign interests. The abundant resources derived from oil production in a period of high prices on the international market represent an additional advantage of great importance. Another factor is the weakness of the private Venezuelan sector, the result of the penetration of the nation’s economy on the part of multinational companies toward the end of the 1980s and the 1990s. In addition, the weakening of U.S. influence in all areas other than the military front is another factor. Finally, the Chavistas have gained elections with high percentage points, such as the contests of 2006 when Chávez received 63 percent of the votes, the highest of all presidential elections since 1958.

E.M. – In this interview you have largely refrained from presenting your own viewpoint. Do you have any final observations with regard to theories of the state and their application to Venezuela?

S.E. – I have two major observations. The most important is the following. The theoretical discussion on the state in the democratic transition to socialism cannot be confined to the intellectual arena because it explains the challenges and complexities that confront the government and the Chavista movement. The recognition of this reality serves to counter the disillusionment and erosion of energy that are major dangers. As much as the leaders of the process in Venezuela are honestly committed to socialism there is a reality that cannot be denied: the economic structure in Venezuela continues to be capitalist and this is the most basic of all, more basic than what happens in the realm of politics and perhaps even in the cultural arena. Marxism teaches that the “superstructure” – in this case the state – can never be completely divorced from the structure, that is, the capitalist system. I believe that the case of the 20 billion dollars of Cadivi puts in evidence this reality. The Venezuelan state does not exist in a vacuum, but rather it is linked in important ways to the capitalist structure. By this I am not justifying for one moment the corruption that everyone knows exists, although it is extremely difficult to measure. While the Chavista movement struggles against corruption and other abuses on the part of businesspeople, some of whom are linked to Chavismo, we have to recognize that these phenomena are inevitable when the process is democratic and relatively peaceful.

E.M. – This is your principal observation. You mentioned that you have another one.

S.E. – Discussion on the role of the state that is not based on real facts ends up being merely speculative. This was the critique that the English Marxist Ralph Miliband formulated against Poulantzas that the latter (in a demonstration of intellectual honesty) recognized to be valid. The validity of the arguments of Poulantzas, Althusser and others are going to be demonstrated through practice. Specifically in the case of Venezuela, there are no dogmas that can serve as a blueprint for the future. The process is novel with many unique aspects. For this reason, tolerance toward different positions within the revolutionary camp is logical. No one can say for sure what is coming next. I am even opposed to the use of the term “petty bourgeois” to discredit positions on the left, because the petty bourgeoisie, that is the middle class, has an important role to play in the process of change and their interests and proposals cannot be ignored or scorned.