The State in Capitalist Societyby Ralph Miliband (republished by www.merlinpress.co.uk £16.95)
Ralph Miliband was a major figure in the marxist revival which became known as the New Left in the 1960s. A founder of New Left Review and the Socialist Register, the State in Capitalist Society (1969) remains a key work of modern marxist analysis. Long out of print Merlin has done a service in reprinting this, along with his works Parliamentary Socialism (1961) and Marxism and Politics (1977), to mark its 40th anniversary. It is strange to review a book you first read as a young activist reading and engaging in marxist debate 37 years ago, three to four years after it was published. During those few years, largely through discussions in New Left Review and papers such as Black Dwarf, many of its ideas had become mainstream within the far left. In consequence, I read it, agreed with it and carried on with other debates, rarely feeling the need to return to the book. With the wisdom of hindsight and a rereading, I and indeed much of the left would have benefited from periodically referring to this book in strategy discussions in past decades.
The State in Capitalist Society examines major topics of marxist theory: Is there a ruling class? Who are the ruling class in modern capitalist society? How does the state operate within capitalism? What is the class basis of state employees? Does the state elite always work in the ruling class’s interest? What is the role of democratic parties, institutions and government within the state? Why do ‘oppressed’ classes accept the rule of their ‘masters’ as legitimate? In short how does the ruling class rule? Finally, Ralph examines the trend towards authoritarianism and curtailment of democracy and asks what it means to “overthrow” the ruling class and what are the obstacles to this.
This book was the first in English to systematically look at these themes from a class-based perspective. Marx only tangentially addressed the role of the state in the Communist Manifesto and his aphorism “a committee for managing the affairs of the whole bourgoisie” was picked up but little developed by Lenin. Gramsci did develop the theory, particularly of tensions and conflicts within the state (antinomies) and Miliband makes due reference to this. The books structure is partially dictated by the need to combat the then-accepted bourgeois promoted concepts of the state – impartial between classes, functionalist. He examines the role of nationalised industries – questioning the widely held view that the creation of the welfare state and large scale nationalisation had weakened markets or capitalism. These and many other views prevalent in the 1960s, are demolished by Miliband, yet are resurgent now.
Leo Panitch, in the 1960s a student of Miliband at LSE and now a contributer to New Left Review (amongst others), provides an up to date reassessment of the themes of the book and their current relevance. He points to the issues of banking bail out, Obama’s saving of the car industry and the accusation of Republicans that this is ‘Socialist Economics’ and how these mirror similar debates dissected by Miliband. The main reason he claims for reading the book is to understand fully Miliband’s observation that “reform always and necessarily falls short of the promise it was proclaimed to hold: … what always lay behind this were the fears, reinforced by capitalist pressures, of aggravating a crisis of capital accumulation”.
For myself, I found the latter chapters on The Process of Legitimisation (analysing non-state institutions such as political parties, trade unions, the church, lobbyists, universities and how ruling class ideology is ‘reproduced’ within the working classes) and Reform and Repression (how industrialisation creates opportunities for a humane social order and how such aims are frustrated and disoriented), came across with fresh insights as the left faces another period of reinventing itself. Two observations remain powerful; “the failures of social democracy implicates not only those responsible for it, but all the forces of the left” and “a serious revolutionary party, in the circumstances of advanced capitalism, has to be the kind of ‘hegemonic’ party of which Gramsci spoke … but the creation of such a party is only possible in conditions of free discussion and internal democracy, of flexible and responsive structures”.
I recommend the book for all on the left seeking clarity on our tasks and the enormous antagonistic forces we face. I hope, with little conviction, that Ralph’s sons David and Ed, possibly vying for leadership of the Labour Party, have recently reread the book and like their father seek a socialist solution for humanity by transcending capitalism.
