Bernstein in Seattle: Representative Democracy and the Revolutionary Subject (Part 1)

This is part one of a two-part series. Part two is avail­able here.


Par­lia­men­tary social­ism is back, with a vengeance. No other phe­nom­e­non, it seems, is capa­ble of pro­vok­ing such polit­i­cal dis­ar­ray and the­o­ret­i­cal con­fu­sion among des­per­ate and dis­en­chanted left­ists of every stripe. Dis­ar­ray and con­fu­sion are part of the pat­ri­mony of the Left – and if we remain unpre­pared to bury the dead, we have at least the respon­si­bil­ity to sub­ject them to a symp­to­matic read­ing.

Alexis Tsipras and Jeremy Cor­byn, two names that have pro­voked the most pro­found oscil­la­tions between hope and despair, have eas­ily and ele­gantly res­ur­rected the ghosts of Nicos Poulantzas and Ralph Miliband.1 Poulantzas’s polit­i­cal heirs in Syriza pre­sented the world with an appar­ently new kind of social democ­racy, one that was tied to move­ments from below – but their capit­u­la­tion to the Euro­zone recalled the old­est kind of dis­ap­point­ment. Miliband’s bio­log­i­cal heirs in the Labour Party have been the tar­get of Corbyn’s attempted left reori­en­ta­tion, and in an extra­or­di­nary his­tor­i­cal irony he is haunted by the defeat of Tony Benn’s ear­lier effort, which put into prac­tice the the­ory that the elder Miliband had espoused.

The debates of the Euro­pean Left at the twi­light of the clas­si­cal work­ers’ move­ment still divide our con­tem­po­raries along rigid sec­tar­ian lines, result­ing in spec­tac­u­lar erup­tions of uncom­pre­hend­ing crosstalk. The United States has its own Marx­ist tra­di­tion, of course, with a wide and var­ied his­tory – a com­plex web of splits and alliances, the num­ber of orga­ni­za­tions ris­ing in inverse pro­por­tion to their influ­ence before drop­ping off almost com­pletely. The con­tem­po­rary renais­sance of Amer­i­can Marx­ism, how­ever, refers spar­ingly to this tra­di­tion, and even in the mod­er­ate world of elec­toral social democ­racy, Bernie Sanders him­self sees lit­tle need to invoke Amer­i­can social­ism.2

In fact, on today’s Amer­i­can Left, it is almost as though one’s Marx­ist cre­den­tials must be secured by select­ing from a menu of Euro­pean tra­di­tions: Ital­ian “autonomism,” of course, or for those with older hearts, a pur­port­edly direct rev­o­lu­tion­ary lin­eage descend­ing from Anto­nio Gram­sci to the post­war PCI; a hodge-podge of het­ero­ge­neous French ten­den­cies, the Sit­u­a­tion­ist Inter­na­tional com­ple­mented by Bor­digist eccentrics; an equally dis­cor­dant Russo-Ger­man truce between Leon Trot­sky and Karl Kaut­sky; or, for those who like their value-form served neat, some strain of Ger­man Marx philol­ogy that will bestow any con­tin­gent polit­i­cal posi­tion with the ulti­mate virtue and purity.

Tucked away in a cor­ner of this the­o­ret­i­cal food court is the most sig­nif­i­cant source of our con­cep­tual vocab­u­lary: the British Left of the 1960s into the 1980s, rep­re­sented above all by the two piv­otal jour­nals New Left Review and Social­ist Reg­is­ter. Across the spec­trum, from those who advo­cate com­mu­niza­tion to adher­ents of elec­toral social­ism, this tra­di­tion is a cen­tral point of ref­er­ence, even where affil­i­a­tion is not explic­itly noted.

The influ­ence of British Marx­ism is so pro­found not only because of lan­guage, but also because Eng­land pro­vides a model of a per­sis­tent orga­ni­za­tional void, which seems today to serve as the inescapable obsta­cle to the achieve­ment of work­ing-class polit­i­cal power. There was a sig­nif­i­cant trade union move­ment in Eng­land through­out the 20th cen­tury, and a social­ist polit­i­cal party which often enjoyed par­lia­men­tary suc­cess; yet the Labour Party was never will­ing to con­front the cap­i­tal­ist rela­tions of pro­duc­tion, much less abol­ish them, and the mass orga­ni­za­tional form of the union would find itself dec­i­mated by the twin forces of eco­nomic restruc­tur­ing and the new polit­i­cal strat­egy of the rul­ing class.

Despite the impor­tance of this his­tory, there has been lit­tle effort to sub­ject it to the­o­ret­i­cal analy­sis. A recent cri­tique of the pop­u­lar social­ist jour­nal Jacobin by Jason Smith, from a van­tage point sym­pa­thetic to the left-com­mu­nist End­notes, traces the former’s approach to the demo­c­ra­tic social­ism of Michael Har­ring­ton.3 Yet both Jacobin and End­notes, despite their seem­ing oppo­si­tion, fol­low in the foot­steps of New Left Review, which unlike the entirely athe­o­ret­i­cal Demo­c­ra­tic Social­ists of Amer­ica is capa­ble of serv­ing as the source of an over­ar­ch­ing Weltan­schau­ung for both con­tem­po­rary jour­nals.

We are not accus­tomed to cit­ing Poulantzas and Miliband. Far more famil­iar to read­ers of View­point is a fig­ure like Anton Pan­nekoek, who force­fully argued:  “Par­lia­men­tar­i­an­ism inevitably tends to inhibit the autonomous activ­ity by the masses that is nec­es­sary for rev­o­lu­tion.” It is impor­tant to be pre­cise: the objec­tion of a coun­cil com­mu­nist like Pan­nekoek to par­lia­men­tary tac­tics can­not be reduced to an intran­si­gent reac­tion to the betray­als of social democ­racy in gov­ern­ment. It was rather an analy­sis of the his­tor­i­cal effi­cacy of par­lia­men­tary con­tes­ta­tion as a tac­tic – a tac­tic which, Pan­nekoek affirmed, was once “nec­es­sary and pro­duc­tive.” When social democ­racy entered par­lia­ment at the end of the 19th cen­tury, it used this posi­tion not to gov­ern, but to gain a mass audi­ence for social­ist agi­ta­tion. But as pro­le­tar­ian strug­gle advanced and entered a rev­o­lu­tion­ary phase, par­lia­men­tary activ­ity ceased to be a use­ful tool. As Pan­nekoek pointed out, there could be no such thing as social­ism with­out the masses cre­at­ing “organs of self-action”; and if the goal of par­lia­men­tarism was to leg­is­late social­ism into exis­tence, it could only rein­force the “tra­di­tional bour­geois men­tal­ity” which encour­aged depen­dence on lead­ers instead of self-orga­ni­za­tion, and thus could be noth­ing but an obsta­cle to the real­iza­tion of social­ism.4

A cri­tique like Pannekoek’s never seems to lose its rel­e­vance; this is its strength and its weak­ness. It is a pow­er­ful warn­ing to those who, swept up with enthu­si­asm in the elec­toral arena, have for­got­ten basic social­ist prin­ci­ples. Yet to for­mu­late an effec­tive analy­sis, not to men­tion an effec­tive rev­o­lu­tion­ary strat­egy, some­thing more than prin­ci­ple is needed. Lenin’s famous rejoin­der to this ten­dency empha­sized the cru­cial dis­tinc­tion between prin­ci­ples and strat­egy, the lat­ter always requir­ing a con­crete analy­sis of the con­crete sit­u­a­tion. But even after mak­ing this dis­tinc­tion, which implies that all orga­ni­za­tions must respond to the par­tic­u­lar­i­ties of their his­tor­i­cal con­junc­ture, Lenin went on to impose a sin­gle model, derived from the Rus­sian case, on every other move­ment, thereby lead­ing to very much the same prob­lem as Pan­nekoek.

It is easy to describe, in hind­sight, the fail­ures of polit­i­cal move­ments, and to trace these fail­ures to the­o­ret­i­cal errors. We are gen­er­ally aided in this task by each tendency’s his­tor­i­cal oppo­nents, who care­fully and vig­or­ously doc­u­mented every mis­step, and traced it to their adversary’s rot­ten core.

But we have lit­tle inter­est in uphold­ing the left­ist tra­di­tion of retroac­tive denun­ci­a­tion; more urgent is the task of rec­og­niz­ing how all of these ten­den­cies, in their own ways, iden­ti­fied the his­tor­i­cal trans­for­ma­tions to which they bore wit­ness, and shed light on the fun­da­men­tal strate­gic-orga­ni­za­tional lim­its which we still con­front – even if, in some cases, this illu­mi­na­tion took the form of insis­tent denial.

This is what dri­ves our recon­sid­er­a­tion of the debate between Miliband and Poulantzas, which has been unpro­duc­tively directed, in the whole his­tory of its inter­pre­ta­tion, towards a fruit­less and mis­con­ceived “method­olog­i­cal” dis­pute revolv­ing around some­thing called “struc­tural­ism,” occa­sion­ally but­tressed with anti­quar­ian bick­er­ing around the episode of “Euro­com­mu­nism.”5 For us this debate mat­ters because it pro­vides an outsider’s view of the devel­op­ment of British Marx­ism, a win­dow into the crit­i­cal dia­logue Poulantzas con­ducted with it through­out his career – and it there­fore allows us to learn the hid­den his­tory of our own pol­i­tics.

Sur­pass­ing the lim­its of our sed­i­mented ter­mi­nol­ogy can ulti­mately only be achieved in new forms of polit­i­cal prac­tice. But locked as we are in the per­pet­ual cycle of jour­nals, we can start by reopen­ing the archives – not to restage old and tire­some dis­putes, but to arrive at a new under­stand­ing of the tra­jec­tory of social­ist strat­egy.


Ralph Miliband’s 1961 book Par­lia­men­tary Social­ism set out the con­tours of a long­stand­ing dilemma inherited by the British New Left: with­out a mass rev­o­lu­tion­ary orga­ni­za­tion, the energies of the labor move­ment had his­tor­i­cally been chan­neled into the par­lia­men­tary ves­sel of the Labour Party. Writ­ten just after its author deter­mined that try­ing to work with the party’s left wing was “no longer worth doing,” Miliband’s his­tor­i­cal review was fun­da­men­tally directed towards under­stand­ing his own polit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion, and his frus­tra­tions with the Labour Left he had par­tic­i­pated in dur­ing the 1950s.6 It was at this moment that Labour defin­i­tively con­fronted the ques­tion of the con­tent of its pro­gram: whether it would be “con­cerned with attempts at a more effi­cient and more humane admin­is­tra­tion of a cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety; or whether it is to adapt itself to the task of cre­at­ing a social­ist one.”7 Until the 1950s this ques­tion was con­stantly deferred, since the min­i­mal pro­gram of “social reform and pub­lic own­er­ship of basic util­i­ties and ser­vices” was yet to be real­ized. But when these goals were achieved in the post­war period, it was no longer pos­si­ble to evade the ques­tion.

