Tuesday 1 October 2013

Socialism for a Sceptical Age

Sewage works are unwholesome places all told. But for particularly pungent, toxic effluent these have nothing on the Daily Mail. Last weekend's piece and today's awful editorial touched the depths one would normally need a specially reinforced submersible to reach. It's breathtaking really. With its own Nazi-loving, blackshirt-hurrahing skeletons goose stepping in the closet, the Mail is the last paper to call out anyone about "hating Britain". So, well done Ed Miliband for standing up against this scurrilous rag. Can you imagine Dave or Nick ever doing the same?

But from their own pathetic, small-minded and life-denying perspective the Daily Mail are absolutely right to hate Ralph Miliband. He was motivated by everything they abhor - tolerance, freedom, reason, equality, socialism. In fact, Miliband senior was the most dangerous kind of Marxist. He was not only widely-read and respected, he had thought creatively and coherently about socialist strategies suitable to Britain. It was this topic he devoted his attention to in his final book, Socialism for a Sceptical Age. And with Ralph in the news, now is as good a time as any to talk about some of his ideas.
Socialism postulates that an altogether different economic system will in due course come to replace capitalism, and that this economic system will be based on the principle that no person should work for the private enrichment of another and under conditions of enforced subordination; and wage labour ... will be taken to be as morally repugnant as slavery or serfdom are now viewed as being. (1994, p.29)
Don't pull your punches, Ralph! But how do we get from the antiquated, crisis-ridden system that dominates the globe to an altogether more humane society? Throughout Socialism, Miliband grapples with a novel thought experiment - novel at least by the standards of the British left. As a reenactment of 1917 in Britain is as likely as the Coptic Pope renouncing his faith for Scientology, Miliband imagines the coming to power of a socialist government by electoral means but against the backdrop of heightened class struggle. Far fetched? It's happened before. It could happen again. What next? Wrenched out of the context it was made, Stalin's remark that class struggle intensifies after the taking of power is apposite.

Coming to power by constitutional means automatically conveys a socialist government an immense amount of authority. But there are limits. In Britain, or in any of the old capitalist nations for that matter, the result that brought them to power would likely be a socialist plurality, not a majority. How to proceed? Cannily. A socialist government would face large-scale opposition, resistance, and sabotage from Conservative and far right forces. The difficulties an otherwise straight, mainstream politician like Barack Obama is facing from the Tea Party movement and an increasingly degenerate GOP are but a foretaste of what a socialist government would confront. It therefore needs to be alive to this opposition - how progressive reforms might fuel the opposition, but also undermine them. Miliband therefore recommends that the initiative is taken right away. Radical, thoroughgoing policy is best enacted immediately after the assumption of office, at the very moment one's opponents are temporarily demoralised and disorganised. It's probably best to think through Miliband's advice in relation to the economy, the 'socialist constituency', and the state.

As anyone who's been through the far left will tell you, our cadre training weaned us on the idea that the state is an instrument of the bourgeoisie. It's an obstacle to be smashed by the collective power of the working class, not a lever of liberation a socialist government can pull on. Well yes, the state in the old nations is a capitalist state. It performs the same tasks of defending property relations and class power as it did in Marx and Lenin's day. But its character is not cast in iron. The purview of the state has expanded as it's moved into the management and regulation of populations measured in the tens of millions. It is deeply rooted in the economic activity of our societies - it oversees, arbitrates and intervenes in economies. It is responsible for the funding of a wide range of public services - education, health, social security. The state today is marked by the outcomes of struggles with and integration of movements and their aspirations from below. It is also a bundle of institutions rather than one monolithic authority, and as such it is not just affected by ongoing class struggles; it is a site of class struggles. The state is not a neutral body, but depending on the balance of forces impinging upon it it can be an obstacle to or conduit for progressive social change. It follows that a socialist government would meet opposition and dangers from within the state apparatus. Reflecting real forces in wider society, these dangers are uneven and reconcilable to the new emerging order to greater or lesser extents. Hence in the spirit of Miliband's recommendation to "move fast!", a government would have to move against its most potentially dangerous opponents - the secret services, the military establishment, and top civil servants in strategic departments. Its constitutional authority here is a valuable weapon against those known to be out on manoeuvres.

