Friday, 29 March 2013

Book Review: Miliband's State in Capitalist Society.

An academic book review I wrote for college before Christmas.

Given recent discussion of Chavez and Socialism for the 21st Century, Syriza and the Idea of a Left Government (or Worker's Government) and the debate around radical reform or revolution I feel it is important to look at Miliband and the criticisms which have been made of his Marxism.

Book Review: The State in Capitalist Society: The Analysis of the Western System of Power (1969) by Ralph Miliband.

The State in Capitalist Society was considered to be a very important book around the time it was written in the 1960s/70s for anyone who was interested in a sociological examination of the state and its relationship to the capitalist economy and in particular people on the left, especially Marxists.

Miliband was one of the first modern day authors to challenge the ‘common sense’ pluralist view of the state and the notion of the state being an independent democratic body that can bend one way or the other depending on public opinion. Ralph Miliband has notable offspring, his son Ed Miliband is now leader of the British Labour Party and his other son David is a Labour Party MP for South Shields. Ralph Miliband’s works are still considered to be extremely important in left-wing academic circles in the UK today. Miliband played a huge role in defending the works of Marx from both the right and defenders of the Soviet Union. He continued to have a huge influence on academia and the left and the right up until his death in 1994.
Miliband - Chilling out.

The book is 247 pages long, has nine chapters and is extremely well referenced. The content on some pages are so well researched that the foot notes take up half the page. He uses information from sources from many backgrounds, albeit manly sources from left-wing authors. He looks at everything from Marx to C. Wright Mills to the works of multiple obscure American professors. He touches on a whole range of subjects, everything from sociology, economics, history, current affairs to industrial relations. The chapters of the book are Economic Elites and Dominant Class, The State and the State Elite, The Purpose and Role of Governments, Servants of the State, Imperfect Competition, The Process of Legitimisation and Reform and Repression.

It is quite clear that Miliband is heavily influenced by the work of sociologist C. Wright Mills as many of his sources are Mills books. Also before the contents and the Preface Miliband writes “To the Memory of C. Wright Mills”

As mentioned above, the book was extremely popular and was favoured by many but it did not come without some criticisms. These criticisms mostly came from the right but there were also some important left-wing critiques. In this assignment I will try and cover some of these criticisms while adding my own critique of this piece.

First I will examine the key arguments of the book.

The book seeks to look at two key analyses of the state. One is the pluralist view of the state, that a democratic state in an independent institution that prevents any one class assuring permanent political predominance over another. And the other is the common approach taken by Marxists which refers to the concept of ‘bourgeois democracy’ where one particular economic class rule through democratic institutions. Miliband looks at the similarities of western capitalist states and explains why, in relation to the size of a state or public sector; we can call these states ‘capitalist states’.

One can draw comparisons to the 2009 book The Spirit Level where the authors Wilkinson and Picket examine inequality and its effects in a whole range of countries. Miliband, in parts, does something similar. He using statistics about the share of wealth in countries and shows the level of inequality. But what makes Miliband different to Wilkinson and Picket is that he recognises that an egalitarian society is about much more than just decreasing the level of income inequality, progressive taxation and working class people having more access to consumerism.

“To achieve their dissolution or even their serious erosion would take rather more than working class access to refrigerators, television sets, cars or even ‘tahitian’ bungalows on the Riviera; and more than death duties, progressive taxation and a host of other measures denounced and deplored by the rich as ruinous and crippling, yet which have had no radical impact on inequality – not very surprisingly since this system of ownership operates on the principle that ‘to him who hath shall be given’, and provides able opportunities for wealth to beget more wealth” (Miliband 1969: pg28)

Miliband examines carefully particular corporations in both the USA and the UK and looks at their share system , their profits and how much of the economy is owned by private corporations compared to small business. He interestingly shows how the development of modern capitalism has squeezed the middle man, the independent traders, craftsmen and small business owners. The amount of the economy owned by this sector has steadily declined and continues to do so. He argues capitalism is about the big players rather than the few working class people that manage to cut a niche in the market for themselves.

