By Charlie Kimber
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Miliband and Marx

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Issue 2374

It’s been good to watch the Daily Mail squirm. By attacking Ed Miliband’s father Ralph as “the man who hated Britain” it managed to outrage large sections of the population and even part of its own Tory readership. 

The paper that is thoroughly accustomed to abusing and bullying people has reaped at least a tiny portion of the revulsion it so richly deserves. Not that this will change its ways. It will continue its war on anyone who dares to raise a hand against the rule of profit and against anyone who seeks to combat oppression and injustice. 

And we will need to keep combating its slurs and lies. But it has also brought the spotlight back onto Ralph Miliband’s ideas—which include a scathing critique of the Labour Party his son now leads.

Last week marked a change in strategy for Labour. Tony Blair spent years seeking to woo the Mail, as part of his strategy to make himself acceptable to the rich and powerful. He succeeded with Rupert Murdoch, but failed with the Mail.

But Ed Miliband took a different course. Instead of ignoring the Mail’s story, he confronted it. This is part of a wider pattern of the Labour leader’s behaviour. Miliband detects that austerity is really biting now as living standards plummet. 

There is a big audience who want to see someone stand up against the Tories, the profiteering bosses, and the ruthless benefit-cutters. 

He also knows that there are a lot of very angry people who aren’t impressed by Labour’s utter failure to oppose the government effectively—including some of the union leaders who put him in his position.  

Miliband has made some promises that Labour would be different to the Tories. He said he’ll axe the bedroom tax, freeze energy prices for 20 months and build more homes. He did so because of pressure from inside the party and, crucially, from campaigns like the one against the bedroom tax.


However meagre the pledges, they were enough to enrage the right, which responded with dire predictions of economic collapse and social upheaval. 

The architects of austerity are determined that there must be no limit to the butchery of workers’ wages and conditions in order to jack up profits. In fact Miliband’s promises are very limited and constrained by the decision to stick to Tory spending limits for at least a year. 

He is offering far less than Labour called for in its manifesto in 1992, let alone in the 1980s. And we know from the recent experience of Labour-type governments elsewhere in Europe that they are ready to attack workers as the bankers demand. 

The Socialist Party president Francois Hollande is attacking pensions in France. In Denmark the coalition government, led by the Social Democrats, backed an employers’ lockout of protesting teachers. 

Remember that just a few weeks ago Miliband was laying into the Unite union over a manufactured and empty vote-rigging “scandal”. He has called a special conference to weaken the unions’ link with Labour.

We should also note the real problems that come when you seek to take on the Mail or the ruling class in a race to show who is most “patriotic” or “British”. Socialists don’t believe in “one nation” or “we’re all in it together”—in the workplace, in society or on the battlefield. 

There’s something much more fundamental at play. Labour governments have always acted to defend capital, not abolish its rule. Some times they’re more left wing, such as in 1945. Some times they’re much worse, such as under Blair. But they share the same essence.

This process was dissected by the man who was the focus of the Mail’s ire—Ralph Miliband. Every socialist will gain from reading his books. 

In his excellent Parliamentary Socialism he wrote about Labour, “Empirical and flexible about all else, its leaders have always made devotion to that system their fixed point of reference and the conditioning factor of their political behaviour….leaders of the Labour Party have always rejected any kind of political action (such as industrial action for political purposes) which fell, or which appeared to them to fall, outside the framework and conventions of the parliamentary system.”


Ralph went on to explain that Labour “plays a major role in the management of discontent and helps to keep it within safe bounds”. Labourism was “an ideology of social reform, within the framework of capitalism, with no serious ambition of transcending that framework”.

Ralph could very well have been describing Ed. He recognised that capitalist democracy was truncated and hypocritical. Ralph wrote, “In an epoch when so much is made of democracy, equality, social mobility, classlessness and the rest, it has remained a basic fact of life in advanced capitalist countries that the vast majority of men and women in these countries has been governed, represented, administered, judged, and commanded in war by people drawn from other, economically superior and relatively distant classes.”

Miliband dropped out of the Labour Party in the mid-1960s and began discussions about building an alternative. He was convinced that, “The belief in the effective transformation of the Labour Party into an instrument of socialist policies is the most crippling of all illusions to which socialists in Britain have been prone”.

Yet in his posthumously published last book he argued that “the best the left can hope for in the relevant future…is the strengthening of left reformism as a current of thought and policy in social democratic parties”.

What are the weaknesses of Ralph’s politics?

First his analysis of Labour’s failings locates the problems in the party’s ideology, its ideas. He doesn’t see the roots of those ideas in the party’s reflection of the trade union bureaucracy, a layer that balances between workers and bosses. Based on this non-revolutionary layer, Labour is an obstacle to workers coming to a true understanding of the world. 

When struggle opens up the opportunity for millions of workers to become revolutionary, Labour imprisons them in capitalist versions of the world. 

Second, Ralph had only a partial critique of Stalinist Russia. He agreed that the Eastern European states had “nothing to do with what Marx meant by communism”. But he also saw the societies that collapsed after 1989 as different to Western capitalism and in some ways more progressive.

Third, Ralph showed that the state acted in the interests of a tiny elite. But he did not see it as an unreformable structure that had to be smashed and replaced by a wholly-different workers’ state. Taken together these factors led Ralph to accept Labour, or at least an improved and more left wing Labour, as the best that could be achieved. 

At a time when the left in Britain feels much weaker than it should be and is far too fragmented, there are many who will say he was right. We disagree. As Ralph himself wrote in 1972, “the absence of a viable socialist alternative [to Labour] is no reason for resigned acceptance or for the perpetuation of hopes which have no basis in political reality. 

“On the contrary, what it requires is to begin preparing the ground for the coming into being of such an alternative: and one of the indispensable elements of the process is the dissipation of paralysing illusions about the true purpose and role of the Labour Party.


For a full treatment of Ralph Miliband, go to Paul Blackledge, Labourism and socialism: Ralph Miliband’s Marxism, International Socialism issue 129

Some of Miliband’s writing is available at

Miliband’s Parlimentary Socialism is available at Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to

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