Marxism Before Neoliberalism

Ralph Miliband, early 1970s.

The essays in Class War Conservatism have been judiciously selected. The first section begins with Miliband’s 1965 essay “Marx and the State” which provides an important preliminary for Miliband’s response to Nico Poulantzas’s review of The State in Capitalist Society (1969), along with Miliband’s critical pieces on Poulantzas’s Pouvoir politique et classes sociales (1968).

Taken as a whole, these essays comprise one half of one of the most important debates in late 20th century Marxist theory. Poulantzas had found fault with Miliband’s analysis of the structure of agency underlying the cohesion of the dominant class and its control of the state. For Poulantzas, as for his fellow structuralist Marxists, class was a matter of objective structures, not subjective intentions.

Concrete analyses of class structure and efforts to rebut bourgeois pluralist accounts of the state might have some value, but as a matter of Marxist theory they were really beside the point. From the perspective of structuralist Marxism, Miliband’s book was simply insufficiently scientific, fixated on details at the expense of a full appreciation of the totality.

Not surprisingly, Miliband was unhappy with this critique, both in its substance with the increasingly sharp tone in which it was delivered. Miliband’s critique of Poulantzas’s approach, contained in reviews of Pouvoir politique et classes sociales in the New Left Review, focused on what he viewed as the excessive abstraction of the social analysis and on the latter’s tendentious reading of Marx’s work. For Miliband, Poulantzas’s analysis of the bourgeois capitalist state lacked contact with actual conditions, relying instead on a supposedly more scientific structuralist account undertaken at a very high level of abstraction.

In fact, Miliband noted, Poulantzas didn’t seem interested in the bourgeois democratic state form at all. His real interest centered on forms taken by the state to respond to crisis, particularly Bonapartism. Miliband objected strenuously (and with good reason) to a Poulantzas’s reading of Marx which took a single line from an unpublished letter from Engels and made it the basis for an all-encompassing diagnosis of capitalism in crisis. Miliband rejected both the reading itself and the reverential attitude toward the writings of Marx and Engels.

“Even if one agreed to treat a single passing reference in a letter…as a main pillar of construction of a Marxist theory of the state,” he wrote, “one would bound to say that Engels was wrong in describing Bonapartism is the religion of the bourgeoisie, if this is taken to mean that the bourgeoisie has an irrepressible hankering for such a type of regime.”

This debate has come to be characterized as one between instrumentalism (Miliband) and structuralism (Poulantzas). Yet the distinction is, in many respect, one of emphasis rather than overarching analysis. Clearly, Miliband had legitimate objections to the way that Poulantzas had approach Marxist texts. Yet, it is also worth noting that (as Clyde Barrow once noted) there is nothing specifically Marxist about either of the two approaches. Moreover, neither Miliband nor Poulantzas was unalterably committed to the extreme position attributed to them.

Miliband was certainly well aware of the structural foundations of dominant classes and Poulantzas was very much capable of descending from high abstraction to concrete analysis, as he did in La Crise des dictatures (1975). Part of Miliband’s aggravation at Poulantzas stemmed from his interest in the question of the relative autonomy of the state and the ways that the state apparatus governs on behalf of the dominant class fractions, rather than directly at their bidding.

Sorting this out required a precise and concrete analysis of the state, one which the work of Poulantzas and the French structuralists was ill-equipped to provide. As Miliband concluded ruefully, “I have no wish to suggest that the reader will not find useful, suggestive and important ideas [in Pouvoir politique et classes]. But I am also bound to say, with genuine regret, that it does not seem to me to be very helpful in the development of that Marxist political sociology which Poulantzas quite rightly wants to see advanced.”

In addition to the debate with Poulantzas, with its focus on the structures of the state and class power, Class War Conservatism contains essays that deal with a Miliband’s main concerns in the 1980s: the implications of the post-Stalinist Soviet Union for the development of socialism, the catastrophic effects of Thatcherism, and the rise of post-socialism. He was dubious of Rudolf Bahro’s and Roy Medvedev’s optimism that change could be effected within the existing state socialist regimes. At the same time, he rejected, forcefully but also with a certain melancholy, the transition of figures like Leszek Kołakowski from Marxism to cynicism-tinged Catholicism.

Through it all, whether discussing the fall of the Allende government in Chile or the deficiencies of Eurocommunism, Miliband evinces a humane and moderate Marxism. His commitment to Marxist theory was not of the mechanistic or naïvely scientistic variety. Rather, Miliband viewed Marxism as a flexible tool, one which provided a precise instrument for examining the structures of the world, but also required to be tested against ascertainable facts.

The final two essays in the collection, which did not appear in the original edition, extend the concerns already much in evidence in the balance of the collection. In “Freedom, Democracy, and the American Alliance” (1987), Miliband analyzed the relationship of Britain to Reagan’s US, concluding ultimately that the American alliance could not effectively provide the promised shield against Soviet aggression. Moreover, given the interventionist and highly amoral nature of American foreign policy in the Cold War, the distinction between the US and the USSR in terms of political justice was, at the very least, blurred.

Miliband’s 1990 article “What Comes After Communist Regimes” was a prescient look at development written from within the moment of transition from actually existing socialism to one form or another of liberal capitalism. Once again, Miliband’s penchant for thorough, in-depth analysis provided a clear and in many respect prescient account of the trajectory of events. The rush to rejig socialist societies into capitalist ones was well on the way to recreating many of the worst features of the unrestrained free market.

While some talked of a “third way” between the excesses of either state socialism or capitalism, these voices were being brushed aside, in no small part because socialists in the capitalist world had been slow to provide the necessary encouragement. In the face of the right’s “glowing prospectus of the virtues of the free market economy,” yet another important opportunity to build an alternative on the left was being missed.

The intelligence, subtlety, and commitment of Ralph Miliband’s work sets it apart from much postwar Marxist writing. Committed without being doctrinaire, theoretically informed without excessive abstraction, it is a model of what can be achieved in terms of political analysis by a judicious balance and empiricism and theory. Some of his concerns (at least in so far as they can be read in these essays) will seem dated today. Actually existing socialism is but a memory these days, receding into a mix of bitter memory and Ostalgie, and Eurocommunism barely merits a footnote now in the era of EU neoliberalism.

Yet other elements of Miliband’s oeuvre, such as his concern with the way classes relate to the state, or the ability of individuals to influence history, could not be more topical today. How, one wonders, would Miliband view the leadership role of his sons in New Labour, a party transformed by Tony Blair and his troglodytic associates into something a hundred times worse than the institution of which Miliband was so critical in the 1960s?

Here, speculation is useless. What seems certain is that Miliband’s capacity of for close analysis of politics, and his commitment to a thorough and unvarnished realism remain as relevant today as they were in the halcyon days of the New Left.

Class War Conservatism is available from Verso

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