Milliband and the Mail: Marxists are not patriots

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It does not require a very radical starting point to expose the Daily Mail’s attack on Ed Miliband through the medium of a thoroughly nasty and very poorly argued hack-job on Ed’s father Ralph. The Daily Mail piece was so unpleasant that top Tories rushed to condemn it, and it emerged rather rapidly that the Mail had ‘shot itself in the foot’ with this one. If the paper had hoped to whip up a new panic about ‘Red Ed’ following Miliband Junior’s announcement, at the Labour conference, of a plan to freeze energy prices, it mainly succeeded in directing the fire on itself while simultaneously embarrassing the Conservative Party.

The headline of the Mail article was ‘The man who hated Britain’ and the question of patriotism, of ‘love for one’s country’, was the central issue being debated by left and right. In an intelligent article published in The Guardian at the height of the furore[1], Priyamyada Gopal duly notes the squalid nature of the Mail article, with its subtly anti-semitic and anti-immigrant undertones, but she also asks some questions about the standard line of defence against the Mail’s attack.

The defence of Ralph Miliband runs along wearyingly familiar lines – that he unambiguously proved his patriotism by fighting in the anti-Nazi war, which along with ‘no apology for the empire’ has become the principal litmus test for love of Britain. His lifelong commitment to a supple Marxism is noted but quietly skimmed over as an embarrassingly anachronistic aspect of an otherwise decent and loyal man. Yet a defence of Miliband senior which does not also challenge the red-bashing that often goes hand in hand with antisemitism is, at best, equivocal. More perniciously, it accepts the distorted terms set by the rightwing press which defines patriotism narrowly through obedient adulation of monarchy, militarism and elitism”.

You might think that the author is going to challenge some very big shibboleth’s here: patriotism itself, the Second World War.... But then you would have to have missed the article’s headline (‘The Daily mail may not realise, but Marxists are patriots’) and the argument developed in the ensuing paragraph, which is a left-wing apology for ‘real’ patriotism:

Ralph Miliband was not a patriot because he served in the navy. He was a lover of this country and its people precisely because he understood that institutions like the monarchy and the House of Lords symbolise and perpetuate inequality, and that militarism usually encourages the poor to die defending the interests of the privileged. His patriotism has more in common with long progressive patriotic traditions in Britain, from the Diggers and Levellers to the Chartists and anti-privatisation campaigners. It was about claiming land and country for the majority of its labouring denizens rather than the plutocrats and the powerful who live off the fat of the land while spouting an insincere ‘nationalism’ which serves less to create collective wellbeing than to prevent their privileges being questioned”.

It’s true that the young workers’ movement was often tinged with patriotic ideas. This was entirely understandable in an epoch (from the 17th to the 19th centuries) in which the formation of nation states contained a progressive element, because capitalism itself was an advance over feudalism and other outmoded social systems. But what was essential to formations like the Diggers and the Chartists was their vigorous defence of the exploited against the exploiters, which cannot but challenge all divisions among them and thus tend towards affirming the international unity of the class struggle. This was already explicit with the Communist Manifesto of 1848, which proclaimed that “the workers have no country” and looked forward to a global association of the producers.

At that time, the Manifesto still foresaw the possibility of temporary alliances with the more forward looking elements of the bourgeoisie. But this kind of alliance lost all meaning as the entire capitalist system entered an epoch of permanent, world-wide inter-imperialist conflict, announced most definitively by the outbreak of the First World War. At this point, marxists pronounced the death sentence on the nation state:

“The nation state has outgrown itself – as a framework for the development of the productive forces, as a basis for class struggle, and especially as the state form of the dictatorship of the proletariat.” (Leon Trotsky, Nashe Slovo, 4 February, 1916)

In the last hundred years, humanity has been faced with a situation where it can only survive and move forward by breaking the chains of the nation state and rejecting all appeals to fight in its defence. This is why the question of internationalism has been such a fundamental dividing line in the history of the workers’ movement in this century. Support for the First World War was the end of the line for the majority of the social democratic parties. Support for its re-run in 1939-45 marked the death of many of the political currents whose origins lay in a reaction against social democracy’s betrayal in 1914: the Communist Parties, now entirely rotted by Stalinism, and even the majority of the Trotskyist organisations which had advertised their internationalism against Stalinism’s nationalist abortions, ‘socialism in one country’ and the Popular Fronts.

Marxists are therefore not, in any shape or form, patriots.  To love one’s country, for the Daily Mail means loving the Queen, the church, the armed forces – evidently the ‘country’ of a small elite. But the left version of this patriotism is no less faithful to key institutions of the capitalist state: the nationalised industries, as well as the unions and the rest of the so-called labour movement, which have long been integrated into the present social system.

Ralph Miliband was by all accounts a very good university teacher and he certainly had a thorough grounding in the writings of Marx. But his ‘supple’ marxism never challenged the notion that the working class had something to defend in the existing state. Politically he acted as a critical supporter of the Labour left and even his more theoretical contributions on marxism and the state end up enlisting Marx into the defence of the democratic republic. In an article on Lenin’s State and Revolution, for example, he argues that Marx’s writings could be interpreted in different ways – some statements pointing to the need to smash the old state, others towards its radical democratisation[2]. This is true – even after the Paris Commune, Marx did not entirely abandon the idea that the revolution could take place in the framework of the democratic republic. But Miliband, rather than grasping the historical significance of Lenin’s ‘update’ on this position in the period of unbridled imperialism, takes Marx’s imprecisions out of their historical context and uses them to speak in favour of a policy of democratising the existing state rather than destroying it. 

In this sense Gopal is correct (but not for the reasons she thinks) to link Miliband’s patriotism with his essentially democratic programme for capitalism:

“It is time to junk the cheap and facile propaganda that socialism is reducible to Stalinist depredations. In Ralph Miliband’s own anti-Stalinist understanding, socialism was about ‘the wholesale transformation of the social order’ by giving ordinary people control over the economic system, fully democratising a political system in which ordinary citizens feel disenfranchised and helpless, and ensuring ‘a drastic levelling out of social inequality’. It is the abandonment of these democratic aspirations for the craven pieties of the Daily Mail that must really ‘disturb everyone who loves this country’”.

In World War One, the idea of defending the democratic gains of the workers’ movement inside capitalism was used to justify the war against German militarism (or Russian Czarism); the same ideology was used on a much vaster scale to mobilise the working class for the Second World War. In the day to day struggles of the working class, slogans based on the same basic concept – defence of the nationalised industries like the NHS, defence of ‘trade union rights’ and all the rest – are used to line workers up behind one part of the bourgeoisie against another.

Gopal argues that “Ralph Miliband would also have found his son’s claim that capitalism can be ‘made to work for working people’ incoherent, and wilfully ignorant of how capitalism actually works”. But in reality, Miliband Senior himself never broke from the idea that the capitalist state and capitalist social relations – suitably nationalised and democratised – can be made to work for working people.

 Amos 31/10/13



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Nationalism vs Marxism