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Socialism for a sceptical age

Sewage works are unwholesome places all told. But for particularly pungent, toxic effluent these have nothing on the Daily MailLast weekend’s piece and today’s awful editorial touched the depths one would normally need a specially reinforced submersible to reach. It’s breathtaking really. With its own Nazi-loving, blackshirt-hurrahing skeletons goose stepping in the closet, the Mail is the last paper to call out anyone about “hating Britain”. So, well done Ed Miliband for standing up against this scurrilous rag. Can you imagine Dave or Nick ever doing the same?

But from their own pathetic, small-minded and life-denying perspective the Daily Mail are absolutely right to hate Ralph Miliband. He was motivated by everything they abhor – tolerance, freedom, reason, equality, socialism. In fact, Miliband senior was the most dangerous kind of Marxist. He was not only widely-read and respected, he had thought creatively and coherently about socialist strategies suitable to Britain. It was this topic he devoted his attention to in his final book, Socialism for a Sceptical Age. And now Ralph is in the news, now is as good a time as any to talk about some of his ideas.

Socialism postulates that an altogether different economic system will in due course come to replace capitalism, and that this economic system will be based on the principle that no person should work for the private enrichment of another and under conditions of enforced subordination; and wage labour … will be taken to be as morally repugnant as slavery or serfdom are now viewed as being. (1994, p.29)

Don’t pull your punches, Ralph! But how do we get from the antiquated, crisis-ridden system that dominates the globe to an altogether more humane society? Throughout Socialism, Miliband grapples with a novel thought experiment – novel at least by the standards of the British left. As a reenactment of 1917 in Britain is as likely as the Coptic Pope renouncing his faith for Scientology, Miliband imagines the coming to power of a socialist government by electoral means but against the backdrop of heightened class struggle. Far fetched? It’s happened before. It couldhappen again. What next? Wrenched out of the context it was made, Stalin’s remark that class struggle intensifies after the taking of power is apposite.

Coming to power by constitutional means automatically conveys a socialist government an immense amount of authority. But there are limits. In Britain, or in any of the old capitalist nations for that matter, the result that brought them to power would likely be a socialist plurality, not a majority. How to proceed? Cannily. A socialist government would face large-scale opposition, resistance, and sabotage from Conservative and far right forces. The difficulties an otherwise straight, mainstream politician like Barack Obama is facing from the Tea Party movement and an increasingly degenerate GOP are but a foretaste of what a socialist government would confront. It therefore needs to be alive to this opposition – how progressive reforms might fuel the opposition, but also undermine them. Miliband therefore recommends that the initiative is taken right away. Radical, thoroughgoing policy is best enacted immediately after the assumption of office, at the very moment one’s opponents are temporarily demoralised and disorganised. It’s probably best to think through Miliband’s advice in relation to the economy, the ‘socialist constituency’, and the state.

As anyone who’s been through the far left will tell you, our cadre training weaned us on the idea that the state is an instrument of the bourgeoisie. It’s an obstacle to be smashed by the collective power of the working class, not a lever of liberation a socialist government can pull on. Well yes, the state in the old nations is a capitalist state. It performs the same tasks of defending property relations and class power as it did in Marx and Lenin’s day. But its character is not cast in iron. The purview of the state has expanded as it’s moved into the management and regulation of populations measured in the tens of millions. It is deeply rooted in the economic activity of our societies – it oversees, arbitrates and intervenes in economies. It is responsible for the funding of a wide range of public services – education, health, social security. The state today is marked by the outcomes of struggles with and integration of movements and their aspirations from below. It is also a bundle of institutions rather than one monolithic authority, and as such is is not just affected by ongoing class struggles; it is a site of class struggles. The state is not a neutral body, but depending on the balance of forces impinging upon it it can be an obstacle to orconduit for progressive social change. It follows that a socialist government would meet opposition and dangers from within the state apparatus. Reflecting real forces in wider society, these dangers are uneven and reconcilable to the new emerging order to greater or lesser extents. Hence in the spirit of Miliband’s recommendation to “move fast!”, a government would have to move against its most potentially dangerous opponents – the secret services, the military establishment, and top civil servants in strategic departments. Its constitutional authority here is a valuable weapon against those known to be out on manoeuvres.

Moving quickly on the economy is also important. Miliband recommends the earlysocialisation of key businesses and public sector institutions to open the field of economic democracy as widely as possible and draw ever larger numbers into the project of social transformation. The government might even find big business congenial to find an early accommodation. An intelligent use of so-called win-win agreements and a variety of methods to socialise large economic concerns can force them to come to terms. One shareholder, one vote; cooperative conversion legislation; special arrangements with foreign-owned firms; tax and loan incentives with ‘social’ strings attached to SMEs, all can be deployed in the initial phase of strengthening the basis for the emerging socialist society.

