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March 14, 2008

Dominic Hilton asks, is Ralph Miliband's Socialism for a Sceptical Age the worst book ever written? Socialism for a Sceptical Age - Ralph Miliband

Posted by Dominic Hilton

Socialism for a Sceptical Age
by Ralph Miliband
Cambridge: Polity Press, 1994
Paperback, £15.99

The hilariously titled Socialism for a Sceptical Age is the deathbed confession of Ralph Miliband, former professor at the terrorist-training London School of Economics and Marxist padre of both David Miliband, Britain's Head Prefect Foreign Secretary, and Ed Miliband, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Minister for the Cabinet Office, and former Chairman of the Treasury's Council of Economic Advisors, which "directs the UK's long-term economic planning".

The cover is the ugliest thing you'll ever see outside of a socialist housing development, cleverly designed to distract you from the book's contents. "Frozen Sea" depicts a beachfront with accompanying pinkish orange sunset cascading off breaking waves. Perhaps it is meant to evoke erotic daydreams of Pamela Anderson bouncing around in an ill-fitting red swimsuit, but the result makes the thing look like David Koresh wrote it.

My copy came with its own bookmark - a postcard, entitled "Eat Money":

Right. We'll have to make-do with Big Macs. Unless we've trashed all the McDonald’s.

The world is long overdue an explanation of the mysterious relationship between hokey Native American screeds and books with chapter titles like "Mechanisms of Democracy" and "Constituencies, Agencies, Strategies". Weekdays you vocally - and democratically - endorse monolithic technocracies. Weekends are reserved for the reservations, dancing around totem poles in cagoules and moccasins pretending your alcoholic hosts have organic cures for cancer. (The natives, of course, wore their hair straight and make-up thick, before the crunchy socialists turned up and bartered their rusted toe-rings.)

Miliband immediately reveals a typical lefty knack for timing. "I started work on this book in 1989, but I had to stop working on it". Publishers got cold feet, no doubt. "No, really, it's good, we like it, only … you know, the market being, er, so free right now…"

Ralph was certainly no salesman. He confesses in the introduction:

[E]ven though the book makes a good many general recommendations for the advancement of socialist goals, it does not offer specific proposals in regard to a vast range of issues which must obviously be of primary concern to socialists – health, education, transport, housing, the environment, social benefits, child care, taxation, penal reform, and so on: the list could be extended indefinitely.
At least he has the balls to admit why: He hasn't a clue how any of this flannel is practically applicable. Or, as he puts it,
the task lies … well beyond my means” and “To deal adequately with these problems and possibilities … would require another book, which I am not competent to write.
So Socialism for a Sceptical Age (as opposed to Socialism against a Sceptical Age?) is reduced to tiresome riffs about how "Communism in this meaning [Stalinist purges, gulags, threats of nuclear annihilation, etcetera] has, I believe, nothing to do with what Marx meant by communism," as if exchanging a "C" with a "c" will help the author usher in his beloved "new social order".

Stalin's plan was at least more direct. Miliband wheezes:

Socialism involves a permanent striving to advance the goals that define it.

The convictions come thick and slow:

I believe that Marxism has to be taken as a major point of reference in the discussion of socialism.
Gosh, really?
[T]he kind of fundamental change which socialism implies should not be taken to mean that this will usher in an age of perfect harmony.
Thanks, but we'd noticed that already.
The "welfare state" has been steadily eroded, but it has not been, and cannot be, altogether destroyed.
"Eroded"? The welfare state has bloated even in the former Soviet bloc, now that it's no longer socialist.

Miliband argues against some fellow lefty notions of "Capitalism with a human face" without ever speculating on whose face we are talking about. Surely even the most hotheaded Leninist might go for "Capitalism with Nicole Kidman's face"? Whereas not even I fancy "Capitalism with Hillary's mug".

Speaking of which, the whole thing is a dog's dinner. Miliband takes issue with the "essential inhumanity" of capitalism, forgetting that abolishing capitalism would deny humanity of one of its most essential instincts: to sell people crap for money. Following in the crushing footsteps of Marx and Engels, Miliband sits back and admires the ability of "the material productive forces of society" to be materially productive. We're loaded, notices Miliband, but then blows it with guff about how

poverty, deprivation, preventable disease, homelessness, squalor, and despair have remained a blight for millions of people
(impressionable young students, especially) and pretends this is all the fault of "the pursuit of private profit" instead of the government control he advocates with his scary shit about "the macro-rationality required by society".

Staying awake during passages about "intra-class conflicts among wage earners", "the conditions surrounding strike action", and "the level and scope of social and collective services" is as hard as it sounds. This is why Tony Blair started hanging around businessmen. It must be painful to be as crimeless as Miliband. Never to exploit your position as an able-bodied, heterosexual, rich, educated white male. What does a guy like that do all day?

Write books about socialism. Lefties like Miliband look at capitalism and wrongly see a system of control, so they wrongly want to replace it with… a system of control. They never notice the buying and selling of goods, probably because they never get out. Complaining that workers have no say over the working practices implemented by a new corporate employer is to make believe the corporation produces nothing. Miliband dreams of a world in which workers get everything from nothing, just because it sounds fair on paper. Lined paper, that is. Not account ledgers.

So what about all the spilled blood? Miliband rebuts the suggestion of Soviet expansionism by listing a series of countries the Soviets expanded into. In the book's most monstrous paragraph he blames business for Nazism and writes

it is just as well to remember how closely capitalist interests have been involved in state policies which have resulted in the violent death of millions upon millions of innocent men, women and children.
Proximity trumps the perpetrator. Charge the witness with the crime!

