No Easy Outs: The Revolutionary Reformism of Ralph Miliband

A new collection of essays by the seminal Marxist thinker highlights his simultaneously hopeful and clear-eyed vision, fiercely principled but always tethered to reality.

Shawn Gude

(Michael Newman / Merlin Press)

The joke almost writes itself. Ralph Miliband, the social­ist intel­lec­tu­al, devot­ed an entire book to cat­a­loging the British Labour Party’s his­to­ry of tepid­i­ty and a good chunk of his career warn­ing left­ists that the par­ty was an incre­men­tal­ist jalopy rather than a ready-made vehi­cle for win­ning social­ism — then raised two sons who rose to the party’s high­est ech­e­lons and endorsed its right­ward drift.

In the U.S., this reality calls for “radical reformist” struggle: working to rebuild the welfare state and economy along more egalitarian and ecologically sustainable lines, fighting authoritarianism and organizing against militarism. But Miliband urges us to seek more: more equality, more democracy, more justice.

Ralph died in 1994, 16 years before David and Ed Miliband faced off for the Labour Par­ty lead­er­ship. Ed won, and is run­ning for prime min­is­ter in today’s UK elec­tions. But while anoth­er cen­trist helm­ing the par­ty may be tak­en as an indi­ca­tion of the Left’s irrel­e­vance — and an occa­sion for a wise­crack, per­haps to ease the sting — Ralph wouldn’t have con­ced­ed as much.

Class exploita­tion and inequal­i­ty in advanced cap­i­tal­ist coun­tries didn’t dis­ap­pear with the advent of labor laws or the wel­fare state or the Inter­net; it is a con­sti­tu­tive fea­ture of those coun­tries’ under­ly­ing eco­nom­ic struc­ture. And as long as cap­i­tal­ism con­tin­ues — a sys­tem char­ac­ter­ized by the sub­or­di­na­tion of the many to the few, on the basis of prop­er­ty and priv­i­lege,” Miliband argued — it would gen­er­ate opposition.

As the British social­ist con­tends in the title essay of an excel­lent new col­lec­tion, Class War Con­ser­vatism and Oth­er Essays, Mar­garet Thatcher’s bru­tal assault from above may have destroyed the liveli­hoods and rights of work­ers, but resis­tance from below, how­ev­er inchoate, won’t van­ish. Sim­i­lar­ly, capitalism’s flaws cre­ate an inex­tin­guish­able desire for a more secure, dig­ni­fied existence.

It was this per­spec­tive — simul­ta­ne­ous­ly hope­ful and clear-eyed, fierce­ly prin­ci­pled but teth­ered to real­i­ty — that made the British social­ist the most impres­sive Marx­ist of his gen­er­a­tion. Intel­lec­tu­al­ly inter­posed between Sovi­et Com­mu­nism and West­ern Euro­pean social democ­ra­cy, and with­er­ing in his cri­tiques of both, Miliband advanced a vision of social­ism that took democ­ra­cy as the sine qua non. It’s a vision that remains just as rel­e­vant today.

Miliband was born in Brus­sels on Jan­u­ary 7, 1924. A Pol­ish Jew in ori­gin, he and his father fled Bel­gium short­ly before the coun­try sur­ren­dered to Nazi Ger­many in May 1940. After serv­ing in the British Roy­al Navy and grad­u­at­ing from the Lon­don School of Eco­nom­ics, he taught briefly at Chicago’s Roo­sevelt Uni­ver­si­ty (then called Roo­sevelt Col­lege) before secur­ing a posi­tion at his alma mater. Through­out his career, Miliband was a pro­fes­sor at a vari­ety of aca­d­e­m­ic insti­tu­tions, includ­ing the Uni­ver­si­ty of Leeds, Bran­deis and the City Uni­ver­si­ty of New York.

In 1961, he released Par­lia­men­tary Social­ism, a sober but lac­er­at­ing indict­ment of the Labour Par­ty that sig­nif­i­cant­ly ele­vat­ed his stature in the UK. Three years lat­er, he co-found­ed the annu­al jour­nal Social­ist Reg­is­ter, an excep­tion­al pub­li­ca­tion that he helped edit until his death (but for­tu­nate­ly didn’t per­ish with him). It is from this pub­li­ca­tion — as well as New Left Review, on whose edi­to­r­i­al board Miliband also briefly sat — that the bulk of the eigh­teen selec­tions in Class War Con­ser­vatism are drawn.

