Bernstein in Seattle: Representative Democracy and the Revolutionary Subject (Part 1)

This is part one of a two-part series. Part two is available here.

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Parliamentary socialism is back, with a vengeance. No other phenomenon, it seems, is capable of provoking such political disarray and theoretical confusion among desperate and disenchanted leftists of every stripe. Disarray and confusion are part of the patrimony of the Left – and if we remain unprepared to bury the dead, we have at least the responsibility to subject them to a symptomatic reading.

Alexis Tsipras and Jeremy Corbyn, two names that have provoked the most profound oscillations between hope and despair, have easily and elegantly resurrected the ghosts of Nicos Poulantzas and Ralph Miliband.1 Poulantzas’s political heirs in Syriza presented the world with an apparently new kind of social democracy, one that was tied to movements from below – but their capitulation to the Eurozone recalled the oldest kind of disappointment. Miliband’s biological heirs in the Labour Party have been the target of Corbyn’s attempted left reorientation, and in an extraordinary historical irony he is haunted by the defeat of Tony Benn’s earlier effort, which put into practice the theory that the elder Miliband had espoused.

The debates of the European Left at the twilight of the classical workers’ movement still divide our contemporaries along rigid sectarian lines, resulting in spectacular eruptions of uncomprehending crosstalk. The United States has its own Marxist tradition, of course, with a wide and varied history – a complex web of splits and alliances, the number of organizations rising in inverse proportion to their influence before dropping off almost completely. The contemporary renaissance of American Marxism, however, refers sparingly to this tradition, and even in the moderate world of electoral social democracy, Bernie Sanders himself sees little need to invoke American socialism.2

In fact, on today’s American Left, it is almost as though one’s Marxist credentials must be secured by selecting from a menu of European traditions: Italian “autonomism,” of course, or for those with older hearts, a purportedly direct revolutionary lineage descending from Antonio Gramsci to the postwar PCI; a hodge-podge of heterogeneous French tendencies, the Situationist International complemented by Bordigist eccentrics; an equally discordant Russo-German truce between Leon Trotsky and Karl Kautsky; or, for those who like their value-form served neat, some strain of German Marx philology that will bestow any contingent political position with the ultimate virtue and purity.

Tucked away in a corner of this theoretical food court is the most significant source of our conceptual vocabulary: the British Left of the 1960s into the 1980s, represented above all by the two pivotal journals New Left Review and Socialist Register. Across the spectrum, from those who advocate communization to adherents of electoral socialism, this tradition is a central point of reference, even where affiliation is not explicitly noted.

The influence of British Marxism is so profound not only because of language, but also because England provides a model of a persistent organizational void, which seems today to serve as the inescapable obstacle to the achievement of working-class political power. There was a significant trade union movement in England throughout the 20th century, and a socialist political party which often enjoyed parliamentary success; yet the Labour Party was never willing to confront the capitalist relations of production, much less abolish them, and the mass organizational form of the union would find itself decimated by the twin forces of economic restructuring and the new political strategy of the ruling class.

Despite the importance of this history, there has been little effort to subject it to theoretical analysis. A recent critique of the popular socialist journal Jacobin by Jason Smith, from a vantage point sympathetic to the left-communist Endnotes, traces the former’s approach to the democratic socialism of Michael Harrington.3 Yet both Jacobin and Endnotes, despite their seeming opposition, follow in the footsteps of New Left Review, which unlike the entirely atheoretical Democratic Socialists of America is capable of serving as the source of an overarching Weltanschauung for both contemporary journals.

We are not accustomed to citing Poulantzas and Miliband. Far more familiar to readers of Viewpoint is a figure like Anton Pannekoek, who forcefully argued:  “Parliamentarianism inevitably tends to inhibit the autonomous activity by the masses that is necessary for revolution.” It is important to be precise: the objection of a council communist like Pannekoek to parliamentary tactics cannot be reduced to an intransigent reaction to the betrayals of social democracy in government. It was rather an analysis of the historical efficacy of parliamentary contestation as a tactic – a tactic which, Pannekoek affirmed, was once “necessary and productive.” When social democracy entered parliament at the end of the 19th century, it used this position not to govern, but to gain a mass audience for socialist agitation. But as proletarian struggle advanced and entered a revolutionary phase, parliamentary activity ceased to be a useful tool. As Pannekoek pointed out, there could be no such thing as socialism without the masses creating “organs of self-action”; and if the goal of parliamentarism was to legislate socialism into existence, it could only reinforce the “traditional bourgeois mentality” which encouraged dependence on leaders instead of self-organization, and thus could be nothing but an obstacle to the realization of socialism.4

A critique like Pannekoek’s never seems to lose its relevance; this is its strength and its weakness. It is a powerful warning to those who, swept up with enthusiasm in the electoral arena, have forgotten basic socialist principles. Yet to formulate an effective analysis, not to mention an effective revolutionary strategy, something more than principle is needed. Lenin’s famous rejoinder to this tendency emphasized the crucial distinction between principles and strategy, the latter always requiring a concrete analysis of the concrete situation. But even after making this distinction, which implies that all organizations must respond to the particularities of their historical conjuncture, Lenin went on to impose a single model, derived from the Russian case, on every other movement, thereby leading to very much the same problem as Pannekoek.

It is easy to describe, in hindsight, the failures of political movements, and to trace these failures to theoretical errors. We are generally aided in this task by each tendency’s historical opponents, who carefully and vigorously documented every misstep, and traced it to their adversary’s rotten core.

But we have little interest in upholding the leftist tradition of retroactive denunciation; more urgent is the task of recognizing how all of these tendencies, in their own ways, identified the historical transformations to which they bore witness, and shed light on the fundamental strategic-organizational limits which we still confront – even if, in some cases, this illumination took the form of insistent denial.

This is what drives our reconsideration of the debate between Miliband and Poulantzas, which has been unproductively directed, in the whole history of its interpretation, towards a fruitless and misconceived “methodological” dispute revolving around something called “structuralism,” occasionally buttressed with antiquarian bickering around the episode of “Eurocommunism.”5 For us this debate matters because it provides an outsider’s view of the development of British Marxism, a window into the critical dialogue Poulantzas conducted with it throughout his career – and it therefore allows us to learn the hidden history of our own politics.

Surpassing the limits of our sedimented terminology can ultimately only be achieved in new forms of political practice. But locked as we are in the perpetual cycle of journals, we can start by reopening the archives – not to restage old and tiresome disputes, but to arrive at a new understanding of the trajectory of socialist strategy.

Equivocations

Ralph Miliband’s 1961 book Parliamentary Socialism set out the contours of a longstanding dilemma inherited by the British New Left: without a mass revolutionary organization, the energies of the labor movement had historically been channeled into the parliamentary vessel of the Labour Party. Written just after its author determined that trying to work with the party’s left wing was “no longer worth doing,” Miliband’s historical review was fundamentally directed towards understanding his own political situation, and his frustrations with the Labour Left he had participated in during the 1950s.6 It was at this moment that Labour definitively confronted the question of the content of its program: whether it would be “concerned with attempts at a more efficient and more humane administration of a capitalist society; or whether it is to adapt itself to the task of creating a socialist one.”7 Until the 1950s this question was constantly deferred, since the minimal program of “social reform and public ownership of basic utilities and services” was yet to be realized. But when these goals were achieved in the postwar period, it was no longer possible to evade the question.

