You may not know the name Ralph Miliband, but the late Marxist professor is a household name in the UK. He was the father of Ed Miliband, the Labor Party’s leader and a possible future prime minister. When the conservative Daily Mail ran a story about the father’s influence on his son, the controversy began.
It started with an October 1 story by Geoffrey Levy in which the journalist wrote that young Ed wants nothing less than to fulfill his father’s dreams and return England from the legacy left by Margaret Thatcher to a new 21st century socialism:
Ed is now determined to bring about that vision. … How proud Ralph would have been to hear him responding the other day to a man in the street who asked when he was “going to bring back socialism” with the words: “That’s what we are doing, sir.”
Ed Miliband’s father, the story continues, was a full-throated Marxist, committed to nationalization and harsh socialist policies. Levy paints the senior Miliband as a man who hated the country he adopted as his own when he sought refuge from Nazi Germany, a man who was critical of the Soviet Union but still believed it was socialist, and who thought Gorbachev had successfully “democratized” Soviet society. Nothing had changed in his belief system, he wrote, since the time when, as a young man, he made the pilgrimage to Karl Marx’s grave in 1940, and he wrote:
I remember standing in front of the grave, fist clenched, and swearing my own private oath that I would be faithful to the workers’ cause.
Now, Miliband is buried in a grave 12 short yards from Marx’s grave, and his tombstone bares the inscription: “Writer Teacher Socialist.”
He had dedicated his life, he wrote near the end of his life, to realizing the socialist dream, and preparing the ground for “such an alternative.” With Ed as prime minister, Levy concludes, “perhaps that ground is indeed now being prepared.”
That one article began the fierce war of words. Ed Miliband told the press that he found the story “appalling,” and “responded by accusing the paper of peddling ‘a lie’ and trying to ‘besmirch and undermine’ his dead father for political ends.” He wrote:
Fierce debate about politics does not justify character assassination of my father, questioning the patriotism of a man who risked his life for our country in the Second World War or publishing a picture of his gravestone with a tasteless pun about him being a “grave socialist.”
The editors of the Daily Mail responded by saying that Ralph Miliband sought to drive “a hammer and sickle through the heart of the nation so many of us genuinely love.”
Miliband’s friends were aghast. They particularly did not like tying Ralph Miliband in with the late historian Eric Hobsbawm, an unabashed Stalinist who in a famous late-in-life interview justified the millions Stalin killed as necessary for the triumph of socialism. Norm Geras, a moderate and truly democratic man of the Left — he has been at the forefront of condemning the current anti-Israeli stance and anti-Semitism of the Left in Britain — argued that Ralph Miliband believed in parliamentary democracy under socialism, and was anything but a Leninist who believed in “smashing the state.” Geras wrote: “he was never a Stalinist or an apologist for Stalinism.” Geras was particularly incensed about a column by Benedict Brogan, who called Miliband one of the Cold War’s “bad guys.”
Editor-in-chief of the Daily Mail Paul Dacre responded in both his own paper and in the pages of the left-wing Guardian. He explained his decision to run the first column in these words:
The genesis of that piece lay in Ed Miliband’s conference speech. The Mail was deeply concerned that in 2013, after all the failures of socialism in the twentieth century, the leader of the Labour party was announcing its return, complete with land seizures and price fixing.
Surely, we reasoned, the public had the right to know what influence the Labour leader’s Marxist father, to whom he constantly referred in his speeches, had on his thinking.
It was not Miliband who was evil, but the ideas he believed in and the system he favored for Britain:
Ralph Miliband was, as a Marxist, committed to smashing the institutions that make Britain distinctively British — and, with them, the liberties and democracy those institutions have fostered.
At this point, columnists whose own fathers and ancestors were also Marxist, or who at one point were themselves Marxist, took to the pages of the press. Theodore Dalrymple (who writes often for PJ Media) chimed in with his own thoughts, revealing that his father was also wrong and was himself a hard-core Marxist. He pointed out that the Marxist doctrine is both emotionally and intellectually dishonest:
I quickly grasped that the dialectic could prove anything you wanted it to prove, for example, that killing whole categories of people was a requirement of elementary decency.
Dalrymple brilliantly noted the main problem with the doctrine, which, as he notes, a belief in leads to justification for mass murder:
Marxism was also replete with heresies and excommunications that tended to become fatal whenever its adherents reached power. There was a reason for this. Marx said that it is not consciousness that determines being, but being that determines consciousness. In other words, ideas do not have to be argued against in a civilised way, but rather the social and economic position of those who hold them must be analysed. So, disagreement is the same as class enmity — and we all know what should be done with class enemies.
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.
Moreover, Miliband revealed something that settles the issue being raised today in the British press by Ed Miliband’s critics. He may have considered himself a critic of Stalinism, but like the late historian Isaac Deutscher, he firmly believed that Stalin’s reign of power had played a progressive role in Russia. According to Deutscher and Miliband, Stalin’s harsh rule had created the very modernization and social structure that allowed Soviet society to evolve to the socialist democracy it was meant to be; therefore — despite the horrors of Stalinism, which again they believed did not stem intrinsically from Lenin — it was a progressive social system that Stalin had created.
David Horowitz proved with the rejection of his attempt to dialogue with Ralph Miliband that they had both belonged to “a community of faith, hermetically sealed from knowledge that might wake it from its dream.” Miliband could not even discuss the challenge Horowitz had put before him; had he done so, confronting the bitter truths might have led him too to the path of rejecting Marxism. That he could never do.
They still believed that “it was only ‘actually existing socialism’ that had failed; ‘real socialism’ had not yet been tried.” And so the dream lived on, as it does today for Ralph Miliband’s son, Ed. The lessons Horowitz learned were costly for him: he lost many that he thought were his friends, and was subject to vitriolic diatribes from those who could never learn from history. As far as they were concerned, he had nothing to teach them. Miliband obviously saw Horowitz only as a renegade who had betrayed him.
Our British friends would be wise to read David Horowitz’s “Road to Nowhere” (his open letter) and Radical Son. There they will learn the truth about the late Ralph Miliband, who was as his critics charge — a defender of the Soviet Union and of the Marxist faith.