The Structuralist Class Analysis of Poulantzas: A Theoretical Critique

Arif Koşar

Nicos Poulantzas is one of the most prominent representatives of the post-Althusserian tradition. His political and theoretical line reflects the route of a school which can be characterized by anti-Marxism in the European left. This is the post-Marxist[1] school, represented most prominently by Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, which rejects the connection between socialism and the working class as well as the influence of the relations of production on the political-ideological formations of society, and argues that it is in fact ideology and “discourse” which determines social groupings and movements. Almost all themes of this school exist as an embryo in Poulantzas. However, he never went as far as this school. He was not the first representative of post-Marxism but its final great harbinger.[2]

His unique structuralist class analysis is one of the subjects named after him. In the 1960s and 70s, with the spread of public services, prolongation of education, broadening of the service sector, and rapid implementation of micro-electronic and computer technologies in the production processes, new professions, especially in the “service” sector, emerged in employment, thus leading to various “middle class” theories. According to these theories, the Marxist approach to social classes should be updated in the light of new developments, and Marxism should be renewed from top to bottom with new criteria and contributions, at least in the field of class analysis. That Marx’s vision of society being divided and polarised into two main classes was both reductive and not materialised; on the contrary, those sections which were considered to be in the category of ‘middle class’ such as the ‘new petty bourgeoisie’, ‘new middle classes’, ‘professionals’, ‘information workers’ were quite broadened. In this way, the Marxist approach to social classes on the basis of their objective positions in the relations of production and of exploitation was replaced by Weberian and structural-functionalist criteria such as their qualifications, the character of the product they produce, the sector they work in, their ideological position, etc. With social classes being determined by these elements, the conclusion was again a familiar liberal “middle class” society, but with a ‘left’ approach in the name of Marxism.

With capital export becoming more prominent in the monopoly stage of capitalism, and the transfer of work, especially the labour-intensive ones, to the countries where the labour force, lands and raw materials are cheaper, in search of maximum profit, there have been some changes in the composition of the working class in the imperialist and the advanced capitalist countries. This led to some theories suggesting that, especially in the imperialist metropolis countries, the working class has disappeared or been replaced by a class of “information workers” as a result of this transfer taking a new momentum in the 1990s and the 2000s following on the advances of the scientific and technological revolution during and after the Second World War.

Moreover, the fact that the working sections of society, including the petty bourgeoisie, had been subjected to an intensive exploitation as a result of the post-1980 wave of neoliberal attacks, the claims that class divisions had become blurred, the rise of social movements and the ideology advocating it, all have had degenerative effects in terms of understanding the class struggle and its bases. One of them was the new definition of the working class on the basis of a general criterion of impoverishment rather than the position in the relations of production, to include the small-sized land or property owning petty bourgeois sections. This new approach, sometimes referred to as “precariat”, considered some sections of society as a component of the “social” working class, such as small land-owning peasants, propertied tradesmen in hardship, self-employed independent craftsmen, professionals and women in unpaid domestic labour. Thus, the class definitions based on the contradictions with capital and on the relations of exploitation were replaced by a general category of the poor and oppressed. Also, with this approach, all salaried people were considered to be part of the working class, irrespective of the share they take from surplus-value or their involvement in the militarist-bureaucratic apparatus, or as a high-level manager in the repressive administrative system.

Poulantzas’ position, however, is different from this approach. He only considers unskilled factory workers as part of the working class, excluding service sector workers, office workers, salaried professionals and technicians, defining them as the new petty bourgeoisie due to their ideological and political positions. This approach of Poulantzas limits the working class to a mere 15-20 percent of the population in many imperialist, even medium sized, capitalist countries. In this way, in the 21st century, when we are going through one of the most intensified proletarianisation processes, capitalist societies will be defined as ‘middle class’ societies.

In this article, drawing a line of demarcation with those approaches which broaden the working class to the whole of society without considering the relations of production and exploitation, we will mainly discuss Poulantzas’ approach which marginalises the working class to a small minority in society, and will criticise it in the context of the present-day class struggles and their social basis.


Initially, Poulantzas adopted Sartre’s existentialist theses. He built his doctorate on law, legality and legal system around these theses. Shortly after, he was introduced to Althusser and structuralism. His first book Political Power and Social Classes (1968), which gave him an international reputation, was shaped around the discussions in the process of preparation and publication of Althusser’s and Balibar’s book, Reading Capital. The defender of Sartrists’ theses was now studying society in structural instances (economics, politics and ideology).

Like most of his contemporaries, Poulantzas was initially more inclined to the Maoist alternative. His book was marked by the specificity and autonomy of the political phenomena and this was based on the critique of economism, which was the main characteristic of Maoism of that period. It was this emphasis of Maoism which interested scholars such as Althusser. Poulantzas felt a close connection with this concept, just as did many others who considered the Cultural Revolution[3] as the main principle of the movements such as the 1968 insurgency. The main form the Cultural Revolution took in the West was based on the idea that social transformation would come about as a result of the spread of a cultural and ideological ‘uprising’ and struggle.[4]

The advocates of the Cultural Revolution in the West, while rightfully emphasising that there was no direct proportional link between economy and the cultural life of society, also severed the link between the relations of production and various manifestations of social life in the name of a critique of economism. Although he did not go that far, Poulantzas went along a similar route. Using an Althusserian set of concepts, he differentiated between the decisive level and the dominant level of social formation. While the dominant level could change in each social formation, the economic level would determine which level would be dominant in the final instance. However, the dominant one was the political level.

