Review of Ralph Miliband, The State in Capitalist Society

“Today we live in the shadow of the state and more than ever depends on the state’s sanction and support”



the state in capitalist society review
The State in Capitalist Society

Ralph Miliband’s The State in Capitalist Society was first published in 1969 and was widely acclaimed as a major contribution to the revival of both state theory and Marxist political thought. The book still stands as a key work in the development of social and political theory after more than four decades since the book was first published.


As Miliband himself describes in the preface, ‘the book is concerned with the nature and role of the state in advanced capitalist societies’. The first introductory chapter of the book is mainly concerned with a survey of the major economic and social characteristics of advanced capitalist societies. The second chapter examines in greater detail the pattern of economic power which is to be found in them. And, the third chapter outlines the main institutions of the ‘state system’ and the social composition of the ‘state elite’. The book, in these three chapters (of which the review is being undertaken), tries to offer many important arguments, along with some excellent and interesting empirical facts, to the state debate. When we cannot ignore the increasing importance of the book, however, the arguments, concepts, ideas and facts as well as the methodology used need further re-examination and debate.

The opening sentence of Miliband’s book goes by famously saying that today we live in the shadow of the state and more than ever depends on the state’s sanction and support. Miliband continues to stress that, in today’s advanced capitalist society, state has become more and more powerful and its intervention in every aspect of life is enormously increasing.

‘It is possible not to be interested in what the state does; but it is not possible to be unaffected by it’.

It is followed by his regret of the general lack of interest among Western scholars about the study of the nature and role of the state in these societies. He gives its reason to be this:

‘the political scientists and political sociologists there ‘take as resolved’ some of the largest questions which have been asked about the state’.

Hereafter, Miliband tries to explain and show (in fact, he is very clear about his explanations and the empirical examples provided thereof) that

‘the pluralist-democratic view of society, of political power and the state in the advanced capitalist societies is in all essentials wrong-that this view, far from providing a guide to reality, constitutes a profound obfuscation of it’.

Miliband says that the liberals/pluralists in these societies perceive power to be ‘competitive, fragmented and diffused’. They insists that since there is ‘plurality of interest’ in these societies, no particular interest can emerge as a dominant class and acquire too much power to weigh too heavily upon the state. Of course, the pluralists admit the existence of elites in different political, economic, social, administrative and professional pyramids of power. But, they argue, there is lack of the degree of cohesion, among these elites, required to turn them into dominant or ruling classes. In fact, their argument continues, ‘elite pluralism’ with their competing interests makes power in society balanced and diffused and not concentrated. Here, Miliband quotes Robert Dahl and other pluralist writers who see the state to be a neutral arbitrar, an umpire in a fair competition. These writers think the notion of ‘ruling class’ or ‘power elite’ irrelevant in these advanced capitalist societies, which, they say, are ‘already democratic societies’.

However, Miliband calls this pluralist view of society, of political power and the state as orthodoxy and mere claims. Despite the general acceptance that these claims earned due to various circumstantial reasons, this does not make it right.

Miliband contends that

‘notwithstanding the elaboration of various elite theories of power, by far the most important alternative to the pluralist-democratic view of power remains the Marxist one’.

Yet, he recalls, the theory of the state and of political power has, with rare exception of Antonio Gramsci, been neglected by Marxist thought and has long suffered from ‘marked deficiencies’. Marx himself never attempted a systematic study of the state though he made references to the state in his various writings, the most famous definition so far as capitalist societies are concerned being the state as ‘a committee’ managing the affairs of the bourgeoisie (stated in the Communist Manifesto). Miliband also says that Lenin’s State and Revolution is old as well. Thus, there is the urgent need to renew the theory. Interestingly, Miliband identifies the purpose of his book ‘as to make a contribution to remedying that deficiency’.

Miliband has selected some ‘advanced capitalist’ countries such as Britain, France, Germany, the United States, Japan and Western Europe for the purpose of his analysis of the nature and role of the state in such societies. According to him, despite various differences, these societies have two common characteristics: first, they are all highly industrialised countries; and second, the largest part of their means of economic activity is under private ownership and control. These two characteristics make them advanced capitalist countries and distinguish them from other less industrialised countries such as India or Brazil. In these societies, there is less degree of agricultural activity but increasing industrial working class.

Any country that comes under the sway of these countries, Miliband says, are imposed many fundamental uniformities to serve their interest. The outcome is that there has come a remarkable degree of similarity, not only in economic but in social and even political terms, between them.

