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Cooking the Books 2: Ed’s dad

“My Dad,” Labour Leader Ed Miliband told BBC Radio 5, “would have considered himself a socialist too, but he would have said we need to have public ownership of everything.” (Times, 27 November).

It’s true, his dad, Ralph Miliband, was a leftwinger who identified “socialism” with full-scale nationalisation, or state capitalism  – as we pointed out in a review of his book The State in Capitalist Society in the August 1969  Socialist Standard:

“This is a confusing book in which Miliband sets out to prove what he takes to be the Marxist theory of the state. Although he does define his terms he uses words like ‘capitalism’ and ‘class’ in a non-Marxist way. Capitalism, he holds, is based on private enterprise, private profit and private accumulation. This raises suspicions, which are confirmed, that he has an odd view of Socialism too. Russia, he says, is ‘collectivist’, ‘non-capitalist’ and, in an unguarded moment, even ‘socialist’. The concept of state capitalism is clearly unintelligible to him and is nowhere discussed, not even in relation to nationalisation in the West.”

Nationalisation is not socialism as it is only a change of owner and employer, leaving workers still having to sell their labour power for a wage or salary and still exploited for surplus value. In the West the former owners were paid compensation and so continued to receive a property income but as interest on government bonds rather than as dividends. In Russia the beneficiaries were those who dictatorially controlled the state and awarded themselves a privileged income as bloated salaries, prizes, country houses and other benefits in kind.

Ralph Miliband’s best known book is probably his 1961 critical history of the Labour Party from a leftwing Labour point of view, Parliamentary Socialism. In the concluding chapter, entitled “The Sickness of Labourism” he observed:

“By the late fifties, the Labour leaders, obsessed as they were with the thought of electoral success, had come to be more convinced even than were their predecessors that the essential condition for that success was to present the Labour Party as a moderate and respectable party, free from class bias, ‘national’ in outlook, and whose zeal for reform would always be tempered by its eager endorsement of the maxim that Rome was not built in a day – or even in a century. Never indeed had Labour leaders been so haunted by a composite image of the potential Labour voter as quintessentially petit-bourgeois, and therefore liable to be frightened off by a radical alternative to Conservatism.”

Plus ça change. There was nothing new about New Labour, except that Blair succeeded where Gaitskell failed in getting rid of Clause 4, which committed Labour on paper to full-scale state capitalism.

He went on to quote from the study of the 1959 General Election by David Butler and R. Rose their view that the Labour Party “as in all recent elections …played down any claim to stand, as a socialist party, for a radically different form of society …it asked the voters to say that it could administer the mixed economy welfare state better than the Conservatives”.

Which is precisely what Ed Miliband is on record as promising to try to do. As he told the Observer (29 August): “I’ll make capitalism work for the people”. Oh no, he won’t – because that’s not possible, not even if he followed his dad’s line and nationalised everything. State capitalism can’t be made to work for the people either.