Thus the decisiveness of the relations of production and exploitation within social life was assigned to the final instance. The political phenomena were defined as dominant, and the link with the relations of production was weakened. For Poulantzas, “monopoly capitalism is characterised by the displacement of dominance within the capitalist mode of production from the economic to the political, i.e. to the state.[5]

It was stated that under monopoly capitalism dominance belongednot to the economic but to the political sphere, thus a critical step was taken to reverse the relationship between the two. By claiming that while the competitive stage was marked by the dominance of the economic, and monopoly capitalism by the political, the state, the necessary grounds were prepared for the conclusion that the relations of production and exploitation were not in fact decisive in practice.[6]

In his Classes in Contemporary Capitalism (1974) Poulantzas abandoned Maoism but still continued on the path he had taken earlier. In this book his primary aim was the critique of the French Communist Party’s (PCF) doctrine of “monopoly state capitalism”. Poulantzas believed that the PCF’s doctrine had some faults because it considered the relation between the state and monopoly capital as a simple merger, thus regarding non-monopoly capital to be part of the “popular” forces and harbouring a strategy of anti-monopoly alliance.

However, with regard to questions such as the trivialisation of the antagonism between classes and replacing it with the contradiction between the “power bloc” and the “popular alliances”, the transition to socialism through the “transformation” of the bourgeois state, and the neutralisation of the working class by reducing it to a small group, Poulantzas reconciled with Eurocommunism. His “left Eurocommunism” was distinguishable from the doctrine which had given rise to it to a significant degree. However, the common denominators were much more fundamental than the points of departure, and this led to important consequences concerning Marxist theory. As a logical outcome of his views, with his book State, Power, Socialism Poulantzas over time completed his transition from “left Eurocommunism” to Eurocommunism. For him, the state could be an important base of struggle as it was comprised of many clashes within and between classes. He adopted the path to transition to socialism through democratisation by influencing the state through popular struggles rather than attacking it from outside. This was a position close enough to classic Eurocommunism.[7]

The approach cutting off social manifestations from the base of political economy and giving them an autonomous and gradually an independent role had shown its direct influence in Poulantzas’ class analysis. The dominance of the political distanced the relations of production from their central position in social analysis. For him, it is not only the economic level but the political and ideological levels influence the determination of classes. For this reason, sometimes the economic and other times the ideological stance had dominance in differentiating classes. Thus, Poulantzas replaced the relations of exploitation with the ideological and political relations as a decisive element of classes. Although he still argued that the economic level was decisive in the final instance, this was just in words, and he placed the political-ideological division at the centre of his class analysis. With a more general perspective, one can say that the aim of providing a theoretical ground for the Eurocommunist “popular alliance” provided a significant motivation for Poulantzas’ class analysis.

The Structuralist Influence

Drawing attention to his points of demarcation Poulantzas still wrote his main works under the influence of Althusser. One can say that the main motivation of Althusserism was to “free Marxism from the Hegelian dialectics” and “anti-economism”. Althusser wanted to establish a “structuralist Marxism” which was not historical, and which drove the subject from the theory.

Althusser replaces the subject with structures. For him, the structures themselves are made up of three levels, i.e. economic, political and ideological. Instead of considering one of these levels as central[8], he argues that there are dominant and determinant levels within the social formation. The dominant level could vary for each social formation, but it is the determinant level which determines the dominant level. The determinant level is the economic one and is a constant. One can talk about various contradictions stemming from these three levels; these contradictions may even influence one another; they may overlap, or even, on the contrary, there may be instances when they “intensify” and “change places”. These instances are determined by multiple factors, but even then the economic level is the determinant one ‘in the last instance’.

Inspired by such Althusserian themes and concepts, Poulantzas thinks that social classes are neither the subject of society nor the creator and transformer of social formations. For him, social formation has nothing to do with classes but is a system of structures. Classes are the manifestations of the structure within social relations. The real focal point of contradictions is on the ones between the structures and their levels. Classes are the reflection of these contradictions. However, they are not determined only at the economic level but in conjunction with the ideological and political levels. Thus, instead of a “historical” approach putting classes at the centre, Poulantzas sought for structuralist answers, giving the priority to the structure and considering classes as a product of the economic, political and ideological levels of the structure.  

In his article On Social Classes, Poulantzas states that “The economic place of the social agents has a principal role in determining social classes[9] and goes on to say that it is not the only determinant: “But from that we cannot conclude that this economic place is sufficient to determine social classes. Marxism states that the economic does indeed have the determinant role in a mode of production or a social formation; but the political and the ideological (the superstructure) also have an important role.[10]

Poulantzas in fact confuses the general emphasis on the importance of political and ideological relations with the particular question of how classes are determined. Emphasising that “the economic place has a determining role” in Marxism, Poulantzas is right to say that “the political and the ideological (the superstructure) also have an important role.” However, his style and method of using this general fact is wrong. Because the main topic of discussion is not whether the classes are influenced by ideological and political relations, but which “criteria” and relations would be used to define the classes.

Considering that every social phenomenon is interlinked with one another, naturally no “social thing” is independent of political and ideological influences, just as they are not independent of economic processes. There is not only an external but also an internal relation between the social relations of production and the “political” and “ideological levels”. Ideology and politics are not referred to political organisations such as the state, political parties, etc. but they are within the production process itself and are also formed as part of this process. The fact that all social phenomena are influenced by various levels of the social process of production and reproduction does not negate the distinctness of these social phenomena, but nor does it necessitate the inclusion of all these levels in their definition.

This applies to social classes, too. However, the error of Poulantzas was not in his analysis that every phenomenon is influenced by the political and ideological determination, but in that his emphasis on political and ideological levels has made secondary the determinant role of the relations of production and exploitation in the formation of classes. Thus, he considered the formation of classes being under the influence of these three levels, but in fact went so far as defining it through political and ideological divisions.

The critical intervention of Poulantzas’ class analysis is that he moved the central position of production relations over to political and ideological relations. Although he took the “economic level” as a starting point, this would lose its prominence, as we will see further on, vis a vis the ideological divisions and become a secondary, even an ineffective issue.

The Class Scheme of Poulantzas

Let us begin to study Poulantzas’ class analysis from his starting point.

He begins with a very controversial thesis which needs proving: what distinguishes the working class from the petty bourgeoisie is mainly the division between productive and non-productive labour. The working class consists solely of the productive labour force, and the unproductive wage-workers are part of the new petty bourgeoisie.

