Back in the spring I started a series featuring movies that include the hymn 'Shall We Gather At The River'. You've probably forgotten it. Big mistake. I haven't. However, it has been a while since the last instalment. So I'll get things going again with these instances of the hymn, including soundtrack appearances, from John Ford's Tobacco Road. You'll find it at 14 minutes in, just after 29 minutes in, just after 1 hour 13 minutes in, and just before 1 hour 20 minutes in.
I ought to do an index for the series. I will do one.
Can one be a critic of parliamentary democracy as it presently exists in capitalist countries and still be accurately characterized as a democratic socialist? The question has arisen in recent discussion of how to describe Ralph Miliband's politics, and I will contend here that the answer to that question is yes. Ralph didn't think that the Labour Party was, or was ever likely to become, an adequate vehicle of socialist change, but the path towards socialism he envisaged didn't renounce either the political importance or the moral legitimacy of parliament as a democratic institution. I have as good a reason as anyone to remember this, because in 1989 The Socialist Register, co-edited by Ralph, carried an essay of mine in the final section of which I rejected the standard dichotomy in strategic debates on the left between pure parliamentarism and pure insurrectionism. I rejected it on grounds both of strategic realism and of what could be justified morally. And in the chapter of his final book - Socialism for a Sceptical Age - where he discussed 'Mechanisms of Democracy', Ralph began by quoting a passage from this essay in outlining his own considered views on the political processes of socialist change as he envisaged these. The passage he quoted was this:
... the insistence, under the rubric of 'smashing' the state, on a total discontinuity between bourgeois-democratic and projected socialist polities has tended to obscure for too many revolutionary socialists the value of certain norms and institutions which any real socialist democracy would need to incorporate: amongst them, a national representative assembly elected by direct universal suffrage, some separation of powers, the independence of judicial from political processes, the protection of basic individual rights, a constitutionally guaranteed political pluralism.
To remind myself of Ralph's arguments overall, I have gone back to that chapter to see what it contains. It's pretty much as I remember it. There's no talk of either (in the Leninist idiom) 'smashing' or bypassing the parliamentary-democratic state. On the contrary, Ralph writes of 'a radical extension of democracy' and of 'tak[ing] up and greatly strengthen[ing] the democratic forms which are already to be found in capitalist democracy'. He writes of the need for constitutional and legal constraints on all forms of power; of the place of the judiciary and judicial review; of controls on bureaucratic power, including by electing officials; of the devolution of power, and reforming the electoral system to make it more genuinely representative, and trying to strengthen participatory elements in the political process; and of the importance of egalitarian measures and the spread of education in achieving a more democratic society. I can find nothing there that would put in question his credentials as a democratic socialist.
For an attempt to vindicate the essence of the Daily Mail's assault on Ralph Miliband's reputation without being swayed by anything so scrupulous as a concern for basic factual accuracy, you might like to take a look at this piece from Benedict Brogan in the Telegraph. As often with this sort of exercise, how it works is that a simple dichotomous division of the world is made, with dark on one side of it and light on the other and without any shades in between. Thus Miliband's record is integrated into a good guys versus bad guys framework, and he is situated on the wrong side of it; 'he was one of the bad guys'. How so? Because...
Until that point [the fall of the Berlin Wall] the struggle between freedom and communism defined the world my generation grew up in. Our view was shaped by a deadly struggle to see off the threat of red tyranny. It was a world far removed from the more consensual politics we enjoy now. Before 1989 the divide between the good guys and bad guys was clear, because the bad guys were out to do us in.
It isn't that Ralph Miliband hated Britain.
But the key point surely is that Marxism hated - hates - Britain. It hates our institutions, our economic model, our democracy, our independent media and our freedoms.
Miliband was, for Brogan, 'on the wrong side of the only argument that mattered', that between freedom and tyranny.