For the Labour lead­er­ship, the post­war expan­sion of the wel­fare state had been the max­i­mum pro­gram, while Miliband and the rest of the Left hoped it would form a first step towards an even more expan­sive social­ist trans­for­ma­tion. There was a kind of logic, then, to Labour’s ensu­ing drift to the right, when Hugh Gaitskell indi­cated that the Party’s answer to its burn­ing ques­tion was indeed a more effi­cient and more humane admin­is­tra­tion of cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety, in a “mixed econ­omy.”

Miliband reviewed the dynam­ics of inter­war British work­ing class rad­i­cal­ism, most clearly man­i­fested in the 1926 gen­eral strike, and the machi­na­tions of the Labour bureau­cracy, equally clearly on dis­play in the total con­ces­sion by the trade union lead­er­ship that ended the gen­eral strike. This “betrayal,” Miliband sought to estab­lish, was not the result of the indi­vid­ual oppor­tunism of par­tic­u­lar Labour lead­ers, but the struc­tural form of the Labour Party itself – the “bureau­cratic recoil” of indus­trial lead­er­ship from “work­ing class ini­tia­tive out­side the estab­lished forms of trade union orga­ni­za­tion,” dri­ven by the leadership’s deeply held belief that “a chal­lenge to the Gov­ern­ment through the asser­tion of work­ing class strength out­side Par­lia­ment was wrong.8

The party leadership’s con­duct was guided above all by their belief that “in Par­lia­ment and Par­lia­ment alone lay the work­ers’ sal­va­tion.”9 While Labour lead­ers had ear­lier been will­ing to threaten a gen­eral strike in 1920 to pre­vent a war against the Soviet Union, this was because such an action would not have gone beyond a defense of “national inter­ests” – it did not “bring into ques­tion the rela­tion of labour to prop­erty, and to the State as defender of prop­erty.” How­ever, the 1926 gen­eral strike had “an unmis­tak­able social con­tent”: “the asser­tion of speci­fic work­ing class claims against prop­erty. And it was the prospect of lead­ing such a move­ment from which the Labour lead­ers nat­u­rally and inevitably flinched.”10

Miliband also pro­vided a bal­ance sheet of Labour’s record in gov­ern­ment, when the stated goal of social­ism came up against the imper­a­tives to remain respectable and to mod­er­ate the threats to the social order posed by pop­u­lar rad­i­cal­ism – impor­tant con­sid­er­a­tions for a lead­er­ship eager to dis­prove Churchill’s asser­tion that the Party was “not fit to gov­ern.”11 The polit­i­cal strate­gists of the Labour Party, Miliband remarked, could not be con­sid­ered revi­sion­ists “since they had never, so to speak, been vision­ists.” Lack­ing a “coher­ent and offi­cial body of doc­trine,” Eng­lish reformism was free to sim­ply jump into the “busi­ness of pol­i­tics.”

Marx­ism had always been a neg­li­gi­ble influ­ence, at the mar­gins of the party.12 Labour reformists did not require the sweep­ing eth­i­cal refor­mu­la­tion of Marx­ism that Eduard Bern­stein had advanced in late 19th-cen­tury Ger­many, and nei­ther did they attempt to present a new the­ory of cap­i­tal­ist devel­op­ment beyond cri­sis and con­tra­dic­tion. They adopted the com­mon-sense view that the objec­tion­able aspects of cap­i­tal­ism “could be grad­u­ally cured by reme­dial action mainly con­ceived in terms of grow­ing State inter­ven­tion.” This meant a strong invest­ment in state action: “given suf­fi­cient pres­sure in Par­lia­ment, the State would not only fur­ther the process of redress­ing the eco­nomic and social bal­ance in favour of Labour,” but also, in the­ory, even­tu­ally pro­ceed to “a mea­sure of col­lec­tivism so wide that it would mean the super­s­es­sion of cap­i­tal­ism, with­out strife and upheaval.”13

How­ever, more rad­i­cal ideas did leave a “residue.” Mar­ginal ten­den­cies retained the con­vic­tion that “ the wage earn­ers would achieve nei­ther imme­di­ate reforms, nor the eman­ci­pa­tion of their class, with­out a mil­i­tant asser­tion of their strength out­side Par­lia­ment.”14 Sig­nif­i­cantly, such ideas con­verged with those found within rev­o­lu­tion­ary syn­di­cal­ism, with its empha­sis on “direct action,” which pro­voked fear and con­tempt among the Labour Party lead­er­ship.

Miliband took some dis­tance from these rad­i­cal fringes – indeed, his analy­sis was partly directed against the premise that build­ing up the Com­mu­nist Party would have been a viable alter­na­tive. Accord­ing to Miliband, the par­tic­i­pants in direct action were not nec­es­sar­ily them­selves rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies – they gen­er­ally under­stood direct action as “a means of pres­sure, for speci­fic and lim­ited pur­poses, incom­pa­ra­bly more effec­tive than par­lia­men­tary action.”15 Miliband was more inter­ested in find­ing effec­tive tools for the real­iza­tion of an effec­tive Labour pro­gram – the syn­di­cal­ist “rejec­tion of par­lia­men­tary action was almost as dog­matic as the Labour lead­ers’ insis­tence upon its virtues.”16 Direct action, then, had to be under­stood as a means to an end. The trade union lead­er­ship should have rec­og­nized that it “held a for­mi­da­ble instru­ment” in its hands, in the form of active and orga­nized work­ing-class mil­i­tancy.17 Instead, it did what it could to deflect and neu­tral­ize pres­sure from the rank and file.

For Miliband, this was the coun­ter­in­tu­itive expla­na­tion for the elec­toral decline Labour had begun to expe­ri­ence. He dis­missed the preva­lent expla­na­tion that the the grow­ing afflu­ence of British soci­ety had led to the emer­gence of “float­ing vot­ers” who could not be relied upon to vote accord­ing to their class posi­tion.18 On the con­trary, it was the fail­ure of Labour to form a pro­duc­tive rela­tion­ship with pop­u­lar rad­i­cal­ism and put for­ward an expan­sive social­ist pro­gram that had led to the Party’s irrel­e­vance.

Now that the struc­tural inad­e­qua­cies of par­lia­men­tary social­ism had been exposed, the rad­i­cal­ism of a new gen­er­a­tion agi­tat­ing for nuclear dis­ar­ma­ment pre­sented the pos­si­bil­ity of “tran­scend­ing the ortho­dox­ies of Labourism.”19 By this time the jour­nal Miliband had par­tic­i­pated in with Edward Thomp­son and John Sav­ille, The New Rea­soner, had merged with Uni­ver­si­ties and Left Review, which included such fig­ures as Stu­art Hall, Raphael Samuel, and Charles Tay­lor, and the tran­scen­dence of the ortho­doxy in the emer­gent polit­i­cal per­spec­tives of the 1960s would take shape here.20


Miliband was uneasy about the join­ing of the dis­parate polit­i­cal expe­ri­ences and per­spec­tives implied by the merger between jour­nals, but it nev­er­the­less yielded New Left Review, which led its first years under Hall’s direc­tion. When the ten­sions between the “old New Left” and the younger par­tic­i­pants reached a peak, and Perry Ander­son took over as edi­tor of NLR, Miliband and Sav­ille would form another jour­nal, the Social­ist Reg­is­ter.

How­ever, Miliband did not share Thompson’s sus­pi­cion towards the younger writ­ers who now took NLR in a dif­fer­ent direc­tion. While this direc­tion involved a sharp cri­tique of the first gen­er­a­tion of the New Left, Thomp­son included, it also con­tin­ued the inves­ti­ga­tion of the themes Miliband had addressed, ask­ing the same fun­da­men­tal ques­tions: why had no rev­o­lu­tion­ary tra­di­tion devel­oped in Great Britain, why did Marx­ism con­tinue to be so mar­ginal, and how could the ide­ol­ogy of Labourism be explained? The major dif­fer­ence, how­ever, was that the new answers, which came in a range of arti­cles in NLR over the course of 1964, assumed a much broader his­tor­i­cal reg­is­ter, with the Con­ti­nen­tal tinge of Anto­nio Gram­sci. This influ­ence came into play through the efforts of Tom Nairn, who had stud­ied at the Scuola Nor­male in Pisa and con­tributed an arti­cle called “La Nemesi Borgh­ese” to a PCI jour­nal. Ander­son, at that time pri­mar­ily influ­enced by Georg Lukács and Jean-Paul Sartre, had dis­played his own inter­est in the PCI, intro­duc­ing a tran­script of its dis­cus­sion of the 22nd Party Con­gress of the CPSU and later recall­ing that it pro­vided a “coded con­trast” with Labourism.21

Ander­son and Nairn tried to provide a his­tor­i­cal expla­na­tion, sit­u­ated in the long after­math of an abortive bour­geois rev­o­lu­tion, of the absence of a vig­or­ous Marx­ist tra­di­tion in Eng­land. Nairn opened his “The British Polit­i­cal Elite” by fram­ing their inves­ti­ga­tion within one of the basic prob­lems of Marx­ist polit­i­cal the­ory: “Class-divided soci­eties have almost always been gov­erned polit­i­cally by a small minor­ity. In gen­eral, this cho­sen few is a small group even in rela­tion to the ‘rul­ing class’ itself.”22

This uncer­tain rela­tion­ship between the rul­ing class and the minor­ity which gov­erns, the authors argued, took an excep­tional form in Eng­land. Anderson’s “Ori­gins of the Present Cri­sis” set out the sweep of the argu­ment, point­ing to the pre­ma­ture arrival of the Eng­lish bour­geois rev­o­lu­tion, and the ensu­ing inabil­ity of the bour­geoisie to over­come the per­sis­tent hege­mony of the aris­toc­racy – an excep­tion to what was here pre­sented as the typ­i­cal case of the French Rev­o­lu­tion. The trans­for­ma­tions in the eco­nomic base – Eng­land was the first nation to develop cap­i­tal­ism, the first to go through an Indus­trial Rev­o­lu­tion, and the first to form a pro­le­tariat – had not led to an equiv­a­lent trans­for­ma­tion of the super­struc­tures. The bour­geoisie could not suc­cess­fully over­come the aristocracy’s val­ues and lega­cies; it never advanced its own cohe­sive world­view, and by the Vic­to­rian era had fused with the aris­toc­racy in a dom­i­nant bloc. In the place of Enlight­en­ment rea­son, the Eng­lish bour­geoisie was caught up in “tra­di­tion­al­ism and empiri­cism,” which could not serve the role of total­iz­ing phi­los­o­phy to which Marx­ism might effec­tively respond.