In the capitalist mode of production, productive labour is that which (always on the basis of use-value) produces exchange value in the form commodities, and so surplus value. It is precisely in this way that the working class is economically defined in the capitalist mode of production: productive labour relates directly to the division between classes in the relations of production.”[11]

Limiting the working class to productive labour in this way is the first step in Poulantzas’ analysis. The second step is the inclusion of unproductive labour, which he defines outside the working class, in the “new petty bourgeoisie”, using the ideological and political criteria. Furthermore, productive labour is divided once again into manual and intellectual labour using the same criteria. “As a whole, engineers and technicians cannot be considered as belonging to the working class.[12] Thus, intellectual labour is also defined as part of the new petty bourgeoisie.

Table 1: Poulantzas’ definition of the working class


Unproductive labour Intellectual labour Sanction / supervision Decision making Conclusion
No No No No Workers in Poulantzas’ definition
Yes        or Yes        or Yes        or Yes The New Petty Bourgeoisie

Source: Wright, Erik Olin, Sınıflar (Classes, p. 181)

Having described classes using both economic and political and ideological criteria, Poulantzas thus presents a three-dimensional class scheme. He believes that those who perform unproductive labour, because it does not take place in the production process but only has a role in the realization and re-distribution of surplus value (the “economic criterion”), cannot be considered among the working class. Moreover, although office work and the ever-increasing number of office workers taking part in management work are essentially involved in productive labour because of their coordinating and unifying roles in the production process, they cannot be considered as part of the working class because in the social division of labour, they undertake the role of reproducing the political relations between the two classes (the political criterion). Similarly, intellectual workers such as engineers and technicians are also excluded from the working class because they are the direct bearers of the ideological dominance of capital (the ideological criterion).

Marxist class analysis based on the relations of production and exploitation, and the “economic criterion” used by Poulantzas in his class analysis, are two completely different things. If there is to be an analysis based on the “economic level” as suggested by Poulantzas, given that classes are defined on a socio-economic basis, one should begin with the relations of production based on exploitation, not with the division between productive and unproductive labour. As Lenin states, social “Classes are large groups of people differing from each other by the place they occupy in a historically determined system of social production, by their relation (in most cases fixed and formulated by law) to the means of production, by their role in the social organization of labour, and, consequently, by the dimensions of the share of social wealth of which they dispose and the mode of acquiring it.[13]

The “economic level” in Marxism refers to the social relations of production and exploitation, not divisions such as income, the level of technical qualification, market opportunities, the supervisory authority in the workplace or productive and unproductive labour. Thus, we see four aspects in Poulantzas’ class analysis that need to be discussed:

– the definition of the working class only by productive labour,

– the restriction of productive labour to only industrial labour,

– the definition of unproductive labour as new petty bourgeoisie and just on the basis of “ideological” level, and

– the exclusion of some sections of productive labour from the working class due to “political and ideological divisions”: division between manual and intellectual labour.

Productive and Unproductive Labour

At the centre of the capitalist economy lies the uninterrupted production of surplus value and the process of accumulation on the basis of this surplus value being reconverted into capital. The aim of the process of accumulation is not only the reproduction of the value previously created but also the production of surplus value and its use in the service of capital accumulation. For capital to continue to grow, it needs to enter into an exchange, on the basis of certain social relations, with a certain type of labour which can produce surplus value.

The definition of productive labour is critical in terms of the analysis of capitalist production. For Marx, “The difference between productive and unproductive labour is important with regard to accumulation, since one of the conditions for the reconversion of surplus value into capital is that the exchange should be with productive labour alone.”[14]

In this framework, when labour power is exchanged with capital used in the field of production (when it is employed for capital), it is productive and in other cases it is not.

Poulantzas’ restriction of the working class to productive workers is based on the theory that surplus value is only produced in the manufacturing sector. Surplus value is produced as a result of the social relations of production between the worker and the capitalist. Whether the commodity which comes out of the production process is physical or not has no significance in terms of the productivity of labour. In his Capital and Theories of Surplus Value Marx criticises Adam Smith’s Scottish kind of materialist approach for linking the productivity of labour to a physical product, and explains at length, citing various examples, that the workers working for the capitalist in the production of services create surplus value.

In arguing that the production of services is not productive, Poulantzas aims to bring the definition of the working class up to date. However, he excludes a big section of the working class, maybe more than half, and categorises them as the new petty bourgeoisie because they work in the service sector and arguably do not produce any surplus value. This is a completely faulty analysis.

Poulantzas has no concrete evidence when he limits the working class to productive manufacturing workers. More importantly, the division between productive and unproductive labour has no importance in terms of class differentiation. The main criterion defining the working class is the necessity of selling their labour power. Whether productive or not, both sections of the working class are deprived of the means of production and have to sell their labour power as a proletariat.

Using the differentiation of unproductive labour power in the determination of classes creates a contradiction between the abstraction and the problem. Poulantzas does not clarify why this differentiation should be accepted as an essential part of class divisions. He does not take into consideration the fact that, just like the “blue collar” working class, these groups are completely deprived of the means of production, that they too enable capital to obtain profit, create a labour surplus, and that they are also subjected to the extortions of capitalist accumulation (the “rationalisation” and division of labour, and discipline). He does not shed light on the question why social relations of production based on exploitation are replaced by the differentiation between productive and unproductive labour.

As a matter of fact, one can see in the later parts of his analysis that the “economic” level is not, as opposed to his initial claim, the determining factor in his exclusion of unproductive workers from the working class. This is because, even though Poulantzas was to begin coherently his analysis from the so-called “economic” level, he should have started with the social relations of production based on exploitation, and not from the differentiation of productive and unproductive labour, which is in itself important for other reasons.