For the Labour leadership, the postwar expansion of the welfare state had been the maximum program, while Miliband and the rest of the Left hoped it would form a first step towards an even more expansive socialist transformation. There was a kind of logic, then, to Labour’s ensuing drift to the right, when Hugh Gaitskell indicated that the Party’s answer to its burning question was indeed a more efficient and more humane administration of capitalist society, in a “mixed economy.”

Miliband reviewed the dynamics of interwar British working class radicalism, most clearly manifested in the 1926 general strike, and the machinations of the Labour bureaucracy, equally clearly on display in the total concession by the trade union leadership that ended the general strike. This “betrayal,” Miliband sought to establish, was not the result of the individual opportunism of particular Labour leaders, but the structural form of the Labour Party itself – the “bureaucratic recoil” of industrial leadership from “working class initiative outside the established forms of trade union organization,” driven by the leadership’s deeply held belief that “a challenge to the Government through the assertion of working class strength outside Parliament was wrong.8

The party leadership’s conduct was guided above all by their belief that “in Parliament and Parliament alone lay the workers’ salvation.”9 While Labour leaders had earlier been willing to threaten a general strike in 1920 to prevent a war against the Soviet Union, this was because such an action would not have gone beyond a defense of “national interests” – it did not “bring into question the relation of labour to property, and to the State as defender of property.” However, the 1926 general strike had “an unmistakable social content”: “the assertion of specific working class claims against property. And it was the prospect of leading such a movement from which the Labour leaders naturally and inevitably flinched.”10

Miliband also provided a balance sheet of Labour’s record in government, when the stated goal of socialism came up against the imperatives to remain respectable and to moderate the threats to the social order posed by popular radicalism – important considerations for a leadership eager to disprove Churchill’s assertion that the Party was “not fit to govern.”11 The political strategists of the Labour Party, Miliband remarked, could not be considered revisionists “since they had never, so to speak, been visionists.” Lacking a “coherent and official body of doctrine,” English reformism was free to simply jump into the “business of politics.”

Marxism had always been a negligible influence, at the margins of the party.12 Labour reformists did not require the sweeping ethical reformulation of Marxism that Eduard Bernstein had advanced in late 19th-century Germany, and neither did they attempt to present a new theory of capitalist development beyond crisis and contradiction. They adopted the common-sense view that the objectionable aspects of capitalism “could be gradually cured by remedial action mainly conceived in terms of growing State intervention.” This meant a strong investment in state action: “given sufficient pressure in Parliament, the State would not only further the process of redressing the economic and social balance in favour of Labour,” but also, in theory, eventually proceed to “a measure of collectivism so wide that it would mean the supersession of capitalism, without strife and upheaval.”13

However, more radical ideas did leave a “residue.” Marginal tendencies retained the conviction that “ the wage earners would achieve neither immediate reforms, nor the emancipation of their class, without a militant assertion of their strength outside Parliament.”14 Significantly, such ideas converged with those found within revolutionary syndicalism, with its emphasis on “direct action,” which provoked fear and contempt among the Labour Party leadership.

Miliband took some distance from these radical fringes – indeed, his analysis was partly directed against the premise that building up the Communist Party would have been a viable alternative. According to Miliband, the participants in direct action were not necessarily themselves revolutionaries – they generally understood direct action as “a means of pressure, for specific and limited purposes, incomparably more effective than parliamentary action.”15 Miliband was more interested in finding effective tools for the realization of an effective Labour program – the syndicalist “rejection of parliamentary action was almost as dogmatic as the Labour leaders’ insistence upon its virtues.”16 Direct action, then, had to be understood as a means to an end. The trade union leadership should have recognized that it “held a formidable instrument” in its hands, in the form of active and organized working-class militancy.17 Instead, it did what it could to deflect and neutralize pressure from the rank and file.

For Miliband, this was the counterintuitive explanation for the electoral decline Labour had begun to experience. He dismissed the prevalent explanation that the the growing affluence of British society had led to the emergence of “floating voters” who could not be relied upon to vote according to their class position.18 On the contrary, it was the failure of Labour to form a productive relationship with popular radicalism and put forward an expansive socialist program that had led to the Party’s irrelevance.

Now that the structural inadequacies of parliamentary socialism had been exposed, the radicalism of a new generation agitating for nuclear disarmament presented the possibility of “transcending the orthodoxies of Labourism.”19 By this time the journal Miliband had participated in with Edward Thompson and John Saville, The New Reasoner, had merged with Universities and Left Review, which included such figures as Stuart Hall, Raphael Samuel, and Charles Taylor, and the transcendence of the orthodoxy in the emergent political perspectives of the 1960s would take shape here.20

Peculiarities

Miliband was uneasy about the joining of the disparate political experiences and perspectives implied by the merger between journals, but it nevertheless yielded New Left Review, which led its first years under Hall’s direction. When the tensions between the “old New Left” and the younger participants reached a peak, and Perry Anderson took over as editor of NLR, Miliband and Saville would form another journal, the Socialist Register.

However, Miliband did not share Thompson’s suspicion towards the younger writers who now took NLR in a different direction. While this direction involved a sharp critique of the first generation of the New Left, Thompson included, it also continued the investigation of the themes Miliband had addressed, asking the same fundamental questions: why had no revolutionary tradition developed in Great Britain, why did Marxism continue to be so marginal, and how could the ideology of Labourism be explained? The major difference, however, was that the new answers, which came in a range of articles in NLR over the course of 1964, assumed a much broader historical register, with the Continental tinge of Antonio Gramsci. This influence came into play through the efforts of Tom Nairn, who had studied at the Scuola Normale in Pisa and contributed an article called “La Nemesi Borghese” to a PCI journal. Anderson, at that time primarily influenced by Georg Lukács and Jean-Paul Sartre, had displayed his own interest in the PCI, introducing a transcript of its discussion of the 22nd Party Congress of the CPSU and later recalling that it provided a “coded contrast” with Labourism.21

Anderson and Nairn tried to provide a historical explanation, situated in the long aftermath of an abortive bourgeois revolution, of the absence of a vigorous Marxist tradition in England. Nairn opened his “The British Political Elite” by framing their investigation within one of the basic problems of Marxist political theory: “Class-divided societies have almost always been governed politically by a small minority. In general, this chosen few is a small group even in relation to the ‘ruling class’ itself.”22

This uncertain relationship between the ruling class and the minority which governs, the authors argued, took an exceptional form in England. Anderson’s “Origins of the Present Crisis” set out the sweep of the argument, pointing to the premature arrival of the English bourgeois revolution, and the ensuing inability of the bourgeoisie to overcome the persistent hegemony of the aristocracy – an exception to what was here presented as the typical case of the French Revolution. The transformations in the economic base – England was the first nation to develop capitalism, the first to go through an Industrial Revolution, and the first to form a proletariat – had not led to an equivalent transformation of the superstructures. The bourgeoisie could not successfully overcome the aristocracy’s values and legacies; it never advanced its own cohesive worldview, and by the Victorian era had fused with the aristocracy in a dominant bloc. In the place of Enlightenment reason, the English bourgeoisie was caught up in “traditionalism and empiricism,” which could not serve the role of totalizing philosophy to which Marxism might effectively respond.

