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Colin Barker

Muscular Reformism

(October 1977)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.102, October 1977, pp.27-28.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Marxism and Politics,
Ralph Miliband
Oxford £3.50 hardback, £1.75 paperback

In 1969, Ralph Miliband published The State in Capitalist Society. Reviewing it in this journal, John Lea noted then that Miliband had left open the crucial political question: how may the capitalist state be changed? The book lacked explicit conclusions.

In the past few years, in various articles in the Socialist Register, and now in the present book, Miliband has elaborated a position on the problem of the transition to socialism. It is this aspect of his book on which I shall focus this review, for space is limited.

The early chapters of the book do not, in any case, add much that has not already been said in the earlier book. Except, perhaps, that the new book is an improvement, having more sense of the way class struggle shapes the state, shapes idology, etc. On the other hand, he holds fast to his distributional theory of class, as if class were a matter of private wealth rather than of social relationships, and he cleaves fast therefore to the standard soggy left view of Stalinist Rusia, that it has elements of socialism about it but lacks democracy, (the view shared, with different emphases, by contemporary communists and adherents of the various fourth internationals).

The last two chapters do, however, represent an attempt to deal systematically with the major strategic problems of socialism, with the relation of party to class, with reform and revolution. Miliband provides a clear statement of a basically unsatisfactory position.

The bones of that position are a rejection of the Leninist, or ‘insurrectionary’ road to socialism, and preference for a muscular, determined reformism. Miliband, after the experience of the Russian Revolution’s degeneration, is persuaded that insurrection to smash the state cannot produce the dictatorship of the proletariat, understood as the most widespread popular working-class democracy. What he does is to take a real possibility, and make a historic necessity out of it.

Emergency situations like war and civil war tend to demand rapid centralised decision making and communication, which is not the most favourable environment for the growth of democracy based on workers’ councils. Miliband’s argument is, in effect, that the degeneration of the revolution must happen. It is inscribed into the revolutionary process. The revolution will be strangled by the revolutionaries, who will of necessity develop a more or less bureaucratic dictatorship.

Miliband makes an assumption in all this, which is that the dictatorship of the proletariat is incompatible with a ‘strong state’ (which he sees as necessary in an immediate post-revolutionary situation), and that popular democracy cannot handle humdrum necessities. In which case, of course, socialism is a Utopian project full stop. He also seems to assume that the problems of centralisation and bureaucracy are peculiar to the revolutionary road to socialism, without any argument at all.

It is his alternative scenario, his reformism with teeth, which is of most interest, however. Miliband suggests we consider the likely outcome of a situation in which a left coalition government, including communists, has been elected. What happens next? Two possibilities exist, of which the first is the more familiar. For the first option is that nothing much happens at all. Perhaps the left government carries through a few reforms, but it does nothing serious, and gets itself thrown out at the next election. It has been incorporated – a more than familiar scenario.

The second possibility is the one that interests Milband, and is his gamble on the future. What happens if a left government proves determined to carry through a whole series of major transformations: nationalising large slices of industry, redistributing wealth, improving labour legislation, building up welfare, taxing the rich hard? What then? Such a government will represent a real threat to the ruling class, and they will organise against it. They will, from the beginning, seek to overthrow it, by force if necessary. Chile is very much at the centre of Miliband’s attention.

Such a left government is threatened with going down in glory, and disaster: it does enough to drive the Right to counter-revolution, but not enough to secure its own position.

Miliband has learned from Chile, that the problem with Allende was that he did not go far enough. To secure a transition to socialism, to defeat the threat of a right-wing coup, fire must be met with fire. Above all, the assumed left government must create organs of popular self-government all across the country, bases of popular mobilisation which will prove too strong for the Right. Thus, by relatively peaceful and gradual means, the dictatorship of the proletariat will be achieved, only without any smashing of the ‘good’ side of bourgeois democracy. Civil liberties and the democratic framework will be preserved this way. The population will be mobilised to defend their own liberties and their own institutions, the government will not be alienated from the people, and the seeming impossible will be achieved – a peaceful transition to socialism.

Where is the flaw in this happy vision? Not, certainly, in his argument as to what such a government ought to do. What else did revolutionary socialists urge in relation to the Allende government than the essentials of what Miliband suggests? The scenario, accbrding to which a part of the state machine is captured by a leftward moving force before the working class is mobilised fully is not impossible: consider Portugal. Miliband and the SWP might well be saying the same things, urging the same programme, in such a situation. Except for one thing: we’d be saying it to different audiences.

Miliband would be speaking to the government, we would be speaking against it. Not out of perversity, but for the reason that Miliband has forgotten something about probabilities. The problem is this: how likely is it that such a left government, made up perhaps of left social-democrats and communists, would do what is necessary to defend and secure their position against the right, by advancing to the left? How likely is it that they would be ready to mobilise the population to take over the running of their factories, farms, estates, towns, etc? Especially, how likely is it that they would encourage and support autonomous movements in this direction that occured before the government decided they should happen? Miliband is correct, of course, in saying that this is the only way that such a government could survive. But would it?

Miliband forgets that such a government would be a government of parties who never intended any such thing, government of parties that have no tradition of mobilising mass movements, encouraging autonomous working-class activity, a government whose instincts and habits are opposed to any such developments, a government opposed to necessary violence against the right. The likely outcome is, rather, that of Allende’s government, that sought to repress popular movements, and to avoid fighting the right.

It is the experience of the French CP in 1968, of the Portuguese CP, of the Cuban CP, of the British CP, etc. etc. ... and of social democracy everywhere at its best. The government of which Miliband dreams would be a government of reformist parties, in whom reformism was a hard-won, deeply ingrained experience and habit.

Reformism is not only a politics of the future, it is the politics of here and now. And, as a politics of here and now, it is the politics of controlling rather than leading rank-and-file movements, of accomodations with the right, of the union office more than the shop floor and so on.

As a politics of here and now, reformism shapes those who pursue it, it shapes their organisations, and shapes their relations with the working class. It is not a politics that that will encourage the rapid collective learning process required to convince such parties that they must drive fast to the left to survive.

For us, the lesson of Chile is not so much that Allende was wrong, which he was, as that the strength of revolutionary ideas amongst the working masses of Chile, and the organisations to articulate those ideas, were not sufficiently strong to prevent Allende being wrong, or throw him aside when he was. The needed ideas and organisations do not appear out of the blue, at the moment of historical necessity. They have to be built, fought for, won, beginning here and now. The expectation must be that the communist parties will learn no lessons at the school of Miliband, will not acknowledge the bankruptcy of their own history for half a century, and must therefore be pushed aside, have their influence undermined – beginning now.

There is no word in Ralph Miliband’s book about the probability of his dream being realised. Understandably not. But the result is that he ends up a Utopian, a socialist who wants a revolution without a revolution, whose position is such that he must be politically irrelevant or move to the right. The theoreticians of ‘Eurocommunism’, of the rightward moving communist parties, will be glad to embrace him. It is rather sad.

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