While uneven in qual­i­ty, togeth­er the book’s col­lect­ed pieces are a good dis­til­la­tion of Miliband’s world­view, cen­tral pre­oc­cu­pa­tions, and, not unim­por­tant­ly, man­ner of presentation.

Indeed, his very prose style incor­po­rat­ed a poten­tial ten­sion: an aver­sion to ortho­doxy mixed with unshake­able con­vic­tion. He would habit­u­al­ly stake out a force­ful posi­tion, then add nuance, caveats, qual­i­fi­ca­tions: This is in no way to sug­gest,” It is worth not­ing,” The point has to be han­dled care­ful­ly.” Incan­ta­tion and slo­ga­neer­ing, he repeat­ed­ly insist­ed, were no sub­sti­tute for sober analysis.

The Coup in Chile” is Miliband at his best — all the more impres­sive since he wrote the essay short­ly after the event under exam­i­na­tion, the 1973 putsch of social­ist Pres­i­dent Sal­vador Allende. Here he writes with great verve and per­cep­tive­ness, scru­ti­niz­ing Allende’s course of action and its impli­ca­tions for tran­si­tions to social­ism, and only paus­ing to exco­ri­ate the rul­ing class so com­fort­able with bring­ing down a demo­c­ra­t­i­cal­ly elect­ed gov­ern­ment that pledged absolute fideli­ty to the con­sti­tu­tion­al order.

But his indig­na­tion doesn’t addle his crit­i­cal fac­ul­ties. In these mat­ters,” Miliband con­cludes, there is one law which holds: the weak­er the gov­ern­ment, the bold­er its ene­mies, and the more numer­ous they become day by day.” It’s a harsh judg­ment to ren­der against Allende, but Miliband was nev­er one to sim­ply memorialize.

The essay is one of sev­er­al in which Miliband explains the moti­va­tion behind the U.S.’s Cold War actions. Strip away America’s free­dom and democ­ra­cy” rhetor­i­cal non­sense, and the U.S.’s aim in devel­op­ing coun­tries around the world was clear: to quash Third World” social reform and rev­o­lu­tion. And who were the will­ing accom­plices of U.S. impe­ri­al­ism? None oth­er than the British Labour Par­ty and oth­er West­ern Euro­pean social-demo­c­ra­t­ic par­ties, with­out which the Amer­i­cans couldn’t have estab­lished their NATO bul­wark against sup­posed Sovi­et expansionism.

The sub­ject of Miliband’s sec­ond book, 1969’s The State in Cap­i­tal­ist Soci­ety, is also well cov­ered in Verso’s new col­lec­tion. Think­ing sim­plis­tic the con­ven­tion­al Marx­ist for­mu­la­tion of the state as the instru­ment of the cap­i­tal­ist class, Miliband sought to pro­vide an empir­i­cal basis for a more nuanced under­stand­ing. It was hard­ly an aca­d­e­m­ic exer­cise — some of the most impor­tant ques­tions con­fronting the Left today turn on our under­stand­ing of the nature of the state and how it works: the func­tion of the police, the con­straints that pro­gres­sive gov­ern­ments face, the types of reforms we should be advocating.

In cap­i­tal­ist democ­ra­cies, Miliband argued, the state has rel­a­tive auton­o­my”; nei­ther ful­ly con­trolled nor ful­ly in con­trol, it is instead capital’s part­ner. Social-demo­c­ra­t­ic, lib­er­al, and con­ser­v­a­tive par­ties enter and exit gov­ern­ment, and this chang­ing of hands isn’t incon­se­quen­tial. Some will aggres­sive­ly court cap­i­tal, oth­ers will do it begrudg­ing­ly. But in the end, what unites them is a com­mit­ment to shoring up busi­ness con­fi­dence.” Apoplec­tic investors, after all, can tor­pe­do the economy.