Moving quickly on the economy is also important. Miliband recommends the early socialisation of key businesses and public sector institutions to open the field of economic democracy as widely as possible and draw ever larger numbers into the project of social transformation. The government might even find big business congenial to find an early accommodation. An intelligent use of so-called win-win agreements and a variety of methods to socialise large economic concerns can force them to come to terms. One shareholder, one vote; cooperative conversion legislation; special arrangements with foreign-owned firms; tax and loan incentives with 'social' strings attached to SMEs, all can be deployed in the initial phase of strengthening the basis for the emerging socialist society.

Given the scale of the task, the unity of the government and the labour movement-led alliance underpinning it is of paramount importance. As we know from our movement's history, there has always been a seesaw between those seeking quick, uncompromising advances; and the more pragmatic who negotiate and compromise. Fallings out and splits are our lot, unfortunately. And there is no quick fix. But one way these sorts of tensions can be ameliorated is by a relentless outward orientation, of always seeking ways of strengthening the socialist coalition by advancing economic democracy, or reaching out to the vast numbers of our natural constituency who pay little attention to politics or have traditionally been opposed to Labour. This is no optional extra either. Socialism isn't something that is 'done' to people - it demands mass democratic participation. The traditional organisations that make up our movement - the unions, the professional associations, the socialist societies - have their part to play in propagating, overseeing, and organising the democratic impulse in the areas under their purview. The party of government also have a heavy load of responsibilities:
They would need to explain and defend the policies being pursued; and they would constitute a visible local representation of the government's purposes. In every locality, parties would need to be centres of activity and persuasion. On the other hand, the party and its activists would be a vital channel of information about currents of thought and feeling on the grass roots; and they would also serve as a constant and critical reminder of what the most dedicated supporters of the government expected from it (ibid. p.184).
Miliband's book goes into much greater depth than the outline given here. He discusses the judiciary, the separation of powers, the role of specialists, the legacy of Stalinism, problems of bureaucracy, the temptation of emergency powers and creeping authoritarianism, and how a socialist government in one of the key lynchpins of the global order could lead to a radical rebalancing. It's a book not without its problems. After all, one cannot divine in advance the specific conjuncture that gives us a socialist government, or the balance of forces it faces. It would be easy to say "what if" and "but" about the scenarios and measures talked about in this post, but then again, it's only a thought experiment. The far left in its contemporary reviews (when it bothered acknowledging the book at all) retread familiar themes. "Miliband doesn't appreciate the class struggle ... he overlooks the extra-parliamentary organs of repression ... Rosa Luxemburg!" That nothing has come from this quarter asking the questions and addressing the problems Socialism talks about underlines Trotsky's would-be heirs existence as protest groups with easy answers and a Marxist sheen.

Socialism for a Sceptical Age is an attempt to grapple with how a socialist transformation in Britain would likely look, and the problems that entails. As such Miliband's last book is an important, if overlooked, contribution to socialist politics. That is why the Daily Mail thinks this is an evil legacy, and if that isn't recommendation enough for you to read it, I don't know what is.


Robert said...

Interesting. Must read the book

Hopefully this latest episode will persuade Ed if he does get in not to appease the right wing gutter press the way New Labour did.

Gary Elsby said...

In conference week a newspaper does the incredible and underhand thing of slipping in a few attacks on the opposition.
Not new, is it?
I'm sure Ralph was a good hearted rebel with a cause.

Why are they doing this?
Well, it took a great deal of research beforehand but lands just nicely for maximum effect.
Dave comes out in sympathy.

