Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Ralph Miliband & love of one's country

The funny thing is that the original article at the heart of the fight between Miliband and the Daily Mail was about as inoffensive as a biographical piece about a Marxist academic ever could be in the Daily Mail. It was the headline, "The man who hated Britain", that caused the fight - a headline entirely unjustified by anything in the article. Anyway, the editorial a couple of days later made up for that, doubling down on the charge and adding in various new ones - Miliband provided the ideological underpinning for Stalinism, and was the exponent of an "evil legacy".

I suppose that the first point to make is the one made by Nick Clegg and David Cameron - it's entirely understandable that Ed Miliband's first reaction is to leap to the defence of his father, who, after all, isn't around to do so himself. It would be rather odd, and a little depressing, if he didn't.

The second point is that the Mail's editorial is more than a little fatuous. Ralph Miliband was never a member of the Communist party, and was vocal in his opposition to Stalin at a time when many other Marxist intellectuals, notably Eric Hobsbawm, retained a slavish loyalty to the Soviets. Above all, Ralph Miliband was most famous for his advocation, in language that was much less torturous than the majority of Marxist academics, of a democratic socialism, to be led by a new working class party of the left (since Labour were hopeless sell-outs). He makes an unlikely bogeyman.

The third point, however, is that Ralph Miliband's ideology is a perfectly reasonable target for newspapers to dissect (although ideally they would do so with a bit more finesse and understanding). He represented a sort of left-wing politics that was doomed to failure in Britain, which remains a fundamentally conservative (not Conservative) country, and his ideas, which were well outside the mainstream in the 1970s and 80s, would now be considered bizarre. Equally, it is clear (and obvious and understandable) that he was the key influence in his sons' upbringing. Steeped in politics from boyhood, both made their careers in the Labour Party (the old joke being that Ralph Miliband had predicted that the Labour Party would screw over the working classes, and his sons proved him right).

Did he hate Britain though? The Mail's case in support of this is basically that he was a Marxist, QED. He was opposed to the monarchy, the established church, the army: the establishment tout court. How can you love something if what you really want to do is change almost every part of it? There's something in this - Marxism is an internationalist creed, where love of country is supposed to take second place to class solidarity. But it's hardly conclusive - as Andy McSmith says "You can love British culture and liberty and the beauty of these islands, while despising the way wealth and power is distributed."

I do wonder though, quite what Ralph Miliband would have said to all this. There's a nice George Orwell definition of patriotism:

By "patriotism" I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people.

Would Ralph Miliband have felt that? That seems a touch unlikely - intellectuals have generally been reluctant to express love of country. Orwell again:

In societies such as ours, it is unusual for anyone describable as an intellectual to feel a very deep attachment to his own country. Public opinion — that is, the section of public opinion of which he as an intellectual is aware — will not allow him to do so.

My final point though, is that this doesn't - or shouldn't - matter very much. Whether or not Ralph Miliband loved Britain, he was a testament to why Britain should be loved. And if there's one good thing that comes out of all this, it's that people might even go and read some of the things he wrote (ideally, obviously, while disagreeing vehemently with all of it). Knowledge is always worth pursuing.


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