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Socialist Review Index (1993–1996) | Socialist Review 184 Contents

Moira Nolan


Limited vision


From Socialist Review, No. 184, March 1995
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Socialism for a Sceptical Age
Ralph Miliband
Polity Press £11.95

Since the East European revolutions of 1989 many left-wing academics and intellectuals have accepted the idea that socialism is a spent force in society. Many of them proudly embrace capitalism and the market, appear on television as respectable establishment pundits, and some have even become apologists for Western imperialism– notably Fred Halliday of the LSE who supported the US in the Gulf War. Ralph Miliband, who died last year, declined to join the new liberals and never gave up his commitment to socialist politics.

His final book, Socialism for a Sceptical Age, is in many ways Miliband’s manifesto for what socialism is about and how it is achievable. As such it maintains a hatred for the system we live in and the inequalities and injustices that are built into capitalist society. He urges both the necessity and possibility of socialism and argues that the social democracy of parties such as Labour rarely amounts to even piecemeal reform.

It is when the book turns to Miliband’s own vision that it runs into trouble. His view of socialism is one created by an elected government carrying out the very piecemeal reform he has attacked as insufficient – a more democratic society, based on citizen power;the election of some (but not all) officials; the establishment of a mixed economy, with emphasis on public ownership. It is a vision very much affected by the retreats of the 1980s.

There are two reasons for this. Firstly, the collapse of the Stalinist states has confirmed for him that workers’ power is utopian and has led him to dismiss the possibility of revolutionary change – Marxism is a good idea but leads to a one party dictatorship. Whilst professing sympathy with the ideals of Marx, his attack on Lenin and Bolshevik type organisation is done by distortion and sleight of hand.

The other reason for his vacillations is the fact that he played no active part in daily building an opposition to the reformism he attacked in his earlier book, Parliamentary Socialism (1961).

Though Miliband declares that class is as relevant as ever, this understanding is little more than a description of society and its inequalities, rather than the key dynamic for change.

It is this which means that the book talks of a socialist government carrying out fundamental change, with ordinary people given little more than a supporting role. Indeed when he talks of the prospect of building socialist organisation, he believes we should look to middle managers and professionals, saying that the battle for socialist ideas must shift to this layer of society. He does so in the belief that winning the elite of the state machinery will prevent the bringing down of a left wing government!

In the context of the crisis of capitalism and the inability of reformism to solve the problems that crisis creates, Socialism for a Sceptical Age has too much pessimism about winning the battle for socialist ideas and too limited a vision of the ability of workers to transform the world.

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