The reality of murderous Communist regimes, Miliband states,

nurtured and sustained successive generations of people on the Left, and had seemed to them to provide a concrete, tangible proof that an altogether different (and immeasurably better) society than capitalism could ever achieve was not only possible in a remote future but was actually being built.
Never mind the hundreds of millions of corpses. The "endless catalogue of horrors" listed by the author look suspiciously similar: National Socialism, Stalinism, Maoism, Ho Chi Minimalism, Slobodan Milosevicness. Miliband concedes that this blood-soaked history is "unacceptable" (imagine a Nazi saying, "In hindsight, I suppose massacring all those Jews was pretty unacceptable.") but prefers to focus on the "optimism". Chin up, comrades. Communism lives, even if you don't.

To Miliband's mind, the failure of Soviet social engineering was not its evil imperialism, economic poverty or moral worthlessness, but everything on spec: unfavourable "specific conditions" and, of course, those pesky "special interests". Treating humans as cattle, we're told, is not "an easy matter" and requires "delicacy". Those "negative aspects of communist regimes" can be "remedied". This is the classic leftist tactic. Fuck everything up, then fuck everything up all over again.

The underlying principal of conservatism is that if you'd just leave things alone, there'd be at least two less fuck ups. In Miliband's case, the number two equates to hundreds of millions of bodies.

This was turning into a numbers game - in the spirit of which, after fifty pages, I started to think seriously about whether I dare read the rest. To skip over all those cadavers then bleat about "the McCarthy witch-hunt" was too much for my martini-soaked stomach. No digestive system produces enough acid to burn lines like

it may well be said that it is precisely the existence of so much evil which makes it essential to create a context in which evil may be conquered, or at least attenuated.
Mao's famines - 70 million starved to death - are explained by an "under-estimation" of
the problems that must arise in the organization and administration of a post-capitalist society.
Excuses, excuses. Pathological cruelty - as exercised by a man like Saddam Hussein, a socialist who consciously modelled himself on Stalin, right down to the tash - is blamed on "injuries of class". The only way to prevent men acting like socialists is … socialism! To favourably quote Pareto's "History is the graveyard of aristocracies" on page 62 is to forget about Hegel's "history is a slaughterhouse" on page 58. Aristocracies were slaughtered in the name of equality. Miliband is re-erecting the guillotine.

It's creepy how those of us who don't want a socialist revolution go unmentioned. Presumably we make up the "resistors" or "elites" or "exploiters". What, one wonders, is to become of us? This is the twenty-first century. Gulags won't wash. Are we to be recycled?

Socialism is exceptionally unprincipled. No structure, physical or moral, is sacrosanct. Opportunism rules. There's a total lack of design and not even the pretence of balancing the kind of prefixed outcomes desired by lefties (Islamic terrorists promoted, pretty girls persecuted, dowdy knits and sensible shoes for everybody). Existing architectures, while rhetorically set for a smashing, are ultimately just holes for lefty stuffing. The only legitimate check on executive power sits in soiled overalls further left down the spectrum.

The judiciary is opposed because of its "class and racial bias". But the temptation to fill the benches with "progressive judges who

should be elected, after having met stipulated criteria of eligibility, promulgated by the relevant professional bodies
is irresistible. Judgement will be made on social status, not actions. Uneducated? Broke your home? Muslim? You're free to go. As I write, it is not against the law to speak badly or wear an afro. If criminals are sentenced for crimes, what will these "progressive judges" do - jail anyone with a posh accent and a haircut?

Don't like the new Utopia? Tough. The press is publicly owned - there's no mileage there. "Agencies" will judge "criteria of fairness" and administer "a politics of truth". And all because turkeys like Miliband never got picked for five-a-side.

"Yeah, but is any of this relevant?" you might ask. Kids these days are too busy living their iLives and being gentle to the environment to advocate worker's cooperatives, aren't they? Maybe, but David Miliband is touted as a future Prime Minister of Great Britain. In the foreword, David writes,

it is some comfort that the ideas developed by Ralph Miliband in this book and elsewhere will live on.
We are all guinea pigs now.

Socialism is littered with phrases like:

private profit was not an acceptable criterion for economic activity...

impose upon them policies congruent with social purposes...

great difficulties, which can only be overcome by a large bureaucratic apparatus and draconian penalties for failure to comply... [and]

It is, however, the sub-professional side of the petty bourgeoisie which offers the most promising constituency for left parties and movements.

To be fair, some pleasure can be filtered from Miliband's moans about the dearth of proletarian revolutionary consciousness these days. He blames competing identities, such as
gender, race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, youth, old age, disability, sexual preference, or a combination of them.
It's always entertaining to watch Marxists hang by their own petard.

Ultimately (i.e. when I couldn't read any more without risking physical as well as mental atrophy), Miliband's economic illiteracy and readiness to praise the "staggering", "achievements" of Stalinist planning, while advocating the state provision of clothing, pales in the shadow of his greatest crime. The horrors of real world communism are not an abuse of Miliband's "model", as he would like to pretend. Secret police, gulags, starvations, genocides - these are the foreseeable consequences of Miliband's "model".

And all those "unspeakable horrors" he won't deny are not the fault of poor timing, they are what happens when you concentrate power in the hands of ding-a-ling perfectionists with a total disregard for the liberty of individuals. Spend all morning planning a man's life, and by sunset you'll be planning his death.

Miliband writes:

[M]oderate conservatives may become very immoderate under the pressure of circumstances.
Reading his book, for instance.

Dominic Hilton is an editor of The Lizard magazine ( and a Research Fellow at the New Culture Forum. His blog, the Hilton Global Initiative, can be found at

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What an utterly splendid review! I'm almost tempted to buy the book for further entertainment value.

Posted by: Ian Bennett at March 14, 2008 03:07 PM

Excellent. It makes me want to rush out and not buy this book.

Posted by: FRANK MACMILLAN at March 17, 2008 03:27 PM
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