So, the last week hasn’t been very edifying, has it? I want to give here two briefish reflections on the ongoing Mili-Mail story, one contemporary and one historical.
Firstly, I can’t for the life of me think what on earth Paul Dacre is thinking. There’s a school of thought that says he’s lost his touch, his famed sense for the worldview of the Mail reader. In this scenario, running a hatchet job on Ralph Miliband – accompanied by a certain amount of dog-whistling about rootless cosmopolitans – would be a catastrophic misjudgement similar to the Sun’s monstering of Kenny Everett when the popular TV funnyman revealed he had AIDS. This went down like a cup of cold sick with Sun readers, who had grown up with and loved Kenny, and it’s worth noting that the paper never subsequently felt able to engage in the sort of rampant homophobia that it used to go in for in the 1980s. I’m not suggesting here that Mail readers feel a deep love for Ralph Miliband – few will ever have heard of him – but going after a politician by publishing a hatchet job on his deceased dad just seems nasty. And, yes, there’s no moral difference with publishing a hatchet job on the late Ian Cameron to have a go at Dave.
There’s another, more Machiavellian school of thought which runs like this: Paul Dacre is not a stupid man. The consequences of his actions have been, firstly, to make the public warm to Ed Miliband (something Ed hasn’t achieved under his own steam), and secondly, to overshadow the Tory conference (thus annoying Dave, who is not Dacre’s favourite politician). This is intriguing, but may be a case of overthinking the situation. There’s another aspect, though: ten years ago the Mail could have (and frequently did) get away with this sort of thing. Not so in the age of social media, which has levelled things out a bit.
As for what Ed is thinking, well, it goes without saying that he’s fiercely defensive of his dad. (Actually, just about the only time Ed Miliband is able to move me is when he’s talking about his parents. That’s when you get those rare flashes of overt emotion from him.) Ed, mind you, is also a politician, and one with a pronounced ruthless streak. He believes that his greatest triumph came with the taming of News International, and one could well understand him thinking it’s about time to have a go at taming Associated. He knows how his grassroots feel about the press, and how much they loathe the Mail in particular. And, while being nasty about Ed’s dad is not exactly a transgression on the scale of hacking a murder victim’s phone, one does not get to choose one’s circumstances.
Who knows? Maybe he really does think it’s time to have a more civilised discourse – though, if that’s the case, it doesn’t help to have Alastair Campbell going on Newsnight to complain about bullying and smears. I merely mention this.
Now to the historic side, which interests me more – or, more accurately, annoys me more, because we’ve been having yet another of those displays of invincible ignorance which remind me how few people in the British political-media class actually know any history or ideology.
I think it’s quite sad that Ralph had become such an obscure figure, known only (and then only to politics geeks) as the father of the Milibros. His books are quite hard to obtain these days (hint to his publishers, if they have any business sense), and the political milieu he lived in has been forgotten in these postmodern times.
So perhaps it’s understandable that only one or two people in the commentariat seem to have the vaguest idea of Ralph’s work. Many on the right (including a few people I usually rate highly) seem to have just seen the words “Marxist academic”, and lazily dusted off their old denunciations of Eric Hobsbawm, rather missing the point that Ralph was not Eric and had very different beliefs. Miliband senior was not an apologist for Stalin any more than Orwell was, and it really won’t do to say “Well, maybe he didn’t support the invasion of Hungary, but he knew Hobsbawm, who did.” On that basis we’d have to condemn lots of people who knew Hobsbawm, starting with Her Majesty the Queen, who made him a Companion of Honour. But, I reiterate, Ralph was not Eric.
On the other hand, it would be a pretty serious misrepresentation for Labourites to portray Ralph as just another common-or-garden social democrat. No, he was much more interesting and idiosyncratic than that.
If we’re going to do political heredity – which I’ve always thought sits rather oddly with people on the left – it might be worth noting that Ralph’s father, Samuel Miliband, had a background in the Bund, the Jewish socialist party in Poland, which was closely linked to the Russian Mensheviks. Not only were the Bundists not Stalinists, rather a lot of them ended up being killed by the Stalin regime. (Those who weren’t were mostly killed by the Nazis.) I think that background has some relevance.
As for Ralph, well, he was a Bevanite in the 1950s, but drifted out of the Labour Party circa 1960 and never joined anything else. I’m certain he always voted Labour, for want of an alternative, but that’s as far as he went, and for good reason. There’s an old and rather cruel joke, but one with a grain of truth, that Ralph Miliband wrote books about how Labour would always let the working class down, and his sons went into politics to prove him right. And indeed his major works – firstly Parliamentary Socialism and then The State in Capitalist Society – were all about the inherent limitations of Labourite politics. And this in the 1960s, when Labour was much more identifiably social democratic than it is today.
Two points are worth making here. The first was that Ralph’s criticism of British parliamentary democracy was that it wasn’t sufficiently democratic. Right through his thought you find him constantly returning to the themes of the self-activity of the masses, and a profound scepticism about saviours from on high transforming society on the masses’ behalf. It’s all a long way from the cult of personality.
The second point, flowing from that, was a belief that the working class needed to be in politics on its own account. It needed a political vehicle. That wasn’t the Communist Party, hopelessly compromised by its dependence on the Kremlin; it wasn’t the Labour Party, which always raised hopes only to dash them; the smaller sects weren’t even in a position to start offering alternatives. What Ralph was driving at here was the concept of a democratic socialist party rooted in an active and conscious working-class movement. However, not only did this not exist, it wasn’t even apparent how we might get there.
Hence Ralph’s refreshing realism about the actual political situation we found ourselves in. Here’s a snippet from a sceptical though not unsympathetic take on the Labour left back in 1966:
The Labour Party, it is always tritely said, is a coalition; but it is less often noted that it is a coalition on certain very definite terms, mainly that the Left should not expect to shift the whole axis of the Party. Not that the Left has ever come near to doing that. But on those occasions when it has managed to defeat the leadership on an important issue of policy, it has also, with very few exceptions indeed, found that there was a world of difference between defeating the leadership at a Party Conference and forcing it to act upon that defeat. This has been the case even when the Labour Party has been in opposition. It is doubly true when the Labour Party is in office, precisely at the moment where policies can actually be implemented, but also when the power of the Labour leaders vis-à-vis their followers is greatest.
You said it, Ralph. And in fact, doesn’t it say something about our current situation that Miliband junior can be labelled ‘Red Ed’ for espousing a very, very mild Fabianism of the sort his father used to denounce?
Maybe boring, middle-of-the-road social democracy is about the best the British left can aspire to these days. Certainly, boring, middle-of-the-road social democracy would have more to recommend it than the postmodern technocratic element that’s come to dominate Labour politics these days. But a time when that even seemed possible grows more and more distant, and fewer and fewer people remember that it was ever a possibility.
You can sing the Red Flag and have a Clem Attlee avatar, but with every year that passes it becomes more kitschy, like the Mao memorabilia trade in China. What’s more, it becomes kitsch that’s incomprehensible to anyone born after the 1970s at the latest. How that can be dealt with, I have no idea. But maybe a (Ralph) Milibandian approach would be to identify and anatomise the problem, and trust that people (not an impersonal ‘History’) will find solutions. Maybe. The old chap’s scepticism was marvellous, but outright pessimism seems very tempting.
 Actually, I largely agree with Tony Judt’s assessment of Hobsbawm, with some added reservations to do with internecine Communist Party politics. But that’s another story.
Update: I’ve been reminded that in fact Hobsbawm did not support the invasion of Hungary in 1956 but publicly opposed it. Chalk that one down as another example of the perils of assuming you know what someone believed.