The Early Days of a Better Nation

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The Miliband Register

About a year and a half ago (it seems longer) the Daily Mail attacked the leader of the Opposition by traducing his late father, the Marxist academic and intellectual Ralph Miliband. The outraged son hit back, and one unintended consequence of the attack was that Ed Miliband gained some respect.

Another, of smaller moment, was that I shame-facedly and belatedly blew the dust of decades off a couple of Ralph Miliband's best-known and most influential books: Parliamentary Socialism and The State in Capitalist Society, which had sat on my shelves unread since the 1970s. I also read or re-read some of Miliband's essays and articles, many of them published in the annual Socialist Register.

Sometimes prolix, always lucid, the essays are hard-headed, sober, nuanced. Parliamentary Socialism glints with verbal wit. The problem I find with his writing is between the lines: a presence evoked, but absent. Ralph Miliband writes as if socialism -- as theory, principles, values, programme -- is just ideally there: an always available reference, a benchmark against which the real movement falls short, and culpably. It doesn't matter what you think the real movement is. The Labour right and the Labour left, the Communist Party, the small sects, and the international analogues and affiliates of all of these are weighed in the balance, and found wanting.

In the end, of course, they all were found wanting, but that's not the point here. The point is that their inadequacies would have been better weighed in a more relevant balance: of what they set out to do and what was possible for them to do. Ralph Miliband's criticisms of the Labour Party never give full measure to its real achievements, often different from what it promised and all the more solid and lasting for that.

All his political life, Ralph Miliband found himself caught between two recognitions. One was that the Labour Party will never (if it has any sense, and it does) adopt what most socialists would deign to call a socialist programme. The other is that no group whose selling point is that it is more socialist than the Labour Party will ever get anywhere. Its vote will be derisory; or, if it isn't, it'll become a personal vehicle (e.g. Respect, with all due respect and salutes to indefatigability) or it'll fall apart (e.g. the Socialist Alliance); or (e.g. the SSP) it'll become a personal vehicle then fall apart. There are electorally more successful parties (the Greens, the SNP, Plaid Cymru and Sinn Fein) whose pitch is in many respects to the left of Labour, but none whose pitch is that they are more socialist than Labour.

The Labour Party will never be socialist, and no socialist group outside it will ever win mass support. Ralph Miliband's response to this dilemma was to craft ever more elegant and eloquent expressions of it. There are some problems with that approach to politics.

Perhaps it was recognition of them that set Ed Miliband on a path that diverged so far from his father's. I doubt he drifted or strayed. His political thinking must, at least at first, have developed in continuous, conscious contention with Ralph Miliband's. And unlike that of his brother David, it wasn't drowned in New Labour. This makes the possibility of a Miliband premiership very interesting indeed. If his party wins next month, Britain will, for the first time since Harold Wilson [*], have elected a Labour Prime Minister with a capacity for original thought.

[*] Thatcher and Brown had minds of their own too, but she wasn't Labour and he (as a Prime Minister) wasn't elected.

Top left image via.


a political and economic theory of social organization which advocates that the means of production, distribution, and exchange should be owned or regulated by the community as a whole.

Owned or regulated - We could get there without too much difficulty

In some ways the German model where a company should be run for the benefit of it's workers and community as well as its "owners" fits that quite well

IMHO the problem is not so much socialism as the dysfunctional financial system used by the anglophone world

I'm loving that "without too much difficulty". You don't see irony of that (post-)industrial strength often enough these days.

The Labour Party, of course, *used to want "To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service". But that all went west with Saint Tony.

As far as I can see Ed can think; but he doesn't seem to have read his dad's books. Which is a pity.

Harry Gilonis

What a fine reminder. That last name has been irritating my brain for several months. Now I remember that I had seen 'The State in Capitalist Society' many times, in Amsterdam bookshops. I never bought it, as it seemed too prolix for me.

good post - totally agree, summed up a lot more lucidly what I've been saying for a while now

In fairness , the hardly trivial issue of nuclear weapons aside, the SNP tend to pose to the left of Labour more than actually BE to the left of Labour...

Well oy that Jeremy Corbyn is about to be elected leader of the Labour party maybe some change will happen . Would be very interested in your thoughts Ken.
Acres G-J

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