Without an ambitious historical adversary, the English proletariat lacked a basis for articulating its own program:

It is a general historical rule that a rising social class acquires a significant part of the ideological equipment from the armoury of the ruling class itself. Thus the universal axioms of the French revolution were turned by the working-class in France against the bourgeoisie which first proclaimed them; they founded a revolutionary ideology directed against the initiators of the revolution. In England, a supine bourgeoisie produced a subordinate proletariat. It handed on no impulse of liberation, no revolutionary values, no universal language.23

Furthermore, the working class’s energies had been exhausted, in its long and early history of struggle, before a socialist ideology could be introduced from without. The English proletariat was stuck in a “corporate” class consciousness, lacking a hegemonic ideology. While a hegemonic class sought to “transform society in its own image, inventing afresh its economic system, its political institutions, its cultural values,” a corporate class would only “defend and improve its own position within a social order accepted as given.”24

All this had dramatic implications for the political problems Miliband had raised, which were more explicitly laid out by Nairn in a review of Thompson’s Making of the English Working Class, and a two-part dissection of the anatomy of the Labour Party. Nairn emphasized, from a different angle, the points already argued by Anderson: “To become a new hegemonic force, capable of dominating society in its turn, the English working class absolutely required a consciousness containing the elements ignored by, or excised from, the consciousness of the English bourgeoisie.”25 But Marxism, “at once the natural doctrine of the working class, and the summing-up of the Enlightenment and all the highest stages of bourgeois thought into a new synthesis” ran up against the “web of false relations and ideas” that characterized working-class consciousness.26 The English working class had to overcome “its alienation from bourgeois reason,” but this “prodigious cultural task” could not be undertaken by the working class alone, and “in Victorian England there was no radical, disaffected intelligentsia to undertake it.”27

The Labour Party had nothing like a theory to drive its activities; just as the English bourgeoisie had accepted, for a philosophy, the “fragmented, incomplete” transcription of its experience, so was the Labour Party given to fragmented, incomplete politics – empiricism yielded Fabianism.28 From the perspective of this fragmentary consciousness, “socialism had to be constructed piece by piece, in discrete instalments, over a long period of time,” without a totalizing project of transformation. The logical consequence of this evolutionism was parliamentarism.29

While citing Miliband in his study, Nairn advanced a different explanation for Labour’s “betrayals.” They were not only the result of the ideology of Labourism; they were caused by the inherent defectiveness of the English working class itself, its failure to overcome its economism and corporatism.30 What had seemed to be a “titanic social force” turned out to be, after the 1840s, “an apparently docile class.” Without a comprehensive and overarching socialist culture, trade-union struggles would only try for a “square deal.” Embracing “one species of moderate reformism after another,” the English working class “remained wedded to the narrowest and greyest of bourgeois ideologies in its principal movements.”31 The tendency of the Left to denounce the leaders of the party had “served only to conceal the underlying conditions of betrayal, the circumstances in the party, the movement, the class itself which have generated corrupt and half-hearted leadership.”32 For all the grimness of this diagnosis, the prescription was at least quite clear: “The English working class, immunized against theory like no other class, by its entire historical experience, needed theory like no other. It still does.”33

Notwithstanding their indictment of the sterility of the English political tradition, both authors struck a tone of cautious optimism about the coming Labour government. Nairn noted that the right wing of the Labour Party, represented by Gaitskell, had been able to turn the Party’s electoral difficulties in its favor over the course of the 1950s, representing socialist measures such as nationalization as “outmoded” and “irrelevant.” Modernizing the Labour Party would mean shifting towards the “mixed economy,” recognizing that the party’s ideals had to adapt to the “better conduct of the capitalists.”34 While Harold Wilson, just elected at the end of 1964, by no means overcame Labourism’s contradictions, he seemed to be shaking off this conservatism, and thus offered an opening for socialists. “Under his leadership,” Anderson wrote, “the whole Labour programme has become open-ended. It is not at any point socialist; but nor is it, unlike its predecessor, inherently incapable of debouching onto socialism. It is thus neither a barrier nor a tramplin for the Left: it is simply a political space in which it can work.” Within this space, Anderson advanced a program which revolved around “public ownership, social priorities, civic democracy, workers’ control, and a liberated culture.”35 Urging caution on the question of whether to work “inside or outside” of the Party, Nairn wrote that since “the new Labour Government will for some time play a positive part” in the process of development of the British working class, “its advent means hope, not merely the repetition of an old illusion.”36

Hegemony

The historiographical debate which Nairn and Anderson’s articles provoked, including the searing attack by Thompson in the Socialist Register and Anderson’s equally aggressive response, has had considerable reverberations in the field of English history.37 Anderson would later remark that the “Gramscian polarity” of hegemonic and corporate classes was “given too cultural a turn, at any rate by myself.”38 In the 1960s, one of the clearest summations of this “Western Marxist” version of cultural politics came in Anderson’s programmatic text “Problems of Socialist Strategy,” which appeared in the 1965 edited volume Towards Socialism, just after he and Nairn had proposed their new synthesis. Anderson showed that New Left Review’s enthusiasm for Western Marxism, whose dissemination in English was almost entirely due to the extraordinary translation efforts of the journal, was part of its search for not only a theoretical but also a political alternative to the sterility of English tradition.39

The central problem of socialist strategy confronted in Anderson’s national context was the inapplicability of the Leninist model of “seizure and destruction of existing State power,” which was embedded in the specific conditions of a society “dominated by scarcity and integrated only by the state.”40 While this was the correct strategy for the East and the Third World (despite its “inhuman costs”), for Western Europe, with its “advanced economies” and the “great political achievement of democracy,” a Leninist strategy would be “fundamentally regressive.”41

Social democracy, however, was not a viable alternative; it had failed to actually institute socialism anywhere it had existed. Its error was a strategic one; it had made the mistake of thinking that power lay only in parliament, while in reality power in advanced capitalist societies was located in the “totality of differential relationships that constitute a society” (“families, schools, universities, factories, offices, newspapers, cinemas, banks, laboratories, squadrons, secretariats, etc.”). These were the sites where the “permanent hegemony of one social bloc over another” was constituted, and the legislature was merely one item in the series.42

In fact, Leninism and social democracy were guilty of a common failure of analysis, whatever their seemingly drastic contrasts (“violence against legality, vanguardism against passivity, discipline against democracy”): “They both polarize their whole strategies on the State: civil society remains outside the main orbit of their action.43 In the Leninist model of dictatorship of the proletariat, this problem was especially acute: “There can be no serious talk of ‘smashing’ the power structure in the West in the same sense that Lenin spoke of ‘smashing’ the State machine in the East. In Western Europe, this would mean shattering civil society itself, whereas the real task is to free civil society from the dominion of capital.”44

Since workers were spontaneously given to economism and corporatism, intellectuals, the “sources of consciousness in society,” played a central role: “the relationship between the working class and culture, decisive for its consciousness and ideology, is inevitably mediated through intellectuals, the only full tenants of culture in a capitalist society.”45 A socialist ideology would be able to “bridge the gulf between working-class habits and values and middle-class culture.”46