However, in the recent times, people talk about the increasing state intervention in various aspects of economic life in these advanced capitalist societies. But, again, such state intervention is nothing new in the history of capitalism; in fact, it has been of crucial importance in the workings of capitalism, ‘even in the country most dedicated to laissez faire and rugged individualism’.

Therefore, Miliband points out that the pluralists’ argument of capitalism as an economic system becoming a ‘misnomer’, the concept of ‘post-capitalist’ societies, and the emergence of a ‘countervailing power’ to the system are essentially wrong. Despite the fact that state owns a substantial part of the means of production, he argues, the largest part of the economic activity in these societies continues to be dominated by private ownership and enterprise. And, notwithstanding the transformations which they have undergone, these are still authentically capitalist societies.

Miliband pictures the advanced capitalism as characterised by giant enterprises, having a trans-national character in terms of ownership and management, dominating the economy ‘because the state intervention tends to’. The creation of European Economic Community was one such institutional expression of the phenomenon.

Another international aspect of advanced capitalism is the implantation of large-scale capitalist enterprise in the under-industrialised countries of the world. These countries of Latin America, the Middle East, Africa and Asia, after they have attained their formal independence, have made the preservation and the extension of these capitalist interests. And, this finds expression in the foreign policies of the capitalist states.

The advanced capitalist societies have a similar ‘economic base’. And, this ‘economic base’, Miliband argues, also brings about notable similarities in their social structure and class distribution.

Here, Miliband derives his belief in the centrality of class difference from his academic background. He argues that in all these advanced capitalist societies there exist two opposite classes: the capitalist employers and the industrial wage-earners. The former is relatively small in number but own a markedly disproportionate share of personal wealth, and their income is largely derived from that ownership: they have the greatest say in many of the most important sectors of economic life. On the one hand, the latter’s condition remains ‘a hard and basic fact in these societies in work process, in levels of income, in opportunities or lack of them, in the whole definition of social existence: they get least of what there is to get’.

“The economic and political life of capitalist societies is primarily determined by the relationship, born of the capitalist mode of production, between these two classes- the class which owns and controls, and the working class… The political process in these societies is mainly about the confrontation of these two forces…”

Miliband talks of the existence of other classes as well. One of importance here is the class of professional people: lawyers, doctors, teachers, middle-rank executives, administrators, etc. And, the other one is the business class of small and medium-size enterprise. Their role in the advanced capitalist societies is greatly important, not only in economic terms, but in social and political ones too.

Miliband also mentions the extraordinary growth of the class of office workers which forms the sales force of advanced capitalism. Werner Sombart calls this class as a class of ‘quasi-proletariat’. ‘Together with the working class it constitutes the main element of what may be called the subordinate classes of advanced capitalist societies’. However, interestingly, this class does not want to identify themselves with the working class, furthering the diversification within the class.

Finally, these societies all include a large number of ‘cultural workmen’: writers, journalists, critics, intellectuals and so on.

Other classes, such as criminals, students, and politicians are not discussed in this chapter.

Miliband argues, though advanced capitalism provides similar socio-economic environment for the political life of the countries where it prevails, that political life itself has often been exceedingly dissimilar. Miliband says that the Nazi rule in Germany, Stanley Baldwin in Britain and Franklin Roosevelt in the United States are different political regimes that advanced capitalism has produced. These regimes were authoritarian. And, that the notion that capitalism is incompatible with or that it provides a guarantee against authoritarianism may be good propaganda but it is poor political sociology.


Economic Elites and Dominant Class

In the second chapter (Economic Elites and Dominant Class), Miliband is trying to ‘determine’ the inevitable existence of an economically dominant class which wield decisive economic power in the advanced capitalist societies. Because, the liberal-democrats have repeatedly denied the existence of such a predominant class in these societies due to the multiplicity and plurality of competing political and other elites.

Miliband questions this view of the pluralist-democrats and their belief that these societies are moving towards an egalitarian society. All this is not happening in reality. There are vast economic inequalities and large differences in the distribution of income existing in advanced capitalist societies.

Miliband goes on arguing that there continues to exist the propertied and property-less classes in these societies. He quotes the examples in Britain, France, and the United States etc. to show that poverty is becoming a serious problem. (A recent report by the U.S. Census Bureau on Income, Poverty and Health Insurance Coverage in the US: 2010 said “that not only were 46.2 million Americans in poverty after the worst recession since the 1930s, but this worsening trend had continued for the fourth consecutive year and was the largest number in the 52 years for which poverty estimates have been published…. In 2010, the poverty in the US jumped by a staggering 20 per cent….The number of people without health insurance coverage in the country is 49.9 million in 2010”. It shows the continuance of the trend of what Miliband said).

