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Colin Barker


Ralph Miliband

(June 1994)

From Socialist Review, No. 176, June 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

I only met Ralph Miliband personally towards the end of his life. However, his books and articles played an important role in the political development of my generation of socialists. Ralph Miliband was a very good clear writer – a real virtue in a period when the worst academicism often afflicted socialist theorising.

His most important book was surely his first, Parliamentary Socialism (1961). Deservedly, it has been reprinted several times.

The book laid bare the fawning towards British capitalist institutions that has marked the Labour Party from its beginning. Labour, after 90 years in parliament, has never made Britain significantly more democratic. It can’t even claim it gave votes to women under 30. Labour, Miliband showed, maintained an unremitting subservience to crown, imperialism and property.

Periodically a left developed in the party, but it was regularly sucked into the same habits, or utterly marginalised.

His argument and documentation were brilliant. His book has sustained and enlightened us all for three decades. But it posed an obvious question: what’s the alternative? To that, regrettably, the author’s answers were far less adequate.

In 1964, with John Saville, Ralph Miliband launched the annual Socialist Register. In it, he called for the formation of a new socialist party. But on what principles? Here the weakness of his position came to the fore.

In 1969, he published The State in Capitalist Society. Here he set out to show that the state in the advanced countries was inherently capitalist. But the arguments belonged more to ‘elite theory’ than to Marxism, with two major weaknesses. The whole force of his case rested on the personal connections between state personnel and the propertied, and their shared prejudices and culture. The difficulty here is that whole periods of capitalist history don’t fit: for example Meiji Japan, Nazi Germany, the Stalinist states.

Sadly, the book lacked any sense of the class struggle. It presented a relentless picture of ruling class domination. The waves of revolt from below that have shaped and transformed capitalist states do not appear. Even in his account of education, the same problem appeared. To his credit, Ralph Miliband in 1968 spoke strongly in defence of the students’ struggle at the London School of Economics, yet his 1969 book offered an account of higher education from which classroom struggle is completely absent.

Miliband’s hatred of inequality and oppression was genuine and powerful. But what his writings never provide is a concrete sense of the potential power and creativity of working people in struggle. In 30 years of turbulent world history, Socialist Register managed not to celebrate a single revolutionary struggle in the advanced world. It missed out on 1968, on Portugal, Iran, Poland.

As a result, Miliband’s suggestions for new socialist parties never seemed grounded in any living reality. John Saville’s obituary in The Guardian (23 May) mentions that, unlike others of his generation, Ralph Miliband never joined the Communist Party. Perhaps he was the worse for that. For all its terrible record, the CP might have given him some sense of the possibilities and difficulties of socialist organisation, and of the roots of socialism in everyday struggle.

His best memorial remains Parliamentary Socialism. Any thinking member of the Labour Party who reads it will shudder, or blush. The beast anatomised there has not changed since 1961, only become more like Miliband’s devastating portrait.

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