Adolphe (Ralph) Miliband was born in Brussels on 7th January, 1924. Both his parents had lived in the Jewish quarter in Warsaw. His father, Sam Miliband, a former member of the Red Army, had left Poland after the First World War and became a leather worker in Belgium.
On 10th May 1940, Adolf Hitler launched his Western Offensive. Miliband managed to catch a boat from Ostend and arrived in England on 19th May. He settled in London and changed his name from Adolphe to Ralph. During the Blitz Miliband found work removing furniture from bombed houses.
In January 1940 Miliband became a student on a course provided by the International Commission for Refugees in Great Britain at the Acton Technical College. While studying English History (1066-1914) at college he became a Marxist. Although he initially received poor marks his improvement was spectacular and in October 1941 won a place to study at the London School of Economics (LSE).
Miliband was active in a variety of left-wing groups and in January 1943 was elected Vice President of the LSE Students' Union. At the LSE he was taught by Harold Laski. He later recalled: "We did not feel overwhelmed by his knowledge and learning, and we did not feel so because he did not know the meaning of condescension. We never felt compelled to agree with him, because it was so obvious that he loved a good fight and did not hide behind his years and experience." Miliband was deeply influenced by Laski but the two men often clashed about politics. Laski told his father in December, 1942: "Laski... started to talk to me about the need to judge things for myself and not only through the eyes of Karl Marx."
In June 1943 Miliband joined the Royal Navy. He served on HMS Royal Arthur and HMD Valorous and saw action in the Mediterranean. He still remained interest in politics and in 1944 wrote an article about the class nature of the relationship between officers and men on board ship.
Miliband was demobilized from the Navy in January, 1946. He returned to the LSE and he obtained a First Class degree in July 1947. Three months later he was awarded a Leverhulme research studentship to work full-time on his Ph.D. proposal, The Radical Movement in the French Revolution.
Harold Laski arranged for Miliband to do some teaching at the Roosevelt College in Chicago where he witnessed the early stages of McCarthyism in action. In June 1949 he obtained the post as Assistant Lectureship in Political Science at LSE. This included teaching Problems of Comparative Government, the History of French Political Thought and the History of English Socialist Thought.
During this period Miliband was highly critical of Joseph Stalin and the foreign policy of the Soviet Union. He was particularly hostile to Stalin's policy towards Josip Tito and his socialist government in Yugoslavia. His main political friends were left-wing members of the Labour Party. This included Michael Foot, Jo Richardson, Ian Mikardo, Russell Kerr and Konni Zilliacus.
Miliband joined with other left-wing historians such as E. P. Thompson, Raphael Samuel, Raymond Williams, Stuart Hall and John Saville to launch two radical journals, The New Reasoner and the New Left Review. Later he was to play a prominent role in the publication of the Socialist Register.
In 1961 Miliband published Parliamentary Socialism: A Study of the Politics of Labour. In the introduction he wrote: "Of political parties claiming socialism to be their aim, the Labour Party has always been one of the most dogmatic - not about socialism, but about the parliamentary system. Empirical and flexible about all else, its leaders have always made devotion to that system their fixed point of reference and the conditioning factor of their political behaviour."
Miliband played an active role in the campaign against the Vietnam War. In an article in the Socialist Register (1967) he attacked Harold Wilson and his defence of the United States action in Vietnam and described it as being the "most shameful chapter in the history of the Labour Party."
Other books by Miliband include The State in Capitalist Society (1968), Marxism and Politics (1977), Capitalist Democracy in Britain (1982), Class Power and State Power (1983), Divided Societies: Class Struggle in Contemporary Capitalism (1989) and Socialism for a Sceptical Age (1994).
Ralph Miliband died on 21st May 1994.
(1) Ralph Miliband, extract from an unpublished autobiography.
As a Jewish boy, the son of Polish Jewish parents, I could not avoid being aware of events like the coming of Hitler to power in 1933 -1 was nine at the time. German refugees began to appear in Brussels in the following years; and the anti-Semitism, which was what was focused on in my family circle about Fascism, was in any case merged with earlier, Polish, Russian anti-Semitism, which made this appear as the major phenomenon in history, with the Jews as its centre. 'Jewish blood' had been spilt throughout centuries, in many parts of the world; and the world outside the Jews was therefore more or less hostile, suspect at least, not to be trusted, or even penetrated.
