Re-reading Ralph Miliband

I bought a lovely second hand hardback copy of Ralph Miliband’s Class Power & State Power (1983) a couple of weeks ago and have been dipping in and out of it for the past two or three days. It’s a fairly eclectic collection of some of Miliband’s essays, although organised into three thematic sections – ‘The Capitalist State’, ‘Marxism and the Problem of Power’ and ‘Britain’ (the second being the most wide ranging and the third feeling a little tacked on). The book contains a fair few of what it’s probably now fair to consider ‘classic Miliband’ pieces –  his powerfully angry essay on ‘The Coup in Chile’ written shortly after the overthrow of Allende, his critique of ‘Lenin’s The State and Revolution‘ (not quite as devastating as I remembered it, but still pretty sharp on some key gaps, lacunae and instances of wishful thinking in Lenin’s – in my view highly over-rated – text) and excerpts from his halves of the famous New Left Review exchanges with Nicos Poulantzas (though these feel a bit odd reproduced as an ‘essay’ in itself).

Two essays I’ve never read before and which I found surprisingly fascinating were his critical review of Perry Anderson’s Passages from Antiquity and Lineages of the Absolutist State (in ‘Political Forms and Historical Materialism’) in which Miliband takes Anderson to task for understating the autonomy of the Absolutist state from the aristocracy, and his essay ‘Political Forms and Historical Materialism’ in which Miliband attempts to account for the role of chance, accident and individual decision within the historical process and to integrate this with the focus on grander social and structural historical forces in Marxist historiography.

Re-reading Miliband directly (rather than about him) for the first time in several (probably 10 ) years, I’m struck by what a lucid and eminently readable writer he was. A writing style is, for me anyway, a kind of persona – a writer’s voice expresses itself in and carries with it a sort of character. Some are austere and unfriendly, some are buttoned up and excessively formal and others feel like they aren’t really very interested in being read by the likes of you and are doing their best to shake you off. Miliband’s writing however has a distinctly affable – almost conversational – quality to it. I want to say, in fact, that there’s something almost genteel about Miliband’s writing style in the best sense of that term – charming, relaxed and good-humoured if perhaps also slightly tweedy and old-school in its choices of diction and turns of phrase. But while he writes in what comes across as a fairly relaxed and genial manner it’s never sprawling or meandering. In fact Miliband’s key points are almost always expressed in an impressively sharp and clear way. Indeed most of the essays in this book are pretty short and to the point. How he managed to write with such precision and lucidity while also maintaining such a conversational tone, I don’t know – but what an impressive writer he was.

These qualities are much in evidence in what is for me the stand-out essay in the collection (and the reason I bought the book) – ‘State Power and Class Interests’. I really think that this is a very fine essay on the vexed question of the ‘relative autonomy of the state’ in Marxist state theory. In his characteristically lucid and accessible style, Miliband pin-points the key problems with both ‘class reductionist’ (Poulantzas and Therborn) and ‘state reductionist’ (Skocpol) accounts of state autonomy and sets out an admirably simple (though certainly not simplistic) model of ‘partnership’ between the state (or key figures within the state executive) and the capitalist class.

The problem with theorists such as Poulantzas is that they dissolve state power entirely into class power – for Poulantzas the state is fundamentally a condensate of all the contradictions between classes and class fractions. Its autonomy is thus a sort of epiphenomenal expression at the political level of conflicts and tensions between class forces. The state thus has no independent interests or sources of power of its own. As Miliband very elegantly points out however, this really won’t do. The main problem with such class reductionist perspectives is that they cannot account for ‘two powerful impulses to state action generated from within the state by the people who are in charge of the decision-making power… and [that] cannot be taken to be synonymous with the purposes of the dominant class’.

The first of these is that state actors can, clearly, be motivated by self-interest – this Miliband calls the ‘Machiavellian dimension of state action’. The ability to exercise decision-making power within the state is quite clearly very attractive in itself for some people (Miliband here cites as evidence the personality and behaviour of Lyndon B Johnson) – some people desire it and if they get it they wish to hold on to it. The actions and decisions of such people may have very little to do with the purposes of any class fraction – the Machiavellian actor here acts with a certain degree of autonomy (acts on his/her self-interest) and is certainly not simply some sort of conduit for capitalist class imperatives. Further, the upper echelons of the state are also sources of status, privilege, connections, high salaries and access to desirable positions outside the state and the state also provides, indeed, the terrain upon which the Machiavellian actor can manoeuvre to further his/her self interest. Thus the state (and the wider sphere of politics) constitutes a separate and, under normal circumstances, more or less free standing site of power in itself – one that must be, to some extent, independent of class forces.

The second impulse to state action is the idea of ‘the national interest’ – however overdetermined by ideological mystification and/or euphemism etc this concept might be , people in power are clearly motivated in good faith by this concept at least some of the time. They really are moved by what they conceive to be in ‘the national interest’. Their conception of ‘the national interest’ tends to coincide with the core interests of core sections of capital, though Miliband’s explanation of this seems to me to be a little weak. Miliband suggests that the connection here is embedded in the ‘belief’ among state actors that the national interest is bound up with the ‘well being of capitalist enterprise’ or the belief that ‘no conceivable alternative arrangement, least of all socialism, could possibly be more advantageous to the ‘national interest”. While this is true, it doesn’t quite get to the nub of the matter. Fred Block it seems to me is on stronger ground when he suggests (in what is quite a similar approach overall that stresses the independent agency of state managers) that the decisions of state actors tend to coincide with the interests of core sections of capital simply because the state is dependent on profits for its own revenue via taxation and thus has an interest in boosting (or at least not depressing) capital accumulation. Nevertheless Miliband’s approach here is similar enough. Indeed, as for Block, Miliband also suggests that it’s this ideology of the ‘national interest’ that enables state managers to rationalise capitalism – that is to go against the immediate interests of specific sections of capital (or even large swathes of it) with the intention of boosting accumulation overall and/or over the longer term. The key point here for Miliband (as for Block) is that state actors would not be able to act ‘in the long term interests of capitalism’ unless they acted on impulses that are not wholly reducible to class forces.

As against ‘state reductionists’, however, Miliband wants to insist that the state does not and cannot float entirely free of class forces. Skocpol’s model of ‘the state for itself’ tends to abstract from the ‘hard reality’ of the capitalist context in which it is situated – but as Miliband insists, no government can be indifferent to this context if it wishes to survive.

So, overall, as Miliband puts it, ‘an accurate and realistic ‘model’ of the relationship between the dominant class in advanced capitalist societies and the state is one of partnership between two different, separate forces, linked to each other by many threads, yet each having its own separate sphere of concerns’. There’s a complementarity here between Miliband’s model of the state and Harvey’s and Callinicos’s theorisation of imperialism in which the latter speak of a dialectical interplay between the ‘territorial’ and capitalist ‘logics of power’ – neither of which are reducible to the other, but which are also deeply interwoven in the complex of forces and imperatives that drives imperial expansion. Nevertheless I’m not sure that any other recent major theorist of the state (other than Block mentioned above) has given due consideration to the autonomy of state actors as a core constituent factor (indeed as the pivot) of the ‘relative autonomy of the state’.

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  1. #1 by Russell Haggar on August 29, 2017 - 3:47 pm

    Very informative article on Ralph Miliband The book we hear most about is The State in Capitalist Society and perhaps rightly so. However I have also very much enjoyed some of hos later books such as Capitalist Democracy in Britain and ,especially, Divided Societies. A pity that these books tend to get less publicity.

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