Ralph Miliband’s real beliefs

October 2, 2013 at 10:04 pm (good people, humanism, intellectuals, Jim D, literature, Marxism, socialism, truth)

Ralph Miliband

Above: Chief Petty Officer Ralph Miliband, defending bourgeois democracy in WW2

The Daily Heil‘s filthy, lying smears against Ralph Miliband may have had the unintended consequence of encouraging people to look into the life, thought and writings of this remarkable man.  I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve only ever read his most famous book, Parliamentary Socialism, but now intend to read as much as I can of his other writings and have already ordered a copy of his debate with Marcel Liebman, The Israel Dilemma.

I’ve also visited the Marxists’ Internet Archive and found a most informative 1995 appreciation by Leo Panitch that emphasises Ralph’s democratic and pluralist credentials, and also points out that even during his lifetime, he was smeared in much the same way that the Heil has just done:

Miliband was not spared the denigration himself. A few months after his critique of the new revisionism appeared, a letter to the editor appeared in The Guardian by John Keane, in response to an op-ed piece Miliband had written calling for a new socialist party in the wake of the defeat and marginalisation of the Labour Left. ‘Readers of [Miliband’s] theoretical works will know that he is an old-fashioned class reductionist and no friend of democratic pluralism. In practice, his class and party-centred perspective would reproduce the worst features of vanguardist politics: especially its authoritarianism, machismo, implicit racism, and pro-Soviet prejudices.’ It was a sad commentary on how far the level of intellectual debate in Britain (and not only in Britain) had sunk in certain circles that Miliband, who famously stood in the state debate against the reduction of state power to class power, and who had undertaken (beginning with his to well-known essay on The State and Revolution in The Socialist Register 1970) the most consistent criticism on the British Left of the undemocratic facets of Lenin’s writings and practice, should have been so traduced in this fashion by one of the new ‘civil society’ theorists.

Even leaving aside the venality of the attempt to tar Miliband with racism, etc., it was no less scurrilous to taint him with pro-Soviet prejudices: here was a Marxist who had never joined a Communist Party, or any vanguard party, who had opposed the invasion of Hungary as a young man, and who in his maturity had not only opposed the Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan but had used it as an occasion (in his Military Intervention and Socialist Internationalism, the lead essay in The Socialist Register 1980) not just to deplore all such military interventions by Communist regimes (including the Vietnamese in Cambodia) but to undertake what has been called the ‘first notable attempt’ to theorize the international relations between unevenly developed socialist countries. Miliband’s long-standing personal litmus test for whether the reform of Soviet-style regimes was genuine was whether he would be allowed to start an association for the abolition of capital punishment in such regimes. (’Do you know why they have no cafés there?’ he asked me on his return from a visit to Russia. ‘Central Planning, of course,’ I replied. ‘Don’t be silly’, he said. ‘Cafés are where revolutions are hatched.’)

To appreciate just how unfair Keane’s attack was it is worth recalling that Ralph chose the following sentences to conclude his most important book, Marxism and Politics:

“Regimes which do, either by necessity or choice, depend on the suppression of all opposition and the stifling of all civic freedoms must be taken to represent a disastrous regression, in political terms, from bourgeois democracy, whatever the economic and social achievements of which they may be capable … [T]he civic freedoms which, however inadequately, form part of bourgeois democracy are the product of centuries of unremitting popular struggles. The task of Marxist politics is to defend these freedoms and to make possible their enlargement by the removal of their class boundaries.”

It was Ralph’s commitment to this kind of socialism that sustained him to the end of his life. In 1981 Ralph helped found the Socialist Society as an organisation devoted to socialist education and research. Unlike some of the other intellectuals involved, Ralph helped build the organization, and was a regular and punctual attender of steering committee meetings, no matter how frustrating they sometimes were. He also brought together a small socialist brains-trust which met regularly with Tony Benn, and was active with Benn and Hilary Wainwright in setting up the Chesterfield Socialist Conferences and the Socialist Movement that developed out of them. Yet this was only a continuation of the kind of work Ralph was always involved in, from the Centres for Socialist Education in the mid-1960s to the Marxist study centres he founded when he moved to Yorkshire in the 1970s. His commitment to developing the socialist intellectual community outside the cloisters of academe had never weakened.

This excellent article makes many of the same points as a spirited piece in today’s Graun by Ralph’s biographer Michael Newman.

So you never know: the Heil‘s filthy smear may serve a useful purpose if it encourages more people to seek out the true beliefs of this remarkable and admirable human being.
Comrade Coatesy republishes his own 1994 obituary/review for Labour Briefing, here
Recommended: some very informative stuff from Poumista: http://poumista.wordpress.com/2013/10/01/ralph-miliband-democrat-and-anti-fascist/


  1. finbar said,

    His old man sounds like he was a true believer,hard line education in that understanding i would assume.Is his lad the same,does or has his lad run in the streets of the prolatariat that he wishes to help?.For me Ed,hasin!t got it maybe they would have been better of with a female.

  2. Mike Killingworth said,

    Well, Finbar, the left candidate in the leadership election was Diane Abbott – I suspect the Labour membership remembered Michael Foot…

    Paul Dacre has made the worst misjudgement in British journalism since the NoTW’s phone-hacking: if he’s still got the sense he was born with he’ll be negotiating his retirement package right now…

    As for Ed, anyone who provokes Mandelson in the way he has done is fine by me.

  3. Andrew Coates said,

    I was on the Socialist Society Steering Committee at the time of the Chesterfield Conferences and am glad to see the defence of Miliband’s views.

    John Keane wrote the Guardian letter in his capacity as a supporter of the ‘new revisionism’.

    His charges that, ” ‘Readers of [Miliband’s] theoretical works will know that he is an old-fashioned class reductionist and no friend of democratic pluralism. In practice, his class and party-centred perspective would reproduce the worst features of vanguardist politics: especially its authoritarianism, machismo, implicit racism, and pro-Soviet prejudices.’

    This is absurd blustering and I do not forgive the accusations of “implicit racism” and “pro-Soviet prejudices”.

    Miliband’s Marxism was straight in the line of various strands of left thought, from Austro-Marxism to the first New Left, whose main feature was a rejection of “vanguardist politics” – and anti-Stalinist. Not to mention its anti-racism…

    Keane’s Civil Society and the State (1988) was a vapid defence of civil society as the mainspring of socialism – a cloudy vision that obscured class and conflictual politics.

    It is not surprising that his more recent idea of “monitory democracy” (not enough to rule a country through ‘totalitarian’ sovereignty, just enough to oversee matters) is even mistier.

    In his The Life and Death of Democracy, (2008) Keane trawls through history to find the sources of democracy.

    He managed to discover something like it in ancient Sumer.

    Now both Keane and my good self speak fluent Sumerian, are quite deft at writing cuneiform and are familiar with the workings of the city council of Uruk with its civil society (of slaves, amongst others).

    But some might suggest that this assertion, like much of Keane’s writing (see letter above), is a product of his imagination.

  4. Jim Denham said,

  5. On (Ralph) Milibandism | Well Red said,

    […] time and talent to speed read some of Ralph Miliband’s work and commentary surrounding it marks the debate around the Mail’s attacks here on his blog. Interestingly tagged as ‘good […]

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