(2) Ralph Miliband, diary entry (1940)
The Englishman is a rabid nationalist. They are perhaps the most nationalist people in the world... When you hear the English talk of this war you sometimes almost want them to lose it to show them how things are. They have the greatest contempt for the continent in general and for the French in particular. They didn't like the French before the defeat: (1) because they don't have order, (2) because they talk too much, (3) because they change their ministers every month, etc. Since the defeat, they have the greatest contempt for the French Army... England first. This slogan is taken for granted by the English people as a whole. To lose their empire would be the worst possible humiliation.
(3) Ralph Miliband, diary entry (24th September, 1940)
In every district that you passed, there was either a closed road or destroyed houses, unexploded bombs, roofs without tiles, etc. London is really badly hit. Everywhere it's the same thing to a greater or lesser extent. In Whitechapel, in the Jewish area, and the slums, the devastation is really terrible. Rows of people are waiting... to be evacuated. New wretched refugees, like the others, with a bundle on their shoulder, mainly Jews... But life goes on; the butcher is trying to rob his customers and the customers haggle. People want beigals but there aren't any now. Everywhere... you see misfortune and devastation weighing people down. When you see them you almost feel ashamed to live in a relatively quiet area. Shame and indignation and fury... You ask yourself: how can they live like this and how could they have lived like this until now. It is the East End... the shame of their civilisation, the permanent condemnation of their system... But a twenty minute bus ride away, there is the parliament, rich, flanked by its church, near Buckingham Palace.
(4) Ralph Miliband, Harold Laski, Clare Market Review (1950)
His lectures taught more, much more than political science. They taught a faith that ideas mattered, that knowledge was important and its pursuit exciting. I like to remember him in the early days of the war, when the School was in Cambridge. He would arrive every week from London and come straight to School from the station. The winter was bitter and train carriages unheated. He would appear in his blue overcoat and grotesquely shaped black hat, his cheeks blue with cold, teeth chattering, and queue up with the rest of us for a cup of foul but hot coffee, go up to the seminar room, crack a joke at the gathering of students who were waiting for him, sit down, light a cigarette and plunge into controversy and argument; and a dreary stuffy room would come to life and there would only be a group of people bent on the elucidation of ideas: We did not feel overwhelmed by his knowledge and learning, and we did not feel so because he did not know the meaning of condescension. We never felt compelled to agree with him, because it was so obvious that he loved a good fight and did not hide behind his years and experience. He was not impatient or bored or superciliously amused... His seminars taught tolerance, the willingness to listen although one disagreed, the values of ideas being confronted. And it was all immense fun, an exciting game that had meaning, and it was also a sieve of ideas, a gymnastics of the mind carried on with vigour and directed unobtrusively with superb craftsmanship.
I think I know now why he gave himself so freely. Partly it was because he was human and warm and that he was so interested in people. But mainly it was because he loved students, and he loved students because they were young. Because he had a glowing faith that youth was generous and alive, eager and enthusiastic and fresh. That by helping young people he was helping the future and bringing nearer that brave world in which he so passionately believed.
(5) Ralph Miliband, The Political Ideas of Harold Laski, Stanford Law Review (December, 1955)
He did not underestimate how heavily the legacy of the past must affect any attempt to reach understanding with the Soviet Union. Nor did he fail to see how much Russian policies increased the difficulties of such an understanding. But he also believed that, when all possible emphasis had been laid on Russia's share of responsibility for the tragic climate of the post-war era, it remained true that one of the essential causes of the postwar tensions was the determination of the West to pursue its ancient and futile crusade against the idea which Russia had come to embody. And it was one of his most bitter disappointments that a Labour Government should have been willing to pursue foreign policies which only had meaning in terms of an acceptance of the values implicit in such a crusade. The first duty of a Labour Government, he insisted, was to come to terms, despite all difficulties, with the Communist world. Nothing that has happened since he died suggests that duty to be less imperative or less urgent.
(6) Ralph Miliband, Parliamentary Socialism: A Study of the Politics of Labour (1961)
Of political parties claiming socialism to be their aim, the Labour Party has always been one of the most dogmatic - not about socialism, but about the parliamentary system. Empirical and flexible about all else, its leaders have always made devotion to that system their fixed point of reference and the conditioning factor of their political behaviour.
(7) Ralph Miliband, letter to John Saville (29th May, 1965)
Vietnam illustrates better than any other event in this century the fundamental elements of the world as we know it: i.e. American determination to crush social revolution; the existence and endurance of such movements; i.e. the real nature of present day imperialism; the decrepitude of social-democracy, its bankruptcy and moral collapse; ditto for liberalism; the paralysing nature of the Sino-Soviet conflicts;... the bankruptcy of liberalism, particularly liberal intellectuals; the paralysis of (Communist Parties) as agencies of protest and action; the nature of the still inchoate forces which are struggling to protest, students, ex-liberals like Russell, etc.; and one could go on like this. This is what the world is about, and which Vietnam pinpoints in the sharpest, most dramatic and bloody way.