With­out an ambi­tious his­tor­i­cal adver­sary, the Eng­lish pro­le­tariat lacked a basis for artic­u­lat­ing its own pro­gram:

It is a gen­eral his­tor­i­cal rule that a ris­ing social class acquires a sig­nif­i­cant part of the ide­o­log­i­cal equip­ment from the armoury of the rul­ing class itself. Thus the uni­ver­sal axioms of the French rev­o­lu­tion were turned by the work­ing-class in France against the bour­geoisie which first pro­claimed them; they founded a rev­o­lu­tion­ary ide­ol­ogy directed against the ini­tia­tors of the rev­o­lu­tion. In Eng­land, a supine bour­geoisie pro­duced a sub­or­di­nate pro­le­tariat. It handed on no impulse of lib­er­a­tion, no rev­o­lu­tion­ary val­ues, no uni­ver­sal lan­guage.23

Fur­ther­more, the work­ing class’s energies had been exhausted, in its long and early his­tory of strug­gle, before a social­ist ide­ol­ogy could be intro­duced from with­out. The Eng­lish pro­le­tariat was stuck in a “cor­po­rate” class con­scious­ness, lack­ing a hege­monic ide­ol­ogy. While a hege­monic class sought to “trans­form soci­ety in its own image, invent­ing afresh its eco­nomic sys­tem, its polit­i­cal insti­tu­tions, its cul­tural val­ues,” a cor­po­rate class would only “defend and improve its own posi­tion within a social order accepted as given.”24

All this had dra­matic impli­ca­tions for the polit­i­cal prob­lems Miliband had raised, which were more explic­itly laid out by Nairn in a review of Thompson’s Mak­ing of the Eng­lish Work­ing Class, and a two-part dis­sec­tion of the anatomy of the Labour Party. Nairn empha­sized, from a dif­fer­ent angle, the points already argued by Ander­son: “To become a new hege­monic force, capa­ble of dom­i­nat­ing soci­ety in its turn, the Eng­lish work­ing class absolutely required a con­scious­ness con­tain­ing the ele­ments ignored by, or excised from, the con­scious­ness of the Eng­lish bour­geoisie.”25 But Marx­ism, “at once the nat­u­ral doc­trine of the work­ing class, and the sum­ming-up of the Enlight­en­ment and all the high­est stages of bour­geois thought into a new syn­the­sis” ran up against the “web of false rela­tions and ideas” that char­ac­ter­ized work­ing-class con­scious­ness.26 The Eng­lish work­ing class had to over­come “its alien­ation from bour­geois rea­son,” but this “prodi­gious cul­tural task” could not be under­taken by the work­ing class alone, and “in Vic­to­rian Eng­land there was no rad­i­cal, dis­af­fected intel­li­gentsia to under­take it.”27

The Labour Party had noth­ing like a the­ory to drive its activ­i­ties; just as the Eng­lish bour­geoisie had accepted, for a phi­los­o­phy, the “frag­mented, incom­plete” tran­scrip­tion of its expe­ri­ence, so was the Labour Party given to frag­mented, incom­plete pol­i­tics – empiri­cism yielded Fabi­an­ism.28 From the per­spec­tive of this frag­men­tary con­scious­ness, “social­ism had to be con­structed piece by piece, in dis­crete instal­ments, over a long period of time,” with­out a total­iz­ing project of trans­for­ma­tion. The log­i­cal con­se­quence of this evo­lu­tion­ism was par­lia­men­tarism.29

While cit­ing Miliband in his study, Nairn advanced a dif­fer­ent expla­na­tion for Labour’s “betray­als.” They were not only the result of the ide­ol­ogy of Labourism; they were caused by the inher­ent defec­tive­ness of the Eng­lish work­ing class itself, its fail­ure to over­come its economism and cor­po­ratism.30 What had seemed to be a “titanic social force” turned out to be, after the 1840s, “an appar­ently docile class.” With­out a com­pre­hen­sive and over­ar­ch­ing social­ist cul­ture, trade-union strug­gles would only try for a “square deal.” Embrac­ing “one species of mod­er­ate reformism after another,” the Eng­lish work­ing class “remained wed­ded to the nar­row­est and greyest of bour­geois ide­olo­gies in its prin­ci­pal move­ments.”31 The ten­dency of the Left to denounce the lead­ers of the party had “served only to con­ceal the under­ly­ing con­di­tions of betrayal, the cir­cum­stances in the party, the move­ment, the class itself which have gen­er­ated cor­rupt and half-hearted lead­er­ship.”32 For all the grim­ness of this diag­no­sis, the pre­scrip­tion was at least quite clear: “The Eng­lish work­ing class, immu­nized against the­ory like no other class, by its entire his­tor­i­cal expe­ri­ence, needed the­ory like no other. It still does.”33

Notwith­stand­ing their indict­ment of the steril­ity of the Eng­lish polit­i­cal tra­di­tion, both authors struck a tone of cau­tious opti­mism about the com­ing Labour gov­ern­ment. Nairn noted that the right wing of the Labour Party, rep­re­sented by Gaitskell, had been able to turn the Party’s elec­toral dif­fi­cul­ties in its favor over the course of the 1950s, rep­re­sent­ing social­ist mea­sures such as nation­al­iza­tion as “out­moded” and “irrel­e­vant.” Mod­ern­iz­ing the Labour Party would mean shift­ing towards the “mixed econ­omy,” rec­og­niz­ing that the party’s ide­als had to adapt to the “bet­ter con­duct of the cap­i­tal­ists.”34 While Harold Wilson, just elected at the end of 1964, by no means over­came Labourism’s con­tra­dic­tions, he seemed to be shak­ing off this con­ser­vatism, and thus offered an open­ing for social­ists. “Under his lead­er­ship,” Ander­son wrote, “the whole Labour pro­gramme has become open-ended. It is not at any point social­ist; but nor is it, unlike its pre­de­ces­sor, inher­ently inca­pable of debouch­ing onto social­ism. It is thus nei­ther a bar­rier nor a tram­plin for the Left: it is sim­ply a polit­i­cal space in which it can work.” Within this space, Ander­son advanced a pro­gram which revolved around “pub­lic own­er­ship, social pri­or­i­ties, civic democ­racy, work­ers’ con­trol, and a lib­er­ated cul­ture.”35 Urg­ing cau­tion on the ques­tion of whether to work “inside or out­side” of the Party, Nairn wrote that since “the new Labour Gov­ern­ment will for some time play a pos­i­tive part” in the process of devel­op­ment of the British work­ing class, “its advent means hope, not merely the rep­e­ti­tion of an old illu­sion.”36


The his­to­ri­o­graph­i­cal debate which Nairn and Anderson’s arti­cles pro­voked, includ­ing the sear­ing attack by Thomp­son in the Social­ist Reg­is­ter and Anderson’s equally aggres­sive response, has had con­sid­er­able rever­ber­a­tions in the field of Eng­lish his­tory.37 Ander­son would later remark that the “Gram­s­cian polar­ity” of hege­monic and cor­po­rate classes was “given too cul­tural a turn, at any rate by myself.”38 In the 1960s, one of the clear­est sum­ma­tions of this “West­ern Marx­ist” ver­sion of cul­tural pol­i­tics came in Anderson’s pro­gram­matic text “Prob­lems of Social­ist Strat­egy,” which appeared in the 1965 edited vol­ume Towards Social­ism, just after he and Nairn had pro­posed their new syn­the­sis. Ander­son showed that New Left Review’s enthu­si­asm for West­ern Marx­ism, whose dis­sem­i­na­tion in Eng­lish was almost entirely due to the extra­or­di­nary trans­la­tion efforts of the jour­nal, was part of its search for not only a the­o­ret­i­cal but also a polit­i­cal alter­na­tive to the steril­ity of Eng­lish tra­di­tion.39

The cen­tral prob­lem of social­ist strat­egy con­fronted in Anderson’s national con­text was the inap­plic­a­bil­ity of the Lenin­ist model of “seizure and destruc­tion of exist­ing State power,” which was embed­ded in the speci­fic con­di­tions of a soci­ety “dom­i­nated by scarcity and inte­grated only by the state.”40 While this was the cor­rect strat­egy for the East and the Third World (despite its “inhu­man costs”), for West­ern Europe, with its “advanced economies” and the “great polit­i­cal achieve­ment of democ­racy,” a Lenin­ist strat­egy would be “fun­da­men­tally regres­sive.”41

Social democ­racy, how­ever, was not a viable alter­na­tive; it had failed to actu­ally insti­tute social­ism any­where it had existed. Its error was a strate­gic one; it had made the mis­take of think­ing that power lay only in par­lia­ment, while in real­ity power in advanced cap­i­tal­ist soci­eties was located in the “total­ity of dif­fer­en­tial rela­tion­ships that con­sti­tute a soci­ety” (“fam­i­lies, schools, uni­ver­si­ties, fac­to­ries, offices, news­pa­pers, cin­e­mas, banks, lab­o­ra­to­ries, squadrons, sec­re­tari­ats, etc.”). These were the sites where the “per­ma­nent hege­mony of one social bloc over another” was con­sti­tuted, and the leg­is­la­ture was merely one item in the series.42

In fact, Lenin­ism and social democ­racy were guilty of a com­mon fail­ure of analy­sis, what­ever their seem­ingly dras­tic con­trasts (“vio­lence against legal­ity, van­guardism against pas­siv­ity, dis­ci­pline against democ­racy”): “They both polar­ize their whole strate­gies on the State: civil soci­ety remains out­side the main orbit of their action.43 In the Lenin­ist model of dic­ta­tor­ship of the pro­le­tariat, this prob­lem was espe­cially acute: “There can be no seri­ous talk of ‘smash­ing’ the power struc­ture in the West in the same sense that Lenin spoke of ‘smash­ing’ the State machine in the East. In West­ern Europe, this would mean shat­ter­ing civil soci­ety itself, whereas the real task is to free civil soci­ety from the domin­ion of cap­i­tal.”44

Since work­ers were spon­ta­neously given to economism and cor­po­ratism, intel­lec­tu­als, the “sources of con­scious­ness in soci­ety,” played a cen­tral role: “the rela­tion­ship between the work­ing class and cul­ture, deci­sive for its con­scious­ness and ide­ol­ogy, is inevitably medi­ated through intel­lec­tu­als, the only full ten­ants of cul­ture in a cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety.”45 A social­ist ide­ol­ogy would be able to “bridge the gulf between work­ing-class habits and val­ues and mid­dle-class cul­ture.”46