The much talked about concepts of ‘consumer revolution’ and the ‘assimilation of lifestyles’ between classes, Miliband argues, are misleading.

First, because it systematically understates the vast differences which continue to exist, both quantitatively and qualitatively, in the consumption possibilities of the working classes and of other classes.

Second, because access to more goods and services, however desirable it is, does not basically affect the place of the working class in society and the relationship of the world of labour to the world of capital.

According to Miliband, capitalism is the system that provides ample opportunities for ‘wealth to beget more wealth’. Class divisions are firmly rooted in the system of ownership of advanced capitalist societies.

However, it is argued, with the constantly growing separation between ownership of private wealth and their actual control, simply ownership of private wealth no longer affords any decisive element of economic and political power. This is a further reason for rejecting not only the notion of a ‘ruling class’ based upon the ownership of the means of production but of a ‘capitalist class’ as well.

Today, managerialism is the new phenomenon. The control has passed from owners to managers. In ‘managerial capitalism’, managers are considered ‘less selfish, their impulses and motives are better, more socially responsible, more closely concerned with the public interest than old-style owner capitalism. Here, Professor Carl Kaysen uses the phrase, ‘the soulful corporation’. Miliband calls this thesis of ‘soulful corporation’ a mystification (Ralph Miliband, NLR I/59, Jan.-Feb. 1970, p.55).

Miliband says that there are certain behaviour patterns of managers which are different from the old style managers. However, Miliband argues, every capitalist must submit to the most crucial demands of the system: to make the ‘highest possible’ profits. Profit is the yardstick of his success, disregarding his motives and aims. Thus the single most important purpose of businessmen, whether as owners or managers, remains the pursuit and achievement of the ‘highest possible profit’ than any other consideration. This is what is inherent in the system.

Therefore, Miliband says, managerial capitalism, like the old-style capitalism, is marked by the supreme contradiction of which Marx spoke, namely ‘the contradiction between its ever more social character and its enduring private purpose’.

On the other hand, managers cannot be ‘separated’ from the resources they control, since they themselves have large shares in their enterprises. High salaries also characterise the upper layers of management and these managers everywhere are in the upper reaches of the income pyramid. Besides, the social origin of the managerial class is upper-middle and upper-class families. Thus, this class is nothing of a ‘new class’, but the same old bourgeois class.

Miliband argues that any elite recruitment in the advanced capitalist societies is distinctly hereditary. It is always from the propertied and professional classes: access from the working classes into them is significantly low. One of the reasons for this is due to the differences in the kind of education accessible to the children of upper- and middle-class families and the children of working class families. The best educational advantage is always enjoyed by the children of upper- and middle-class parents. (The entry of a bright student in a reputed college/university or to an elite service continues to make headlines. This is due to the fact that ‘they are very rare’).

There is a remarkable sentence that Miliband says about this phenomenon that

‘the spread of Managerialism tends to reinforce the advantage of what Harold Laski used to call the careful selection of one’s parents’.

Miliband argues that the concepts of ‘meritocracy’ and of ‘equality of opportunities’ in these societies are downplayed by the elements of nepotism, favouritism and the ‘network of connections’ among the higher classes.

Miliband also talks about the process of ‘bourgeoisification’ in the advanced capitalist societies. The aristocrats of the bad old days have been assimilated to the world of enterprises. Similar is the case of successful entrepreneurs and managers of the working class origin. Today, wealth is the great leveller in ideological, political and social terms.

In this section, Miliband talks about a true fact:

‘dominant classes have so far fulfilled a great deal better than the proletariat for the existence of a ‘class for itself’…..the rich have always been far more ‘class conscious’ than the poor’.

Yes, Miliband admits, there exists a plurality of elites. ‘This ‘elite pluralism’ does not, however, prevent the separate elites in capitalist societies from constituting a dominant economic class, possessed of a high degree of cohesion and solidarity, with common interests and common purposes which far transcends their specific differences and disagreements’.

Now, Miliband comes to questioning the role of these dominant economic elite in determining the nature and role of the state in advanced capitalism.


The State System and the State Elite

Miliband begins this chapter (The State System and The State Elite) with a very interesting statement that

‘the state does not, as such, exist’.

Although we use the term ‘the state’ in everyday discussion, the existence of such an explicit entity is vague.