While “Problems of Socialist Strategy” seemed optimistic about the situation opened by the new Labour government, advising it on a strategy that could achieve a popular hegemony, this would not last long. In mid-1965, Nairn’s “Labour Imperialism,” representative of a broad shift in views, harshly condemned “Labour’s criminal complicity with American war in Vietnam,” and extended its outrage to the government’s economic performance. Labour’s technocratic bid for a more dynamic and efficient neo-capitalism lay in shambles, unable to restabilize the British economy. This failure of the Labour Party was now the opening for socialism.47

It was also at this moment that the Greek émigré Nicos Poulantzas, who in his career as a legal philosopher in Paris had shifted from a Lukácsian-Sartrean formation to the circle surrounding Louis Althusser, would make his first intervention into British Marxism. In “Marxist Political Theory in Great Britain,” originally published in Les temps modernes in 1966 and translated for NLR in 1967, Poulantzas remarked that Nairn and Anderson’s analyses “deserve to be considered exemplary texts of Marxist political analysis.”48 While he was sympathetic to the empirical critique offered by Thompson, which argued that there was no English deviation from some standard pattern of bourgeois revolution and capitalist development, he emphasized that Anderson and Nairn’s “scientific” work was indispensable, insofar as it revealed a “genuine, critical reflection on the concepts used in the political analysis advanced.”49 The editorial introduction to the text in NLR characterized Poulantzas’s attention to the “theoretical infrastructure of the debate” as “an important advance over previous discussion.”50

Anderson and Nairn’s perspective, Poulantzas suggested, was characterized by the assumption that the history of social formations could be understood as the expression of a central, determining factor, either the economy or a subject of history. In the Lukácsian inflection this subject took the historically specific form of classes, each of which successively remade society according to a “global conception of the world.”51 The problem for Poulantzas, having recently broken with this theoretical problematic, was the move of defining the dominant class on the assumption that it “possessed a specific and coherent class consciousness” – a tendency, he added, that was reproduced by Thompson when he suggested that Protestantism represented the fully achieved ideology of the ascendant bourgeoisie.52

“It is a well-known Marxist tenet,” Poulantzas remarked, “that the dominant ideology in a social formation is generally that of the dominant class.” But it would not be appropriate to interpret this by attributing the “unity of a determinate social formation” as such “to a class-subject, and hence to its class ‘consciousness.’” That is, that the transition to a new mode of production and the corresponding political and ideological shifts could not be explained as the expression of the will of a particular class, or the “global world conception which this class immediately produces.’”53

The absence in England of a coherent “world conception” of the bourgeoisie, then, could not be taken as an indication of the failure of bourgeois hegemony.54 What the category of hegemony had to explain was how the specific “interests” of a class, or a fraction of a class, were objectively structured in such a way as to represent the “general political interest of the classes or fractions in power despite their deep contradictions; the dominant ideology is therefore only one aspect of this organization of the hegemonic class or fraction.”55 Explaining the correspondence of the dominant ideology with the “interests” of a particular class had to proceed by explaining “the unity at the political level of the various conflicting classes.”56 This implied an ongoing process by which political unity would be formed out of conflict, leaving open the possibility of “disjunctions” between the objective structures of the state, and the class dominant in the mode of production. “But such disjunctions,” Poulantzas declared, “far from making these relations unintelligible, are the basis for understanding them. To be more precise, the Marxist conception of these ‘disjunctions’ is able to take account of the autonomy of the State.”57

Poulantzas argued, against Thompson, for the validity of Anderson and Nairn’s analyses of the Labour Party. However, he also suggested that they should be distinguished from the overarching theoretical framework. Anderson and Nairn had argued that the British proletariat had been unable to develop a revolutionary ideology because of the failure of the bourgeoisie to form its own coherent ideology. But this would only be valid if one accepted the theory of “a universal, supposedly Marxist schema involving the necessary and unilinear succession of slavery, feudalism, capitalism and socialism.” History had shown that, to the contrary, in the “underdeveloped” countries of the world, from Russia to China, revolutionary ideologies had already emerged, and were continuing to do so, despite a clear absence of bourgeois hegemony. This could not, then, explain the strong hold of trade-unionism and reformism on the British working class.58 Poulantzas concluded:

if one wishes to understand the “trade unionist” or “economico-corporative” mentality of the British working class, highlighted by Anderson and Nairn, one must look for the explanation in their penetrating analyses of its political organization (structure of the Labour Party and global political strategy of this party) rather than in their references to its lack of a hegemonic class-consciousness or conception of the world.59

This uncertain conceptual relation, linking theories of class consciousness, hegemony, and the state to the problem of organization, represents a subterranean thread in the English debate. The strategic orientation of these questions would come out with force at the end of the 1960s, though their organizational substructure often has to be excavated from underneath a deep layer of ideological conceptions which seem to point elsewhere.

While the editorial introduction to Poulantzas’s article promised a response, this never materialized. Anderson’s 1968 “Components of the National Culture” showed that the Lukácsian and Sartrean frameworks were now situated alongside a new interest in structuralism. At the strategic level, the focus on culture and the role of intellectuals remained, but with a new inflection. There was no longer any reference to Labour, indicative of the break which had been caused by the disappointments of the Wilson government. It was replaced by a much more emphatic turn towards the international surge in the student movement: “a revolutionary practice within culture is possible and necessary today. The student struggle is its initial form.”60

Poulantzas had noted in passing the divergence between the analyses of Anderson and Nairn, “and those of Miliband, one of the editors of Socialist Register, in his book Parliamentary Socialism which traces the political evolution of Britain, primarily in this century.”61 Though he did not elaborate any further at the time, it was this continuing engagement which would lead to Poulantzas’s most visible appearance in the English discussion.

Consciousness

It was in 1968 that Poulantzas’s Political Power and Social Classes appeared in France, just before the May events. Poulantzas sent a copy of his book to Miliband, with a letter reading: “I know your book, Parliamentary Socialism and your articles, particularly ‘Marx and the State,’ which helped me very much in my work. Your comments and advice will be very useful.” Miliband replied in an equally friendly tone, admitting that Poulantzas’s highly theoretical text had made him “conscious of the theoretical deficiencies of my own work, and the limitations of the method that I have chosen to use”; he lamented that he only had a month to send his final draft to the publisher and had not “had the benefit of your book earlier.” Poulantzas’s response insisted the contrary: “I am really enthusiastic about your project and book: I believe that it is indispensable… I think, without false modesty, that it will be much more important than mine.”62

There is a mild hilarity in this mutual inferiority complex over questions of method, which would ultimately invert itself completely into vehement hostility. But even beyond contextualizing the polemics in the common starting points – and, as we will later see, the common conclusions – of Poulantzas and Miliband, we also have to establish the strategic questions too often buried under debates over method.

In the 1965 Socialist Register article which Poulantzas praised, Miliband reviewed Marx’s political reflections on the problem of the state – in the early texts, grappling with the uneven constitution of bourgeois democracy, and finally arriving in the later texts at the question of post-revolutionary proletarian forms of power. As Miliband clearly emphasized, there was a consistent strategic emphasis in Marx’s approach to these problems, extending from laws on the theft of wood and freedom of press to the experience of the Paris Commune and the drafting of the Gotha Program. What should be the relation of the proletarian party to the form of state of bourgeois society? What will be the form of its revolutionary power after the expropriation of capital? These were the concrete questions towards which Marx’s theoretical investigations were oriented.