While “Prob­lems of Social­ist Strat­egy” seemed opti­mistic about the sit­u­a­tion opened by the new Labour gov­ern­ment, advis­ing it on a strat­egy that could achieve a pop­u­lar hege­mony, this would not last long. In mid-1965, Nairn’s “Labour Impe­ri­al­ism,” rep­re­sen­ta­tive of a broad shift in views, harshly con­demned “Labour’s crim­i­nal com­plic­ity with Amer­i­can war in Viet­nam,” and extended its out­rage to the government’s eco­nomic per­for­mance. Labour’s tech­no­cratic bid for a more dynamic and effi­cient neo-cap­i­tal­ism lay in sham­bles, unable to resta­bi­lize the British econ­omy. This fail­ure of the Labour Party was now the open­ing for social­ism.47

It was also at this moment that the Greek émi­gré Nicos Poulantzas, who in his career as a legal philoso­pher in Paris had shifted from a Lukác­sian-Sartrean for­ma­tion to the cir­cle sur­round­ing Louis Althusser, would make his first inter­ven­tion into British Marx­ism. In “Marx­ist Polit­i­cal The­ory in Great Britain,” orig­i­nally pub­lished in Les temps mod­er­nes in 1966 and trans­lated for NLR in 1967, Poulantzas remarked that Nairn and Anderson’s analy­ses “deserve to be con­sid­ered exem­plary texts of Marx­ist polit­i­cal analy­sis.”48 While he was sym­pa­thetic to the empir­i­cal cri­tique offered by Thomp­son, which argued that there was no Eng­lish devi­a­tion from some stan­dard pat­tern of bour­geois rev­o­lu­tion and cap­i­tal­ist devel­op­ment, he empha­sized that Ander­son and Nairn’s “sci­en­tific” work was indis­pens­able, inso­far as it revealed a “gen­uine, crit­i­cal reflec­tion on the con­cepts used in the polit­i­cal analy­sis advanced.”49 The edi­to­rial intro­duc­tion to the text in NLR char­ac­ter­ized Poulantzas’s atten­tion to the “the­o­ret­i­cal infra­struc­ture of the debate” as “an impor­tant advance over pre­vi­ous dis­cus­sion.”50

Ander­son and Nairn’s per­spec­tive, Poulantzas sug­gested, was char­ac­ter­ized by the assump­tion that the his­tory of social for­ma­tions could be under­stood as the expres­sion of a cen­tral, deter­min­ing fac­tor, either the econ­omy or a sub­ject of his­tory. In the Lukác­sian inflec­tion this sub­ject took the his­tor­i­cally speci­fic form of classes, each of which suc­ces­sively remade soci­ety accord­ing to a “global con­cep­tion of the world.”51 The prob­lem for Poulantzas, hav­ing recently bro­ken with this the­o­ret­i­cal prob­lem­atic, was the move of defin­ing the dom­i­nant class on the assump­tion that it “pos­sessed a speci­fic and coher­ent class con­scious­ness” – a ten­dency, he added, that was repro­duced by Thomp­son when he sug­gested that Protes­tantism rep­re­sented the fully achieved ide­ol­ogy of the ascen­dant bour­geoisie.52

“It is a well-known Marx­ist tenet,” Poulantzas remarked, “that the dom­i­nant ide­ol­ogy in a social for­ma­tion is gen­er­ally that of the dom­i­nant class.” But it would not be appro­pri­ate to inter­pret this by attribut­ing the “unity of a deter­mi­nate social for­ma­tion” as such “to a class-sub­ject, and hence to its class ‘con­scious­ness.’” That is, that the tran­si­tion to a new mode of pro­duc­tion and the cor­re­spond­ing polit­i­cal and ide­o­log­i­cal shifts could not be explained as the expres­sion of the will of a par­tic­u­lar class, or the “global world con­cep­tion which this class imme­di­ately pro­duces.’”53

The absence in Eng­land of a coher­ent “world con­cep­tion” of the bour­geoisie, then, could not be taken as an indi­ca­tion of the fail­ure of bour­geois hege­mony.54 What the cat­e­gory of hege­mony had to explain was how the speci­fic “inter­ests” of a class, or a frac­tion of a class, were objec­tively struc­tured in such a way as to rep­re­sent the “gen­eral polit­i­cal inter­est of the classes or frac­tions in power despite their deep con­tra­dic­tions; the dom­i­nant ide­ol­ogy is there­fore only one aspect of this orga­ni­za­tion of the hege­monic class or frac­tion.”55 Explain­ing the cor­re­spon­dence of the dom­i­nant ide­ol­ogy with the “inter­ests” of a par­tic­u­lar class had to pro­ceed by explain­ing “the unity at the polit­i­cal level of the var­i­ous con­flict­ing classes.”56 This implied an ongo­ing process by which polit­i­cal unity would be formed out of con­flict, leav­ing open the pos­si­bil­ity of “dis­junc­tions” between the objec­tive struc­tures of the state, and the class dom­i­nant in the mode of pro­duc­tion. “But such dis­junc­tions,” Poulantzas declared, “far from mak­ing these rela­tions unin­tel­li­gi­ble, are the basis for under­stand­ing them. To be more pre­cise, the Marx­ist con­cep­tion of these ‘dis­junc­tions’ is able to take account of the auton­omy of the State.”57

Poulantzas argued, against Thomp­son, for the valid­ity of Ander­son and Nairn’s analy­ses of the Labour Party. How­ever, he also sug­gested that they should be dis­tin­guished from the over­ar­ch­ing the­o­ret­i­cal frame­work. Ander­son and Nairn had argued that the British pro­le­tariat had been unable to develop a rev­o­lu­tion­ary ide­ol­ogy because of the fail­ure of the bour­geoisie to form its own coher­ent ide­ol­ogy. But this would only be valid if one accepted the the­ory of “a uni­ver­sal, sup­pos­edly Marx­ist schema involv­ing the nec­es­sary and uni­lin­ear suc­ces­sion of slav­ery, feu­dal­ism, cap­i­tal­ism and social­ism.” His­tory had shown that, to the con­trary, in the “under­de­vel­oped” coun­tries of the world, from Rus­sia to China, rev­o­lu­tion­ary ide­olo­gies had already emerged, and were con­tin­u­ing to do so, despite a clear absence of bour­geois hege­mony. This could not, then, explain the strong hold of trade-union­ism and reformism on the British work­ing class.58 Poulantzas con­cluded:

if one wishes to under­stand the “trade union­ist” or “eco­nom­ico-cor­po­ra­tive” men­tal­ity of the British work­ing class, high­lighted by Ander­son and Nairn, one must look for the expla­na­tion in their pen­e­trat­ing analy­ses of its polit­i­cal orga­ni­za­tion (struc­ture of the Labour Party and global polit­i­cal strat­egy of this party) rather than in their ref­er­ences to its lack of a hege­monic class-con­scious­ness or con­cep­tion of the world.59

This uncer­tain con­cep­tual rela­tion, link­ing the­o­ries of class con­scious­ness, hege­mony, and the state to the prob­lem of orga­ni­za­tion, rep­re­sents a sub­ter­ranean thread in the Eng­lish debate. The strate­gic ori­en­ta­tion of these ques­tions would come out with force at the end of the 1960s, though their orga­ni­za­tional sub­struc­ture often has to be exca­vated from under­neath a deep layer of ide­o­log­i­cal con­cep­tions which seem to point else­where.

While the edi­to­rial intro­duc­tion to Poulantzas’s arti­cle promised a response, this never mate­ri­al­ized. Anderson’s 1968 “Com­po­nents of the National Cul­ture” showed that the Lukác­sian and Sartrean frame­works were now sit­u­ated alongside a new inter­est in struc­tural­ism. At the strate­gic level, the focus on cul­ture and the role of intel­lec­tu­als remained, but with a new inflec­tion. There was no longer any ref­er­ence to Labour, indica­tive of the break which had been caused by the dis­ap­point­ments of the Wilson gov­ern­ment. It was replaced by a much more emphatic turn towards the inter­na­tional surge in the stu­dent move­ment: “a rev­o­lu­tion­ary prac­tice within cul­ture is pos­si­ble and nec­es­sary today. The stu­dent strug­gle is its ini­tial form.”60

Poulantzas had noted in pass­ing the diver­gence between the analy­ses of Ander­son and Nairn, “and those of Miliband, one of the edi­tors of Social­ist Reg­is­ter, in his book Par­lia­men­tary Social­ism which traces the polit­i­cal evo­lu­tion of Britain, pri­mar­ily in this cen­tury.”61 Though he did not elab­o­rate any fur­ther at the time, it was this con­tin­u­ing engage­ment which would lead to Poulantzas’s most vis­i­ble appear­ance in the Eng­lish dis­cus­sion.


It was in 1968 that Poulantzas’s Polit­i­cal Power and Social Classes appeared in France, just before the May events. Poulantzas sent a copy of his book to Miliband, with a let­ter read­ing: “I know your book, Par­lia­men­tary Social­ism and your arti­cles, par­tic­u­larly ‘Marx and the State,’ which helped me very much in my work. Your com­ments and advice will be very use­ful.” Miliband replied in an equally friendly tone, admit­ting that Poulantzas’s highly the­o­ret­i­cal text had made him “con­scious of the the­o­ret­i­cal defi­cien­cies of my own work, and the lim­i­ta­tions of the method that I have cho­sen to use”; he lamented that he only had a month to send his final draft to the pub­lisher and had not “had the ben­e­fit of your book ear­lier.” Poulantzas’s response insisted the con­trary: “I am really enthu­si­as­tic about your project and book: I believe that it is indis­pens­able… I think, with­out false mod­esty, that it will be much more impor­tant than mine.”62

There is a mild hilar­ity in this mutual infe­ri­or­ity com­plex over ques­tions of method, which would ulti­mately invert itself com­pletely into vehe­ment hos­til­ity. But even beyond con­tex­tu­al­iz­ing the polemics in the com­mon start­ing points – and, as we will later see, the com­mon con­clu­sions – of Poulantzas and Miliband, we also have to estab­lish the strate­gic ques­tions too often buried under debates over method.

In the 1965 Social­ist Reg­is­ter arti­cle which Poulantzas praised, Miliband reviewed Marx’s polit­i­cal reflec­tions on the prob­lem of the state – in the early texts, grap­pling with the uneven con­sti­tu­tion of bour­geois democ­racy, and finally arriv­ing in the later texts at the ques­tion of post-rev­o­lu­tion­ary pro­le­tar­ian forms of power. As Miliband clearly empha­sized, there was a con­sis­tent strate­gic empha­sis in Marx’s approach to these prob­lems, extend­ing from laws on the theft of wood and free­dom of press to the expe­ri­ence of the Paris Com­mune and the draft­ing of the Gotha Pro­gram. What should be the rela­tion of the pro­le­tar­ian party to the form of state of bour­geois soci­ety? What will be the form of its rev­o­lu­tion­ary power after the expro­pri­a­tion of cap­i­tal? These were the con­crete ques­tions towards which Marx’s the­o­ret­i­cal inves­ti­ga­tions were ori­ented.

