Nikos Poulantzas: The Malignant Melanoma

 

Today we dedicate some time to borrow a shred of thought from people who have left, but still influence us until today. On 3rd October 1979 Nikos Poulantzas committed suicide at the age of 43.

He was born in Athens on 21st September 1936 and lived at Verantzerou Street, near Vathis square of Athens. He attended the experimental school of the University of Athens and at the same time the French Institute of Athens. In 1953 he managed to be awarded the French high school title, baccalauréat. Next in line was the Law School of the University of Athens, from which he graduated in 1957 with the grade “Excellent”. After serving in the Navy, he obtains the licence to practice the Law in 1960 and leaves for Germany. Poulantzas has never in his life actually worked as a lawyer.

He attended some seminars in Philosophy and Philosophy of the Law in the Universities of Munich and Heidelberg. His master’s thesis was evidently influenced by these studies and was titled “The rebirth of natural Law in Germany”. After that, between 1961 and 1964, he is engaged in redacting his doctoral thesis with the subject “Nature of things and Law” at the Department of Law and Economic Studies in Paris. He begins his teaching career as an assistant in the University of Sorbonne and as of December 1968 he teaches sociology in the University of Paris (Vincennes). From 1977 until his suicide he was responsible for books on politics at the publishing company Hachette.

Although his thought was primarily born and formed in France, it was Greece where it took its final shape. He was an integral part of the students’ movement by being an active member of the Youth of EDA (United Democratic Left), he had also joined the Greek Communist Party (KKE), declared illegal at the time, and after the party’s split in 1968, he had been in the Communist Party of the Interior. Already in 1966, during the 2nd Week of Marxist Thought, he delivered a speech on the Marxist view on the State, a topic that will be the focus of his theoretical pursuits until the end.

After the fall of the dictatorship in Greece, he returned to Greece and joined the Renewing Left (Communist Party of the Interior). With a multitude of articles and interviews that reveal his concerns about the political turmoil that followed the Metapolitefsi (political transition), he gave a series of lectures in the Panteion University (1975-1976), focusing on the theoretical approaches on the State. Upon accepting the invitation of the K. Karamanlis’ government of National Unit, he took part in the procedures of drafting the new education law.

He was very likeable to the intellectuals of his time. One of them was a sociologist and former debutant of SYRIZA, Konstantinos Tsoukalas, who made acquaintance with him at the tender age of 15. Tsoukalas said about Poulantzas that he was in a state of forming his awareness during the Post-Civil-War era. On the same wavelength speaks about him the popular director, Giannis Smaragdis, who had met with him when he interviewed him on behalf of the newspaper “Avgi”. As the director confesses, Poulantzas was shining on the university’s bench and both the docents and the students were admiring him as a star. According to the director, his main characteristic was not his thinking, but his competence to make his interlocutor think. Historic is, beside this, his contact to Luis Althusser, by whom he was strongly influenced.

Poulantzas has come to be known through the expansion of the socialistic idea on which he argued that “socialism will be democratic or it will not be at all”, as well as through his theoretical work on fascism. The book “Fascism and Dictatorship” published by him, is one of the most known and influential books ever written on the rise of fascism in Italy and the Nazism in Germany during the interwar period. He wrote the following books:

  • Classes in Contemporary Capitalism
  • Political Power and Social Classes
  • On Gramsci: Between Sartre and Althusser
  • The Crisis of Dictatorships: Portugal, Greece, Spain
  • State, Power, Socialism
  • Fascism and Dictatorship
  • Problems of the Modern State and of the Phenomenon of Fascism (collective work)
  • On the Marxist Theory of Law (1987)

However, since no reproduction of his thoughts is as good as the original, let us borrow some words from his book State, Power, Socialism: “History has not yet given us a successful experience of the democratic road to socialism: what it has provided- and that is not insignificant – is some negative examples to avoid and some mistakes upon which to reflect. […] But one thing is certain: socialism will be democratic or it will not be at all. What is more, optimism about the democratic road to socialism should not lead us to consider it a royal road, smooth and free of risks.”

Now taking down the musical road, in 1982 came out the album “Embargo”, that included the song “Kakoithes Melanoma” (Malignant Melanoma), dedicated to Poulantzas, written by memorable Alkis Alkaiou and composed by Thanos Mikroutsikos. The latter has once said about Poulantzas : “I always considered -and still do- Poulantzas to be a great intellectual of the Left, specifically considering the aspects on the State he examined. I remember, at the time we were very perplexed about the definition of State, as we saw the stiffness of the Soviet State. I personally was surprised, shocked actually, by the fact –I do not actually know whether it holds true- that he embraced his books and fell down with them. If it is true, it means that he himself had also seen a stalemate, otherwise this move cannot be explained. At the time, I was very moved by Poulantzas’ death, I was in shock. I was infuriated when I read on Rizospastis (the Communist Party’s paper) just two lines, a little below or above the news that cheese and ham had got more expensive, that yesterday Nikos Poulantzas committed suicide in Paris, or something similar. That was in two lines the announcement of the death of a great intellectual, one of the greatest Marxists in the world. After that, as a member of the Party, I considered myself obliged to compose a song about him, “To kakoithes melanoma”. That was unconceivable. However, I was fully aware of my action, which was a result of my respect to Nikos Poulantzas and of the difficulty I had comprehending the dominant perception on Poulantzas among the Left, and specifically the Party. I announced this tribute to Poulantzas, in understanding with Alkis Alkaios, in 1980 at 4 concerts in the context of Athens Festival.”

Many of Poulantza’s statements are impossible not to affect us, even in our days. So, when right-wing Golden Dawn has reached the third position in the political scene, how can we ignore this statement: “When no part of the dominant class can impose its hegemony to the coalition of power, then the fascist state comes to substitute the democratic parliamentary polity, as a solution to the crisis of capitalistic society, which feels threatened by the organized working class.”

On 3 October 1979 Nikos Poulantzas took his books in his hands and fell off the 13rd floor of the building he lived in Paris. Along with his books, he took with him all his thoughts and dreams for a better society. That society we are looking for, as we talk. His thought is still alive today and will continue to make us think further. If we are even a little influenced by all these people “drunk” by ideas, maybe hope will wink to us. In Pergamos and in Mpastia…(excerpt from the song)

 

Translated by: Chrysanthi Partsanaki

Μετάφραση: Χρυσάνθη Παρτσανάκη

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