Ralph Miliband’s recently published work, The State in Capitalist Society,footnote1 is in many respects of capital importance. The book is extremely substantial, and cannot decently be summarized in a few pages: I cannot recommend its reading too highly. I will limit myself here to a few critical comments, in the belief that only criticism can advance Marxist theory. For the specificity of this theory compared with other theoretical problematics lies in the extent to which Marxist theory provides itself, in the very act of its foundation, with the means of its own internal criticism. I should state at the outset that my critique will not be ‘innocent’: having myself written on the question of the State in my book Pouvoir Politique et Classes Sociales,footnote2 these comments will derive from epistemological positions presented there which differ from those of Miliband.

First of all, some words on the fundamental merits of Miliband’s book. The theory of the State and of political power has, with rare exceptions such as Gramsci, been neglected by Marxist thought. This neglect has a number of different causes, related to different phases of the working-class movement. In Marx himself this neglect, more apparent than real, is above all due to the fact that his principal theoretical object was the capitalist mode of production, within which the economy not only holds the role of determinant in the last instance, but also the dominant role—while for example in the feudal mode of production, Marx indicates that if the economy still has the role of determinant in the last instance, it is ideology in its religious form that holds the dominant role. Marx thus concentrated on the economic level of the capitalist mode of production, and did not deal specifically with the other levels such as the State: he dealt only with these levels through their effects on the economy (for example, in the passages of Capital on factory legislation). In Lenin, the reasons are different: involved in direct political practice, he dealt with the question of the State only in essentially polemical works, such as State and Revolution, which do not have the theoretical status of certain of his tests such as The Development of Capitalism in Russia.

How, by contrast, is the neglect of theoretical study of the State in the Second International, and in the Third International after Lenin, to be explained? Here I would advance, with all necessary precautions, the following thesis: the absence of a study of the State derived from the fact that the dominant conception of these Internationals was a deviation, economism, which is generally accompanied by an absence of revolutionary strategy and objectives—even when it takes a ‘leftist’ or Luxemburgist form. In effect, economism considers that other levels of social reality, including the State, are simple epiphenomena reducible to the economic ‘base’. Thereby a specific study of the State becomes superfluous. Parallel with this, economism considers that every change in the social system happens first of all in the economy and that political action should have the economy as its principal objective. Once again, a specific study of the State is redundant. Thus economism leads either to reformism and trade-unionism, or to forms of ‘leftism’ such as syndicalism. For, as Lenin showed, the principal objective of revolutionary action is State power and the necessary precondition of any socialist revolution is the destruction of the bourgeois State apparatus.

Economism and the absence of revolutionary strategy are manifest in the Second International. They are less obvious in the Third International, yet in my view what fundamentally determined the theory and practice of ‘Stalinist’ policy, dominant in the Comintern probably from 1928, was nevertheless the same economism and absence of a revolutionary strategy. This is true both of the ‘leftist’ period of the Comintern until 1935, and of the revisionist-reformist period after 1935. This economism determined the absence of a theory of the State in the Third International, and this relation (economism/absence of a theory of the State) is perhaps nowhere more evident than in its analyses of fascism—precisely where the Comintern had most need of such a theory of the State. Considerations of a concrete order both confirm and explain this. Since the principal symptoms of Stalinist politics were located in the relations between the State apparatus and the Communist Party in the ussr, symptoms visible in the famous Stalin Constitution of 1936, it is very comprehensible that study of the State remained a forbidden topic par excellence.

It is in this context that Miliband’s work helps to overcome a major lacuna. As is always the case when a scientific theory is lacking, bourgeois conceptions of the State and of political power have preempted the terrain of political theory, almost unchallenged. Miliband’s work is here truly cathartic: he methodically attacks these conceptions. Rigorously deploying a formidable mass of empirical material in his examination of the concrete social formations of the usa, England, France, Germany or Japan, he not only radically demolishes bourgeois ideologies of the State, but provides us with a positive knowledge that these ideologies have never been able to produce.

However, the procedure chosen by Miliband—a direct reply to bourgeois ideologies by the immediate examination of concrete fact—is also to my mind the source of the faults of his book. Not that I am against the study of the ‘concrete’: on the contrary, having myself relatively neglected this aspect of the question in my own work (with its somewhat different aim and object), I am only the more conscious of the necessity for concrete analyses. I simply mean that a precondition of any scientific approach to the ‘concrete’ is to make explicit the epistemological principles of its own treatment of it. Now it is important to note that Miliband nowhere deals with the Marxist theory of the State as such, although it is constantly implicit in his work. He takes it as a sort of ‘given’ in order to reply to bourgeois ideologies by examining the facts in its light. Here I strongly believe that Miliband is wrong, for the absence of explicit presentation of principles in the order of exposition of a scientific discourse is not innocuous: above all in a domain like the theory of the State, where a Marxist theory, as we have seen, has yet to be constituted. In effect, one has the impression that this absence often leads Miliband to attack bourgeois ideologies of the State whilst placing himself on their own terrain. Instead of displacing the epistemological terrain and submitting these ideologies to the critique of Marxist science by demonstrating their inadequacy to the real (as Marx does, notably in the Theories of Surplus-Value), Miliband appears to omit this first step. Yet the analyses of modern epistemology show that it is never possible simply to oppose ‘concrete facts’ to concepts, but that these must be attacked by other parallel concepts situated in a different problematic. For it is only by means of these new concepts that the old notions can be confronted with ‘concrete reality’.

Let us take a simple example. Attacking the prevailing notion of ‘plural elites’, whose ideological function is to deny the existence of a ruling class, Miliband’s reply, which he supports by ‘facts’, is that this plurality of elites does not exclude the existence of a ruling class, for it is precisely these elites that constitute this class:footnote3 this is close to Bottomore’s response to the question. Now, I maintain that in replying to the adversary in this way, one places oneself on his ground and thereby risks floundering in the swamp of his ideological imagination, thus missing a scientific explanation of the ‘facts’. What Miliband avoids is the necessary preliminary of a critique of the ideological notion of elite in the light of the scientific concepts of Marxist theory. Had this critique been made, it would have been evident that the ‘concrete reality’ concealed by the notion of ‘plural elites’—the ruling class, the fractions of this class, the hegemonic class, the governing class, the State apparatus— can only be grasped if the very notion of elite is rejected. For concepts and notions are never innocent, and by employing the notions of the adversary to reply to him, one legitimizes them and permits their persistence. Every notion or concept only has meaning within a whole theoretical problematic that founds it: extracted from this problematic and imported ‘uncritically’ into Marxism, they have absolutely uncontrollable effects. They always surface when least expected, and constantly risk clouding scientific analysis. In the extreme case, one can be unconsciously and surreptitiously contaminated by the very epistemological principles of the adversary, that is to say the problematic that founds the concepts which have not been theoretically criticized, believing them simply refuted by the facts. This is more serious: for it is then no longer a question merely of external notions ‘imported’ into Marxism, but of principles that risk vitiating the use made of Marxist concepts themselves.