Ed Miliband’s anti-state legacy

Miliband Senior and the Big Bad State

by Gwydion M. Williams

If you want to understand the weakness of Ed Miliband as Labour leader, you need to understand the influence of his father. Ralph Miliband fled to Britain in 1940, part of a family of Polish-Jewish origin who had settled for a time in Belgium. He was then a teenager, and his ideas seemed to have been formed by Harold Laski, a clever Marxist academic of Manchester Jewish origin. Laski’s politics existed in the broadly ineffective territory between the Labour Party and the British Communist Party. He has been described as follows:

“His Holmesian side immunized him against the Communist party per se. Communists, he said, lie, they intrigue, they falsify, they distort, they indulge in vile personal abuse.’ He saw the Soviet Union as a police state – ‘a regime of deliberate and organized repression’ – and the Hitler-Stalin pact as a monstrous betrayal. But his Marxist side persuaded him of the innate depravity of the profit system, and he dreamed of a democratic collectivism. Much of the time he could see no enemy to the left.

“In his Marxist mood, he dismissed liberalism as no more than the self-serving ideology of the rising bourgeoisie. In his Holmesian mood, he cherished liberal ideals as autonomous and universal. ‘A socialist by allegiance,’ George Orwell called him, ‘and a liberal by temperament.’ He gave the highest value to individual freedom but never explained how it could survive without diversification of ownership. His fatal fluency enabled him to glide over the hard questions. His besetting sin was the substitution of rhetoric for thought.” [1]

Laski and others missed the most important feature of Stalin’s politics, that they succeeded. Leninism was a reaction to the liberal-capitalist world of 1914 fighting a ruinous 4-year war whose root cause was the rivalry of half a dozen Great Powers competing to dominate the planet. The British Empire had dominated since 1759, but without any coherent idea of how Europe should develop. One possibility would have been a wider union, like the current European Community but structured and created by Britain, and with the scattered states of Germany presumably joining as individual members. Britain showed no interest in such a development, but then got alarmed when Prussia unified a large chunk of Germany and began to overtake Britain economically.

The outbreak of war in August 1914 was ambiguous: the spark was the Serb claim to Bosnia, but the leadership of each participant included a mix of pro-war and anti-war elements. But if you ask why the war didn’t end in 1915 as an agreed draw, that was definitely the fault of the British ruling class. Germany was quite happy for everything to go back as it had been in August 1914: if the problem had been ‘German aggression’, Britain should have been happy to make peace on such terms. But if the aim was to break Germany, then peace in 1915 would have been a disaster, the ending of the best-ever chance to destroy Britain’s most formidable rival. And there was indeed no peace, though probably most Britons would have favoured peace as an agreed stalemate if they had known it was possible.

Leninism reacted to the massive disaster created by ‘democratic capitalism’ by seizing power and advancing socialist policies by creating a strong centralised state. This was not the initial aim: the Bolsheviks came into power with great hopes of an immediate socialist utopia, and even abolished the death penalty. It was their enemies who started the mass killings, urged on by foreign supporters. But in the face of this, the Bolsheviks had to adapt or perish – and I’m confident that Bolshevism perishing would have been a disaster for the future.

The other main reaction to the war besides Bolshevism was a hybrid creed that mixed socialism and nationalism into a dangerously popular alternative. The hybridisation was applied successfully by Pilsudski in Poland and Mussolini in Italy, both of them left-wing socialists who had chosen to take sides in the war. Both ended up as leaders of nationalist movements that were right-wing but had considerable social concerns inherited from their socialist roots. Pilsudski’s movement became rather anti-Semitic: Mussolini’s initially included quite a lot of Jews. But it was also Mussolini’s Fascism that offered the global model and was widely imitated.

Fascism was an entirely viable future after the horrors of the Great War, and the general social tensions in the decades before that war. And a second massive failure by liberal-capitalism in the form of the Great Depression ended up spreading Fascism rather than Revolutionary Socialism. Trotskyists blamed Stalin – but 85 years of existence of an independent Trotskyist movement has not seen a single serious revolutionary movement guided by Trotskyism: nothing better than some small leftist parties in Sri Lanka and a failed Urban Guerrilla movement in Argentina. Stalin made the necessary adjustments to the unwelcome situation that actually existed, rather than blaming it on others. He went for a fast and ruthless drive to industrialise, and produced an economic base strong enough to survive a massive invasion by Nazi Germany.

Laski and Miliband Senior would have had a decent case if they had argued that mainstream Leninist methods, made normal by necessity in situations of great danger, were then applied as a matter of routine and with some damage to the final ends. Or they might have taken an ultra-pure line and said that it would be better to be defeated and let Fascism triumph than stoop to such things. Instead they preferred to deny that immediate necessities were necessities at all. They preferred to operate in a relatively safe space that actually existed because other people had made ruthless decisions when ruthlessness was called for. And that was true of the politics of the ‘liberal democracies’, just as much as it was true of the Soviet Union and other Leninist states.

