Ralph Miliband, 1924-1994

Against the Current, No. 52, September/October 1994

Tariq Ali

RALPH MILIBAND WAS a socialist intellectual of great integrity. He belonged to a generation of socialists formed by the Russian Revolution and the Second World War.

His father, a leather craftsman in Warsaw, was a member of the Jewish Bund, an organization of socialist workers. Poland, after the First World War, was beset by chaos, disorder and, ultimately, a military dictatorship. There were large-scale migrations. One of Ralph’s uncles had gone eastward and joined the Red Army, then under Trotsky’s command. His parents had left Warsaw separately in 1922. They met in Brussels where they had both settled and were married a year later. Ralph was born in 1924.

Hitler’s victory in Germany, followed a few years later by the Spanish Civil War, had polarized politics throughout the continent. It was not possible for an intellectually alert fifteen-year-old to remain unaffected. Ralph joined the lively, Jewish-socialist youth organization, Hashomer Hatzair (Young Guard), whose members later played a heroic role in the Resistance. It was here that the young Miliband learnt of capitalism as a system based on exploitation where the rich lived off the harm they inflicted on others. One of his close friends, Maurice Tran, who was later hanged at Auschwitz, gave him a copy of the Communist Manifesto. Even though he was not yet fully aware of it, he had become enmeshed in the business of socialist politics.

In 1940, as the German armies were beginning to roll into Belgium, the Milibands, like thousands of others, prepared to flee to France. this proved impossible because of German bombardment. Ralph and his father walked to Ostrend and boarded the last boat to Dover, which was packed with fleeing diplomats and officials. His mother and younger sister, Nan, had remained behind and survived the war with the help of the Resistance.

Ralph and his father arrived in London in May 1940. Both worked, for a time, as furniture removers, helping to clear bombed buildings. It was Ralph who determined the division of labor, ensuring that his main task was to carry the books. Often he would settle on the front steps of a house, immersed in a book.

His passion for the written word led him to the works of Harold J. Laski. He had read in one of these that Laski was at the London School of Economics. Laski became a men<->tor, never to be forgotten. In a recent review essay for the 200th issue of the New Left Review, Ralph Miliband acknowledged his debt:

“I came to know Harold Laski as a student at the London School of Economics (then evacuated in Cambridge) between 1941 and 1943, and I was fairly close to him after I came back to the LSE in 1946. I was quite dazzled, as a seventeen-year-old student, by his scholarship, his wit, his extraordinary generosity to students, and his familiarity with the great and the mighty. I had a deep affection for him, which the passage of the years since his death in 1950 at the age of fifty-six has not dimmed.

The three missing years to which he refers were spent in service as a naval rating in the Belgian section of the Royal Navy. Aware of the fact that many of his Belgian comrades were engaged in the war against fascism and traumatized by the absence of his mother and sister, he had volunteered, using Laski’s influence to override the bureaucracy.

He served on a number of destroyers and warships, helping to intercept German radio messages. He rose to the rank of Chief Petty Officer and was greatly amused on one occasion when his new commanding officer informed him how he had been rated by a viscount who had commanded the ship on which he had previously served: “Miliband is stupid, but always remains cheerful!”

Teacher and Writer

After the war he graduated from the London School of Economics with a Ph.D. and embarked on a long teaching career. He taught first at Roosevelt College in Chicago and later became a lecturer in Political Science at the London School of Economics and later still a Professor at Leeds. This was followed by long stints at Brandeis and New York University. Teaching for him was always a two-way process and for that reason it gave him great pleasure. It was an arena for lively debates and a genuine exchange of ideas.

In the late `60s and `70s, Miliband was in great demand at campuses throughout Britain and North America. He winced at some of the excesses (“Why the hell do you have to wear these stupid combat jackets?” I remember him asking a group of us during a big meeting on Vietnam in 1968), but he remained steadfast.

A Miliband speech was always a treat, alternately sarcastic and scholarly, witty and vicious, but never demagogic. Apart from a brief spell in the Labor Party, he belonged to no organization. His fierce independence excluded the Communist Party; dislike of posturing and sterile dogma kept him from the far left sects.

This turned out to be a strength. He was unencumbered by any party line, which made his speeches refreshing. There was music in his delivery and he always varied the peroration at the end and this coupled with his passionate commitment to socialism.

As a writer he deployed a wide political culture and clarity of argument. Two of his books, Parliamentary Socialism (1969) and The State in Capitalist Society (1972) became classics during the `70s.

As he lay dying in the hospital, what gave him great pleasure was physically to feel the proofs of his last work, Socialism for a Skeptical Age, to be published by Polity Press this autumn. His wife Marion and his two sons, David and Edward, had read the first draft of his book. He had not accepted all of their criticism and suggestions, but the process had stimulated him. It had also made him very happy. He was proud of his family.

Marion and her sister had narrowly escaped the Judeocide in Nazi-occupied Poland. A paternal aunt had organized the escape route and Marion’s mother had bribed the Poles who helped them escape. Marion, too, had ended up as a postgraduate student at the London School of Economics, where she first met Ralph in the early `60s. Their home became a warm and friendly environment, where they entertained a great deal. Passions often ran high when world politics were being discussed, but the polemic was always punctuated by laughter.

Ralph and Marion depended on each other a great deal both emotionally and intellectually. He always grumbled when he left London for a teaching semester in New York. He loved the daily contact with his graduate seminar, but he missed Marion.

Ralph Miliband had pledged his own intellect to the struggle for human emancipation. He was impatient of those who had begun to drift. The introverted argot of postmodernism depressed him. He had lost close friends and others whom he admired greatly. Raymond Williams, Edward Thompson, Isaac Deutscher, Marcel Liebman, C. Wright Mills, had all, like Ralph Miliband, been public intellectuals, dissidents in the capitalist West, who had enriched our political culture. His death has now left a gaping void in times which are bad for socialists everywhere.

ATC 52, September-October 1994