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Registering Class and Politics

Leo Panitch on Ralph Miliband and fifty years of the Socialist Register.

Perhaps the most notable feature of the Register’s output is how consistent was its perspective over the years. Consistency is not necessarily the most admirable of virtues, since it may well indicate a stubborn blindness to changes that are occurring in the world. On the other hand, it may also indicate a refusal to indulge in passing fads and fashions. We avoided this. . .

These words are Ralph Miliband’s, from his survey in the 1994 Socialist Register of its “direction, policy and output since its first appearance” thirty years earlier. They may still serve as a useful marker for reflecting, on the occasion of its fiftieth anniversary, on the Register’s longevity despite the Left’s many defeats, disillusionments, and retreats.

Miliband used to say that the Register “should be hard to write for, as well as hard to read” — by which he meant that since the kind of essays it published demanded considerable effort on the part of the reader, contributors had a responsibility to work hard at producing essays that were not only of high analytical quality but also as readable as possible. While free of the procedural rigmarole associated with academic refereed journals, the commitment to both literary and analytic quality meant it was hard work to edit too, in various senses: deciding who could best tackle a given topic as each volume was planned; assessing whether drafts submitted showed enough potential to go ahead with; providing careful and extensive editorial commentary on each essay; and making sure that the style of writing was clear and accessible at a time when the opacity and clumsiness of much intellectual discourse affected the Left like a plague.

When the 1964 preface, in announcing “a series of annual volumes of socialist analysis and discussion,” expressed the belief that “the possibility of fruitful discussions is now greater than for a long time past,” the editors were clearly thinking beyond the UK. Insofar as it was “now better realized among socialists that dogmatic reiteration cannot, any more than crass empiricism, provide answers to the problems of the present,” this was a recognition of the general limitations of both Communist and Social Democratic parties, especially as venues of socialist analysis, discussion and education.

The lead essays in 1964, on Maoism by Isaac Deutscher and Nasserism by Anouar Abdul-Malek, set the tone for the Register’s consistent sobriety about third world revolutions. There was also an essay on Italian Communism by Andre Gorz (writing under the pseudonym of Michel Bosquet) and another on West Germany (“The Reactionary Democracy” by Jean-Marie Vincent), as well as wide-ranging comparative essays on “The Economics of Neo-capitalism” by Ernest Mandel, “Imperialism Old and New” by Hamza Alavi, and the break-up of the Second International (“1914: the Great Schism”) by Marcel Liebman.

The 1965 volume contained four essays on Russia and Eastern Europe (including one by Georg Lukács on Solzhenitsyn), three on the Arab world, one on the US (by Harry Magdoff), as well as a broadly comparative essay on welfare states (by Dorothy Wedderburn).

Another essay in that volume was by Hamza Alavi, on peasants and revolution in Russia, China, and India. Continuing the close attention the Register would pay to new revolutionary developments in the Third World, without romanticizing them, were essays in subsequent volumes by John Saul and Giovanni Arrighi on “Nationalism and Revolution in Sub-Saharan Africa,” Eric Hobsbawm on “Guerrillas in Latin America,” and Basil Davidson on “The African Prospect.” And as seen in the essays by Lucio Magri on “The May Events and Revolution in the West” and Anthony Arblaster on “Student Militancy and The Collapse of Reformism,” the Register would remain no less sober about the student revolts in the 1960s, not to mention about the problems with trying to emulate Che or Mao, or Lenin and Trotsky for that matter.

The major role the Register would play in developing Marxism’s conceptual apparatus in relation “to the problems of the present” was initiated with Miliband’s famous essay on “Marx and the State” in the 1965 volume, and then sustained by his highly critical assessment in 1970 of Lenin’s The State and Revolution. This “sacred text” of Marxist thought — the very notion of which was “alien to the spirit of Marxism, or at least should be” — especially deserved such critical scrutiny, since “far from resolving the problems with which it is concerned, [it] only serves to underline their complexity.” Essays by Andre Gorz on “Reform and Revolution,” Rossanna Rossanda on “Class and Party,” J.P. Sartre on “Masses, Spontaneity, Party,” and Hal Draper on “The Death of the State in Marx and Engels” further added to the Register’s assessment and renewal of Marxist theory. The early volumes also contained a series of critical essays on Engels, highlighted by the searing critique of the “allegedly” scientific philosophy of nature by Donald Hodges (“To him we owe the Soviet identification of Marxism with a scientific world outlook.”)