Even if social­ists take pow­er, they must con­tend with a state appa­ra­tus that they don’t whol­ly direct. The bureau­cra­cy, the police, the army — each to vary­ing degrees is gen­er­al­ly hos­tile to rad­i­cal goals. In addi­tion, the deep pow­er and resource inequities that char­ac­ter­ize cap­i­tal­ist economies mar the most basic demo­c­ra­t­ic prin­ci­ple of one per­son, one vote.

Far from being bas­tions of free­dom and self-gov­er­nance, then, cap­i­tal­ist democ­ra­cies severe­ly restrict pop­u­lar sov­er­eign­ty. To deep­en democ­ra­cy, Miliband argued, both the eco­nom­ic con­text in which state deci­sions are made, and the state itself, must be trans­formed. Social­ism is noth­ing if not the democ­ra­ti­za­tion of the state and the democ­ra­ti­za­tion of society.

With­out posit­ing a seis­mic shift in Miliband’s think­ing, it’s fair to say that the essays con­tained in Class War Con­ser­vatism reflect the per­spec­tives of the mature Miliband. Just one essay comes before 1968, the year the Sovi­et Union repres­sive­ly squashed the Prague Spring and Miliband con­se­quent­ly became con­vinced that the country’s sys­tem was intractably author­i­tar­i­an — that the lib­er­al­iza­tion of the Khrushchev years hadn’t been the cau­tious first steps toward broad­er democ­ra­ti­za­tion, but a brief depar­ture from a repres­sive essence. If reform was pos­si­ble and desir­able, it wasn’t a ten­den­cy con­tained with­in the sys­tem itself. Redi­rect­ing the sys­tem toward demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ism, Miliband writes in Stal­in and After,” would require a Sovi­et spring.”

While he nev­er resort­ed to anti­com­mu­nist invec­tive — he was too exact­ing for such sim­plic­i­ty — the col­lec­tion shows Miliband as a stri­dent crit­ic of the Sovi­et Union. Indeed, it’s dif­fi­cult to imag­ine that the anti-Stal­in­ist was ever sym­pa­thet­ic to the Krem­lin. But as Michael New­man describes in his excel­lent biog­ra­phy, while Miliband cer­tain­ly nev­er suc­cumbed to uncrit­i­cal pro-Sovi­etism” dur­ing his 1961 trip to the USSR, “[his] diary shows that he was gen­er­al­ly pre­dis­posed to accept the mes­sage that his hosts want­ed to deliv­er to him.”

There is a jus­ti­fi­able feel­ing among many left­ists of my gen­er­a­tion that to even re-lit­i­gate the crimes of the Sovi­et Union is to implic­it­ly grant it (sul­lied) social­ist cre­den­tials that it does not deserve. After all, why should we have to answer for the injus­tices of a sys­tem that pro­claimed itself demo­c­ra­t­ic, but couldn’t even get the rudi­ments right? But invok­ing the Sovi­et Union is one of the stan­dard retorts when social­ists announce them­selves as such, so we bet­ter have a good comeback.

Miliband gives us no easy outs. Yes, Rus­sia was a back­wards” coun­try in which the pop­u­lace had no famil­iar­i­ty with demo­c­ra­t­ic forms. It was, of course, buf­fet­ed by inter­nal and exter­nal aggres­sors. And nei­ther Ger­many nor the rest of Europe fol­lowed Rus­sia with their own social­ist rev­o­lu­tions — which Lenin, Trot­sky, and oth­ers had always insist­ed must hap­pen if the Russ­ian Rev­o­lu­tion was to succeed.

But this can’t explain the lev­el of repres­sion — which reached its apogee under the mon­strous tyran­ny of Stal­in” yet endured through the life of the sys­tem — or jus­ti­fy the assump­tion of many social­ists that Lenin’s What Is To Be Done was read­i­ly applic­a­ble in advanced cap­i­tal­ist countries.

Above all, what should be clear from the Sovi­et expe­ri­ence is that even hor­ri­bly com­pro­mised, cap­i­tal­ist democ­ra­cy — free­dom of speech with caveats, free­dom of assem­bly with qual­i­fi­ca­tions, free­dom of the press with con­di­tions — shouldn’t be derid­ed. Ele­men­tary, yes. Use­less, no.

