Last week the Daily Mail’s hired comedian, Richard Littlejohn, sneered that he’d never heard of Labour leader Ed Miliband’s father, “the ‘celebrated’ Marxist academic Ralph Miliband”. In Littlejohn’s world “celebrated” means filthy rich for doing nothing useful, so that’s no surprise.
In his speech to the Labour Party conference, Ed Miliband had paid tribute to his “Dad”, who came to Britain in 1940 to escape Nazi-occupied Belgium. Ed didn’t mention that Ralph seems to have entered Britain illegally, with forged papers—a recent Labour government would have sent him straight back. And Ed’s references to Ralph’s writings were pretty vague.
Some of us have a very different memory of Ralph Miliband. Those of us who came into politics around 1960, radicalised by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, often joined the Labour Party because we realised in a confused way that only the organised working class could change the world. We thought, rather naively, that we could change the Labour Party.
So Ralph’s 1961 book Parliamentary Socialism was a revelation. As the introduction told us: “Of political parties claiming socialism to be their aim, the Labour Party has always been one of the most dogmatic—not about socialism, but about the parliamentary system.
“Empirical and flexible about all else, its leaders have always made devotion to that system their fixed point of reference and the conditioning factor of their political behaviour.”
This explained the Labour Party’s insistence that everything must go through the proper constitutional channels. Arming for nuclear war was OK, but jostling a copper on a demo was forbidden as “using violence for political ends”.
Yet as Paul Foot once pointed out, we didn’t get the right to vote by voting for it.
Parliamentary Socialism told the truth about the Labour Party’s history, about its unwillingness to challenge capitalist power. And remember, the years before 1961 were the best—the years of Clement Attlee and Nye Bevan. Since then Labour has fulfilled all Ralph’s predictions by getting steadily worse.
Ralph was a professional academic, and his books and articles are sober and carefully argued.
But his pieces on Vietnam and the Chilean coup of 1973 show a controlled anger, a hatred of the system that produced war.
He condemned Harold Wilson’s “unwavering support” for the US in Vietnam, and argued that “acceptance of the legitimacy of military intervention on the ground of the exceptionally tyrannical nature of a regime opens the way to even more military adventurism, predatoriness, conquest and subjugation than is already rife in the world today”. He would scarcely have backed the Iraq war, or even thought, like Ed, that it is sufficient to “draw a line” under it.
Ralph always had a genuine vision of socialism. Though not a Leninist, he admired Lenin and commended his aspiration for a world in which “all will govern in turn and will soon become accustomed to no one governing”.
Some have made much of Ralph’s links with Labour lefts like Tony Benn and Ken Livingstone. He was certainly a man who welcomed dialogue with anyone working for socialism. But he also welcomed contributions to the Socialist Register (the annual collection of essays he edited with John Saville) from Socialist Workers Party members like Duncan Hallas, Dave Widgery and myself.
In 1976, following the logic of Parliamentary Socialism, he wrote that “the belief in the effective transformation of the Labour Party into an instrument of socialist policies is the most crippling of all illusions to which socialists in Britain have been prone”, and urged the formation of a new socialist party.
Duncan Hallas urged Ralph to collaborate with us in building such a party. Sadly he never gave organisational form to the perspective he argued.
But Ralph Miliband’s writings remain a beacon of clarity for socialists striving to understand the capitalist state and the best way to overthrow it. I suspect he will still be remembered when his sons have faded into the irrelevancies of parliamentary manoeuvres.
A selection of Ralph Miliband’s articles is at www.marxists.org/archive/miliband. Duncan Hallas’s critique is at www.marxists.org/archive/hallas/works/1977/xx/moveon.htm