On the other hand, although he seems to differentiate classes on the basis of “productivity”, Poulantzas, in fact, based his divisions on political and ideological ones when defining the petty bourgeoisie and excluding some sections of workers from the working class. This is a reflection of the idea of the dominance of the “political-ideological” level. This idea is found in the second stage of his class analysis but overrides his so-called “economic” level and shapes his whole analysis.

The “service sector” workers, who deserve to be taken into account because of their magnitude, with their skilled and unskilled components, are an important part of the working class. Excluding this large section from the working class and arbitrarily defining it as “petty bourgeoisie” as Poulantzas does, would lead to the definition of the working class as a small minority in society, and the society we live in today as a petty bourgeois “middle class” society. However, even the evidence we can find under present day capitalism does not agree with such an assumption.

The Political Criteria

In his class analysis, Poulantzas wanted to revise the emphasis on the determinant role of the production relations with a “structuralist Marxist” perspective. Claiming to be fighting against economism, he defers this determinant role to the “final instance” and suggests that classes take shape under the influence of economic, political and ideological instances in their totality.

This approach is an extension of the Althusserian method which treats society as something mobile and consisting of instances which have equal influence.[15] Althusser believes that the Hegelian concept of the “whole” is reduced to a single “essential” principle, and thus could not grasp the complexity of concrete determinations. Althusser argues that the Marxist concept is different from the Hegelian “whole”, and develops his theory of instances or levels: “the unity of a structured whole containing what can be called levels or instances which are distinct and ‘relatively autonomous’, and co-exist within this complex structural unity, articulated with one another according to specific determinations, fixed in the last instance by the level or instance of the economy.”[16]

In Althusser’s works the structures themselves consist of economic, political and ideological levels. Social phenomena, including “class”, emerge under the total influence of these levels. Under different circumstances one of these levels comes to the fore and becomes more influential as the “dominant level”. It is sometimes the ideological, sometimes the political or economic which is “dominant”. In the last instance it is the economic level which is decisive.[17] The collective influence of the three different levels which together make up the structure conditions the emergence of classes.

This approach, explaining society with some distinct and “relatively autonomous” instances, has serious impasses. Etienne Balibar, known as the most important Althusserian theorist, is aware of this impasse. “A plurality of instances must be an essential property of every social structure (but we shall regard their number, names and the terms which designate their articulation as subject to revision).”[18]

One of the conclusions Poulantzas arrives at with his Althusserian theory of levels is this: “The constitution of classes is not related to the economic level alone, but consists of an effect of the ensemble of the levels of a mode of production or of a social formation.”[19]

With this approach, classes are reduced to “an effect of[20] the mode of production (structure). They are not considered as a forming subject, and their existence is severed from real life,[21] and are seen as passive “influence” of structures. Thus comes the conclusion that the history of class society is a process without a subject.[22] For human beings to consider themselves as a subject is an illusion created materially by the ideological apparatus of the state. Classes are in fact just passive bearers of the structure.

Yet, this “structure” is a product of the fixation/structuralisation of the continuous relations between the classes. These structured relations enable the reproduction of class formations. Poulantzas fully differentiates the subject from the “structure” and assumes the individual and classes as ineffectual bearers. On the contrary, the relations formed among people as a necessity for the production of the products they need make up the relations of production. However, these necessary relations come to dominate the lives of people and thus classes. In this sense, production relations and classes, the components and producers of these relations, are not separate issues.

Pointing out three levels of structure, the Poulantzas’ analysis is motivated by his stance against “economic reductionism” which defines classes only with the “economic level”. Drawing attention to the influence of these three levels, Poulantzas states that “From the moment that we speak of the structural existence of classes, political and ideological elements are present. This means those political and ideological elements are not to be identified simply with an autonomous political revolutionary organisation of the working class, or with a revolutionary ideology.”[23]

Poulantzas rightly argues that from the moment the existence of classes is mentioned “there exist political and ideological elements”. Be it apt for their class interests or not, the working class and its members have a political tendency. They have an ideological inclination created by their experiences or influenced by external conditions. Therefore, as far as the concrete existence of the working class is concerned, there inherently exist political and ideological relations in that “entity”, and Poulantzas is right on this subject.

Nevertheless, he jumbles two things together. The debate is not whether the working class is influenced by political and ideological relations (they also influence them) or produces these relations, which is a simple fact, but on how and at what level the existence of classes can be defined. Poulantzas included the ideological and political levels in his analysis to define classes rather than to study their concrete conditions. And at this stage the following questions come up:

– At what “level” or how are the classes defined?

– Can they be defined at the ideological and political level?

– What kind of a relation exists between the “ideological and political level” and Poulantzas’ statement that the “economic level” is determinate in the final instance?


For Poulantzas, the political and ideological criteria come to the fore especially in the analysis of petty bourgeoisie.[24] He explains how, in this framework, he includes politics and ideology in his analysis in dealing with unproductive labour power.

I have tried to show concretely what it means to say that the definition of social classes cannot be limited exclusively to the economic sphere, and that we must take into account politics and ideology. This has been a fundamental thesis advanced in Political Power and Social Classes. I want, therefore, to demonstrate why I needed those political and ideological elements. I needed them because even if the criterion of productive and unproductive labour is sufficient to exclude unproductive workers from the working class it is not adequate, because it is a negative criterion. (…) Further, it demonstrates that they are not part of the working class. But this economic criterion in itself is not sufficient to tell us to which class they belong.”[25]

According to this, the “economic criterion” in the form of “productivity” is a negative criterion which shows that unproductive labour does not belong to the working class. Then, if not the working class, to which class do these sectors belong? What then, if “productivity”, which is claimed to be the “economic criterion” is not enough to determine the class they belong to?

