In 1989 Ralph Miliband outlined two possible scenarios for the future of class conflict. In the first, the deregulation and de-unionization of economic life would be mirrored at the political level. Social Democratic and Labour parties might retain their names but the notion of a fundamental challenge to capitalism would have become decisively marginalized. Conflicts would continue but would not constitute a threat to the social order; they might even strengthen it, by functioning as safety valve or prompt to minor reforms. An exception would be terrorism, practised by tiny groups at the extremes of the political spectrum. This would be ‘a problem and a nuisance’ but quite incapable of destabilizing a securely legitimated system.
Miliband himself dissented from this view. Firstly, he pointed out in Divided Societies, such a development should be understood not as a lessening of social conflict but rather a massive extension of ‘class struggle from above’. More importantly, the nature of capitalism itself—a process of domination and exploitation that was intrinsically incapable of making rational or humane use of the immense resources it had brought into being—would renew, from generation to generation, the search for a systemic alternative. The balance between a sober appreciation of class forces and reasoned hope for a better world was central to Miliband’s work as a political scientist, which provided such a solid keel for the various generations of the New Left, through his books—Parliamentary Socialism, The State in Capitalist Society and others—the annual Socialist Register and his many contributions to this journal, of which he was a founding editor. Michael Newman’s meticulously researched biography casts new light on the formation of Miliband’s world view and the passions that lay behind it.
He was born not Ralph but Adolphe, in Brussels in 1924. His parents—Samuel, an artisan leather-worker, and Renée, who ran a market stall selling hats—were newly arrived in the city: working-class, Yiddish-speaking immigrants, fleeing the economic chaos of postwar Poland. Samuel had been a member of either the Polish Socialist Party (Miliband’s recollection) or the Jewish Socialist Bund (that of his younger sister Nan). The price of political citizenship in Belgium was more than they could afford, but Samuel Miliband taught himself enough French to follow international affairs in the newspapers and to discuss with his nine-year-old son Hitler’s accession to power, the Spanish Civil War and especially, as Miliband recalled later, ‘the daily events in Paris, changes of ministry, the respective merits of this or that leader’. If his parents inevitably linked the rise of Nazism to earlier experiences of Polish anti-Semitism,
The French connexion was greatly strengthened by the fact that Léon Blum, a Jew, was leader of the French Socialist Party, and in 1936 Prime Minister . . . The political climate in our home was generally and loosely left: it was unthinkable that a Jew, our sort of Jew—the artisan worker, self-employed, poor, Yiddish-speaking, unassimilated, non-religious—could be anything but socialistic.
He was sixteen when the Nazi assault on Belgium tore the family apart. Miliband and his father fled towards the coast, walking all through the night to reach Ostend where they had to battle for a place on the last boat to Britain. They reached London on 19 May 1940. His mother and little sister, too young for the journey, clung on in Brussels until the round-up of the Jews in 1942, when they managed to find refuge on a farm. Working as a furniture-shifter in blitz-struck London—and now renamed Ralph at the insistence of his landlady, who found Adolphe insufficiently patriotic—Miliband recorded his impressions of the country (in French) in his teenage diary:
England first. This slogan is taken for granted by the English people as a whole. To lose their empire would be the worst possible humiliation . . . When you hear the English talk of this war you sometimes almost want them to lose it to show them how things are.
A few weeks later, exploring bomb-sites in the West End: ‘You feel in these ruins a wealth which hasn’t gone, which will begin again tomorrow, and for which this bombing is not a major crisis’, whereas: ‘in Whitechapel, in the Jewish area and the slums, the devastation is really terrible. Rows of people, waiting to be evacuated. New wretched refugees, like the others, with a bundle on their shoulder. Shame and indignation and fury. You ask yourself: how can they live like this?’ The instinctive, almost innocent sense of moral outrage at such inequity was not just the reaction of a war-traumatized working-class teenager. Four years later, as a Royal Navy interpreter, he would describe the ‘flagrant, enormous’ difference between officers and men on board an overcrowded destroyer as ‘the negation of elementary democracy’—a gulf as wide as that between ‘a palatial 300-room country house and a Lambeth slum’.