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Speaking about the ‘S’ word

John McDonnell MP assesses Ralph Miliband's socialist vision

August 5, 2010
3 min read

At a time when on hustings for the leadership of the Labour Party there is barely mention of the word socialism, let alone any attempt to define it, Ralph Miliband’s understanding of what socialism means bears repetition. In his last book, Socialism for a Sceptical Age, in 1994, he appears to have a foretaste of what may be coming under New Labour and therefore feels the need to restate what he understands by socialism.

He wrote: ‘I understand it to involve two fundamental and intertwined objectives – democratisation far beyond anything which capitalist society can afford, and egalitarianism, that is to say the radical attenuation of the immense inequalities of every kind, which are part of capitalist democracy; and essential to the implementation of these two, the socialisation of a predominant part of the means of economic activity.’

If this socialism is to be advanced, socialists need to know what they are up against, what opportunities there are and what tools they have available to them. The body of Ralph’s work is a systematic description and analysis of the institutional arrangements of capitalist society that operate to preserve the existing order by managing class conflict, while at the same time he explores the potential to promote a socialist revolution.

His The State in Capitalist Society effectively shredded the liberal pluralist view of the state being the independent arbiter of conflicts within society and exposed its true class nature.

Capitalist Democracy in Britain updated Laski’s seminal work Parliamentary Government in Britain, describing how ruthlessly the state in all its forms – parliamentarism, the courts and local government, alongside the trade unions – plays its role in the containment of pressure for change.

His major difference with Laski was the latter’s belief in the potential of the Labour Party as a vehicle for bringing about socialist change. It is the perennial debate that has bedevilled the left since Labour’s inception.

Ralph Miliband’s devastating critique of the Labour Party in Parliamentary Socialism portrays the party as being so integrated into parliamentary politics that while the Labour left may ‘mount episodic revolts’ and ‘its leaders may have to respond with radical sounding noises to the pressures and demands of their activists, the Labour Party remains in practice a party of modest social reform in a capitalist system within whose confines it is even more firmly and irrevocably rooted.’

Decades on, all attempts to create a party to the left of Labour have failed. But in his last work surveying the potential across the left, both in Labour and beyond to the emerging social movements, Ralph remained optimistic that, though the prospect may seem remote at present, the ‘accumulation of grievances’ under capitalism will bring about the election of a left government. His last chapter even sets out the details of a strategy a left government would have to pursue to stay in power to advance socialism.

As we move into a period where grievances are already accumulating the left may well have an opportunity to seize if it has the ability and creativity to bring together that broadest alliance, sharing Ralph Miliband’s socialist vision.

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