The young Ralph Miliband flaunting his hatred of Britain through enlistment in the Royal Navy
“Daily Mail” founder Harold Harmsworth posing with the sort of political thinker favoured by his class over men of Ralph Miliband’s disreputable stamp
As the history of our century has proven since the beginning of the debate between “reformists” (or gradualists) and “revolutionists” inside the socialist movement – since the inception of Bernsteinian revisionism – the real issue is not whether revolutions are “advisable” or “bad” (‘the embodiment of “evil” and moral sin’ as the German SPD chief Friedrich Ebert thought). The real issue is whether they inevitably occur again and again, because the contradictions of bourgeois society – economic, social, political, military, cultural, even moral ones – periodically sharpen.
Ernest Mandel, ‘How to Make No Sense of Marx’, 1989
In the previous article on this blog, the present author, Mark Conlon, made reference to the less than encouraging pointers to be found in the writings of Marxist political scientist Ralph Miliband (1924-94) as to the likelihood of the British Labour Party, bearing in mind that party’s crippling adherence to what Miliband castigated as the constitutionalist and de-radicalizing ideology of parliamentarism, mounting a successful defence of the National Health Service and the Welfare State against attack from the neoliberal right. The day after I published the piece, by coincidence a media furore blew up over an attempt by Daily Mail hack Geoffrey Levy to smear Miliband’s son, Labour leader Ed, by associating the child with the purported sins of the father, who had been slandered in the Tory propaganda sheet as a man whose “socialist” – the word was mysteriously placed in quotation marks in Levy’s diatribe – convictions meant he unambiguously “hated” his adopted home of Britain. Of particular horror to Levy was a diary entry made by the seventeen-year-old Ralph Miliband critiquing the Francophobia and overweening nationalism of his insular hosts. According to Levy, presumably with Mail editor Paul Dacre guiding his chauvinistic pen, Miliband pere was additionally guilty of such foul deviations from human decency as dislike of the Windsor monarchy, the Church of England, the House of Lords, public schools, Oxbridge, and the UK’s glorious armed forces. The last allegation was ventured in spite of its target, a Jewish refugee from the Nazi conquest of Belgium, having served between June 1943 and January 1946 on Royal Navy warships after the British government granted him asylum (an offensively philanthropic concept of which the Daily Mail strongly disapproves). At the time of writing, the row is still rumbling on, with accusation and counteraccusation flying back and forth as the Mail strives to limit the damage done to its reputation – in tatters already for anyone who abjures philistine bigotry – by what is proving to be a miscalculation on its part of the degree to which it can debase public discourse.
In this pale rerun of the Zinoviev Letter plot, a manoeuvre to derail Ed Miliband’s prime ministerial bid through the laughable imputation that he is as passionately left-wing as his father, the charges levelled that the latter was a devotee of an “evil” communistic creed, one authorizing the worst excesses of Stalinism, are too rote and hackneyed to merit extensive reply. Ralph Miliband consistently derogated Leninist vanguardism and its belittlement of “formal” bourgeois freedoms, and his political allegiance, in terms of party membership, never extended further leftwards than the Labour Party of the 1950s, which had about it no detectable odour of brimstone. Similarly, it is almost too obvious to point out the absurdity of the Daily Mail throwing stones in the glass house of patriotic fervour, considering the newspaper’s past predilection, excepting the occasional hurrah on behalf of Oswald Mosley, for Mussolini and Hitler over homegrown politicians – an admiration the fascist foreigners reciprocated – and the non-domicile status of its present chairman the fourth Viscount Rothermere, whose abhorrence of the crown exceeds that of the late Professor Miliband inasmuch as, despite having at his disposal a personal fortune of £1.02 billion, he declines to donate a single penny in tax to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. Should anyone wish to suggest, meanwhile, that things have moved on since the 1930s, and that Mail journalists should not be prohibited from criticism of Miliband because he was on the right side of the antifascist struggle when the publication for which they work was not, let’s not forget that Rothermere’s lackeys continue to cultivate a keen interest in fascism, recommending a vote for Marine Le Pen – not entirely flawless in ideological disposition, but the sole “responsible” candidate according to pricelessly named Mail scribbler Richard Waghorne – in the French presidential election of 2012, on account of their displeasure at Nicholas Sarkozy’s excessively moderate policies, or fidelity to “muddy centrism” as Mr Waghorne astonishingly perceived it.
