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Ralph Miliband, 1923-1994

Ralph Miliband, 1924 – 1994
The Common Sense of Socialism
For anyone studying or teaching politics in the late 1960s and
1970s, the publication ofRalph Miliband’ s The State in Capitalist
Society in 1969 was a watershed. The ‘pluralist’ theories which
had dominated the discipline, especially in North America,
somehow never quite recovered from this exposure of the emperor’s
fatuous nakedness; and in the debates that ensued, ‘the state’ , with
everything it implies about the concentration of social power, reemerged from behind the mystifications of ‘the political system’

and ‘political behaviour’ to become a, if not the, central theme of
political studies.

On the left in particular, the ‘Miliband-Poulantzas debate’

became a major preoccupation. It is still easy to remember the
intellectual excitement generated by a whole new mode of Marxist
discourse which had rescued the state and politics from the
epiphenomenal, and to recall the force of Miliband’s personality
and conviction (not to speak of his humour) as he spoke, in public
or private. But it is harder to recapture just what specific issues
were at stake in that debate. Important divergences there certainly
were between the main protagonists – not only concerning matters
of theory but about the political practices of Stalinism, Maoism,
Eurocommunism, and so on; yet in historical perspective, their
differences seem incommensurate with the intensity of the debate,
or at least the intensity with which post-graduate students then
followed it. The political issues that preoccupied the left ‘before
the fall’ seem very distant, and the differences between Miliband
and Poulantzas, both in their various ways looking for a ground
for socialism neither Stalinist nor social-democratic, may seem
less significant in the face of the gulf that now divides Marxism
from a whole range of post- and anti-Marxist trends on the left.

Nonetheless, even now one difference still stands out, and that is
the difference in intellectual style.

To say this is not at all to trivialise the issues. I now think that
the distinctiveness of Ralph Miliband’s intellectual style has
always been essential to his substance and to the qualities that
have continued to be such a vital resource for the socialist left,
making his death such a serious blow. That style represented a
project. It testified to a specific conception of the task confronting
socialist intellectuals. And it may be no exaggeration to say that
this style and this project distinguish Miliband from all other
major socialist intellectuals of his generation.

‘The ultimate purpose of counter-hegemonic struggles,’

Miliband wrote in 1990, ‘is to make socialism “the common sense
of the epoch”.’ This involves two things: ‘a radical critique of the
prevailing social order’, and ‘an affirmation that an entirely
different social order … is not only desirable … but possible’.

This may seem, on the face of it, no different from what any


socialist intellectual would claim, among other things, to be
doing. Yet it would be very difficult to characterise, say, Althusser
or Poulantzas (or today’s post-Marxists and post-modernists) as
speaking for the’ common sense’ of socialism. It was certainly not
their aim to layout an intelligible and persuasive argument for
socialism which takes little for granted. The issue here is not
simply their scholastic opacity – though the contrast with
Miliband’s translucent clarity is striking enough. The point is also
that, even when they were talking about the same things, they
clearly saw the substance of their project very differently from
Miliband. Whether their object was to reconstruct the
epistemological foundations of Marxism or to translate the strategic
debates of European Communism into theoretical terms, it was
certainly not to argue the case for socialism, and even less to make
it ‘common sense’, in any meaning of that phrase.

In fact, it is hard to think of anyone else who has taken on this
task – a task perhaps less conducive to theoretical flourishes than
are the intellectual enterprises of other social thinkers on the left,
but nonetheless in many ways more difficult – with anything like

Radical Philosophy 68, Autumn 1994

Miliband’s consistency, comprehensiveness and breadth, not to
mention his commitment and lucidity. Marxist historians like E.

P. Thompson have contributed greatly to the denaturalisation of
capitalism, and to the affirmation of other human possibilities, by
tracing its history back to its contested origins, to the confrontation
of capitalist principles with other, resistant practices and values.

And some Marxist philosophers have laid a foundation for a
socialist epistemology and ethics. But Miliband stands virtually
alone in his systematic effort to map the political terrain of
capitalism, to chart a course for socialist struggle within it, and to
delineate the anatomy of class and state power in capitalist society
– the barriers which it erects against a more humane and democratic
social order as well as the resources and agencies available to
overcome them.

This project was carried out in a whole series of books, after
Parliamentary Socialism (1961): not only The State in Capitalist
Society, but also Marxism and Politics (1977), Capitalist
Democracy in Britain (1982), Class Power and State Power
(1985), Divided Societies (1989), Socialism for a Sceptical Age
(forthcoming), and many articles, as well as in his co-editorship
of the Socialist Register. While reading his measured yet deeply
engaged critique of capitalism and his sober yet ultimately
optimistic assessment of the possibilities of socialism, it is hard to
see how any thinking, reasonable and realistic person with a
modicum of human decency could fail to be a socialist. Who else
writing today – when even the critique of capitalism is out of
fashion – can claim to have the same effect?

