The state centered approach revived the concept of state and power in the study of comparative politics


In the field of comparative political economy a backlash took place against developmental ism in the late 1960s and the early 1970s when concept of state and power were revived.

The contributions to the theory of state came primarily from Marxist scholarship. In Marx, Engels and Lenin the concept of state is premised on its relationship with the existing class divisions in society. It is the nature of this relationship, however, which has remained a matter of debate among Marxists.

One tradition, prevalent in the United States of America (USA), emanated from community studies that identified power along the lines of position and reputation, is associated with works of GLW. Dom off (who Rules America?, Prentice Hall, New Jersey, 1967; The Higher Circles, Random Houses, New York, 1970; Who Really Rules?, Goodyear Publishing, Santa Monica, California, 1978; The Powers That Be, Random House, New York, 1979).


Domhoff’s main thesis is that there not only exists and upper class (corporate bourgeoisie) in USA, but also that this class, is a governing class. Domhoff’s contributions have been seen as a part of instrumentalist tradition within Marxism in which state is seen as an instrument of the ruling or dominant class.

This perspective is guided from Marx and Engel’s concern expressed in The Communist Manifesto that the executive of the state “is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie”.

A careful reading of Domhoff’s works, however, suggests that he does not subscribe to the instrumentalist viewpoint and the state in USA is seen as representing the interests of the corporate class while at the same time opposing the interests of individual capitals or fractions of the business elite.

A second tradition revolved around what has been described as the structuralist view of the state and is found in the writings of French Marxists, notably Nicos Poulantzas. Poulantzas in his early work (Political Power and Social Classes, New Left books, London) argued that functions of the state in capitalism are broadly determined by the structures of the society rather than by people who occupy positions of the state.


The state operates in a ‘relatively autonomous’ manner to counteract the combined threats of working class unity and capitalist disunity in order to reproduce capitalist structure. Populantzas in his later work (State, Power and Socialism, New Left Books, Verso edition, London, 1980) argues that the capitalist state itself is an arena of class conflict and that whereas the state is shaped by social-class relations, it is also contested and is therefore the product of class struggle within state.

Politics is not simply the organization of class power through the state by dominant capitalist class, and the use of that power to manipulate and repress subordinate groups, it is also the site of organized conflict by mass social movements to influence state policies, and gain control of state apparatuses. An interesting debate on the state theory in the West figured in the pages of New Left Review in 1969-70, in the form of an exchange between Ralph Miliband and Poulantzas.

As poulantzas’s view we shall briefly examine now the contribution of Ralph Miliband. The debate in New Lift Review centered on Miliband’s book The State in Capitalist Society: An Analysis of the Western system of power (Basic Books, New York, 1969) in which he argued that while the state may act in Marxist terms, on behalf of the ruling class, it does not act at its behest.

The state is a class state, but it must have a high degree of autonomy and independence if it is to act as a class state. The key argument in Miliband’s works is that state may act in the interests of capitalist, but not always at their command.


While the above mentioned debates focused primarily on the nature of state in Western capitalist societies, a lively contribution to the debate on the nature of state in developing world followed. Hamza Alavi (‘The State in Post-Colonial Societies: Pakistan and Bangladesh’, New Left Review, No.72, 1972) characterizes the post-colonial state in Pakistan and Bangladesh as overdeveloped’ (as it was creation of metropolitan powers lacking indigenous support) which remained relatively autonomous from the dominant classes.

The state controlled by ‘bureaucratic military oligarchy’ mediates between the competing interests of three propertied classes, namely the metropolitan bourgeoisie, the indigenous bourgeoisie and the landed classes, while at the same time acting on behalf of them all to preserve the social order in which their interests are embedded, namely the institution of private property and the capitalist mode as the dominant mode of production.

This theme of relative autonomy was later taken by Pranab Bardhan (The Political Economy of Development, Basil Blackwell, Oxford 1986) in his analysis of the Indian state, where state is relatively autonomous of the dominant coalition constituted by capitalist, landlords and professionals. State, however, in Bardhan’s formulation remains a prominent actor which exercises ‘choice in goal formulation, agenda setting and policy execution’.

The idea of overdeveloped post-colonial state and the concept of relative autonomy in the context of relationship between state and class in the context of African societies was carried in the work of John Saul (‘The State in Post-Colonial Societies: Tanzania’, the Socialist Register, London, 1974).


Another perspective came in the work of Issa GShivji (Class Struggle in Tanzania, New York, 1976), who argued that the personnel of state apparatus themselves emerge as the dominant class as they develop a specific class interest of their own and transform themselves into ‘bureaucratic bourgeoisie’.

The debates on the nature and role of the state have continued in journals like Review of African Political Economy. Journal of Contemporary Asia, Latin American perspective and the annual volumes of Socialist Register in light of changes taking place in the forms of economy, social classes and political forces.

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