Duncan Hallas

Partial vision

(January 1990)

From Socialist Worker Review, No.127, January 1990, pp.29-30.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Divided Societies: Class Struggle in Contemporary Capitalism
Ralph Miliband
OUP £20

THIS IS a valuable and timely book. Whatever criticisms it may be necessary to make of it, and some will be made here, it must be welcomed as a serious and substantial contribution to socialist thinking.

Miliband seeks to show that, “class conflict remains the most important, indeed the absolutely central, fact of life in the advanced capitalist societies.”

And he succeeds. The critical second chapter of the book (Class and Power in Contemporary Capitalism) is a sustained and effective demolition of the notion that class is not, or is no longer, the most important thing in life for most people (right wing version) or that other divisions such as sex or race are more important (“left” wing version).

Not that Miliband is insensitive to the different degrees of oppression amongst various sections of working people. He notes that, for half the human race – the female half –

“gender cannot be abstracted from class.

“It is true that most women as a gender are subject to various forms of oppression and discrimination. But they experience this very unequally, in different ways, with very different degrees of intensity depending on their class location.

“The notion of ’women’ as such tends to obscure vast class differences, which create very different contexts for bourgeois women as compared with working class women. Bourgeois women do suffer various forms of oppression; but the difference between their experience of it and that of working class women is very great indeed.”

The same is true, although it is perhaps a harder argument, of race and “ethnicity” differences. No-one can doubt that it is a serious disadvantage to be black in Britain today. It is equally true that there is an enormous difference between a black barrister, a black bus driver and a black unemployed young man or woman and that these class differences are much greater than the race differences in fact. How people see them is another matter; it Is determined in political struggle.

There is another issue, a very important one, which is brought out in this book. Miliband says, “It has long been the case that the class of employers is made up of not only the people who actually own ’their own’ firms but also of people who control firms, without owning more than a relatively small part of the stocks and shares that make up their capital.

“In fact, a great many of the largest industrial, financial and commercial firms in the advanced capitalist world are now controlled on the basis of appointment rather than ownership.”

True enough, but a gross understatement of reality. Virtually all the multinationals are run by managerial hierarchies.

Ralph Miliband makes the essential point about this:

“The people who control capitalist firms without owning them are (contrary to a vast apologetic literature) at least as resolute in the pursuit of profit for their firms as owner capitalists ever were.”

How is this qualitatively different from the rulers of Russia or East Germany?

I have emphasised my areas of agreement with this book. I could easily find more. I repeat that, in my view, it is a valuable book. I hope that, like Miliband’s earlier works, it will appear in paperback at a price more of us can afford.

That said, let us talk about certain weaknesses. First, the idea of the “socialist states”. Miliband has an honourable record of opposition to Stalinism from 1956 onwards. Yet he still harbours the illusion that there are “socialist states”. He has not finally broken from the notion of “socialism from above”.

Although he quotes in this book Marx’s phrase “the emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class itself” – and I have no doubt that he believes it at one level – he still cannot bring himself to reject the “socialist “ pretentions of at least some of the Stalinist states.

This matters. Some of us, notably the pioneers of the SWP tendency, rejected the “socialist” pretentions of these dictatorships from the beginning and produced serious arguments (notably in Cliff’s Stalin’s Satellites in Eastern Europe) against them.

These arguments are now more important than ever. And, of course, they relate to the current struggle of, and within, the working class movement today, across the whole world and especially in Eastern Europe.

Take, for example, the current notion that “Leninism” is reactionary. Leave aside the current falsification that “Leninism leads to Stalinism”, easy enough to refute in serious argument.

What is really being said is that the attempt to develop a fusion of “spontaneous” working class consciousness with a scientific, materialist world view and a perspective of worker’s power, of a rational society under collective, democratic control, is impossible.

It is an old argument of reactionaries everywhere. Long ago, about 2,500 years ago, a conservative contributor to the Hebrew bible wrote:

“that which has been shall be, and there is no new thing under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes)

He was wrong and his modern imitators are wrong. Marx was right in pointing to the revolutionary potential for capitalism, and the even more revolutionary potential of it’s overthrow.

Ralph Miliband shares with us some of this vision. His book shows it. It also shows that he hovers, hesitates, floats, between the best of the academic left and revolutionary left.

Last updated on 2 June 2010