As hinted at by the quotation at the head of this article from Miliband’s compatriot, Marxist comrade and almost exact contemporary Ernest Mandel, the question that should be addressed, and which is more interesting than inquiring into the predictable hypocrisy of bourgeois scribes, is not the infantile one of whether Ralph Miliband was “evil” in avowing Marxist beliefs, and was a firebrand who sought to actualize those beliefs through the kind of workers’ revolution that, in the conspiratorial universe of Daily Mail ignoramuses, would never discomfit their cosy equilibrium unless fomented by wicked left-wing agitators. Rather, it is whether the writings informed by those beliefs yielded accurate, objective analyses of the topics under examination. Early indications are that sales of Miliband’s books, and of Michael Newman’s 2002 biography, Ralph Miliband and the Politics of the New Left, have been boosted in the wake of the Daily Mail ruckus, a condign lesson for Mail propagandists in the dialectics of unintended consequences. Purchasers will be in a position to judge for themselves how discerning Miliband was in his characterization of the world in which they live. The startling accuracy of his diagnosis of the British state, and the ways in which that perspective elucidates the NHS – an institution currently in the throes of privatization at the hands of brutish reactionaries the Mail hopes with its sordid contrivances to keep in office – can briefly be dealt with here. It will be noted that I say British state, as I don’t propose to waste time ruminating on “Britain” in the theological sense beloved of nationalistic journalists, an immaterial abstraction Miliband undeniably scorned, from his adolescent deploration of British xenophobia onwards. I ask other members of the Pathways group to forgive my indulgence. As someone who was an admirer of Ralph Miliband long before I was aware of the existence of his strangely destined sons, it’s a temptation I find impossible to forgo. In discussing the NHS, I’ll endeavour to keep the detour tolerably relevant to the concerns of this site.
Miliband was a defender, notably in a celebrated (relatively speaking) polemic in New Left Review with Greek structural Marxist Nicos Poulantzas – Argentinian writer Ernesto Laclau, at that point a sympathizer of Poulantzas rather than the post-Marxist flayer of “economism” he became, was also embroiled in the dispute – of an instrumentalist conception of the state as a weapon of class rule, as crystallized in such classical Marxist iterations of the theme as “the executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the entire bourgeoisie” (Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Communist Manifesto, 1848) and “the modern representative state is an instrument for exploiting wage labour by capital” (Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, 1884). For the sake of readers unsympathetic to Marxism and/or longwinded academicism, I won’t expound in detail the abstruse debate, which saw Miliband stretching scholarly politesse as far as charging his interlocutor with “hyper-theoretical” errors embedded in a “formalized ballet of evanescent shadows.” Suffice it to say that Parliament under David Cameron’s premiership, with its singleminded devotion to advancing the interests of the “wealth creators” lionized by representatives of all major parties, might have been carefully designed to refute the objection of Poulantzas – who committed suicide in 1979, conceivably in despair that all his arduous Althusserian theorizing had failed to prevent the accession of Margaret Thatcher – that the quoted loci classici of Marxian analysis are overly reductive in downplaying the autonomy of the state, and exaggerate the stranglehold of regulatory capture, to use a contemporary term, that the capitalist class has over the state apparatus. Nor would Miliband, a student of Antonio Gramsci’s theory of hegemony, have been surprised to discover Cameron’s extreme partiality toward “entrepreneurship” shrouded in “commonsensical” proclamations of the universal beneficence of a corporate imperium, as something serving, in a phrase that drips readily from the Prime Minister’s casuistic lips, the “national interest” of all sections of society.