He examines the class composition of companies and corporations and finds that the majority of managers are from upper middle class backgrounds and attended public schools (private education in the UK).

Miliband looks at the how the state system works and investigates who are the state elites. He looks at the issue of state power and claims that there is a difference between the government and the state. He looks at how capitalists and business people have their representatives in parliament (right-wing parties) but do not and cannot control the state directly. In this context he quotes German leftist Karl Kautsky in 1902 “The capitalist class rules but does not govern... it contents itself with ruling the government”.

Business people and the capitalist class own and control the means of production but as Miliband discovers they also occupy key positions within the state machinery. He explains how in all western capitalist economies the leading roles in the judicial system, the military, the civil service and other arms of the state are made up of people drawn from the top 5% of income earners i.e. people from families with a lot of property, business, people who had a public school education and people from the professional middle classes, these positions are often gained by appointment. He claims that we are supposed to be living in an age (1969) of so called democracy, equality, social mobility and classlessness but actually the vast majority of people are governed by people from a higher economic class.

Miliband examines the purpose and role of the rule of government. He looks at whether or not there is a difference between political parties and explains the classical Marxist theory that they’re all ‘Bourgeois politicians’ which mean that they all accept the capitalist system and private property. Regardless of other proclaimed beliefs they accept the rule of private capital over the interests of ordinary people or sometimes think that they are the same things. He shows how, among mainstream politicians, there is hostility towards the idea of an alternative to capitalism even if they consider themselves to be socialist. The idea of not living in a capitalist economy to these people seems unrealistic. Miliband explains how bureaucracy can play a massively negative role in the state, how it can get in the way of progress. Rather bizarrely, in this context, the author, describes how the Soviet Union was obstructed from creating a socialist society due to the power of bureaucracy.

There are a lot of problems with Miliband and the USSR. He seems to reject all main theories of the Soviet Union but never really gives an alternative opinion. He believes that everywhere the degeneration of a revolution is evitable and the development of a bureaucratic dictatorship is natural (Blackledge 2011). These ideas would naturally get the Trotskyist left exercised because of Trotsky’s theory of Permanent Revolution.

Miliband argues that “bourgeois freedoms” are far better than the life of ordinary people under Fascism but still not good enough as they are limited to the confines of capitalism. People are only allowed do what the system allows them to.

He argues that the freedom which capitalism is supposed to bring us is a pure illusion. Nazi Germany is often help up as an example of an oppressive regime and the United States is perceived to be the land of the free however on deeper inspection people can see that freedom in America in 1969 (when Miliband was writing) was most definitely an illusion. Black people being denied rights, students and anti-war protestors being shot at by police etc..

He claims political reform is now popular and it is something that is always promised by politicians but is almost always overstated. Promises that are made are never reached and sometimes broken. He argues that state repression is necessary for the state to exist and that police need to act harshly towards protestors, that the state needs to place regulations on what Trade Unions can and cannot do and people need to go to jail for menial things.

Miliband radically challenges the idea that the state is the servant of society and in many ways his work in this book flies in the face of conservative sociologists such as Talcott Parsons and other Structural Functionalists.

There is little or no popular academic right wing criticism of Miliband’s The State in Capitalist Society but there is definitely right wing criticism. It could be argued that Miliband is pessimistic and pedantic about the state. We now actually have a popular democratic vote to elect political representatives on a national basis divided along constituency lines whereas in the past ordinary people had no votes and elections were reserved for a small elite. Some people would say the system of democracy in western societies is not great but it is the best we have.

Others on the right would argue that we do have a viable form of democracy as people have a vote and can choose between politicians on the basis of their policies and ideology and if people are not happy with their selection of candidates they can run themselves.

In relation to Miliband’s analysis of key people in the state and company managers being draw from upper class families the argument from the right would be that there is social mobility and that it is up to individuals themselves to have the initiative and innovation to get themselves where they want to go in life. However anyone with any sociological outlook on the world would realise that these arguments are nonsense and Miliband’s book does a good job of tackling these ideas.

