What Did Ralph Miliband Actually Believe?

A critical review of Miliband’s ‘Marxism and Politics’ (OUP 1977)

Sage’s detailed exegesis and comments on the thoughts of Prof Miliband, father of Ed Miliband. Sage finds a revisionist Marxist thinker, with some naïve or over-optimistic views on the state of the revolution in the late 1970s.

Author’s note: Quotations in double quotes are the words of Prof Miliband and from ‘Marxism and Politics’ unless otherwise stated. Sage is not a Marxist. Long. Technical.

Ralph Miliband

In September 2013, leader of the opposition Ed Miliband was subject to attack from the more right wing British press. In a blatant attempt to establish guilt by association, the alleged views of Ed’s father, the late Professor Ralph Miliband, were caricatured and attacked. The resulting controversy was bitter, but fortunately short lived. But what did Ralph Miliband believe in? He was certainly a Marxist, but what sort of Marxist?

Perhaps some clues can be garnered from his book, ‘Marxism and Politics’, written in 1976 and first published 1977[1]. The book is dedicated to “David and Edward”, which almost makes it seem relevant to the recent controversy. An exegesis of this book takes up most of what follows here. Those for whom this is too long may well wish to jump to my conclusions.

This is not the place to discuss the life of Prof Miliband in detail. For those interested, biographical information which seems to be reasonably accurate is available on Wikipedia. Suffice it to say, he self-identified as a life-long Marxist, spending a number of years in the Labour Party (until the mid-1960s), but thereafter he was independent of any formal political party allegiance. He was mostly associated with the ‘New Left’ movement.

‘Marxism and Politics’ was first published by the Oxford University Press as part of the ‘Marxist Introductions’ series edited by Raymond Williams and Steven Lukes. While this series was meant as an introduction to elements of Marxism for students of politics – the cover design of my copy is very similar to other OUP books for politics students published at about the same time – it is not for beginners. Some knowledge of the basic tenets of Marxism is a requirement, although there is usually enough explanation of each concept to act as a reminder for anyone who has not read much Marxist thought for a while. I, however, will not be doing this, so some prior knowledge is certainly required here.

What’s it all About?

“I have attempted to do this by way of a ‘theorisation’ of material drawn mainly from writings of Marx, Engels and Lenin…” says Miliband. For him, Marxist politics are “… central to the politics of the 20th century on that they are likely to dominate what remains of it.”

In his introduction, Miliband sets out why this book is needed. He believes that a political treatment of Marxism has not been done properly before. Milliband doesn’t give any real, detailed, definition of ‘politics’, let alone ‘Marxist politics’ here. And what is meant by ‘theorising’? It always seems to me that the Marxist left – especially the New Left – spends too much time ‘theorising’, and very little doing – which maybe just as well…

Miliband notes that the character of Marx’s writings on politics, and those of all the major figures from Marx onwards are the product of particular historical episodes in specific circumstances. Hence the “theoretical exploration” of these “unsystematic and fragmentary” documents is hard to do. “… Marxist politics has to be constructed or reconstructed from the mass of variegated and fragmentary material which forms the corpus of Marxism.”

Miliband goes on to identify the reasons why there has been no major work of Marxist political theorisation in the last 50 years. He blames this squarely on Stalin. The “Stalinist version of Marxism is a dreadfully impoverished affair”. Miliband regards Stalinism as a selective reading of Marx and Engels, and therefore now relies on his own readings of classical Marxist texts.

So Miliband will start with Marx and Engels as the founders of Marxism and then continue on with Lenin and will also discuss the writings of other Marxists. He does recognise that these texts are subject to contradictory interpretations and there are tensions and contradictions within them too. Personally, I don’t think that Miliband understands just how much, particularly, Lenin’s writing was determined by the circumstances that Lenin found himself – Lenin was a practical revolutionary in very specific situations and times.

Miliband identifies several reasons for the Marxist neglect of political theory. Briefly, two of these can be described as combinations of the economic determinism inherent in Marx: that the proletarian revolution is in some sense inevitable; and that politics is determined by the economic circumstances of any given system of production. Miliband rejects these assumptions. Miliband thinks it is still possible to treat politics as “… a specific phenomena, namely as ways and means whereby social conflict and notably class conflict is manifested”. For Miliband, and I agree, Marxism is not fully deterministic. How could it be? Why bother to plot a revolution otherwise?

A third problem in formulating a Marxist theory of politics was Marx’s fundamental distinction between ‘political emancipation’ and ‘human emancipation’. By political emancipation is meant such issues as women’s’ civic rights, universal suffrage, the ending of monarchical rule etc. Whereas human emancipation cannot be achieved in the political field without a revolutionary transformation of the economic and social order. This analysis suggests that political forms are not important in a given economic situation. For Miliband, this is not a valid conclusion but it does highlight a tendency to draw that conclusion and hence devalue mere political forms.

Miliband says that little political analysis has in fact been done during the period from the revolution in Russia to the time of his writing. He notes that, apart from Trotsky’s ‘Revolution Betrayed’, there has been little in the way of “Marxist attempts to theorise the experience of Stalinism”. There has simply been the use of formulas such as ‘degenerate workers state’, ‘state capitalism’ etc. This analytical work has mostly been done by anti-Marxists.

The political analysis of ‘Third World’ countries has been analysed a little bit better by Marxists, says Miliband, but it has only just begun. “the main work of theorising the known practice remains to be undertaken… to discover which theoretical categories of Marxism are relevant to the experience in question, which need to be modified, and which should be discarded.” Miliband also considers that there has been too little theoretical analysis is done regarding advanced capitalist countries.

This leads Miliband to summarise the aims of this book. These are: to contribute to the development of Marxist tradition of political studies; and to identify what questions must be considered in constructing a Marxist political analysis. He will attempt the above on the basis of readings of primary Marxist texts. Others must judge Miliband’s reading. “So too must the question of the validity of the political argument which in this reconstruction Marxist politics, I am inevitably lead to put forward and which indeed I want to put forward.”

Class and Class conflict 

Miliband considers that all politics is about conflict and how to contain or abolish it. However conflict in Marxism is a state of domination and subjection, only to be ended by total transformation of the conditions giving rise to it. Ultimately, stability has to be achieved by force and not by reason. Miliband believes that conflict is inherent in the capitalist system so there is a need to transform the mode of production in order to end class conflict, and hence end the situation of domination and subjection. “The conflict essentially stems from the determination of the dominant classes to extract as much work as possible from the subject classes… and from the attempts of these classes to change the terms and conditions of their subjection”. This is, of course, standard Marxist thinking.

However, Miliband thinks that the traditional Marxist interpretation – that there are only two classes that are really in conflict – is far too simple. Marx and Engels do recognise other classes and other types of conflict, it is just that, in a capitalist society, the primary conflict is between capitalists and wage earners. However, suggests Miliband, too strict an interpretation of this primacy of conflict “has led to the underestimation by Marxists of the importance which other classes and their conflicts have had and still have in capitalist society…”

Miliband considers what is actually meant by Marists when they use the terms ‘the working class’ or ‘the proletariat’. And what exactly is the ‘capitalist class’?

So What is a ‘Class’?

Miliband believes that that the Marxist definition of ‘class’ is contingent: conditions have to be fulfilled to become a ‘class’. For example, Marx talks of the working class becoming a ‘class for itself’ in his work ‘Poverty of Philosophy'(1847). This means recognition of its own class interests, not just as a mass of people, but in relation to capital. Marx and Engels speak of the “organisation of proletariat into a class…” [Communist Manifesto]. So there is a “subjective dimension to the notion of the working class as a class”. For the working class to be truly a ‘class’, in Marx’s sense, the workers need to develop ‘class consciousness’, recognising themselves as the producers of surplus value which is expropriated from them. Such a definition covers more than the industrial and factory worker, for example writers who are enriching their publisher. It also means that workers are ‘workers’ irrespective of the kind of labour they do. It is not necessary for the work to be manual labour, so this definition must cover even top executives in big businesses.

For Miliband, such a definition will not suffice, as it is too encompassing, and needs further qualification: “The ‘working class’ is therefore that part of the ‘collective labourer’ which produces surplus value, from the position of subordination, at the lower levels of the income scale, and also at the lower ends of what might be called the ‘scale of regard'”. Prof Miliband removes, by dictat, the middle and upper managers from the definition of ‘working class’ or ‘proletariat’. I suspect Miliband simply wants to exclude ‘the rich’ from any possible inclusion in the working class, because their inclusion would just not ‘feel right’ to him.

As Miliband recognises, this revised definition still raises problems. Where is the cut-off between ‘workers’ so defined and the other technical/management grades “the middle strata of the ‘collective labourer'”?  Miliband further suggests that a distinction must be made for the “large and growing army of state employees, engaged in administration and in police and military functions” Such persons are not working class, nor are they of the petty bourgeoisie: they are “… a class apart”. This is an interesting point. If state employees – or many of them – can’t be ‘working class’, what hope for the Labour Party of the 21st Century?

Capitalist class

Miliband argues that the capitalist class is not just the owners and controllers of the means of production and exchange. It also includes those who “fulfil specific professional and other functions on behalf of those interests”. These persons are of similar income and social status to the ruling class. This capitalist class is heterogeneous with economic divisions within it “the importance of these divisions, from a political point of view, is considerable”.

Again, it here is the issue of a cut-off. This time where is the distinction from the petty bourgeoisie? Miliband considers that there is “no conclusive answer to the problem” and the distinction must involve a “… degree of arbitrariness”.

The matter of the divisions in the ruling class between ownership as against control of capital; that is the question of the class nature of senior management, is addressed by Miliband. He notes that this area has been considered before by many other writers. Miliband states his own view: “That managerialism… Is indeed a major and growing feature of advanced capitalism; and that the separation of ownership and control which it betokens… does not affect in any substantial way the rationale and dynamic of capitalist enterprise”. “… Ownerless managers are practically indistinguishable from owning ones”. That is the capitalist class is at the top of the economic ladder irrespective what the members of that class own. So, concludes Miliband, the difference in ideology and politics between owners and non-owners is negligible.

Class struggle

Miliband is convinced that class conflict “is a central reality”, but notes that in practice only elements of a given class enter into conflict at a given time, and these ‘elements’ may not even be representative of that class.