At this point, the “political and ideological criteria” are included in the analysis. For Poulantzas, “the economic (the relations of production and of exploitation) is not sufficient in order to define positively the class determination of unproductive salaried workers, and we must always take into account the political and ideological elements of the social division of labour.”[26]

Political criterion” is significant in Poulantzas’ analysis, especially in determining the class position of managerial, supervisory and office labour in general. He believes that although those who work in the supervisory and managerial departments in the production of material commodities are subjected to exploitation just as manual workers, they take part in the political dominance over the working class. In other words, the supervisory workers are exploited by capital, but they also supervise the working class on behalf of capital.[27] For Poulantzas, supervisors’ principal function is that of extracting surplus value from the workers,[28] and therefore, they belong to the “new” petty bourgeoisie.[29]

For Poulantzas, the “political criterion” is the realisation of the managerial and supervisory functions in the capitalist process of production. Supervision in the capitalist enterprise is not only for the technical coordination of labour processes but also for the reinforcement of the political dominance over the working class.[30]

It is open to discussion whether the “political criterion” of Poulantzas is really political. The main political criterion he focuses on is the position of the new petty bourgeoisie in the hierarchy of supervision.

Apart from technical coordination, supervision can be conceptualised in two ways. First, the capitalist class holding onto the instruments of power politically, and second, the managerial and supervision process of production as a whole. One cannot say that ordinary managerial personnel are part of the political supervision by the capitalist over the working class either way.

This is because top managers, who actually administer the capitalist ownership from outside the legal economic ownership, supervise the entire labour process separate from the immediate labour activity. As opposed to this, there is no reason to consider ordinary managerial personnel and foremen as an essential element of the function of political dominance.[31] Moreover, they themselves are subject to the supervision and pressure by top managers who are part of the capitalist class.

The class position of the wage-labour power which practice managerial and supervisory functions was one of the principal topics of the debates on class analysis in the 1970s. The approach of Poulantzas is debatable because he excludes those workers who have some supervisory roles in the workplace from the working class and because he considers the “political criterion” as determinant despite the relations of production. In order to divide and monitor workers, some of them may be assigned to facile or real supervisory roles in the organisation of the labour process in the workplace. Especially for flexible work practices, it may be possible for workers to monitor each other through the object on the production belt. The claim that a low level of supervision function excludes someone from being a worker and makes him part of the “new petty bourgeoisie” may lead to the exclusion of workers who take part in the process of production from the working class (with the excuse that they have some supervisory roles). In many workplaces the foremen who supervise the workers have the same or a bit higher salaries. Yet, these workers are essentially subject to real supervision, just like the other workers, by high-level managers who have capitalist functions. However, some of these workers who have supervisory and managerial roles may belong, with respect to the concrete circumstances in the workplace, to the privileged/aristocratic layer within the working class.

In terms of managerial functions we need a broader analysis. In our age, managerial departments are broadened in the workplaces, office work becomes widespread, unskilled and Taylorized.[32] The majority of people who work in these departments have no or only a very limited “managerial role”. Apart from the top managers in departments such as human resources, finance and bookkeeping, quality control, etc. the majority of people do work unrelated to management such as purchase and sale of commodities, marketing, relations with other departments and institutions. They have similar working conditions and salaries as workers and class interests opposed to the capitalists. For this reason, it would be a superficial approach to exclude them from the working class without taking into account the division of labour and stratification among the managerial personnel, as the majority of them work under the supervision of top managers and under capitalist domination.

However, for Poulantzas, any “supervisory” and “managerial” function is an element of the “political criterion”, and thus he rules out the difference between the supervisory function of top managers and that of lower level staff. Yet, top managers such as CEOs, directors-general, etc. usually own shares or have high enough salaries to get their share of the surplus value. They can transform their salaries into investments in property, shares, and other financial activities, bringing more income which may be bigger than their salaries. Yes, they may lose their job if they fail, but this does not mean that they have to sell their labour power as workers do. They can live from other income without having to work.

In other words, the criterion for the working class of having to sell their labour power is not valid for top managers. Not only do they get a share of the surplus value, but they have in practise the right to disposition of the means of production, the (non-legal) ownership in a way, even though legal ownership is also of importance and may lie somewhere else. Their behaviour, function, reflexes and interests cannot be separated from the capitalist who is the legal owner of the means of production. They have most of the benefits of ownership. For this reason, top managers should be considered not as a separate class, but as part of the capitalist class in terms of ownership of the means of production and the functions that go with it.

However, low-level managers and supervisors cannot be treated as such, and it is not right to exclude them from the working class through some “political criteria”.

The Political Criteria and Unproductive Unskilled Workers

With “political criteria” Poulantzas focuses on managerial and supervisory labour in the capitalist organisation of production. He argues that such functions contribute to the political dominance of capital over the working class, and thus this kind of labour should be excluded from the working class as a whole. While the “economic criterion” defines the unproductive workers in a negative way and excludes them from the working class, the “political criterion” categorizes them with the “new” petty bourgeoisie. However, this approach of Poulantzas involves a great contradiction.

Because he limits unproductive labour to “white collar” workers and believes that they have managerial-supervisory functions, Poulantzas considers them to be participants in political dominance. However, a great majority of unproductive labour is made up of unskilled or semi-skilled workers who have no such functions.

For instance, the road workers employed by municipalities do not produce surplus value because the service they produce is not something bought or sold in the market. Therefore they are unproductive workers. They have no managerial or supervisory roles. Similarly, the workers who work in commerce and finance, in the circulation stage of capital and do not produce surplus value, have no function of political or ideological control. Again, the cashiers or shop assistants in shopping centres, shelf fillers in supermarkets, etc. are sectors of the working class with the lowest wages and harsh conditions. All these groups have no managerial or supervisory function of “political dominance”. Furthermore, such service sector jobs are being increasingly mechanised with the large use of computers and machines, thus workers have less control of their work.

Even when we look with Poulantzas’ method, millions of unproductive workers working on roads, cleaning, doing commercial work, public sector education, health, social security, etc. have no role in the establishment of “political dominance” over the working class.

