Adolphe Miliband was a Polish-born Jew whose parents settled in Belgium after the First World War where he was born in 1924. Like many Jews he was inclined towards socialism and Zionism in his youth and, as the Nazis advanced towards Belgium, travelled towards Paris with his father but instead caught the last boat from Ostend to England, apparently against Adolphe’s protestations. Although this was frequently mentioned the fact that his mother and sister were left to fend for themselves in Belgium was not. Fortunately, they managed to survive. He quickly changed his name to Ralph.
Miliband was no coward and he served in the Belgian Section of the Royal Navy as a chief petty officer during the War. His thought was influenced by the great plagiariser, Harold Laski, whose pretentions he was unable to penetrate and whose grandiose egoism attracted him. He adopted Marxism as a creed and emerged from the LSE with a First Class degree in 1947. However, his undoubted intelligence was translated into Marxist ideology which he was unable to overcome in the pursuit of knowledge. A member of the Labour Party for a little over a decade he moved into abstract political sociology producing a well written but intellectually flawed book called ‘Parliamentary Socialism’ which this author had the pleasure of factually undermining while earning his own doctorate.
The sad feature of Miliband's writing is that while he understood the nuances of Marxist ideology he lacked the willingness to provide an overall critique or question its basic tenets. He drew attention to Marxism (a term Marx never used) as Marx thought of it and its relationship with Rousseau and Lenin. Many other figures influenced the concept of Marxism after Marx’s death, particularly Hegel who invented the theory of ‘dialectical materialism’ As Marx’s own writing was as a journalist discussing immediate political issues he did not develop a coherent political theory. None of the most active figures in classical Marxism, with the exception of Trotsky, set out a political theory as emphasis was placed on the primacy of economic and social relations.
This consolidated itself in Stalinism which defined Marxist-Leninism as an imperative and binding party line to which everyone calling themselves Marxist had to adhere.. Authoritative interpretations and non-arguable propositions were used to provide Marxist political leadership. It was only after the XXth Party Congress of 1956 that alternative Marxist models were developed, in particular in China where the European model was rejected as unsuitable for Asia. Marxism developed as fashionable trends and different schools claiming their version of Marxism as the only authentic one. In this respect Marxism was a reflection of the inability of human beings to overcome their nature, exaggerated by Marxist’s rejection of that concept.
Miliband concentrates on Marx’s own writing to explain his thought. Marxism begins with an insistence that the separation between the political, economic, social and cultural parts of the social whole is artificial and arbitrary. Hence the notion that economics is free from politics is an ideological abstraction and distortion. Marx argued ‘The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general’. The consciousness of men does not determine their being. It is their social being that determines their consciousness. In its extreme form this turns Marxism into economic determinism. This primacy of the economic base was emphasised by Engels whereas Marx was strongly anti-determinist. Marx believed the working class would replace civil society and exclude class and class conflict. Yet Marx was unable to answer the very pertinent questions posed by Bakunin and it was left to Engels to suggest that the new society would mean the end of politics. In ‘Anti-Duhring’ (1878) and ‘Socialism: Utopian and Scientific’ (1892) he argued, ‘State interference in social relations becomes, in one domain after another, superfluous and then withers away of itself; the government of persons is replaced by the administration of things….The state is not abolished, It withers away’. This conclusion is so removed from reality that one wonders if Engels understood that ‘scientific’ socialism was ‘utopian’ per se.
Engles’s optimism was given extreme expression in Lenin’s ‘State and Revolution’ written on the eve of the Bolshevik Revolution but replaced in practice when they seized power and had to come to terms with the realities of power. In the period leading up to 1917 ‘there was comparatively little attention devoted to the theoretical and practical problems posed by the concept of socialist democracy and ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’. There was no such dictatorship as Lenin admitted, it was bourgeois intellectuals such as Marx, Engels and himself who proclaimed ‘scientific socialism’. The party did not represent the proletariat’s wishes but claimed to represent what the proletariat would want if only they knew what they wanted in the first place. In another footnote to Plato the party played the role of guardians, secular priests and leaders of opinion expressed ideologically. They were what Milovan Djilas called ‘The New Class’ by which he meant the communist oligarchy. At heart Marxism was based on an act of faith, one which Miliband claimed he made at the grave of Marx. He dismisses the notion that Marx was not interested in reform but welcomed such reform as being in the interests of the working class.
Miliband provided two chapters of the defence of the old order, characterising it as a class dominated state. It is somewhat ironic therefore that both his sons to whom he dedicated his book became members of the Establishment but hardly representative of the working class. Edward did inherit Marxist ruthlessness by stabbing David in the back before succumbing to the weight of his own ‘edstone. David sulked before leaving British politics and heading an international refugee charity on a salary of £425,000 a year. His father argued for the removal of class boundaries, his sons exploited them. Intellectual talent wasted on fictional philosophy but an interesting book worth four stars..
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.
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.