There are many forms of class antagonism. Often these are localised, and focused on economic demands [i.e. strikes and similar disputes]. These disputes may be at a cultural level as the struggle “is permanently fought at that level”. And, of course, disputes can be at a political level whereby existing political arrangements are questioned. These clashes can either be peaceful or violent. But Miliband says that we can’t just label each type separately: “for any event in class struggle… includes and expresses all manifestations of social life, and is in this sense an economic, cultural/ideological, social and political phenomenon”.

As well as the above analysis, based on conditions in advanced capitalist countries, Miliband considers class and class struggle in both ‘third world’ and communist countries. I will deal with Miliband’s views on these types of society later in this essay.

Class Consciousness?

So what really is ‘class consciousness’? For Miliband, the concept of ‘class consciousness’ (or elements of it) are crucial in Marxist politics – but it has more “unresolved difficulties” than the usage suggests. It “… mean[s] the consciousness which the members of a class have of its ‘true’ interests…” but what are ‘true’ interests?

Miliband suggests the answer is least complex for the capitalist class “it’s true interests presumably consist in the maintenance and defence of capitalism; and it is class consciousness is on this score very easy to achieve. As a matter of historical fact, privileged classes have always been perfectly class conscious…” But this does not mean that ways to defend class interests are clearly perceived. “Also as… historical fact, privileged classes have often been short-sighted in this respect, and have needed skills of agents acting on their behalf… to mitigate if not overcome the short-sightedness of their masters.” So, Miliband believes that despite their ‘class consciousness’, capitalists have often proved less that adept at defending their interests. Miliband does not tell us what these ‘historical facts’ are. He will return to this theme later.

The bourgeoisie is also falsely conscious because it believes “that these partial and class interests have universal and classless character.” Marx and Engels in ‘The German Ideology’ suggest that this false consciousness is necessary for any ruling class. Such universalisation leads to ‘ideology’. Here ‘ideology’ has a pejorative meaning, a false view of reality. Some deliberate deception may be involved, but mostly it is self-deception by and of the bourgeoisie.

But why then should the working class be the ‘universal’ class whose interests are the same the society at large, as claimed by Marx and Engels? Miliband offers two reasons. Firstly, the working class is the majority class. Secondly, says Miliband, they are the “only class in history whose interests don’t depend on oppression and exploitation of other classes”.

What is ‘class consciousness’ in relation to the ‘universal’ class, the working class? For Miliband, it “May be taken to be an understanding that emancipation of the proletariat and liberation of society require the overthrow of capitalism… also be taken to entail the will to overthrow it.” That is the proletarian class consciousness must be equated with the revolutionary consciousness, it is the same thing. Miliband suggests that class consciousness is not a state to be achieved and (once arrived at) maintained: it is not a “state of grace”. In reality it must encompass “many uncertainties, tensions, contradictions, possibilities of error…” But “it is a certain understanding of the nature of the social order and of what needs to be done about it.”

Miliband does hint at recognising the ‘no true Scotsman’ fallacy in this. That any given idea could be substituted in formulation of ‘true class consciousness’. But for Marx, says Miliband, the formulation is rather general and did not require a specific set of ideas. “For Marx and Engels at least, the concept did not entail the kind of devout and categorical adherence to given formulas which became the hallmark of later Marxism”. These later attempts to determine what revolutionary consciousness means (or doesn’t), with respect to a vast range of questions, turned “class consciousness into a catechismal orthodoxy…” Miliband himself clearly does not himself wish to have any specific set of ideas as defining working-class consciousness. He seems to be getting at Stalinist orthodoxy here, where Stalinist ‘authority’ defines what such ideas are, a subject which he returns to later.

Miliband could easily be accused of being rather vague in his own take on the concept. He does try to give working-class consciousness a distinctive meaning. It “denote[s] a commitment to the revolutionary transformation of society, an ‘interiorisation’ of the need to achieve that ‘most radical rupture’ with traditional property relations and traditional ideas of which Marx and Engels spoke in the Communist Manifesto”. So the meaning does “contain definitive perspectives and establishes certain forms of delimitation.” For Miliband then, ‘true’ working class consciousness must require commitment to revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist economic system. But he is vague about the details of anything else and makes a virtue of that vagueness.

Having considered the cases of the two main conflicting classes, Miliband turns his attention to the other classes, such as ‘the middle strata of collective labourer’ and the petty bourgeoisie.

Marx and Engels considered the petty bourgeoisie to be a reactionary class – although they do sometimes fight against the bourgeoisie. But Miliband notes of this class that “certainly most have been fierce opponents of organised labour, and unwilling allies, but allies nonetheless, of the large-scale capitalist interests…” As Miliband was writing 1976 after years of industrial unrest and high inflation, it is unsurprising that the British ‘petty bourgeois’, which he likely had in mind, would be “fierce opponents” of trade unions. Strikers could maintain their wages; the petty bourgeois, especially those relying on fixed incomes, could not do so, and the rich bourgeoisie were likely too rich to be really damaged.

For Miliband, those occupying technical, scientific and supervisory and cultural posts form the ‘middle strata of collective labour’, the ‘new working class’. “Sharply pulled in contrary directions”, “It is markedly differentiated from the traditional working classes” with “plausible hopes of access to the upper layers of the social pyramid”. They are non-the-less a salaried and subordinate class, a class that is being proletarianised. “And it has in recent decades learned the virtues of collective organisation and collective action in defence of its sectional interests”. Miliband thinks this class may well develop a ‘class consciousness’ as there are no insuperable barriers to it doing so. If so, could be very important political development if there was “an organic linkage between this part of the ‘collective worker’ and the rest of the working class…”

 Miliband is presumably referring to the white-collar unions extant in and around 1976, for example ASTMS (Clive Jenkins) had 441,000 members in 1977; also at this time TASS (75,000 members in 1968) was a section within the AUEW. As I write, in 2013, both these organisations form part of Unite, via a series of mergers. The current structure of Unite is industry based, rather than by job-type, so it is hard to see if membership has grown or declined in these areas and to see if Miliband’s predictions were correct. Certainly, writing in 1982, Anthony Sampson suggested that “most of [ASTMS] members were moderate conservatives, who paid no political levy to Labour and were only militant in their wage claims”. (Anthony Sampson, ‘The Changing anatomy of Britain’ (Coronet edition 1983)). If Sampson was right, then this suggests to me that Miliband was wrong! I suspect that Mrs Thatcher put paid to it.

“Capitalism, however many and varied the reforms it can assimilate, is unable to do without exploitation, oppression, and dehumanisation…” But the working class has still not turned itself into a revolutionary class. Why not? Miliband suggests that it is incorrect to equate “revolutionary consciousness with the will to insurrection”. This lack of “will to insurrection is not in Marxist terms a decisive demonstration of a lack of class-consciousness”. Miliband notes that Marx was certainly in favour of reforms, such as trade unions might pursue; and Lenin was too. So supporting reform does not equal false consciousness. It is ‘Trade union consciousness’ if only the amelioration of capitalism is desired rather than its abolition. Marxists have always recognised the difficulty of the working classes in acquiring class consciousness, for example due to long-established tradition, and a discussion of this follows in the next chapters of ‘Marxism and Politics’


Miliband notes that ‘classical Marxists’ were aware of the strength “of tradition in shaping consciousness of the working class”, but thinks that for various reasons, did not “make very much” of it. No one worked out theory of domination and it is a question still to be answered: “why capitalism was able to maintain itself, despite the crises and contradictions by which it was beset;” Such explanations as were offered relied on the “state as instrument of capitalist coercion and repression” but Miliband says this is not a sufficient explanation. Neither, he says, was the idea that reformist labour leaders allowed capitalism to continue- “since this left the question why the working class allowed itself so regularly and so blatantly to be betrayed”.

The following discussion, says Miliband, is not intended to “fill the gap” in Marxist thought on this issue, but “only to indicate some of the major ways in which the established order achieved legitimation”.

Miliband first considers ‘tradition’. Tradition is here defined as a “diverse accumulation of customary ways of thought and action” It can include traditions of dissent as well as of conformity. In the Communist Manifesto, there is a sense that capitalism itself was disrupting and uprooting. Due to continuing changes in relations between classes and people, capitalism uproots traditions. However, Miliband recognises that the Manifesto overstates this issue, and that “capitalism soon came to create, and has not ceased to reinforce, its own traditions, which were fused with or superimposed upon what remained of older ones…” These traditions, reinforced by education and habit and tradition, treat capitalistic “production as a self-evident laws of nature” [Marx, in ‘Capital’]. The relations between capitalists and workers seem ‘free’. There is a falsity of perception, a disjunction between form and substance, a “fetishism of commodities” [Marx]. This is ‘mystification’.

On the other hand, Marx also notes that the working class becomes “even more disciplined, united, and organised by the very mechanism of capitalist production itself” [Marx]. This working class discipline and unity is a perquisite before the undertaking of the business of expropriating the expropriators.

Miliband argues that the above views are not contradictory. They are just two facets of reality. “In which the opposing forces of tradition and actuality on the one hand, and of change on another do constant battle for the consciousness of the working class”. So capitalism ‘uproots traditions’, presumably the old pre-industrialisation rural ones, and replaces them with a mixture of capitalist traditions and some new working class ones – those of discipline and unity.


Miliband now considers culture in the broadest sense, including the mass media, and its role in defending the capitalist status quo. The ideas of ruling class are the ruling ideas; the ruling class controls ‘mental production’, and others who don’t control ‘mental production’ are subject to its ideas.

The above, says Miliband, “points to one of the dominant features of life in advanced capitalist societies, namely the fact of the largest part of what is produced in the cultural domain… is produced by capitalism and is also therefore quite naturally intended to help… in the defence of capitalism”. One of the aims of the cultural output is therefore to prevent the development of working class consciousness. “Nor is the point much affected by the fact that the state in almost all capitalist countries ‘owns’ the radio and television – its purpose is identical, namely the weakening of opposition to the established order.”

Two points, which I think are obvious, arise here. In capitalist society, especially a pre-internet one such as in 1976, it is hardly surprising to anyone that cultural output is produced by capitalism. How can it not be? Even the most radical theatre group, or the most militant author needs to operate within the capitalist milieu, how else are their productions to be financed?