Poulantzas emphasizes that the “economic criterion” can only determine that the unproductive labour is not part of the working class, but it does not determine which class it belongs to. Then, when the great majority of unproductive labour is placed outside the scope of Poulantzas’ “political criterion”, how could they be defined? This is one of the Poulantzas’ contradictions, i.e. not having the capacity to explain the class position of the great majority of unproductive workers who have no managerial or supervisory roles.

When we leave aside this approach of Poulantzas, excluding unproductive labour from the working class, what determines the class interests of the unproductive workers is the fact that they sell their labour power and are being exploited. The functions the workers undertake in the labour process may cause divisions among workers. Sometimes these divisions are based on differences in responsibilities, education, income, etc. However, these differences cannot be seen as a class division in terms of a measure linked with the relations of production and exploitation.[33]

The Ideological Criteria

According to Poulantzas, the working class is not only exploited economically and under political dominance but is also ideologically dominated. The source of ideological dominance is the separation of the knowledge of the process of production from the producers themselves, and it is characterized by the division between intellectual and manual labour. This is also a social division and cannot be reduced to “intellectual” and “manual” labour in a technical way. Those who use intellectual labour, such as engineers and technicians, may be part of the worker collective by taking direct part in the production of surplus value in the production process. However, for Poulantzas, they cannot be considered as part of the working class. In the social division of labour, they take a position as “specialists” and sever the link between the knowledge of production and the workers, thus they play a role in the formation of the ideological dominance over the working class.[34] Poulantzas argues that this division also reproduces the subordination of the working class by excluding them from the “secret knowledge” of the production process, thereby reinforcing their dependence upon capital.[35]

For Poulantzas, professionals, technicians and other mental workers are the bearers of this relation of ideological domination and are therefore classified as part of the “new” petty bourgeoisie along with managers and supervisors. Before moving onto the form of using the “ideological criterion” it is necessary to touch upon his “economic criterion” regarding the intellectual workers in the production process.

Poulantzas acknowledges that mental workers are productive, even though he excludes them from the working class and includes them in the “new” petty bourgeoisie. In other words, according to Poulantzas’ “economic criterion”, engineers and technicians are to be defined in the working class. However, at this point his “structural determinant” enters the stage, the “economic criterion” is left aside, and the “ideological criterion” is defined arbitrarily as the dominant one. The “ideological criterion” suppresses the “economic criterion” which he defines as determinant, thus productive intellectual workers get excluded from the working class and included in the “new” petty bourgeoisie.

Let us now look closely at the way Poulantzas presents the division between intellectual and manual labour, which he defines in terms of their social functions.

That division, which has a role in determining positions in the social division of labour, is by no means limited to the economic domain. (…) The division between manual and intellectual labour can be grasped only when it is extended to the political and ideological relations of (a) the social division of labour within enterprises, where authority and direction of labour are linked to intellectual labour and the secrecy of knowledge, and (b) the ensemble of the social division of labour—relations which contribute to defining the positions occupied by the social classes.”[36]

Poulantzas draws attention to two subjects in the division of manual and intellectual labour: first, the political and ideological relations in an enterprise, and second, the political and ideological relations in the social field. The “ideological” and “political” relations in the enterprise are defined in connection with the functions of technicians and engineers because they use “intellectual labour” and have the “secret knowledge” in production.

For Poulantzas, engineers and technicians in an enterprise “are entrusted with a special authority in overseeing the labour process and its despotic organization”.[37] Thus, he places them ‘alongside’ intellectual labour in terms of their maintenance of the monopoly of knowledge. Therefore, “as a whole, engineers and technicians cannot be considered to belong to the working class”.[38]

As the division between productive and unproductive labour is not sufficient to exclude technicians and engineers from the working class, Poulantzas resorts to the “ideological criterion”. He argues that those who use intellectual labour are excluded from the working class not because of the nature of intellectual labour but due to its ideological and political function. Here, two functions which Poulantzas draws attention to come to the fore: first, the supervision of the labour process in the workplace (the political function), and second, the monopoly of knowledge of the labour process in the workplace (the ideological function).[39]

The position of technicians and engineers in the production process is one of the critical topics of debate in class analysis. Because engineering and technical work is not a class concept but a professional category, their members can belong to different classes. But the “ideological and political criteria” put forward by Poulantzas with regard to technicians and engineers in the production process are far from solving the problem.

It is not the use of intellectual or manual labour which determines whether the worker in the production process is part of the working class or not. In the labour process manual and mental labour collectively take part in the production of surplus value. Moreover, the work done by manual labour involves some intellectual aspects, and vice versa. Also, in some fields, intellectual labour may involve more tiring and heavy working conditions than manual labour. Call centre workers, for instance, do routine and very repetitive work which cannot be classified as manual, but it cannot be defined as “skilled” or “positive” work either.

Despite this, the division between manual and intellectual labour still continues. But it is not a class criterion. If it were so, it would be impossible to measure in many groups of work to what extent it was intellectual, to what extent manual.

And beyond all this, an engineer who is deprived of the ownership of the means of production, who is employed for a certain salary under the dominance of capital, is part of the work collective under commodity production. If we leave aside those engineers who perform the functions of capital in top managerial positions independent of the production process, those engineers who participate in the production process with their intellectual and manual labour are part of the working class. However, they are a special stratum within the working class because of their different characteristics from the unskilled sections of the working class and their professional knowledge.

Table 2: The criteria in Poulantzas’ class analysis

Source: Wright, Class Boundaries in Advanced Capitalist Societies, p. 14

The Ideological Criterion and Unskilled Intellectual Workers

It is a problematic approach to consider the knowledge of production as a form of “ideological dominance” over the working class, and to place those who have this knowledge in an antagonistic relation with the working class. The approach of Poulantzas, who defines the division between manual and intellectual labour with the “ideological criterion” of “knowledge monopoly” is not able to explain the position of the intellectual workers who do not have this monopoly. For instance, the “ideological criterion” and “ideological dominance” become dysfunctional in the definition of the intellectual workers who do simple office work and financial calculations, neither performing any physical activity nor having any “knowledge monopoly” but are involved in unskilled mental labour.