Hamish Henderson: A Biography, Volume Two. Poetry Becomes People (1952- 2002)by Timothy Neat, Polygon, Edinburgh, £25
Hamish Henderson died at the age of 82 in 2002 having done much from which the citizens of Scotland and many other countries still benefit. His life was as cluttered and wonder-strewn as his tape teeming study in George Square. At the start of this elegant, compelling and inspiring culmination of an outstanding biography, Timothy Neat warns us that things are going to ‘slow down’. It could scarcely be otherwise! By 1952, when its subject was 35, Hamish Henderson had been, as a Perthshire only child, born out of wedlock, one of the scholarship boy stars of Dulwich College, a brilliant student of Leavis, a dazzling linguist, played an heroic part in, and been the beloved bard of, the desert campaign, won the prestigious Somerset Maugham Award for the masterly and moving Elegies written about El Alamein, accepted the surrender of, and began the cultural revival in, Italy, shortened the war through his polyglot skills as an interrogator, led a partisan army of communists, translated into English for the first time the letters of Gramsci, helped found the People’s Festival that was to become the Edinburgh Fringe, got the Folk Revival going on both sides of the Atlantic, opened up non sectarian adult education in the North of Ireland, begun the song collecting that was to make him the most important Scottish folklorist, certainly since, Hogg, probably since Burns, and got involved on the margins of militant post box bombing Nationalism. Thus ended the first volume. And that is a drastic, frugally foreshortened summary of a life not yet at its distinguished mid-point.
‘Big Hamish’ is, self confessedly, Neat’s hero as well as his subject, though (mostly) the hagiographical impulse is restrained as discipline offsets discipleship. Fault is found and flaws confronted in this palpable labour of love. It is not only nations that need foundation myths. Henderson could be fey and as an innocent a gilder of lilies was as much romancer, as Romantic, especially about his mysterious, ‘aristocratic’ paternity. That 25
riddle, Neat definitively (and mundanely) solves. Trying to pin down a giant, in figure and in fact, this filidh of figment and facet is like attempting to tack mist to a notice board. Yet Tim Neat, not merely Henderson’s chronicler but his (multi award winning) long time collaborator on books, documentaries and a feature film, catches his likeness (‘Like’- ness) with a true visual artist’s exactness. “This man was a singer, ‘a lad o’ pairts, but perhaps above all a teacher- a man of Franciscan simplicity, Socratic wisdom and Druidic authority….”. All who admired the warrior wizard of Neat’s opening instalment will be farther enthralled.
The period covered in the second volume sees Henderson become a husband and father, having found himself a professional home too, installed in the newly established School of Scottish Studies, his ‘hut’ to stravaig out from, for the rest of his life. Work is begun, with Maurice Fleming, on the treasure trove of tradition borne by the Travelling People, a project that was to change Henderson’s life and theirs. Campaigns – to be fought with all the righteous ferocity and gallantry of the Desert Campaign – intensify, for a Scottish socialist republic, for folk culture, for Christian compassion, for gay rights, for life and love. And against apartheid, nuclear weapons, imperialist oppression and Calvinist joylessness and repressive and regressive stricture. A Stalin-despising fellow traveller and then a disillusioned convert to the short- lived Scottish Labour Party, Henderson led, and was prominent in, no political party. Until, and mostly after, the broadcast of Keith Alexander’s fine film about the Elegies, the BBC kept him off the airwaves. He was the subject both of scurrilous rumour and the attentions of the Security Services. Few will doubt Neat’s account of the gossip-mongering and malice. More readers will wonder if the stymyings and surveillance don’t owe something at least to paranoia and conspiracy theory. That said, knowing even a little about the all too real proactive paranoia of the MI’s, 5 and 6 alike, anything was, and perhaps remains, possible.
Among those who sought out Hamish and whom he influenced, again this is a miniscule sampling, were Pasolini, Margaret Bennett and her son Martyn, Mark Cousins, Tilda Swinton, John McGrath, Gordon Brown (in better days), Billy Kay, Kirsty Wark, Eck Finlay, Ted Cowan and Jean Redpath. “A person who is not genuine cannot recognise someone who is genuine”, he believed. Several of his detractors failed that existential test. Hamish Henderson was genuine and then some. After an Episcopalian funeral attended by nearly two thousand, when Hamish’s ashes were scattered on the mountain above the fairy pass of his native Glenshee, it was George Gunn, Angus Calder and Tim Neat who waved an over- size Saltire and toasted him in Jura from charity shop golden goblets. Somehow, the people always know: when he turned down the OBE, the citizens of Scotland voted him BBC ‘Scot of the Year’ in 1984. He remains the only person to have had our devolved legislature devote a whole festive day of commemoration to him. Finally, he had his day. Is having it still, his devotees insist.
