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Book Review; Class War Conservatism

While Ralph Milliband has been dead since May 1994, the relevance of his work only grows. His posthumously published book Socialism for a Skeptical Age provided a well argued defense of one of the most traditional goals of the socialist movement, public ownership, at a time in which capitalism was enjoying a brief, illusory moment…

Written by

R. Burke


Originally Published in

While Ralph Milliband has been dead since May 1994, the relevance of his work only grows. His posthumously published book Socialism for a Skeptical Age provided a well argued defense of one of the most traditional goals of the socialist movement, public ownership, at a time in which capitalism was enjoying a brief, illusory moment of triumphalism. In that book Milliband was concerned with what Alec Nove had called “feasible socialism,” that is a socialism which could conceivably be achieved within the lifetime of a child born now. He provided a model of a socialist style mixed economy composed of three sectors. These were a publically owned sector-the commanding heights of the economy, a sector of worker and consumer cooperatives, and a sector of small-scale private enterprises. Milliband was explicit in arguing that public ownership provided the necessary basis for a more democratically run economy, and envisioned one where workers and consumers councils, along with local communities as well as the national government, played a role in the management of publically owned enterprises. Public ownership would exist at the national, regional, and local levels, with government economic planning taking place within an otherwise market based economy. Milliband never presented his model as a utopia, but left open the possibility of further developments beyond this, taking the view that socialism required a more or less permanent striving for it’s goals while recognizing that they might never be completely realized. Recently Verso books has released a new edition of essays by this staunch socialist thinker, Class War Conservatism and Other Essays, with an introduction by Tariq Ali.


Milliband, an author whom Tony Benn called “one of the best minds of our generation,” Ali praises as “a socialist intellectual of great integrity.” His socialism belonged firmly in the Left Marxist current of Rosa Luxemburg. While Milliband was in no way a Marxist-Leninist, he was not without sympathy for it and especially for Trotskyism, as well as for the work of Gramsci. He managed to envision a radically reformist democratic socialism that affirmed an unwavering anti-imperialism. Recognizing that socialism was ultimately international, a post-capitalist world system, Milliband always insisted that it was nonetheless possible to begin building towards socialism in the here and now. While democracy under capitalism provides undeniable restrictions on the ability to do this, it nonetheless provides possibilities for socialist advance that should not be overlooked or ignored.


In fact the question of the state under capitalism, and the degree to which it did or did not function as the “executive branch of the ruling class” is the major topic of the first section of essays in Class War Conservatism, “The Capitalist State.” While firmly grounded in an orthodox Marxist critique of the state, Milliband insisted that this view is nonetheless too reductionist. In reality the state, while under the domination of the capitalist class, retains some autonomy insofar as it claims to represent the common good of the nation. It is precisely this contradictory reality, under conditions of parliamentary democracy, that allows for the possibility of socialist advance. As his essay on “The Coup in Chile” demonstrates, Milliband was keenly aware of the limits that capitalist democracy imposed on the ability achieve socialist goals, and the possibility of reaction was never far from his mind. He recognized the need for the state to be remade to fully realize socialism, but insisted that the new state must begin to be built “within the shell of the old.” The possibility of democratic and non-violent movement towards socialism was a major concern in Milliband’s political thinking.


The second section of essays, “Marxism and the Problem of Power,” involves Milliband’s efforts to analyze the experience of Marxist-Leninism and to draw conclusions useful for the socialist cause. His position is Marxist and anti-imperialist while maintaining critical distance from his subject. Milliband debunks the claim, fostered by opponents of socialism, that socialism equates with Stalinism, and has criticism for those on the left who also made this assertion. While critical of the Marxist-Leninist concepts of the vanguard party and the party state, Milliband nonetheless remained cognizant of the historical situation in which these arose, and even insisted on not confusing Lenin with Stalin. Recognizing that international isolation and capitalist hostility were major factors in the evolution of the Soviet Union, he declined to make a virtue of alleged necessity in his assessment of “actually existing socialism.” Milliband always equated socialism with more, not less, democracy. This, combined with his anti-imperialism, is evident in what is perhaps the most interesting and relevant essay of this section, “Military Intervention and Socialist Internationalism.” In this Milliband attempted to provide some guidelines on how a socialist should respond to military interventions, both by capitalist and “actually existing socialist” nations. Many of his insights remain relevant in an age where “humanitarian intervention” is invoked as an excuse for military action.


A third section, entitled “Britain,” addresses the possibility of socialist advance within the British society of his time. It is in this section that the essay that the book’s title, “Class War Conservatism,” comes from. Here Milliband examined Thatcherism, commenting on the aggressiveness displayed by it in contrast to traditional conservatism. Rather than simply resisting progress, Thatcherism actively sought to roll back previous advances. Much of this attitude would become generalized in the neoliberal era following the fall of the Soviet Union, representing the “shared wisdom” of both center-left and center-right parties for the past quarter century.


The fourth and final section, “After 1989,” is about the fall of the Soviet Union and it’s implications for the struggle for socialism. Here Milliband recognized that the downfall of communist regimes would be used as an excuse for a capitalist triumphalism that must be resisted. Indeed it was the new political reality that appeared following the end of the USSR, that later led Milliband to write Socialism for a Skeptical Age, his final book.


No doubt it is possible to fault Milliband for not being “radical enough.” Many on the left would dismiss his faith in the possibility of advancing socialism though electoral methods as naïve. Others might criticize his vision of feasible socialism with its’ acceptance of markets and mixed economies as being insufficiently participatory. Milliband practiced what Immanuel Wallerstein has called “Utopistics,” that is the search for credible and historically realizable alternatives to capitalism. The burden is on such critics to demonstrate that they have a vision that is equally credible and realizable. A more cogent criticism would focus on the lack of attention paid to environmental issues in his work, or to his focus on class issues while overlooking those of racism, sexism, and LGBTQ rights. Despite these shortcomings, his work remains relevant and vital. Ralph Milliband, along with Andre Gorz, and Ernesto Laclau, is one of a few writers whose voices have become more insistent despite their physical absence, and whose ideas will prove invaluable for the construction of a viable socialist movement in this century.


Class War Conservatism and Other Essays

By Ralph Milliband, Introduction by Tariq Ali, Verso Books

ISBN-13: 978-1-78168-770-3

London, 2015

358 pages, $19.95


Richard Burke is an artist, activist, teacher and writer living in St. Louis.