But all of these analyses existed only in the form of “incidental remarks,” difficult to interpret and elaborate.63 Marx barely managed to approach the most difficult, yet perhaps most central aspect of the problem: explaining the specifically capitalist character of the state, generally either assumed or asserted. Miliband indicated that the famous definition of the Manifesto (“The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie”) was insufficient – “it only constitutes what might be called a primary view of the state.” The “secondary view” in Marx could be considered substantially clearer: it understood the state as “independent from and superior to all social classes,” as “the dominant force in society rather than the instrument of a dominant class.”

One of the fundamental reasons for the implicit shift in Marx’s reasoning was the need to qualify the view advanced in the Manifesto, after his conjunctural analyses of France and England. These concrete studies led Marx to frequently point out that “it is not the ruling class as a whole, but a fraction of it, which controls the state,” and in fact “those who actually run the state may well belong to a class which is not the economically dominant class.”64 The classic example was the authoritarian personal rule of Louis Bonaparte, which Marx depicted as a state machine composed of vast bureaucratic and military apparatuses left over from the monarchy. Bonapartism exercised its despotism over bourgeoisie and proletariat alike, seemingly “representing” the small-holding peasants or the lumpenproletariat. Yet Marx concluded that despite this independence from direct representation of the ruling class, Bonapartism had to remain, due simply to its existence in class society, “the protector of an economic and socially dominant class” – or so Miliband argued.65

In The State in Capitalist Society, which finally appeared in 1969, Miliband seemed to have overcome the tension between the two approaches. The “instrumentalist” definition of the Manifesto was approvingly repeated, but the entire thrust of Miliband’s account served to explain how the state could be an instrument of capitalist rule despite the non-identity between the ruling class and the state administration.66 Incidentally, Poulantzas’s book was quickly cited as “a major attempt at a theoretical elaboration of the Marxist ‘model’ of the state, which appeared when the present work was nearing completion.”67

However, the apparent framing of The State in Capitalist Society is the mainstream political science of the period, which had abandoned the state altogether as a concept. In the place of the unitary conception of the state, mainstream political science saw a plurality of groups competing for their interests within a broad political system. To debunk this theory Miliband sought to establish that there was in fact a dominant class in with an unequal footing in the political system; if it could be shown that “this dominant class also exercises a much greater degree of power and influence than any other class… a decisive degree of political power,” and that this class was therefore able to control the political system in accordance with its interests, it could be shown that the dominant class was also a ruling class.68

On this question Miliband’s critique of mainstream political science converged with the strategic questions we have reviewed within British Marxism. At an immediate political level Miliband showed, against the Labourist view that the mixed economy had overcome the antagonism between socialism and capitalism, that the state remained biased towards the dominant class.69 But just as important was the division in the revolutionary legacy between East and West – as the subtitle indicates, The State in Capitalist Society was “an analysis of the Western systems of power.” The Leninist temptation to use an insurrectionary language which described the state as class dictatorship ran up against the rational kernel of the pluralist theories: advanced capitalist Western democracies really did have an extraordinary level of freedom of speech, and allowed a wide range of social groups to try to be elected into government. How could the capitalist character of the state be explained in the terms of this system, for which language of dictatorship and tyranny rang hollow?

Miliband emphasized “that ‘the state’ is not a thing, that it does not, as such, exist.” For better or for worse, this was not an epistemological position, but a way of understanding state power in terms of a state system which could not be restricted to government – that is, to the legislative and executive bodies. This was an important recognition for would-be revolutionaries: “if it is believed that the government is in fact the state, it may also be believed that the assumption of governmental power is equivalent to the acquisition of state power.” The state system, in fact, encompassed not just government but also administration (civil service, banking, regulation); military, police, and intelligence; the judicial system; and the sub-central governments (regional, state, municipal governments).70

It was undeniable that a “state elite” existed within the state system. But there was no direct identity between this state elite and the “economically dominant class,” a fact that capitalist ideologues used to their advantage. The dominant class had a “relationship” with the state whose precise character had to be determined. In trying to think through this relationship, Miliband cited the remark of Karl Kautsky that “the capitalist class rules but does not govern.”71 In a more contemporary context, Anderson had made a similar point in his rejoinder to Thompson: “For a ruling class… to rule ‘directly,’ it would be necessary for every member of it to be physically and permanently co-present in the state apparatus. It goes without saying that this is always impossible.”72

Miliband did show that the direct participation of businessmen in the state had been underestimated. In advanced capitalism, what counted above all was “their growing colonisation of the upper reaches of the administrative part of that system.”73 Furthermore, the extent of their participation increased in whatever areas of government activity involved economic functions – wherever there was a matter of state “intervention” in the economy, businessmen would “be found to influence and even to determine the nature of that intervention.”74 But all this did not mean that the question had been resolved:

Notwithstanding the substantial participation of businessmen in the business of the state, it is however true that they have never constituted, and do not constitute now, more than a relatively small minority of the state elite as a whole. It is in this sense that the economic elites of advanced capitalist countries are not, properly speaking, a “governing” class, comparable to pre-industrial, aristocratic and landowning classes. In some cases, the latter were able, almost, to dispense with a distinct and fully articulated state machinery and were themselves practically the state. Capitalist economic elites have not achieved, and in the nature of capitalist society could never achieve, such a position.75

However, after raising these crucial questions, Miliband did not proceed to a reexamination of the state’s structure, but instead a sociological description of the common social milieu of businessmen and state elites, resulting largely from nepotism and unequal access to education.76 These phenomena were meant to explain the “general outlook, ideological dispositions and political bias” of the state elite.77 Those who held political office had a “circle of relations, friends, former associates and acquaintances… much more likely to include businessmen than, say, trade union leaders.”78

The analysis was somewhat deepened with Miliband’s explanation of the consensus among state elites surrounding the market and “free enterprise,” despite the seemingly “endless diversity” of “views, attitudes, programmes and policies,” which made for “live political debate and competition.”79 As a result of this consensus, anyone who managed to reach political office was sure to believe that “the national interest is in fact inextricably bound up with the fortune of capitalist enterprise,” because they would “accept the notion that the economic rationality of the capitalist system is synonymous with rationality itself.”80

This consensus extended even to socialist participation in the state, which displayed the same bias, as Miliband traced with reference to the Popular Front. Again his analysis remained largely descriptive, showing that socialists in power did not act on their oppositional rhetoric and instead took measures to stabilize the capitalist economy. Miliband pointed to the contingent conditions that have generally brought socialists to power: coalitions with conservatives to achieve “national unity” in states of emergency, or stabilizing the nation after the collapse of the existing regime in war. Coming to office “in conditions of great economic, financial and social difficulty and crisis,” socialists feared that these conditions would be greatly “aggravated by the suspicion and hostility of the ‘business community.’”81

But why, then, did socialists in power not take advantage of crisis conditions to take more radical measures? Why did they instead use these difficult conditions as “a ready and convenient excuse for the conciliation of the very economic and social forces they were pledged to oppose?” Even in the rather calm and favorable conditions of the postwar Labour government, nationalization had the effect of strengthening capitalism, not weakening it – “the modernisation of capitalist enterprise was one of their main purposes.”82

In the last instance Miliband’s answer remained the intrinsic “bias of the system,” the fact that the “ideological dispositions of governments have generally been of a kind to make more acceptable to them the structural constraints imposed upon them by the system.”83 Miliband returned to the theme in explaining the conservative attitudes of the “servants of the state,” civil servants who oversee the state system’s everyday operations with a seeming neutrality that conceals their actual “ideological inclinations.”84 This absolutely central role of ideology must be underlined, as it will come to be of some importance.