There many far more substantial criticisms on the left. Some of the main critics of Miliband are Nicos Poulatzas, Isaac Balbus and Colin Barker and some of these debates proved to be very important in left wing academic circles.
I will look at some of their arguments briefly.

Poulatzas has some problems with Miliband’s concepts of company managers being part of the ruling class; he sees this as a serious weakness in terms of Miliband’s class analysis. They also have a major disagreement concerning ideology and the state, Poulatzas sees the state as having a huge role to play in terms of shaping working class hegemony. Poulatzas comes from the Althusserian school of Marxism whereas Miliband was part of the New Left. The Althusserian School rejects the analysis of society that starts with the forces of production as it sees this as ‘economism’ as it sees production as a technical process as opposed to a social one. Miliband also does not see this.

Balbus claims Miliband is a proponent of ‘elite theory’ and ‘stratification theory’ meaning he is more concerned with class domination rather than class struggle. He does not look at the working class as a body with agency and the ruling class are the only actors in society.

Barker points out how Miliband is not concerned with the institutional operations of the state and how the state excludes the working class from power rather he cares purely about the class composition of the state. Miliband does not answer the question: is the state linked to capitalism or is it just controlled by the capitalist class? He sees the state as what reproduces the elite rather than the nature of capitalism itself.

In many ways one of the main critics of Miliband’s work would be Karl Marx himself. In 1851 Marx wrote “Here we have the old constitutional folly. The Condition of a “free government” is not the division but the UNITY of power. The machinery of government cannot be too simple. It is always the craft of knaves to make it complicated and mysterious”. Miliband is never quite clear about what kind of state he would rather, he rejects the capitalist state, he rejects the Soviet Union model and at times he expresses various disagreements with other theories of future a socialist state found on the Left. However due to his views of revolution and its apparent inevitability to degenerate into a bureaucratic mess one can draw can conclusions, and many have, that Miliband is in fact a proponent of radical left reformism or as Colin Barker calls it ‘Muscular Reformism’. This means a strong state in the hands of the working class, changing the class composition of the state apparatuses and using the state to the benefit of ordinary people.

Why do I think Marx a critic of this position? Because Miliband does not advocate workers power and the self emancipation of the working class rather he favours a workers government. He does not discuss the democratic control of the means of production and surplus value in contrast he favours radical left taxation which hits the rich most.

Miliband has a purely academic approach and I agree with many of the criticisms from others outlined above. His academic approach leads him to have a top-down view of society and leads him to write off the working class has being agents of change for a new society, which as a Marxist is rather bizarre. An example of this would be his frequent reference to the “subordinate class”. He is focused on the government rather than being concerned with class struggles which considering he was writing in 1969, a time with a high level of protest activity is also rather strange. For example he discusses education and universities but he mentions nothing of the student revolt happening in Europe at the time.

Ultimately he sees the state as reproducing and maintaining the relations of domination and explains it in terms of the dominant class links with the state as opposed to its relation to capital accumulation. If Miliband is a Marxist this is a major weakness as in Marxist terms the state is not just an instrument of the capitalist class but the state is a capitalist state in and of itself.

I found Miliband’s book to be extremely interesting. The sheer amount of evidence used and research is extremely impressive. The quality of the argument was second to none however I have some disagreements with his overall analysis and sympathise with a number of his critics. In particular I do not like how he completely leaves open the question of how the capitalist state is to be changed.

As Marx wrote “Philosophers have only interpreted the world in many ways... the point however is to change it”. Miliband does not give us any instruction on how to change society as he himself was a Marxist academic and not a Marxist activist.


K. Marx 1851: Notes to the People. (Cited in Colin Barker: A ‘New’ Reformism?)

N. Poulantazas 1972: The Problem of the Capitalist State.

P. Blackledge 2011: Labourism and Socialism: Ralph Miliband’s Marxism; International Socialism.

R. Miliband 1969: The State in Capitalist Society. The Analysis of the Western System of Power, Quartet Books ltd

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