The second point is that if state-owned media, like the BBC, acts to weaken radical opponents of the status quo, surely this applies a fortiori to state broadcasters in communist, and indeed fascist, societies.

Manchester United v Moscow Dynamo

Miliband claims that subordination at work forms a complex element in working class culture: “frustrations which seek compensation and release… in ways… by no means conducive to the development of class consciousness” Very surprisingly, Miliband gives as an example spectator and commercialised sport. In football, says Miliband, most of the spectators and players are members of the working class, at least by origin[2]. Sport culture is big business. “The elaboration of a Marxist sociology of sport may not be the most urgent of theoretical tasks…”, says Miliband, but feels the need to ask why should a deep and strongly felt support for a football team be incompatible with the pursuit of a class struggle? It does not seem reasonable suggest it is. It is an over simplification to condemn spectator sport as being ‘bread and circuses’.

Miliband notes that the role and organisation sport in Communist countries “raise questions of a different order”, but offers nothing more. Why should a Russian worker’s support for Moscow Dynamo, and opposition to Spartak differ from a British worker’s enthusiasm for, say, Manchester City and hatred of United?


How strong is the ideological power of the ruling class? Miliband identifies a “serious defect” in formulations from Marx’s ‘The German Ideology’ and in Gramsci’s concept of ‘hegemony’. “What is involved is an overstatement of the ideological predominance of the ‘ruling class’, or of the effectiveness of that predominance”. For Miliband, it is only partly true that the ruling class ideology dominates – in fact there is a “many sided and permanent challenge which is directed at the ideological predominance of the ‘ruling class'”, which “produces a steady erosion of that predominance”.

There is always some challenge from the working class, or indeed the rising class in any pre-revolutionary situation. He thinks that this can be clearly seen in more recent times, “what for brevity’s sake may be called the socialist idea has vastly grown in strength in this period… So much so that the real question is progressively coming to be what kind of socialism… and… how it is to be realised”. So in 1976, Miliband was getting a bit triumphalist. Would he have written the same in 1979, or 1983? I suspect not.

Despite this qualification, Miliband’s main point is “that the ‘dominant class’, under the protection of the state, has vast resources, immeasurably greater than the resources of the subordinate classes, to bring its own weight to bear on ‘civil society’.  Possibly in more advanced capitalism the state itself will take on more of this ideological role from the dominant class itself. As an aside he notes “I am not here referring to state intervention in the economy, where this is obviously true, but rather in the shaping of consciousness.”

This leads on to how the state, in the form of Governments, use ‘modern’ communications to both disseminate and influence news, views and so on, and to prevent the dissemination of ‘unhelpful’ views and opinions. Once again, it should be noted that 1976 is a world away from mass communications of today. It can be argued that given the advance of the internet, governments are weakened in this role, although one could say that there is also more scope for non-state class action by the ruling class too.

The ‘unproductive’ BBC?

Miliband makes some, what seem to me to be, strange comments about state-run broadcasters. He says that “the communications industry run by the state does not produce any kind of commodity: its range of products… is fairly narrow in ideological terms, and the products quite naturally bear mostly a conformist and ‘helpful’ [to political stability] label…” I am really not sure what he means by this. If he is talking about BBC, surely they do make commodities, saleable products; that is their programmes? Or is he just imagining a hypothetical broadcaster that really is just a state propaganda arm, providing biased news and tractor production statistics and little else?


If there is an ideological battle waged “day in day out” in capitalist societies, then, says Miliband, “a great deal of importance must be attributed to those people who play the main part in articulating and giving expression to the terms of that battle – intellectuals”. Miliband suggests it is best to use the term ‘intellectuals’ to apply those taking a role in the ‘cultural and ideological domain’ as Marx and Engels suggest in ‘The German Ideology’.

Intellectuals are mainly acting for the ruling class. “For it is indeed the management, fostering and consolidation of the legitimacy of the existing social order that most intellectuals have in one way or another been about.” This is despite there being many examples to the contrary. The majority of the intellectuals in bourgeois society, which must also include ‘professionals’ such as accountants, doctors, lawyers etc., “have been ‘managers of legitimation’ of their society”. Often, these people were unaware they were doing it. They were sharing and propagating “the illusion of universalism… [the] false consciousness of the bourgeoisie…”

Miliband suggests that the “recent increase in numbers of people who perform intellectual tasks under capitalism” are ‘proletarianised’. Therefore it is possible for them to come to into an “alliance with the working class, and [their] enlistment in its cause, becomes a matter of crucial importance.” Of course Miliband admits these are not the sort of ‘intellectuals’ Marx and Engels had in mind in the 19th Century. These persons are much closer to Gramsci’s idea of ‘intellectuals’.

Of course, some intellectuals do, and have, come over to the side of the working class. There is at least one role “which the revolutionary intellectual should play, namely helping to demystify capitalist reality”. This is a telling comment, that the working class needs intellectuals to deal with a “very complicated matter”[Marx, ‘Capital’], suggesting that Miliband believes that the working class are incapable of doing this on their own.

Miliband suggests that the role of intellectuals in the revolutionary movement is problematic. Intellectuals are required to ‘serve the people’. How should they do this? Generally it has been the leaders of Communist Parties have answered that question; “and [it] is in fact one characteristic feature of Stalinism, and for that matter Maoism” that they have answered it. “But the prerogative of party leaders… to decide what, in intellectual productions, ‘serves the people’… has not come under serious question in Communist regimes”. Miliband notes that, in general, Communist parties that are not in power are more “open and fluid” in this respect. He cites the French and Italian Communist Parties. But still intellectuals “are expected, like other party members, to behave in accordance with principles of ‘democratic centralism’…”.

This is a feature which shows the weakness or absence of internal democracy in these parties. The main point is that the role of intellectuals is not determined by Marxism, but has been determined in Communist regimes. Miliband notes with disfavour the resulting repressions of dissidence of all kinds. But he firmly rejects the suggestion that such repression is a part of Marxism. To say so, he claims, is propaganda, part of the battle for consciousness. Of course, the repression of ideas may not be intentionally part of Marxism, but perhaps it is an inevitable consequence of the dogma? Certainly, Miliband does identify some ‘contradictions’ in Marxist dogma. This kind of repression could be another, although Miliband seems blind to the possibility.

The State and the ‘Ruling Class’

Miliband now turns his attention to the state. For once, this area has not been neglected by Marxists: “In the politics of Marxism there is no institution which is nearly as important as the state – so much so that the concentration of attention upon it has helped to devalue in the Marxist theory other important elements of politics…” Miliband feels that too much weight has been placed upon it. Nevertheless, as part of Marxist politics, he needs to address it, and the oversimplifications that he feels other writers have made.

For the Marxist, says Miliband, “the state is an essential means of class domination”. It is a “Deeply engaged partisan… and [a]means of class domination”. The problem here is the underlying assumption Marxists make is that class power (that is the ownership of the means of production) translates into state power. But for Miliband this assumption is not necessarily the case. “There is no such automatic translation”, he says. The “relation between the ‘ruling class’ and the state is a problem that can’t be assumed away”. The state, continues Miliband, also acts as mediator between various elements within the bourgeoisie, as well as “managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie” [Marx and Engels Manifesto]

If the state is doing this kind of mediation, then the state must have some kind of “autonomy in relation to the ruling class”. The ruling class is not monolithic, so the state cannot truly act as an agent to that ruling class. Why then do Marxists see the state as the ‘instrument of the ruling class’? There are three distinct answers:

Jobs for the Boys

The first is that the personnel of the state in its higher levels are drawn from the ruling (in economic and cultural terms) classes. They have a common social background, origin, education etc., therefore they share “… common values and perspectives”. There does not have to be unanimous agreement on everything, of course “but these differences occur within a specific and fairly narrow conservative spectrum”. So those running the state are sympathetic to those controlling the means of economic activity, and seek to serve their interests and be persuaded that it is the ‘national interest’ too. Miliband says this analysis is supported by facts. Here again, Miliband does not tell us what these facts are, but I suspect that he is correct, and these ‘facts’ may even be more true in 2014 than in 1976, with the continuing dominance of the public schools and Oxbridge in public life.

This is not a specifically Marxist, or even a characteristically socialist argument about the nature of the state. It is a view shared today by many who are disaffected with British mainstream political parties, be those critics on the left or right. It is said that the political elite all represent the ‘LibLabCon’ party, and are all, along with the Civil Service, Oxbridge types who have never done a proper job in their lives, being self-serving or serving their unnamed masters.

But Miliband is not sure that this analysis is without problems.  The “correlation… in class terms between the state elite and the economically dominant class is not adequate to settle the issue”. Frequent and important exceptions are seen at both the upper and lower levels of the social scale; for example the predominance of landowners in the 19th century when the UK was the most advanced capitalist country. Miliband says that the new capitalist ruling class allowed the aristocracy to exercise power on its behalf…. Miliband is making an assumption here. Perhaps the capitalist class were not yet truly the ruling class in the 19th century? Or perhaps they never have been at all? Some non-Marxist, but socialist inclined, writers such as George Monbiot argue that the wealth and power of the landowning class is still a political problem in the 21st century.

Also, notes Miliband, people from the ‘petty bourgeois’ and the working classes were also making careers in the state service, “often the highest levels”. So he concludes that the makeup of state personnel is clearly not the determining factor in the class bias of the state.

The second argument Miliband considers is that the capitalist ruling class wields its economic power and exerts its influence in the manner of a pressure group. Miliband suggest that modern industrial conglomerates and multinationals are a “characteristic feature of advanced capitalism” and that they do act like this. Certainly, he says, governments do defer to them, in the interest of ‘free enterprise’. But this doesn’t make the state the ‘instrument’ of capitalism. Pressure by business is insufficient in itself to explain the state’s actions.

“In essence, the [third] argument is simply that the state is the ‘instrument’ of the ‘ruling class’ because given its insertion into the capitalist mode of production, it cannot be anything else”. The nature of the state is determined by the mode of production. Miliband thinks there is much in this ‘structural’ perspective which “must in fact form an integral part of the Marxist view of the state…” But such a perspective does have weaknesses too. The weakness of the argument is how to quantify ‘structural constraints’. We must avoid saying that agents have no freedom of choice. This would be “but another form of determinism which is alien to Marxism, and in any case false, which is much more serious”. Miliband is against such deterministic thinking, as explained in the introduction above, but where is the cut-off here? He just doesn’t know where to place it.                                                                                             

Miliband concludes that, from these arguments, “This is that, while the state does act… on behalf of the ‘ruling class’, it does not for the most part act at its behest.” It has a high degree of autonomy and independence and needs to in order to act as a class state. In other words, the state is not strictly an ‘instrument’; to say so obscures its “crucial property…, namely its relative autonomy from the ‘ruling class’ and civil society at large”. Therefore the notion of relative autonomy is an important part of Miliband’s Marxist theory of state.

