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The Resurrection of Ralph Miliband

The British right's posthumous attacks on Ralph Miliband may have revived his ideas for a new generation on the Left.

From Michael Newman's Ralph Miliband and the Politics of the New Left // Courtesy Merlin Press

The Daily Mail has scored an own goal.

The infamously combative right-wing newspaper ran a series of articles last week attempting to tie the slightly left-of-center British Labour Party leader, Ed Miliband, to the specter of his father Ralph, a significant intellectual figure in postwar Marxist thought. This followed a Labour Party Conference widely considered a success for both the party and its leader, less than two years ahead of the next general election.

It is doubtful that the newspaper, which has the second highest circulation in the United Kingdom and claims to be the mouthpiece for middle England, countenanced the backlash its articles would provoke, even from usually sympathetic corners of the political spectrum.

It was the Daily Mail’s conjecture that Ralph Miliband was a man who “hated Britain,” supported “values antithetic to the majo grity of the British people,” and left “an evil legacy.” Despite claiming not to align with “the jealous god of Deuteronomy,” over the next several days readers were left with little doubt that the intention of Mail editor Paul Dacre was to tar Ed Miliband with the brush of his “extremist” father.

Followed up with a long editorial and feature on “Stalinism” and the “tens of millions killed by the poisonous communist ideology,” readers were told: “this is what Ralph Miliband believed, this is what he has passed on.”

Except that wasn’t what he believed.

His Guardian obituary published at the time of his death in 1994 stated that he “never joined the Communist Party . . . Repudiat[ed] Stalinism and always [kept] his distance from sectarian groups.” Retired political journalist Ian Aitken, writing for the same newspaper last week, recalled discussions attended by both himself and Miliband during that time as students at LSE, stating, “Ralph was the most eloquent among us at denouncing [Soviet Marxism] as a distortion of true Marxist teaching.” A Jewish refugee from Nazism, “He believed passionately in the good old British values of tolerance and generosity, from which he had benefited.”

A force in developing theories of ideology and applying them to the British state and society, he argued that the current system of relations in Britain and the rest of the capitalist world impede liberty and free speech. Britain, especially, is a society in which class is not just a series of economic relations but also an elaborate parlor game of intricately-graded prejudices relating to taste and appearance that conspire to forever mark one’s place in the social hierarchy.

What, then, of the charge that Ralph Miliband left a poisonous legacy?

A university lecturer in both Britain and North America for almost half a century, he influenced a great many people. One of them is the now quaintly-named Lord Moore of Lower Marsh. As plain John Moore, he served in the Thatcher government between 1987 and 1989 as Minister for Health and Social Security — overseeing the highest spending department of the British state, presiding over the benefit system at a time when three million were out of work as part of the monetarist prescription, and charged with injecting private capital and markets into Britain’s state-owned National Health Service.

As a former student of Ralph Miliband, presumably he can be considered part of his “evil legacy.”

Unsurprisingly, Moore doesn’t see it this way, hitting out at the Mail’s caricature of Miliband’s positions and politics through a public statement declaring him a “great academic,” “inspiring,” and courteous towards him and others with differing views. His Conservative colleague, former Deputy Prime Minister Michael Heseltine, went so far as to repudiate the Mail’s conflation of Miliband’s views with Soviet communism, saying the Mail’s headline was “out of context” and that the Soviet Union “turned the Second World War.”

Figures standing further left were also unashamed to be associated with Ralph Miliband. Graham Allen, a moderate Labour MP for the English midlands city of Nottingham who studied for an MA under Miliband, described him as “a man who wanted you to be skeptical.” “I think The State in Capitalist Society and Parliamentary Socialism are still in my top 10 of my most influential political books . . . The idea that he was some sort of frothing Marxist who supported Joe Stalin is ridiculous.”

The willingness of political figures squarely within Britain’s cherished political “center ground” to be associated with a noted Marxist and admit their liking of and respect for them is a potentially a pivotal moment for the British left.

British radicalism is frequently frozen out of the political discourse through recourse to ancient tropes about Soviet communism. The Daily Mail’s attempt to attack the tepidly liberal Ed Miliband by pasting a deformed and twisted image of his radical father over him fits snuggly within this tradition.

But the charges failed to stick. That moderate commentators did not twiddle their thumbs and ignore it, or attempt to add qualifiers to their disdain for the attack, even though much was made of Ralph Miliband’s supposed “patriotism” and Second World War naval record, shows that a substantial widening of the boundaries of the UK’s political discourse has occurred. Conservatives and liberals have been forced to admit that radicals are a legitimate part of the political landscape, without being able to co-opt the critique of those radicals into Britain’s political mainstream.

This could not have come at a better time.

The winds of time and scandal, alongside the ability to organize and disseminate ever more widely via the internet, are bringing a new generation of British thinkers, writers and activists to the fore. We are members of a generation that has no recollection of the Cold War — a generation that is not haunted by the memory of struggles past, but which is very willing to learn from them.

The Daily Mail’s real own goal lies in the fact that they have put the name Ralph Miliband on the lips and at the fingertips of every British leftist under thirty-five.

Last week Amazon UK briefly sold out of copies of all of his books still in print. A Marxist deceased for nearly twenty years was trending on Twitter. Hopefully, long after the hashtags have fallen into disuse and his book sales have waned, interest in Ralph Miliband’s ideas — especially his trenchant analysis of British politics and capitalism — will remain piqued.

Unlike in much of Europe, British political discourse deliberately shies away from confronting the issue of class. It is the elephant in the room, an un-exorcized trauma lurking in the British subconscious. In many ways, as books like Rhian E. Jones’ Clampdown, a study of how “working class people have been airbrushed out of producing popular culture” in Britain since the mid 1990s, show, since Ralph Miliband’s death in 1994, it has become much harder to talk about class in Britain.

A revival in Ralph Miliband’s work could have the potential to revive an examination the British class system.

In this regard, and hopefully with impact beyond one small Atlantic Island, Miliband’s work can be slotted into a tradition of UK social criticism and analysis like the Frankfurt-inspired group of academics that coalesced at the University of Birmingham’s Centre for Cultural Studies — a set of analyses which, in their willingness as far back as the 1950s to confront issues of status, identity, and belonging, shine a light upon matters still pressing in the UK, across Europe and beyond. Or the tradition which lives on in works like Jones’ biting and accessible analyses of power, economics, and popular culture intersecting with embedded privilege — signs that Britain has and still can hold a proper discussion about class, social relations and the intersections between economic and cultural production.

If the result of the Daily Mail’s assaults upon Miliband is a rediscovery in his adopted homeland of the rich and highly-relevant Marxist tradition of which he was a wellspring, Britain’s emerging radical movements will greatly benefit; those behind the concentrations of power and profit, currently doing their best to hollow out what remains of Britain’s civil society and sell the shell — the real beast hiding behind the Mail’s stultifying pastiche of an idealized, nonexistent British past — will not.

Ralph Miliband knew that. Thanks to his resurrection by the Daily Mail, so shall thousands more.