Summer 2004 - Volume 7 Number 3
Marxism and Politics
London: Merlin Press, 2004
It is commonplace to remark that Karl Marx seems largely to have vanished from postsecondary education. Three factors are mainly responsible. First, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Chinese embrace of capitalist values and the consequent triumphalism of Western market societies have made it easy to declare Marxism "irrelevant" to the twenty-first century. Second, many leftist intellectuals have taken the postmodern turn away from traditional Marxian social analysis and self-indulgently taken to playing obscurantist theoretical games to the exclusion of practical politics. Finally, colleges and universities, which once took seriously their roles as critics as well as training grounds for future citizens, have increasingly abandoned their commitment to social criticism and surrendered to corporatist ideology, institutional policy and educational practice.
In such an arid environment, it is of special interest that Ralph Miliband's Marxism and Politics has been reissued by Merlin Press. For anyone who is unfamiliar with him, Miliband was arguably the foremost British commentator on Marx's relationship to contemporary politics. Along with historian John Saville, he founded and was long an editor of The Socialist Register, a fine annual collection of essays that sustained progressive scholars for much of the last half of the twentieth century. As well, his books Parliamentary Socialism and The State in Capitalist Society helped fill an ironic gap in Marxist thought a consideration and critique of the political order. Apart from specialized books such as my old friend Gary Teeple's Marx's Critique of Politics 1842-1847, the role of the state has rarely been adequately addressed within the Marxist tradition. Miliband, among the most charismatic and influential left wing intellectuals, did much to make up for that.
An independent thinker, he was caustic in his criticism of democratic socialist parties such as the British Labour Party and Canada's NDP. He fought the tendency to "overcompromise" with capitalism and strove to build genuinely socialist alternatives. "The last conversation I had with Ralph," said a close friend, "he was savage about Blair." Miliband died a decade ago, and so never saw Blair and "New Labour" come to power, much less to become George W. Bush's strongest ally. Perhaps it is just as well.
In Marxism and Politics, the analysis Miliband presents is as cogent and persuasive as when it was originally written. Constructing a solid account of the evolution of social class as concept and reality, he deftly handles arguments that seek to blur the inequalities in late capitalism and obfuscate their causes. While acknowledging that Marxists have generally underestimated capitalism's capacity adapt to and to create new circumstances, Miliband provides a very sensible account of the ways in which it has learned well how to: deflect criticism through the ideological instruments of the state (education being prime among them); render opposition ineffective through the promotion of religious, ethnic and gender cleavages; promote aggressive individualism which makes the poor the enemy of the temporarily comfortable working and middle classes; and transform electoral politics into a symbolic exercise for which large numbers of ostensible proletarians have little knowledge and less respect.
None of this, however, obviates the unmistakable point that, as Miliband says, "capitalism, however many and varied the reforms it may assimilate, is unable to do without exploitation, oppression, and dehumanization;" and that it cannot create the truly human environment for which it has itself produced the material conditions. As well, there is some apparent truth to the belief that Miliband's time has passed. As one of the foremost founders of the "New Left" in the 1960s, he would surely be chagrined that his enterprising, ambitious and thirty-something sons have distanced themselves from the old radical. David Miliband is a cabinet minister and one of Tony Blair's closest advisors. Ed Miliband chairs the Treasury department's Council of Economic Advisors. Ralph Miliband, however, remains "a large, challenging presence … a symbol of how the left used to be and of what his sons and their New Labour colleagues have reacted against." In time, it may be revealed that in this case, at least, father knows best.
The fact of the matter is that we were not ready for democracy and for socialism when Marx lived, nor were we in the days of Miliband. Capitalism may well have produced economic wealth in ample amounts for us to enjoy Christ's promise that we should "live abundantly," but we have yet to develop the will to live humanely. Instead, our ideological diversions can be measured in the popularity of "reality shows" and in the hilarious symbol of Forbes magazine's sponsorship of a television account of the 100 biggest celebrities of 2004. For anyone fortunate enough to have missed it, prominent place was given to the likes of Paris Hilton, Donald Trump and Anna Kournikova, with top spot (determined on a combination of personal income, press coverage and "hits" on their websites) going to "god-head" Mel Gibson.
As Miliband knew (but refused to celebrate), the necessity of the revolution has rarely been more clear; its distance from us has seldom seemed so far. His is not, however, a voice of despair. Taking full advantage of the current international situation, proponents of national security and a "robust" foreign policy would have us embrace imperial adventures while, each hour in Africa, AIDS victims equal in number to a fully loaded Boeing 747, crash and burn. Meanwhile, domestically, we are urged to fret about same-sex marriage and the legalization of marijuana, while simultaneously criminalizing poverty.
The Marxist reply to these mad and maddening politics may seem peculiar; yet, from Miliband's analysis it is inescapable. Our political liberties "are the product of centuries of unremitting popular struggles," says Miliband. "The task of Marxist politics is to defend these freedoms and to make possible their extension and enlargement by the removal of class boundaries." Civic rights have been won within bourgeois society the rule of law chief among them and are unqualified human goods. Their maintenance will largely depend on how seriously we take books like this. It is, according to York University political scientist Leo Panitch, "the best primer on Marxism and politics ever written." Those who dismiss it and its subject matter as "irrelevant" risk losing even the modest liberal gains we have made to date and seeing our society move in an unpleasant and unexpected direction from which further reversals will be less and less possible.
Howard A. Doughty teaches in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at Seneca College, King City. He can be reached at email@example.com or 416-491-5050, ext. 5195.
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