The Miliband Affair

Ralph Miliband was no patriot. He was a stern critic of the British ruling elite and its institutions.

From Michael Newman's Ralph Miliband (Monthly Review Press / Courtesy of Merlin Press)

The only function of the assault on the reputation of Ralph Miliband was to punish and discredit his son. This operation, masterminded the Daily Mail and its editor — a reptile courted assiduously in the past by Blair and Brown — has backfired sensationally. It was designed to discredit the son by hurling the “sins of the father” on the head of his younger son. Instead, Edward Miliband’s spirited response united a majority of the country behind him and against the tabloid.

Ralph, had he been alive, would have found the ensuing consensus extremely diverting.

The Tories and Lib-Dems made their distaste for the Mail clear, Jeremy Paxman on BBC’s Newsnight held up old copies of the Mail with its pro-fascist headlines (“Hurrah for the Blackshirts” the best remembered), two former members of Thatcher’s cabinet defended Miliband pere with Michael Heseltine reminding citizens that it was the Soviet Union and the Red Army that made victory against the Axis powers possible in the first place and an opinion poll commissioned by the Sunday Times revealed that 73 percent supported Ed Miliband against the Rothermere rag. Did these figures compel the paper to hire a hack writer to carry on the Mail campaign in a marginally more “sophisticated” style, but replete with smear and innuendo?  If Paul Dacre is soon put out to pasture on his large estate in Ireland, the story will have a Hollywood ending. The triumph of good against evil, as one might say, using the language often deployed by tabloids and politicians in these bad times.

The demonization of Ralph Miliband raises a few issues avoided by both the Tory and the liberal press. These relate to Miliband’s own political views on Britain, its political institutions as well as the world at large; the context of the first Lord Rothermere’s addiction to Mussolini and Hitler and their English offspring in Britain (Oswald Mosley and gang but not them alone) right up till September 1939 and the question of patriotism and its compatibility with left-wing views.

The popularity of fascism on the Right was not, alas, confined to the Rothermeres or the Mitfords. The class confidence of European conservatism was shaken by the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia whose declared aim was to destroy global capitalism. Fear stalked the corridors of power in every capital and the presence of large numbers of Marxists of Jewish origin in both the Bolshevik and Menshevik parties stoked anti-semitism throughout Europe. The impact of the black-shirted fascist triumph in Rome, five years after the Bolshevik victory, should not be underestimated. With rare exceptions the European Right, including its liberal segments, greeted it as a huge triumph for western civilization and heaved a huge collective sigh of relief. Capitalism had found its own shock troops

Distinguished English-language publishers in London (Hutchinson) and New York (Scribners) published Mussolini’s My Autobiography in several editions: the introduction by Richard Child, a former US Ambassador to Italy and a fascist groupie who helped ghost-write the book, praised the dictator in extravagant language as one of the “leading statesman in the world.”  To the end of his days the fascist leader would quote from memory what Winston Churchill had said during a visit to Rome five years after the fascist triumph in 1927:

I could not help being charmed, like so many other people have been, by Signor Mussolini’s gentle and simple bearing and by his calm, detached poise in spite of so many burdens and dangers. Secondly, anyone could see that he thought of nothing but the lasting good, as he understood it, of the Italian people, and that no lesser interest was of the slightest consequence to him. If I had been an Italian I am sure that I should have been whole-heartedly with you from the start to finish in your triumphant struggle against the bestial appetites and passions of Leninism.

Churchill proceeded to explain the international significance of fascism as lying in its capacity to mobilise friendly social forces to defeat the common enemy:

Italy has shown that there is a way of fighting the subversive forces which can rally the masses of the people, properly led, to value and wish to defend the honour and stability of civilised society. She has provided the necessary antidote to the Russian poison. Hereafter no great nation will be unprovided with an ultimate means of protection against the cancerous growth of Bolshevism.

Here we have it without any obfuscation. Fascism was a necessary bulwark against the threat of communist revolution. And all this was written and spoken long before the abomination of Stalin’s purges and the famines resulting from forced industrialization. It became the common sense of the continental Right and explains, apart from other things, the ease with which the regime at Vichy began its years of collaboration with the Third Reich after the 1940 occupation of France.

The British politicians — Chamberlain, Halifax, Butler and co — who would later be denounced as “appeasers” were, in fact, far more representative of the Anglo-European elite than those who hurriedly changed their minds at the last moment when they realized that Hitler would neither agree to an equitable sharing of the continent and its colonies or oblige London by attacking the Soviet Union before taking the rest of Europe. This made war inevitable.

Churchill was never shy when it came to explaining primary and secondary contradictions.  His strategic priority was to defend the interests of Britain. He was the most consistent and eloquent defender of its overseas colonies as were others in the imperial elite. In 1933 the British Secretary of State for India, L. S. Amery calmly explained to fellow parliamentarians, without arousing a storm of protest, why it would be hypocritical for Britain to oppose the Japanese occupation of Manchuria:

I confess that I see no reason whatever why, either in act or in word, or in sympathy, we should go individually or intentionally against Japan in this matter. Japan has got a very powerful case based upon fundamental realities . . . that is there among us to cast the first stone and to say that Japan ought not to have acted with the object of creating peace and order in Manchuria and defending herself against the continual aggression of vigorous Chinese nationalism? Our whole policy in India, our whole policy in Egypt, stands condemned if we condemn Japan.

