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Ralph Miliband: What did “Evil” Miliband really believe? Obituary Review (1994).

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What did ‘Evil’ Miliband really believe in?

Keeping Socialism in Sight.

Labour Briefing. October 1994.

Andrew Coates reviews Socialism for a Sceptical Age by Ralph Miliband (Polity Press, £11.95) and Socialist Register 1994 Between Globalism and Nationalism, Edited by Ralph Miliband and Leo Panitch (Merlin Press, £12.95).

We need to take a long look at the prospects for socialism, To follow fashion is to think that the best a Labour government could bring would be a reformed constitution and industrial modernisation, Ralph Miliband’s death on May 21st deprives the left of one of the most trenchant critics of this ‘new revisionism’ which denies that there is a realistic alternative to capitalism, Tough-minded and deeply-informed, he never lost sight of the potential for more radical change.

Miliband’s reputation was made through his studies of the Labour Party (Parliamentary Socialism, 1961 and 1973) and the state (The State and Capitalist Society 1969). The former attacked Labour leaders’ ‘”dogmatic” attachment to the parliamentary tradition; the latter explored the limitation of reforming parties of the left.

In the 1980s Miliband was faced with a wholly new problem. Former Communists and radical socialists leap-frogged over Labour to endorse what David Marquand called a ‘new progressive coalition” of the centre-left which repudiated even the modest objectives of class-based reform. In Divided Societies (1989) Miliband had to put the arguments for the very existence of class struggle. He admitted, however, that there was a fundamental “crisis of the agencies” of socialism, from unions to parties. From the convulsions in the East and the dramatic weakening of Mediterranean socialism, to the triumph of Blair, there is ample evidence that he was right.

As its title suggests, Socialism for a Sceptical Age takes on board this crisis. But it also addresses the far deeper difficulties of capitalism. This (it seems almost too obvious to state – were it not that is constantly ignored) is based on wage-labour  –  a “morally abhorrent” type of exploitation and subordination.

In a series of sketches Miliband outlines the case against today’s social system. Neo-liberal economics have blighted individual lives and entire continents. Despite this, some if the left believe that private enterprise is a source of liberty. This is false. Capitalism and democracy is not friends. As Miliband points out, popular rights are “largely the result of stubborn pressure” from “labour and left movement, against the dominant forces of property and privilege.” Weaken them and freedom suffers.

The limited parliamentary control over nationalised industries was, in retrospect, at least a start towards making economic management responsible to an electorate. Unapologetic about collective control, Miliband insists that socialisation of the means of production must replace private ownership,. Against the prevailing winds, he asserts: “Public enterprise makes possible a democratisation of economic activity beyond anything that capitalism can achieve.”

Miliband was often a robust opponent of those believe that the Labour Party has socialist potential. He was scornful about the lack of Marxist influence within it. It seemed, a few years ago, that he wanted to help form a new party to Labour’s left. While Socialism for a Sceptical Age describes the failings of Labour’s modernisers, it also recognises that new social movements, and small red-green parties, are neither stable nor coherent enough to replace social democracy. Nor are these bodies any more sympathetic to Marxism. We have to have substantial parties, with a collective and strong leadership that can govern a country. He concludes: “There is little doubt that social democratic parties will for the foreseeable future remain the main political force on the left, or at least a factor of major importance”. The immediate task lies in “strengthening left reformism” through grass-roots work, by recreating a Marxist current, and by building coalitions with the oppressed.

Some claim that the globalisation of the economy makes even moderate socialism impossible. The latest Socialist Register tackles this issue. Leo Panitch analyses the nation state in the world system and its role in turning hyper-liberal policies into facts of life for its citizens. Far from agreeing that governments must accept treaties (from Maastricht to GATT) dictating permanent free-market strategies, Pantich points to the potential for alternative development. A crucial factor is sheer political will.

Other important articles by Manfred Bienefeld and Arthur MacEwan take up the same theme. They should be required reading for anyone who wants an answer to the globalisers’ claim that reform is bounded by the rules of international finance.

In a short excursion around the history of the year-book, Miliband himself discusses its most important interventions in left debates, including those on Conservatism, post-modernism, Stalinism and the ‘new revisionism’. As a guide to the central concerns of the British left the Register had been and remains invaluable, and Miliband played a major role in creating and sustaining it.

He sometimes argued that labret could never play a positive role in socialist politics. But his best contributions focused people’s minds on the real problems faced by socialists. By laying-down long-term principles for the creation of an egalitarian, democratic and co-operative society, Miliband left us with great resources. Every socialist can profit from his lucid and inspiring writings.


Written by Andrew Coates

October 2, 2013 at 9:47 am

2 Responses

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  1. Fascinating. When I was reading sociology I read several of his books without realising he was a Marxist. It looks as if I was fairly naive.

    John Woods

    October 2, 2013 at 7:49 pm

  2. Miliband was a Marxist, though some people on the left, Nicos Poulantzas, notably, thought he was a bit of an “empiricist” and had an “instrumentalist” view of the state.


    The main point though is that Ralph Miliband was part of the 1st International political Marxist tradition, strongly associated with mass democracy, and not Leninism.

    Besides the New left (the British ‘first’ New Left), Miliband’s ideas can be compared to the ‘Austo-Marxists’, who defended a democratic political system, and socialism based on workers’ control and wider participative democracy.


    Miliband archive:


    Andrew Coates

    October 3, 2013 at 11:42 am

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