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A very British Marxist - and his son

Britain's most vehement conservative newspaper, in the course of an assault on Ralph Miliband, father of the Labour Party leader, accused the Belgian-born academic of having "hated" the country he found refuge in and fought for. Martin Shaw offers both a personal and political take on the ensuing controversy. 

It is ironic as well as objectionable that the Daily Mail’s notorious piece on the late Ralph Miliband, which has so rebounded on the paper, should have brought into question his British identity. Not only did Ralph, as his son Ed Miliband was rightly quick to point out, fight in the British navy in the second world war. But Ralph’s intellectual and political projects, while framed within Marxist theory and socialist internationalism, were also in very important senses British.

The student experience

I went to the London School of Economics (LSE), where Ralph Miliband taught, in 1965 to study sociology. While at school, I had been involved in Labour politics in the Newcastle-under-Lyme constituency of Stephen Swingler, a left-wing MP who had been prominent in the Victory for Socialism movement within the party. At LSE, I moved rapidly to the left in opposition to the Labour government’s backing for the United States's war in Vietnam, its anti-trade-union policies and the appeasement of racism in its immigration policies. Swingler’s support for the latter (he had been co-opted by prime minister Harold Wilson, who made him a transport minister) was a turning-point in my own rejection of the Labour Party and movement towards the emerging far left.

As I abandoned the LSE Labour Club for the more radical Socialist Society, fellow students quickly pointed me in the direction of Miliband’s lectures. His authoritative, reasoned exposition of a Marxist perspective on power, soon to be published as The State in Capitalist Society (1969), was enormously impressive. As a lecturer, he had an open, relaxed but very careful manner that was very attractive. (In the wake of the Mail's assault, a former Conservative cabinet minister, John [Lord] Moore, has testified to the integrity manifested in his teaching.)

Ralph Miliband’s bonds with his left-wing students were soon to be tested. Parliamentary Socialism (1964), which demonstrated the limits of reformism in practice, was already a classic in our eyes. It underpinned our rejection of Labour, as The State soon gave wider backing to our Marxist perspective. But as our theoretical perspectives underwent transformation, Ralph’s works quickly came to appear too narrow, both in their overwhelmingly British basis and in their more general empiricism. (Although this does not mean that we uncritically embraced the French structuralism of Nicos Poulantzas, with whom Miliband engaged in a lengthy debate in the 1970s.)

But many on the intellectual left did regard "empiricism" as a peculiarly British sin, and in this light the Miliband oeuvre was increasingly pigeonholed as an overly British contribution to the burgeoning Marxism of the 1960s. It would, though, be more accurate to say that his work was closer to the radical sociology of the non-Marxist American, C Wright Mills. Indeed, Ralph was part of the formidable cohort of anti-Stalinist socialists, with generally loose and ambiguous relationships to Marxism as such, who clustered in the New Left of the late 1950s.

Within this very British phenomenon, Edward Thompson spoke for a distinctively English radicalism and Raymond Williams for working-class experience grounded in his Welsh border background. Such "local" identities were not available, however, to a refugee like Ralph - or indeed to Stuart Hall, an equally influential left-wing intellectual of the era, who had come to Britain from Jamaica. The post-imperial British identity not only provided the overarching frame for the New Left but a specific reference-point for those who were not English, Scottish, Welsh or Irish by background. It is an interesting counter-point to the Mail’s narrow casting of Britishness to reflect on the fact that part of the contemporary meaning of "British" is precisely its greater inclusiveness (for example, it's common to refer to British - but not English - Asians and Muslims.)

The strains in Ralph Miliband’s relationship with the student left of the late 1960s had nothing to do with such issues. Miliband's long-term collaborator, John Saville, wrote in his 1994 obituary that "during the 1968 troubles at LSE he was outstanding in his defence of the students’ positions". At the time, however, Miliband’s stance - like that of most of the left-wing academics - inevitably fell short of the radical students’ expectations. I mention this because it led my 20-year-old self to publish a name-calling criticism of Ralph in the International Socialists' (IS) paper, Labour Worker - for which I was rightly slapped down by some more mature comrades. Ralph must have been aware of this, but with typical generosity never alluded to it in our later dealings.