But all of these analy­ses existed only in the form of “inci­den­tal remarks,” dif­fi­cult to inter­pret and elab­o­rate.63 Marx barely man­aged to approach the most dif­fi­cult, yet per­haps most cen­tral aspect of the prob­lem: explain­ing the specif­i­cally cap­i­tal­ist char­ac­ter of the state, gen­er­ally either assumed or asserted. Miliband indi­cated that the famous def­i­n­i­tion of the Man­i­festo (“The exec­u­tive of the mod­ern state is but a com­mit­tee for man­ag­ing the com­mon affairs of the whole bour­geoisie”) was insuf­fi­cient – “it only con­sti­tutes what might be called a pri­mary view of the state.” The “sec­ondary view” in Marx could be con­sid­ered sub­stan­tially clearer: it under­stood the state as “inde­pen­dent from and supe­rior to all social classes,” as “the dom­i­nant force in soci­ety rather than the instru­ment of a dom­i­nant class.”

One of the fun­da­men­tal rea­sons for the implicit shift in Marx’s rea­son­ing was the need to qual­ify the view advanced in the Man­i­festo, after his con­junc­tural analy­ses of France and Eng­land. These con­crete stud­ies led Marx to fre­quently point out that “it is not the rul­ing class as a whole, but a frac­tion of it, which con­trols the state,” and in fact “those who actu­ally run the state may well belong to a class which is not the eco­nom­i­cally dom­i­nant class.”64 The clas­sic exam­ple was the author­i­tar­ian per­sonal rule of Louis Bona­parte, which Marx depicted as a state machine com­posed of vast bureau­cratic and mil­i­tary appa­ra­tuses left over from the monar­chy. Bona­partism exer­cised its despo­tism over bour­geoisie and pro­le­tariat alike, seem­ingly “rep­re­sent­ing” the small-hold­ing peas­ants or the lumpen­pro­le­tariat. Yet Marx con­cluded that despite this inde­pen­dence from direct rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the rul­ing class, Bona­partism had to remain, due sim­ply to its exis­tence in class soci­ety, “the pro­tec­tor of an eco­nomic and socially dom­i­nant class” – or so Miliband argued.65

In The State in Cap­i­tal­ist Soci­ety, which finally appeared in 1969, Miliband seemed to have over­come the ten­sion between the two approaches. The “instru­men­tal­ist” def­i­n­i­tion of the Man­i­festo was approv­ingly repeated, but the entire thrust of Miliband’s account served to explain how the state could be an instru­ment of cap­i­tal­ist rule despite the non-iden­tity between the rul­ing class and the state admin­is­tra­tion.66 Inci­den­tally, Poulantzas’s book was quickly cited as “a major attempt at a the­o­ret­i­cal elab­o­ra­tion of the Marx­ist ‘model’ of the state, which appeared when the present work was near­ing com­ple­tion.”67

How­ever, the appar­ent fram­ing of The State in Cap­i­tal­ist Soci­ety is the main­stream polit­i­cal sci­ence of the period, which had aban­doned the state alto­gether as a con­cept. In the place of the uni­tary con­cep­tion of the state, main­stream polit­i­cal sci­ence saw a plu­ral­ity of groups com­pet­ing for their inter­ests within a broad polit­i­cal sys­tem. To debunk this the­ory Miliband sought to estab­lish that there was in fact a dom­i­nant class in with an unequal foot­ing in the polit­i­cal sys­tem; if it could be shown that “this dom­i­nant class also exer­cises a much greater degree of power and influ­ence than any other class… a deci­sive degree of polit­i­cal power,” and that this class was there­fore able to con­trol the polit­i­cal sys­tem in accor­dance with its inter­ests, it could be shown that the dom­i­nant class was also a rul­ing class.68

On this ques­tion Miliband’s cri­tique of main­stream polit­i­cal sci­ence con­verged with the strate­gic ques­tions we have reviewed within British Marx­ism. At an imme­di­ate polit­i­cal level Miliband showed, against the Labourist view that the mixed econ­omy had over­come the antag­o­nism between social­ism and cap­i­tal­ism, that the state remained biased towards the dom­i­nant class.69 But just as impor­tant was the divi­sion in the rev­o­lu­tion­ary legacy between East and West – as the sub­ti­tle indi­cates, The State in Cap­i­tal­ist Soci­ety was “an analy­sis of the West­ern sys­tems of power.” The Lenin­ist temp­ta­tion to use an insur­rec­tionary lan­guage which described the state as class dic­ta­tor­ship ran up against the ratio­nal ker­nel of the plu­ral­ist the­o­ries: advanced cap­i­tal­ist West­ern democ­ra­cies really did have an extra­or­di­nary level of free­dom of speech, and allowed a wide range of social groups to try to be elected into gov­ern­ment. How could the cap­i­tal­ist char­ac­ter of the state be explained in the terms of this sys­tem, for which lan­guage of dic­ta­tor­ship and tyranny rang hol­low?

Miliband empha­sized “that ‘the state’ is not a thing, that it does not, as such, exist.” For bet­ter or for worse, this was not an epis­te­mo­log­i­cal posi­tion, but a way of under­stand­ing state power in terms of a state sys­tem which could not be restricted to gov­ern­ment – that is, to the leg­isla­tive and exec­u­tive bod­ies. This was an impor­tant recog­ni­tion for would-be rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies: “if it is believed that the gov­ern­ment is in fact the state, it may also be believed that the assump­tion of gov­ern­men­tal power is equiv­a­lent to the acqui­si­tion of state power.” The state sys­tem, in fact, encom­passed not just gov­ern­ment but also admin­is­tra­tion (civil ser­vice, bank­ing, reg­u­la­tion); mil­i­tary, police, and intel­li­gence; the judi­cial sys­tem; and the sub-cen­tral gov­ern­ments (regional, state, munic­i­pal gov­ern­ments).70

It was unde­ni­able that a “state elite” existed within the state sys­tem. But there was no direct iden­tity between this state elite and the “eco­nom­i­cally dom­i­nant class,” a fact that cap­i­tal­ist ide­o­logues used to their advan­tage. The dom­i­nant class had a “rela­tion­ship” with the state whose pre­cise char­ac­ter had to be deter­mined. In try­ing to think through this rela­tion­ship, Miliband cited the remark of Karl Kaut­sky that “the cap­i­tal­ist class rules but does not gov­ern.”71 In a more con­tem­po­rary con­text, Ander­son had made a sim­i­lar point in his rejoin­der to Thomp­son: “For a rul­ing class… to rule ‘directly,’ it would be nec­es­sary for every mem­ber of it to be phys­i­cally and per­ma­nently co-present in the state appa­ra­tus. It goes with­out say­ing that this is always impos­si­ble.”72

Miliband did show that the direct par­tic­i­pa­tion of busi­ness­men in the state had been under­es­ti­mated. In advanced cap­i­tal­ism, what counted above all was “their grow­ing coloni­sa­tion of the upper reaches of the admin­is­tra­tive part of that sys­tem.”73 Fur­ther­more, the extent of their par­tic­i­pa­tion increased in what­ever areas of gov­ern­ment activ­ity involved eco­nomic func­tions – wherever there was a mat­ter of state “inter­ven­tion” in the econ­omy, busi­ness­men would “be found to influ­ence and even to deter­mine the nature of that inter­ven­tion.”74 But all this did not mean that the ques­tion had been resolved:

Notwith­stand­ing the sub­stan­tial par­tic­i­pa­tion of busi­ness­men in the busi­ness of the state, it is how­ever true that they have never con­sti­tuted, and do not con­sti­tute now, more than a rel­a­tively small minor­ity of the state elite as a whole. It is in this sense that the eco­nomic elites of advanced cap­i­tal­ist coun­tries are not, prop­erly speak­ing, a “gov­ern­ing” class, com­pa­ra­ble to pre-indus­trial, aris­to­cratic and landown­ing classes. In some cases, the lat­ter were able, almost, to dis­pense with a dis­tinct and fully artic­u­lated state machin­ery and were them­selves prac­ti­cally the state. Cap­i­tal­ist eco­nomic elites have not achieved, and in the nature of cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety could never achieve, such a posi­tion.75

How­ever, after rais­ing these cru­cial ques­tions, Miliband did not pro­ceed to a reex­am­i­na­tion of the state’s struc­ture, but instead a soci­o­log­i­cal descrip­tion of the com­mon social milieu of busi­ness­men and state elites, result­ing largely from nepo­tism and unequal access to edu­ca­tion.76 These phe­nom­ena were meant to explain the “gen­eral out­look, ide­o­log­i­cal dis­po­si­tions and polit­i­cal bias” of the state elite.77 Those who held polit­i­cal office had a “cir­cle of rela­tions, friends, for­mer assoc­iates and acquain­tances… much more likely to include busi­ness­men than, say, trade union lead­ers.”78

The analy­sis was some­what deep­ened with Miliband’s expla­na­tion of the con­sen­sus among state elites sur­round­ing the mar­ket and “free enter­prise,” despite the seem­ingly “end­less diver­sity” of “views, atti­tudes, pro­grammes and poli­cies,” which made for “live polit­i­cal debate and com­pe­ti­tion.”79 As a result of this con­sen­sus, any­one who man­aged to reach polit­i­cal office was sure to believe that “the national inter­est is in fact inex­tri­ca­bly bound up with the for­tune of cap­i­tal­ist enter­prise,” because they would “accept the notion that the eco­nomic ratio­nal­ity of the cap­i­tal­ist sys­tem is syn­ony­mous with ratio­nal­ity itself.”80

This con­sen­sus extended even to social­ist par­tic­i­pa­tion in the state, which dis­played the same bias, as Miliband traced with ref­er­ence to the Pop­u­lar Front. Again his analy­sis remained largely descrip­tive, show­ing that social­ists in power did not act on their oppo­si­tional rhetoric and instead took mea­sures to sta­bi­lize the cap­i­tal­ist econ­omy. Miliband pointed to the con­tin­gent con­di­tions that have gen­er­ally brought social­ists to power: coali­tions with con­ser­v­a­tives to achieve “national unity” in states of emer­gency, or sta­bi­liz­ing the nation after the col­lapse of the exist­ing regime in war. Com­ing to office “in con­di­tions of great eco­nomic, finan­cial and social dif­fi­culty and cri­sis,” social­ists feared that these con­di­tions would be greatly “aggra­vated by the sus­pi­cion and hos­til­ity of the ‘busi­ness com­mu­nity.’”81

But why, then, did social­ists in power not take advan­tage of cri­sis con­di­tions to take more rad­i­cal mea­sures? Why did they instead use these dif­fi­cult con­di­tions as “a ready and con­ve­nient excuse for the con­cil­i­a­tion of the very eco­nomic and social forces they were pledged to oppose?” Even in the rather calm and favor­able con­di­tions of the post­war Labour gov­ern­ment, nation­al­iza­tion had the effect of strength­en­ing cap­i­tal­ism, not weak­en­ing it – “the mod­erni­sa­tion of cap­i­tal­ist enter­prise was one of their main pur­poses.”82

In the last instance Miliband’s answer remained the intrin­sic “bias of the sys­tem,” the fact that the “ide­o­log­i­cal dis­po­si­tions of gov­ern­ments have gen­er­ally been of a kind to make more accept­able to them the struc­tural con­straints imposed upon them by the sys­tem.”83 Miliband returned to the theme in explain­ing the con­ser­v­a­tive atti­tudes of the “ser­vants of the state,” civil ser­vants who over­see the state system’s every­day oper­a­tions with a seem­ing neu­tral­ity that con­ceals their actual “ide­o­log­i­cal incli­na­tions.”84 This absolutely cen­tral role of ide­ol­ogy must be under­lined, as it will come to be of some impor­tance.