Looking back from today’s vantage point, all this goes very far in explaining why the Register was not caught out or disheartened by the widespread but extremely thin intellectual dismissal of Marxism in later decades, nor by the ignominious collapse of communist regimes, the servile accommodation by social democracy to neoliberalism, and the disappointment of so many third world revolutions before the 20th century was over. Indeed, in light of the tendency these days to measure the weakness of the Left over the past quarter century with its alleged strength the quarter century before, it is important to recall that the Socialist Register was born at a time when the notion of socialist decline was already “pretty well taken for granted,” as Miliband’s essay for the first volume put it.

It is also important for understanding the legacy of the Register to recall how he addressed this:

[It] presumably means that at some particular point of time, at some point of the historical curve, socialist prospects were better, more hopeful… One would therefore expect the evidence for it to be blindingly obvious, or at least very easily obtainable. But it is not. In fact, the evidence points mostly the other way.

Miliband then marshaled the following evidence. However admirable and heroic were many movements and struggles from Chartism to the Paris Commune in Marx’s time,

[It] is no disparagement of these pioneering endeavours to note the incoherence and divisions, the fragility of organization and the confusion of aims. . . [or] the fact that the established order of which capitalism had become a part found it discouragingly easy, despite its limited means, to repel the challenge against it.

And while the decades before World War I witnessed the growth of working-class parties and unions, it was still the case that “a large part of the working classes, most workers on the land, the bulk of the lower middle class and much the larger part of the intelligentsia still gave more or less active support to a variety of resolutely anti-socialist parties and causes,” including strong support for “imperialist ventures and conquests.” Meanwhile, the new mass organizations themselves not only quickly fell victim to “the bureaucratic curse,” but also were “riddled with energetic climbers, more concerned with place than purpose.”

The interwar years  —  “usually most favored as providing an illustration of the thesis of socialist decline” — witnessed “the survival of the Bolshevik revolution” but “the absence of revolution almost everywhere else, particularly in Germany,” leaving a deleterious image “stamped upon socialism by its consolidation in a country so profoundly backward as Russia.” This could not be erased by those who made the “acceptance of a grotesquely roseate view of the Soviet regime … the first criterion of socialist rectitude.”

And while many labor movements in the 1930s grew in “numbers, organization, and influence. . . the thirties have a high claim to be considered as the most terrible period of defeat in this century for the international Socialist and Labor movements.” The Nazis’ capture of Germany involved crushing with relative ease “a divided and demoralized labor movement,” and this was soon followed by the ineffective opposition to appeasement by labor movements in other countries. Moreover, it was “only in the world of historical make-believe that most British intellectuals and academics were then on the Left, or that Cambridge University went off en masseto fight for Republican Spain. The reality was altogether different.” And if it was true that in the United States in the 1930s socialist ideas “gained a wider currency than ever before, notably among intellectuals and academics” at a time when “trade unionism made spectacular gains,” the “feuding socialist groups never achieved any degree of popular support” while the unions “found acceptable the New Deal’s explicit aim of putting capitalism back on its feet.” And here was the punch line:

What is true about the thirties is that the committed minorities were much more confident than the equivalent (and probably larger) minorities of the recent past that capitalism was more or less on its last legs, and that socialism was not only round the corner, but that, as proved by Soviet experience, it must soon usher in the reign of sweetness and light, with minor difficulties mostly caused by a handful of enemies of the people. This no doubt gave many socialists a sense of certitude which their successors have found it difficult to share.

But since some part, at least, of the socialist confidence of the 1930s was based on wishful thinking and undemanding faith, the loss of it may be less regrettable than is often suggested. Socialism is not a religious movement. An awareness of its problems as well as of its promise may be a more solid and lasting basis of commitment than a belief in its magic properties as a cure-all.

A key strategic lesson Miliband wanted Register readers to draw from his observations on the 1930s concerned “the relationship between economic crisis and socialist commitment — or rather the lack of such relationship.” If deprivation alone was the catalyst, socialism would have conquered capitalism long ago. On the other hand, the very “character of capitalist ‘affluence’” left plenty of room for socialist pressure and persuasion “to drive home the lesson that a system whose dynamic is private appropriation and profit makes impossible the rational and human organization and use of the tremendous resources it has brought into being.”

This perspective was further sustained by Hamza Alavi’s essay which immediately followed Miliband’s in the first volume. It posed a fundamental challenge to the Leninist theory of imperialism as well as to various postwar Marxist explanations for “the continued functioning of the economies of the advanced capitalist countries which have helped to ‘postpone the crisis.’”

