Socialism for the unconverted

Socialism for a Sceptical Age
October 6, 1995

The attempt to reaffirm and reformulate the socialist project in the wake of the worldwide advance of neoliberal regimes and policies is one that deserves sympathy and admiration, if only because it tends to promote intellectual pluralism and to stave off the complete hegemony of liberal theory. The abandonment of the most distinctive features of socialist thought by many former Marxists, and their adoption of the dreary orthodoxies of American egalitarian and rights-based liberalism, is a potent reminder of the way in which the political collapse of socialism in all its varieties has had the perverse consequence of impoverishing intellectual life.

Like any other European country, Britain will be the poorer if it does not contain a living tradition of left thought which, as did classical Marxism, draws on the socialist critique of liberalism as well as upon liberal arguments for socialism.

In Socialism for a Sceptical Age, the late Ralph Miliband presents as powerful, self-critical and morally serious a case for the continuing relevance of the socialist project as we are likely to see. He restates the classical socialist criticisms of market capitalist institutions forcefully and succinctly, and argues resourcefully, if not in my view persuasively, that the historical experience of Soviet-style regimes in no way fundamentally undermines the feasibility of Marx's central socialist objectives.

Without pretending that socialism is the answer to all human ills, or advancing any kind of utopian blueprint, Miliband mounts a deeply engaging challenge, not only to the neoliberal conventional wisdom of yesterday, but also against the social democratic position that capitalism can be reformed so that its most humanly damaging features are rendered innocuous or at least tolerable. In so doing he leaves a powerful and moving testament to his intellectual integrity, creativity and indefatigable socialist commitment.

Miliband's book nevertheless fails to persuade the sceptical reader to whom it is addressed. In the first place, it underestimates massively the constraints imposed upon any socialist government in contemporary circumstances by the globalisation of capital. In his brief discussion of the aborted Mitterand reforms of 1981-2, Miliband fails to recognise that the dependency of the public finances of nation states on global capital in effect limits their domestic economic policies by the market's judgement of tolerable political risk. The targeting of Sweden's government by global bond markets, which by adding to the internal difficulties of the Swedish social democratic model brought about its complete collapse, is a telling confirmation of this truth which Miliband barely mentions.

Second, Miliband consistently underestimates the difficulties of combining comprehensive economic planning with democratic institutions. It is true, of course, contrary to neoliberal mythology, that economic development in many parts of the world for example South Korea, Singapore, Japan, postwar Germany and Austria has been powered by massive state involvement; but these are cases of strategic governmental involvement in market economies of various types, not of socialist command economies.

Miliband can deny the universal historical experience that such economic systems require undemocratic political institutions only by arguing as he does that the evidences of history are not logically or morally demonstrative. True, but they are politically, and morally, highly relevant. To maintain that any political project can be insulated from the practical criticism of history is incongruous and implausible, especially if one derives inspiration from so deeply historical a thinker as Marx. There are moments, reading Miliband, when one wonders what the author of Critique of the Gotha Programme would have made of it.

Third, Miliband hugely underrates the difficulties of securing electoral support for a socialist programme in any political circumstances we can presently foresee. Voters do not need convincing that capitalism is a flawed economic system; but their perception of its defects has nowhere convinced them that it is unreformable and therefore illegitimate. This century's legitimation crisis, after all, did not occur in a capitalist democracy, but where it was least expected, in the Soviet Union.

The principal weakness in Miliband's admirable book is that it does not perceive indeed, it denies that we live now in a period in which the "systems" debate about capitalism and socialism is an anachronistic irrelevance.

The question posed by our historical context is not whether to adopt the institutions of a market economy, since that is everywhere a fait accompli, but how market institutions are to be reconciled with enduring human needs for fairness and community. This is an urgent question, in political terms, since it is now clear that the social democratic project of reconciliation has been swept away not only in Sweden and France, but also in the UK and cannot now be salvaged. It is this crisis of social democracy, and not the passing of the socialist project, that sets the political agenda today.

John Gray is a fellow, Jesus College, Oxford.

Socialism for a Sceptical Age

Author - Ralph Miliband
ISBN - 0 7456 1426 4 and 14 2
Publisher - Polity Press
Price - £39.50 and £9.95
Pages - 211

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