Sunday, March 19, 2006

Ralph Miliband

I've just found this obituary of Ralph Miliband in the Radical Philosophy archives. It's by Ellen Meiksins Wood (who I like very much) and is worth a read if you've ever read any of Miliband's stuff (and if you haven't then you should).

It might surprise you to learn that a neo-pseudo-crypto Poulantzian like me is a big fan of Miliband. The two theorists are often studied (in a cursory way) by students of politics as the paradigmatic representatives of two fundamentally antagonistic socialist approaches to state power. Indeed the so called 'Miliband-Poulantzas debate' - an exchange which took place over several editions of New Left Review - is often regarded as the key, touchstone, debate in which 'structuralism' and 'instrumentalism' are pitted against one another. The debate was sparked by Poulantzas' review of Miliband's The State in Capitalist Society, the methodological assumptions underpinning which work, Poulantzas took to be crudely instrumentalist. Poulantzas' claims here are usually taken as given by students of state power today. However, it's actually very misleading to see Miliband's The State in Capitalist Society as some crude instrumentalist work - positing some correlation between the exercise of state power and the interests of capital simply because of the class or social background of those staffing the uper echelons of the state apparatuses. Miliband’s central approach in this work – to show, through empirical evidence, that key positions within the British state are (or, at least, were at the time Miliband wrote) held by members of the economically dominant class – is driven by his guiding aim in this book. His guiding aim is to demonstrate that pluralist theories of state power (which posit that no class or section of society has disproportionate access to the levers of power) have no basis in empirical fact. It is this central aim which gives Miliband’s work the appearance of instrumentalism – but really, Miliband is only seeking to prove pluralism wrong on its own terms, not to argue that state power is wielded like an instrument by the ruling class. Interestingly, in his later work, Miliband comes very close to Poulantzas’ later analysis of state power – (see here).

Poulantzas is often taken to have won the New Left Review debate. However, it's always seemed to me that Miliband lands more blows on Poulantzas than the other way round. The debate covers a lot more than just approaches to state power - it also revolves around Poulantzas' wider epistemological and methodological approach to analysis in general. Miliband is quite right to pour scorn on Poulantzas' ultra-Althusserian formalism. A lot of what Poulantzas argues, in his earlier ultra-Althusserian writing anyway, is plainly nuts. It's also self-referential, operates on the basis of some rigid, closed and circular logic and, moreover, is written in a turgid, dense style which is almost impossible to follow. Michael Newman's biography of Miliband reproduces an excerpt from a letter from Miliband to Perry Anderson (written during the NLR debate) in which Miliband confesses that he has read through Poulantzas' stuff several times and still isn't sure what on earth he means. Meiksins Wood makes an excellent point here in regard to the different writing styles of Miliband and Poulantzas:

"`The ultimate purpose of counter-hegemonic struggles,' Miliband wrote in 1990, `is to make socialism "the common sense of the epoch".' This involves two things: `a radical critique of the prevailing social order', and `an affirmation that an entirely different social order ... is not only desirable ... but possible'. This may seem, on the face of it, no different from what any socialist intellectual would claim, among other things, to be doing. Yet it would be very difficult to characterise, say, Althusser or Poulantzas (or today's post-Marxists and post-modernists) as speaking for the `common sense' of socialism. It was certainly not their aim to lay out an intelligible and persuasive argument for socialism which takes little for granted. The issue here is not simply their scholastic opacity - though the contrast with Miliband's translucent clarity is striking enough. The point is also that, even when they were talking about the same things, they clearly saw the substance of their project very differently from Miliband. Whether their object was to reconstruct the epistemological foundations of Marxism or to translate the strategic debates of European Communism into theoretical terms, it was certainly not to argue the case for socialism, and even less to make it `common sense', in any meaning of that phrase."

Miliband may not be the most demanding theorist to read, but that, in a way, is precisely his strength. He always writes in such a clear, straight forward and lucid way. In comparison, reading Althusser or Poulantzas is like trying to wade through treacle. It's not just about ease of reading either - the comparison, I think, also forces you to wonder just how much bullshit there is in Poulantzas and Althusser. How far does the turgid, obtuse, unclear style of their writing mask inadequacies of content?

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