Different States Matter

Miliband argues that while there is a “class nature of all forms of state”, Marxists should not say that there is really no difference between them. For example one cannot say there is no difference between fascist regimes and bourgeois democratic ones. Comintern, says Miliband, made this mistake during the interwar years, until 1935.

For Miliband, and I should hope most people, bourgeois democracy is clearly preferable to a fascist state, even if they are both ‘capitalist’ albeit in different forms. He cites both Marx and Lenin as being in support of bourgeois democracy to some degree – Marx preferred bourgeois democracy to Bonapartism; and Lenin advocated a bourgeois revolution in Russia in 1905 (with proletarian support) to displace the monarchy.

The reason that Miliband supports bourgeois democratic states, as distinct from other forms of capitalist state, is that such states have greater autonomy and independence vis a vis the ruling class. This independence does allow flexibility for the state to play its class role. Seeing it thus also helps explain the state’s “capacity to act as an agency of reform”. Miliband likes ‘reform’ – subject to qualification.

“Reform has been a major characteristic of capitalist regimes…” says Miliband. The state has “prime responsibility for the organisation of reform”. Power holders undertake reforms to maintain capitalism. This means power holders have needed room for manoeuvre, to make negotiations possible and so on. “Which a ruling class, with its eyes fixed on immediate interests and demands, cannot be expected to handle properly”. Indeed, much actual reform in capitalist societies is opposed by (at least some of) the ruling class. It maybe some reforms are so inimical to the interest of the ruling class they must be resisted: even class government can make mistakes needing correction by the ruling class. Therefore we cannot say “that reform does not ‘really’ affect the ‘ruling class’.”

Bourgeois Democracy

Miliband moves on to discuss this relative ‘autonomy’ of the capitalist state with respect to what he considers to be the state’s four main functions. These functions are: Law and order, “the repressive function”; the economic function (broadly speaking, including state provision of social services and education); “Fostering a consensus in regard to existing social order”, that is “the ideological, cultural function”; and lastly, the international function.

As a Marxist, Miliband of course sees the capitalist state as essentially repressive: “The scope and severity of the repressive power of capitalist regimes cannot be overestimated…” especially in periods of serious social conflict. The repressive aspect is “familiar at all times” to “the poor, the unemployed, the migrant workers, the non-whites, and large parts of the working class in general” as compared to “the well-established and well-to-do”.

Miliband believes that the form of repression in bourgeois democracy is different from that of authoritarian regimes: these latter “always make it their first task to destroy the defence organisations of the working class – trade unions, cooperatives, associations and so on.” Whereas bourgeois democracy largely accepts them though it does try to control their “rights and prerogatives”.

State intervention in “economic life has always been a central, decisive feature in the history of capitalism… so that its history cannot begin to be understood without reference to state action, in all capitalist countries…” Miliband thinks that such intervention is not always specifically to help capitalism or capitalists. Miliband notes, correctly, that state intervention is more pronounced since the 1870s… And there has been an “extreme acceleration of the process in recent decades…” This does not mean, says Miliband, that the state and economy is no longer a capitalist one. Appealing to Engels as an authority, he says that state ownership is “no solution to the contradictions of capitalist production”, as compared to socialism where society as a whole controls the forces of production. By this argument, Miliband must believe that both the practice of the Soviet Union and the demands of British socialists to nationalise the “commanding heights of the economy” are subject to the ‘contradictions of capitalism’ too. So why should a Marxist want to nationalise them?

Due to its substantial size and the scope of its interventions, the modern bourgeois democratic state is a political system that “may turn the state itself into an arena of conflict”. ”The state in bourgeois democratic regimes is under constant pressure to meet the expectations and demands of the subordinate classes” that is to provide collective and public services on which the majority of people rely. This is set against the “requirements of capitalist enterprise; and whatever the state does by way of provision… of services and economic intervention has to run the gauntlet of the economic… requirements of the system”. Thus, there are “Contradictory pulls within the state itself”.

Miliband reminds us of his earlier comments on how the state “legitimatizes the existing social order” by the use of mass communications etc. This contrast between bourgeois democratic regimes with truly authoritarian capitalist states is great: (1) the suppression of dissident ideas, not just political ones, is much greater; and (2) the authoritarian state “in capitalist regimes itself assumes the main responsibility for the spread of officially approved ideas”, by radio, TV, fascist political parties etc.” Miliband admits the same is likely true in Communist states.

The Nation

Miliband discusses the international role of states at greater length. Miliband believes that the international capitalist system leads to two contradictory effects. One is the increased role, and desire, for independent nation states. The other being the increased interdependence of nations.

First Miliband examines the will to statehood. “Statehood is the absolutely essential condition, though not of course a sufficient one, for the achievement of aims which those who are able to determine or influence state action may have” By way of example, Miliband cites examples of nation states coming (or fighting to stay) together in the late 19th-century: Germany, Italy, the USA (Civil War to retain the unitary state) and the Ottomans trying to hold together the “disparate nationalities” of their empire. Such movements are described as ‘nationalism’. Miliband is not happy with this word as it suggests some “ideological commitment common to an enormously varied scatter of groups and classes… which had very different economic, social, political, cultural aims”. Indeed, he recognises that the “Appeal of which statehood has… [is] not confined to any particular class or social group”. It is not just an appealing idea for the ‘national bourgeoisie’. Miliband is sure that this drive to nationalism is not affected by multinational capitalism although the actions of any state may be affected by it.


Miliband now addresses the wider implications of ‘nationalism’ in the Marxist context. Should Marxists be for or against it? While this seems to me to be something of a digression, it is an important one in picking out Miliband’s characteristic views. In general, he says, classical Marxism is in favour of “independent statehood by subject peoples,” but this is more problematical in the mid-20th century. Marx and Engels were concerned about “the adoption by the proletariat of forms of ‘nationalism’ free from socialist and revolutionary perspectives… [which] was naturally seen by them as constituting an instance of ‘false consciousness’.”

Miliband notes that various classical Marxists have taken different views at different times: Lenin considered that nations could only be integrated after a period of “complete emancipation of all oppressed nations” [Lenin], but Lenin and the Bolsheviks largely retreated from their commitment to self-determination by 1918. Miliband does not note that by 1918 Lenin needed the grain from expropriated peasants, and couldn’t risk ‘white’ takeover in any newly independent areas. Realpolitik, not theory, was the determining factor for Lenin. But, says Miliband, generally speaking, the right to self-determination is supported by Marxism in anticolonial, anti-imperialist settings. However, there is no clear cut-off “established in either Marxist theory or practice to decide whether the right of independent statehood is or is not justified.” Miliband rightly points out that this cut-off has been generally determined by the needs of the Soviet Union and/or China. So Miliband recognises realpolitik in operation here, but not in Bolshevik Russia in 1918.

In conclusion, Miliband says that “there may come a point, even in ‘old’ established states, where demands for statehood on the part of a constituent element of an existing state… cannot be resisted on principled socialist grounds, or cannot resisted without resort to oppression, which comes to the same thing.”

Class and Party

Miliband looks at the relationship between the working class and the political parties that are supposed to represent that class, in the context of a Marxist party which aims at the overthrow of capitalism. A political organisation is absolutely necessary, says Miliband, “there is no Marxist thinker, of any sort, who was ever advocated pure spontaneity as a way of revolutionary practice. The notion is evidently absurd…” And no one “within the Marxist tradition ever advocated that a revolution should be made by an organised group or party without any measure of popular support.”

The discussion considers what sort of organisation that should be, and how representative of the class as a whole that party can be, given that, in the nature of things, it must have leaders who may well pursue their own agendas. Much of the discussion is a historical review. Miliband draws the conclusion that, pre-1914 at least, the European Social Democrat parties were seen as “representative in national life of the working class”, and expressing its political presence; defending the working class. This lead to an enhanced status for the party leaders “the men who were in charge of that complex and delicate machinery whereby the locomotive of socialism was to be driven, at a safe speed, through capitalist society”. Some of these parties, such as the German Social Democrats in 1895, were very large indeed, and fully engaged in the political apparatus of the state. Thus, says Miliband, because of the “constitutional framework of bourgeois society” there was “a powerful logic driving towards the concentration of power in the hands of leaders claiming to be the representatives and spokesmen of the working class…”

On the other hand, as is well known, Lenin was arguing for and forming a highly centralised vanguard party. Lenin’s aim was to build both “a party of a special kind… and to maintain as closer link as possible with the working class”. The approach, at least when Lenin was writing about it in 1914, was not necessarily appropriate for countries with ‘political liberty’. “Lenin was pointing to be obvious but essential… fact that any ‘model’ of the revolutionary process, or for that matter of working class politics in general, would have to include an organised political formation, which also meant there would be leadership and a structure of command.”

Which way should Marxist parties operate? Miliband finishes the section with: “the issues involved acquired an entirely new dimension with the Bolshevik seizure of power in 1917; and they have remained central to Marxist political thought to the present day.” What Miliband doesn’t say, is that if Lenin had failed, we would probably not be writing about Marxism at all today, or even in 1976.

Can a Party Represent a Class?

Miliband first considers the “representativeness” of working class political parties, or “substitutism”. He doesn’t clearly define what he means by this, but the idea is that the party cannot be the same as the class – it is in some way a substitute for it, and this is a problem. “The problem of ‘substitutism’ arises… because the working class… is not a homogeneous entity, and that the ‘unity of the working class’, which the party seeks or claims to embody, must be taken as an exceedingly dubious notion… which normally obscures the permanent and intractable differences and divisions which exist in this as in any other social aggregate.” Therefore “a united party of the working class, speaking with one voice, must be a distorting mirror of the class; and the greater the ‘unity’, the greater the distortion, which reaches its extreme form in the ‘monolithic’ party.” Of course, this all somewhat inevitable if a political party is to be effective, especially in times “of acute conflict and crisis.” But there is a genuine contradiction: that of representation versus effectiveness.