Westminster conforms closely to Miliband’s description, in his 1969 book The State in Capitalist Society, of bourgeois states as presided over by elites who are “dedicated servants of their business and investing classes.” When Cameron speaks of “recovery” being on the horizon, he does not mean that state services like the NHS are in prospect of being restored to their former vitality, still less that ordinary people will recover the standard of living snatched from them by recession and austerity, a matter of supreme unconcern to an Old Etonian and alumnus of the Bullingdon Club, but is voicing the rather more partisan hope that his class will recover its power of accumulation to the greatest possible extent, as reflected in profit margins and stock market valuations. Now that they have ditched a commitment even to the timid, ad hoc brand of reformism (dubbed “Labourism” by Miliband) symbolized by Clause IV, and jettisoned with indecent haste the anaemic substitute of Anthony Giddens’s Third Way, Labour politicians are scarcely differentiable from Cameron in outlook, while Liberal Democrats can congratulate themselves on the most astounding surrender to capitalist values witnessed in British politics since Ramsay MacDonald’s perfidy of 1931. Miliband’s perception need be qualified only in that the Westminster oligarchy is nowadays less biased toward its own business class as compared with overseas competitors, having undergone an ardent conversion, heedless of the violence done to its professedly jingoistic principles – “British jobs for British workers” in an unfathomably dense emanation of Gordon Brown’s clouded brain – to hiving off huge chunks of the economy to transnational capital (Royal Mail, the UK’s venerable postal service, is the latest heirloom of family silver to be unpatriotically auctioned to the lowest bidder). Thus we can conclude that Miliband’s reservations about the parliamentary democracy enshrined in the British state, a scepticism so righteously denounced by the Daily Mail – which no doubt is organized internally on a highly democratic basis from hereditary owner Lord Rothermere downwards – had nothing to do with a rejection of democracy per se. They were founded on his recognition that parliamentary democracies function to stymie genuine participatory democracy from below, to block the emergence of what Miliband called a “dual power” alliance between state and grassroots organizations, in order to perpetuate an entrenched ruling class and ward off any threats to the sovereignty of business, i.e., to nullify the possibility of “democracy” so defined ever changing anything.
Where a capitalist mode of production operates, we invariably encounter “divided societies” – the title of a 1989 Miliband book emphasizing, against fashionable dismissal of its significance, the continuing centrality of class struggle – and it is an axiomatic outcome of the workings of the system, contrary to the mystifications put about by Tories depicting capitalism as a wondrous land of opportunity (“a very Eden of the innate rights of man” as Karl Marx sarcastically put it), that “hardworking people” are ill rewarded for their efforts. Those who merely control and direct their labour, by contrast, and can appropriate surplus value – profit arising from that segment of the working day, disguised by the fiction of hourly pay rates, that goes uncompensated by wages – are able to enrich themselves enormously. The NHS, at any rate outside of the inroads made by “privatization of the unprivatizable” (the felicitous phrase of a regular guest at Pathways group meetings, Al) does not directly generate surplus value, which is a prime explanation for capitalist hostility to it. Sadly, it does reproduce in microcosm the hierarchies and pay differentials that normally accompany capitalism, with a marked divide in prestige and income between doctors, nurses and patronizingly designated “ancillary” staff. The fault has been exacerbated by the latter-day accretion of a parasitic layer of managers and administrators who are generously compensated for their expertise in the manipulation of the “human resources” tasked with the mundane responsibility of actually treating patients.
