The Miliband–Poulantzas debate was a debate between Marxist theorists Ralph Miliband and Nicos Poulantzas concerning the nature of the state. Their exchange was published in New Left Review, beginning with Poulantzas's review of Miliband's 1969 publication on bourgeois democracies, The State in Capitalist Society.: 6–7 In their exchange, Miliband argues for an instrumentalist model of the capitalist state, whereas Poulantzas takes a structural position.
In The State in Capitalist Society, Miliband puts forth his theory of how the state functions to serve capitalist interests. It does so, he claims, because of (1) the social origins of members of state government and (2) the personal ties and influence between members of state government and the ruling-class elites.
Poulantzas disagrees with Miliband's approach, adopting a structural position. He claims the state is objectively a capitalist entity, which can serve no purpose other than preserving the capitalist mode of production. Furthermore, he argues that if members of the ruling class are the same people as those who manage the state, this is merely a coincidence: the state reproduces Capitalist relations regardless of who is in charge. In his critique he claims,
“The relation between the bourgeois class and the state is an objective relation. This means that if the function of the state in a determinate social formation and the interests of the dominant class coincide, it is by reason of the system itself: the direct participation of members of the ruling class in the state apparatus is not the cause but the effect…”: 247
In a response to Poulantzas's criticisms, Miliband counters that Poulantzas's position allows no room for agency and is therefore too limiting. His point of view does not allow individuals to make decisions based on their own free will; rather, their decisions are determined solely by the structure of society.
"For what his exclusive stress on ‘objective relations’ suggests is that what the state does is in every particular and at all times wholly determined by these ‘objective relations’: in other words, that the structural constraints of the system are so absolutely compelling as to turn those who run the state into the merest functionaries and executants of policies imposed upon them by ‘the system’": 258–9
- Poulantzas, N. & Miliband, R. (1972). The Problem of the Capitalist State. In R. Blackburn (ed.) Ideology in Social Science: Readings in Critical Social Theory. NY: Pantheon Books. Pp. 238-262.
- Block, F. (1987). State Theory in Context. In Revising State Theory: Essays in Politics and Postindustrialism. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press. pp 3-38.
- Miliband, R. (1969). The State in Capitalist Society. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.