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.


✹ Try our new pay-as-you-feel subscription — you choose how much to pay.

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change

Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself

Secrets and spies of Scotland Yard
A new Espionage Act threatens whistleblowers and journalists, writes Sarah Kavanagh

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces

How progressive is the ‘progressive alliance’?
We need an anti-austerity alliance, not a vaguely progressive alliance, argues Michael Calderbank

The YPJ: Fighting Isis on the frontline
Rahila Gupta talks to Kimmie Taylor about life on the frontline in Rojava

Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'

Confronting Brexit
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond

On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network

Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter

#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement

Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.

Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees

Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides

The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari

Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next

Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace

Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill

Report from the second Citizen’s Assembly of Podemos
Sol Trumbo Vila says the mandate from the Podemos Assembly is to go forwards in unity and with humility

Protect our public lands
Last summer Indigenous people travelled thousands of miles around the USA to tell their stories and build a movement. Julie Maldonado reports

From the frontlines
Red Pepper’s new race editor, Ashish Ghadiali, introduces a new space for black and minority progressive voices

How can we make the left sexy?
Jenny Nelson reports on a session at The World Transformed

In pictures: designing for change
Sana Iqbal, the designer behind the identity of The World Transformed festival and the accompanying cover of Red Pepper, talks about the importance of good design

Angry about the #MuslimBan? Here are 5 things to do
As well as protesting against Trump we have a lot of work to get on with here in the UK. Here's a list started by Platform

Who owns our land?
Guy Shrubsole gives some tips for finding out

Don’t delay – ditch coal
Take action this month with the Coal Action Network. By Anne Harris

Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen

Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant


46