It should be noted that Miliband did not explain the state’s “bias” only in terms of the social ori­gins and views of those who con­sti­tute it. He also argued that the plu­ral­ist notion that many dif­fer­ent inter­ests com­pete equally in democ­ra­cies was refuted by the dis­pro­por­tion­ate power of busi­ness out­side the state sys­tem. Beyond mere lob­by­ing was the “per­va­sive and per­ma­nent pres­sure upon gov­ern­ments and the state gen­er­ated by the pri­vate con­trol of con­cen­trated indus­trial, com­mer­cial and finan­cial resources.”85 Labor orga­ni­za­tions could not pos­si­bly exert this kind of pres­sure. For social­ist gov­ern­ments this imbal­ance became a struc­tural limit, since they would “nor­mally come to office in cir­cum­stances of sev­ere eco­nomic and finan­cial cri­sis, and find that credit, loans and gen­eral finan­cial sup­port are only avail­able on the con­di­tion that they pur­sue eco­nomic and for­eign poli­cies which are accept­able to their cred­i­tors and bankers.”86

What this argu­ment could not explain is how the com­mon cap­i­tal­ist inter­est which this power is wielded to defend is itself con­sti­tuted in a field of eco­nomic com­pe­ti­tion between cap­i­tal­ists, a prob­lem noted by Miliband but set aside after invok­ing “ide­o­log­i­cal con­sen­sus.”87 So this ges­ture towards struc­tural analy­sis again had to resort to invok­ing the effects of ide­ol­ogy, under­stood as the con­sciously held beliefs of indi­vid­u­als rather than a com­po­nent of cap­i­tal­ist social rela­tions; to explain the oper­a­tions of the state beyond the inci­den­tal expres­sion of these ideas remained an unful­filled task.

It was nev­er­the­less Miliband’s path­break­ing achieve­ment to show, with the evi­dence avail­able at the time, that the state remained a nec­es­sary con­cept. He set out to prove that this was the case despite the demo­c­ra­tic char­ac­ter of West­ern soci­eties, in which a plu­ral­ity of social groups com­peted in the polit­i­cal sys­tem. Miliband con­fronted the con­cep­tual frame­work of demo­c­ra­tic plu­ral­ism with empir­i­cal evi­dence show­ing that the com­pe­ti­tion of polit­i­cal inter­ests was an “imper­fect com­pe­ti­tion,” and sought thereby to defend the fol­low­ing the­o­ret­i­cal propo­si­tion: “In the Marx­ist scheme, the ‘rul­ing class’ of cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety is that class which owns and con­trols the means of pro­duc­tion and which is able, by virtue of the eco­nomic power thus con­ferred upon it, to use the state as its instru­ment for the dom­i­na­tion of soci­ety.”88

The broader the­o­ret­i­cal ques­tions sur­round­ing this def­i­n­i­tion, which had so occu­pied the British milieu, were not directly addressed. How­ever, since they set out the strate­gic field for Miliband’s inves­ti­ga­tion, they would be cen­tral for the debate that fol­lowed, and Poulantzas’s review of Miliband’s The State in Cap­i­tal­ist Soci­ety, which appeared in New Left Review in 1969, brought them back to the fore­ground. The con­vivial tone was still appar­ent; Miliband’s book was of “cap­i­tal impor­tance,” “extremely sub­stan­tial,” and he could not “rec­om­mend its read­ing too highly.” Above all, Miliband’s “cathar­tic” work, through con­crete inves­ti­ga­tions of the United States, Eng­land, France, Ger­many, and Japan “not only rad­i­cally demol­ishes bour­geois ide­olo­gies of the State, but pro­vides us with a pos­i­tive knowl­edge that these ide­olo­gies have never been able to pro­duce.”89

Nev­er­the­less, “in the belief that only crit­i­cism can advance Marx­ist the­ory,” his review was devoted to a deep and sub­stan­tial cri­tique of Miliband’s under­ly­ing the­o­ret­i­cal sys­tem. This was not, as many later com­men­ta­tors have some­how man­aged to claim, an attempt to dis­miss the empir­i­cal in favor of the abstract and the­o­ret­i­cal. Poulantzas empha­sized “the neces­sity for con­crete analy­ses” and admit­ted that his own work needed to be deep­ened in this direc­tion (which he would go on to do in future books). It was instead an inter­ro­ga­tion of the under­ly­ing assump­tions, ques­tions, and cat­e­gories that con­sti­tuted the frame­work for the inves­ti­ga­tion and inter­pre­ta­tion of the empir­i­cal – the ini­tial method­olog­i­cal ques­tions to which his own book had been devoted. Miliband’s approach had been to “attack bour­geois ide­olo­gies of the State whilst plac­ing him­self on their own ter­rain.” But this posed cer­tain dan­gers – the Marx­ist critic engaged in this strat­egy runs the risk of being “unduly influ­enced by the method­olog­i­cal prin­ci­ples of the adver­sary.”90

By accept­ing the notion of “plu­ral elites” and try­ing to show that these elites did in fact con­sti­tute a rul­ing class, Miliband had rein­forced the ide­o­log­i­cal notions of main­stream polit­i­cal sci­ence, instead of advanc­ing a new con­cept that could bet­ter grasp the con­crete real­ity. The adversary’s epis­te­mo­log­i­cal vic­tory was “vis­i­ble in the dif­fi­cul­ties that Miliband has in com­pre­hend­ing social classes and the State as objec­tive struc­tures… Miliband con­stantly gives the impres­sion that for him social classes or ‘groups’ are in some way reducible to inter-per­sonal rela­tions.”91

This was pre­cisely the angle of the debate that Poulantzas had already engaged with in the British dis­cus­sion. If Ander­son and Nairn had tried to cap­ture the broad sweep of class con­scious­ness and the abil­ity of a par­tic­u­lar class to reshape the very form of the social insti­tu­tions, Miliband’s the­ory shrank this down to the level of the indi­vid­ual con­scious­ness of mem­bers of an elite milieu, who held pro-busi­ness views and entered into insti­tu­tions where they could influ­ence pol­icy accord­ing to this bias. The con­se­quence of this the­ory of “indi­vid­u­als as the origin of social action” was that “soci­o­log­i­cal research thus leads finally, not to the study of the objec­tive co-ordi­nates that deter­mine the dis­tri­b­u­tion of agents into social classes and the con­tra­dic­tions between these classes, but to the search for final­ist expla­na­tions founded on the moti­va­tions of con­duct of the indi­vid­ual actors.”92 It would be impos­si­ble to sur­pass this frame­work as long as the the­ory was restricted to “the con­duct and ‘behav­iour’ of the mem­bers of the State appa­ra­tus.” The famous pas­sage in which Poulantzas sum­ma­rizes this con­clu­sion is worth quot­ing at length:

I have no inten­tion of con­test­ing the value of Miliband’s analy­ses, which on the con­trary appear to me to have a cap­i­tal demys­ti­fy­ing impor­tance. Yet how­ever exact in itself, the way cho­sen by Miliband does not seem to me to be the most sig­nif­i­cant one. Firstly, because the direct par­tic­i­pa­tion of mem­bers of the cap­i­tal­ist class in the State appa­ra­tus and in the gov­ern­ment, even where it exists, is not the impor­tant side of the mat­ter. The rela­tion between the bour­geois class and the State is an objec­tive rela­tion. This means that if the func­tion of the State in a deter­mi­nate social for­ma­tion and the inter­ests of the dom­i­nant class in this for­ma­tion coin­cide, it is by rea­son of the sys­tem itself: the direct par­tic­i­pa­tion of mem­bers of the rul­ing class in the State appa­ra­tus is not the cause but the effect, and more­over a chance and con­tin­gent one, of this objec­tive coin­ci­dence.93

Cru­cially, the theme of ide­ol­ogy came once again to the fore­front. Poulantzas’s book appeared on the shelves in the midst of French stu­dent revolts; the prob­lem of the edu­ca­tional sys­tem, and strug­gles within it, had made the ques­tion of ide­ol­ogy “espe­cially top­i­cal,” Poulantzas sug­gested, and revealed that both he and Miliband may have “stopped half-way” on this angle of state the­ory. Poulantzas noted that Miliband’s book had devoted two lengthy chap­ters on the role of ide­ol­ogy (“The Process of Legit­i­ma­tion”). How­ever, such an analy­sis – and Poulantzas included him­self in this crit­i­cism – placed too great a pri­or­ity on the level of “ideas, cus­toms or morals with­out see­ing that ide­ol­ogy can be embod­ied, in the strong sense, in insti­tu­tions: insti­tu­tions which then, by the very process of insti­tu­tion­al­iza­tion, belong to the sys­tem of the State whilst depend­ing prin­ci­pally on the ide­o­log­i­cal level.”94

