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You are here: Platypus /The fatal embrace of the Left and the Labour Party: Ralph Miliband’s changing positions on Labour

The fatal embrace of the Left and the Labour Party: Ralph Miliband’s changing positions on Labour

Michael Fitzpatrick

Platypus Review 97 | June 2017

1960: "The last general election has had at least one beneficial result: it has shocked many more people into a recognition of the fact that the Labour Party is a sick party…. It is within its power to retrace its steps and dedicate itself anew to the socialist policies which are its only alternative."[1]

1976: "The belief in the effective transformation of the Labour Party into an instrument of socialist policies is the most crippling of all illusions to which socialists in Britain have been prone."[2]

1994: "The best that the left can hope for in the relevant future is the strengthening of left reformism as a current of thought and policy in social democratic parties."[3]

For more than 30 years the radical academic Ralph Miliband wrestled with the question of how the Left should confront the problem of the Labour Party. In the 1960s, he insisted that the Left should work within the party to win it over to the cause of socialism. In the 1970s, he accepted that it was futile to attempt to transform Labour and argued that the Left should organize an independent socialist party. In the 1980s, he collaborated with left-wing initiatives inside and outside the Labour Party. In his final, posthumously-published, response to the emergence of New Labour in the 1990s he signaled the Left’s abandonment of any hope of an existence independent of Labour.

Miliband’s writings on the Labour Party reflect the wider predicament of the British left in which he was a life-long active participant. The incapacity of the Left to assert its political independence of Labour condemned it to irrelevance as the Labour Party itself entered a phase of apparently terminal decline after the demise of New Labour.

“Critical support”: the Left in the 1970s

Though Miliband in 1960 diagnosed a "deep organic disorder" afflicting the Labour Party, he was confident that the Left could challenge its "hesitant, fumbling, petulant—and boring" parliamentary leadership.[4] He recommended the strategy of pressing the party to "retrace its steps" and "dedicate itself anew" to the cause of "common ownership" as the "central and distinctive purpose" codified in Clause IV of its 1919 constitution.[5] The optimistic spirit of the New Left, which had recently emerged from the paralyzing grip of the Communist Party over the Left and the labor movement, survived the disappointments of Harold Wilson’s Labour governments of the late 1960s. The Left was boosted by the upsurge in trade union militancy and student radicalism that reached a peak in the wave of strikes and demonstrations that culminated in the collapse of Edward Heath’s Conservative government in 1974.

By the late 1970s, the tide had turned in favor of the established order. The onset of recession and the return of a Labour government led to the negotiation of the "Social Contract" with the trade union leaders. This agreement drew the unions into sharing responsibility for resolving the economic crisis. The unions’ endorsement of restraints on wages and public spending rapidly dampened industrial militancy. The labor movement’s acceptance of the Social Contract disoriented the Left, which fragmented as a result.

Miliband recognized that "the present condition of socialists" was "one of severe theoretical and political crisis".[6] He acknowledged that "twenty years after 1956 [the crisis of the Communist Party], the main problem for the socialist left in Britain is still that of its own organization into an effective political formation".[7] A “political renewal” now demanded abandoning the "illusion" that Labour could be won to socialism in favor of a "challenge to the domination of the Labour Party".[8] He insisted that this required "the formation of a socialist party free from the manifold shortcomings of existing organisations".[9] Miliband concluded with a characteristically muted call to the rank and file: "socialists who believe that the time has come to move on should begin to explore seriously what can be done about it".[10]

As the 1979 general election and Margaret Thatcher’s historic victory approached, the various groupings of the Left put the goal of returning a Labour government before that of building an organization independent of Labour. Left-wingers were highly critical of Harold Wilson and James Callaghan, particularly over their imposition of wage restraints and public spending cuts, measures that precipitated the strikes of the 1978-79 "Winter of Discontent". Yet as the election drew near, the Left followed its customary procedure of suspending hostilities for the duration of the election in favor of offering "critical support" to the Labour Party.

In September 1978, I was the co-author of a pamphlet entitled Who Needs The Labour Party?, which advocated an abstentionist position in the forthcoming general election.[11] This pamphlet was published by the recently formed Revolutionary Communist Tendency, which became the Revolutionary Communist Party in 1981. It advanced a critique of the state socialist traditions of the Labour Party and of its historic commitment to the interests of the labor bureaucracy rather than the cause of the working class. It dismissed the Left’s support for Labour as "the lesser evil" to the Tories as an adaptation to the prevailing outlook of the labor movement. It pointed out that encouraging militants "to support Labour critically is to ask them to do what they are already doing".[12]

Who Needs the Labour Party? a pamphlet published in 1978 by the Revolutionary Communist Tendency (later the Revolutionary Communist Party), which had recently split from Tony Cliff's Socialist Workers Party.

