The socialism the Mail hates

Submitted by Matthew on 9 October, 2013 - 10:48

Paul Dacre, the Tory editor of the Daily Mail, is over-confident and nervy. So much so that he launched and has stuck to a claim that Labour leader Ed Miliband secretly pursues “the vision” of his Marxist father Ralph Miliband, who was “the man who hated Britain”.

Often, usually, the Tories keep their support by presenting themselves as the safe, cautious option. They are the people with the expertise and habit of command to make cuts when necessity drives.

The times have become a little less usual. Chancellor George Osborne has announced a splendid economic recovery — and at the same time a plan to continue cuts to the far future and put everyone jobless beyond two years into compulsory unpaid labour.

Tory health minister Jeremy Hunt has declared a ban on the tiny 1% pay rise (a cut in real wages after inflation) promised to NHS workers.

Hesitantly, minimally, and without disavowing their early-2012 declaration that “we will keep all these cuts”, the Labour leaders have started talking left.

They will abolish the bedroom tax. They will repeal the Health and Social Care Act. They will not nationalise the energy companies, but at least peg prices for 20 months. They will empower councils to take over undeveloped building land. They will do something, they haven’t said what, to promote the Living Wage.

The Tories see top pay, share prices, and dividend payouts all recovering nicely, but profit rates with a way to go yet, and opportunities yet unrealised in the depression economy to shift the balance of forces further against the working class. They want to indict all talk of curbing the inequality spiral.

Their minds probably sodden with Tory triumphalism, Dacre and the Daily Mail have overstepped themselves, pushing even right-wingers to dissociate.

By their slipshod attack, they have opened up a debate about left-wing ideas like Ralph Miliband’s.

There are precedents. On 4 June 1945 Winston Churchill claimed that a Labour victory in the July 1945 general election would bring creeping totalitarianism. “A socialist policy is abhorrent to the British ideas of freedom... Socialism is in its essence an attack on British enterprise... A free parliament is odious to the socialist doctrinaire... No socialist system can be established without a political police... They would have to fall back on some form of Gestapo”.

The attack backfired. Probably some who previously hesitated about voting Labour were pushed that way when they saw that the Tories had no counter-argument better than an amalgam between Labour and Nazism.

Another Tory ploy of the time connects up with the Miliband slur. On 16 June 1945, Harold Laski, then chair of the Labour Party, had just finished a general election speech in Newark, Notts. A Tory approached him and, reading from prompt cards, asked him two questions: why had Laski not served in the army in World War One, and why had he advocated violence?

The Daily Express and other papers owned by the same lord reported Laski as answering the second question: “If Labour could not obtain what it needed by general consent, we shall have to use violence”. The Express headlined: “New Laski sensation: socialism even if it means violence”.

The Tory press was already running “a stream of stories about ‘the red professor’, the eminence rouge behind the... voter-friendly figures of Attlee and Morrison” (Stefan Collini: Absent Minds). Laski was to them what Ralph Miliband is to the Mail, and with the advantage that he was alive.

Laski, like many social democrats, had come in the 1930s to think of himself as a sort of Marxist, and of capitalism as needing some sort of revolutionary overthrow. Of course he didn’t say what the Tory press alleged: what “violence” could the Labour Party possibly muster to overpower, simultaneously, both “general consent” and the established capitalist military hierarchies?

Laski limited the repercussions for the general election by suing for libel. But he lost the subsequent libel case, in November 1946. The defence lawyer secured a Tory judge and a special jury, with high property qualifications. He told the jury that “even if Laski had not used the exact words attributed to him... they fairly represented... his writings and other speeches”.

Plucking at the strings with which dislike of “foreign” Jewish intellectuals like Laski and Miliband would resonate, the lawyer declared: “We have beliefs in many things which Mr Laski does not believe in at all. We believe in law and justice in England; we believe in fairness; we believe in religious beliefs”.

In the years that remained before Laski’s death in 1950, his standing in the Labour Party was diminished.

In 1945-6 Ed Miliband’s father Ralph Miliband was a student of Laski’s. Like Laski, he was a left-wing Jewish intellectual. Unlike Laski, son of a prosperous British family, Miliband came from a working-class family of Polish origin which had settled in Belgium.

Ralph Miliband joined a left Zionist group, Hashomer Hatzair, in 1939. Among the other members of the group in Brussels was Abram Leon, who soon became a Trotskyist and in 1944 died in Auschwitz.

In May 1940 Miliband fled to Britain, with his father, from the invading Nazis. He was 16. His mother and sister found refuge with a sympathetic Belgian farmer.

In 1941, Miliband won a place to study at the London School of Economics, where Laski taught. He returned there after serving three years in the British navy. After his studies he became a lecturer at LSE, then at Leeds University, then at other universities.

He was, according to his student and friend Leo Panitch, “a rather uncomfortable and peripatetic supporter of the Bevanite Left inside the Labour Party in the early and mid-1950s”.

In 1957 Miliband joined the editorial board of a journal, The New Reasoner, launched by E P Thompson, John Saville, and other former members of the Communist Party who had quit after Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin and then Khrushchev’s own invasion of Hungary.

Miliband himself had never been a member of the CP. His views on Stalinism were similar to those of Isaac Deutscher, author of a fine and admiring biography of Trotsky who yet believed that the USSR would gradually evolve into democracy.

Miliband, unlike Deutscher, opposed the 1956 Russian invasion of Hungary; but in 1988, in the Gorbachev era, he wrote: “Much that is happening in the Soviet Union constitutes a remarkable vindication of [Deutscher’s] confidence that powerful forces for progressive change would eventually break through seemingly impenetrable barriers... We take this opportunity to recall with gratitude... how great was his contribution to the understanding of the Soviet experience”.

