Interpreting the Labour Party: Approaches to Labour Politics and History

By John Callaghan; Steven Fielding et al. | Go to book overview

4

Ralph Miliband and the Labour Party:
from Parliamentary Socialism to 'Bennism'

Michael Newman

Ralph Miliband completed Parliamentary Socialism at the end of 1960 and it was published in October 1961. This proved to be probably the most influential book on the Labour Party written during the post-war era – possibly the most significant of any period. As chapter 5 will confirm, the book helped shape a whole school of left-wing interpretations of the party (Coates 2002; Panitch and Leys 1997) and established an analytical framework that challenged more conventional viewpoints.

Ironically, the argument advanced in Parliamentary Socialism was, in the first instance, not entirely obvious, and its impact on many readers was not quite what the author intended. Thus in 1994 Paul Foot of the Trotskyist Socialist Workers' Party (SWP) wrote that no book had 'made more impact on my life'. In 1961 Foot was contemplating a life as a Labour MP: Parliamentary Socialism, however, 'put me off that plan for ever, by exposing the awful gap between the aspirations and achievements of parliamentary socialists' (Guardian, 6 June 1994). Foot was not alone in deriving this message from the book. Yet, Miliband actually saw his work as an eleventh-hour call for the party to be transformed into an agency for the establishment of socialism, rather than a plea to abandon the party. However, it is hardly surprising that so many could derive the latter message from Parliamentary Socialism, as Miliband's attitude to the party in 1960 had been deeply ambivalent. Moreover, by the time the second edition was published, in 1972, his views had changed so much as to require a postscript which maintained that Labour 'will not be transformed into a party seriously concerned with socialist change'. Thus, while the task remained that of preparing the ground for a socialist alternative to capitalism, 'one of the indispensable elements of that process' had now become 'the dissipation of paralysing illusions about the true purpose and role of the Labour Party' (Miliband 1972: 376–7).

In order to help further our understanding of Parliamentary Socialism, and situate it firmly in its intended context, this chapter explains the evolution of Miliband's thinking about the Labour Party. It does so by analysing his wider assumptions about political change and the role of parties, and suggests that these were based on an attempt to understand both objective socio-political

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