Miliband clearly believed, and even more so in recent years,
that socialism is an objective that cannot be achieved in a single
life-time. It should perhaps be seen, he wrote in his last book,
Socialism for a Sceptical Age (the proofs of which he lived to see
but not to correct), as a striving toward a goal rather than the goal
itself. But against the background of recent history and mass
defections from the socialist project, what is remarkable about
this testament is not its hint of pessimism but its steady conviction
that the goal is worth striving for and is finally attainable.

The steadiness of Miliband’ s commitment owed much to the
unflinching clarity of his intellectual vision and the independence
of his political judgment, which saved him from both mindless
enthusiasm and abject despair, from both blind attachment to a
party and a loss of faith in socialism with declining party fortunes,
from both the certainties and the inevitable disappointments of
socialist determinism. Welcoming every sign of advance toward
democracy in the Communist world, he nevertheless showed a
prescient scepticism about the direction of reform. Unambiguousl y
committed to a truly democratic socialism, he freely conceded the
inadequacies oftraditional socialism in confronting the questions
of gender, race and nation and accepted the lessons of the ‘new
social movements’; but he never lost sight of capitalism as an
over-arching totality or of class as its constitutive principle.

The last lines of Ralph Miliband’s last book sum up his
convictions and his project: ‘In all countries, there are people, in
numbers large or small, who are moved by the vision of a new
social order in which democracy, egalitarianism and cooperation
– the essential values of socialism – would be the prevailing
principles of social organisation. It is in the growth in their
numbers and in the success of their struggles that lies the best hope
for humankind. ‘

Ellen Meiksins Wood
Radical Philosophy 68, Autumn 1994

Phenomenology and Politics
British Society for Phenomenology
Oxford, 15-17 April 1994
Politics was on the agenda in more ways than one at this conference.

Whether the theme of the gathering – ‘Phenomenology and
Politics’ – was ever really confronted, however, remains an open
question. In fact much remained an open question after the
proceedings had closed and the crowd dispersed, not least the
question of what occurred at the AGM on the Saturday, during
which the long-standing President of the convening Society, .

Alfons Grieder, was deposed and a new President elected in the
form of Simon Critchley from Essex University. Shameless
eavesdropping revealed that the transition may not have been an
easy one; the event was portrayed as comparable to the deposition
of the ancien regime – a veritable revolution, so it was described.

If in no other sense, then, the theme of the conference was given
substance in this episode.

On the whole the meeting was a success -efficiently organised
in beautiful surroundings with stimulating and lively discussion
throughout. Basil O’Neill’s opening discussion of the Oedipus
myth as a vehicle for conceiving a genuine encounter with the
Other was by far the most thought-provoking and valuable of the
presentations. In adopting Irigaray’s criticism of Levinas for
offering an ethics of abstract humanity, however, O’Neill
introduced the spectre of abstraction into the proceedings that
haunted the remaining contributions. These ranged from John
Llewel yn’ s paper entitled’ Levinas’ List’ (a sometimes disturbing
consideration of the Holocaust, employing that fashionable
assortment of languages characteristic of the growing trend for
turning philosophical communications into Babel) through
discussions of Hegel, Hannah Arendt, Claude Lefort and
Heidegger, to culminate in Richard Beardsworth’s fearlessly
radical attempt to demonstrate the relevance of deconstruction to
the ‘contemporary world’.

The tone of Beardsworth’s paper was epitomised in such
audacious declarations as ‘All philosophy is already political’. If
the statement is no doubt true, however, nevertheless you might
be hard pressed to convince a disbeliever of that on the strength
of this gathering, for, despite the question of concrete applicability
being raised more than once from the floor, the papers and
discussion remained at a high level of abstraction. This returns us
once again to the question of whether phenomenology ever did
encounter politics in any real sense over the weekend event, and
to the above mentioned coup, because there is perhaps something
to be learned about the phenomenology of politics from the fact
that, while the conference speakers were offering us quality
intellectual engagement, the executive committee of the BSP
were truly getting back to the things themselves as the dirty
business of Realpolitik went on, as always, behind the scenes. The
reappearance of this age-old dichotomy gives us something to
think. Moreover, if it becomes a regular feature ofBSP conferences
that themes are actualized in this way, then next year’s gathering
should be an event to watch out for. It will be held at the same
venue between 31 March and 2 April 1995, on the theme of
‘Philosophy and Psychoanalysis’.

Jane Chamberlain

Sighs of the Times
Foucault Conference, London, 25 June 1994
A decade to the day after Michel Foucault’s death, ‘Signs of the
Times’ organised an anniversary conference. Conferences are
normally dull affairs, but a conference on Foucault promised to be
more spunky than most. The plenary session, ‘Locating Foucault’ ,
consisted of papers by Fran<;ois Ewald, James Miller, Colin
Gordon and Kate Soper followed supposedly by questions. Boldly,
but somewhat injudiciously, the chair stated that the success of the
conference was to be measured not by the attendance but by the
quality of the discussion.

