Ralph Miliband was my colleage at the Graduate School of the City University of New York. Over the years that he taught there, he also became my friend. I relied on our talks in the corridor and the cafeteria, or sometimes at my home. Ralph was always warm and generous, often stubborn and always smart.
Ralph had divided his time between England and the United States for many years, teaching at Brandeis University in Boston before he came to New York. City University was a good place for him. The Graduate School sits smack in the middle of Manhattan, on 42nd Street, and it attracts lots of students who are working-class adults, many of them broadly on the Left, although more likely on the cultural Left, and preoccupied with varieties of identity politics. No matter, the students flocked to Miliband’s classes, took them enormously seriously, and he for his part found himself the mentor of some very smart gay and feminist activists, for example. Still, for him, the months spent in furnished sublets, away from the family that was dear to him, must have been a little gloomy, and I think grew increasingly so when illness became a presence in his life.
The most important thing about Ralph Miliband is that he was always a socialist, a term about which he remained entirely unapologetic, and which he never felt the need to qualify, as in ‘democratic socialist’ or ‘market socialist’. He understood socialism after all as essentially an extension of democratic arrangements to economic spheres, without which political democracy could not be realized. As for markets, they were in fact the problem, and a socialist society would necessarily have to sharply curtail them.
Most of Ralph’s work was concerned with understanding the capitalist state, and the politics of capitalist societies. For a time in the 1970s these preoccupations virtually described Left intellectual life. Now the great debates they generated seem to belong to a very remote past, and to reflect on them provokes in me a strange sense of hurtling backwards through time. In intellectual terms, so much has happened, so many words have been spoken or written. Consider the explosion of varieties of postmodernist theorizing, preoccupied with the evanescences of difference and text
Long-time readers of nlr will remember how different the preoccupations of the Left were in 1969–70 when Ralph Miliband engaged in his famous debate with Nicos Poulantzas, a debate that itself provoked a small flood of argument about the nature of the capitalist state. The essential disagreement was about the relative importance of what we would today call structure and agency. Miliband, whose 1969 book The State in Capitalist Society footnote1 traced the role of capitalists as political actors, was criticized by Poulantzas for an untheoretic empiricism and a focus on individuals. The objective structural dependencies of the capitalist state, Poulantzas argued, would force the policies necessary to sustain capitalism, no matter who the agents. Miliband’s retort essentially charged Poulantzas with ‘structural super-determinism’, and the battle was on, raging over Europe and North America as Left intellectuals lined up with the ‘instrumentalists’ or the ‘structuralists’.
How odd all the furious arguments, the drawing up of battle lines, now seems. In fact, the principals themselves were rather more ecumenical in their thinking than the teams they drew into action. Miliband was not oblivious to the significance of structural arrangements, and went on to propose something of the synthesis that was obviously needed in his 1977 book, Marxism and Politics.footnote2 And Poulantzas moved to a less structurally determinist position as well, with his development of a model of the state as itself a strategic battlefield for class conflict.footnote3
Thinking back, it seems to me that at the time the structuralists tended to prevail, to dominate the intellectual fashion contest. Perhaps that was because the Miliband argument was close kin to an older power-elite perspective, which also focused on elite agents, and on the class-based interests and resources which delimited their politics. By contrast, the structuralist perspective seemed newer, and the dynamics of intellectual fashion, like all fashion, demand newness. Structuralism also lent itself to wondrous excesses of theoretical elaboration, which could entirely avoid the actual empirical muddiness of class politics in postwar capitalist societies, where real-world capitalists were fragmented and fractious, and real-world workers were often on the wrong side of the class contest. Theories which asserted that the structural dependencies of the state forced it to undertake the policies that reproduced capitalism, irrespective of political agents, solved these empirical tangles virtually by definitional fiat!