“Love”, As Hamish confided to his journal, “forgives every flaw and error”. In truth, love was his mission and his metier. Ewan MacColl and others emerge here as being calculatingly and ruthlessly deficient in that regard. Henderson was taken a lend of and abused. To an extent however, this genuinely great man was the author of his own misfortunes. He drank too much too often, romanticising the otherwise, collegial and gemudtich Sandy Bell’s, after visits to the similarly convivial McDaid’s in Dublin, as, office, court, ceilidh house, bower and divan. It was those things surely, but maybe too much so. Bars do, after all, sometimes, make prisons. Encountered there, toothless, shabby, ill scrubbed, negligently groomed, surrounded by hangers on as well as dear friends, Henderson, though invariably charming and well mannered, did not ‘look the part’ of the eminent scholar and prospective political leader that he most assuredly was. You ‘got’ him, or you didn’t. Many of us entrancedly did. Over in the New Town, MacCaig and MacDiarmid didn’t. Timothy Neat is correct positively to revise the sense in which MacDiarmid and Henderson, allies in the beginning, were indispensable poles, the two complementary ‘phrenia’ of the (now less credited) ‘Caledonian Antisysegy’- lowland, highland, atheist, Christian, high culture, folk culture, canonically great poet, song writer, creator, collector and so on.
Still, antipathy there was and MacCaig would use Henderson’s affectionately guiltless and gently inclusive Hellenism as an excuse to assert “That man’s a homo”, when Henderson did pay a companionably bibulous visit to Rose Street. In exemplary fairness, Neat points out that in the famous debate staged at Edinburgh University and recorded by BBC Radio on the relative merits of literary and oral artistry, the two Macs out-argued and out-jibed their antagonist. Those of us who did respond to the aura and the attainments, the vision and the humanity, the sheer darling depth, look back on that setback, knowing that in losing the battle, Henderson was, once again, winning the war. As we should remember, Henderson ‘discovered’ the peerless ballad singer Lizzie Higgins (and probably coached her to slow down her delivery, a tour de force of intuitive ‘direction’) but he also loved and translated Holderlin and Heine, Montale and Rabelais, his actual polyglot scrupulosity contrasting with MacDiarmid’s untutored linguistic kiddology and brassnecked plagiarism. What MacDiarmid did have though, and Henderson saluted from the start, was indisputable lyric genius on a scale to transfix and transform his native land.
Scotland is becoming what he beheld. To update a sixties saying, ‘It’s a Frank Sinatra world, we just live in it’. Contemporary ‘Alba’ is, in sober truth, a ‘Hamish Henderson world’. And we gratefully live in it. With Traditional Music long prominent on the syllabus of the RSAMD, the airwaves crowded with folk, roots and world music, with Celtic Connections and indeed celtic connections flourishing, with a Parliament reconstituted, the Polaris base gone, and the country nationally confident and internationally minded, the high hopes of and for Hamish may be said to have been achieved magnificently enough to satisfy Scotland. This is a marvellous book about a wonderful man. ‘The Freedom Come A’ Ye’ is a national anthem for an independent, socialist republic. The ‘John MacLean March’ is a masterpiece in the bardic ‘praise poem’ tribal tradition. ‘The Banks O’ Sicily’ and ‘The D Day Dodgers, were paid, within months of their composition, the ultimate compliment for a folk song composer, of being thought, ‘anonymous’. On his, ‘carrying stream’ the idea and ideals of Scotland flow. As he inveterately maintained, Politics follows culture: here truly, was the artist as leader. Hamish Henderson helped beguile a new Scotland into existence, proving in doing so that dreaming is the hardest work of all. Hamish Henderson, in those magisterial Elegies, could detect “No gods and precious few heroes”. His own life of faith, witness and solidarity suggests the young captain, tested in the desert spoke, eloquently, but too soon. A hero has been honoured here. One, of whom the world, and Scotland, will long have need.