Remembering Ralph Miliband

David Pavett writes

Before now I have never experienced any feeling of gratitude to the Daily Mail. Its outpourings of bile, hatred and its systematic misinformation have never been my cup of tea. But the Mail in attempting to damn Ed Miliband through his father has (1) shown its true nature to the world at large (such that many Tories have publically disassociated themselves from it over its attack on Ralph Miliband) and (2) it has pushed up sales of Ralph Miliband’s books. I am grateful to the Mail for both of those things.

Shortly before he died in 1994 Ralph, Miliband completed his last book Socialism for a Sceptical Age (published by Polity Press). What follows is an excerpt from the discussion about education and its social context in chapter 3 of that book: The Mechanisms of Democracy.

The achievement of … a rough equality of conditions, without which democratic citizenship remains little more than an aspiration, has many different facets. One of the most important of them is education.

Education in capitalist society has always been characterised by a deep division between elite education on the one hand and mass education on the other. Nor has that division been much lessened by the fact that children from the working class have in increasing numbers gained access to elite education. For this leaves the vast majority of the population receiving an education that is greatly inferior in terms of resources and facilities to that of the minority.

… It is of course true that some children nurtured in very adverse circumstances do overcome them and gain access to elite education, or reach ‘the top’ without it. But this does not negate the fact that class location, for the majority, plays a decisive role in the determination of their ‘life chances’, including the chance for people to develop to their full potential. At the core of socialism, there is the belief that there is potential in most people, and that a prime objective of socialist democracy is to create the conditions in which this potential can be given full scope. Lip service is nowadays paid to this objective by most governments by reference to equality of opportunity. But equality of opportunity is a mere slogan in societies marked by deep inequalities of condition: it could only acquire real meaning where all children started off under circumstances which were not thus marked.

The negation or stifling of potential is an abomination, first because of what it does to people, and also because it represents a terrible waste for society at large … Progress towards socialist democracy would require the will to obliterate the great gap which now exists between the private and public sector at primary and secondary level …
Under-education is also a blight upon the effective citizenship of the majority which is affected by it. Education for citizenship means above all nurturing a capacity and a willingness to question, to probe, to ask questions, to see through obfuscation and lies. It means the nurturing of a climate of thought in which racism, sexism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism are seen for the pathologies they are. It further means the nurturing of that socialised individualism to which I have referred earlier and which is synonymous with civic virtue. To say this is to tread on dangerous ground, since it might suggest that schools should be turned into instruments for the propagation of a set of not-to-be-questioned ideas. This would be anathema to socialist democracy. What is involved is something very different, namely the cultivation of an awareness that the quest for individual fulfilment needs to be combined with the larger demands of solidarity and concern for the public good. Effective citizenship does not mean the automatic acceptance of the definition of the public good from on high. On matters large and small, different individuals will in fact give it a different meaning, based on their own experience and reflection. This is as it should be, with a resolution of the differences based upon agreed procedures between alert and informed citizens.(pages 95-96)

… the vast majority of people are separated from [the] means of power. Political democracy, in any but a narrow sense of the concept, is not compatible with the oligarchic control of the means of power. This is precisely why so much effort has been deployed in the last hundred years to obfuscate the reality of oligarchic power, and turn into an unarguable truth the notion that capitalist regimes really are regimes of popular sovereignty. The reality of oligarchy is most readily obfuscated in the political realm by the existence of democratic forms. … corporate power, in charge of immense resources, remains remarkably free in the making of decisions of crucial importance for society at large.(page 92)