The merchant banker Oliver Kamm has a vicious little post today attacking the memory of the late Ralph Miliband for a paper he published in 1980. Miliband, the father of the current British foreign secretary, was, of course, a Marxist theoretician and a member of the British new left for much of his life. As a member of that left, he authored many papers for journals like the New Left Review and Socialist Register. And again, as a member of that new left, he had an ambivalent relationship to the Soviet bloc. On the one hand he lamented the lack of democracy in those countries; on the other he thought they had achieved various social gains. Well he was (largely) wrong about the latter, but 1980 is a long time ago, and, back then he wasn’t alone in that false belief. In fact, he shared it with people for whom Kamm now declares his admiration and support and who then wrote for those same journals. The difference is, of course, that they are alive and he is dead. Miliband cannot reconsider.
Kamm’s post attacks Miliband’s paper “Military Intervention and Socialist Internationalism” (Socialist Register, 1980 ) on the grounds that he doesn’t think the crimes of Pol Pot were sufficient to justify the Vietnamese invasion. Reading the paper today, it has an odd and stilted feel: Miliband is wrestling with a set of issues and problems that seem deeply alien today. I think Miliband was wrong about that case, and badly so. But I presume (and hope) that he didn’t appreciate how horrific the Pol Pot regime had been, or didn’t believe all the reports. What the casual reader wouldn’t glean from reading Kamm’s nasty little post, though, is that the substance of Miliband’s article was an attack on the idea that the socialist ideal should be advanced by “socialist” states invading other countries. In other words, it was principally an attack on the idea that socialists should support the Soviet invasions of Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan. Miliband argues, correctly, that all that resulted from such interventions was alienation from the socialist cause, and the installation of weak puppet regimes without popular legitimacy. You’d never gather that from reading Kamm’s blog, though. He presents Miliband’s attack on Soviet tankism as an apologia for massacre. That wasn’t how it would have been read at the time. In fact, it isn’t how a fair-minded person would read it now.