The aim of the abstentionist strategy was "to counterpose an independent political and organisational alternative to Labour".[13] This approach provoked a uniformly hostile response from all sections of the Left, whose members campaigned actively for Labour and fiercely resented calls for an independent alternative. Who Needs the Labour Party? concluded with a declaration that, as well as refusing to support Labour, the RCT intended to make "the questions of Ireland and racism living issues during the election campaign".[14] (As well as supporting Labour, the Left continued to turn a blind eye to the war in Ireland and, apart from a narrow focus on the fascist National Front, largely ignored racist attacks and immigration controls).

In and out of Labour in the 1980s

The 1980s was a grim period for the Left. Weakened by deindustrialisation and mass unemployment, the trade unions endured one setback after another, culminating in the miners’ strike of 1984-85. Labour experienced successive general election defeats in 1983 (under Michael Foot) and 1987 (under Neil Kinnock), allowing Margaret Thatcher a protracted ascendancy. While the miners’ strike exposed the limitations of Arthur Scargill’s strategy of trade union militancy linked to a perspective of economic nationalism, the Left’s feeble state socialist policies appeared to offer no alternative to the firm smack of Thatcherism.

Reflecting on the 1983 general election defeat, Miliband recalled forlornly that he had been advocating the "formation of a new independent socialist party" for more than ten years.[15] He expressed his equivocal commitment to this strategy in the convoluted formulation "I am far from convinced that I was mistaken". Yet he suggested that he was losing confidence in proceeding with this objective, given that there was "a long way to go" and "many large obstacles" in the way.[16]

Miliband personally pursued a twin-track approach in the 1980s. On the one hand he became a regular member of the Independent Left Corresponding Society, a discussion group meeting on Sunday evenings at the home of Tony Benn, providing intellectual backing for the leading figure of the parliamentary left. On the other, he was a cofounder of the Socialist Society, which organized periodic conferences including prominent left wingers and groups outside the Labour Party.[17]

In an assessment at the outset of Thatcher’s third term entitled "The decline and fall of British Labourism", I argued that the 1987 general election defeat marked "the end of an era for the British Labour Party".[18] In response to the question "can Labour survive?", this article outlined two possible scenarios.[19] One, identified with the current party leader Neil Kinnock, was that Labour could break its links with the trade unions and become a middle class center party. The other, identified with the remnants of the Left, including Scargill, Benn and Livingstone, was that Labour could "return to old-fashioned socialist aims and values" and attempt to consolidate its relationship with its residual working class base. Over the succeeding years, Labour tested both these strategies to destruction—the former under Tony Blair, the latter under Jeremy Corbyn.

Not the end of history, but the end of Labour

In the late 1980s, Stalinist regimes in Eastern Europe collapsed one after another and, in 1991, Stalinist rule came to an end in the Soviet Union itself. These events, symbolized by the fall of the Berlin Wall in December 1989, marked the end of the Cold War. They also ended the wider polarizations between communism and capitalism, left and right, which had dominated the world of politics for 150 years. Whether they moved right or left, split or crumbled, (even, whether, as in the case of New Labour, they won elections) social democratic parties throughout the Western world entered a period of decline, dragging the Left down with them.

One of the first initiatives of Tony Blair when he became party leader in 1994 was to take steps towards the abandonment of Clause IV. This was a decisive gesture to enhance Labour’s appeal to the middle classes by distancing itself from its historic commitment to public ownership. As we have seen, this was the key principle of state socialism, to which Miliband had been urging the party to rededicate itself over the preceding 30 years. It is ironic that it was at this moment that Miliband finally abandoned any attempt to transform or transcend Labour and signaled the Left’s acquiescence to remaining within the decaying corpse of social democracy.[20]

Skillfully steering a pragmatic "third way" between Thatcherism and Labourism (though closer to the former), New Labour won three general election victories (1997, 2002, 2005) before succumbing, under Gordon Brown, to the hubris that followed the Iraq War and the financial crash of 2007-8. Labour subsequently lost two general elections, in 2010 and 2015, the latter under the leadership of Ed Miliband, Ralph’s son and the younger brother of David, formerly a minister under Tony Blair and unsuccessful leadership contender in 2010. The prominent Labour figures of the Blair/Brown/Miliband years emerged so discredited from the 2015 campaign that all the leadership candidates tarred by this legacy were ignominiously defeated by Jeremy Corbyn, a veteran of the old left (and a former member of Benn’s Sunday evening think tank).[21] Corbyn may have succeeded in winning the leadership, but his failure to assert his authority over the parliamentary party was apparent from the outset. Labour appeared hopelessly divided and confused over the June 2016 EU referendum and faced the snap 2017 general election with the prospect of another landslide defeat.

