The Miliband with something to offer

Submitted by martin on 8 June, 2010 - 5:12 Author: Martin Thomas
The state in capitalist society

At a recent Labour left conference, the writer David Osler quipped that Ralph Miliband, father of David and Ed Miliband, had written at length to show that the Labour Party was no good for the working class - and that the sons are now doing their best to prove the old man right.

Ralph Miliband died in 1994. He had been active in the "Bevanite" Labour left movement of the early 1950s and the "New Left" of the late 1950s and early 1960s. He was the prime mover in setting up the Centre for Socialist Education in 1966.

Two of his books are of great importance: Parliamentary Socialism (1961), a critical history of the Labour Party; and The State in Capitalist Society (1969).

Oxford, the LSE, and Harvard seem to have destroyed, in the Miliband sons' minds, all they must have learned from their father. But socialists will not forget. This review of The State in Capitalist Society is abridged from one which appeared in Workers' Fight (a forerunner of Solidarity), 8 July 1972.


Miliband points out that the "pluralist" view [according to which the state reflects a diversity of lobbies, and not a ruling class] doesn't recognise the enormous inequalities in society. In Britain 5% of the population own 75% of all private wealth (1960 figures) and one per cent own 81% of all privately owned company shares.

The influential "lobbies" are all closely allied with the wealthy class - usually they are the same people, at the very least they have close personal connections and closely similar attitudes. And in fact State policies do follow the general interests of the wealthy class.

Miliband explains these points carefully.

But the main drift of Miliband’s argument is summarised thus: "as a pressure group, vis-a-vis the state, business enjoys a vast degree of superiority over other groups and interests". He writes: "the legislative element of the state system, like all the other elements which have been considered previously, has normally remained, notwithstanding universal suffrage and competitive politics, much more the instrument of the dominant classes than of the subordinate ones, even though it is now rather less exclusively their instrument than in former days".

Miliband still sees the state as a mirror-reflection of society, as "pluralists" also do. Only he sees the social and economic power structure in society before he holds the mirror up to it.

Then what is the difference between the State and a body like the Confederation of British Industry? How do we account for such cases as Fascism, where a political movement establishes, as Miliband writes, "a dictatorship over which [the privileged classes] have no genuine control at all"?

Miliband responds: "The dominant economic interests in capitalist society can normally count on on the active good-will and support of those in whose hands state power lies.... But these interests cannot, all the same, rely on govemments and their advisors to act in perfect congruity with their purposes".

That is true, but vague. That capitalist state, as well as being, in the words of Marx and Engels, the "committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie", is also specifically the organ responsible for the general administration of society, and the arbitration of social conflicts.

So, for example: ”In a modern state, law must not only correspond to the general economic condition and be its expression, but must also be an internally coherent expression which does not, owing to inner contradictions, reduce itself to naught. And, in order to achieve this, the faithful reflection of economic conditions suffers increasingly. All the more so the more rarely it happens that a code of law is the blunt, unmitigated, unadulterated expression of the domination of a class — this in itself would offend the 'conception of right'." (Engels, 1890)

In Capital, Marx shows that the Factory Acts, enforcing safeguards on working hours, were necessary from the point of view of capitalist production, but they had to be pushed into state policy by working-class pressure, utilising the Parliamentary contradictions of backward-looking supporters of industrialism, against the opposition of most leading capitalists.

Working-class action can secure reforms even in a capitalist state; but it can also happen that the state takes the lead in an offensive against the working class, well ahead of individual capitalists.

Individual capitalists and even employers’ federations tend to steer their course by short term sectional interests. The State has to operate more in terms of comprehensive strategy. Governments and the permanent state machine interact, each shaping the other in different ways, and neither can be described as a passive reflection of the employing class.

It is not only that the working class has less power than the capitalist class. Any power the labour movement has within the present system is a different sort of power from the capitalists’ power. It is a negative, defensive power, a power to obtain partial reforms within a hostile total society.

We may gain unemployment benefit; but, within capitalism, we still have unemployment.

The State, Engels wrote, "is the admission that this society has become entangled in an insoluble contradiction with itself, that it is cleft into irreconcilable antagonisms which it is powerless to dispel." As the contradictions of capitalism become sharper, so the intervention of the State increases. But the intervention of the capitalist State is not socialist.

Nor is there a merging of State and civil society. The relations between the state apparatus and the capitalists may be closer; but the distinction between the two is not abolished. The theoretical mistake of merging the two can lead to disastrous results.

In 1936, in Spain, the working class of Catalonia took power in civil society. The workers controlled the factories and the distribution of supplies. The bourgeoisie did not dare show themselves in the streets.

But the workers’ anarcho-syndicalist leaders did not go on to smash the old bourgeois State - the central banks, the administrative machine, etc. - and build a new democratically-controlled workers’ state. Within months, the working-class conquests in the economic field were whittled down. Controlling the treasury and the banks, the government was able to force its will on the workers by the threat of withdrawing credits.

The State is the product of civil society; the capitalist economic structure dominates capitalist politics in the last analysis. But the crucial problem for changing society is the conquest of State power.

Any positive political programme, any programme to go beyond bargaining within the system, must relate to the question of the State. An attitude of non-cooperation and intransigence towards capitalism is necessary for working class militancy - but not enough.

But to fix our eyes on a promised future big struggle to "smash the State" will leave us tripping over own feet in regard to the possibilities for action now.

Marxists have approached this problem through arguing for the slogan of a workers' government - calling on the established organs of the labour movement to take power, and linking it with proposals for state measures - nationalisation under workers’ control, statisation of the banks, ensuring work or full pay — to resolve the crisis.

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