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Cooking the Books: Ed, Ralph and Karl

One result of the nasty attack by the Daily Mail (1 October) on Ed Miliband’s father, Ralph, has been a revival of discussion about Marx and Marxism. They described him a ‘lifelong, unreconstructed Marxist who craved a workers’ revolution’ Absurdly, they also claimed that

‘his son’s own Marxist values can be seen all too clearly in his plans for state seizures of private land held by builders and for fixing energy prices by government diktat.’

But there is nothing Marxist or socialist about taxing land values or price controls. The first was a 19th century radical Liberal demand aimed at weakening the landed aristocracy which then still stood in the way of complete capitalist class control of the state, and all sorts of governments have resorted to price controls.

But to what extent could Ralph Miliband be described as a ‘Marxist’? He certainly considered himself to be one and was well versed in Marx’s writings. He was the author of two books which influenced leftwing thinking in Britain, Parliamentary Socialism (1961) and The State in Capitalist Society (1969). In the first he dealt with what he regarded as the Labour Party’s obsession with trying to move beyond capitalism step by step by constitutional, parliamentary means and explained how and why this failed. The second described how the top positions in the state in Britain were occupied by people from the same social background – families rich enough to send their children to the top ‘public’ schools – who controlled it via an Old Boy network whichever party had a majority in parliament.

Both books were used by the Trotskyist groups which mushroomed in the 1970s to argue that there was ‘no parliamentary road’ and that violent revolution was therefore the only way. Actually, this was not Ralph Miliband’s own position as he held the more reasonable view that the road to socialism could and should involve both parliamentary and extra-parliamentary action.

But what did he mean by socialism? The Daily Mail wrote:

‘Ralph’s Marxism was uncompromising. ‘We want this party to state that it stands unequivocally behind the social ownership and control of the means of production, distribution and exchange.’ He declared to the 1955 Labour Party conference as the delegate from Hampstead.’

Here he was defending the Labour Party’s ultimate aim (on paper) as set out in its then Clause Four. But there was nothing Marxist about Clause Four. It had been drafted by the Fabian Sidney Webb and committed the Labour Party to achieving, by gradual and constitutional means, the sort of state capitalism that the Fabians favoured.

We have always pointed out that the common ownership of ‘the means of exchange’ does not make sense. If there is common ownership of the means of production and distribution then there is no ‘exchange’ and so no ‘means of exchange’ (banks, etc.). The concept of ‘common ownership’ of banks only makes sense if common ownership is equated with state ownership. Which is what Ralph Miliband did.

This was confirmed by his attitude to Russia. He didn’t regard it as socialist, but he did regard it as non-capitalist on the grounds that it was based on state ownership rather than private ownership. For him, all that was required for it to become socialist was for its political structure to be made democratic. So, his ‘socialism’ was full-scale state capitalism plus political democracy, a combination that has proved to be illusory.

But state ownership is just another form of class ownership. That was Marx’s view too. Which makes Ralph Miliband an odd sort of Marxist, but at least he understood more about Marx than his son.