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International Socialism, December 1969/January 1970


John Lea

The State of Society


From International Socialism (1st series), No.41, December 1969/January 1970, p.42.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The State in Capitalist Society
Ralph Miliband
Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 45s

With the development of Monopoly Capitalism bourgeois ideology has undergone certain changes to enable it to explain and justify the changed social circumstances. In the sphere of ‘Political Science’ this shift has appeared in the form of the modification of the old classic liberal notion of Representative Government which took the unit of political analysis as the individual who, by casting his vote at election time, made sure that the policies of the State reflected his wishes. This image has now to a large extent been replaced by what is known as the theory of Political pluralism, which argues that it is not so much the voting individual that makes the state bureaucracy ‘democratic’ but the fact that society is organised into a plethora of groups – firms, trade unions, consumers associations and of course state bureaucracies, which by competing among themselves result in a balance such that none has superordinate power.

Within the confines of bourgeois social science a number of radical writers following in the footsteps of C. Wright Mills’ monumental The Power Elite have been hacking away at the hegemony of pluralism. The significance of Miliband’s study is that it is one of the first specifically Marxist works addressed in any detail to the problem of State power in monopoly capitalism, and to the refutation of pluralism. Miliband’s book is also welcome because of the generally sombre situation within Marxist analysis in general. Sectarianism and confusion reigns as ever and bourgeois social science shows no sign of crumbling before the onslaught of Marxian analysis: in fact with one or two ‘Marxist’ works in the field of political economy published in recent years (e.g. Baran and Sweezy’s Monopoly Capital) the opposite has been the case, with Marxism degenerating into a variant of left-Keynesianism.

Miliband undoubtedly provides an important service by gathering together in a coherent form much useful material on class structure, the relations between government, trade unions and industry and the class bias of the civil service. However, to be a genuinely Marxist analysis it is only a starting point to show that in fact pluralism is mystification, and that the State acts generally in the interests of business and against the interests of the working class. Miliband fulfils this first task admirably, what must be scrutinised however is the success or otherwise of his attempt to explain the situation in a specifically Marxist way, and to show the superiority of a Marxist analysis of the State over that of radical liberalism or anarcho-syndicalism.

The reactionary nature of the analysis of the State shared by both left liberals in the tradition of C. Wright Mills, and many anarchists today is twofold.

  1. It agrees that there is a power structure favouring the ‘elite’ (business, military and political leaders) at the expense of the ‘mass’ but attributes this to processes inherent in industrial society, namely the scale and complexity of socio-economic organisation necessitated by a sophisticated technology. The practical consequences of this deterministic analysis are obvious – either reject industrial society altogether and ‘drop-out’ or accept the power structure as a necessary evil.

  2. To the extent that the state bureaucracy acts in the interests of groups other than itself such as business and the military, the only reason that is given for this is that these groups are socially related, i.e. they went to the same schools and they have family interconnections.

In this way Mills in The Power Elite explained the cohesive nature of the elite. Again, the political consequences of such an analysis are potentially reactionary. If it is only because of social intermixing and similarity of recruitment that the state is a tool of the bourgeoisie, then by a firm policy of ‘democratisation’ of the civil service it ought to be possible to form a State to serve the interests of the working class. The road is in other words wide open for social democracy.

It seems to me that the most serious criticism from a Marxist point of view that can be levelled at Miliband is his failure to separate sufficiently his analysis of the relation between State and class from the one just outlined, to provide in other words anything other than an English version of The Power Elite.

His analysis of social class (Ch.2) tends to be statistical rather than historical. That is, he focuses on discussion of the inequalities in the distribuion of wealth and the discontinuities in social mobility without discussing what relationships these represent. Why is the capitalist class ‘in conflict’ with other social classes; what is the structure that necessitates and sustains this conflict; and why does it have the results it does? Failure to take up coherent positions on these theoretical questions makes his analysis of the relations between class and State unnecessarily empiricist, and in fact hard to distinguish from that of C. Wright Mills.

What I mean is this. By dealing with class as a category of distribution; by defining the existence of a class structure as the existence of an unequal distribution of. wealth, property and educational opportunity, etc. instead of discussing class in terms of the relationship between types of wealth as Marx did; expressed, for example, in the laws of exchange and the market in capitalist mode of production, one is forced to analyse the relationship between the State and social classes in terms purely of these distributions. Thus the main reason Miliband identifies for the fact that the State appears to act in the interests of the capitalist class is the fact that the people who operate the State bureaucracy are generally drawn from, and mix closely, with the capitalist class rather than the working class. And this is because of the unequal distribution of, in this case, educational opportunity.

This analysis of the relation between class and state is in no way different from that provided by Mills. The criticism of it is not that it is wrong but that it is partial. It is not the basic reason why the State in capitalist society is a class state, and also as we saw, it leads to social democratic conclusions. This basic weakness feeds itself into Miliband’s discussion of the failure of Left governments to use the existing state apparatus for radical reforms. Here he focuses (Ch.4) on predominantly subjective factors, emphasising the ideology of social democracy, as responsible for its ‘failure of nerve’ once in power; Again, the argument is not that Miliband is factually incorrect concerning the mentality of MacDonald, Blum, Wilson and Co., and of course the contradictions of their ideology alone would be sufficient to make any attempt on their part to use the capitalist state to introduce some form of ‘socialism’ from above, the failure that it has been. However, Marxists must go beyond this, because as Miliband leaves the analysis, there is still the possibility that a ‘really determined’ left social democracy could introduce socialism through the parliamentary capture of the capitalist state.

However, in Ch.6, Miliband does embark on some discussion of the forces built into the structure of capitalist society which militate against a left-wing government in control of a capitalist state bureaucracy.

He focuses mainly on the market mechanisms such as the international movement of capital and the balance of payments which make it difficult for the state to act against the interests of the capitalist class without disrupting the entire mechanism of production and distribution, via what is known, in the palaces of international capital as a ‘crisis of confidence’. In making this analysis of the market and its power; power independent of what businessmen think as individuals, and of whether they went to the same public schools as civil servants, Miliband does go beyond left liberalism in the direction of Marxist analysis. He fails though to complete the task by relating this analysis to the state as a class state. That is, he still sees the State as a free-floating institution which, it is true, may be manned by the sons of the bourgeoisie, and which due to the structure of capitalist society finds it impossible to pursue a radical reformism from within. He does not touch on the theme developed by Marx in his earlier writings that the very existence of the state is an expression of a class antagonism. In a classless society the state has no conceivable reason for existence; the function of an existing state can only be some sort of ‘co-ordination’ of society. This presupposes that conflicts exist to be ‘co-ordinated’, and thus in a capitalist society the task of the state can only be to assist in the systematic reproduction of the capitalist relations of production. The very vision of itself which the state bureaucracy must have (and which is the fundamentally Hegelian vision of the reality of the state as the transcender of the conflicts of ‘civil society’) in order to rationalise its existence, is already biased in the very fact of its own neutrality as ‘co-ordinator’ and regulator of a set of conflicts presupposing a given social structure.

To conclude, Miliband does make some effort to initiate a distinctly Marxist analysis of the state in monopoly capitalism, though it is not systematic enough to avoid the collapse in many places into the radical liberalism of the Wright Mills variety. Despite these ‘weaknesses’ however The State in Capitalist Society is likely to remain for some time as a clear and readable demystification of bourgeois ideology in a crucial area.

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