As Braverman shows, in many offices and commercial companies labour processes are rationalised and mechanised, and are subject to a despotic supervision just as in industry.[40] The fact that routine mental workers participate in certain “rituals” and “cultural practices” which symbolize their ideological distance from manual workers does not demonstrate their domination over those workers.[41]

Table 2 demonstrates this contradiction more clearly. Let us take an “intellectual” worker, a computer programmer for instance, whom Poulantzas categorizes as a constituent of the “new” petty bourgeoisie. In the table there are two options in the field of surplus value production: this intellectual worker is a member of the work collective who takes part in the production of the surplus value, just like Poulantzas’ working class. There are also two options in terms of political dominance; and the computer programmer cannot possibly apply political or ideological dominance, just like Poulantzas’ working class. As seen in the table, Poulantzas admits the existence of workers, under the category of the “new” petty bourgeoisie, who cannot apply such forms of dominance. In that case, the computer programmer has similar characteristics to those of the worker in the table. Despite this, Poulantzas argues that they belong not to the working class but to the “new” petty bourgeoisie. Even Poulantzas’ approach necessitates the inclusion of at least some sectors of those workers whom he classifies as “new” petty bourgeoisie in the working class. But Poulantzas does not admit this.

The New Petty Bourgeoisie

Poulantzas includes in the “new” petty bourgeoisie those productive and unproductive labourers whom he thinks play a role in the reproduction of capitalist relations through administrative/ managerial, technical and ideological dominance over the production process and the workers. The reason for this inclusion is not whether they are productive or not (the “economic level” for Poulantzas) but because of their ideological and political function. Thus, the ideological and political criteria overtake the economic criterion and become determinant in deciding to which class the unproductive workers belong.

Poulantzas believes that the petty bourgeoisie is comprised of two main groups: The first one is the “traditional” petty bourgeoisie “which tend to decline in size”.[42] These are the small-scale producers and small traders. They include small land-owning peasants, shopkeepers in the city or country, small merchants, etc. Here, there is no economic exploitation in the strict sense, inasmuch as these forms do not employ paid workers. Labour is principally provided by the real owner or the members of his family.[43]

The second group of petty bourgeoisie is “the ‘new’ petty bourgeoisie, which tends to increase under monopoly capitalism. It consists of the non-productive wage-earning workers mentioned above; we should add to it civil servants employed by the state and its various apparatuses. These workers do not produce surplus value. Like others, they sell their labour-power and their wage is determined by the price of reproducing their labour-power, but they are exploited by the direct extortion of surplus labour, not by the production of surplus value.”[44]

In Poulantzas, the “old” and the “new” groups of petty bourgeoisie occupy different positions in the production process. While the former is involved in small-scale commodity production with the means of production that they have, the latter work for the capitalist in return for a salary, thus their labour time is appropriated by capital. Because this difference in the relations of production and the “economic level” cannot be overlooked, Poulantzas rightly poses the following question: “Can they then be considered to constitute a class, the petty bourgeoisie?[45] The way out of this contradictory situation is, for Poulantzas, the intervention of the “political and ideological” criteria:

It can be held that these different positions in production and the economic sphere do, in fact, have the same effects at the political and ideological level. Both small holders and those wage earners who live out their exploitation in the form of ‘wages’ and ‘competition’ far removed from production present the same political and ideological characteristics for different economic reasons.[46]

That there are two large social groups having the same political and ideological characteristics and world view is a very serious and ambitious statement. And arguably the same “political and ideological characteristics” are as follows:

Petty bourgeois individualism; attraction to the status quo and fear of revolution; the myth of ‘social advancement’ and aspirations to bourgeois status; belief in the ‘neutral State’ above classes; political instability and a tendency to support ‘strong States’ and Bonapartist regimes; revolts taking the form of ‘petty bourgeois’ jacqueries. If this is correct, then these common ideological-political characteristics provide sufficient ground for considering that these two ensembles with different places in the economy constitute a relatively unified class, the petty bourgeoisie.[47]

Despite having very different positions in production and economically, the property-owning “old” petty bourgeoisie and the unproductive workers are categorized in the same class (the petty bourgeoisie) because of the arguably “ideological” similarities claimed by Poulantzas. They have different positions in production relations, but the same one in ideological relations!

This analysis has two major problems: First, the theory of the ideological similarities between unproductive workers and small property-owning working people are at best based on subjective observations; in other words, they are arbitrary. And second, the ideological relations, and not production relations, have the dominant position in determining the classes, and two large groups with different production relations are defined as a single class, arguably, due to ideological similarities.

From the Economic Criterion to the Determinant Effect of Ideology

In Poulantzas’ model, the “political and ideological criteria” superseding the “economic criterion” make his argument that economic relations have priority over political and ideological relations problematic. Mental workers and technicians sharing the same economic practises of productive labour with the workers are excluded from the working class because of the “political and ideological criteria”. Yet, on the other hand, the traditional and new petty bourgeoisie having different economic positions are classified as parts of the same class on the basis of “common ideological influences”.

This unity that Poulantzas refers to between the traditional and “new” petty bourgeoisie is especially problematic, because the economic positions these classes occupy are not just different but objectively opposite. The concentration and centralisation of the capitalist enterprise, giving rise to the emergence of new production technologies and sectors pose an existential threat to small commercial production which is vital for the traditional petty bourgeoisie. Considering their contradicting economic interests, the claim that these groups unite in a single class around common ideological tendencies is in contradiction with principal Marxist premise which gives priority to economic relations in determining classes, which Poulantzas also accepts.[48]

When ideology and politics enter the stage as a criterion for classes, then it is possible to increase the number of classes in accordance with ideological differences. And this leads to social classes being determined in an arbitrary way on the basis of ideological differences. Poulantzas refrains from drawing logical conclusions from his analysis and thus unifies almost 70 per cent of society in the petty bourgeoisie, assuming they have a common ideological and political denominator.

