Ralph Miliband: Parliamentary Socialism (1961)


Miliband was a Marxist sociologist and political scientist who contributed to the development of socialist theory within the ‘new left’ in the 1960’s. A Polish Jew, he fled to England from Belgium in 1940. After studying at the LSE and wartime service, he taught in Chicago before returning to the LSE as a political science lecturer in 1949. Joining the Labour Party in 1951, he collaborated with E. P. Thompson and John Saville, editors of the New Reasoner and later with the New Left Review. His first book, a historical critique of the Labour Party, Parliamentary Socialism, was published in 1961. He later published The State in Capitalist Society (1969), Marxism and Politics (1977), Capitalist Democracy in Britain (1982), Class Power and State Power (1983), Divided Societies: Class Struggle in Contemporary Capitalism (1989) and (posthumously) Socialism for a Sceptical Age (1994).

An activist as well as a theoretician, having left the Labour Party, he founded Socialist Register with John Saville in 1964 and from 1981 was an active participant in the Socialist Society, with Raymond Williams and New Left Review contributors such as Tariq Ali and Hilary Wainwright, on the concept that an education and research organisation could bring together Marxists within and outside the Labour Party. The Socialist Society sponsored a series of conferences in Chesterfield, in which Tony Benn featured prominently. Miliband was also a signatory to Charter 88, which advocated constitutional and electoral reform. He died in 1994. A biography by Michael Newman, Ralph Miliband and the Politics of the New Left, was published in 2002 by Merlin Press.

The following extract is taken from the final chapter of Parliamentary Socialism – titled The Sickness of Labourism:

“One of the reasons why Labour leaders have always repudiated the class character of the Labour Party has been their fear that to admit the fact, and to act upon it, would antagonise ‘floating voters’. So, in many cases it no doubt has, But there is nothing to suggest that a multitude of men and women, who are not of the working classes, have in the past found the class character of the Labour Party a bar to their support for it, or that support for it would wane if its leaders were to adapt their policies to that fact.

“The reverse is more likely to be true. For while Labour leaders have felt that the ‘affluent society’ required more urgently than ever that their party should appear ‘classless’, profound unease with that society has grown apace far outside trade union ranks. If trade union radicalism in recent years is a sign of this unease, the radicalism to be found in a new generation is surely another. While lamentations have been loud at the supposed political apathy of youth, a multitude of young men and women have found in the threat of nuclear war and a host of other issues a basis of commitment for transcending the orthodoxies of Labourism. It is only I comparison with the mythical thirties that the fifties, or at least the late fifties, have been years of political disengagement. The comparison with the real thirties is not to the detriment of these past years. The real difference is that the fifties have often appeared to lack the political instrumentalities of radical change. And to this impression, a consolidating Labour Party, revisionist in practice if not in theory, has greatly contributed. If politics in the fifties have seemed a decreasingly meaningful activity, void of substance, heedless of principle, and rich in election auctioneering, the responsibility is not only that of the hidden or overt persuaders; it is also, and to a major degree, that of Labour’s leaders.”

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