Sophisticated Marxists would qualify the prediction of the final crisis by a warning against interpreting the theory of crisis in a mechanical fashion. We should take into account, they would say, the influence of counteracting tendencies which could temporarily offset the basic tendencies working towards the final crisis. It is the timing of the crisis which, they would argue, cannot be foretold with accuracy; its inevitability is not questioned. Such qualification smacks of sophistry when we are considering a time span not of a few years but of decades. It is a hundred years since Marx wrote; and nearly half a century since Lenin wrote of the eve of the socialist revolution. Such a prolongation of the life of capitalism calls for a more searching analysis of the changes which have taken place since then. . . We do not suggest that capitalism shall be free of crises — for the conditions postulated in theory for the achievement of growth with stability cannot be realized within its framework. What we do suggest is that there is no necessityfor a dramatic major crisis which would ensure the automatic collapse of capitalism.

Marxist economists who had shifted their perspective from a “breakdown thesis” to a “stagnation thesis” had recognized this much, but the main remit of Alavi’s argument was the importance of recognizing the “vast expansion” of capitalist production, and the rise in working and middle-class incomes which allowed capitalists “to realize the value of this increased production.” The development of “more searching economic analyses of modern capitalism” would be important for destroying “illusion and complacency” on the Left, and for helping to put “much greater emphasis on the conscious mobilization of the people for bringing about socialism — the contradictions of capitalism will not necessarily do the job for us.”

These very words could have been used to sum up the overall perspective of the Register’s volumes on The Crisis This Time in 2011 and The Crisis and the Left in 2012.

It is impossible to conclude this survey of the Register’s perspective on class and politics over the past five decades without noting the irony that our fiftieth volume should contain an observation that “most working-class voters view the possibilities of a Miliband-led Labour government with at least tepid optimism.” This is in the essay by Andrew Murray, the chief of staff in Britain’s largest union, on whether socialists should be supporting the new Left Unity initiative to form a new working-class party rather than still engage in trying to change the Labour Party. Murray’s observation, offered in favor of staying in the party, speaks more generally to the electoral base that social-democratic parties retain in the working class today (so far only broken in Greece during the current capitalist crisis, with Syriza’s meteoric rise and Pasok’s abject decline).

Murray’s essay makes the most spirited socialist case for staying in the Labour Party since Ken Coates’s essay in the 1973 Register. But to say that the Labour Party even today remains the tepid choice of most working-class people is only, as Ralph Miliband put it in his “Moving On” essay, “to open the discussion, not to conclude it.” The question Raymond Williams posed in the 1981 Register on whether the continuing electoral appeal of social democracy’s “opportunist negativism” is likely to sow new confusions and further get in the way of developing “sustained popular understanding and support” for a socialist alternative still rings true.

It was the strength of what Williams criticized as the “let’s unite to get Thatcher out” appeal that drew Miliband’s sons (both born after the Register was founded) into the Labour Party in the 1980s. When Labour finally formed a government again almost twenty years later, there were many who claimed that these types of criticisms had no contemporary relevance. But as David Coates put it in his 2003 anthology of Register essays, Paving the Third Way:

Part of the New Labour appeal is its telling of the party’s own history. But much of that telling is itself partial, misleading, self-indulgent, and persistently distorting of the nature and limits of earlier Labour leaderships. New Labour is not as new as it likes to think … earlier and current revisionisms have features in common, and operate within parameters and logics that were evident long before the current leadership even joined the Party, let alone led it. The limits of Old Labour paved the way for the limits of New Labour.

As it turned out, the Miliband who defeated the other for the party leadership was always more uncomfortable with New Labour’s accommodation to Thatcherism and the City of London, although even the latter never was so “unthoughtful” as to express himself like Peter Mandelson did in avowing that he was “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich as long as they pay their taxes.” The votes of trade union activists in the party’s electoral college made the difference in the election of the Miliband who blamed the New Labour philosophy (and the invasion of Iraq) for the defeat in the General Election, and demanded that the theme of inequality once again become a central political issue of British politics. And Ed Miliband has even from time to time actually touched on the core relationship between class and politics that underlies this inequality, as in his preface to an e-book by the “Blue Labour” group of intellectuals:

Historically, debates within Labour have often been conducted on the basis of a choice between ‘more state and less market’ or ‘more market and less state’ . . . both the statists and the pro-market voices underplayed the importance of the aspect of our lives and our communities that must be protected from the destructive effects of both markets and the unresponsive state . . .  Labour originally grew out of a vast movement of voluntary collectivism. We should remember the co-operatives, mutual associations, adult schools and reading circles that constitute a proud tradition of mutual improvement and civic activism . . . we need to rediscover the tradition for labour as a grassroots community movement — not for the sake of nostalgia for the past, but to strengthen our party’s capacity to bring about real change to people’s lives.

