|The Early Days of a Better Nation|
Tuesday, April 14, 2015
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.
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