on 11 May 2009
Ralph Miliband's book, "Marxism and Politics", dates from 1977 but is still of relevance today. In this work, Miliband discusses the Marxist perception of politics itself, the meaning and role of the state, the meaning of the "dictatorship of the proletariat", and the various views leading Marxists have had in the past on the way revolutionary Marxist politics should be made, concentrating on Lenin and Gramsci.
The first half of the book discusses the Marxist view of the state and politics. It is a useful introduction to the subject for those largely ignorant of Marxist theory, but not of much use beyond it: Miliband's approach is no more than a general overview, and does not answer any of the more difficult questions on the subject. The only useful part for those with more experience with Marxism is his review of the concept of "state autonomy", quite correctly stressing the importance of not confusing the class nature of the state with the state being a mere instrument of a particular class.
The second half of the book is about Marxist politics itself and its relation to existing political structures. He focuses largely on Lenin and Gramsci and discusses the general Leninist conception of revolutions and the role of the vanguard state. Considering the year it was written, this part is for its time quite critical and reflective, but for current times it is still a little 'soft'; many of the things he talks about are worth restating though, and Miliband does so with clarity.
The final chapter, "Reform and Revolution", is probably the best part of the book. Here Miliband goes into the tension in Western nations between on the one hand the necessity to improve the situation of the workers within bourgeois parliamentary capitalism, and on the other hand the need to remain a true revolutionary party. This is an old dilemma, but Miliband's take on it is more thorough than most discussions of the subject in more general overviews of Marxist theory. He also discusses the other main tension in Marxist views of this subject, one that is less often pointed out: the tension between on the one hand the need to press forward with revolutionary policies to 'build socialism', and on the other hand the tendency of the labourers to generally cling to the structure of the old system. Lenin already pointed out the high esteem in which the structure at least of the parliamentary system is held by the workers of Western Europe, but he does not seem to have realized the problem this might form for any kind of vanguard party. How to represent workers when the workers are not as prepared as their vanguard to do away with structures that in many of these nations are as old as Marx himself? This is of course a matter of class consciousness, and in that sense a beaten path, but this also bears repeating.
On the whole the booklet uses clear language, but does presuppose a little knowledge of Marxism while at the same time not being very in-depth. That makes it quite useless for a deeper view into the subject, but also hard for an introduction for the uninitiated, so to speak. Because of this, Miliband's otherwise fine overview of Marxist politics (in both senses of the word) succeeds for neither purpose.
This is a very good introduction to understanding what 'politics' is about from a Marxist standpoint. It's written by a well-known left-wing, radical thinker who significantly contributed to socialist thought during the 1960's to 1990's. It is very clearly written, and can be understood by those new to the subject. As an 'introduction' it seeks to identify the key ideas and issues relevant to Marxist politics and briefly explain what they mean. This book was published in the late 1970's, so the examples it discusses are slightly dated - but the arguments advanced remain relevant.
What this book does not do is introduce Marxist ideas in terms of outlining who said what and when ... it's not a history on the development on Marxist politics. Rather, the author seeks to examine what the political sphere of capitalist society is about. Given that he does so from a Marxist perspective, so a Marxist analysis and theorisation of politics is advanced. As such, it's far more than a standard 'introduction'. It actually contributes to knowledge and understanding.
This book was a major source to be referenced in political studies throughout the early to mid 1980's. Unfortunately, as interest in Marxism declined in the late 1980's onwards, this book ceased to be popularly read in university circles.
Yet I do thoroughly recommend it. Miliband offers a concise overview of what's wrong with contemporary social life and how, through political organisation and activity, we can make a difference.