Ralph welcomed student radicalism but was obviously wary of its excesses. Likewise, as one would expect from his critique of parliamentarism, he engaged with the anti-parliamentary left of the late 1960s and early 1970s but did not join any of its groupuscules. Empiricism could also be read as groundedness: Ralph was strongly rooted in British politics; indeed he had engaged with Victory for Socialism and was friendly with Swingler. He could tell the difference between small organisations whose narrow ideological stances would always limit their mass appeal, and a movement with the genuine promise of creating a real party to the left of Labour.

The political alternative

Even after this radical period, Ralph continued to argue for an alternative to Labourism and was always interested in any initiatives that seemed to promise movement in that direction. When I left the International Socialists after a decade, in frustration at their attitudes to democracy both in general and within their own organisation, he and Saville published my critical history of IS in the Socialist Register 1978. Ralph took a keen interest in the subsequent Socialist Unity movement, in which Socialist Challenge under Tariq Ali’s editorship joined with former IS members and the Big Flame group, but rightly intuited that this too was too narrowly based to lead to a breakthrough.

Later, Ralph involved himself in a variety of socialist initiatives across the Labour/non-Labour left divide. His guiding line seemed to be to foster a vigorous, democratic and non-sectarian socialist current, whether inside or outside the party. Unlike many Marxist academics, he constantly involved himself in - Daily Mail please note - British politics.

The Ed factor

All of this is relevant now only because the Mail is taking aim at Ed Miliband, in the light of his successful Labour conference and popular proposal to control energy prices. Ed naturally, and accurately, emphasises that his politics are very different from his father’s. Yet the fact that Ed and David Miliband have become leading Labour politicians, often seen as supremely ironic, is not quite so surprising when we consider Ralph’s own trajectory and experience.

Ralph Miliband may have shown in Parliamentary Socialism that Labour, hidebound by parliamentarism, would prove incapable of achieving socialism. But his advocacy of an independent British socialist party failed to make a strong impact, and all the efforts in his lifetime to achieve something like it proved deeply unsuccessful. British politics have fractured and mutated over the last half century, but the beneficiaries have been sundry centrists, nationalists, greens and now (with UKIP) the reactionary right - everyone indeed except the socialist left. And this seems unlikely to change.

Where does that leave those motivated, as Ed Miliband claims to be, by the democratic socialist values that Ralph embraced? There are of course many extra-parliamentary means by which they can make a difference, within a capitalist society. But in a parliamentary democracy, it matters who wins elections and runs the government. It is a reasonable conclusion that we should try to use the major existing centre-left political force to make a difference too, and to find new ways of linking parliamentary and extra-parliamentary struggles which will reinforce both. In this sense, Ed Miliband’s political project is both coherent in its own terms and a logical conclusion from the failure of his father’s. Moreover Ed seems to possess Ralph’s guts, integrity and honesty, which puts him (in personal terms) well ahead of the Labour leaders of the last two decades.

None of this is to say that Ed Miliband has shown a clear and coherent medium-term strategy for achieving reform; nor that the Labour Party, in its present state, is a promising instrument for achieving even those modest goals which Ed Miliband has advanced. Evidently, it is a tall order to forge credible social-democratic policies from the present position; for to do so will require overcoming the dispiriting legacy of the Blair-Brown governments, facing down Tory-Lib Dem and press attacks, and securing a clear majority in the 2015 election. The electoral odds - the negative experience of Tory rule, the pro-Labour bias of the electoral system, the UKIP drag on the Tory vote - do suggest that Labour will probably be the largest party. But anything more than that will require a serious shift in popular opinion, which so far Ed Miliband is far from achieving.

About the author

Martin Shaw is a political sociologist interested in war, genocide and racism, who now works on political change in Britain. His website is here. He is research professor of international relations at the Institut Barcelona d'Estudis Internacionals(IBEI), professorial fellow in international relations and human rights at the University of Roehampton, and emeritus professor the University of Sussex. Among his books are The New Western Way of War: Risk-Transfer War and its Crisis in Iraq (Polity, 2005) and What is Genocide? (2nd edition, Polity, 2015). 

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Martin Shaw is research professor of international relations at the Institut Barcelona d'Estudis Internacionals (IBEI) and the University of Sussex, and professorial fellow in international relations and human rights at the University of Roehampton. Among his books are War and Genocide: Organised Killing in Modern Society (Polity, 2003); The New Western Way of War: Risk-Transfer War and its Crisis in Iraq (Polity, 2005); and What is Genocide? (Polity, 2007). His website is here


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