Yet it was the same new leader who, in a speech to the annual Trade Union Congress in September 2011, took it upon himself to tell the assembled delegates: “Strikes are always the consequence of failure. Failure we cannot afford as a nation. Instead your real role is as partners in the new economy.” This was, of course, a message designed to be heard by the assembled media, and through them by bankers, managers and investors, but perhaps above all by a Parliamentary Labour Party overwhelmingly made up of MPs whose political inclinations were instilled by New Labour in its ascendancy. But whatever the constraints on the new leader, his words to the TUC were indicative of something much deeper, namely what Ralph Miliband meant by the “whole philosophy of politics,” which someone who aspires to become a leader of a social-democratic party must imbibe — or give up such aspiration unless he secretly intends to irrevocably split the party once he comes into office.

The joke widely circulated during the party leadership campaign — which went something like “Ralph Miliband always said the Labour Party leadership would betray the working class, and he produced two sons to prove it” — was above all inapt because “betrayal” was a word the father very seldom used, except to challenge its misuse, even with respect to such a momentous event as the calling off of the 1926 General Strike “without guarantees of any kind, either for the miners, or against the victimization of other workers.”

The notion of betrayal, he argued,

[S]hould not be allowed to reduce the episode to the scale of a Victorian melodrama, with the Labour leaders as the gleeful villains, planning and perpetrating an evil deed. The Labour movement was betrayed, but not because the Labour leaders were villains, or cowards. It was betrayed because betrayal was the inherent and inescapable consequence of their whole philosophy of politics — and it would be quite foolish to think that their philosophy was the less firmly held for being unsystematically articulated. . . Most important of all. . . was the belief common to both industrial and parliamentary leaders, that a challenge to the Government through the assertion of working class power was wrong. Try though they might to persuade themselves and others that they were engaged in a purely industrial dispute, they knew it was more than that, and it was this that made them feel guilty, uneasy, insecure.

To be sure, Ralph Miliband always insisted there was room for maneuver within the capitalist state. Even in conditions of a crisis in capital accumulation, it was possible for a radical leader “to treat these conditions as a challenge to greater boldness, as an opportunity to greater radicalism”: and he argued that in doing so, such a leader was “likely to receive the support of many people, hitherto uncommitted or half-committed, but willing to accept a resolute lead.” But he rejected explanations of the failure to do this that were based on the “personal attributes of social-democratic leaders,” insisting that “the question cannot be tackled in these terms,” nor even just in terms of “the tremendous weight of conservative pressures.” Rather it needed to be tackled in terms of “the fact that the ideological defenses of these leaders have not generally been of sufficient strength to enable them to resist with any great measure of success conservative pressure, intimidation and enticement.”

What is especially notable about the “Blue Labour” intellectuals today is that they have so little to offer the new leader of the Labour Party by way of such ideological defenses. Indeed, while reasserting the need for the Party to rediscover the social activism of the old labor movement, they trumpet the old collectivist values and practices only so long as they are attached to the promise of class harmony rather than finding more effective ways of promoting class struggle.

We shall have to see which of the alternative scenarios Murray sets out for a post-2015 Labour government led by Ed Miliband actually comes to pass. Even the most positive one, which envisages that this government could “generate — even in spite of itself — an arena of struggle over its direction which could bring benefits in terms of strengthening the movement, and could create circumstances for the working class to recover a measure of confidence,” would inevitably produce a split in the Labour Party, starting at the very top. This calls to mind my own first contribution to the Register in 1979, which also took the view that to be viable a new socialist party would need to take with it some left Labour MPs, many constituency activists, and even some unions from the Labour Party:

One important reason for making the attempt to found an even remotely viable socialist alternative is that it would act as pole of attraction for those socialist elements within the Labour Party to break out of the vicious circle of both trying to change the party and maintain its defensive unity, and put their energy, their talents, and the respect and legitimacy they enjoy in the eyes of many trade unionists to more positive use. . . [But] it need not inherit by this token the same structure or all the burdens that come with the Labour Party tradition. With different leaders, a different ethos and with a positive attitude to Marxism, these elements would necessarily combine in a different way. . . [which] need not carry with it the same separation between parliamentary and extra-parliamentary activity, and the same division of labour between industrial and political leadership.