‘What ‘the state’ stands for is a number of particular institutions which, together, constitute its reality, and which interacts as parts of what may be called the state system’.

Miliband points out that there are various elements constituting the state system: the government, the administration, the military and the police, the judicial branch, sub-central government and parliamentary assemblies. These elements make up ‘the state’, and their interrelationship shapes the form of the state system.

Miliband opines that the state power lies in these institutions and this power is exercised by the people occupying the leading positions in each of these institutions. And, ‘these are the people who constitute what may be described as the state elite’.

This class of state elite is again the class which have the largest share of property in these societies and are the authentic ‘ruling class’ there.

Miliband denies the argument that the businessmen are reluctant to seek political power. In the United States or elsewhere in any advanced capitalist society, Miliband argues, the business class forms the largest occupational group in the state apparatuses.

Contrary to what pluralists say, the businessmen are directly involved in the government and administration as the state becomes more closely concerned with economic life; ‘whenever the state ‘intervenes’, there also will businessmen be found to influence and even to determine the nature of that intervention’. And, what they decide as ‘national interest’ is but their interest.

Businessmen may constitute a relatively small minority of the state elite, yet it is of little significance as they belong to the same social class/composition that dominates the state system. All the institutions of the state system are dominated by the people from the upper and the middle classes. The working class’s presence in these institutions is nominal.

The reasons for this are the difference in the degree of accessibility to the right kind of education between these two economic classes, the role of nepotism, favouritism and ‘connections’.

Miliband concludes this chapter with the following passage:

‘In an epoch when so much is made of democracy, equality, social mobility, classlessness and the rest, it has remained a basic fact of life in advanced capitalist countries that the vast majority of men and women in these countries has been governed, represented, administered, judged, and commanded in war by people drawn from other, economically superior and relatively distant classes’.


Critical Assessment


Ralph Miliband

The main arguments in Miliband’s The State in Capitalist Society, particularly in the first three chapters, are based on his academic background as a Marxist. Miliband offers an account the anatomy of class and state in advanced capitalist society. His book is mainly directed at bourgeois liberal ideas which see society as composed of ‘free’ individuals and which see the state as a democratic arena equally accessible to all the competing interest in the society. In these three chapters of the book, Miliband seeks to prove that this pluralist-democratic view of society and the state is not only faulty but misleading too.

With regard to methodology, Miliband employs basically the Marxist empirical tradition. Miliband presented his arguments on the basis of detailed and solid empirical research. Looking at facts and figures about Britain, other European countries and the United States, he traced the limits of social democracy to the privileged position of upper and middle classes in the access and control of all state apparatuses. Importantly, Miliband showed that this advantage was founded on the capitalists’ privileged access to wealth, resources, education and special connections etc. due to its position in the capitalist relations of production. Miliband claims that the state represents a form of class power and does not operate in the interests of society as a whole.

Besides, because of his understanding of state as an instrument of the capitalist class, Miliband has been characterised as an ‘instrumentalist’.

The book, and the three chapters reviewed here, is not, however, without any limitations. In one of the most interesting articles in New Left Review, Nicos Poulantzas, a contemporary of Miliband, made some critical comments on Miliband’s book which bore importance in the beginning of the famous Miliband-Poulantzas debate.


Nicos Poulantzas

In this article, Poulantzas criticised Miliband’s work on various grounds. The first point is the ‘problem of method’. According to Poulantzas, the analysis which the book attempts is vitiated by the absence of a ‘problematic’ which would adequately situate the concrete data it presents. ‘A precondition of any scientific approach to the ‘concrete’ is to make explicit the epistemological principles of its own treatment of it’, and Poulantzas continues, ‘that Miliband nowhere deals with the Marxist theory of the State as such, although it is constantly implicit in his work’.


One example Poulantzas gives in this regard is Miliband’s attack on the pluralist notion of ‘plural elites’. Miliband, in his argument, maintains that a plurality of elites does not exclude the existence of a ruling class. Poulantzas says that Miliband fails to provide a ‘critique of the ideological notion of elite’, and therefore, places himself inside the ‘problematic’ which he seeks to oppose. ‘The concrete reality concealed by the notion of plural elites…can only be grasped if the very notion of elite is rejected’. Poulantzas argues that Miliband sometimes allows himself to be unduly influenced by the methodological principles of the adversary.