So what did Miliband’s vision of social­ist democ­ra­cy look like? For him, a social­ist econ­o­my was still a mixed econ­o­my, but one in which the posi­tion of the pub­lic sec­tor vis-à-vis the pri­vate sec­tor is reversed.” He desired social­iza­tion — col­lec­tive, demo­c­ra­t­ic own­er­ship — more than old-fash­ioned state con­trol, see­ing in it the grounds for a plu­ral­is­tic econ­o­my that nonethe­less would side­line the prof­it motive as the orga­niz­ing principle.

In terms of democ­ra­ti­za­tion, Miliband advo­cat­ed under­tak­ing a search, which is bound to be ardu­ous and prob­lem­at­ic, for an ade­quate rela­tion­ships between two forms of pow­er — state pow­er and pop­u­lar pow­er.” He favored retain­ing rep­re­sen­ta­tive bod­ies, a sep­a­ra­tion of pow­ers, and oth­er char­ac­ter­is­tics of lib­er­al democ­ra­cy. But he held that the polit­i­cal equal­i­ty for­mal­ly guar­an­teed in cap­i­tal­ist democ­ra­cies would be more ful­ly real­ized with an egal­i­tar­i­an eco­nom­ic base.

Miliband was hard­ly exhaus­tive in sketch­ing out a social­ist future. There are oth­ers who have done so much more ably. What he pro­vid­ed, how­ev­er, was a prac­ti­cal pol­i­tics — rev­o­lu­tion­ary reformism,” as he described it in an essay unfor­tu­nate­ly omit­ted from this col­lec­tion — that would move us clos­er to break­ing with cap­i­tal­ism, and a pat­tern of thought and set of prin­ci­ples that should inform such a transition.

Miliband’s final book, the posthu­mous­ly released Social­ism for a Scep­ti­cal Age (whose cov­er looks more like a tawdry romance nov­el than a social­ist tract), demon­strates that the 16-year-old boy who declared his alle­giance to social­ism at Marx’s grave hadn’t strayed from his youth­ful con­vic­tions. But he nev­er con­fused dog­ma with principle.

What needs to be com­pared is not text with text,” he wrote in the 1965 essay Marx and the State,” but text with his­tor­i­cal or con­tem­po­rary real­i­ty itself.” Then as now, recita­tion of cat­e­chisms will only yield impo­tence and isolation.

Miliband’s work remains salient because our social order is still fun­da­men­tal­ly unjust. The class-war con­ser­vatism” that he described in its ear­ly stages has swollen in size, spread­ing a more cal­lous form of cap­i­tal­ism and rolling back hard-fought gains work­ers thought they’d nev­er lose. The Unit­ed States is still arro­gant­ly march­ing around the world and declar­ing left­ist gov­ern­ments a nation­al secu­ri­ty threat.” And the Amer­i­can gov­ern­ment, which main­stream polit­i­cal sci­en­tists are open­ly clas­si­fy­ing as oli­garchic, is killing black peo­ple almost dai­ly.

In the U.S., this real­i­ty calls for rad­i­cal reformist” strug­gle: work­ing to rebuild the wel­fare state and econ­o­my along more egal­i­tar­i­an and eco­log­i­cal­ly sus­tain­able lines, fight­ing author­i­tar­i­an­ism and orga­niz­ing against mil­i­tarism. But Miliband urges us to seek more: more equal­i­ty, more democ­ra­cy, more justice.

When Britons go to the polling sta­tions today, they will be weigh­ing par­ty man­i­festos and posi­tions that Miliband would have look upon with despair. The form that cap­i­tal­ism will take — not the best way to tran­scend it — is all that is up for debate.

If 10 Down­ing Street becomes the new res­i­dence of Ed Miliband, British cap­i­tal will breathe a sigh of relief. Because the Labour Par­ty — despite its leader’s social­ist father, despite its recent cau­tious drift to the left—still bears the marks of class-war conservatism.

Shawn Gude is the Asso­ciate Edi­tor of Jacobin mag­a­zine. Fol­low him on Twit­ter: @shawngude.
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