It should be noted that Miliband did not explain the state’s “bias” only in terms of the social origins and views of those who constitute it. He also argued that the pluralist notion that many different interests compete equally in democracies was refuted by the disproportionate power of business outside the state system. Beyond mere lobbying was the “pervasive and permanent pressure upon governments and the state generated by the private control of concentrated industrial, commercial and financial resources.”85 Labor organizations could not possibly exert this kind of pressure. For socialist governments this imbalance became a structural limit, since they would “normally come to office in circumstances of severe economic and financial crisis, and find that credit, loans and general financial support are only available on the condition that they pursue economic and foreign policies which are acceptable to their creditors and bankers.”86

What this argument could not explain is how the common capitalist interest which this power is wielded to defend is itself constituted in a field of economic competition between capitalists, a problem noted by Miliband but set aside after invoking “ideological consensus.”87 So this gesture towards structural analysis again had to resort to invoking the effects of ideology, understood as the consciously held beliefs of individuals rather than a component of capitalist social relations; to explain the operations of the state beyond the incidental expression of these ideas remained an unfulfilled task.

It was nevertheless Miliband’s pathbreaking achievement to show, with the evidence available at the time, that the state remained a necessary concept. He set out to prove that this was the case despite the democratic character of Western societies, in which a plurality of social groups competed in the political system. Miliband confronted the conceptual framework of democratic pluralism with empirical evidence showing that the competition of political interests was an “imperfect competition,” and sought thereby to defend the following theoretical proposition: “In the Marxist scheme, the ‘ruling class’ of capitalist society is that class which owns and controls the means of production and which is able, by virtue of the economic power thus conferred upon it, to use the state as its instrument for the domination of society.”88

The broader theoretical questions surrounding this definition, which had so occupied the British milieu, were not directly addressed. However, since they set out the strategic field for Miliband’s investigation, they would be central for the debate that followed, and Poulantzas’s review of Miliband’s The State in Capitalist Society, which appeared in New Left Review in 1969, brought them back to the foreground. The convivial tone was still apparent; Miliband’s book was of “capital importance,” “extremely substantial,” and he could not “recommend its reading too highly.” Above all, Miliband’s “cathartic” work, through concrete investigations of the United States, England, France, Germany, and Japan “not only radically demolishes bourgeois ideologies of the State, but provides us with a positive knowledge that these ideologies have never been able to produce.”89

Nevertheless, “in the belief that only criticism can advance Marxist theory,” his review was devoted to a deep and substantial critique of Miliband’s underlying theoretical system. This was not, as many later commentators have somehow managed to claim, an attempt to dismiss the empirical in favor of the abstract and theoretical. Poulantzas emphasized “the necessity for concrete analyses” and admitted that his own work needed to be deepened in this direction (which he would go on to do in future books). It was instead an interrogation of the underlying assumptions, questions, and categories that constituted the framework for the investigation and interpretation of the empirical – the initial methodological questions to which his own book had been devoted. Miliband’s approach had been to “attack bourgeois ideologies of the State whilst placing himself on their own terrain.” But this posed certain dangers – the Marxist critic engaged in this strategy runs the risk of being “unduly influenced by the methodological principles of the adversary.”90

By accepting the notion of “plural elites” and trying to show that these elites did in fact constitute a ruling class, Miliband had reinforced the ideological notions of mainstream political science, instead of advancing a new concept that could better grasp the concrete reality. The adversary’s epistemological victory was “visible in the difficulties that Miliband has in comprehending social classes and the State as objective structures… Miliband constantly gives the impression that for him social classes or ‘groups’ are in some way reducible to inter-personal relations.”91

This was precisely the angle of the debate that Poulantzas had already engaged with in the British discussion. If Anderson and Nairn had tried to capture the broad sweep of class consciousness and the ability of a particular class to reshape the very form of the social institutions, Miliband’s theory shrank this down to the level of the individual consciousness of members of an elite milieu, who held pro-business views and entered into institutions where they could influence policy according to this bias. The consequence of this theory of “individuals as the origin of social action” was that “sociological research thus leads finally, not to the study of the objective co-ordinates that determine the distribution of agents into social classes and the contradictions between these classes, but to the search for finalist explanations founded on the motivations of conduct of the individual actors.”92 It would be impossible to surpass this framework as long as the theory was restricted to “the conduct and ‘behaviour’ of the members of the State apparatus.” The famous passage in which Poulantzas summarizes this conclusion is worth quoting at length:

I have no intention of contesting the value of Miliband’s analyses, which on the contrary appear to me to have a capital demystifying importance. Yet however exact in itself, the way chosen by Miliband does not seem to me to be the most significant one. Firstly, because the direct participation of members of the capitalist class in the State apparatus and in the government, even where it exists, is not the important side of the matter. The relation between the bourgeois class and the State is an objective relation. This means that if the function of the State in a determinate social formation and the interests of the dominant class in this formation coincide, it is by reason of the system itself: the direct participation of members of the ruling class in the State apparatus is not the cause but the effect, and moreover a chance and contingent one, of this objective coincidence.93

Crucially, the theme of ideology came once again to the forefront. Poulantzas’s book appeared on the shelves in the midst of French student revolts; the problem of the educational system, and struggles within it, had made the question of ideology “especially topical,” Poulantzas suggested, and revealed that both he and Miliband may have “stopped half-way” on this angle of state theory. Poulantzas noted that Miliband’s book had devoted two lengthy chapters on the role of ideology (“The Process of Legitimation”). However, such an analysis – and Poulantzas included himself in this criticism – placed too great a priority on the level of “ideas, customs or morals without seeing that ideology can be embodied, in the strong sense, in institutions: institutions which then, by the very process of institutionalization, belong to the system of the State whilst depending principally on the ideological level.”94

Miliband’s response was quite short, perhaps written in a hurry. He graciously reciprocated Poulantzas’s optimism about the importance of the conversation, but denied that his book had failed to address the questions Poulantzas had raised – if he had done so too briefly, this was because he thought it so important to refute the apologetics in bourgeois political science with empirical evidence. This was also true for his analysis of ideology in “The Process of Legitimation,” which showed that “political socialization,” a concept introduced in mainstream political science, “is a process performed by institutions, many of which never cease to insist on their ‘un-ideological,’ ‘un-political’ and ‘neutral’ character.” However, this did not license Poulantzas’s thesis that these institutions could be considered a part of the state, despite the increasing role of the state in the processes of political socialization – Miliband considered it “important not to blur the fact that they are not, in bourgeois democracies, part of the state but of the political system,” even if “the state must, in the conditions of permanent crisis of advanced capitalism, assume ever greater responsibility for political indoctrination and mystification.”95

However, as this point was not elaborated substantively, it inaccurately framed the terms of the disagreement. The final two chapters of The State in Capitalist Society devote considerable space to the securing of consent through hegemony in culture – the popular media (he cites the early work of Stuart Hall), schools, the church, and even the family. Despite sharing Poulantzas’s starting point in Gramsci, however, Miliband’s terminology was once again drawn from the bourgeois political science he sought to criticize. Miliband’s choice to use the term “political socialisation” – the processes generating a consensus around and institutionalization of certain norms and values of politics – indicates the role of these institutions in his overall theory: they produce the state bias towards capital in the “political competition” and “ideological competition” of capitalist democracy. What the mainstream theory had left out, from Miliband’s perspective, was the very specific content of political socialization, by virtue of which it amounted to an indoctrination in the values of free enterprise.96