The following are the points Poulantzas presented as some of the limitations of Miliband’s work:

  • The False Problem of Managerialism: Contrary to what Miliband perceived, Poulantzas argues that ‘the managers as such do not constitute a distinct fraction of the capitalist class. By considering the managers as a distinct ‘economic elite’, Poulantzas continues, Miliband not only attributes to them an importance they do not possess, but he is prevented from seeing what is important… What matters is not the differences and relations between ‘economic elites’ based on diverging aims, but the differences and relations between fractions of capital. The problem is not that of plurality of ‘economic elites’ but of fractions of the capitalist class’.
    Poulantzas also argues that Miliband’s identification of motivation of conduct, i.e., search for profit as the aim of action, as Marx’s criterion for the membership of the capitalist class is not true; rather it is the objective place in production and the ownership of the means of production. Moreover, the fundamental contradiction of the capitalist system, according to Marx, is not ‘a contradiction between its social character and its private purpose’, as Miliband presented in his book, but ‘a contradiction between the socialisation of productive forces and their private appropriation’. Thus, the characterisation of the existing advanced capitalist system does not depend on the motivations of the conduct of managers.
  • The Question of Bureaucracy: Poulantzas argues that Miliband reduces the role of the State to the conduct and behaviour of the members of the state apparatus. Miliband’s argument to establish the relation between the conduct of the members of the state apparatus and the interests of the ruling class by demonstrating their social origin prevents us from studying the actual ‘problem of bureaucracy’. According to Poulantzas, the members of the state apparatus function according to a specific internal unity. Their class origin, i.e., the class situation, recedes into behind their class position: ‘the fact that they belong precisely to the State apparatus and that they have as their objective function the actualisation of the role of the State’. Thus, the bureaucracy is the servant of the ruling class, not by reason of its class origins, but by reason of its internal unity to actualise the objective role of the State. ‘The totality of this role itself coincides with the interests of the ruling class’.
    Consequently, Poulantzas brings up the problem of relative autonomy of State in Miliband’s work. He argues that Miliband ‘admits this autonomy only in the extreme case of fascism’.
  • The Branches of the State Apparatus: According to Poulantzas, here too, Miliband misses to see what ‘governs the relations between these branches, the respective importance and the relative predominance of these different branches among themselves, for example the relation between parliament and the executive, or the role of the army or the administration in a particular form of State’. Poulantzas argues that Miliband could not establish what were the respective role and the mutual internal relation of the ‘branches’ of the State apparatus.

Notwithstanding Poulantzas’s arguments against the work (in fact, many of them are certainly valid), The State in Capitalist Society as a socio-political work carries its own merits. The work, particularly the first three chapters, proceeds towards ‘the de-legitimisation of the capitalist system of power’. This is Miliband’s significant contribution to the Marxist political thought.

Another thing commendable about Miliband’s work is the degree of accessibility his writing provides, the sheer clarity of prose, the judicious style of argumentation, the marshalling of empirical evidence, and the eclectic use of sources and concepts… The text is unusually ‘free from formula-mongering’, as is vitally necessary for socialist education to be broad and sustained.

The charges that were levelled against The State in Capitalist Society for being ‘pre-theoretical’, trapped within the elite-pluralist framework that was ostensibly the book’s object of critique, reflected an impatience not only with this style of writing, but with this stage in the evolution of theory… the criticism that Miliband was trapped by elite-pluralist concepts was certainly much overdrawn.

To conclude, despite certain criticisms, Miliband’s work is recognised as ‘one of the most important books in political sociology published since the Second World War’. The first three chapters of Ralph Miliband’s The State in Capitalist Society offers an insight into the working of capitalist system in some of the most advanced capitalist countries in the world. Its detailed study of- class analysis, class domination, conceptualising and describing the state system, existence of a ruling elite and their relationship with economic power, in the advanced capitalist societies, and attacking the liberal-pluralist notion of society, of political power, and of the nature and role of the State in these societies; the various reasons hampering the working class from becoming ‘class conscious’, and the role of wealth, resources, education and other factors working to maintain the status quo; and how these all affect and determine the nature and role of the State in these societies- expresses exemplary understanding and expertise in the field. To add, the class analysis Miliband undertakes in this work is essentially an analysis of power and domination, the dominant economic elite and the underclass representing the winners and losers of class struggle and hegemonic manipulation. Indeed, the strength of Miliband’s work lies in the fact that it facilitates a fundamental critical perspective on class and power structures related to the disposition of capital and provides a space for further development of the theorisation of Marxist thought.

*Review of Ralph Miliband, 1969, The State in Capitalist Society (introduction and the following two chapters), The Merlin Press Ltd.

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