The death of Ralph Miliband in May, shortly after his seventieth birthday, takes from us an outstanding advocate of democratic socialism, the leading Marxist political scientist in the English-speaking world, and someone who was an inspiration to several generations of the New Left. Ralph Miliband was, of course, a founder editor of this journal and subsequently a frequent contributor to it. He was co-editor of The Socialist Register from its first appearance in 1964 until his death and the author of a stream of books and articles analysing the nature of contemporary capitalism and the problems of socialist politics. On many occasions the editors of nlr had cause to be grateful for Ralph’s counsel and support.
Ralph Miliband was born in Belgium in January 1924 to parents of Polish-Jewish extraction; his father was a leather worker. He joined the Jewish socialist youth organization Hashomeir Hatzair at the age of fifteen. A little over a year later he left with his father for England on the last boat to sail from Ostend before the occupying troops arrived. Eager to study with Harold Laski he successfully applied to the London School of Economics. In 1943 he interrupted his studies to serve in the Belgian section of the Royal Navy, from which he emerged as a chief petty officer. He subsequently taught at Chicago, the lse, Leeds, Brandeis and New York, earning an enviable reputation as a brilliant lecturer and inspiring teacher. Miliband was an impeccable scholar but there could be no doubting the priority of his commitment to politics, generously conceived as the cause of human emancipation. All of his writings spoke to this preoccupation, as did his indefatigable labours on behalf of a wide variety of organizations from Victory for Socialism in the 1950s through to the Socialist Society in the 1980s. Ralph Miliband, because of his work with the Bevanite group of left Labour mps, brought to the early New Left a special knowledge and experience of the Labour Party. He drew upon this in his classic study, Parliamentary Socialism, whose first edition appeared in 1962. In the 1980s Miliband once again worked with Labour Party socialists, and in particular Tony Benn, helping to convene a series of widely reported Conferences in Chesterfield.footnote1
Miliband’s was a good voice to have on your side. I first discovered this at a meeting of the original nlr editorial board in 1963 where a critic of the new direction taken by the journal objected to so much space being given in issue 18 to a long article on Belgium by Ernest Mandel—Ralph Miliband sardonically observed that he was the last person who could endorse such criticism. In 1967 we attended the Congress of Intellectuals in Havana. It was Miliband who politely but firmly explained to Fidel Castro that some cherished but evasive formula proposed by the Cuban delegation would not do. During the troubles at lse in 1968–69 Miliband rallied opinion on the Academic Board against the sacking of students and lecturers; in consequence the governing body at least felt obliged to make some provisional reinstatements, waiting until the summer recess before endorsing the recommendations of its own tame appeals procedure. While Ralph could be suitably solemn on public occasions, addressing powerholders with a certain hauteur, he would also entertain with his mordant humour and playfulness.
Miliband’s writings have been a vital resource for all who wished to rescue the cause of socialism from the accommodations of social democracy and the brutalities of Stalinism. Miliband’s books and articles addressed the core issues of socialist politics with great consistency and integrity. He wrote, as he spoke, with eloquence and clarity, seeking, in a phrase he coined for the Socialist Society in 1981, to make socialism ‘the common sense of the age’. It is sometimes foolishly supposed that it is easy to write lucidly about complex and important questions. That Ralph Miliband could tackle the large questions and make such clear sense of them was a result of a rare combination of intellectual and moral qualities. His essays on such varied writers as Poulantzas, Bettelheim, Bahro and Kolakowski revealed an ability to cut through thickets of philosophical sophistication to the fundamental issues of political theory. It was also characteristic that Miliband produced the most profound reflection on such vital political turning-points as the military coup in Chile in 1973 or the suppression of China’s democracy movement in 1989.footnote2 His special authority stemmed from a world view that could connect everyday events to fundamental values.
Throughout Miliband’s work there was a keen sense of those human divisions integral to capitalism known as class. This is an aspect of matters now relatively neglected, allowing someone without allegiance to the Left, Stefan Collini, to write, mischievously but not altogether inaccurately: ‘In the frequently incanted quartet of race, class, gender and sexual orientation, there is no doubt that class has been the least fashionable in recent years. . . .[I]t is the preoccupations, often of a directly personal kind, of academics and their students with the other three topics which have largely determined the agenda of even the most radical forms of cultural studies in recent years, despite the fact that all the evidence suggests that class remains the single most powerful determinant of life chances.’footnote3 If there is an element of truth in this barb it certainly would not apply to Miliband’s work which steadily applied itself to the yawning inequalities of class in the major capitalist states, most recently in his study
Miliband’s sensitivity to the damage and inequity of class was accompanied by the conviction that working people would resist. But he was not beholden to a metaphysics or teleology of class, such that the working class is thought to have inscribed in its destiny the suppression of capitalism. There was likely to be resistance to structures of exploitation and oppression—and bouts of class struggle from the capitalists as they manoeuvre for a better competitive position. If capitalism was to be superseded then the great majority of working people would have to be persuaded of, and involved in, the realization of this goal. But Miliband did not believe that working-class organizations, such as Britain’s trade unions and Labour Party, would be driven by some inner class logic to an anti-capitalist politics. Against any sociological reductionism he believed that both socialist and capitalist politics represented an autonomous development beyond given class interests, however necessary to their realization.
Miliband’s Parliamentary Socialism (1962) furnished a memorable portrait of all those aspects of Labour Party organization and ideology which would inhibit the party from being the vehicle of either radical democratization or fundamental social change. Sponsorship by the trade unions made Labour different from other parties but did not by any means mean that it bore within it an anti-capitalist vocation bound some day to emerge. Miliband portrayed Labour as a formation which had been impelled by the crisis of 1917–19 to embrace socialist phraseology while remaining through its whole structure and modus operandi a party deeply mortgaged to the most conservative aspects of British political culture. It was both a working-class party and a party saturated with subservience to an oligarchic state. Thus in a vivid account of the first Labour government Miliband shows how the Labour leader, Ramsay MacDonald, was left entirely to his own devices in choosing a cabinet, with the party’s National Executive being informed after the event. When the King had his first interview with MacDonald he referred to ‘the unfortunate incident at the recent meeting at the Albert Hall, presided over by Mr Ramsay MacDonald, at which the Marseillaise and Red Flag were sung’. Miliband then quotes the Labour leader’s plea to his monarch to understand that it would have caused a riot if he had sought to prevent the singing of the Red Flag—Labour members had ‘got into the way of singing this song and it will be by degrees that he hopes to break down this habit.’footnote4