Ewald has not only written on Foucault, but knew him well
and worked with him closely. One can only say that it is a shame
that none of the style, wit or insight of the master has rubbed off
on the pupil. Ewald’s French presentation was simultaneously
interpreted, sadly so perfectly that it was every bit as uninspiring
in English as in the original. Miller, a biographer of Foucault,
addressed the problem of the philosophical life. He claimed that
this area had been neglected by philosophers who were preoccupied
by formal logic. This view is nothing if not controversial. Most
philosophers would contend that, whilst the question of the
philosophical life has been kicking around for over two millennia,
philosophy had only a brief love affair with ideal languages in the
early twentieth century.

Colin Gordon raised the issue of the demise of politics by
posing the question ‘Who are we?’ – answer, one-time 1968
Marxists. Then Gordon outdid Foucault and Adorno by claiming
that ‘the Enlightenment project was a continuation of militarisation
by other means’, not so much a provocation as an untrue
exaggeration. Still, Gordon captured the mood of the moment
when, echoing Foucault, he declared that ‘you have no right to
despise the present’. What this meant effectively was that we (exMarxists) no longer reserve the right to despise the institutions of
neo-liberalism or social-democracy; on the contrary, after Foucault,
we should reappraise them.

Last, and regrettably least, Kate Soper spoke on the tensions
between Foucault and feminism. Whilst acknowledging Foucault’ s
importance for feminist theory, she introduced a welcome note of
dissent, criticising Foucault on four counts: for his androcentrism,
his anti-progressivism, his radical anti-essentialism, and his
behaviourist ethics. Sadly she had to squeeze her presentation into
the remaining fifteen minutes, a feat achieved only by means of
a high-velocity delivery more reminiscent of a rap-artist than a
rhetor. There was no discussion.

There were a few dissonant notes after the break, when the
plenum dispersed into parallel sessions. Jean Grimshaw and Lois
McNay offered feminist critiques of Foucault, drawing some
hostile but intelligent responses from the floor. Wolfgang Fritz
Haug went so far as to pronounce that ‘for Foucauldians Foucault
is useless’ and argued that the microanalysis of institutions must
be welded to a Marxist analysis of capital. Curiously nobody

disagreed, though it is hard to see how anyone who subscribed to
the earlier repudiation of Marxism could not have. It is amazing
the extent of de facto agreement which can be reached between
well-meaning soul-prisons, all of whom champion difference,
inhabit different conceptual loci, disavow universalism and reject
the consensus theory of truth. The consensus (by which of course
I mean that loose alliance between multiple and divergent
perspectives) consisted of four ideas.

1. Junk the past. Get rid of the myth of emancipatory
progress and ditch moral-juridical universalism. In one discussion
Stuart Hall summed up the general mood with the assertion that
‘universalism always leads to exclusion and oppression’.

2. Herald the future. The aim of ‘Signs of the Times’ is to
‘redraw the political map’, to chart a ‘new terrain’, to boldly find
‘new forms’ of organisation and participation. We get the point
but what are they? Empty eschatological gestures are merely
signs of the times; they are not the new politics. Mark Perryman
goes as far as to call for ‘the creation of an entirely new language
and space where accommodation and action can easily develop’.

The trouble is that languages, theoretical frameworks, political
organisations and ethical forms oflife do not emerge entirely new
and fullyformed like Athena from the brows of Zeus. This is why
we have no right to despise the present, nor the past either for that
matter. On the contrary we have an obligation to understand them.

3. Stop knocking liberalism. When the post-modern fog lifts
this ‘new terrain’ is all too familiar: namely, the institutions of
neo-liberalism. The politics of difference always enjoyed an
elective affinity with liberal individualism, a relation which must
be acknowledged if it is not to avenge itself in the return of
libertarianism. But won’t this belated espousal ofneo-liberalism
seem just arbitrary and, dare one say, ethnocentric, if one
simultaneously disavows universalism as the basis for political

4. Do it yourself; or rather, do as Foucault did. Don’t recite
what he said. That philosophy should not so much reflect on
Foucault’s work, as pick up his tools and use them, was a motif
common to John Rajchmann and Nicholas Rose. Rose proclaimed
that, whilst microanalysis was innovative, risky and altogether
worthy, philosophical comparisons between, say, Foucault and
Habermas, were boring and predictable. This was either a slight
or an embarrassing gaffe, since his offering was followed by
Professor Haug’s reflections on Foucault and Marx. Not that
Rose did any microanalysis.

The conference itself was a prime candidate for analysis: too
many speakers, with too little time allocated to each and inevitably
too few questions afterwards – a recipe guaranteed to kill. Perhaps
along with the new ethics, new politics, new languages and new
theoretical landscapes, we need new conferences too.

Gordon Finlayson

In response to enquiries about his article ‘Philosophy and the Information Superhighway’ in Radical Philosophy 67
(p. 63), Sean Sayers has a number of documents giving further details of how to access the electronic lists and other
facilities described in it. If you would like copies by


Radical Philosophy 68, Autumn 1994

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