Parliamentary Socialism,

by Ralph Miliband: G. Allen & Unwin, 35s.

of all parties the social-democratic ones have been by far the least successful. Conservative parties do not have to win or achieve anything, but need merely avoid being defeated, and this several of them have done with great skill. Liberal parties have had their day of glory in the 19th century, transforming the world in the image of the bourgeois. The very Tory and Labour parties in Britain testify to the completeness of this triumph. Communist parties have established socialism in large parts of the world, nationalist movements have liberated nations, even fascism has had its, fortunately temporary, triumph. Only the great bodies of the social-democratic movement, which have for long suggested the image of large, slow-moving and clumsy animals to cartoonists and commentators, have lumbered sadly, and entirely unsuccessfully, in pursuit of the new Jerusalem which almost all of them were founded or committed to achieve. They have not always been politically impotent; but what they have done, though admirable in its way, is not what they set out to do. The “welfare state” is not socialism, and indeed its foundation does not require a social-democratic party in office or even in existence.

The literature about social-democratic parties is therefore a set of variations on the theme of failure. Left-wing writers seek above all to explain what went wrong, right-wing ones, to argue that there has been no failure because the movement never tried to reach socialism in the first place and ought not to try; or because socialism never meant socialism anyway but only a little more warm-heartedness and equality all round. Ralph Miliband’s Parliamentary Socialism belongs to the first class. It is a lucid, sharply written and passionate investigation by a Labour Party socialist of the permanent weaknesses of his party. Moreover, it is very effective. Miliband’s main point, that “the leaders of the Labour Party have always rejected any kind of political action . . . which fell, or which appeared to them to fall, outside the framework and conventions of the parliamentary system”, is hardly to be denied, and the impotence and contemptibility to which this has reduced the British labour movement is plain to all.

Nor is it surprising. For it is part of the reality (as against the myth) of parliamentarism as of most other politics, that concessions are made to pressure and not to argument. To decide a priori that certain kinds of pressure including, as it happens, most of these long established as part of mass politics in parliamentary countries such as demonstrations, strikes and other forms of direct action, are out, is either silly or hypocritical. It is in any case as good a recipe for ineffectiveness as has yet been devised. The very misrepresentation of Miliband’s book by his critics demonstrates their embarrassment. He is dismissed with the faint praise that fox-hunters could expect from sophisticated foxes if these could write reviews. It is suggested that his proposal to turn the Labour Party into a gigantic Committee of 100, though creditable to the enthusiasm of youth, is quite unrealistic. So indeed it would be, if Miliband had suggested it. But in fact what he protests against is not that the Labour Party fails to devote itself entirely to direct action, but that it entirely excludes all forms of action except voting, debating and negotiating, including even the elementary militancy of industrial action. That is a very different and much more unanswerable point.

And yet one may ask whether a historical critique of the Labour Party in terms of what used to be called “parliamentary cretinism” is sufficient. It is admittedly true. As Miliband points out, not merely the Labour leadership, but also most of the Labour left “accept the categories of the parliamentary system” or in other words the assumption that the basic tasks of the labour movement is in practice modest reform rather than ambitious social change. And one might go further and say that this is true even of the bulk of the Labour rank-and-file, which for this reason has on balance accepted the right-wing leadership with few signs of rebellion.footnote1

Moreover, it is also useful and indeed essential. The sad story of the Labour leadership, that sheep in sheep’s clothing devoting its energies to the demon stration that wolves are necessary if not actually beneficial, cannot be told often enough for the moral instruction of a movement which automatically sentimentalises a past about which it knows little. Indeed, Miliband’s critique is rather too moderate. He could well have made more of the low calibre and personal jealousy of so many Labour leaders, on which Beatrice Webb used to remark. He ought certainly to have pointed out even more clearly than he has done, that the Labour leadership has not merely been exclusively “parliamentarist”, but even within the limits of its reformist policies, grossly incompetent and torpid. Virtually all its ideas not merely for long-term programmes, but for short-term tactics of reforming action, have come from the left. Its most competent leaders have been those who learned the lesson of class confidence and enterprise in the marxist or syndicalist school of their youth, and had not quite forgotten it in their respectable middle age.