(8) Ralph Miliband, letter to Marcel Liebmann (1st September, 1968)
The invasion of Czechoslovakia show very well that this oppressive and authoritarian Russian socialism has nothing in common with the socialism that we demand,and we must state this very loudly, even at the risk of seeming to be anti-soviet and to echo bourgeois propaganda... And then, there is also this question of 'bourgeois liberties'... which, I am persuaded, we must put at the top of our programme. Or rather, denounce them as insufficient and to be extended by socialism. Nothing will work if it is possible and plausible to suggest that we want to abolish them. And that is one of the reasons why the democratization of 'revolutionary' parties is essential... The internal life of a revolutionary party must prefigure the society which it wants to establish - by its mode of existence, and its way of being and acting. While this is not the case, I don't see any reason to want to see the current parties take power: they are quite simply not morally ready to assume the construction of a socialist society.
(9) Ralph Miliband, The State in Capitalist Society (1968)
More than ever before men now live in the shadow of the state. What they want to achieve, individually or in groups, now mainly depends on the state's sanction and support. But since that sanction and support are not bestowed indiscriminately they must, ever more directly, seek to influence and shape the state's power and purpose, or try and appropriate it altogether. It is for the state's attention, or for its control, that men compete; and it is against the state that beat the waves of social conflict It is to an ever greater degree the state which men encounter as they confront other men. This is why, as social beings, they are also political beings, whether they know it or not. It is possible not to be interested in what the state does, but it is not possible to be unaffected by it The point has acquired a new and ultimate dimension in the present epoch if large parts of the planet should one day be laid waste in a nuclear war, it is because men, acting in the name of their state and invested with its power, will have so decided, or miscalculated.
(10) Ralph Miliband, Socialism for a Sceptical Age (1994)
The struggle to make the world safe for capitalism will long continue, and will assume economic, political, cultural and, where necessary, military forms. So too will the struggle against governments which, whatever their ideological dispositions, might seek to disturb a status quo which the United States and other capitalist powers are concerned to maintain. The Gulf War with Iraq is the latest instance of this struggle. The murderous dictatorship over which Saddam Hussein presided was perfectly acceptable to Western governments, so long as it served their purposes, as was the case in Iraq's war with Iran. The invasion of Kuwait was a different matter; and any means other than war to bring the invasion to an end were quickly brushed aside by the United States. The point had to be made that leaders of countries in the 'third world' which gravely offended against what the United States and its allies considered to be their legitimate interests in a particularly important part of the world would expose themselves to fearsome retribution. The Gulf War is very unlikely to be the last such episode.
(11) Ralph Miliband, Socialism for a Sceptical Age (1994)
In all countries, there are people, in numbers large or small, who are moved by the vision of a new social order in which democracy, egalitarianism and cooperation - the essential values of socialism - would be the prevailing principles of social organisation. It is in the growth of their numbers and in the success of their struggles that lies the best hope for humankind.
(12) Ellen Meiksins Wood, Ralph Miliband, Radical Philosophy (1994)
Miliband clearly believed, and even more so in recent years, that socialism is an objective that cannot be achieved in a single life-time. It should perhaps be seen, he wrote in his last book, Socialism for a Sceptical Age (the proofs of which he lived to see but not to correct), as a striving toward a goal rather than the goal itself. But against the background of recent history and mass defections from the socialist project, what is remarkable about this testament is not its hint of pessimism but its steady conviction that the goal is worth striving for and is finally attainable.
The steadiness of Miliband's commitment owed much to the unflinching clarity of his intellectual vision and the independence of his political judgment, which saved him from both mindless enthusiasm and abject despair, from both blind attachment to a party and a loss of faith in socialism with declining party fortunes, from both the certainties and the inevitable disappointments of socialist determinism. Welcoming every sign of advance toward democracy in the Communist world, he nevertheless showed a prescient scepticism about the direction of reform. Unambiguously committed to a truly democratic socialism, he freely conceded the inadequacies of traditional socialism in confronting the questions of gender, race and nation and accepted the lessons of the 'new social movements'; but he never lost sight of capitalism as an over-arching totality or of class as its constitutive principle.