The Dave effect mystifies me.
For quite some time we've had the bullingdon boy giving socialist advice and socialist answers backed up by Government policy.
Fascinating really.

Ed has taken on big business and big energy companies
Expect to be taken down for the next couple of years and expect sympathy from those that want you to have nothing of the sort.

Boffy said...

The problem is it starts from the wrong period of time. Instead of asking what happens after a Workers Government - for that is what is being spoken of - comes to power, it should ask the question, what needs to be done to create the conditions under which a Workers Government can come to power, and not be blown away when it does, in the way that Popular Unity was destroyed.

The old Militant formula of a Labour Government that nationalises the commanding heights - the Mili always really understood this would lead to a revolutionary situation, so the criticism of them as reformists was not that accurate - would lead to a disaster, precisely unless you have built up mass extra-Parliamentary support, built up organs of workers power and democracy to confront the state, when the army marches in to disband Parliament, you will have no means of stopping the. Egypt is the latest example of that, and the MB do have significant extra-parliamentary support.

It is conceivable that at some point in the future that in the same way that the success of capitalist economy and property led to bourgeois ideas dominating the Universities etc. that fed through into the dominant ideas of the state officials, the ideas of socialism based on co-operation might assume such a position. But, that would first require that workers develop successful co-operative, worker owned and controlled property that demonstrated its superiority.

The state is indeed an arena of class struggle, but so is the work place. We cannot transform society on the basis of the existing capitalist enterprises, but only by replacing them with worker owned and controlled enterprises, and thereby ending the conflict between capital and labour within them. We can construct a new society on the basis of the existing organs of the capitalist state, but only by creating new worker owned and controlled state organs, which again thereby remove the struggle between capital and labour within them, and which act to further the interests of workers, in the same way that the capitalist state does for Capital.

When we do that to a qualitatively significant extent - and along the way Capital will attempt by all means to inhibit that development - we might be in a position to simply use the channels of existing bourgeois democracy to assume control of the government, in the way that Marx envisaged, but without that, either a Workers Government will compromise as Social democracy always has, or it will be crushed.

Gary Elsby said...

"I'll tell you what!"
"Britain can do better than that lot!"

Here it comes.

Boffy said...


"We can construct a new society on the basis of the existing organs of the capitalist state".

Oops. Should read, "we cannot construct a new society etc."

Sarah AB said...

"Radical, thoroughgoing policy is best enacted immediately after the assumption of office, at the very moment one's opponents are temporarily demoralised and disorganised."

Sounds like the Shock Doctrine

Phil said...

I think it's quite possible a socialist government could come to power without an accompanying wave of industrial militancy that involves the taking over of workplaces. Greece springs to mind, for example.

But whichever way Miliband's scenario comes about, in the interim the state can be used to strengthen the solidarities and organisation a future socialist government rests on. In this respect there are elements of Labour's current policy line up that points toward this - action on tackling insecure work, reversing the NHS's commissioning culture, programmes that will stimulate productive economic activity. I expect the next Labour government will be looking to do more with cooperatives too. These are real, tangible policies that improve the lot of 'our people' and can be the leaping off point for further reforms that strengthen the labour movement.

Ken said...

I haven't read that book, though I suppose I should. (At the moment I'm reading Parliamentary Socialism, which I've dipped into and out of for years but never read right through. It's a treat to read.) But from Phil's summary and from my memories of Miliband's articles over many years, I find myself brought sharply up against how much I find the basic perspective unreal. And this is reverberating back into my reading of Miliband's first book.

Because that too is based on measuring Labour's record against the theoretical possibility of a party, not necessarily Labour, coming to power in Britain and nationalising the commanding heights, etc.

I just don't find this likely, or even desirable, and I can imagine some very good reasons why the young Milibands didn't either. Which doesn't mean a more radical prospectus might not become popular and practical in the foreseeable future. Nationalise the banks and land and you break bourgeois power. Everything else can be left to whichever colour of cat catches mice.