Also, says Miliband, it cannot be assumed that ‘the party’ is the “one natural political organ of the working class, with the unique mission to represent it politically”. The two points here are that Miliband does not believe that the working class is or can be united in the way that the Communist slogans would have it, so a single party is unlikely to be in any way representative. On the other hand, when there is one party, it is more likely to be effective in times of revolutionary crisis, if its leaders have not ‘betrayed’ their followers.

Given the heterogeneity of the working class, says Miliband, it is no surprise that the existence of several parties is ‘natural’. Several parties lead to the better representation of the movement in reality as compared to a single party. But, he notes that several parties are less effective and again we have this ‘representation’ as against ‘effectiveness’ dichotomy. Perhaps Miliband was thinking of the multiplicity of Marxist parties here in the UK at the time: for example Labour, CPGB, SWP, and WRP were all active in the UK in the mid-1970s, or perhaps he meant some other parties in another country? Who or what element in the working class does he think they each represent? Of course, two of these were avowedly Trotskyite groups, and Miliband seems to have little time for them.

Dictatorship of the Proletariat

Miliband moves on to consider the concept of “the dictatorship of the proletariat” at some length. His writing here is heavily based on the works of Lenin, in particular, ‘State and Revolution’. Miliband actually lifts much of this discussion of ‘State and Revolution’ from his own article, ‘Lenin’s The State and Revolution’ (from The Socialist Register 1970, pp.309-319). This may be why this section of ‘Marxism and Politics’ is easier to read and more absorbing than most of the rest of the book – or that might just be my interest in that topic showing!

Marx, says Miliband, did not define the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ clearly. For Marx, it is a transitional period when capitalism is transformed into communism. It is not enough for the proletariat just to seize control of the state machinery, this must be smashed and new structures and institutions formed instead.

Lenin in many ways was following Marx. For Lenin, the ‘new institutions’ were to be the Soviets which would unite both legislative and executive functions and vest them in (elected) representatives of the people. For Lenin, this would be “the most democratic and popular regime that could be achieved before the advent of a fully socialist society”. But by 1919, Lenin was saying that the “dictatorship of working class is carried into effect by the party of the Bolsheviks which since 1905 has been united with the whole revolutionary proletariat”[Lenin, quoted by EH Carr in ‘The Bolshevik Revolution 1917-1923′(1950). I couldn’t find another source for this, presumably there isn’t another]. This dictatorship is exercised with one centralised party, the Bolsheviks, as its vanguard.

Prof Miliband continues: “It is true that Lenin and the Bolsheviks were alone capable of saving what was after all their revolution… But what this situation entailed was the dictatorship of the Bolshevik party over the proletariat as well as over all other classes, by means of the repressive power of the state which the party controlled.” In other words, says Miliband “… that the party had ‘substituted’ itself for a ravaged and exhausted working class, in a country gripped by civil war…” But even within the party, power was now concentrated on the central committee. This came about as a reaction to ‘the workers’ opposition’ and other factions. Lenin saw this centralisation as necessary in a dire situation, claims Miliband, not as a virtue.

Miliband here does recognise the realpolitik in much of what Lenin says, writes and does, but does Miliband give it enough weight? Miliband uses practicality to excuse things he doesn’t like about Lenin, but he ignores it when Lenin says or does something he supports. Miliband says that in Lenin’s final years Lenin showed some awareness of the problem of ‘substitutism’, but no solutions were offered. “Nor was there one to be had within the confines of a system that combines the monopoly of one party with dictatorial centralism.”

Reform and Revolution

Miliband wishes to discuss the two possible, but apparently mutually exclusive, specifically Marxist, strategies for overthrowing capitalism. This division between strategies is usually known as ‘reformist’ versus ‘revolutionary’. Miliband says these terms are misleading.

First though, Miliband wishes to make it clear that reformism is not the same as advocating social reform. He points out “the fact that there has always existed a trend in working class movements… towards social reform; and this is a trend which, insofar as it has no thought of achieving the wholesale transformation of capitalist society into an entirely different social order, must be sharply distinguished from the ‘reformist’ strategy…” Social reform movements are not in themselves Marxist, or revolutionary in the Marxist sense at all. As discussed above, reform is one of the hallmarks of advanced capitalism. Because “social reform has been an intrinsic part of the politics of capitalism”, it is often seen as a way of preventing the advance toward Socialism: it is “conservative or bourgeois socialism” [Marx, Communist Manifesto]. Marx wrote of bourgeois socialism in 1848, but, says Miliband, “the characterisation of ‘conservative or bourgeois socialism’ remains generally speaking extraordinarily modern, notwithstanding the passage of 130 years; and it encompasses much more than ‘part of the bourgeoisie'”. “It has also come to dominate large… working class parties in capitalist countries. Britain, Germany and Sweden are obvious instances”. Despite some of their members wanting to achieve “a different social order”, leaders of these parties “are in their overwhelming majority solidly and comfortably established in the existing social order, and who have absolutely no intention of embarking on anything resembling its wholesale transformation, in however piecemeal and pacific a perspective”. “The ‘socialism’ which these leaders proclaim… is a rhetorical device and a synonym for various improvements that a necessarily imperfect society requires”. For Miliband, these reforms are not a strategy for socialist change or perhaps any strategy at all. As Miliband was writing in 1976, he was probably thinking especially of Callaghan, Wilson, Healy and other Labour leaders.

Marxist ‘Reformism’

This ‘socialism’ is distinct from what Miliband here calls ‘Reformism’. ‘Reformism’ is a theoretical strategy within the Marxist tradition. “This strategy naturally includes the pursuit of reforms of every kind… within the framework of capitalism”. But such reforms are seen as “at best steps and partial means towards a much larger purpose, which is declared to be the ‘overthrow’ of capitalism and the achievement of an altogether different, that is socialist society”.

Reformism is not gradualism whereby socialism is achieved after a slow but sure advance, this is Fabianism a la the Webbs[3] and is not Marxism. Miliband suggests that the Fabians’ “version of socialism had much more to do with piecemeal collectivist social engineering, inspired, directed, and administered from on high than with any version of the Marxism which they opposed.”

Marxist reformism is long-term too, including the “need to chip away at structures of capitalism”. But this is seen as class struggle and “it remains quite definitely a politics of conflict”, albeit with the “limits of constitutionalism as defined by bourgeois democracy…” So this strategy probably means entering into elections and getting representation in councils and parliaments. Miliband says that opponents of reformism on the far left suggest it is exclusively concerned with elections and representation, but “in fact, ‘reformism’ is also compatible both theoretically and practically, with forms of struggle which, though carried on within the given constitutional framework, are not related to elections and representation, for instance industrial struggles, strikes, sit-ins, work-ins, etc., designed to advance specific or general demands…”.

In the revolutionary strategy, by way of contrast, less value is given to reforms per se, so Marxists often set out campaigning for unobtainable aims instead “as part of a ‘politics of exposure’ of capitalism”. But Miliband says “but there are limits to this kind of politics, which are imposed inter alia by the working class movement itself: if the politics of exposure are pushed too far, all that they are likely to expose are the people who practice them…”


Having reviewed the ‘reformist’ strategy, in what he considers to be the Marxist tradition, Miliband moves on to look at what he calls ‘insurrectionary politics’. This he associates with Lenin after 1914, when Lenin placed “insurrectionary politics on the agenda” of the international revolutionary movement. To illustrate, Miliband goes into the 21 conditions of admission to the Communist International (Second World Congress of the International 1920. This is the Third International or Comintern). Miliband says, “As far as the 21 conditions made any sense at all, they did so as the battle orders of an international army, organised into a number of national units and a supreme command, being prepared for an assault… on the citadels of world capitalism”. Despite world conditions already changing by 1920, the 21 conditions remained “fundamental texts of the third International throughout its history and was used to serve the inquisitorial and arbitrary purposes of its centralised leadership in Moscow: the cost that was paid for this by the international working class movement in the next 20 years and more is incalculable”. Presumably Miliband means in the attitude of Third International parties towards the USSR in general and specifically the USSR/German pact and the partition of Poland in 1940, rather than the generally more realistic Popular Front policies? He is not clear on this.

Lenin’s strategy however, was “never seriously pursued by the Third International…” says Miliband, and hence not by any of the constituent national Communist parties. Instead, these parties renounced insurrectionary politics. But Miliband suggests that this was not just because Stalin and Moscow said so… there would have been more opposition to the change otherwise. It also meant that the left opposition to Moscow was condemned “to extremely marginal significance”. Presumably Miliband is referring to the Trotskyite groups. What he doesn’t mention is the financial support many (if not all) Communist parties received from the USSR at this time. It is no wonder that the Trotskyite and other non-affiliated revolutionary groups were smaller, if they had no such funding.


The revolutions that the Bolsheviks were expecting did not occur, and were never likely to, but the “old leadership” that the Third International was supposed to replace “remained in command of a large and in most cases the largest part by far of their labour movement, industrial as well as political.”

Miliband gives a fairly long historical explanation of how the Communist parties in advanced capitalist countries adopted a ‘reformist’ rather than ‘insurrectionary’ line, which I do not intend to repeat here, as it adds little to Miliband’s argument – it is also not well written and jumps about rather. Basically, the argument is that the failure of revolution in any advanced capitalist country, post WW1, as well as encouragement from Stalin and Comintern, lead to the adoption of ‘reformism’ by Communist parties in advanced capitalist countries. The ‘reformist’ strategy, pursued for years after the war, is exemplified by the CPGB’s document ‘The British Road to Socialism’ (1951) which was approved by Stalin. Miliband also notes that “The French Communist Party was certainly offered the opportunity to move in the direction of insurrectionary politics in May 1968 and rejected it with little if any hesitation.”

What Miliband calls the ‘Second International’ parties, that is those socialist parties not affiliated to Comintern, were now parties of reform and parties of government too. They “withstood the Communist challenge with remarkable and significant success”. So, “insurrectionary politics failed in the countries of advanced capitalism.”

So, in these advanced capitalist countries, there are now two major types of working class political parties:

  1. Parties of reform: these were not revolutionary at all, often seeing themselves as bulwarks against it.
  2. Communist parties following a broadly reformist strategy, such as the strategy of the CPGB.

