How David Horowitz Revealed the Truth about Ralph Miliband’s Legacy: What it Should Teach the British Left
Next, Peter Hitchens – brother of the late Christopher — explains that he is now “conservative, Christian, patriotic,” but as a young man he was a Trotskyist. Although that made him a Marxist-Leninist, his brand of communism “hated Stalin and the Gulag as much as anyone else.” Yet he believes:
People ought to know and care more about the influence in our national life of Marxist politics.
He personally worries most about the Tony Blair-ites, who he argues hold “politically correct, multiculti, anti-Christian ideas” that stem from Euro-Communism of the 1970s.
This is as good a time as any to turn to a man well-known to all of us, and to what his experience shows about what Ralph Miliband really believed. David Horowitz, in the late 1980s when he was beginning his march to conservatism, wrote a letter to Miliband, who was his mentor when he lived for years in Britain in the early and mid 1960s. Horowitz eventually published it as an open letter in the pages of Commentary magazine under the title: “Socialism, Guilty as Charged.”
The full open letter is now posted at Horowitz’s Frontpagemag.com.
At that point, Horowitz believed that although he had left the ranks of the Left, he could maintain a personal relationship and friendship with Miliband, who was important to him and who he knew as a good man and loving father to his then young children.
He starts by noting the revolutionary vision he shared with Miliband at one point in his life, and asks him this question:
How could I divorce myself from a mission like this without betraying those whom I had left behind? Especially without betraying those like yourself who had been my guides and my comrades in the ’60s through the moral wilderness created by the disintegration of the Old Left.
It was not to be. Horowitz had his own famous second thoughts, while Miliband had none. He was engaged in yet another and seemingly never-ending attempt to bring into being another resurrection of the Left, which would succeed in building the new world they both once dreamed of. “For you,” he wrote Miliband, “the socialist idea is still capable of an immaculate birth from the bloody conception of the socialist state.”
Horowitz, in his usual precise and cutting style, dissects in his letter to Miliband the follies, the hopes, the dreams, and the warped methodology which the Left uses to keep alive the flame of revolution. One thing it holds dear, he writes, is a belief in “the redemptive power of the socialist idea” as a guide to getting to the goal, the ideology of Marxism. Their allegiance was to Marxism, “to the paradigm itself: politics as civil war; history as a drama of social redemption.”
When Leszek Kolakowski, the late Polish-born philosopher and once-Marxist, wrote his swan song to Marxism consisting of a three-volume history of the Marxist idea, he argued: “Marx’s ideas could not be rescued from the human remains they created.” To that, Miliband had nothing but contempt, and wrote these words, which Horowitz quotes: “To speak of Stalinism as following naturally and ineluctably from Leninism is unwarranted.”
That Miliband could write these words indicates that, contrary to what Geras believes, Miliband was in fact a defender of the Soviet Union, and believed that Stalinism was an aberration and not the inevitable result of Leninism, as Richard Pipes and others have shown in detail.
Horowitz shows in his letter to Miliband that it could not reform itself into something better, and would never become “the paradise of our imaginations.” It is a tough and thoughtful letter, and one wonders what Miliband said, if indeed he chose to respond at all. For Horowitz also wrote these words:
For socialists like you to confront these arguments would be to confront the lesson that … the socialist idea, has been, in its consequences, one of the worst and most destructive fantasies ever to have taken hold of the minds of men.
As one might expect, there is no way that Ralph Miliband could even consider or respond to Horowitz’s major essay. Indeed, Horowitz waited two years before publishing the letter, hoping undoubtedly that Miliband would respond in a serious fashion, much as the late British socialist E.P. Thompson had when Kolakowski challenged him similarly. This is particularly true as Horowitz ends with these words:
By promoting the socialist idea … which required so much death and suffering to implement, and then did not work in the end, you and I have earned ourselves a share, however modest, in the responsibility for its crimes. And it is these crimes that are the real legacy of the Left of which I was, and you so tragically still are, a part.
The answer is to be found not in the letter itself, but in Horowitz’s own memoir, Radical Son: A Generational Odyssey. Here, Horowitz tells us that he hoped Miliband would publish the letter in the annual series he edited, The Socialist Register. After all, years earlier, he had dared to publish Kolakowski’s seminal essay in which he announced his disillusionment with the socialist project. It was not to be. He told Miliband in a personal letter, which he reproduces in the memoir: “I’m hoping the huge events of these last years [the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Eastern satellites] may have softened the edges of the issues that divide us.” He told him that he wanted Miliband “to understand that I did not turn my back on the struggle we once shared for trivial or unreflected reasons.” He also let him know that “I do not feel harshly towards you, but only warmth for a friend who has remained on a path that I have left.”
Horowitz also told him that he hoped they might resume contact, despite their political divide. The answer came in a short note:
Thank you for your letter.
He added a brief p.s., saying that the opening lines of Horowitz’s Open Letter were not true, and that he had not ever said that he had spoken of Horowitz’s “apostasy” as a tragedy of the New Left. Then, a cutting line:
The first notion grossly exaggerates its public importance; the second its personal importance to me.
This non-reply reflected the bitter truth: Ralph Miliband could not even engage David Horowitz’s carefully spelled-out arguments. Moreover, Miliband had indeed said what David quoted him as saying. I recall that when Miliband was teaching at the City University Graduate Center, he was asked about Horowitz, and he publicly replied that mentoring him was one of the biggest mistakes he had ever made.