Miliband’s credulousness about Gorbachev’s reforms did not make him a Stalinist, though I remember, around that time, heckling Miliband at one of the Socialist Conferences called by Tony Benn in Chesterfield. A Russian diplomat had been invited to speak. We protested at the idea that the “reforming tsar”, Gorbachev, was anything socialist. Miliband was on the platform, defending the invitation.

In 1960 The New Reasoner merged with another journal to become New Left Review. In 1962 Perry Anderson (aged 24) become editor of New Left Review, and slanted it towards importing slabs of continental-European Marxisant text into a Britain depicted as dank and stultified.

Miliband, like most of the older contributors, dissented, and in 1964, with John Saville, launched a once-yearly journal called the Socialist Register, which continues.

In The New Reasoner, Miliband had argued: “Very high on that agenda, there is the need for socialists to make clear once again, but in the vocabulary of the 1960s, why common ownership of the means to life is the key to socialist change... The next job, however, is to carry this clarification to the Labour movement, in other words, to make socialists.

“There is an audience, even if it is now a bored audience, in all that multitude of institutions which go to make up the Labour movement. Nor is the boredom of the audience a fixed factor...

“There are some who yearningly look for a short cut. There isn’t one. Now is the time to get in and push”.

In 1961 he published his most influential book, a history of the Labour Party entitled Parliamentary Socialism.

At the time, most of the left, even the revolutionary left, subscribed implicitly to a “one last push” theory of socialism. The 1945 Labour government had done much of the work: a new Labour government pushed by the left would complete the necessary nationalisations. Socialist Review, the forerunner of the SWP, had expounded its own programme as a list of demands to be carried out by a Labour government.

Miliband showed that the Labour Party, even in its great days of 1945-51, whose achievements he did not scorn, had always operated within bourgeois limits. Much more than another push to the left was needed.

The analytical conclusion did not imply giving up on intervention in the Labour Party. Yet, some time around the mid-1960s, Miliband drifted out. He was active in the Centres for Socialist Education from 1966, but then, as far as I know, outside active politics until his death in 1994, apart from his brief involvement in the Chesterfield conferences.

In 1967 he wrote a series of letters to the Belgian Marxist Marcel Liebman, a contributor to the Trotskisant weekly La Gauche, about Israel. Lucid about Israeli government misdeeds, Miliband was also lucid in defence of the Israeli Jews’ right to maintain their own national state. The exchange was published in 2006 with an introduction by the Lebanese-French Marxist Gilbert Achcar.

In 1969 Miliband published another important book, The State in Capitalist Society, which showed the capitalist class nature of the modern bourgeois-democratic state in factual detail and without oversimplification. He defended its ideas, rightly I think, in a long exchange with Nicos Poulantzas, who would become an inspirer of Eurocommunism.

According to Panitch, Miliband saw us, “the various Trotskyist parties”, as condemned to “sectarianism and isolation” because of “clinging to an insurrectionary model derived from the Bolshevik Revolution, which was entirely incapable of generating mass support from the working classes of liberal-democratic, advanced capitalist regimes”.

That attitude, once Miliband’s hopes for the 1950s-60s “New Left” had faded, left him more thoroughly “sectarian and isolated” than any of us. Indeed, inactive.

The Mail quotes from Panitch autobiographical notes which Miliband wrote in 1983. He “remember[ed] standing in front of [Marx’s] grave”, at the age of 17 in 1940, “fist clenched, and swearing my own private oath that I would be faithful to the workers’ cause...

“I don’t know”, wrote Miliband in 1983, “how faithful I have been to that oath in terms of action: I am sure I should have done more, immeasurably more. But I have not, from that day to this, departed from the view that this was the right cause and that I belonged to it”.

The Mail article of 28 September made that vow its first item of proof that Miliband “hated Britain”. It did it by the same method of amalgam used by the Tories in the 1940s against Laski and Labour.

Socialist and Marxist views meant hostility to the British establishment and to narrow-minded English nationalism — and so, “hatred of Britain”.

The Mail’s two other citations are a diary entry by Miliband, at age 17, railing against English nationalism, and a letter by him to a friend decrying “Eton and Harrow, Oxford and Cambridge, the great Clubs, the Times, the Church, the Army... the values of the ruling orders”.

According to the Mail editorial on 1 October, this showed “nothing but hatred for the values, traditions and institutions — including our great schools, the Church, the Army... that made Britain the safe and free nation in which he and his family flourished”.

The story about Miliband “hating Britain” has an ironic twist, because Miliband’s Socialist Register published, in 1965, E P Thompson’s article The Peculiarities of the English. Thompson, polemicising against Perry Anderson’s depiction of Britain as a hopeless conservative mush, vindicated the strengths of working-class history in Britain. (Anderson, it should be said, later conceded that Thompson had been right).

But for Thompson and for Miliband there was not just one Britain to be hated or loved. As Trotsky put it in the order of the day to the Red Army on 24 October 1919, when they were fighting for the life of the workers’ state against British intervention: “there are two Englands. Besides the England of profits, of violence, bribery and bloodthirstiness, there is the England of labour, of spiritual power, of high ideals of international solidarity. It is the base and dishonest England of the stock-exchange manipulators that is fighting us. The England of labour and the people is with us”.

Miliband loved the England, or Britain, “of labour and the people”, which in historical fact won those freedoms the Mail prates about, and detested the “England of profits” which resisted them all the way.

Ed Miliband, replying to the Mail, showed that Ralph Miliband did not “hate Britain”, and he showed also: “My father’s strongly Left-wing views are well known, as is the fact that I have pursued a different path... I want to make capitalism work for working people, not destroy it”.

Yet in replying Ed Miliband could do no other than portray his father’s views as worth discussion. Let’s discuss. Let’s see what it is that spurs the Mail to such unreasoned venom.

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