Finally, on this topic, Miliband sets out what he considers the main points of the Marxist ‘reformist’ strategy:

  1. Advance by electoral gains, in alliance with other left-wing parties (excluding the ‘ultra-left’) in an effort to achieve electoral success and perhaps to gain power.
  2. To accomplish a “vast programme of social and economic reforms designed to begin the structural transformation of capitalist society and the eventual achievement of a socialist society.” This is a process to be taken slowly, maybe over many years.
  3. To allow the plurality of parties, including anti-socialist ones, and preserve civic freedoms such as free speech.
  4. Existing representative institutions are to continue and to be enhanced (reformed) to function more democratically and responsively.
  5. As executive power owes its legitimacy to universal suffrage, so Communists should only seek to gain and retain that power on the same basis, by way of free and unfettered elections.
  6. A “major ingredient of this strategy concerns foreign policy, and particularly relations with the USSR.” That is “complete national independence and freedom from any kind of subservience to Soviet Communism.” But although friendly relations with the USSR were desirable, it was not at the expense of existing friendships and alliances including NATO, certainly there should be no withdrawal unilaterally from NATO.

Miliband’s final point is, of course, of its time. In the 1970s the ‘cold war’ was still very much alive. But the idea that any Communist party was itself independent of the USSR in the 1970s is laughable. There is plenty of evidence, although probably this was unknown to Miliband, that many of the capitalist world’s Communist parties were being subsidised by Moscow The idea that a Communist party, coming to power in a western country at that time would not be in active support of the USSR is ridiculous, whatever the rhetoric might have been.

A ‘Reformist Revolution’?

Miliband now asks two questions. Firstly, can the executive power be achieved by electoral means? This is “By now the less important

“. Secondly, what happens when such power is achieved by Communists? The first question is ‘less important’, because, at the time of writing, Miliband really believed that it was possible for the left to gain executive power by electoral means. This belief was shared by many others on the left, and it is perhaps why Mrs Thatcher so riled the left as she is credited, possibly correctly, with stopping this advance in its tracks.

Miliband’s answer to the second question is, to me, the most interesting, and also the most speculative part of the book.

So what happens when a Marxist party or coalition gains power via constitutional means? Here arises “a crucial theoretical split in Marxism between ‘reformism’… and its Leninist alternative…” For Miliband, “The question at issue is the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ and its institutional meaning. The split is actually about using (or not) the existing political institutions which are “inherited from bourgeois democracy”, which might in some way be reformed; as compared to a total transformation of these institutions “as an integral and essential part of a socialist revolution”. The latter approach being Leninism, and the former ‘reformism’.

Communist parties, says Miliband, largely take the reformist view, as compared to “various other tendencies of the Marxist left” which take the Leninist line. But Miliband, here making an explicit statement of what he himself believes, argues: “… that the terms of the contraposition are mistaken in so far as neither ‘model’ represents realistic perspectives and projections. I believe… that this is indeed the case: whatever the real differences between the two strategies, they cannot be as stated, because the stated positions do not correspond to any possible situation that may be envisaged”.

More ‘Dictatorship’, or less?

Miliband continues by a critical examination of each strategy in turn, firstly considering the ‘Leninist’ approach. He dismisses the traditional concept of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’. Miliband believes that if the state is ‘smashed’ then “a new articulation of power of a kind which cannot be provided by the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ [in Marx’s or Lenin’s sense of the phrase] is required”. This is because Marx and Lenin (the latter in ‘State and Revolution’) were both talking of ‘popular power’ that is “power is exercised almost directly” by the people. But, says Miliband, this is a mob mentality, power without direction.

“In its proper Marxist meaning, the notion of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ disposes much too easily, and therefore does not dispose at all, of the inevitable tension that exists between the requirement of direction on the one hand, and of democracy on the other, particularly in a revolutionary situation.” “In fact,” says Miliband, “it is scarcely too much to say that a time of revolution of the Leninist kind is precisely when the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ is least possible – because such a time requires the re-creation of a new and strong state… “. When power is seized, a new strong state is needed to defend the revolution. Miliband’s rejection of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ and the recognition that a strong ‘new’, fully democratic state is required is clearly ‘revisionist’, and is also significant in his thinking.

What happens if…? The Communists come to power

Turning now to the reformist version, Miliband assumes a left wing coalition administration, with the Communists in it being dominant, wins the election and is allowed into power with “pronounced anti-capitalist policies”. Miliband asks, what happens? He notes that this might not be much. There might be changes in the personnel of government perhaps, and the granting of sinecures to new people. There may be some social reform. But the leaders may seek to stabilise existing social order for their own purposes and suppress the militancy of the working class. Miliband says that this is a plausible scenario given the “‘Social democratisation’ of Communist parties, and these tendencies are likely to be enhanced by the pressures of office”. But what if such a government really did decide upon ‘anti-capitalist’ measures of a ‘drastic’ kind and these new policies favoured the lower income groups at the expense (literally) of the rich?

If a left coalition really did try to apply these policies, it would “arouse the fiercest enmity from conservative forces defeated at the polls but obviously very far from having lost all their formidable class power.” Miliband lists “the conservative forces in capitalist society”. These include “organisations of every sort, many of which pride themselves on their entirely ‘non-political’ character, meaning that they are conservative without being affiliated to any particular party”. Also, to some varying degree, he includes the church. Interestingly, Roger Scruton, in ‘The Meaning of Conservatism’ (1980) sees such organisations as conservative too. Miliband adds that the conservative forces in society are not just collectives. It can be expected that individuals “men and women belonging to the middle and upper classes… will be willing to help… in the task of saving the country, defending freedom, national independence, their children’s future, or whatever”.

But a new phase of the struggle will begin once the left is actually in office. “The conservative forces will soon be reorganising themselves for… the destabilisation of a hated government, and its ultimate undoing”. Miliband says that they will bring in the “assistance of powerful capitalist governments and international capitalist interests”. A socialist government “would undoubtedly depend very greatly on international solidarity and support…” Such support is dependent on the “working class movements in [other] advanced capitalist countries”. However, the granting of this support could well be hampered by social democratic leaders in those countries. Miliband suggests that social democratic governments in the United Kingdom and Germany are more likely to interfere with a new socialist government in a European country that even in the USA. Given he was writing in 1976, I would suggest that Miliband was thinking of the Labour government in the UK. Perhaps he was also thinking about the EEC, which the left in 1976 opposed as likely to be a conservative institution.

Miliband says that we can’t assume that because the left has been constitutionally elected that its opponents will behave constitutionally, although some of them may be reluctant to use other means. He says that we can expect, especially early on, “economic, administrative, and professional forms of disruption and dislocation which may not be illegal at all…” That is that the class war is falling short of armed struggle.

Miliband says that in order to defend itself from these forces, the new left government will need to mobilise support. As well as from party members, trade unions and other political parties, support also needs to come from elsewhere, “namely [from] a flexible and complex network of organs of popular participation operating throughout civil society and intended not to replace the state but to complement it.” These “organs of popular participation do not challenge the government but act both as a defensive-offensive and generally supportive element in what is a semi-revolutionary and exceedingly fraught state of affairs.”

Miliband does not say how or where these organs are to come from. He may be thinking of workers and regional councils, which may appear spontaneously. Or he might be thinking that such a network needs to be built before the left can take power. However this is done, the ‘reformist’ strategy leads in this way “to vast extension of democratic participation in all areas of civic life”. This transforms the state and “existing bourgeois democratic forms”. Miliband thinks that this scenario is in accord with Marx and Engels’ view that the working class can’t just get hold of the existing state machinery. But, says Miliband, this doesn’t mean that the existing state must be ‘smashed’ to be replaced by the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, as the link between the ‘smashing’ and ‘dictatorship’ is “an illusory one“.

Miliband suggests that what follows the ‘smashing of state’ is “another ‘state proper'”. This “is an absolutely imperative necessity in organising the process of transition from a capitalist society into a socialist one.” There is, of course, a need for changes in the structure and personnel of the existing state, and also a requirement for “network of organs of popular participation amounting to ‘dual power'”.

What is to be done now?

Miliband concludes the section and the book: “Bourgeois democracy is crippled by its class limitations, and under constant threat of further and drastic impairment by conservative forces, never more so than in an epoch of permanent and severe crisis.” I wonder if Miliband is thinking of the early 1970s in the UK, with routine declaration of a ‘state of emergency’. “But the civic freedoms which… form part of bourgeois democracy are the product of centuries of unremitting popular struggle. The task of Marxist politics is to defend these freedoms; and to make possible their extension and enlargement by the removal of class boundaries.” This seems to me rather a weak goal for Miliband to advocate for Marxist politics, especially in light of the forgoing discussions of left-wing takeovers of government and revolution.

Miliband on Stalinism and Communist Regimes

Miliband’s analysis, as I have set it out above, deals primarily with advanced capitalist countries. In several places in the book, he does consider both ‘Communist’ and ‘Third World’ countries. Here and in the following section, I have separated out his views on these alternative types of political organisation

Turning first to Miliband’s analysis of Communist states. He notes that there is a suggestion (encouraged by the Chinese Communists) that Soviet Union and its satellites are ‘essentially capitalist countries’; that is ‘state capitalist’ and run by a ‘state bourgeoisie’, exploiting the working class. Therefore these regimes are subject class conflict which is contained by repression. But Miliband, while in no way denying there is conflict and repression, does not accept “that it is possible to equate these societies with capitalist ones”. His argument revolves around what he sees as the lack of a true capitalist class. “These are collectivist societies in which the absence of a class which actually owns the means of economic activity… Is sufficient to suggest that any such equation [with capitalism] is arbitrary and misleading, an exercise in propaganda, rather than analysis.” So those controlling state power “are subject to ‘structural constraints’ of the most formidable kind”. In other words, as there is no capitalism, one can’t get wealthy through capitalistic enterprise as compared to capitalist, or even ‘Third World’ countries, where it is possible. But Miliband has accepted ‘managerialism’ above, seeing senior managers of capitalism as being effectively part of the capitalist class. Why then is the managerial class in the Soviet system not the ruling class in that context?