Miliband’s response was quite short, per­haps writ­ten in a hurry. He gra­ciously rec­i­p­ro­cated Poulantzas’s opti­mism about the impor­tance of the con­ver­sa­tion, but denied that his book had failed to address the ques­tions Poulantzas had raised – if he had done so too briefly, this was because he thought it so impor­tant to refute the apolo­get­ics in bour­geois polit­i­cal sci­ence with empir­i­cal evi­dence. This was also true for his analy­sis of ide­ol­ogy in “The Process of Legit­i­ma­tion,” which showed that “polit­i­cal social­iza­tion,” a con­cept intro­duced in main­stream polit­i­cal sci­ence, “is a process per­formed by insti­tu­tions, many of which never cease to insist on their ‘un-ide­o­log­i­cal,’ ‘un-polit­i­cal’ and ‘neu­tral’ char­ac­ter.” How­ever, this did not license Poulantzas’s the­sis that these insti­tu­tions could be con­sid­ered a part of the state, despite the increas­ing role of the state in the processes of polit­i­cal social­iza­tion – Miliband con­sid­ered it “impor­tant not to blur the fact that they are not, in bour­geois democ­ra­cies, part of the state but of the polit­i­cal sys­tem,” even if “the state must, in the con­di­tions of per­ma­nent cri­sis of advanced cap­i­tal­ism, assume ever greater respon­si­bil­ity for polit­i­cal indoc­tri­na­tion and mys­ti­fi­ca­tion.”95

How­ever, as this point was not elab­o­rated sub­stan­tively, it inac­cu­rately framed the terms of the dis­agree­ment. The final two chap­ters of The State in Cap­i­tal­ist Soci­ety devote con­sid­er­able space to the secur­ing of con­sent through hege­mony in cul­ture – the pop­u­lar media (he cites the early work of Stu­art Hall), schools, the church, and even the fam­ily. Despite shar­ing Poulantzas’s start­ing point in Gram­sci, how­ever, Miliband’s ter­mi­nol­ogy was once again drawn from the bour­geois polit­i­cal sci­ence he sought to crit­i­cize. Miliband’s choice to use the term “polit­i­cal social­i­sa­tion” – the processes gen­er­at­ing a con­sen­sus around and insti­tu­tion­al­iza­tion of cer­tain norms and val­ues of pol­i­tics – indi­cates the role of these insti­tu­tions in his over­all the­ory: they pro­duce the state bias towards cap­i­tal in the “polit­i­cal com­pe­ti­tion” and “ide­o­log­i­cal com­pe­ti­tion” of cap­i­tal­ist democ­racy. What the main­stream the­ory had left out, from Miliband’s per­spec­tive, was the very speci­fic con­tent of polit­i­cal social­iza­tion, by virtue of which it amounted to an indoc­tri­na­tion in the val­ues of free enter­prise.96

While Miliband’s call for pre­serv­ing clear ana­lyt­i­cal dis­tinc­tions is in many respects com­pelling, here his own argu­ment ends up blur­ring the lines. If the cap­i­tal­ist char­ac­ter of the state lies in its sys­tem­atic bias towards cap­i­tal, and if this bias is main­tained and secured through the polit­i­cal social­iza­tion car­ried out by ide­o­log­i­cal insti­tu­tions, exclud­ing them the­o­ret­i­cally from the cat­e­gory of the state forces us to accept the plu­ral­ist con­cep­tion of the polit­i­cal sys­tem, its pur­ported bias amount­ing to lit­tle more than the legit­i­mate suc­cess of a par­tic­u­lar polit­i­cal doc­trine in civil society’s free mar­ket of ideas. Fur­ther­more, since the very start­ing point of Miliband’s argu­ment is that the per­sonal par­tic­i­pa­tion of the rul­ing class is lim­ited to the “com­mand posts” of gov­ern­ment, with­out the ide­o­log­i­cal adhe­sion of other state func­tionar­ies the state’s bias towards cap­i­tal would amount to a per­sonal dic­ta­tor­ship, dis­solv­ing the speci­ficity of West­ern democ­ra­cies. This con­cep­tual blur­ring is appar­ent in the sym­pa­thetic account of Clyde Bar­row, who writes in his Crit­i­cal The­o­ries of the State of Miliband’s “sub­hy­poth­e­sis that the state’s sys­temic unity is pri­mar­ily ide­o­log­i­cal.” Describ­ing the “ide­o­log­i­cal sys­tem” as “an insti­tu­tional matrix that includes the state’s ide­o­log­i­cal appa­ra­tus (i.e., schools and uni­ver­si­ties) and pri­vate insti­tu­tions such as churches, the mass media, and other opin­ion-shap­ing net­works,” Bar­row sug­gests that “Miliband con­sid­ers the ide­o­log­i­cal sys­tem, par­tic­u­larly the state’s ide­o­log­i­cal appa­ra­tus, an impor­tant mech­a­nism for social­iz­ing state man­agers.”97 Miliband him­self nowhere refers to the “state’s ide­o­log­i­cal appa­ra­tus,” an incon­ve­nient phras­ing after his cri­tique of Poulantzas; but this is one indi­ca­tion of the dif­fi­cul­ties of con­cep­tu­ally elab­o­rat­ing Miliband’s the­ory in a way that can the­o­ret­i­cally reject the cat­e­gory.

Such method­olog­i­cal and con­cep­tual ques­tions con­tin­ued to a play a role as the debate unfolded, but Miliband also iden­ti­fied a “polit­i­cal dan­ger” with what he char­ac­ter­ized as Poulantzas’s “struc­tural super-deter­min­ism.” It is these polit­i­cal con­se­quences of the the­o­ret­i­cal dis­pute, empha­sized in Miliband’s sec­ond, more sub­stan­tial entry in the debate in 1973, to which we will turn in the sec­ond part of this essay.98

  1. On these lega­cies see Stathis Kou­ve­lakis and Sebas­tian Bud­gen, “Greece: Phase One,” Jacobin Mag­a­zine, Jan­u­ary 2015, and Leo Pan­itch and Bhaskar Sunkara, “Can Jeremy Cor­byn Redeem the Labour Party?,” Jacobin Mag­a­zine, Sep­tem­ber 2015. 

  2. See Melvyn Dubof­sky, “When Social­ism was Pop­u­lar in the United States,” View­point Mag­a­zine, March 2016. 

  3. Jason E. Smith, “Let Us Be Ter­ri­ble: Con­sid­er­a­tions on the Jacobin Club,” Brook­lyn Rail, April 2016. 

  4. Anton Pan­nekoek, World Rev­o­lu­tion and Com­mu­nist Tac­tics, 1920. 

  5. For an indis­pens­able cor­rec­tive on the ques­tion of “struc­tural­ism” read­ers should refer to War­ren Mon­tag, Althusser and His Con­tem­po­raries (Durham: Duke Uni­ver­sity Press, 2013). A brief but clar­i­fy­ing account of the ques­tions raised by the com­par­ison to Euro­com­mu­nism can be found in Fabien Escalona, “Syriza, Podemos et l’héritage «euro­com­mu­niste»,” Medi­a­part, Jan­u­ary 29, 2015. 

  6. Ralph Miliband, “Thirty Years of the Social­ist Reg­is­ter,” Social­ist Reg­is­ter 30, no. 30 (March 18, 1994). 

  7. Ralph Miliband, Par­lia­men­tary Social­ism: A Study in the Pol­i­tics of Labour (Mer­lin Press, 1972), 344. 

  8. Ibid., 144. 

  9. Ibid., 151. 

  10. Ibid., 145. 

  11. Ibid., 97. 

  12. “Under Rus­sian con­di­tions, the dis­pu­ta­tions between con­tend­ing rev­o­lu­tion­ary fac­tions came to have epoch-mak­ing con­se­quences. In the British con­text, the dif­fer­ences are not really capa­ble of ris­ing about the level of his­tor­i­cal foot­notes.” Ibid., 33. 

  13. Ibid., 32–3. 

  14. Ibid., 32. 

  15. Ibid., 70. 

  16. Ibid., 34. 

  17. Ibid., 65. 

  18. One of these crit­ics was Richard Cross­man, who made remarks along these lines in his review of Miliband’s book, as noted in Michael New­man, Ralph Miliband And The Pol­i­tics Of The New Left (Lon­don: Monthly Review Press, 2003), 76; New­man also makes note of Michael Foot’s review. See also John Sav­ille, “Par­lia­men­tary Social­ism Revis­ited,” Social­ist Reg­is­ter 31, no. 31 (March 18, 1995). 

  19. Miliband, Par­lia­men­tary Social­ism, 347. 

  20. For a fas­ci­nat­ing account of this period, see Stu­art Hall, “The ‘First’ New Left: Life and Times” in Oxford Uni­ver­sity Social­ist Dis­cus­sion Group, Out of Apa­thy: Voices of the New Left Thirty Years On (Lon­don: Verso, 1989), or the shorter ver­sion in New Left Review. For more detail on the early his­tory of these jour­nals, see Madeleine Davis, “Rethink­ing Class: The Lin­eage of the Social­ist Reg­is­ter,” Social­ist Reg­is­ter 50, no. 50 (Octo­ber 29, 2013). 

  21. Perry Ander­son, Eng­lish Ques­tions (Lon­don ; New York: Verso, 1992), 6. See also Perry Ander­son, “The Debate of the Cen­tral Com­mit­tee of the Ital­ian Com­mu­nist Party on the 22nd Con­gress of the CPSU,” New Left Review, I, no. 13–14 (April 1962): 152–60. For an account of Anderson’s com­plex polit­i­cal and intel­lec­tual evo­lu­tion, see Gre­gory Elliott, Perry Ander­son: The Mer­ci­less Lab­o­ra­tory of His­tory (Min­neapolis: Uni­ver­sity of Min­nesota Press, 1998). 

  22. Tom Nairn, “The British Polit­i­cal Elite,” New Left Review, I, no. 23 (Feb­ru­ary 1964): 19. 

  23. Perry Ander­son, “Ori­gins of the Present Cri­sis,” New Left Review, I, no. 23 (Feb­ru­ary 1964): 43; see also Perry Ander­son, “Prob­lems of Social­ist Strat­egy,” in Towards Social­ism, ed. Robin Black­burn and Perry Ander­son (Ithaca: Cor­nell Uni­ver­sity Press, 1966). Slightly revised ver­sions of Anderson’s orig­i­nal texts on the mat­ter, alongside more recent con­sid­er­a­tions, are col­lected in Eng­lish Ques­tions. Since the ver­sions in the col­lec­tion are usu­ally revised, I often cite the orig­i­nal pub­li­ca­tion rather than the col­lected ver­sion, as this his­tor­i­cal overview deals with debates and dia­logues as they hap­pened within the left jour­nals; New Left Review, Social­ist Reg­is­ter, and Marx­ism Today each have online archives which aid in recon­struct­ing the his­tory. Some­times, how­ever, intro­duc­tory and new mate­ri­als in these col­lec­tions help to put ear­lier debates in con­text, and are well worth con­sult­ing. This applies equally for the other authors under dis­cus­sion. 

