Re-read December 2006
In the last few months I have been perusing my library and re-reading some of the many books written about Marxism in the 1970s. Much of the material seems of have aged in the thirty years; and it certainly feels as if it were addressing a previous era. Authors such as Louis Althusser and Nicos Poulantzas, who I once thought – in so far as I understood them – held the keys to the political theory of the future, now appear like obscurantist clowns who believed that a stream of technical terms and distinctions wrapped up endless metaphor could constitute serious analysis.
Ralph Milibands’s work is in a different class altogether. His book, ‘Marxism and Politics,’ is not only a sympathetic probing of the validity, logic and issues surrounding Marxist politics, but is also written in a wonderfully clear style. Admittedly, time has moved on since 1976 and nowhere today in the advanced capitalist countries is socialism on the immediate agenda. Yet, the book, I believe, retains its value in the twenty-first century. Why?
Miliband, neither as an anti-Marxist polemicist nor as a disciple of sect, excellently manages to tell us what Marxist politics is; and why a specific theory of Marxist politics is worthwile but has never been written. He then deals with the key concepts of Marxist analysis, e.g. class, superstructure, ideology, civil society, state, reform, revolution, not by uncritically laying out a doctrine, but through raising the issue and debates which surround these concepts. It is, of course, only by fully understanding Marxism that we can develop and apply it to the politics of today when certain aspects of capitalism – though not its central nature – has changed. Doctrines come and go as fashions of an age, but logically worked out analyses have stronger roots and therefore greater staying power.
Interestingly, Miliband dedicates his book to his two sons, David and Edward, both of whom are now senior Blairite politicians. If Ralph Milibands’s politics stood for anything, it was a rejection of the idea that capitalism could ever provide the basis in which freedom, democracy and human worth could prevail. Obviously both sons turned their back on their father’s contribution to politics. But they are not alone; Tony Benn’s son Hilary sits in Mr Blair’s cabinet, an irony all the stronger in that Ralph Miliband and Tony Benn were neighbours, socialist colleagues and friends.