Imperialist leaders of the early twentieth century were less prone to double standards than their contemporaries. As late as 1939, Churchill, in his collection of essays Great Contemporaries, saw no reason why his reflections on Mein Kampf and its author should not be reprinted:

 The story of that struggle cannot be read without admiration for the courage, the perseverance, the vital force which enabled him to challenge, defy, conciliate, or overcome, all authorities or resistance which barred his path . . . I have always said that if Great Britain were defeated in war, I hoped we should find a Hitler to lead us back to our rightful position among the nations.

British and American bankers and businessmen were in the forefront of arming the Third Reich as a “bulwark against Bolshevism” (as Lloyd George, mimicking Churchill, explained). The Governor of the Bank of England did not mince words: British loans to Hitler should be seen as an “investment against Bolshevism.” This was a common view of the elite at the time. “The German claim to equality of rights in the matter of arms cannot be resisted and ought not to be resisted. You will have to face rearmament of Germany,” declared the British Foreign Secretary, Sir John Simon, on 6 February 1934. A month later the Chairman of Vickers Limited justified sales to fascist Germany: “I cannot give you an assurance in definite terms, but I can tell you that nothing is being done without complete sanction and approval of our own government.” [War is Terribly Profitable by Henry Owen, London, 1936.]  It was ever thus.

This was the atmosphere in which the Daily Mail and other tabloids (not to mention Geoffrey Dawson at the Times or King Edward VIII at the Palace) demonstrated varying degrees of affection and sympathy for the Third Reich. And it was this context that explains the attraction of many British intellectuals and workers (including comrades Philby, Burgess, Maclean, Blunt and others) to Communism as the only force capable of defeating the Nazis. In this, as Heseltine reminded the country, they were not so wrong. Curiously enough, Ralph Miliband, contrary to Tom Bower’s slurs in a recent issue of the Sunday Times, was never attracted to the Communist Parties or the groups to their left.  Nor was he a partisan of the armed struggled line in South America even though he was ferociously hostile to the US-supported military dictatorships in the region.

The student uprisings of 1968–9 found him at the London School of Economics. His initial reaction, like that of Jurgen Habermas in Germany, was to describe (in a private letter) the occupation of the LSE by radicals as “fascism of the left.” He strongly disapproved of the notion that students should elect their professors and when it was pointed out that he would win by a large majority, he was not amused. He changed his mind after the mass arrests and the sacking of Robin Blackburn, writing that “sophisticated Oakeshottismus is a fairly thin crust; when it cracks, as it did here, a rather ugly, visceral sort of conservatism emerges.”  He told me later that one of his big regrets was not resigning immediately from the LSE after Blackburn was sacked.

He was a fiercely independent-minded Marxist scholar who could be equally scathing about left-wing verities (he spoke very sharply to me in the 70s when I suggested that world revolution was not a utopia) as those of social democracy. His key work on Britain was Parliamentary Socialism (1961) where he referred to the “sickness of labourism,” leaving no doubt as to where he stood. And later he was prescient on what the future might really hold given the collapse of the broad Left, writing in 1989:

We know what this immense historic process is taken to mean by the enemies of socialism everywhere: not only the approaching demise of Communist regimes and their replacement by capitalist ones, but the elimination of any kind of socialist alternative to capitalism. With this intoxicating prospect of the scarcely hoped-for dissipation of an ancient nightmare, there naturally goes the celebration of the market, the virtues of free enterprise, and greed unlimited. Nor is it only on the Right that the belief has grown in recent times that socialism, understood as a radical transformation of the social order, has had its day: apostles of “new times” on the Left have come to harbour much the same belief. All that is now possible, in the eyes of the “new realism,” is the more humane management of a capitalism which is in any case being thoroughly transformed.

His political views were far removed from those of his sons and pretending otherwise is foolish. Ralph was not a one-nation conservative who believed in parcellized “social justice.”  He remained a staunch anti-capitalist socialist till the end of his life. He was extremely close to both his sons, was proud of their success but as any other migrant refugee would be — kids have done well in a foreign land — not in a political sense at all. He loathed New Labour and in of our last conversations described Blair as “teflon man.” Neither he nor his wife Marion (an equally strong minded socialist and feminist) ever tried to inflict their politics on the kids. Given his short temper I wonder whether this self-denying ordnance would, in his case at any rate, have survived the Iraq War. I doubt it.

And what of patriotism? Is it any different to national-chauvinism, jingoism, etc.? Does it have the same connotation in an occupied nation as in the occupying power? Many decades ago I was facing three journalists on Sunday Telegraph, annoyed by what I was saying interrupted me:

“Does the word patriotism have any meaning for people like you?”

“No,” I replied, “in my eyes a patriot is little more than an international blackleg.”

Taken aback, he muttered, “Rather a good phrase.”

In fact I had pinched it from Karl Liebknecht the German socialist, explaining his vote against war credits in the German parliament in 1914.

Ralph Miliband, like many anti-fascists, joined the armed forces during the Second World War. He opposed the wars in Korea and Vietnam, spoke loudly and clearly against the Falklands expedition. Even a cursory glance at Socialist Register, the annual magazine he founded in 1964, reveals the strong internationalism that was at its core. Marcel Liebman’s text on “The meaning of 1914” might be well worth reprinting as official Britain prepares to celebrate the centenary of the carnage that was World War I. Ralph was always grateful (his word) that Britain offered him and his father, Jewish refugees fleeing occupied Belgium, asylum in 1940. Despite that fact he remained an outlier, a stern critic of the British ruling elite and its institutions as well as the Labour Party and the  trade-union knights and peers.

It might be better if all sides left it at that . . .