While Miliband’s call for preserving clear analytical distinctions is in many respects compelling, here his own argument ends up blurring the lines. If the capitalist character of the state lies in its systematic bias towards capital, and if this bias is maintained and secured through the political socialization carried out by ideological institutions, excluding them theoretically from the category of the state forces us to accept the pluralist conception of the political system, its purported bias amounting to little more than the legitimate success of a particular political doctrine in civil society’s free market of ideas. Furthermore, since the very starting point of Miliband’s argument is that the personal participation of the ruling class is limited to the “command posts” of government, without the ideological adhesion of other state functionaries the state’s bias towards capital would amount to a personal dictatorship, dissolving the specificity of Western democracies. This conceptual blurring is apparent in the sympathetic account of Clyde Barrow, who writes in his Critical Theories of the State of Miliband’s “subhypothesis that the state’s systemic unity is primarily ideological.” Describing the “ideological system” as “an institutional matrix that includes the state’s ideological apparatus (i.e., schools and universities) and private institutions such as churches, the mass media, and other opinion-shaping networks,” Barrow suggests that “Miliband considers the ideological system, particularly the state’s ideological apparatus, an important mechanism for socializing state managers.”97 Miliband himself nowhere refers to the “state’s ideological apparatus,” an inconvenient phrasing after his critique of Poulantzas; but this is one indication of the difficulties of conceptually elaborating Miliband’s theory in a way that can theoretically reject the category.

Such methodological and conceptual questions continued to a play a role as the debate unfolded, but Miliband also identified a “political danger” with what he characterized as Poulantzas’s “structural super-determinism.” It is these political consequences of the theoretical dispute, emphasized in Miliband’s second, more substantial entry in the debate in 1973, to which we will turn in the second part of this essay.98


  1. On these legacies see Stathis Kouvelakis and Sebastian Budgen, “Greece: Phase One,” Jacobin Magazine, January 2015, and Leo Panitch and Bhaskar Sunkara, “Can Jeremy Corbyn Redeem the Labour Party?,” Jacobin Magazine, September 2015. 

  2. See Melvyn Dubofsky, “When Socialism was Popular in the United States,” Viewpoint Magazine, March 2016. 

  3. Jason E. Smith, “Let Us Be Terrible: Considerations on the Jacobin Club,” Brooklyn Rail, April 2016. 

  4. Anton Pannekoek, World Revolution and Communist Tactics, 1920. 

  5. For an indispensable corrective on the question of “structuralism” readers should refer to Warren Montag, Althusser and His Contemporaries (Durham: Duke University Press, 2013). A brief but clarifying account of the questions raised by the comparison to Eurocommunism can be found in Fabien Escalona, “Syriza, Podemos et l’héritage «eurocommuniste»,” Mediapart, January 29, 2015. 

  6. Ralph Miliband, “Thirty Years of the Socialist Register,” Socialist Register 30, no. 30 (March 18, 1994). 

  7. Ralph Miliband, Parliamentary Socialism: A Study in the Politics of Labour (Merlin Press, 1972), 344. 

  8. Ibid., 144. 

  9. Ibid., 151. 

  10. Ibid., 145. 

  11. Ibid., 97. 

  12. “Under Russian conditions, the disputations between contending revolutionary factions came to have epoch-making consequences. In the British context, the differences are not really capable of rising about the level of historical footnotes.” Ibid., 33. 

  13. Ibid., 32–3. 

  14. Ibid., 32. 

  15. Ibid., 70. 

  16. Ibid., 34. 

  17. Ibid., 65. 

  18. One of these critics was Richard Crossman, who made remarks along these lines in his review of Miliband’s book, as noted in Michael Newman, Ralph Miliband And The Politics Of The New Left (London: Monthly Review Press, 2003), 76; Newman also makes note of Michael Foot’s review. See also John Saville, “Parliamentary Socialism Revisited,” Socialist Register 31, no. 31 (March 18, 1995). 

  19. Miliband, Parliamentary Socialism, 347. 

  20. For a fascinating account of this period, see Stuart Hall, “The ‘First’ New Left: Life and Times” in Oxford University Socialist Discussion Group, Out of Apathy: Voices of the New Left Thirty Years On (London: Verso, 1989), or the shorter version in New Left Review. For more detail on the early history of these journals, see Madeleine Davis, “Rethinking Class: The Lineage of the Socialist Register,” Socialist Register 50, no. 50 (October 29, 2013). 

  21. Perry Anderson, English Questions (London ; New York: Verso, 1992), 6. See also Perry Anderson, “The Debate of the Central Committee of the Italian Communist Party on the 22nd Congress of the CPSU,” New Left Review, I, no. 13–14 (April 1962): 152–60. For an account of Anderson’s complex political and intellectual evolution, see Gregory Elliott, Perry Anderson: The Merciless Laboratory of History (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998). 

  22. Tom Nairn, “The British Political Elite,” New Left Review, I, no. 23 (February 1964): 19. 

  23. Perry Anderson, “Origins of the Present Crisis,” New Left Review, I, no. 23 (February 1964): 43; see also Perry Anderson, “Problems of Socialist Strategy,” in Towards Socialism, ed. Robin Blackburn and Perry Anderson (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1966). Slightly revised versions of Anderson’s original texts on the matter, alongside more recent considerations, are collected in English Questions. Since the versions in the collection are usually revised, I often cite the original publication rather than the collected version, as this historical overview deals with debates and dialogues as they happened within the left journals; New Left Review, Socialist Register, and Marxism Today each have online archives which aid in reconstructing the history. Sometimes, however, introductory and new materials in these collections help to put earlier debates in context, and are well worth consulting. This applies equally for the other authors under discussion. 

  24. Anderson, “Origins of the Present Crisis,” 40–1. 

  25. Tom Nairn, “The English Working Class,” New Left Review, I, no. 24 (April 1964): 53. 

  26. Ibid., 43. 

  27. Ibid., 53. See also the remarks in “Origins of the Present Crisis” regarding the absence of intellectuals engaged in the proletarian cause until the end of the 19th century: “The aristocracy had never allowed the formation of an independent intellectual enclave within the body politic of landed England”; Anderson, “Origins of the Present Crisis,” 42. 

  28. Anderson, “Origins of the Present Crisis,” 40. As Nairn put it, “In fact, the Labour Party’s organizational structure is a perfect embodiment of the whole historical experience of the Labour movement in Britain, and incarnates both its achievements and its failings. Arrived at ‘empirically’, that is by a blind series of piecemeal compromises among various historical forces, it naturally expresses on the practical plane the dominant balance of such forces”; Nairn, “The English Working Class,” 55. 

  29. Tom Nairn, “The Nature of the Labour Party (Part I),” New Left Review, I, no. 27 (October 1964): 45–6. 

  30. Ibid., 43. Compare the NLR version to the one found in Towards Socialism; the former uses “economism,” the latter “corporatism.” 