When Miliband reviewed the state of the Left in his 1976 prospectus for a new party, he offered critical assessments of the Communist Party ("small but not negligible…a Marxist party, of a sort") and of the numerous far left "parties, groupings and sects".[22] Responding to an earlier appeal for independent organization from Miliband, another veteran campaigner Ken Coates, noted that there were "several thousand socialist activists" in "Leninist organisations" outside Labour, though he favored a campaign for the "renewal" of the party.[23] Today, most of these parties and groupings have either long ceased to exist (the Communist Party, or the Workers Revolutionary Party) or have become mere rumps (Militant, Socialist Workers Party). Under Corbyn, the Labour Party has increased its numbers through offering cut price membership, but there is little evidence of an increase in radical activity or commitment. There were no apparent successors to the numerous campaigns that once mobilized tens of thousands under the umbrella of the Left, including the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, the Anti-Apartheid Movement, third world solidarity campaigns, even the women’s and gay liberation movements. Whereas the Left once supported a flourishing culture of newspapers, magazines and journals, most have now disappeared or are available only to online devotees. The Left, in short, has ceased to exist as a significant force in British politics.

Member of Parliament Tony Benn with Ralph Miliband at the Socialist Society Conference in 1988.

The zombie left

Two responses to the April 2017 announcement by Conservative prime minister Theresa May of a snap general election in June confirm that the ghost of Ralph Miliband continues to hover over the living dead of the British left. In a feeble echo of its old line of "critical support", Socialist Worker offered loyal support for Labour, while observing meekly that its campaign "would be stronger if it was uncompromising and directed firmly towards the interests of the working class."[24] Radical academic Richard Seymour accepted that there was no prospect of Labour winning the election, but insisted that the "immediate task" was to fight for survival of the Labour Party "on which all our hopes currently depend".[25] If any of our hopes now depend on the Labour Party, then truly we are finished. |P

[1] Ralph Miliband, "The Sickness of Labourism" New Left Review 1 (January/February 1960), 8.

[2] Ralph Miliband, "Moving On" Socialist Register (1976), 128.

[3] Ralph Miliband, Socialism for a Sceptical Age (Cambridge: Polity, 1994), 148.

[4] Miliband, “Sickness,” 7.

[5] Ibid., 8.

[6] Ralph Miliband, "The Future of Socialism in England" Socialist Register (1977), 39.

[7] Miliband, “Moving On,” 128.

[8] Ibid., 140.

[9] Ibid., 140.

[10] Ibid., 140.

[11] Mike Freeman and Kate Marshall, Who Needs The Labour Party? (London: Revolutionary Communist Tendency, (1978)).

[12] Ibid., 33.

[13] Ibid., 34.

[14] Ibid., 35.

[15] Ralph Miliband, "Socialist Advance in Britain," in Class War Conservatism and Other Essays (1983) rev. ed (Verso, 2015), 303.

[16] Ibid., 303.

[17] Paul Blackedge, "Labourism and Socialism: Ralph Miliband’s Marxism" International Socialism 129 (January 2011).

[18] Mike Freeman, "The Decline and Fall of British Labourism" Confrontation 4 (Summer 1988), 17.

[19] Ibid,. 76-77.

[20] Miliband, Sceptical Age, 148.

[21] David Runciman, "Short Cuts" London Review of Books 37:16 (August 27, 2015), 25.

[22] Miliband, "Moving On," 132-139.

[23] Ken Coates, "Socialists and the Labour Party" Socialist Register 10 (1973), 158.

[24] "Theresa May Calls for Snap General Election—Our Chance to Get the Tories Out," Socialist Worker 2550 (April 18, 2017) available online at <socialistworker.co.uk/art/44451/Theresa+May+calls+for+snap+general+election+our+chance+to+get+the+Tories+out>

[25] Richard Seymour, "The Left Must Save Labour," Jacobin (April 2017) available online at <jacobinmag.com/2017/04/jeremy-corbyn-labour-party-theresa-may-snap-election/>

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