Ralph Miliband

A tale of two émigrés: One of whom wanted to subvert the British State, while the other embraced it

In 1849, Karl Marx arrived in London as a German-Jewish political refugee. Across the Continent, the revolutions of 1848 were being bloodily suppressed. In Britain, however, Marx (bankrolled by his capitalist friend Engels) flourished under the “bourgeois” institutions they plotted to overthrow: the rule of law, parliamentary democracy and the market economy. Yet it didn’t occur to the author of Das Kapital to revise his ideas. He turned a blind eye to the fact of prosperity and liberty in Victorian Britain, insisting that “the proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains”. The British proletariat actually had a good deal to lose: their only chains were their watch-chains. Although Marx stayed in Britain for 34 years until his death, his impact on its politics was insignificant.

A century after Marx’s arrival, his most devoted disciples were still convinced that the master was correct: once capitalism collapsed under the weight of its contradictions, the British would embrace a socialist revolution. One of the most prominent of these fundamentalists was Ralph Miliband. Today, he is remembered less for his intellectual than for his physical progeny: for the past three months, his sons David and Ed have dominated the struggle for the soul of the Labour Party. At the time of writing, it is not clear which of the brothers will prevail. But their father always rejected Tony Crosland’s social-democratic vision, to which they, like Tony Blair, subscribe. For him, there could be no compromise with capitalism. Would he have been proud if one of his sons were to become PM? Only as a means to the abolition of Britain as we have known it.

Amazingly, the brothers’ political ascent has gained their father new admirers. John Gray sees Ralph as more prescient than his sons, in exposing the “bankruptcy” of the idea that capitalism would supply endless economic growth. “Ralph Miliband’s pessimistic assessment of the future of social democracy could well be vindicated,” Gray wrote in the Guardian. Thanks to the liberal habit of denouncing capitalism, now fashionable again, Miliband père has suddenly become grotesquely overrated.

Like Marx, Ralph was a refugee; unlike Marx, he was fleeing persecution not for being a socialist but simply for being Jewish. Aged 16, he arrived on the eve of the Battle of Britain. Unlike most of his family and friends on the Continent, he survived the war and the Holocaust, but it never occurred to him to admire the political system of the country in which he had found sanctuary. The first place he visited in London was Highgate Cemetery, where he stood before Marx’s grave and swore a clenched-fist oath of allegiance. For the next half a century, he never wavered in his determination to bite the hand that had fed him.

Once in London, Ralph (né Adolphe) Miliband studied at the London School of Economics under Harold Laski, who later obtained a lectureship for him there. He settled in Primrose Hill, in the house David still owns, married one of his students, the equally ardent socialist Marion Kozak, and preached the gospel of class warfare: first at the LSE, later in Leeds, finally as a freelance transatlantic ideologue.

From the 1950s, Ralph was one of the high priests of British Marxism. Although less familiar than E. P. Thompson, Raymond Williams or Eric Hobsbawm, Miliband was highly effective in using his academic pulpit to urge Labour activists to abandon what he contemptuously described as “parliamentary socialism”. In the 1960s, he was seen as a luminary of the “New Left”, a phrase much invoked by student protesters against the Vietnam War and by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. In reality, there was nothing very new about the New Left: like their European and US counterparts, they were a product of capitalist affluence, and their pathetic attempts to distance Marxism from the Soviet Union were unconvincing. 

These were the years when universities became political battlegrounds. When the LSE kicked out some of its extremists, Miliband resigned to form the Council for Academic Freedom and Democracy — an Orwellian title, given the Left’s intolerance of dissent. In the late 1970s, he became close to Tony Benn during the period when a Bennite takeover of the Labour Party looked possible. Later, in the mid-1980s, Miliband set up the Chesterfield Socialist Conferences in Benn’s constituency, in a vain attempt to shore up the crumbling intellectual credibility of the Left. Revered by trade unionists and Labour activists, Miliband revelled in creating groupuscules with names such as Socialist Society and Socialist Movement, besides by his peers, journals such as New Left Review and Socialist Register. He took himself, and was taken very seriously.

After 1989, Miliband’s reputation was eclipsed. He died in 1994 and lies near Marx in Highgate. His prestige rested on his books. Though more readable than the agitprop prose of most academic Marxism, today they deservedly gather dust, along with the socialist cause Miliband served so faithfully and so pointlessly. Will his sons leave them on the shelf? We shall soon find out. 

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