  24. Ander­son, “Ori­gins of the Present Cri­sis,” 40–1. 

  25. Tom Nairn, “The Eng­lish Work­ing Class,” New Left Review, I, no. 24 (April 1964): 53. 

  26. Ibid., 43. 

  27. Ibid., 53. See also the remarks in “Ori­gins of the Present Cri­sis” regard­ing the absence of intel­lec­tu­als engaged in the pro­le­tar­ian cause until the end of the 19th cen­tury: “The aris­toc­racy had never allowed the for­ma­tion of an inde­pen­dent intel­lec­tual enclave within the body politic of landed Eng­land”; Ander­son, “Ori­gins of the Present Cri­sis,” 42. 

  28. Ander­son, “Ori­gins of the Present Cri­sis,” 40. As Nairn put it, “In fact, the Labour Party’s orga­ni­za­tional struc­ture is a per­fect embod­i­ment of the whole his­tor­i­cal expe­ri­ence of the Labour move­ment in Britain, and incar­nates both its achieve­ments and its fail­ings. Arrived at ‘empir­i­cally’, that is by a blind series of piece­meal com­pro­mises among var­i­ous his­tor­i­cal forces, it nat­u­rally expresses on the prac­ti­cal plane the dom­i­nant bal­ance of such forces”; Nairn, “The Eng­lish Work­ing Class,” 55. 

  29. Tom Nairn, “The Nature of the Labour Party (Part I),” New Left Review, I, no. 27 (Octo­ber 1964): 45–6. 

  30. Ibid., 43. Com­pare the NLR ver­sion to the one found in Towards Social­ism; the for­mer uses “economism,” the lat­ter “cor­po­ratism.” 

  31. Ibid. 

  32. Ibid., 41; see also 51-2. 

  33. Ibid., 53. 

  34. Tom Nairn, “The Nature of the Labour Party (Part II),” New Left Review, I, no. 28 (Decem­ber 1964): 45. 

  35. Perry Ander­son, “Cri­tique of Wilson­ism,” New Left Review, I, no. 27 (Octo­ber 1964): 21, 24–7. 

  36. Nairn, “The Nature of the Labour Party (Part II),” 62; see also 50, 55-6. For Miliband’s own approach in this period to giv­ing the Wilson gov­ern­ment a “push” in a social­ist direc­tion, through the for­ma­tion of left “pres­sure groups,” see Ralph Miliband and John Sav­ille, “Labour Pol­icy and The Labour Left,” Social­ist Reg­is­ter 1, no. 1 (March 19, 1964). 

  37. But it goes some­what beyond our imme­di­ate con­cerns here; what we want to note is how it estab­lished a cer­tain the­o­ret­i­cal prob­lem­atic linked to polit­i­cal strat­egy. See, how­ever, E. P. Thomp­son, “The Pecu­liar­i­ties Of The Eng­lish,” Social­ist Reg­is­ter 2, no. 2 (March 19, 1965); Perry Ander­son, “Social­ism and Pseudo-Empiri­cism,” New Left Review, I, no. 35 (Feb­ru­ary 1966): 2–42; Colin Barker and David Nicholls, eds., The Devel­op­ment of British Cap­i­tal­ist Soci­ety: A Marx­ist Debate (Man­ches­ter: North­ern Marx­ist His­to­ri­ans Group, 1988); Ellen Meiksins Wood, The Pristine Cul­ture of Cap­i­tal­ism: A His­tor­i­cal Essay on Old Regimes and Mod­ern States (Lon­don: Verso, 1991). 

  38. Perry Ander­son, “The Fig­ures of Descent,” New Left Review, I, no. 161 (Feb­ru­ary 1987): 57. 

  39. In “A Brief His­tory of New Left Review 1960-2010” both of these char­ac­ter­is­tics are recalled: “Polit­i­cally, although the Review was sharply crit­i­cal of the tra­di­tions of Labourism, its own posi­tion might per­haps be described as an antic­i­pa­tion of the pre­oc­cu­pa­tions of the Euro­com­mu­nism of a decade later”; “West­ern Marx­ism was seen as a vital resource in reject­ing the autho­rized cat­e­chism of offi­cial Com­mu­nism and the bland philis­tin­ism of social democ­racy alike.” See also Perry Ander­son, Argu­ments within Eng­lish Marx­ism (Lon­don: Verso, 1980), 149. 

  40. Ander­son, “Prob­lems of Social­ist Strat­egy,” 228. 

  41. Ibid., 230. 

  42. Ibid., 235, 236. 

  43. Ibid., 237. 

  44. Ibid., 244. 

  45. Ibid., 269, 241. 

  46. Ibid., 259. 

  47. Tom Nairn, “Labour Impe­ri­al­ism,” New Left Review, I, no. 32 (August 1965): 11, 15. 

  48. Nicos Poulantzas, “Marx­ist Polit­i­cal The­ory in Great Britain,” New Left Review, I, no. 43 (June 1967): 58. 

  49. Ibid. 

  50. “Intro­duc­tion to Poulantzas,” New Left Review, I, no. 43 (June 1967): 55. 

  51. Poulantzas, “Marx­ist Polit­i­cal The­ory in Great Britain,” 46. 

  52. Ibid., 63. 

  53. Ibid., 66. 

  54. Ibid., 67. 

  55. Ibid., 70. 

  56. Ibid., 67. 

  57. Ibid., 65. 

  58. Ibid., 71. 

  59. Ibid., 74. 

  60. Perry Ander­son, “Com­po­nents of the National Cul­ture,” New Left Review, I, no. 50 (August 1968): 6, 56. Stu­dents had also been briefly dis­cussed in “Prob­lems,” but had not been granted this level of sig­nif­i­cance; Ander­son, “Prob­lems of Social­ist Strat­egy,” 272–3. 

  61. Poulantzas, “Marx­ist Polit­i­cal The­ory in Great Britain,” 70. 

  62. New­man, Ralph Miliband And The Pol­i­tics Of The New Left, 203. 

  63. Ralph Miliband, “Marx and the State,” Social­ist Reg­is­ter 2, no. 2 (March 19, 1965): 278. 

  64. Ibid., 283. 

  65. Ibid., 285. 

  66. Ralph Miliband, The State in Cap­i­tal­ist Soci­ety (Basic Books, 1969), 5. 

  67. Ibid., 7. 

  68. Ibid., 48. See also Clyde W. Bar­row, “The Miliband-Poulantzas Debate: An Intel­lec­tual His­tory,” in Par­a­digm Lost: State The­ory Recon­sid­ered, ed. Stan­ley Aronow­itz and Peter Brat­sis (Min­neapolis, MN: Uni­ver­ity of Min­nesota Press, 2002). Bar­row pro­vides a use­ful descrip­tion of the intel­lec­tual con­text for the debate, but his account of the actual back and forth is marred by par­ti­san and dis­tract­ing barbs against Poulantzas. 

  69. Miliband, The State in Cap­i­tal­ist Soci­ety, 9–10. 

  70. Ibid., 49–53. 

  71. It is quite remark­able that Kaut­sky said this to strike a note of con­trast with Eng­land: “Among the great nations of mod­ern times Eng­land is the one which most resem­bles the Mid­dle Ages, not eco­nom­i­cally, but in its polit­i­cal form. Mil­i­tarism and bureau­cracy are there the least devel­oped. It still pos­sesses an aris­toc­racy that not only reigns but gov­erns. Cor­re­spond­ing to this, Eng­land is the great mod­ern nation in which the efforts of the oppressed classes are mainly con­cerned to the removal of par­tic­u­lar abuses instead of being directed against the whole social sys­tem. It is also the State in which the prac­tice of pro­tec­tion against rev­o­lu­tion through com­pro­mise is far­thest devel­oped.” Karl Kaut­sky, The Social Rev­o­lu­tion, trans. A.M. Simons and May Wood Simons (Chicago: C. H. Kerr, 1902), 26. Miliband’s ref­er­ence is in Miliband, The State in Cap­i­tal­ist Soci­ety, 55. 

  72. Ander­son, “Social­ism and Pseudo-Empiri­cism,” 11. 

  73. Miliband, The State in Cap­i­tal­ist Soci­ety, 57. For Bar­row this “col­o­niza­tion” is of the utmost sig­nif­i­cance in Miliband’s the­ory: “one way to mea­sure the degree of poten­tial class dom­i­na­tion is to quan­tify the extent to which mem­bers of a par­tic­u­lar class have dis­pro­por­tion­ately col­o­nized com­mand posts within the state appa­ra­tuses”; Bar­row, “The Miliband-Poulantzas Debate: An Intel­lec­tual His­tory,” 18. 

  74. Miliband, The State in Cap­i­tal­ist Soci­ety, 56–9. 

  75. Ibid., 59. 

  76. Ibid., 60–5. 

  77. Ibid., 68. 

  78. Ibid., 75. 

  79. Ibid., 68. 

  80. Ibid., 75. 

  81. Ibid., 101. 

  82. Ibid., 101, 109. 

  83. Ibid., 79. 

  84. Ibid., 120. 

  85. Ibid., 147. 

  86. Ibid., 154. 

  87. Ibid., 157. The var­i­ous prob­lems described here are explic­itly addressed in Elmar Alt­vater, “Notes on Some Prob­lems of State Inter­ven­tion­ism,” Kap­i­tal­state, no. 1 and 2 (1973); and Fred Block, “The Rul­ing Class Does Not Rule: Notes on the Marx­ist The­ory of the State,” Social­ist Rev­o­lu­tion 7 (1977). 

  88. Miliband, The State in Cap­i­tal­ist Soci­ety, 23. 

  89. Nicos Poulantzas, “The Prob­lem of the Cap­i­tal­ist State,” New Left Review, I, no. 58 (Decem­ber 1969): 67. 

  90. Ibid., 69, 70. 

  91. Ibid., 70. 

  92. Ibid. 

  93. Ibid., 72, 73. 

  94. Ibid., 76. 

  95. Ralph Miliband, “The Cap­i­tal­ist State – Reply to N. Poulantzas,” New Left Review, I, no. 59 (Feb­ru­ary 1970): 59. 

  96. Miliband, The State in Cap­i­tal­ist Soci­ety, 182–4. 

  97. Clyde W. Bar­row, Crit­i­cal The­o­ries of the State: Marx­ist, Neo­marx­ist, Post­marx­ist (Madison: Uni­ver­sity of Wis­con­sin Press, 1993), 29. Bar­row argues that ide­ol­ogy should not be con­sid­ered the only means of “intrastate cohe­sion”; how­ever, his account demon­strates impor­tant areas where this the­ory is too under­de­vel­oped to be the basis for a polemic against the the­ory of the ide­o­log­i­cal state appa­ra­tus. 

  98. Miliband, “The Cap­i­tal­ist State – Reply to N. Poulantzas,” 57–8. 

Author of the article

is an editor of Viewpoint, a graduate student at UC Santa Cruz, and an activist in UAW 2865.