  31. Ibid. 

  32. Ibid., 41; see also 51-2. 

  33. Ibid., 53. 

  34. Tom Nairn, “The Nature of the Labour Party (Part II),” New Left Review, I, no. 28 (December 1964): 45. 

  35. Perry Anderson, “Critique of Wilsonism,” New Left Review, I, no. 27 (October 1964): 21, 24–7. 

  36. Nairn, “The Nature of the Labour Party (Part II),” 62; see also 50, 55-6. For Miliband’s own approach in this period to giving the Wilson government a “push” in a socialist direction, through the formation of left “pressure groups,” see Ralph Miliband and John Saville, “Labour Policy and The Labour Left,” Socialist Register 1, no. 1 (March 19, 1964). 

  37. But it goes somewhat beyond our immediate concerns here; what we want to note is how it established a certain theoretical problematic linked to political strategy. See, however, E. P. Thompson, “The Peculiarities Of The English,” Socialist Register 2, no. 2 (March 19, 1965); Perry Anderson, “Socialism and Pseudo-Empiricism,” New Left Review, I, no. 35 (February 1966): 2–42; Colin Barker and David Nicholls, eds., The Development of British Capitalist Society: A Marxist Debate (Manchester: Northern Marxist Historians Group, 1988); Ellen Meiksins Wood, The Pristine Culture of Capitalism: A Historical Essay on Old Regimes and Modern States (London: Verso, 1991). 

  38. Perry Anderson, “The Figures of Descent,” New Left Review, I, no. 161 (February 1987): 57. 

  39. In “A Brief History of New Left Review 1960-2010” both of these characteristics are recalled: “Politically, although the Review was sharply critical of the traditions of Labourism, its own position might perhaps be described as an anticipation of the preoccupations of the Eurocommunism of a decade later”; “Western Marxism was seen as a vital resource in rejecting the authorized catechism of official Communism and the bland philistinism of social democracy alike.” See also Perry Anderson, Arguments within English Marxism (London: Verso, 1980), 149. 

  40. Anderson, “Problems of Socialist Strategy,” 228. 

  41. Ibid., 230. 

  42. Ibid., 235, 236. 

  43. Ibid., 237. 

  44. Ibid., 244. 

  45. Ibid., 269, 241. 

  46. Ibid., 259. 

  47. Tom Nairn, “Labour Imperialism,” New Left Review, I, no. 32 (August 1965): 11, 15. 

  48. Nicos Poulantzas, “Marxist Political Theory in Great Britain,” New Left Review, I, no. 43 (June 1967): 58. 

  49. Ibid. 

  50. “Introduction to Poulantzas,” New Left Review, I, no. 43 (June 1967): 55. 

  51. Poulantzas, “Marxist Political Theory in Great Britain,” 46. 

  52. Ibid., 63. 

  53. Ibid., 66. 

  54. Ibid., 67. 

  55. Ibid., 70. 

  56. Ibid., 67. 

  57. Ibid., 65. 

  58. Ibid., 71. 

  59. Ibid., 74. 

  60. Perry Anderson, “Components of the National Culture,” New Left Review, I, no. 50 (August 1968): 6, 56. Students had also been briefly discussed in “Problems,” but had not been granted this level of significance; Anderson, “Problems of Socialist Strategy,” 272–3. 

  61. Poulantzas, “Marxist Political Theory in Great Britain,” 70. 

  62. Newman, Ralph Miliband And The Politics Of The New Left, 203. 

  63. Ralph Miliband, “Marx and the State,” Socialist Register 2, no. 2 (March 19, 1965): 278. 

  64. Ibid., 283. 

  65. Ibid., 285. 

  66. Ralph Miliband, The State in Capitalist Society (Basic Books, 1969), 5. 

  67. Ibid., 7. 

  68. Ibid., 48. See also Clyde W. Barrow, “The Miliband-Poulantzas Debate: An Intellectual History,” in Paradigm Lost: State Theory Reconsidered, ed. Stanley Aronowitz and Peter Bratsis (Minneapolis, MN: Univerity of Minnesota Press, 2002). Barrow provides a useful description of the intellectual context for the debate, but his account of the actual back and forth is marred by partisan and distracting barbs against Poulantzas. 

  69. Miliband, The State in Capitalist Society, 9–10. 

  70. Ibid., 49–53. 

  71. It is quite remarkable that Kautsky said this to strike a note of contrast with England: “Among the great nations of modern times England is the one which most resembles the Middle Ages, not economically, but in its political form. Militarism and bureaucracy are there the least developed. It still possesses an aristocracy that not only reigns but governs. Corresponding to this, England is the great modern nation in which the efforts of the oppressed classes are mainly concerned to the removal of particular abuses instead of being directed against the whole social system. It is also the State in which the practice of protection against revolution through compromise is farthest developed.” Karl Kautsky, The Social Revolution, trans. A.M. Simons and May Wood Simons (Chicago: C. H. Kerr, 1902), 26. Miliband’s reference is in Miliband, The State in Capitalist Society, 55. 

  72. Anderson, “Socialism and Pseudo-Empiricism,” 11. 

  73. Miliband, The State in Capitalist Society, 57. For Barrow this “colonization” is of the utmost significance in Miliband’s theory: “one way to measure the degree of potential class domination is to quantify the extent to which members of a particular class have disproportionately colonized command posts within the state apparatuses”; Barrow, “The Miliband-Poulantzas Debate: An Intellectual History,” 18. 

  74. Miliband, The State in Capitalist Society, 56–9. 

  75. Ibid., 59. 

  76. Ibid., 60–5. 

  77. Ibid., 68. 

  78. Ibid., 75. 

  79. Ibid., 68. 

  80. Ibid., 75. 

  81. Ibid., 101. 

  82. Ibid., 101, 109. 

  83. Ibid., 79. 

  84. Ibid., 120. 

  85. Ibid., 147. 

  86. Ibid., 154. 

  87. Ibid., 157. The various problems described here are explicitly addressed in Elmar Altvater, “Notes on Some Problems of State Interventionism,” Kapitalstate, no. 1 and 2 (1973); and Fred Block, “The Ruling Class Does Not Rule: Notes on the Marxist Theory of the State,” Socialist Revolution 7 (1977). 

  88. Miliband, The State in Capitalist Society, 23. 

  89. Nicos Poulantzas, “The Problem of the Capitalist State,” New Left Review, I, no. 58 (December 1969): 67. 

  90. Ibid., 69, 70. 

  91. Ibid., 70. 

  92. Ibid. 

  93. Ibid., 72, 73. 

  94. Ibid., 76. 

  95. Ralph Miliband, “The Capitalist State – Reply to N. Poulantzas,” New Left Review, I, no. 59 (February 1970): 59. 

  96. Miliband, The State in Capitalist Society, 182–4. 

  97. Clyde W. Barrow, Critical Theories of the State: Marxist, Neomarxist, Postmarxist (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1993), 29. Barrow argues that ideology should not be considered the only means of “intrastate cohesion”; however, his account demonstrates important areas where this theory is too underdeveloped to be the basis for a polemic against the theory of the ideological state apparatus. 

  98. Miliband, “The Capitalist State – Reply to N. Poulantzas,” 57–8. 

Author of the article

is an editor of Viewpoint and author of Mistaken Identity: Anti-Racism and the Struggle Against White Supremacy (Verso, Spring 2018).