Liberalism of the classical British sort was dominated by people who spoke as if they dislike state power, yet operated it very effectively when it was their turn to control it within Britain’s two-party system. Likewise John Stewart Mill had no trouble reconciling his beliefs with his career as a mid-level manager in the London offices of the East India Company. The East India Company ruled hundreds of millions of Indians without any intention to ever let them rule themselves. From the 1830s there was a strict racial divide, with all ‘natives’ inferior to every white man. This applied even though some of the Indian elite were educated in Britain and sometimes obtained the highest accademic distinctions. Mill seemed quite happy to be part of this racist power structure. As far as I know he never questioned it, even when he had the standing and fame to have made a significant long-term impact.

The earlier reference to Laski’s ‘Holmesian’ side is a reference to Oliver Wendell Holmes, Junior. There was a strong influence, even a published volume of Holmes-Laski Letters. Holmes was good at expressing liberal sentiments, but did not let it get in the way of social domination by people like himself. He wrote a notorious decision on enforced sterilisation of the subnormal, which is worth quoting:

“We have seen more than once that the public welfare may call upon the best citizens for their lives. It would be strange if it could not call upon those who already sap the strength of the State for these lesser sacrifices, often not felt to be such by those concerned, in order to prevent our being swamped with incompetence. It is better for all the world if, instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes. Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”[2]

Laski seems to me an incoherent mix of Liberal and Marxist ideas. To his credit, he did stand strongly for Indian independence, and was influential on Nehru. But he had no sense of political realism, and nor did Ralph Miliband.

World War Two saw the advance of the state, most notably its welfare provisions. This was helped by Winston Churchill being mostly concerned about winning the war: but he had also been part of the 1905 Liberal government that introduced earlier and very valuable welfare provisions. (Churchill had begun as a Tory, defected to the Liberals and then gone back to Tory when the Liberals fell apart after the Great War. He commented that ‘Anyone can rat, but it takes a certain amount of ingenuity to re-rat’.)

Looking historically, the overall trend is that as civilisation advances and gets richer, the state expands. During Britain’s 18th century Industrial Revolution, many major industries expanded at unprecedented rates, but the biggest growth area of all was the British state. This continued all through the 19th century, but both Germany and the late-19th-century USA were much more determinedly pro-state and were overtaking Britain economically. In Britain, the anti-state ideas of Adam Smith became increasingly popular and were to prove ruinous.

Saying that state power is necessary is different from always approving of the way it operates. People confuse a large and effective state with an arbitrary state. It is definitely true that the British state has been subject to more and more checks and balances as it has grown stronger. This is a natural enough development: a small state may have little to do with the lives of ordinary people and seem unimportant to them. If it starts to intrude, they will want more checks and balances, provided the society is flourishing. When the society is visibly in trouble, then most people will shift their views and demand that the checks on state power be removed until the problem is fixed. Doctrinaire liberals may object, but are correctly ignored by the majority.

Ralph Miliband sheds no light on this process, he sheds fog and darkness. Somehow he absorbed the viewpoint of the liberal elite, who talked as if the state was some unexplained vice infesting the modern world. Liberals in power never acted according to that view: presumably candidates for power are tested for realism before being promoted, or sidelined if they show no signs of adapting. But that’s a process of filtering and education that applies to the existing power elite. Radicals need something better, and got just the opposite from Miliband’s 1968 book The State in Capitalist Society:

“More than ever before men now live in the shadow of the state. What they want to achieve, individually or in groups, now mainly depends on the state’s sanction and support. But since that sanction and support are not bestowed indiscriminately, they must, ever more directly, seek to influence and shape the state’s power and purpose, or try and appropriate it altogether.”[3]

This could be understood as advice for radicals to concentrate on the state and reshaping its ‘sanction and support’. This has been the mainstream policy of the Green Movement, of Gay Liberation and of Women’s Liberation / Feminism. Yet even there, influencing the state has mostly been a kind of ‘secret vice’, something you do from necessity but are ashamed of. Miliband certainly feeds into such feelings:

“If large parts of the planet should one day be laid waste in a nuclear war, it is because men, acting in the name of their state and invested with its power, will have so decided, or miscalculated.” (Ibid.)

Wars wages by states can get pretty bad, but nothing like as bad as when state authority breaks down. Germany was wrecked by the Thirty Years War in the 17th century, and France had been earlier torn apart by its own Wars of Religion. England was several times at a very low ebb when central authority failed – the Wars of Stephen and Matilda, the Wars of the Roses. In Afghanistan, the society descended into chaos following the Soviet withdrawal, and it was in this chaos that the Taliban emerged offering peace in the shape of an authoritarian version of Islam. Something similar is happening in Somalia right now, and is currently the main trend in Libya.

Through his sons Ed and David, Ralph Miliband has unexpectedly ended up defining the framework of thought for the British Labour Party. Parties are supposed to govern, and left-wing parties are supposed to change things. Sadly, that’s not the sort of understanding that either brother seems to have inherited from their dad.


[1] [http://www.thefreelibrary.com/Harold+Laski:+A+Life+on+the+Left.-a014687963]

[2] [http://supreme.justia.com/us/274/200/case.html#207]

[3] Miliband, Ralph. The State in Capitalist Society. Weidenfeld and Nicolson 1969. Page 1.

First published in Labour Affairs, 2012.

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