Given the scale of the task, the unity of the government and the labour movement-led alliance underpinning it is of paramount importance. As we know from our movement’s history, there has always been a seesaw between those seeking quick, uncompromising advances; and the more pragmatic who negotiate and compromise. Fallings out and splits are our lot, unfortunately. And there is no quick fix. But one way these sorts of tensions can be ameliorated is by a relentless outward orientation, of always seeking ways of strengthening the socialist coalition by advancing economic democracy, or reaching out to the vast numbers of our natural constituency who pay little attention to politics or have traditionally been opposed to Labour. This is no optional extra either. Socialism isn’t something that is ‘done’ to people – it demands mass democratic participation. The traditional organisations that make up our movement – the unions, the professional associations, the socialist societies – have their part to play in propagating, overseeing, and organising the democratic impulse in the areas under their purview. The party of government also have a heavy load of responsibilities.

The would need to explain and defend the policies being pursued; and they would constitute a visible local representation of the government’s purposes. In every locality, parties would need to be centres of activity and persuasion. On the other hand, the party and its activists would be a vital channel of information about currents of thought and feeling on the grass roots; and they would also serve as a constant and critical reminder of what the most dedicated supporters of the government expected from it (ibid. p.184)

Miliband’s book goes into much greater depth than the outline given here. He discusses the judiciary, the separation of powers, the role of specialists, the legacy of Stalinism, problems of bureaucracy, the temptation of emergency powers and creeping authoritarianism, and how a socialist government in one of the key lynchpins of the global order could lead to a radical rebalancing. It’s a book not without its problems. After all, one cannot divine in advance the specific conjuncture that gives us a socialist government, or the balance of forces it faces. It would be easy to say “what if” and “but” about the scenarios and measures talked about in this post, but then again, it’s only a thought experiment. The far left in its contemporary reviews (when it bothered acknowledging the book at all) retread familiar themes. “Miliband doesn’t appreciate the class struggle … he overlooks the extra-parliamentary organs of repression … Rosa Luxemburg!” That nothing has come from this quarter asking the questions and addressing the problems Socialism talks about underlines Trotsky’s would-be heirs existence as protest groups with easy answers and a Marxist sheen.

Socialism for a Sceptical Age is an attempt to grapple with how a socialist transformation in Britain would likely look, and the problems that entails. As such Miliband’s last book is an important, if overlooked, contribution to socialist politics. That is why the Daily Mail thinks this is an evil legacy, and if that isn’t recommendation enough for you to read it, I don’t know what is.

6 Comments

  1. Robert says:

    The argument I doubt will register on the public importance scale, bet most will have learned about the fathers life from the son. he has spoken about his parents at all conferences since he took over.

    Does it matter well yes for Miliband it does, does it matter to me nope because I think Ralph’s socialism is very close to what I think and believe maybe it should be read by more of the Labour party.

    In the end this will die a death and the public will not even remember it, because most will have been to busy trying to live in the mess made by all political parties.

    Sadly the Mail is the Mail pity more MPs from all parties did not jump on them when they spoke about the sick the disabled and the poor.

  2. astrolin says:

    I think the Daily Mail has done a service to socialism by thrusting Ralph Miliband onto centre stage. I saw the MP for Leeds talk about another of his books called Parliamentary Socialism. I will be reading his books and some of my friends will as well. I doubt if this would be the case if the Daily Mail had not chosen to red bait his son Ed.

  3. Rod says:

    “Evil legacy”?

    Well, that was a way of having a go at Ed and of substantiating Cameron’s ‘red Ed’ claim.

    But from the outline you’ve provided, Phil, it looks more like a castles-in-the-sky, tedious legacy.

    Writing books is one thing, reality something else.

  4. David Pavett says:

    If this affair results in more people reading Ralph Miliband’s Socialism for a Sceptical Age then it will have been of some benefit.

    The forward signed in 1994 by both David and Ed Miliband [their father died shortly before publication] says

    “It is … an argument for fundamental social and economic changes stretching well beyond one lifetime. If it succeeds in stimulating further debate about the nature of such change, and how to achieve it, it will serve the twin purposes of political and scholarly engagement for which it was intended.

    Nothing can make up for the loss we feel, but it is some comfort that the ideas developed by Ralph Miliband in this book and elsewhere will live on.”

    It is just a pity that neither of the brothers has done anything to help those ideas live and and, indeed, are or have been part of a Labour leadership that is entirely unreceptive to even the mention of such ideas let alone a discussion of them.

  5. The Daily Mail might consider looking into the fact that an official phone number for Iain Duncan Smith’s Leadership campaign was in fact for the house of Nick Griffin’s father, a Vice-President of that campaign, who answered that phone with the words “British National Party”. That was not in the 1930s. It was not even in the 1960s. It was in the present century.

    Then there are the youthful ties of numerous members of the present Government to apartheid South Africa and to Pinochet’s Chile. And then there are the Nazi sympathisers in the aristocratic backgrounds of many an MP from either Coalition party. Cameron himself is related by marriage (so, a matter of his choice) to none other than the Astors.

    “Hurrah for the Blackshirts!”, indeed.

  6. Robert says:

    Next month I bet the Mail will have an article from some Labour MP or Minister saying something nice, the Mail is evil but not that evil for MP’s and ministers to take the money

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