Can one be a critic of parliamentary democracy as it presently exists in capitalist countries and still be accurately characterized as a democratic socialist? The question has arisen in recent discussion of how to describe Ralph Miliband's politics, and I will contend here that the answer to that question is yes. Ralph didn't think that the Labour Party was, or was ever likely to become, an adequate vehicle of socialist change, but the path towards socialism he envisaged didn't renounce either the political importance or the moral legitimacy of parliament as a democratic institution. I have as good a reason as anyone to remember this, because in 1989 The Socialist Register, co-edited by Ralph, carried an essay of mine in the final section of which I rejected the standard dichotomy in strategic debates on the left between pure parliamentarism and pure insurrectionism. I rejected it on grounds both of strategic realism and of what could be justified morally. And in the chapter of his final book - Socialism for a Sceptical Age - where he discussed 'Mechanisms of Democracy', Ralph began by quoting a passage from this essay in outlining his own considered views on the political processes of socialist change as he envisaged these. The passage he quoted was this:
... the insistence, under the rubric of 'smashing' the state, on a total discontinuity between bourgeois-democratic and projected socialist polities has tended to obscure for too many revolutionary socialists the value of certain norms and institutions which any real socialist democracy would need to incorporate: amongst them, a national representative assembly elected by direct universal suffrage, some separation of powers, the independence of judicial from political processes, the protection of basic individual rights, a constitutionally guaranteed political pluralism.
To remind myself of Ralph's arguments overall, I have gone back to that chapter to see what it contains. It's pretty much as I remember it. There's no talk of either (in the Leninist idiom) 'smashing' or bypassing the parliamentary-democratic state. On the contrary, Ralph writes of 'a radical extension of democracy' and of 'tak[ing] up and greatly strengthen[ing] the democratic forms which are already to be found in capitalist democracy'. He writes of the need for constitutional and legal constraints on all forms of power; of the place of the judiciary and judicial review; of controls on bureaucratic power, including by electing officials; of the devolution of power, and reforming the electoral system to make it more genuinely representative, and trying to strengthen participatory elements in the political process; and of the importance of egalitarian measures and the spread of education in achieving a more democratic society. I can find nothing there that would put in question his credentials as a democratic socialist.