From Parliamentary Socialism to ‘Bennism’

ITLP_C04.QXD 18/8/03 9:57 am Page 57 4 Ralph Miliband and the Labour Party: from Parliamentary Socialism to ‘Bennism’ Michael Newman Ralph Miliband completed Parliamentary Socialism at the end of 1960 and it was published in October 1961. This proved to be probably the most influential book on the Labour Party written during the post-war era – possibly the most significant of any period. As chapter 5 will confirm, the book helped shape a whole school of left-wing interpretations of the party (Coates 2002; Panitch and Leys 1997) and established an analytical

in Interpreting the Labour Party
Approaches to Labour politics and history

This book is an attempt to take stock of how some of the British Labour Party's leading interpreters have analysed their subject, deriving as they do from contrasting political, theoretical, disciplinary and methodological backgrounds. It explores their often-hidden assumptions and subjects them to critical evaluation. The book outlines five strategies such as materialist; ideational; electoral; institutional; and synthetic strategies. Materialist, ideational and electoral explanatory strategies account for Labour's ideological trajectory in factors exogenous to the party. The 'new political history' is useful in understanding Labour within a less reductive framework than either the 'high' or 'from below' approaches and in more novel terms than the Left-Right positions adopted within Labour. The book assesses the contribution made to analysis of the Labour Party and labour history by thinkers of the British New Left. New Left critiques of labourism in fact represented and continued a strand of Marxist thinking on the party that can be traced back to its inception. If Ralph Miliband's role in relation to 'Bennism' is considered in comparison to his earlier attitudes, some striking points emerge about the interaction between the analytical and subjective aspects in his interpretive framework. Miliband tried to suggest that the downfall of communism was advantageous for the Left, given the extent to which the Soviet regimes had long embarrassed Western socialists such as himself. The Nairn-Anderson theses represented an ambitious attempt to pioneer a distinctive analysis of British capitalist development, its state, society and class structure.

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The Nairn–Anderson interpretation

figures on the New Left, especially Ralph Miliband. As one way of examining the veracity of Nairn’s substantive points, Wertheimer’s earlier and friendlier analysis is also cited. The chapter then addresses the extent to which Nairn’s approach can be reconciled with the oftenmade claim that Labour sought to learn from Swedish social democrats during the 1950s and 1960s. Finally, the strands of the chapter are drawn together in assessing what Nairn’s work contributes to our understanding of the party. An anatomy of ‘Labourism’ For the purposes of this chapter, there are

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Interpreting the unions–party link

writers, who rejected the pluralist claim that the State was politically neutral, portraying it as overwhelmingly on the side of capital in its class struggle against labour. Much of this perspective was inspired by Ralph Miliband’s Parliamentary Socialism (1961; see chapter 5 of this volume, by David Coates and Leo Panitch). This school explicitly aims to help identify viable socialist political strategies. The starting point is Miliband’s analysis of Labour as an overwhelmingly parliamentarist party, whose political function was to integrate organised workers into

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Labour – for example, Henry Pelling – have at one time or another been party members who identified with one or other of its ideological factions. A number have belonged to groupings, usually, like Perry Anderson and Tom Nairn, to Labour’s Left, which have hoped to replace the party in the affections of the working class. More than a few of them – like Ralph Miliband and David Marquand – have been, at different periods in their lives, on both sides of the fence. Those writing from such committed positions have sometimes conceived of the party in teleological terms

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; and which increasingly recognized the working of political democracy of the parliamentary variety as the practical means of achieving its own aims and objectives. (Saville 1973: 215; see also Saville 1988: 14) The legacy of Ralph Miliband’s writings on the Labour Party has been, and remains, both an important and a controversial one. It is also one that is much caricatured by critics unfamiliar with its central theses. Indeed, too often in collections of essays on New Labour these days, lazy throwaway lines discourage serious readers from exploring its complexity

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no idea of the strengths of the Labour machine, or of the political skill which the right was able to organise for victory within it. Critiques of labourism It was not until after the early New Left had declined that sustained and theoretically informed analyses of the Labour Party and movement began to be offered by New Left thinkers. Ralph Miliband’s Parliamentary Socialism was published in 1961, Perry Anderson and Tom Nairn’s series of essays followed in 1964–65, and other New Left figures including Williams and Saville also wrote regularly on the subject in

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: Macmillan, 11th edn, 1996); Eric Shaw, The Labour Party since 1945: Old Labour; New Labour (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996). Kenneth Waltz, Foreign Policy and Democratic Politics: The American and British Experience (London: Longmans, 1968), pp. 7–8. For example, David Coates, The Labour Party and the Struggle for Socialism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975); Eric Shaw, Discipline and Discord in the Labour Party: The Politics of Managerial Control in the Labour Party, 1951–87 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1988). Ralph Miliband, Parliamentary Socialism. A

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aimed at expediting social redress and broadening the base of democracy (Crouch 1979), a perspective that would prove politically debilitating to its proponents. More pragmatically, the British social theorist Ralph Miliband (1972) drew a clear distinction between authoritarianism and liberal democracy – a distinction that was dismissed by most orthodox Marxists at the time. To Miliband, a liberal democratic state is a relatively autonomous actor. The stability of capitalism can best be explained by its flexibility. The system does indeed impart significant power to

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it not been for the behaviour of Churchill, and the Tories at that time.54 In response to the Russian Revolution of February 1917, the United Socialist Council, made up of the various British socialist organisations that had temporarily joined forces in 1916, organised the Leeds Convention of June 1917. This was described by Ralph Miliband as ‘perhaps the most remarkable gathering of the period’, for it brought together both the revolutionaries and constitutionalists on the left.55 Graubard is less positive with his description that, ‘The Leeds Convention stands

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