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New Left Review I/206, July-August 1994

Ralph Miliband

The Plausibility of Socialism

Socialism itself must be viewed as part of a democratic movement which long antedates it, but to which socialism alone can give its full meaning. [1] This is an extract from Ralph Miliband’s last book, Socialism for a Sceptical Age, to be published this autumn by Polity Press, whose kind permission is acknowledged. The idea of democracy has been drastically narrowed in scope and substance in capitalist societies so as to reduce the threat it posed to established power and privilege: socialism on the contrary is committed to a great widening of its compass. The unenthusiastic prophet of democracy in the nineteenth century was Alexis de Tocqueville. In his introduction to Democracy in America, published in 1835, de Tocqueville said that democracy, which he equated with the ‘equality of condition’ he thought he had found in the United States, was also making its way in Europe. ‘A great democratic revolution,’ he wrote, ‘is taking place in our midst; everybody sees it, but by no means everybody judges it in the same way. Some think it a new thing and, supposing it an accident, hope that they can still check it; others think it irresistible, because it seems to them the most continuous, ancient, and permanent tendency known to history’; [2] A. de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, New York 1969, p. 9. and in a preface to the twelfth edition of the book, written in 1848, he also asked: ‘Does anyone imagine that Democracy, which has destroyed the feudal system and vanquished kings, will fall back before the middle classes and the rich?’ [3] Ibid., p. xiii. Dominant classes in all capitalist countries have ever since the nineteenth century fought hard and with a considerable measure of success to falsify de Tocqueville’s prediction: socialism is the name of the struggle to make it come true.

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