On the Spectator "Coffee House" blog, Matthew d'Ancona notes the "beauty contest" of Labour ministers and ex-ministers jostling for an undeclared and - unfortunately for the party - as yet non-existent contest for the leadership. This is a government in decay and not only disarray. I was particularly interested, though, in d'Acona's referring to a lecture by David Miliband in honour of his father, the late Marxist theorist Ralph Miliband. It takes place tomorrow under the auspices of the LSE.
Ralph Miliband's best known works are The State in Capitalist Society and Parliamentary Socialism. I wrote a post about him, which I later adapted for The Jewish Chronicle, last summer, when David Miliband was appointed Foreign Secretary. Because Ralph Miliband's memory merits greater critical scrutiny than it is likely to receive from political correspondents reporting his son's lecture, I'm extracting a relevant portion of that post. It follows.
The late Marxist theorist Ralph Miliband, is a man for whom I have a certain intellectual respect leavened with real contempt. See, most particularly, his essay for the annual Socialist Register in 1980 entitled “Military Intervention and Socialist Internationalism” - anticipating an issue that has much exercised the Left more recently.
Miliband argues: “In socialist terms, the overthrow of a regime from outside, by military intervention, and without any measure of popular involvement, must always be an exceedingly doubtful enterprise, of the very last resort.”
You might think, with the failures of our intervention in Iraq in mind, that he’s stating a mere truism. But if you read the essay, you’ll see that he’s not. The examples he has in mind, and discusses at length, are the then recent military interventions by Tanzania to overthrow Idi Amin in Uganda and by Vietnam to overthrow the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia. Miliband considers them alongside the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, which he objects to on the grounds that it “has obviously provided a very powerful reinforcement to the worst reactionaries in the Western camp”. You have to believe me – and you can check if you don’t – that he treats the overthrow of Pol Pot as analogously objectionable:
"No doubt, a pliant regime now exists in Phnom Penh. But it lacks legitimacy and requires the support of a Vietnamese army of occupation. The enterprise has reinforced secular suspicions of Vietnamese designs upon Kampuchea. Like the Russians in Afghanistan, the Vietnamese have been drawn into a permanent struggle with Kampuchean guerillas, with the usual accompaniment of repression and the killing of innocent civilians. The invasion has also weakened Vietnam's international position, and strengthened reactionary forces in the region and beyond. Here too, it does not seem unreasonable to ask 'What kind of security is this?'"
A few years ago a highly sympathetic biography entitled Ralph Miliband and the Politics of the New Left, 2002, rose and fell without trace (despite Tony Benn's prediction in the foreword that it would "help a whole new generation of socialists to appreciate the unique role that Ralph played in the progressive politics of the period"). Even the author, Professor Michael Newman of London Metropolitan University, conceded (p. 294) that Miliband's essay "was flawed because it understated the atrocities of the Pol Pot regime and the justification for intervention following its crimes against humanity." And to be fair to him, Newman - daintily but not evasively - identifies the intellectual origins of that "flawed" position (p. 318, n. 124):
"... Miliband's judgement in aligning his position so closely to that of [Noam] Chomsky appears questionable. Without any real expertise on the area, he had understated the enormity of the crimes and endorsed a particular interpretation which appeared to minimise the responsibility of the Pol Pot regime itself. It is not entirely clear why he took this position, but three factors were probably particularly important. The first was the depth of his condemnation of American policy in Indochina: having opposed the war against Vietnam so bitterly, he may have had a predisposition to hold the US responsible for all the crimes in the region. Secondly, there was the perennial problem that the Right was exploiting the crimes of the Khymer [sic] Rouge regime as part of its general anti-communist propaganda and he was probably reacting against this. And, thirdly, he was trying to develop a general theoretical argument against socialist regimes intervening in the way that the Vietnamese had done and his case would have become more difficult to sustain had he accepted that the [sic] Pol Pot had carried out crimes against humanity on a massive scale."
Amazingly enough, Newman goes on to say that "Miliband's general points [in his essay] were important and have considerable relevance for the post-Cold War interventions by Nato". In my view, a general argument whose practical application involves denying the atrocities of the worst regime since the Third Reich can reasonably be dismissed out of hand.
Bear in mind that it is the Foreign Secretary, and not I, who is raising the subject of Ralph Miliband's political legacy. I'm not attacking someone's late father for gratuitous reasons. Ralph Miliband should be considered in the round, in all his spectacular imperfection.