There’s always a strange sense of unreality in the calm that comes before a political and social storm. The storm we’re facing is set to break in April, when the government’s planned £81bn in public sector cuts will take effect. One doesn’t need clairvoyant powers to predict that such slashing of public services and the accompanying wave of mass redundancies and pay cuts will provoke a surge of social unrest.
Inevitably many people will look to the Labour party to provide organised political support for the emerging movement against the cuts. Many will be hopeful about the prospects for such support given that the Labour leader is considered to be a left-wing figure. Such people are likely to be disappointed. It’s ironic that no one has ever explained more precisely than the leader’s father, Ralph Miliband, why the Labour party is incapable of articulating radical political demands, much less providing a serious challenge to capitalist power structures.
During the Labour leadership contest the media made much of the radical views of the Miliband brothers’ parents. For some quarters seeking to portray Ed Miliband as a dangerous lefty, the fact that his father was perhaps the best known Marxist intellectual in Britain apparently provided “evidence” to back up their tenuous assertions. However, even a cursory glance at Ralph Miliband’s work would have been enough to disabuse them of the notion that he believed that one could be, at the same time, leader of the Labour party and a serious threat to the established order. Ralph Miliband was one of Labour’s most trenchant leftwing critics. In fact, Miliband senior’s analysis of Labour ideology provides us with compelling reasons to believe that Miliband junior will not assist, in any serious way, popular struggles against cuts.
Ralph Miliband produced many seminal works of political theory and political science. Possibly his finest work is Parliamentary Socialism(published in 1961), which explains why the sort of parliamentarism to which Labour is committed means that it can never present a significant challenge to the established order and will, in fact, always function to dampen down rather than bolster any movement that threatens to bring capitalist power into question. There are lessons here for the current political situation.
Ralph Miliband’s main aim in Parliamentary Socialism is to explain why the Labour party simply cannot build socialism and must in practice help to maintain, indeed strengthen, capitalism by “playing a major role in the management of discontent”. It may seem a rather quaint idea in these post-New Labour times that anyone might actually associate Labour with socialism – in this respect Miliband wrote in a very different political climate to the one we inhabit today. But Miliband’s account of why Labour could not be regarded as a serious vehicle for socialist transformation also demonstrates why the party cannot present any sort of meaningful challenge to the powerful, let alone transcend capitalism.
Miliband’s view of socialism, as Hal Draper said of said of Marx’s, “can be most quickly defined as the complete democratisation of society” and this radical expansion of the sphere of democracy would include, centrally, democratisation of the economy. Labourism, however, is based on a much more restricted view of the proper limits of democracy. For labourism the sphere of politics and that of the economy must be kept separate – democratic decision-making should not be extended into the latter sphere and, further, politics must remain the preserve of the parliamentary party. Political activity, in this view, is not about day-to-day deliberation and collective decision-making on the part of ordinary people, but is simply about electing elite representatives to parliament who are then left to get on with the business of government on behalf of, and with little input from, those who have elected them. For this reason Labour has always been suspicious of extra-parliamentary activity, protests, direct democracy and self-organised street and workplace level struggles. Above all, Labour has always been careful to reject industrial action in pursuit of “political” objectives.
Clearly this kind of parliamentarism could never lead to socialism understood as the radical democratisation of society. Further, the party’s horror of extra-parliamentary campaigning and political strike action ensured that Labour would act as a brake on such activity whenever it threatened to occur.
None of this has changed. Few people today see Labour as a vehicle for socialism, but many do see it, and will see it in the coming months, as a vehicle for popular resistance to the cuts. Ralph Miliband’s account of labourism, however, provides good reason to believe that the party will be, at best, a lukewarm ally of those seeking to mobilise in defence of public services and jobs. The leadership of the Labour party will seek to discourage extra-parliamentary mass struggle or, at least, to keep this struggle within manageable limits. It is far more interested in appearing respectable, credible and responsible in the eyes of the media, the CBI, the financial markets and Middle England than it is in providing assistance to a militant anti-cuts campaign. Indeed one of “Red Ed’s” first announcements upon becoming leader was to proclaim that he would have “no truck” with “irresponsible strikes“.
This is not to say that anti-cuts campaigners should steer clear of Labour altogether. Many ordinary party members will throw themselves into the heart of the campaign and, indeed, admirable figures such as Tony Bennand John McDonnell are already deeply involved. The Labour leadership can be pushed leftwards by mass pressure – it cannot be seen to stand wholly aloof from a movement in defence of public services. Nevertheless there are limits to how far the leadership will be prepared to go. Already Ed Miliband is seeking to maintain a delicate balancing act between appearing to be broadly supportive of a respectable campaign against the cuts on the one hand, without looking too much like a radical on the other. It seems, for example, that he will be speaking at the rally after the TUC’s March for the Alternative, but will not attend the march itself. Marching, one imagines, would not look like the sort of thing a responsible political figure would do.
Those who want to fight these cuts have much to learn from what Ralph Miliband had to say, without knowing it at the time, about the limits and constraints of his son’s politics.