This is not at all a case for reverting to Leninist forms of party organization. Murray’s sharpest line is that “there is absolutely nothing that can be adduced for or against Leninism from the crisis eroding the SWP, any more than the results obtained by the experiments of the Large Hadron Collider need verifying by observing the Duracell Bunny.” But this does not negate Ralph Miliband’s argument in “Moving On” that those who took the Bolshevik revolution as “their common point of departure and of arrival, the script and scenario which determines their whole mode of being” were doomed to marginality.

But as he went on to say:

This not why any of the groupings of the “ultra-left” have failed to become mass parties or even large parties; it is why they have scarcely become parties at all. . . [T]he main cause of their lack of attraction is not their sectarianism, dogmatism, adventurism and authoritarianism but their basic perspective which produces their isolation; and it is their isolation which at least in part if not wholly produces their unpleasant characteristics.

That these parties, wherever they still exist, are more or less in their death throes almost everywhere, can only help clear the ground for new forms of party organization more suitable to twenty-first century conditions to be seeded and take root.

At the same time, it must surely also be finally recognized by now that so much of the thinking that produced the retreat of the intellectuals in the 1980s failed to appreciate how the strategic choices of party and union leaders were determined by highly pragmatic calculations rather than the writings of Marx, or this or that Marxist theorist. For a really serious socialist intellectual like Andre Gorz, it took less than a decade after his Farewell to the Working Class was published in the early 1980s before he made it perfectly clear that he still thought that no strategy for socialism was possible without a strategy for labor at its core: without powerful and committed organizations of workers, social movements drawn from a “non-class of non-workers” would be ineffective agents of change.

But this also meant that organizations of workers had a “particular responsibility,” since the success or failure of other social movements depended labor taking “a common course of action with them.” This is more than ever true today, when it is clearer that, as much as socialist parties of a new kind are needed in the twenty-first century, so are unions of a new kind (such as New Trade Union Initiative in India, whose highly creative community organizing and rapid growth will be explored in the Register’s next volume). But it is doubtful that creative and combative labor movements can emerge on any large scale without new socialist organizations emerging and their activists playing a key role.

Of course, we must ask what a strategy for labor means today amid the vast restructuring of work taking place on a global scale. The decline of jobs in the manufacturing sector does not represent a “hollowing out” of advanced capitalist economies, or even of manufacturing as an important element in them. If some old industries are dying, others are on the rise. The lowly paid retail service sectors where the fastest growing occupations are often located takes place alongside the rapid growth of business services as well as new bio-medical, communications and entertainment industries, and the development of classic labour-capital relations in health and education. As Ursula Huws so clearly shows in the latest Socialist Register, the growth of work in these sectors, whether highly or lowly remunerated, does not at all reflect the end of the material economy: “There are few jobs that do not require workers to bring their own knowledge, judgement and intelligence to the task in hand, and even fewer that do not involve some physical activity, even if this just entails speaking, listening, watching a screen or tapping keys.” That the growth of precarious work is taking place in all sectors, and in the advanced capitalist world as much as elsewhere, is an inevitable consequence of the actual realization of capitalist globalization by the beginning of the twenty-first century

But what precariousness means in very different social contexts can itself be quite different, especially in terms of the consequences it may hold for the people concerned. It is certainly incorrect to treat the “precariat” as a different social category, conceptually and actually, than the working class. In fact what we are witnessing in many respects is the very kind precarity of work — and of life — that led to the designation of dispossessed workers as a proletariat in the nineteenth century.

To address the question of the organizational and political implications of this mainly in terms of the declining industrial base of working-class movements is rather myopic, since it misses the long-standing unionization of many “service” workers from municipal workers in early decades of the twentieth century to teachers and nurses in the 1960s and 70s to the Walmart working class today. It is useful to recall that it was only through their unionization that industrial workers overcame their 19th-century precarity. And it is absolutely necessary not to romanticize this by imagining they had some sort of inherent aptitude for organization or political radicalism. It is also a mistake to analyze working class formation and identity in terms of wage work alone.

Working classes are constituted by households, extended families, neighborhoods, communities in which workers who sell their labor power for a wage are embedded and thus intertwined with a broad range of non-waged work. Moreover, changing urban housing and transportation patterns in the twentieth century were often more important to the decline of working-class identities than was deindustrialization or occupational shifts. We need to be sensitive to the ways all this is changing again, and what it means for working-class formation.

The question of whether new configurations of class are conducive to the development of socialist alternatives is really what this fiftieth volume of the Register is all about — and the fifty-first will be as well.

Socialist Register 2014: Registering Class is out now through Merlin Press.