Miliband does accept that leaders in Soviet style regimes enjoy advantages. Their salaries and ‘perks’ do “form part of Communist life, though they are not of course peculiar to it, and are significantly lower, in material terms, than in other systems.” “Office is an avenue to material well-being; but not to great wealth.” I don’t think Miliband had quite grasped how much can be raised in bribery and corruption and then squirrelled away. Admittedly, the USSR used to, and China still today, does take action against corruption, but this shows it exists. In some so-called Communist countries, such as Romania, corruption on a massive scale definitely did happen, although to fair, Miliband may have been unaware of this in 1976. Miliband does not even consider the possibility that there can develop a corrupt kleptocracy, something he will accept in the context of the ‘Third World’. Miliband demonstrates a touching faith in “collectivism”, as if it is some kind of inoculation against the excesses of personal greed for both material wealth and power.

Altered States

Miliband moves on to the role and nature of the state. In both Third World and Communist countries, he says, there “is a very pronounced inflation of state and executive power, particularly marked in Communist regimes…” which is also largely autonomous from civil society. Miliband asks “whom and what does this state ‘represent’ in the discharge of [it’s] functions?” and says that the “best answer would seem to be that it ‘represents’ no single class or group and is the instrument of no such class or group: the collectivist character of society precludes it from being such an instrument, for the reasons stated earlier.” Again, we see Miliband’s touching faith in collectivism! He continues: “Instead the state may be taken to ‘represent’ the collectivist society or system itself, and to have as its function the service of its needs as these are perceived and defined by those who control the state”. For Miliband, the state does not represent ‘the bureaucracy’, or a ‘new class’ etc., but neither is it a ‘state of the whole people’ a concept which Miliband rejects, rightly, almost out of hand. So, for Miliband the state both represents the collective, but acts at the whim of those who control the state. “‘The state’ effectively here means leaders of the Communist Party.” The party “confers the power to rule and to use the power of the state for the purpose of ruling.” Miliband is having his cake and eating it here, his sole defence being that somehow the ‘collectivist’ nature of the society will prevent excesses – which patently it didn’t, as Miliband will effectively admit in his discussion of Stalinism.

Leninism and Stalinism

Miliband wishes to defend Lenin from accusations that he facilitated the rise of Stalinism. He concedes that if Stalinism is seen just a greater centralisation and greater repression “then the continuity is indeed established”. “But, says Miliband, Stalinism had characteristics and dimensions which were lacking in Leninism, and which turned it into a regime much more accurately seen as making a dramatic break with anything that had gone before.” In summary, Miliband points to the one man dictatorship of Stalinism, which he believes Lenin never contemplated; the scale of the Stalinist repression and that being not at a time of civil war; “that it required from the people a positive and even enthusiastic acceptance of whatever ‘line’, policy, position and attitude was dictated from on high…”; and that Stalinism required conformity from the world Communist movement, and the measures used to achieve this included physical oppression, where that was possible. Finally, says Miliband, Stalinism required the ‘cult of party’, as distinct from any cult of personality.

In describing Stalinism, Miliband notes the concentration camps containing “millions upon millions of people and the ‘liquidation’ of countless others…” He recognises that “what happened was the total Stalinisation of every single Communist Party throughout the world, in the name of the sacred duty imposed upon every Communist to defend the USSR…” Miliband is not uninformed of the effects of Stalinism, although he seems as concerned about the effect on Marxist scholarship as the millions of dead. “Such debilitating notions continued to help disarm generation after generation of revolutionaries in all Communist parties and must be taken as part of the explanation for the extreme weakness of the Marxist opposition to Stalinism in subsequent years”.

Mao isn’t so bad

Where Miliband is, from the perspective of 2014, most extraordinary is his comments on Chinese Communism. While he says “It may well be argued that [the Chinese record] is better than the Russian one; but this is not saying much”, he clearly has no understanding of what was happening in China in Mao’s time. Miliband quotes Mao from 1962 [during the Great Leap Forward] when Mao seems to be addressing the issue of communication between all levels of the party. Miliband says that Mao’s was a “functional” argument for democracy, better decisions are made if the masses are listened to. Amazingly Miliband seems to believe that the Cultural Revolution was a way to achieve this, the masses challenging the cadres. Miliband notes, but dismisses in parenthesis the possible significance of the Cultural Revolution as simply a way to get rid of Mao’s enemies, saying that this aspect “is of no great relevance here – the methods employed are what matters”. This is Staggering! In Miliband’s own words: “Millions upon millions of people have been involved in great and tumultuous movements in China; and their involvement has included the (officially encouraged) criticism of cadres and ‘persons in authority’. Many of these have been swept from their offices and positions, either temporarily or for good. But how ever fruitful such movements of criticism and challenge may be judged to be, they are by no means the same as democratic participation and popular control and do not… have much to do with either.” “The kind of ‘purges’ which have been part of Maoism, notably in the Cultural Revolution, have generally speaking been a great improvement on the ‘purges’ of Stalinism.”(Bold italic is my emphasis, not Miliband’s)

Clearly, Miliband does not mean to defend Mao, but this so grossly underestimates the sheer scale and horror of the purges it is incredible. Perhaps I’m being a little harsh? The Cultural Revolution was barely over with by 1976, and until the trial of the ‘Gang of Four’, perhaps too little was known in the west about the ‘re-education camps’ and the mass killings to blame Miliband. However, Kolakowski, does seem to be aware of what was going on just a year or two later (Main Currents of Marxism, Vol 3, 1978).

In concluding this section on Miliband’s view on Communist Countries, it should be noted that Miliband’s review of Communist countries does not include Cuba. Cuba is only mentioned in ’Marxism and Politics’ twice: to exclude it from the analysis of ‘Third World’ countries, and to distinguish Cuban control over intellectuals from the Stalinist model. He also omits any specific reference to any of the satellite nations of the USSR.

Miliband on the ‘Third World’

Miliband uses the term ‘Third World’ to describe those countries which are neither advanced-capitalist nor Communist countries. While this usage has lost favour in more recent years, I have retained it, in single quotes, as Miliband does in ‘Marxism and Politics’.

Miliband first makes a few general comments about these nations. ‘Third World’ classes are different, or of different importance, as compared to those in advanced capitalist countries. But class relations are still the central determinants, although they are “exceedingly distorted by colonialism and external capitalist domination…” So therefore there is a need to adapt Marxism to the prevailing conditions. In the ‘Third World’, there is “no strong indigenous class of large-scale capitalists” and a small number of the working class. There are, relatively, lots of country dwellers, so the mass of the working population are peasants.

Miliband then divides the ‘Third World’ into two major categories: (1) where one economically dominant class exists; and (2) where it does not exist. Examples of the first sort include Latin America, excluding Cuba, and south Asia. The second type includes most of Africa, except for South Africa, but in both types “foreign capitalist interests constitute an important and in some cases a decisive political element as well as a crucially important economic one”.

However, Miliband believes that for countries of the first type only an adaption of the analysis of advanced capitalist countries, as discussed above, is required. “Differences in economic and social structure produced considerable differences in the nature of class antagonisms and their expression, and in the manner in which the state responds to them.” It is necessary also to add in underdevelopment and recent colonialism, which complicate matters, but these don’t remove the possibility of a normal Marxist interpretation.

Robber-baron states

But for Miliband, the second type requires a different analysis. This is “Where an economically dominant class or group[s]… did not exist before the establishment of a ‘new’ state in place of a colonial regime”. So if there is no such economically dominant class, “the question at issue is what the state power in these societies actually ‘represents’, and what its nature and role may be said to be.”

Miliband suggests that here, “the state must be taken to ‘represent’ itself, in the sense that those people who occupy the leading positions in the state system will use their power, inter alia, to advance their own economic interests” and that of their clients, family etc. etc. This may lead to “a process of enrichment” and the setting up of “economic ventures and activities” leading eventually to the formation of a local bourgeoisie which “grows strong, with continuing connections to the state and its leading members, who are themselves part of that new bourgeoisie.”

In these cases, says Miliband, there is an inversion of the relationship between the political and economic power. “It is rather political power… which creates the possibilities of enrichment and which provides the basis for the formation of an economically powerful class, which may in due course become an economically dominant one.” The resulting dominant class is “very divided and fragmented”, “personalised”, leading to “frequent and violent changes”. “… The state itself, often under military rule, assuming a monopoly of political activity through parties and other groupings… with very little living substance”. This therefore leads to a high degree of state autonomy.

I fail to see what particularly Marxist, except possibly the terminology, about this analysis. Many commentators, self-identified as being on the right, could support it. It effectively considers that at least some ‘Third World’ states are basically kleptocratic robber states, where there is no need for capitalist economic ventures as the rulers just rob the peasantry and siphon-off Western aid.

Conclusions on ‘Marxism and Politics’

When I first read ‘Marxism and Politics’, some ten years ago, I was rather disappointed. The book raises questions rather more than it answers them. Even though this was, to some extent, Miliband’s intention, it does not make it a satisfying read. Having read it again for this essay, I am still left feeling dissatisfied. I am still quite unclear what makes ‘Marxist politics’ different from any other sort. This might seem an odd conclusion – surely Marxist politics involves the overthrow of the existing economic and social order? My answer is yes, but that is a trite answer. Miliband gives us no real details. He does point out that an over-simplistic Marxist class-based analysis could well hinder this revolution, but his more complex analyses – such as the identification of a differentiated working class – only points out the greater difficulties in mobilising support for either Marxist reform, and most of all, revolution.

Perhaps naively, I had hoped for some kind of discussion of what kind of social organisation we might expect in a post-capitalist society. Apart from the basic Marxist requirement that the ownership of capital should – in effect – be socialised, there is nothing in this book that answers the question. Perhaps if Marxists could really come up with a convincing and appealing picture of the post-capitalist world they might attract more supporters. But it would be wrong to blame Miliband on his own here, it is a problem with all Marxist thought from Marx onwards. Socialism can’t just be about, to paraphrase Marx, ‘hunting in the morning, fishing in the afternoon and criticising in the evening as one wishes’.

Miliband does not even expect to see a ‘withering away of the state’, rather he expects a new form of state to arise out of the ashes of the old, but he says nothing about it.

Miliband on several occasions makes clear his dissatisfaction with non-Marxist socialist parties. It is clear he believes that many of the leaders of these parties are ‘sell-outs’. In the UK, this clearly means the Labour party of the mid-1970s. How much more then would he have criticised the Labour party of Tony Blair and of David and Ed Miliband?