Under neoliberalism, still in the process of consolidating its supremacy in Miliband’s lifetime, we are in a nightmare world of wage repression, shredding of employment rights and super-exploitative workfare that is ratcheting the inequities of capitalism up to hideous levels. Wages have fallen by 9% relative to inflation since the 2010 election, and unemployment benefit recipients, to combat a scandalous “something for nothing” culture in which they deprive the Treasury of an exorbitant £56.80 a week, or £71.70 if they are lucky enough to be aged over twenty-five, are compelled to slave for their pittances in workplaces ranging from discount retailers – the “pound shops” where Britain’s poor scavenge for affordable necessities – to residential care homes. (Their employers harness the prodigious “something for nothing” of unpaid labour, together with government subsidies in indemnification of their slave-driving altruism.) The knock-on implications of this can only make a parlous situation worse for the bulk of NHS workers, who typically describe themselves as “run ragged” in an environment where consultants earn £160,000 a year and a malfunctioning hospital trust, Mid Staffordshire, is unembarrassed to hire a “finance director” who rakes in £1475 a day. Indeed, the Department of Health has said it will renege on a miniscule wage rise of 1% scheduled for April of next year, and is shamefully blackmailing NHS staff by arguing that opposition to the pay freeze will put patients’ lives in jeopardy.
The availability of NHS services and welfare payments – meagre in value though the latter are – has been an important factor in the “system of containment” of radical change that Ralph Miliband dissected in his 1982 book Capitalist Democracy in Britain. They are, in the medical metaphor of Miliband’s 1977 study Marxism and Politics, a “prophylactic” against the contagion of revolution. They are not by any means an endpoint of socialist evolution. In Miliband’s view, nevertheless, we are in no way entitled to adopt an ultraleftist stance and disparage them as hindrances to instilling insurrectionary consciousness in the working class. Although, in the words of a Miliband essay of 1966, “the Welfare State has been more generous to the comfortably-off than to the poorly-off” (an imbalance that has not subsequently been remedied), the alternative of their absence, in the pre-revolutionary short term at least, would result in misery and death for millions of pauperized Britons. It is the alternative being prepared for us by neoliberal politicians, who will place profit above human life through NHS privatization, and move from barring people under twenty-five from claiming benefits – a policy mooted at this week’s Conservative Party conference in Manchester – to abolishing benefits altogether. Should they succeed in turning back the clock to pre-welfare state barbarism, society, to borrow a line from an essay called ‘The New Revisionism in Britain’ written by Miliband in 1985, “will continue, generation after generation, as a conflict-ridden, growingly authoritarian and brutalized social system, poisoned by its inability to make humane and rational use of the immense resources capitalism has itself brought into being.” From a Milibandian vantage point, then, the immediate task is one of fighting for the preservation of the NHS, while not overlooking deformations in its makeup that would need to be tackled in what Miliband sketched as “an altogether different society… whose organising principles will be co-operation, fellowship, democracy and egalitarianism.”
It’s unfortunate that Ralph Miliband was not alive to chronicle the careers (and I choose that word judiciously) of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. There is a mordant sarcasm to his skewering, in Parliamentary Socialism, of the sorry record of Labour governments from Ramsay MacDonald to Harold Wilson – he spared only the Attlee administration from censure, and then only for its domestic policies up to the point at which legislative paralysis took hold in 1948 – that, if applied to the “new” new revisionism of those twin horsemen of imperialist and economic apocalypse, would have made for a masterpiece of blackly humorous denunciation. (For obvious reasons, he might have blenched at extending the story beyond 2010.) Essentially, however, Miliband was not temperamentally disposed to ad hominem attacks; as the title of his posthumously published Socialism for a Sceptical Age intimates, and as exemplified by his non-sectarian editorship of Socialist Register over the course of three decades, his preference was for dialogue over dogmatic assertion. He was always a measured proponent of a project of human liberation within practicable limits, which makes the tabloid invocation of the metaphysics of evil all the more risible. For the enlightenment of Daily Mail hirelings and subscribers – not that we would welcome such people visiting this site – who consider Ralph Miliband’s pronouncements the ne plus ultra of incendiary left-wing rhetoric, instead of the soberly empirical investigations into reality they truly were, here’s a Surrealist slogan from 1925, authored by anarcho-Trotskyist provocateur Andre Breton, that is worthy of revival in what has become a lamentably unsceptical age of mass incarceration and imperial bellicosity: “Open the prisons! Disband the army!” To which we might wish to add as an equally pressing exhortation, “Burn the Square Mile!”