The small complicating factor in all this is that Ralph was never a Stalinist or an apologist for Stalinism. He was - consistently and unambiguously - a democratic socialist, part of that independent left from which a later post-Stalinist generation learned that socialism must be democratic or it is nothing, forever lost. For Brogan to commend values like democracy, freedom, independent media, and at the same time attempt to trash the record of a writer who was himself attached to those values as a socialist, just because he (Miliband) fell on the wrong side of the line capitalism/socialism, shows what a narrow conception of democracy and freedom is at work in his own (Brogan's) thinking. On one side, in other terms, there are the good guys - and then everyone else is a Stalinist. But Ralph Miliband wasn't, and one of his merits was precisely being able to see that the world is a more complicated place than can be divided as Brogan would prefer. (Thanks: RB.)
That's for those of you who need the introduction. It comes in the shape of a piece carrying links to 13 of Haggard's songs. And, 13 being an arbitrary sort of number to settle on, I thought I'd throw in a 14th. It's one of my own favourites, 'Wake Up'. Just give it a listen, along with some of the others, and you'll see. Or, rather, hear.
I didn't know Ralph Miliband well. To the best of my recollection, I met him in person only twice: once at a conference in Brussels in the 1980s, the second time at a gathering in London to mark the publication of one of the editions of The Socialist Register. The two connections in which I knew him better were as editor of that annual and as the author of the books and essays for which he came to be widely known as a Marxist academic. Ralph solicited some of the essays I wrote for The Socialist Register, one of which in particular was to have a marked influence on how I subsequently came to think about the relationship between Marxism and morality and questions of political ethics more generally, and so I owe him a large debt in that regard. As an editor he was, in my experience, always creative, helpful and straightforward.
However, it was for his work above all that I, like many others, valued Ralph's contribution to the thinking of the left. I didn't agree with him in everything, and indeed in a later piece for the Register, written as a tribute to him, I took issue with some of his ideas about the sources of great cruelty in human affairs. Still, Ralph was one of those writers on the left whose works I always looked forward to reading. He wrote in a clear and compact prose, uncluttered by needless jargon and informed by an evident moral seriousness that wasn't in hock to any narrow orthodoxy. His reputation as a Marxist thinker was earned by the consistent quality of his intellectual output.
From mutual friends who knew the family better than I did I had gathered that Ralph's sons had reasons enough for being proud of their father. But beyond those familial reasons, Ralph's stature in the public domain was also something of which they could be justly proud. No smear campaign against him will be able to erode that.
Back in the day when a ban on smoking in pubs was under discussion, I was opposed to it. If you want to know why I was, you could start here and follow some of the internal links. But at least with that ban, smokers have the option of going somewhere else to do their smoking. Recent reports that a total ban on smoking in prisons is now under consideration - here (£), here, here - mention the rationale behind this as being the fear of legal action from non-smokers who don't want to incur the risks from passive smoking; and they mention concerns over whether a smoking ban would cause disturbances amongst prisoners objecting to it.
Nothing is said, however, about whether prisoners have a right to smoke, at least somewhere in the prison 'domain', which is in effect their home for the time being. Naturally, the health of other prisoners and prison staff needs to be protected; but this shouldn't rule out the possibility of some areas being set aside for smoking. In response to the prospect of a similar ban in New South Wales, Simon Chapman, Professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Sydney, makes some essential points:
Ethically, the case for banning smoking in indoor areas of prisons is incontestable. There is no right to harm others by the exercise of one's freedom or preference to smoke, which is why laws ban smoking in all enclosed public spaces, and sardine-like crowded open air spaces like stadiums and some outdoor concert spaces.
[T]he only people being harmed by someone smoking in a wide-open outdoor space are smokers themselves. A prisoner smoking in an outdoor area, well away from windows where smoke might drift indoors, would not be harming others. A small enclosed exercise yard might be a problem , but a prison garden or open air grounds would not.
Prisoners, by definition, have their liberties severely restricted. Some people think it's OK to remove one of prisoners' few remaining freedoms: to smoke outdoors. These people would be horrified if such a policy was extended to their neighbours or friends. But apparently it's OK with prisoners because they don't deserve to be treated like other citizens.
Like the blanket ban on smoking in pubs, it's a straightforward piece of illiberalism and has no justification.