On the other hand, the ideological divisions among workers are meaningful not for their own class interests but for capital. The imposition of capitalist ideology can have a destructive function in terms of working class unity and raise the barriers to class organisation, but this cannot be seen as a dividing class barrier between the productive and unproductive sectors of the working class.

Poulantzas took a critical step towards post-Marxism, which severed all connections between politics-ideology and the economic base of classes, when he considered the “ideological-political criteria” as a central element in determining classes instead of the relations of production. The post-Marxists who marched on the path Poulantzas had opened argued that social classes are groups which are established independently of the economic base and with use of ideological and political discourse.[49] Although Poulantzas did not go that far, he opened the path to post-Marxism and post-modernism by replacing objective class structures with ideological and political elements, and set the route.

[1] The trend known as “Post-Marxism” is one of the examples of post-modern approaches, which negates the principal premises of Marxism and the structural objective relations of capitalism, rejecting social wholeness and replacing it with the idea that ideological and political discourse set the reality.

[2] Wood, Ellen Meiksins (1998) The Retreat from Class: A New ‘True’ Socialism, London-New York: Verso

[3] Mao Zedong, the leader of the People’s Republic of China and the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, and his team launched a Cultural Revolution in 1966, which would go on for a decade, claiming to end the presence of “bureaucratic communism” in China. It required a war against all cultural and ideological elements which belonged to the “past”. Classical operatic and theatrical works were banned from cultural activites, only the “revolutionary” ones were allowed. Its manifestation in the West took the form of a critique of “economic reductionism” and the idea of the transformation of capitalism through an ideological and cultural uprising. The Chinese Cultural Revolution was in fact a reflection of the struggle between different political factions within the party and state.

[4] Wood, The Retreat from Class

[5] Poulantzas, Nicos (1975) Classes in Contemporary Capitalism, London: New Left Books, p. 101

[6] Wood, The Retreat from Class, p. 31

[7] ibid., p. 33-34, 44

[8] According to the Althusserian tradition, the Marxist premise that the economic base is fundamentally determined by the relations of production is economism.

[9] Poulantzas, Nicos, On Social Classes

[10] ibid.

[11] ibid. Our emphasis.

[12] ibid.

[13] Lenin, V. I., “A Great Beginning”, Collected Works, Vol. 29, p. 421

[14] Marx, Karl, “Results of the Direct Production Process”, Capital, Vol.1, Chapter 6

[15] In his analysis of society with an Althusserian style of different and autonomous instances, Poulantzas brings in some conditions with regards to this analysis in his book State, Power, Socialism. See: Poulantzas, Nicos (1978) State, Power, Socialism, London: New Left Books, pp. 16-20

[16] Althusser, Louis ve Balibar, Etienne (1970) Reading Capital, London: New Left Books, p. 97

[17] Poulantzas, Political Power and Social Classes , p. 69, London, NLB 1973

[18] Althusser, L and Balibar, E, Reading Capital, p. 207

[19] Poulantzas, Political Power and Social Classes, p. 69

[20] ibid., p. 69

[21] The critical point of the Althusserian “structural casuality” is “the existence of its structure in its effects”. “….The structure, which is merely a specific combination of its peculiar elements, is nothing outside its effects.” (Althusser and Balibar, Reading Capital, pp. 188-189)

[22]History is a process without any subject or goal. Given situations in which people act as a subject under the determination of social relations are products of class struggle. In other words, history has no subject in the philosophical sense of the word, but it has a motor, and that is class struggle.” (Althusser, Louis, Reply to John Lewis)

[23] Poulantzas, Nicos, “The New Petty Bourgeoisie”, The Poulantzas Reader, ed. James Martin, p. 331

[24] Poulantzas, “On Social Classes”, New Left Review, March-April 1973

[25] Poulantzas, “The New Petty Bourgeoisie”, The Poulantzas Reader, p. 330

[26] ibid., p. 330

[27] Poulantzas tries to solve this contradiction by referring to the difference between the technical and social division of labour of the working class. However, he does not clearly define this difference between the two. The structural position of labour which is represented with the technical division of labour in general is determined especially by the technological level of production. The social division of labour, on the other hand, is based on the social organisation of production. Poulantzas believes that in the actual organisation of the labour process, social division of labour based on the relations of production has an effect on the technical division of labour. Thus, while the exploitation of supervisory workers by capital reflects the role of labour in the technical division of labour, their role in the political dominance over the working class is defined by their position in the social division of labour. However, these definitions of Poulantzas with regard to the technical and social division of labour are controversial, because he refers the technical division of labour to the exploitation of labour power by capital, and the social division of labour to political dominance. Yet social division of labour is based on the exploitation of labour power by capital. And Poulantzas reduces this exploitation to technical division of labour in order to include the political criterion in his analysis.

[28] Wright, Eric Olin (1976) “Class Boundaries in Advanced Capitalist Societies”, New Left Review

[29] Carter, Bob (2014) Capitalism, Class Conflict and the New Middle Class, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

[30] Burris, V. (1987) Class Structure and Political Ideology

[31] Wright, Class Boundaries in Advanced Capitalist Societies

[32] Braverman, Harry (1998) Labour and Monopoly Capitalism, New York: Monthly Review Press

[33] Wood, Retreat from Class

[34] Carter, Capitalism, Class Conflict and the New Middle Class

[35] Burris, Class Structure and Political Ideology

[36] Poulantzas, “On Social Classes”

[37] ibid.

[38] ibid.

[39] ibid.

[40] Braverman, Labour and Monopoly Capitalism

[41] Burris, Class Structure and Political Ideology, p. 14

[42] Poulantzas, On Social Classes, p. 37

[43] ibid.

[44] ibid.

[45] ibid.

[46] ibid.

[47] ibid.

[48] Burris, Class Structure and Political Ideology, pp. 11-12

[49] Laclau, Ernesto and Mouffe, Chantal (1992), Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, Verso, 2001, p. 85