On the other hand, he does seem to believe that socialism may not be all that far off. The mid-1970s were a time of fervour and high expectations amongst many rank and file activists in, especially, the trade unions and in several of the smaller Marxist groups, and even in some sections of the labour party (LPYS from my personal experience). This enthusiasm was not usually shared by the leaders of the unions or the Labour party. This in part explains the high number of unofficial strikes in the period, and particular explains the huge disappointment when Mrs Thatcher became Prime Minister in 1979, and especially when the Conservatives were re-elected in 1983. Mrs Thatcher’s victories must have very much undermined Miliband’s own hope and expectation that the ‘new working class’ of white collar workers would, realise their ‘proletarianisation’ and join ‘the workers’.

The discussion in ‘Marxism and Politics’ largely ignores Marx’s socio-economic theories, as Milband admits. He notes that a deterministic reading of this part of Marx’s thought could mean that politics – in the sense that Miliband is using the phrase – is pretty much irrelevant. A professor of Politics can hardly be expected to accept such determinism! This is just one point at which Miliband diverges from at least some traditions of Marxism. Others include his rejection of the concept of ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’ as having any useful political meaning. He does not accept that ‘working class unity’ is an essential prelude to a Marxist style revolution. This is certainly true, but again it is hardly orthodox. Of course, by 1976, Miliband was firmly in the ‘New Left’, so substantial revisionism is hardly surprising.

More surprising is Ralph Miliband’s easy dismissal of political oppression in the Soviet Union. I am not suggesting for one minute that he was a sympathiser with the soviet system, but his main criticisms of that form of Communist state, in this book at least, relate to the excesses of Stalinism. The gulags were still open under Brezhnev. Miliband seems to feel that, as the Soviet system was at least ‘collective’, this in some senses made it better (in the sense of ‘less bad’) than it might have been. As far as I can see, this is a very weak defence of the system, if Miliband means to defend it at all. Miliband would have been better to come out and condemn the Soviet system without qualification. He cites enough material to do so and must have had more to hand. He does not consider soviet satellite countries separately either, and some of these were, like Romania and Albania, were still brutal Stalinist-type dictatorships in 1976, long after ‘Uncle Joe’ had left the scene.

Similarly, his brief discussion of Chinese communism is naïve, to say the least. While there is no suggestion that he is a fan of Maoism, he should surely have been able to criticise more forcefully what was, to put it mildly, a highly repressive regime, especially during the Cultural Revolution period. Did Miliband really have no understanding that it was precisely academics such as himself that were being ‘re-educated’?

Nevertheless, Prof Miliband clearly believes that democracy –and not of the ‘democratic centralism’ type – is preferable, and maybe essential for a successful Communist revolution. What he does not even consider is that people might not then vote the way he expects them to do.

For a non-Marxist, such as myself, Miliband’s views of some ‘Third World’ countries is refreshing – not because he is necessarily correct – but because his analysis of those countries perhaps best described as ‘kleptocracies’ could be supported by many on the right-wing of politics. The only people who wouldn’t accept it would be those – and there were many in the 1970s and plenty today – who have a naïve and patronising view of developing nations, irrespective of what the leaders of those countries actually do.

So was Miliband a dangerous influence, deliberately poisoning the minds of the students of Leeds University? No. Far from it. In some ways his views are barely Marxist at all, especially when it suits him.

Miliband’s main failing is that he ignores or minimises the excesses of other self-declared Marxists and ‘Socialist’ states in order to preserve his basic view that the working class is deliberately oppressed and will rise up, somehow, eventually; and that Marxism provides the vehicle for the deliverance of that class; and that this would all turn out to be a ‘good thing’ for everybody. This is unlikely to be the case, of course.

Links to Other Reviews of Prof Miliband’s Thought

These are generally more sympathetic than I have been.





[1] My copy is the first (1978) reprint of the first edition ISBN 0 19 876062 0

[2] This may have been true in 1976. The spectators may be more ‘middle class’ in 2014, especially given the ticket prices at premier league games.

[3] Sidney & Beatrice Webb – Well known Liberals in late C19 and Fabians in early C20 – Fans of Stalin pre WWII

Sinking Delta – Problems & Solutions

Sage Vals comments on the Nature news piece ‘Holding Back the Tide’ by Quirin Schiermeier (1)

This is an interesting article that contains a few questions for both flood and sediment management, and raises concerns regarding the nature of funding for international development projects

6000 km² of the Ganges-Brahmaputra delta is less than 2 m above sea level. It is therefore highly susceptible to flooding, especially when tropical cyclones sweep through the Bay of Bengal, leading to much damage and loss of life.

Quirin Schiermeier notes that global warming is raising sea levels by 2 to 3 mm per annum, but “relative sea-level may be rising by up to 2 cm each year” in this delta. It is clear then that climate change is not the main problem facing the residents of the delta area of Bangladesh. The problem is that the delta itself is sinking over time at a much faster rate than any sea-level rise that can reasonably be associated with global warming.

Sinking Delta

More than 1bn tonnes of sediment every year is deposited into the Bay of Bengal. This is derived from erosion of the Himalaya and carried down the rivers into the Ganges-Brahmaputra delta. This sediment is easily compacted and so the delta is slowly sinking under the pressure of its own weight, therefore there is a relative sea-level rise. In a natural situation, it would be expected that additional sediment settling on top of the delta would largely off-set this sinkage leading to an equilibrium position, at least on a centennial scale. “But”, says Schiermeier, “agriculture, industry and hydroelectric dams have diverted water and choked off the flow of sediments, so the land is no longer being rebuilt”.

The delta’s behaviour differs from one place to another, and there are varying subsistence rates in different places. “Geological forces and erosion have shifted the lower stretch the Ganges steadily to the east, leaving the western parts of the delta especially starved of sediment”. This means that the south-west part of the delta is particularly vulnerable to flooding.

Some parts the delta are sinking more slowly. Schiermeier reports evidence for this derived from the burial of the bases of ancient mosques and temples. This apparently suggests that the areas in the west of the delta are sinking at a rate of only 1 to 2.5 mm per year[1].

The effects of earthquakes can exacerbate the rate of delta sinkage. Schiermeier cites the earthquake in 1762 which was of magnitude of 8.8. At this time the land around Chittagong sank by several metres. Another such quake could, and this is highly likely given the unconsolidated nature of the delta material, produce a further significant sink in land levels.

Failures of Mitigation

Attempts at flood control seem to be making things worse. Schiermeier describes places where embankments along the tidal channels have reduced the area of land which can be covered by water at high tides. Thus, in places where the tide water can spread out, the water goes farther inland. This increased tidal range in the less protected areas of the Delta means that some areas have experienced average annual high-water-level increases of 15 to 20 mm. This process is called ‘tidal amplification’.


Schiermeier also gives the example of Polder 32, an area so-called because of the help of the Netherlands in creating it during the 1960s. This area sank by 1m over a period of 50 years (i.e. 2cm y-1) relative to the land outside it. This was due to its embankment preventing the influx of water so that there was no new supply of silt to replenish it. But the breach of dykes due to Cyclone Aila, meant that for the two following years there was no full protection from flooding in the area. As a result tens of centimetres of extra sediment from daily tides entered the area, thus reducing the amount of overall sinkage in Polder 32.


The problems of subsidence and associated flooding led has to a joint Netherlands and Bangladeshi programme, the “Bangladesh Delta plan“. The plan looks at the effects of this sea-level rise in the delta and will make recommendations for, and implement, improvements in delta management.

One suggestion is to return to the style of embankments that were used by local people before the 1960s. These temporary embankments were raised in the dry season to keep out the salty water, but partly dismantled in the wet season to allow sediment in. Homes in the areas so managed are usually set on higher ground which allows flooding to take place without disturbance to the residents.


Schiermeier reports that “in its 2011 to 2015 economic plan, Bangladesh earmarked more than… $1.15 billion… for climate adaptation and disaster management. Furthermore it is currently channelling a $117 million multi-donor climate-change-resilience fund, set up in 2010 into projects including flood protection. More money could come from the multi-billion-dollar international Green Climate fund”. Given the scale of this and other suitable aid funding, Schiermeier notes that there is some scope for optimism for resolving the issues of flooding in the delta region in the foreseeable future.

So what?

It is to be welcomed that the problems of delta subsidence in Bangladesh is being properly addressed by both the scientific community and by governments.

The importance of the natural cycle of erosion, transport and deposition of sediment to deltas, and the concomitant subsidence of the delta cannot be ignored. In the longer term, failure to recognise and hence accommodate these processes will always lead to longer-term problems where human interventions are concerned. This has certainly happened in the delta as described in this article. Indeed, it was a contributing factor to the flooding in south-west of England this winter. It should also be noted that, in many ways, traditional or traditionally-inspired methods are better.

It is clear that, so far at least, flooding problems in the Ganges-Brahmaputra delta have little or nothing to do with climate change, despite a good deal of comment to the contrary. However, poor management of the delta itself and of the silt-flow from the Himalaya is causing problems. Of course, one could argue that an increase in cyclone activity might be due to climate change, although at time of writing at least, this is very debateable. The IPCC suggests a 50% chance of increased hurricane activity, but this prediction is limited to the Western North Pacific and North Atlantic (2) (and, based on my own numbers, there seems little evidence even in these areas so far). Increased migration away from the delta cannot therefore be construed as the movement of ‘climate refugees’.

It is understandable that a relatively underdeveloped country such as Bangladesh requires some international funding to help with such major projects. However, it does seem quite incredible that so much funding is given on the basis of climate change where there is no suggestion that this is actually causing the problem. It does raise the question of the political nature of ‘climate change’, in that, as here, it would seem to be simply a way of justifying government aid. In this case, I would suggest that a straightforward humanitarian justification is all that is actually needed. It would be a cause for regret if the only way that funding could be found was under a pretence.



1. Schiermeier, Quirin. Holding Back the Tide. Nature. April 10, 2014, Vol. 508, 7495. (For the avoidance of doubt, this is a ‘News Feature’ piece, not a peer-reviewed article or letter).

2. IPCC. Summary for Policy Makers. Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change . 2013. Fig SPM.1


[1] Personally, I am not sure about this evidence, but I suspect (hope) I am reading a poor explanation! I will certainly not quibble with the result just now.